Every year for the past decade my dear old friend from high school and college days, Martha Ham, and I take a road trip. We started doing this in conjunction with professional workshops Martha invited me to do in and around St. George, Utah where she lives with her family. She and I are both clinical social workers and we created workshops every May for five years. We always traveled after the workshop to some amazing place in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. We visited the Grand Canyon (sneaking in before it was officially open for the season), Zion, Moab, Salt Lake City, and the Water pocket Fold where the world is literally turned upside down.
We both have Alabama roots and took a trip to Birmingham a couple of years ago. Martha has family in Auburn, Alabama. Before her mother died last Spring, Martha dutifully visited her several times a year. This visit was Martha’s first since her mother was killed in an automobile accident. She came to Atlanta and she and I drove on to Montgomery where we stayed to be close to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of Bloody Sunday and the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Martha registered us for several events in Selma through the 50th Anniversary website. She found us a motel in Montgomery, the Alabama Motel and that is where the drama began.
When she got to Atlanta the day before we left she was distressed that her reservations at the Alabama Motel had not been confirmed. Montgomery’s accommodations were full as were Selma’s. The Alabama Motel was literally the last chance for a bed. Martha had called several times to be pretty much hung up on. Her credit card had not been debited. We were both skeptical about a room actually being available when we arrived. Martha wondered if the Alabama Motel actually existed. It did. Reviews were disconcerting. A gaudy New Orleans themed lobby and run down, dank smelling, roach infested rooms were part of the reviews listed on Trip Advisor.
Martha had been to Montgomery several years back with her friends The Kitchen Sisters who produce programs for public radio. They were doing a story on Georgia Gilmore who cooked for Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists and for the march. You can hear the story on the Kitchen Sisters website. She and her friend Davia had stayed at a B and B and Martha called Bonnie, the proprietor, to see if she had any recommendations for places to stay. As luck would have it one of her guests had canceled for the weekend and we got the room. We drove to Montgomery without the disturbing images of the Alabama Motel in our minds.
Personally, I am not a fan of B and B’s. I have never stayed in one that wasn’t stuffed with antiques and irritating “art.” The proprietors always try too hard to be helpful. And breakfast with strangers is, for an introvert like me, an exercise in being nicer than I am at that hour of the morning, even if the wild rice waffles are listed as one of the 100 foods one should eat in Alabama.
Bonnie did recommend a good restaurant and Martha and I drove around Montgomery in the twilight before dinner.
Montgomery is the capital of Alabama and the capitol building is its centerpiece. White marble steps and columns, set on a hill, surrounded by other white marble state office buildings, it looks grand. This is where Dr. King spoke when the voting rights marchers made it the 60 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Martha was a child living with her mother and brother in Montgomery at the time. Her mother told her that Gov. Wallace had closed the state government that day and told everyone to avoid downtown. Her mother, who worked for the state welfare department and had the day off, drove to a hill overlooking the capitol and watched the marchers as they entered Selma.
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King served as minister is in spitting distance of the capitol. An old red brick church on a corner, it serves as a stark counterpoint to all the white marble that surrounds it. What is stunning about Montgomery though is not all the white marble in a tiny downtown enclave but the urban devastation that engulfs it. All around the capitol precinct is decay and dereliction. Downtown Montgomery is devastated by poverty and neglect. With the exception of a few pockets of revival it is a place full of ghosts and broken dreams.
We drove out to the suburbs to Coverdale looking for the house that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in in another era. Covererdale is a pocket of affluence surrounded by more urban blight. We drove around the well lit homes until we came upon the little mansion that has been preserved in memory of its famous inhabitants. As soon as we departed the manicured streets we were back in poverty stricken Montgomery.
We ate in a popular restaurant in a tiny speck of urban renewal. The food was Southern with a contemporary flair. The clientele were mostly affluent looking white people. There were Asian and African American customers as well but the stars of the evening, at least for Martha and I, were a curious young couple. A young woman appeared first in the lobby of the restaurant. She looked like she was going to the prom. She wore an evening gown that was lots of green sequins. Her shoulders were bare and her hair was up. She was pretty as a picture. The young man who arrived shortly after was in a tux. She was fully a head taller than he. They posed for a picture before being seated which gave us an opportunity to look a little more. As they walked to their table near to ours I told Martha to look again. The young man was not a biological male. Whether trans or butch he/she was suave and self-confident. They held hands at their table in a fancy restaurant in the middle of the socially regressive capital of socially regressive Alabama, profiles in courage.
The next morning we got up too early for waffles (whew!) and drove the 60 miles from Montgomery west to Selma. Not much along the way but farmland but there was road construction (why hadn’t it been completed before this event?) and the traffic got worse and we moved at a snail’s pace. An intermittent irritant were sirens clearing a path for big black SUV’s full of VIP’s, Very Important Pricks, we agreed in disgust. We finally rolled in to Selma on a back road by pure luck and found parking in a field again by luck and made our way by foot into town.
Selma is hard to describe because we could not move freely. We couldn’t drive in over the Edmund Pettis Bridge because it had been closed for the festivities. As soon as we walked into town we found out that we had to have tickets to see the President and so we joined a long line that snaked around several blocks . . . slowly. No one in the line seemed to know where the line was going or how long before the President would speak. There were apocryphal reports that he was speaking already and then others saying nothing had happened yet. And so we waited and walked a few steps and waited and walked a few steps. On the last leg of the march within a march people from the street who had not been standing with us started to merge. There was one lone policeman who told people to go to the back of the line. He was ignored. He was also white and impotent in directing the crowd which was 90% African American which was probably a good thing.
