If you are from a city, perhaps it is a large one. Maybe you come from some suburb connected to some metropolitan area, the sort daddy works in or the type mother warns you never to go, oh don’t go clubbing in the big city, she says. You know she has every album Blonde ever recorded, but you also know the city is a giant glue trap, just waiting for your little mousy feet to get stuck and before you know it, you live in all that hustle and bustle for years. In time, you may be accustomed to the size and smell the city and assume that other cities are similarly provisioned. That these blotches, the pink bits on the old Rand McNally maps are full of teaming streaming steaming throngs.
Mobile, Alabama is not a large city by these standards, and it seems that in the decades since the old regime fell, the city has gotten considerably smaller. The first thing one may notice is that the highways have taken down large swaths of the city in recent years. Hurricanes have also taken their toll too. You can no longer travel to Mobile by rail. After constructing a modern train station at the new convention center, some accident convinced the Powers That Be (PTB) that along with trains turning people into Communists, the rails were unsafe at any speed.
So here they are, stuck with a 1990s convention center and a number of train tracks that drive right through the thing. Some locals told me the centers and new landscaped waterfront attractions aren’t the draw it could be or should be or both. It seems nothing is in this majestic relic by the ocean. Highways buzz through the city, and Route 10 goes by on its journey from Florida to Texas providing a major link as well as inexplicable traffic jambs considering it is a straight line that people still find ways to kill themselves driving. I did notice a banner welcoming the Law Enforcement Liaison Conference, 2017. So there is that.
I got to Mobile a little late, having driven from New Orleans and stopping off along the way at Biloxi, an army base surrounded by casinos, washed ashore tar balls from the Deep Water Horizon spill, and some subset of gas stations surrounded by what one day may be a proud new sweating development when the machines are done scraping the earth. In Mobile, the roar of traffic was close to my hotel, a grand older structure with a Spanish courtyard and plenty of old Southern Charm. I had managed to watch Gone With the Wind (GWTW) on the airplane down, a film I last saw when my grandmother was alive, and we were young enough to just watch old films for what they were without analysing them socially/politically/Genderly and spoiling all the fun. The few large houses next to the hotel reminded me of those GWTW film sets. Across the street was the Museum of Mardi Gras and on the other side the obligatory convention center. At night, in my old room, I could hear the courtyard fountain on one side, and the hum of the electrical systems driving whatever kept the convention center in tact on the other side.
I had a few hours to kill but not much time since I had an early call and would be leaving the day after to return to New Orleans. While I was ready for a nap, one that would last the night, I pulled up some reserve energy and went for a walk to the downtown.
It was a Thursday evening and warm for March. Despite the warm glow of the Spring sun, and longer day, the streets were empty as were many of the buildings. An eerie calm fixed over the city broken only by the traffic both close and distant. I went to the main square. It reminded me of certain jungle cities I had been where degraded natives and broken children gathered by the church steps and small men in large pickup trucks drove by, their loud exhaust pipes announcing their equally large penises and diminishing any Olde Worlde charm a church surrounded by junkies and beggars may assume. I moved quickly to not catch the eye of the slumbering crackheads in the park and moved from street to street for signs of life.
Mobile, Alabama is the home of the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States, Territories, Protectorates, and client states. While New Orleans has taken what I can only assume is a purple and golden crown, Mobile has the longest running party, the oldes crews, and apparently closes down for a week just to observe the celebration. One could hardly notice that this was still a thing, the streets a few weeks later vacant as some small dead corn town that fracking arrived too late to save or that a CosWalKmartCoDepot landed machine like and sucked dry of all commerce. I found a restaurant of a German fare and enjoyed a plate of fried and breaded something with a glass of bier. Some local workers seemed the lawyers who are some of the only professionals that maintain most small cities and towns since everyone else, but vagabonds, bail bondsmen, and friends of the court have fled, tucked in a few plates and a drink or two. I finished my dinner and set to see some more of the city, knowing I would not see much.
