In case you didn’t know, and I’m assuming you didn’t, Birmingham, Alabama’s nickname is The Magic City. And I’ll get right to the punchline. Birmingham was fabulous! Fabulous, meaning a place I could live, and you may know I have a very short list of livable US cities not on the west coast. Not just that, but for a city I just decided to visit on a whim, I had a total blast! A+! Birmingham is large, but not crowded. True, I was there during a weekday, but the streets were pretty close to empty. There were a lot of government employees; it’s not the state capitol but the US courthouse and related buildings are there. Driving through the city, I quietly got the impression that the medical center and the University of Alabama-Birmingham are the two major players in the economy. Then I learned that for many years, Birmingham was the nation’s leading steel producer. Besides Magic City, it is also known as Steel City. It was the site of some significant 1960s civil rights events and today has several attractions that I feel are a great mix of quirky and cool.
In timeline form: I left the hotel and first went to a local target. Why? Let’s just say I had a plan that involves credit card airline miles and I needed to purchase a prepaid Target RedCard, which so happens to be sold in very few Targets nationwide. I don’t know why? None of the stores are on the west coast and only a handful in Birmingham are in the South. Success. On this errand I drove by Samford University, which looked very nice and is in a seemingly affluent area. If I lived in Birmingham, this is the area I’d choose. Running trails, nature, by far the nicest Target I’ve ever been in. Odd observation, though, of everyone I saw walking into and out of the Target, they were 100% female (gender roles? It was a weekday morning), 100% white, at least 75% in their 20s or 30s, and at least 50% pregnant. But I digress. Next I went to the local beer store which was recommended last night. I picked up a 4 pack of something that will make everyone in Portland jealous. Of course, I’ll probably drink it all myself. I chatted with the owner for a while; we’re both originally from LA and he was sharing how ridiculously cheap land and real estate are there compared to LA. Then, I headed to the historical district of town.
Here I walked several blocks which were beautifully labeled by heartrending signs describing particulars of the 1963 peaceful protests in which Birmingham’s extraordinarily racist police chief put fire hoses and attack dogs and adults and school children, and wouldn’t stop despite JFK’s pleas. The plaza where this happened is thoughtfully labeled with a “Freedom Walk” and included several stations where I dialed a local phone number and listened to the free audio tour.
This is generally near the historic music district, too, so I passed several blocks that still felt like they were stuck in the 50s. Sporadically throughout, plaques and markers pointing out music halls, famous musicians who stayed in a particular hotel, or similar historically-relevant facts. From here I drove to Railroad Park which is a 19 acre, gorgeous, multi-faceted public park extending several city blocks alongside the major industrial train depot. Continuing the hospitality trend, a guy running laps around the park stopped to ask me how my photographs were turning out and we ended up chatting for a while. Later, a teenage girl on a skateboard got my attention and asked me about my camera and gave me some location tips for where to take photos. She recommended the “Satanic Fountain” and “Vulcan” statues. You’ll have to look those up until I process my photos. I did visit those two sites, then went to a Saw’s Soul BBQ, one of three in this independent BBQ chain which was across town.
Destination: Somewhere much closer to New Orleans. It’s already 3pm and I’m 350 miles away. Stop #1 Tuscaloosa – home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. “Roll Tide Roll.” First, middle, and last impressions: this is a college town. It’s fairly dumpy and depressing-looking besides the school, which looked very nice. I drove through during class – it’s not spring break here. Biggest observation: They seemingly have a dedicated athletic facility for every sport and they’re all arranged together in the same section of campus. They must have 500 acres of athletic facilities, not including the football stadium. Surprisingly the amount of coffee shops in this college town is close to zero. Yelp and Google Maps confirmed that. Yeah, I was shocked, too. I had to go another hour to Meridian, Mississippi for coffee.
I arrived in Meridian, MS and pulled into the first grocery store I could find: Winn-Dixie. Dump! Even the signs hanging down above the aisles were broken/missing/falling apart. What I wanted here was some water but their water selection was about three feet wide and two shelves high. And it was expensive. I left sadly. Just down the street, I saw a Waffle House, the fiftieth (at least) one of the trip. It is National Waffle Day, after all, so why not. Except that when I pulled into the driveway and looked in the window, I saw an extraordinarily unhappy-looking waitress and several customers staring out at me. I drove straight out the exit on the opposite side of the driveway. Oh well, the city of Laurel is only another hour.
I exited at Laurel, filled up my gas tank again on $22 and pulled into the Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers fast food chain. My only experience with this is seeing the CEO featured on the TV show Undercover Boss. I got the standard 4 fingers box which included Texas toast, coleslaw, dipping sauce, fries, and a drink. In my case, 66 ounces of sweet tea (but that includes the ice which was packed in there). They sure like cold, sugary tea. The chicken itself was really well-done, especially for fast food and the service was so good, I almost felt like I was on hidden camera. Once the word got out it was my first time there, I learned “the menu is simple – we don’t do much but we do it really well,” and responded to “Mister Bobby, are you enjoying everything still?” and similar questions multiple times throughout the meal. The teenage(ish) girl who I had never spoken to came up, addressed me by name and asked if she could refill my drink. The employees do each wear a little wireless headset so it must be a coordinated customer service effort. It was quite phenomenal and I’m really digging this Southern Charm and Hospitality. Leaving the home of both Lance Bass and Parker Posey, I headed 30 minutes even further south. Why? I’ll tell you. To find a single Starbucks. I needed a room for the night. I found the Starbucks in Hattiesburg, MS, on the campus of Southern Mississippi U. and found a highly-rated Microtel an hour further, just across the Louisiana border, for $37. I booked it. Additionally, I did yet one more online search for “why won’t my galaxy s5 sync with ford focus bluetooth” and read yet another repeat of how it is supposed to work. Sigh.
Got back in the car, tried the same steps one more time, and it worked. Awesome – Fifteen hours into my drive, about 1 and a half hours left and now it works. That’s OK though. Why? Because if I had been able to play my own music, today I would not have heard 8 more “Thinking Out Loud”s by Ed Sheeran, 9 more “Love Me Like You Do”s by Ellie Goulding, 7 more “Style”s by Taylor Swift, and 4 more of that Fifty Shades of Grey song, “Earned It,” by The Weekend. That is 61 repeats of the same four songs in 16 hours. That’s what channel surfing will do, and obviously, if I didn’t like these songs, I wouldn’t have stopped on them (and busted out singing).