After a couple of hours we cleared security and walked out into a cordoned off section of downtown Selma (lots of storefronts with no stores) that faced the Edmund Pettis Bridge. We stood there for sometime before we could see the Obama’s enter the area via a Jumbotron. First the Obama girls, then their parents. The crowd was wild in its welcome. We stood beside a man and his two teenaged children who drove down from Birmingham. He was in his fifties, African American, and knew a lot about Alabama history. He told us about how Selma had been capital of Alabama once upon a time because it was a river town on the Alabama River which flowed under the Edmund Pettis Bridge. He told us that the Governor of Alabama might not be there according to speculation in the Birmingham paper. And he said he came because he wanted his kids to see the President (like all teenagers they were standing a little too distant from their dad to avoid parental cooties). Finally the parade of dignitaries ascended the platform. We cheered the Obamas who came last after George and Laura Bush. The African American Mayor of Selma welcomed us. The African American Congresswoman for the district also welcomed us. And the white Governor of Alabama showed up and made a speech about how everything was all better now in Alabama. He was booed. The man we were standing with disapproved. He said you don’t invite someone as a guest and treat them rudely. He was in a distinct minority. The Governor who is actively involved in voter suppression was received as the hypocrite he is.
Even though President Obama gave a magnificent speech he could not outshine the man who presented him to the people who had come to Selma to hear him. Congressman John Lewis, who I am proud to claim as my U.S. Representative, was barely an adult when he led the first march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge fifty year ago that day. The President remarked that when John Lewis woke up on that day fifty years ago he had no idea of what history had in store for him. It proved doubly true. John Lewis could not anticipate the wrath of white supremacy that was waiting for him and the foot soldiers on the other side of the bridge nor could he know that on that very day fifty years later that he would be introducing the first African American president of the United States in front of the bridge where he had had his skull cracked fifty years earlier. We all wept for him, for ourselves, for unborn generations.
The crowd was released hungry into a three block long food court that was mostly stalls selling sausages and funnel cake. It was so crowded that we could not move and at one point I wondered if I could breathe. Martha and I got separated and my cell phone ran out of power. Intellectually I knew we would find each other but another part of me, about five years old, was terrified I was lost forever. Of course I did find Martha who had a place in line for sausages and we did eat and listen to a little gospel blues before figuring out a getaway behind the band. We got back to the car and collapsed.
Martha had gotten us tickets for the Flame Awards that evening. The NAACP was the sponsor and irony of ironies it was to be held at George C. Wallace Community College. We decided to get there early and drink a bottle of wine we had cooling in a cooler in the trunk. After a day of traffic jams, long lines, crowds and sunburn a bottle of wine and a little time seemed sublime.
GPS got us to the campus. A big white tent (another irony) was set up for the awards banquet. We sat in the parking lot, drank wine and listened to podcasts from Alabama NPR in Birmingham. There was no NPR station in middle Alabama. One of our whines over wine was how disorganized everything was. From the traffic logjam going in to Selma to the lack of information at every turn to the chaos of the line snaking in to see the President to the suffocating avenue of sausages and smoke, we were in high complaint. Why didn’t they hire Disney? said Martha, obviously tired and not in her right mind. I sighed. No money, I said. There is no money in Selma. We both sighed and imbibed another sip of cool white wine.
Needless to say before we got in another line to get into the white tent, we had to pee. The doors were open to one of the buildings of the George C. Wallace Community College and we both headed to the restrooms. I had just finished and was about to zip up when I heard a loud voice booming at me from the line of sinks. “You just come to hear the President and don’t care nothing about no foot soldiers!” I turned to face an African American man a few years my senior who was washing his hands. I replied that I had made my plans to come before I knew the President would be there and that I had come to see him and the foot soldiers. We shook hands and I asked him if he would talk to Martha about the food on the march.
Martha was wanting to follow up on the Georgia Gilmore story and had her recording equipment with her. My newfound friend agreed to talk with her but told me in advance it was the sandwiches that the white ladies made that kept him fed on the march. He was just 17 when he marched from Selma to Montgomery two weeks after bloody Sunday. He said by the time he got to Montgomery his shoes fell apart and he lay down on the grass at the capitol not knowing where he would sleep that night.
Martha and I made it into the tent after she interviewed the foot soldier. We didn’t have assigned seats so had to find a place for ourselves. I saw two women sitting alone at a table and asked if we could join them. They said, of course, and so we did.
Peggy was a member of the committee who organized the 50th Anniversary. She told us she had gone to the mass meetings before the first attempt to march on Bloody Sunday. She said when she and a friend arrived at Brown Chapel for the march (aged 17, many of the foot soldiers were young. if they had been older they would have lost their jobs and their families would have been indigent) they were sent home because they were dressed “too cute.” She said she ran home to change clothes and by the time she got back the carnage had happened. She said her father found her shortly after and pulled her into their car and drove her home to safety. Peggy Washington was still a pretty woman and her mother who had seen it all was still watching it all happen.
Another long line to get our food. Again, people were in good spirits, both the people serving and the people eating. The evening was opened in song and dance, traditional spirituals and a group of dancers from South Africa. There were lots of people introducing other people. The Assistant Postmaster General, an African American man, unveiled the new Selma 50th Anniversary stamp. Finally the celebrity emcee, Danny Glover, came out to host the proceedings. He is one of the handsomest men alive so it mattered less that the sound system failed repeatedly and that the hundreds gathered under the white tent were intent on talking amongst themselves.