After a little more wanderings, I ducked into an establishment that was certainly on the artisanal spectrum. It was the sort of place men with beards slap herbs against their wrists to create a drink with many clever references in the name or a woman with too red lipstick and a tattoo of a rabbit or a rose display their best assets while giving sidelong glances disapprovingly judging their patrons for “checking them out.” I ordered a drink called the Alabama Moxie Dixie Pineapple Brass Rail Southern Line Big Bayou Canot Smash and appreciated the hemlines of the cut off shorts of the other bartender who marched about the bar preparing it for perhaps an invasion the sort of which I could not envision so empty on a Thursday night it was. After a few rather expensive cocktails and not having any conversation worth paying for, I took again to wander about a little.
On other cities street, in front of the abandoned something, a wandering man approached me. I knew his gate and sort and what to expect. “Excuse me, sir,” I thought oh shitfuck sir never ends in anything well. He asked if I was interested in Mobile. I said yes, not really wanting to start a conversation. He told me that the city was dead. That the 1980s it was something since the gay community used the bars as the only party spots in the state but since times had changed, the gay bars had shuttered down and moved on or vanished off the map entirely. He pointed to a building that was clumsily transformed into condos. That over there was a great gay bar. The police used to have to barricade off streets there were so many queers out on a Thursday to Saturday night. I once came across all these guys doing a conga line in the street! It was nuts; it was so amazing then. Henry, my name is Henry, the man introduced himself. I did too but knew the next line was exactly what it would be. You think you could help me out, I pay to live in a residence, but I need a few bucks to make it. I just don’t want to sleep out in the park again if I can help it. He told me exactly where the housing was, a sort of flophouse shelter down the road. He wanted to be clear; this was just a few bucks to get a shower and a place to stay.
As a rule, I don’t give cash for a number of reasons including that I don’t allow myself too much cash on hand. I reiterated my position. He persisted in his own agenda and suggested that since I had no cash, I could go to an ATM and get a little smash for a decent flop. I declined, but I offered to have a drink with him. He declined. I won’t give you cash but over there’s a bar, and I’ll buy you a beer, and we can chat. He moved about in those quick, sudden movements common to addicts, clearly disappointed in his mark, but then suddenly agreed. Oh, what the heck, I’ll have a beer with you.
The girl tending bar, was none too happy to see him again. He was a known element downtown, but she chatted with us warmly, so I knew he was a character and not some stranger. He told a little of his story. He was my age, actually a few years younger, but grayer than I. He remarked on my “youthful appearance” and unfolded some details of his living in Mobile as if carefully unfolding one of those old maps we used to buy in gas stations that were never quite right after the initial use.
He had gone to [XXXX] elementary school and then [XXXX] high school (both two schools I was working with), and then lived in the city doing odd jobs and such. It was clear that he lived a work-and-church life but had been tempted by the wilder side at some point. I know I like to party here and there too much, I know that, but we live once right? He exclaimed. We polished off our first brew, and I ordered another. A regular came in as did a few lads who were setting up for a show. I was tired having driven hours and could not imagine ever staying up for a show that started, if it started at all, at ten PM. One of the regulars looked like another one of those ghost town lawyers. He knew Henry and bristled to see him in the bar.
Henry and I chatted about life in Mobile, passages of the Bible, and he dropped his voice down very hushed and muted when he whispered about White Supremacy and his thoughts on the flag of the Confederacy, things we talk openly and loudly about when in Gotham. We may have talked for an hour or so, but then he got the bug again. He asked if I could cash out the bill and perhaps use my tab as a cash advance, perhaps give him just a little money for the night. I half-assedly asked the bartender, but the expected answer was no. He took himself up and made his farewell, took a “road soda” on my tab, and alighted out into the silent streets of what had once been the gay district in what had once been a city.
The lawyer-man grumbled. You know he is about here a lot. I see people asking for money outside of where I work, but I don’t want to encourage them to come back for handouts. Once they know a place is good for a donation, they’ll come again and be a nuisance to everyone. I exclaimed, having a little drink in me by then and feeling a war of Northern Aggression coming on, that hobos begging at my favorite night spot wasn’t a problem for me since I was in town for just one night I didn’t really care if the tramps and bums learned where was good for a few vittles or some smash or parked themselves outside of certain office buildings with a clanging cup asking for change.
I settled my check and made for my hotel. The next day, I had a southern style breakfast, handed my key to the belle at reception, and left the city to with few plans ever to return to feel the Memphis blues in Mobile again.