Danny Glover had a hard time with Dick Gregory. Not only did Dick go on too long but he was way riske He told a story about a little white girl who came up to him in a grocery store and asked if he had a tail. Yes, he replied, it’s in the front. The audience dissolved into laughter and Danny put his hand on Dick’s shoulder and whispered in his ear . . . All of the Flame Awards were being handed out by the Royal Court of the Miss Selma pageant. They were beautiful young African American women who were dressed in evening gowns and crowned with rhinestones. They had already given Jesse Jackson a Flame Award.
Jesse Jackson is a big man. I had never seen him up close or in person. He is a striking figure. But he spoke in a whisper. It was as if he had lost his breath and could not find it. I know he is a man of constant sorrows. I remember him as a fiery orator and an oracle for social justice. It was if he couldn’t breathe. The bellows of his heart had given out. He was powerfully absent, a shadow of his former glory. The crowd loved him but did not listen in part because they could not hear him.
We drove back to Montgomery after Dick Gregory. Traffic was thin and the B and B was entered by a key code on the door. We both fell into deep sleep after deciding to take advantage of breakfast in the morning. The legendary pancakes were proffered and we were back on the road to Selma.
There is an “Interpretive Center” in Lowndes County on Highway 80 between Montgomery andSelma. We stopped on our way and went through the exhibits. During the terrible times of advocacy for civil rights many African American families had been evicted from their farms or fired from their jobs if they dared to join forces with the likes of John Lewis and Stokley Carmichael and SNCC or Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, C.T.Vivian and Hosea Williams and SCLC. They lived in a tent city in the most basic of conditions. The center is a testimony to both the resilience of Africa Americans and the hatefulness/fear of so many of the white people who lived in the area.
We went right back through the back streets of Selma to our parking space. As we were walking into downtown a man who had approached us they day before offering to guard our car was offering again. This time he had soft drinks and was cooking chicken and ribs on a grill. I told him when I came back I would buy a drink. He lived in a falling down apartment house. Martha said that it was worse than anything she had seen on a recent trip to Guatemala.
Again, without official guidance. serendipity took us into town. I saw another jumbotron and we walked beside a cordoned off street down to Brown AME Chapel where Peggy Washington and John Lewis and the other foot soldiers had gone for mass meetings before the march 50 years ago. Although we were standing outside, we could see inside the chapel. Half a dozen of central Alabama’s most prominent African American clergy were pushing time limits. The march was supposed to disperse at 1:30 and it was almost 3:00 before the beleaguered pastor introduced the speaker for the day, Al Sharpton. Before Rev. Sharpton came on Jesse Jackson was in the pulpit for the offertory. Again he was speaking in a whisper and at first asked the congregants for a $500 donation. He modified the request a few minutes later suggesting a $100 donation. I was standing next to an African American man who told me he was from Selma but didn’t live there anymore. He was dressed for Sunday services and a few years my junior, handsome and polished. We were enjoying our proximity. He offered to take my $100 down to Rev. Jackson and I smiled and offered him the same favor. We laughed twice.
I was feeling impatient after the parade of pastors to get on with the march. I was hoping Al Sharpton would feel my pain and keep it short. I had never heard more than a sound bite of Sharpton and thought of him more as Al Sharkton, a bit of a charlatan and an ambulance chaser. He knocked the ball out of the ballpark. He was a cross between Cicero and William Jennings Bryant. Where Obama could only probe, Sharpton poked. Where all the politicians put together could only wield slogans, Sharpton sang spirituals and brought the crowd inside and outside the church to a glory halleluiah
The poor Mayor of Selma had to break the news to the thousand or so of us waiting for the march to begin outside Brown Chapel. He said, I can’t tell you not to go but there is nowhere to go. Downtown is so full that there is no place to go. Jesse Jackson followed him and said, don’t go. It was a public safety issue. 20.000 people live in Selma. 100,000 people had come to march. Martha looked at me and said, let’s go back to Atlanta. And we did before the traffic caught up with us.
Back home for me, we pondered where to dine and drank some more wine. Martha excoriated herself for not buying chicken from the scruffy man with the grill outside the derelict apartment house. I should have bought everything, she said, I didn’t have to eat it. I was sympathetic. I had bought a Sprite from a bucket where the ice had melted. I could have bought all the drinks. Had we bought everything it would not have solved the problem of poverty in Selma. It might have bought us twenty-four hours of delusion that we had helped, that we had made it all a little better. This is the illusion that liberals reassure themselves with over and over so we can eat in upscale restaurants and stay in B and B’s. A little charity goes . . .
We got back to Atlanta and resolved our quandary about where to dine. We were really too tired to think. Martha and I never run out of things to talk about. We know dozens of people in common who we comment on. We also debrief on our families and our roots. Having Alabama in common is a source of psychic kinship. Neither of us has a doubt about our ancestors’ racism or how they kept us alive with their love. We ate onion rings at Ted’s Montana Grill in Decatur and went to bed with heavy hearts and full bellies.
The next morning I took Martha to Georgia State University to do an oral history. My papers which include Martha’s letters to me over the years are housed in the archives. I got to sit down with Martha over a tape recorder and ask her about her family, her childhood, her coming of age, her escape to Utah, her environmentalism and her love of stories. I took her to MARTA after the interview and she rode down to the airport to pick up her rental car. That afternoon I took a long nap with no apologies. I wanted to get my Zen back.
I told Martha on our way back form Selma that I was almost out of zen. Introvert that I am, huge crowds, long lines, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, are all depleting. I live a life of ample solitude and so I have some zen in the bank. I spent it all on the road to and from Selma. And yet I do not feel depleted. I feel I got more than I gave.
Poor little Selma accommodated five times its population and no one was hurt, nothing got out of bounds, attendance was an exclamation point! two presidents showed up!! and just for a magic 48 hours Selma mattered. a little raggedy but proud and brave. No Disney here, no managed pride, no cultured pearls, Selma embraced everyone who came, important people and forgotten people, black and white, young and old, foot soldiers and presidents and with the same grace, underfunded and disorganized but somehow dignified, humble and with amazing grace.
Martha had changed the reservations at Ink & Elm and had texted she was running late. So I got there early and waited at the bar. Ink & Elm is a new upscale restaurant in Emory Village that has had positive reviews. It is both a tavern and a restaurant with separate spaces each with its own ambience. The bar is on the restaurant side. I ordered a martini. Martha’s niece Jennifer arrived with her boyfriend Matt. Both are newly graduated from Georgia Tech’s MBA program. Jennifer is petite and pretty as a little bird. Matt is tall, well built, metrosexual. Both are highly socially competent and we had a good time getting to know each other while we waited for Martha to get unlost.
About fifteen minutes later Martha arrived in her usual swirl of exuberance and apology. She had gotten lost (we knew this already) and where was the bathroom?
Martha played hostess and Jennifer and Matt and I got to know each other better. Matt had been a German scholar before he converted to an MBA. Jennifer is working in the marketing department of a large Atlanta based company. Matt is working as a consultant for another firm (he said they advertised on NPR) and they had been to Germany after they graduated for a much deserved break. We ordered appetizers. Matt suggested sweetbreads and Martha thought the roasted broccoli might be good. In the meantime specialty cocktails had arrived (one of the proprietors of Ink & Elm is a mixologist) and we talked about food. Jennifer’s brother is a chef-in-training and had invited them to Atlanta’s best restaurant, Bacchanalia for a sublime dinner. Matt confessed this is where he first encountered sweetbreads. Just about then the appetizers arrived. The broccoli was strewn across a plate artfully and the sweetbreads were on a bed of greens drizzled with a caramel colored sauce. In solidarity with Matt I put a small bite of sweetbreads on my plate, held my breath, and then ate it. It wasn’t a bite of heaven but it was palatable. We ordered our entries, Martha picked a wine and we continued to talk about food. We had all been raised on Southern country cooking and somehow we meandered into the subject of Paula Deen, the disgraced queen of Southern cuisine. We did not talk about the racial slurs that had gotten her into so much shit but about her original food persona (before the diabetes revelation) and how she pimped fat and sugar to her audience. Here the battle lines were drawn with Martha objecting to Deen’s bad food propaganda and Matt saying people didn’t have to choose to eat her food even if they liked it. This went on for several rounds (Matt was eating lamb, Martha snapper and Jennifer and I were eating brick baked chickens) with neither Matt nor Martha yielding much ground. I diffused saying I saw Ms. Deen as a food clown and we all laughed and finished our food talking about other things. The mixologist came to our table when three decaf Irish coffees were ordered explaining his way of making them which was very specific and offering fresh whipped cream. He was young, cute and smart and I made a note to return to Ink & Elm for one of his cocktail concoctions.
Martha and I said goodbye to Jennifer and Matt and drove to my house nearby where we drank a little more wine, talked about her family in Alabama, Utah and Montana and mine in Tennessee. The next morning we would drive south for adventures. Martha and I have been having adventures since we were in our late teens. Now in our sixties the adventures are only getting better.
The first order of business was to return Martha’s car to the car rental terminal at the Atlanta airport. There is nothing simple or easy about the Atlanta airport and this proved true of the car rental terminal. It took a great deal of time and several exchanged texts for us to reunite and drive south on I-75. Our first stop was Milledgeville, Georgia, home to the author Flannery O’Connor. We planned to visit “Andalusia,” the farm where O’Connor wrote most of her stories and where she died in 1964. We exited the interstate at Locust Grove and drove down through Jackson and half a dozen sleepy small towns with Martha reading me one of O’Conner’s Southern Gothic stories, “Parker’s Back” while we drove. It took a little longer to get to Milledgeville than we anticipated and the restaurant recommended by a local friend, Crockett’s Family Cafeteria, was supposed to close at 2. With four global positioning devices between us we turned the wrong way on Columbia Drive. This was a little odd but we soon self corrected and drove and drove and drove but could not find the restaurant. Martha called asked for specific directions and was told it was right behind Georgia Power so we drove some more and could see the smoke stacks of a huge power plant but when we arrived in its shadow, no restaurant. We called again and were brought back to town arriving at Crockett’s a minute before it was scheduled to close. We were welcomed in, fawned over and given our lunches gratis. Southern hospitality is alive and well in Milledgeville, Georgia and the country buffet prepared us to go back up Columbia to Andalusia.
Martha and I had known Milledgeville well from our college years. We both attended Mercer in nearby Macon and one of our teachers, Dr. Jean Hendricks, a behavioral psychologist and social activist had found a perfect place for her research and training at the state hospital which was located in Milledgeville. Central State Hospital in its heyday housed thousands of inmates, was a working plantation that grew its own food. It housed some of the sickest people in the state including lots of mentally challenged children. The childrens wards were abysmal and stank of shit and piss. Dr. Jean, using students trained in behavior modification, instituted a toilet training program that worked with many of the children and gave the undertrained staff options that they had never known of. Central State was vastly reduced in size a few years later when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter deinstitutionalized Georgia and made community mental health a priority. But we were not in Milledgeville to return to Central State.
Flannery O’Connor had a remarkable career as a writer despite acute physical challenges.
She was one of those gifted people who was carefully mentored by teachers aware of her budding genius. In her early career she attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was a fellow at the Yaddo Art Colony. Tragedy came when she contracted lupus, a disease that had killed her father. She moved back to her hometown Milledgeville to be under the care of her mother. The two of them moved to the family farm outside of town so they could live on one level. It is here that one story after another tumbled out of Flannery, hundreds of letters and essays were written as well as a second novel, “Wise Blood.” Flannery wrote in the morning, attended her peacocks and other birds in the afternoon and received guests in the evening. She and her mother were Roman Catholic, an anomaly in the South, and attended Mass almost every day. Her perspective as an outsider in the culture of the deep south and her remarkable faith inform her writing which is as ribald as it is religious. If is so deeply offensive it offends almost no one, unless that person cannot see him or herself in Flannery’s well wrought characters.
Andalusia is not in the country anymore. As the brochure states it is “just north of the Wal-Mart shopping center on Hwy 441.” A small sign marks the entrance and a gravel road takes you far enough off the highway to forget about the sprawl and enter the world that Flannery O’Connor lived and wrote in. Andalusia is both well kept and fraying at the edges. Inside and out it looks like old postcards slightly drained of color. The docent greeted us and gave a rambling but helpful description of the place that answered all our questions so we had none. The tour was simple. To the right was the room where Flannery slept and wrote. Across the hall was the dining room which doubled as living room. Through the gift shop was the kitchen and another room where a 3 minute video was looping on the television. Upstairs was a bathroom and a guest room. Out back were farm buildings. The farm had been a dairy farm. A few peafowl were in a coop. The original flock, once numbering more than 50, had died out but these were likely cousins. Fortunately for us (the cry of the peacock has special meaning for Martha — her home in Utah had been the perch of two stray males for a number of years and the ear piercing shrieks they emit set her jaw) it was the quiet time of the day and the birds just looked at us.
Next stop was Memory Hill Cemetery where Flannery is buried with her parents. The docent told us how to find the graves and said local college students often left essays there for supernatural assistance. We drove back down Columbia in the direction where we had gotten lost and easily found Memory Hill. It is the city cemetery of Milledgeville and in its thirty acres rest nearly 10000 bodies that have been placed there since 1810.
We easily found the O’Connor plot. No essays were on Flannery’s gravestone but it was strewn with a few quarters, dimes and pennies. In reading about Memory Hill I had gotten curious about another of its inhabitants, Annie Abbott, “The Little Georgia Magnet.” I wanted to drop by and give my respects to one of my “ancestors.” Martha said that Annie was in one direction and departed with my map. I thought she was in another direction and walked that way. The only people I saw in the cemetery were a couple about my age who were walking. We said hi and they asked if I was looking for anyone in particular. They lit up when I told them I was looking for Annie Abbott. It turned out that they were Dr. Susan and Hugh T. Harrington authors of the only biography of Annie Abbott who was known not only at “The Little Georgia Magnet” but “The Witch of Milledgeville.” Susan is a professor at a local college and Hugh is a historian and expert on Sherlock Holmes. They told me the story of Annie Abbott at the gravesite. Martha had found us and we both listened with profound interest. Annie, aka Dixie Annie Jarret Haygood, began her stage career in 1889. She claimed to have had “the power” from childhood though the Harringtons speculate she was inspired by Lulu Hearst, “The Georgia Wonder,” who she had seen on stage at the opera house in Milledgeville. Annie performed all over the world and defied some of the strongest men of her time, including Charlie Mitchell and Eugene Sandow, who could neither move her or lift her. This 96 pound “electric girl” could stop a pocket watch and reset it, could even pass the power on to small children who then could not be lifted. Houdini called her one of the best acts on the London vaudeville stage. She spawned two Annie Abbott imitators and lived a colorful life. The Harringtons researched her thoroughly interviewing her decedents some of whom claim to have “the power” as well. Susan herself channels Annie Abbott in a stage demonstration. She recounted the failure of several college football players to move her in a recent show. So I asked her about “the power” which she explained had been written about widely at the time of Annie’s prominence but she gave away no tricks and added that there was much that Annie did that no one could ever explain.
Susan and Hugh took pictures of Martha and me at Annie’s grave and we said goodbye. We drove out of Milledgeville to Sandersville where we visited another historic cemetery with its obelisks and angels and then on to Midville where our college friend Tom Harry lives and we spent the night. Tom has retired in Midville after a long career as a psychiatrist. He lives with a white German Shepherd named Ashley and grows a garden around a pool. We swam, drank mojitos made with mint from the garden, and reminisced about college exploits (we had many). He recalled that Martha had once advertised having three tits, something I had forgotten. Martha explained that in the early days of intimacy with her physical therapist husband Peter that the prominence of her rib cage on one side was explained by a slight scoliosis of her spine. More mojitos brought more stories and we ate a good supper Tom fixed and got up the next morning headed for Savannah.
Tom drew us a map to get back to the Interstate that took us through the town of Metter. We planned to have lunch there at a local restaurant which served home cooking. On our way we passed the sign for the Michael Guido School of Evangelism and decided we would visit after lunch. It was a mile or so on the other side of town and we arrived in early afternoon. It was deserted. Not a soul in sight so we wandered the Guido Gardens without supervision and could pose for photographs in some of the holiest locations. Martha wanted me to lie down in the tomb (complete with rolled back rock) on the linen covered repose. I tested it with my hand and it did not seem solid so I declined. I could just imagine being trapped in the tomb and Martha laughing too hard to rescue me.
Michael Guido is probably Metter’s most famous son. He was in his nineties when he died a few years ago. He was notable for his brief sermonettes, “Seeds of the Sower” which peppered late night television. His approach was ecumenical and he was esteemed as a truly good man by those who knew him. In a time when scandal tainted so many televangelists Michael Guido was content to run a small school with a pretty garden so it was odd that the garden was completely empty, empty as the empty tomb.
We crossed the Michael Guido bridge and got on I-16 for the hour’s drive to Savannah.
Martha had reserved a room for us in the historic district and after we checked in she phoned the business of some old friends from college. Martha hadn’t wanted to bother them before we got there so they wouldn’t make a fuss. On the drive in she said she had a premonition that someone else we knew would be there as well. She got hold of Peter Broad head at Brighter Days, the health food store that he and his wife Janie Brandt had opened in Savannah in the mid-70’s. He was delighted to hear Martha’s voice and immediately invited us to the birthday party for their three year old twin grandsons
in their neighborhood on the Isle of Hope. He said our college friend Mary Carter was there as well. Two hours later we were all laughing and hugging in Peter and Janie’s son’s home, meeting their neighbors and family but only one of the twins. His brother had gotten sick earlier and was laying down. We only stayed for a short while so they could get back to their hosting duties. We made a plan to meet for breakfast the next morning.
Martha and I returned to our hotel and set out for a walk through historic downtown Savannah. We walked over to Bull Street and started up through the squares. One of the first things we came upon was The Lady and Sons, Paula Deen’s signature restaurant. We peered through the window at the steam table laden with fattening Southern fare. I got Martha to pose in front of the Paula Deen store but she refused to go in so I did not get a souvenir butter dish which I did not need or want anyway. We walked on through Chippewa Square to Madison Square and then crossed over to Pulaski Square and walked to Barnard to Orleans Square and Telfair Square where a glittering crowd was going to a fundraiser in the museum. We rested for a few minutes before proceeding to our dinner at the fabled Elizabeth’s on 37th, arguably one of the best restaurants in the region.
Elizabeth and Michael Terry moved from Atlanta to Savannah and opened their restaurant in an old mansion in an untrendy neighborhood in 1981. They brought lots of enthusiasm and creativity to their experiment and focused on locally grown food prepared with a traditional flavors combined with a modern flare. They sold the restaurant to two employees, the Butch brothers, before departing Savannah for more liberal places to live. They left behind a legacy of fine dining that Martha and I were the beneficiaries of. We ate so much that even The Lady Chablis, the drag queen of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame, could not have kept us going. Fortunately she was not doing her monthly gig at Phase One so we could take our full and exhausted selves back to our hotel.
The next morning we met Janie and Peter and Mary for breakfast. They walked us over to Goosefeathers for a delightful brunch and we caught up more. Janie and Peter had founded their health food store Brighter Day thirty-five years ago and were part of the revitalization of downtown Savannah. They knew the Terry’s, had been friends, liberal comrades in arms and fellow advocates for organic and locally grown produce. After breakfast we wandered back through a new urban park that had once been a parking lot where we posed for photos with Johnny Mercer’s statue and paused in Franklin Square at a new monument to the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, 500 free men of color from Haiti who fought with the French and American troops to expel the British from Savannah during the Revolutionary War. These same soldiers would return to Haiti and participate in their own revolution that established Haiti’s independence.
Martha and I said good-bye to our old friends and drove out of Savannah out I-16 to go back to the Atlanta airport for her late afternoon flight back to Utah. On the way Martha read me her article in her hometown magazine about the Story Corps visit to St. George. Among those who told stories were members of the band, The Psychotropics, a group of mentally challenged men who banded together to save themselves and each other whose band is a local phenomenon and the story of a woman who is part of a group called “Downwinders,” people who lived in St. George while the above ground nuclear tests were being conducted in nearby Nevada in the early 50’s. Hers was a sad story of being in her mother’s womb when the area was irradiated over and over again and her struggles with health and sanity in the years that followed. Martha, ever busy, also recorded a birthday message I will send to an old friend in South Africa who is turning 50.
As we drove close to Macon Martha said she was hungry for a bar-b-que sandwich. I am always hungry for a bar-b-que sandwich. We were going to turn north on I-75 but traffic was stalled and so we exited into downtown Macon and drove up Cotton Avenue and down College Street passing many memories on our way to Riverside Drive which parallels the interstate. I don’t know how she psyched out the Open Air Bar-b-que Restaurant because it was not visible from the road but magically we were there and had some very good bar-b-que from the Macon branch of the much esteemed Open Air Bar-b-que of Jackson, Georgia.
Smooth sailing to the Atlanta airport and off to Utah with Martha and on home with me for a quiet night with the cat.
I took off the next afternoon to go to one of the Ellman lectures at Emory at the invitation of my friend Sarah Lopez. Paul Simon and Billy Collins were having a dialogue about creativity. It was my first time seeing either of them up close. The dialogue was a little slow but the two more than redeemed themselves in exchanging performances at the end of the session. Billy Collins read four wry poems that had us all laughing. Paul Simon sang about his old friend darkness and he and Julio down by the school yard. I took a few notes from Simon’s earlier remarks and they seem worth repeating here. “There is nothing of no consequence.” And, “if I can hear what’s coming I stop listening.” He was talking about songs of course but obviously there are broader applications. On my adventures with Martha every move we made had consequence. Our wrong turn in Milledgeville, meeting the Harrington’s at Annie Abbott’s grave, the empty garden at Michael Guido’s School of Evangelism, the long lost friend found in Savannah, even Martha’s psychic ability to find bar-b-que in Macon. I wonder if she didn’t get a little of Annie Abbott’s magnetic power. What she has never lost in the years I have known her is a love for spontaneity. Like Paul Simon she has an ear for the new, a willingness to go into uncharted territory. I am her happy accomplice and by telling you this story you are now reading, you become part of the narrative. Hopefully a little of that magnetic power comes with this as well along with encouragement that adventure is possible at any stage of life.
September 23 and 27, 2013
To Knock on Destiny’s Door
It was Martha’s idea, a road trip to Birmingham. She had visited the Magic City with her pals the Kitchen Sisters who were producing another food story for NPR (think Paula Dean meets Noam Chomsky). She had regaled me with stories of the Highlands Grill and the Garage, places I had never been despite being born in Birmingham. I had gone back only to visit my Nana who lived north of the city in the white world of Mt. Olive. I granted myself before or after, a detour to the Birmingham Museum of Art, right off I-20. I had an illicit love affair with the Asian art, the best collection in the South, and was on speaking terms with the Kuan Yins and the Hindu gods and goddesses that populated those galleries. The bigass Botero in the sculpture garden was the most magnificent woman I had ever beheld.
It was Martha’s idea that we stay at the Tutwiler Hotel downtown. Martha loves history and downtown Birmingham brought her back to shopping excursions with her paternal grandmother, a savvy businesswoman from Ft. Payne who would take her to department store wonderlands, Pizitz and Lovemans, and for her first Chinese food at Joy Young’s. My Birmingham grandmother, Mamaw, took me there as well. Joy Young’s is no more but Martha and I had our first Egg Foo Young and Chicken Chow Mein sitting with our grandmothers in booths with curtains that could be closed. We didn’t know each other as children but it is entirely plausible that we sat in the same booths or may have even dined in booths adjoining.
The Tutwiler of today is not The Tutwiler of yore. Today’s Tutwiler is a renovated and re-renovated apartment house. The original Tutwiler was the first of Birmingham’s big buildings to be imploded. Infamous Police Chief Bull Conner had been arrested in that Tutwiler. President Warren G. Harding had stood on its balcony on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Birmingham and had advocated voting rights for Blacks who applauded while the whites put their hands in their pockets. Julia Tutwiler whose portrait hangs in the new hotel was an exceptional woman who reformed the prison system in Alabama which until her intercession put prisoners together regardless of sex or age. Julia Tutwiler never married. She didn’t have to. She was a woman of means no man could lean on who leaned on no man.
Martha loves food and Birmingham is home to some of the best restaurants in the South. She had made reservations at the Highlands Grill and we went there for dinner on Friday night. The Highlands Grill is in the best in town neighborhood and the proprietor is a much admired chef in the farm to table movement. A protege of the doyenne of farm to table, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Frank Stits is a master of bringing French technique to Southern ingredients. Soup to nuts everything was perfect in preparation and presentation except for perhaps the desert. Martha speculated the cake might be a day old. She ordered the best bottle of wine I have ever tasted. It seemed to have an intuitive relationship with each course. Martha explained it was from the winery in the south of France that had a country kitchen where Alice Waters got her chops.
Martha and I have no difficulty in finding things to talk about. We had talked all the way on the ride from the Atlanta airport to the Tutwiler where we parked the car and went to the bar for cocktails. Cab drivers ferried us around Birmingham. We paused at the fountain in Five Points where a bronze billy goat was reading to frogs, dogs, rabbits and bears and after dinner went to a gay bar that we had to become members of only to find we were hours too early. We went on to The Garage, an oddball bar on the edge of the projects built around a defunct storage facility. Sliding glass doors revealed chambers of unclaimed freight. We sat on stone benches under gnarled wisteria branches sipping our last vodka tonics.
We slept in the next morning and after coffee meandered across a park in central Birmingham past an impromptu soup kitchen to visit the art museum. It was the last day of a ho-hum exhibit of Andy Warhol’s artistic obsession with automobiles. I showed Martha the Asian art I so love and introduced her to the Botero odalisque in the garden. We were told that we could not see the new Norman Rockwell exhibit since it was open for members only. I told Martha we should discreetly enter through the exit and when we did, not a peep from security. I admit to being more enamored of Andy Warhol than Norman Rockwell. Andy is cool and Norman is not. Seeing the Rockwell paintings/icons, getting his sense of humor and his humble heart turned that equation around. Both were masters of sentiment. Andy acted like he didn’t care and Norman cared too much. Ultimately art speaks for itself. Put fifty years on top of anything and the shine of admiration yields to the sheen of inspiration. No offence, Andy, but you are not my Rockwell.
Before I tell you about what came next let me fast forward to our meal at the Hot and Hot Fish Club that evening. The chef had just been awarded the James Beard award, an Oscar for food. We sat at the kitchen counter watching our food be made. Martha later made the case for the Highlands Grill. I agreed though the shrimp and corn fritters were a bite of heaven. Martha is from the South but has lived for the past almost forty years in Utah. I have lived in Atlanta for about the same time. I remarked both nights in these trendy eateries, where are the Black people? The night before one elegant couple, Martha tagged them Barack and Michelle, had been seated in the restaurant. At the Hot and Hot no Black diners, only one visible Black sous chef and no Black wait staff. I was taken aback, Atlanta is an integrated city and Birmingham, O Birmingham is evidently not.
That night we tried our luck at another gay bar, Al’s on Seventh. It has nicer bathrooms and Martha is more at ease. We lounge on leather sofas waiting for the evening to pick up steam and it does. We move into the theater where the drag show is about to begin and I am transported back thirty years when the music blares and the show begins with a drag queen in a red wig with a crooked smile singing a country torch song. Folks line up to give her dollars and receive a faux kiss. There are several performers that evening all costumed and coiffed. The most popular (a tradition in drag-o-rama) is a big Black queen who can dance in stilettos and mime the most popular tunes of love lost and found. The emcee is a blond gal with a wicked sense of humor. After her big number where she removes her skirt to reveal sparkling panties she engages in the patter drag queens engage in with their audiences. She insults a few people, makes announcements about the upcoming AIDS walk and calls up to the stage Brittany, a young blond wisp of a woman with a sash and a crown, who is having her bachelorette party at Al’s that evening. We all hoot and holler. A few songs later Martha and I have had our fun and go back to the Tutwiler.
The next morning we check out and Martha directs me to drive around downtown Birmingham. She finds a place for us to have a breakfast snack and real coffee, not an easy feat. Downtown Birmingham is a ghost town. I have never seen a city with fewer people. There is almost no traffic, no pedestrians, not on Saturdayor now on Sunday. Many, many vacant buildings. History is not lost as it is in Atlanta where the past was bulldozed while the populace was lured to malls and suburbs. Birmingham is virtually extant. But no one is at home. We finished our meander and drove up to Vulcan Park.
Vulcan is the image of Birmingham that towers over my childhood. You can see him on his pedestal up on Red Mountain overlooking the city. When I was a kid Vulcan, Roman God of the forge, had an arm stretched towards heaven holding a Popsicle. It glowed green except on days when there was a traffic fatality in the city and then it glowed red. Vulcan had to be renovated a decade ago, taken apart and put back together. You can now ride an elevator up to the observation deck and look out on the whole of Birmingham and up close at Vulcan’s buttocks, the biggest bare ass in the world. Vulcan was made from the iron mined literally under his feet below the surface of Red Mountain. Birmingham thrived as the industrial center of the South. The price of that success was paid in the iron mines and steel factories where working conditions although segregated, were abysmal for both Blacks and whites. Segregation is what undid Birmingham’s success. The poor of both races were pitted against each other and the rich grew richer while the poor grew more desperate.
I like to travel alone because I am more approachable and more likely to approach. When I am travelling with a friend that friend she or he is my focus. Martha and I have shared many journeys in Utah where I am often dumbstruck with the scenery. So I didn’t really meet anyone in Birmingham until on our way to the Civil Rights Institute Martha was waylay-ed by a poor fellow who wanted to tell her a story or two in hopes of a financial contribution. I had gotten across the street and sat down on a bench in front of the Institute watching Martha in conversation out of earshot. I intuited that it would be a long conversation since Martha loves stories better than anything other than her husband, her son and her dogs. Next to the Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church. I knew about the church both from history and Spike Lee’s film, Four Little Girls. I noticed there were floral displays placed beside the church and I walked over to look. It was just me and an African American woman about my age. She was dressed to the nines and wore a big, stylish straw hat. She was taking pictures. I politely walked around her. We said hello and then I stopped in front of a low black marble monument. It dawned me when I looked down at the four names inscribed that it happened right here where I stood. This is where the bomb blast took the lives of four young teen aged girls who were attending Sunday School. The woman in the straw hat walked over and stood beside me and began to weep. She said Denise, one of the four girls, had been to her birthday party the Friday night before the bombing. She said she had been attending services at the Catholic church that morning and heard a loud noise. She said she hadn’t come that morning because she didn’t want to cry in front of cameras. I looked down. The memorial stone was carved with the date September 15th. Forty-nine years later I was standing in the exact place with a woman who lost a friend in a city that lost its soul. All I could say is, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry and I was. Each of the girl’s names was inscribed under a portrait taken from a photograph etched on the stone. Placed on each portrait was a single pink rose bud, four in a row.
As a child growing up in Birmingham all I was taught was fear. My parents told my brother and I to lock our doors whenever we drove through a Black part of town. I learned later that my father’s father who had been a detective on the Birmingham police force had been injured in an automobile accident and had retired early rather than work in proximity to Bull Conner whom he loathed. At the Civil Rights Institute I learned more about Homer Abbott’s Darth Vader and about the resilience of Birmingham’s Black population. I learned more about the violence, Birmingham had been dubbed Bombingham because of the frequent use of dynamite to terrorize its Black residents. I learned about Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what a thorn he was in the side of the segregationists, about Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss one of Bull Conner’s henchmen and about how he was convicted and how years later two of his collaborators were convicted of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing along side him. None of these three had two nickels to rub together. The poor had killed the poor once more.
After a quick tour of Mountain Brook (as children Martha and I both ate at and remembered what we ate at Britlings Cafeteria) I drove Martha down to Auburn and deposited her with her mother who lives in an assisted living facility there near her brother and his family. I know her mother and we were glad to see each other. After a short visit where she implored me twice to stay for dinner and I declined begging the long road home I drove to Columbus to meet a friend.
Kevin Hollis is an archivist. He was hired to put together the archive and museum at the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama scene of one of the bloodiest and most important confrontations in the history of the civil rights movement. We sat in a gazebo in a sprawl mall north of Columbus and spent a couple of hours in conversation about the challenges of creating an archive and museum that was true to history. He talked about how stories merge into history and on the drive north to Atlanta I thought about what he said, what I heard, and ultimately what I knew. I know that every time I leave Alabama I breathe a sigh of relief. I have stretched beyond the history that would have defined me and lived into the history I am creating one realization on top of another. When I pull into my driveway and hear my dogs barking I know I have escaped my past once more to knock on destiny’s door.