Friday, November 19, 2010

Alabama: Where Pontiacs go to Die

I’ve been traveling a lot in the last two months, so I haven’t had time to post any new updates. But right now I’m on a long flight with a baby that won’t stop screaming, so now seems like a good time to review my first year in Dixie.

When I think of the last year living in Central Alabama, three things come to mind: college football, sunglass chums and Pontiacs.

College football

The obsession with college football goes beyond the degree to which Eagles and Giants fans vicariously live through their respective teams. When two people in Alabama meet, within 5 minutes someone will say: Auburn or Alabama?

On Saturdays everyone is at home watching football. There are a few restaurants in Montgomery where you actually do need reservations, especially on a Saturday night. If Alabama or Auburn is playing at night, the restaurant is empty. And when I say empty, I mean it’s the bartender, the wait staff and me.

My theory with the obsession is that people view it as a form of social mobility. By going to either the University of Alabama or Auburn University, you’re part of a special club, and you maintain your membership by being a vocal fan – it’s how you let everyone know you went to one of the two schools. It’s like how people tie their identity to a country club. And what’s really wild about it, is that the only thing the schools are known for (whether deservedly or not), are their football teams. Let me try and explain it this way: when pretentious assholes like me brag they went to an Ivy League school, we’re trying to showoff that we’re smart, or at least people should think we are smart. When people say that went to the University of Alabama, they’re bragging about the football team – and people here are impressed that they went to a school with such a good football team. People are so obsessed with the teams that it’s not uncommon for parents to tell kids that they can only apply to one school.

On the upside, Alabama and Auburn fans are much more pleasant than Philadelphia sports fans. No one is throwing batteries, puking on children, or beating people to death.


There are some fashion trends that are distinct to the Deep South, most notably sunglass chums.

All the locals wear them – everyone from construction workers to attorneys. I think that people believe it communicates ruggedness. I think they look ridiculous. I bought one and tried it out to see if I was missing anything. I wasn’t.


Have you ever wondered why you see so few Pontiac cars on the roads up north? It’s because they’re all down here. While most people have at least one SUV or pickup truck, the sedan of choice is by far a late model GM P.O.S. Pontiac (completing the trifecta of gas guzzlers).

The 1980s time warp

In many respects, Alabama is still in the 1980s. While there are surprising number of restaurants that are into only using locally grown and raised organic food, they are up against a culture that believes a meal should not cost more than $10. New restaurants have a very hard time convincing people that it’s reasonable to charge $20+ for an entrée.

But more emblematic of the 1980s culture is the lack of urban redevelopment. The major cities – Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile, etc. – all have vacant downtowns. There’s no retail, and few restaurants and bars. The problem is urban sprawl.

Here’s what city planning in Alabama amounts to: someone builds a new planned community in the outskirts of the city, and strip malls are built nearby to provide retail and food for the people living in the community. A few years later someone builds another community even farther out – being surrounded by pastures is selling point. A new strip mall or two is built near them. The process then keeps repeating itself over and over again. The homes in the old communities are obviously not as nice as the ones in the newer, so people in the older communities move out to the new ones. As a result, people are increasingly moving out of the city center to the city limits, and the geographic footprint of the city is increasingly expanding so there is still wide open land for new planned communities to be built on. The old homes and strip malls then become dilapidated.

The most cynical I’ll get is that people here have unknowingly chosen to live in mediocrity. No one has figured out the connection between paying little in taxes and having roads that have not been repaved in a two decades, public schools that are only surpassed in failure by Louisiana and Mississippi, and an inadequate number of police officers. As ass backwards as Philadelphia can be, Montgomery makes it look like the most efficiently run city. In Philadelphia, if you call in a pothole it will typically get repaired within 24 hours. There are heavily used roads down here that look like Dresden after the bombing.

But to give you a real idea of the mediocrity, there is no curbside recycling. While every city in America is moving to single stream recycling and expanding the various waste they recycle, the Mayor of Montgomery decided to get rid of curbside collection because he said it costs too much. Now this is total bogus because the dumping fees for recyclables are less than waste. Further, there is already twice a week trash collection. How about eliminating one day of trash collection – if people have curbside recycling they’ll have less trash, and won’t need twice a week collection. I feel like I’m the only person in the city who realizes this.

And the whole recycling thing gets better. The city has drop-off sites where you can leave your paper and cardboard, and one or two of the sites will supposedly accept glass and plastic. Nobody uses them because it’s a pain in the ass to drive out to them. Even the Mayor has acknowledged that the recycling rate has plummeted since he eliminated curbside. So what’s his solution to this? Add more drop-off sites that are not used. I’m going to find out where he lives and leave my recyclables on his lawn – turn it into a drop site.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Alabama National Fair

Last night I went to the Alabama National Fair.

Yes, it's a national fair. Nothing on the website seems to indicate why exactly it is a national fair as opposed to a state fair, but I assume it's because the contests at the fair accept entries from non-Alabamans.

Anyway, it's a pretty typical state fair with livestock, competitions, food, games and rides.

The major attraction at the fair was Krispy Kreme's Donut Burger.

These things have been around for years up north (a google search produces hits going back to 2006). It's simply a bacon cheese burger with a glazed donut for a bun (aka "The Luther"). It contains nearly 1,100 calories and 67 grams of fat. Of course I had to have one and document the experience:

It tasted like a burger with a donut. And it was delicious.

Something more unique to the fair was pig racing.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to the hype.

For each race the MC rambled for about 5 minutes and then the actually race took about 15 seconds.

But this one race was pretty good.

Instead of going around the track the pigs had to swim through a water obstacle. Notice how far the last pig manages to jump.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Baseball in ATL

Last Saturday I went to the Phillies-Braves game in Atlanta.

I wore a Ryan Howard t-shirt and Phillies hat and expected to get crap for it. From going to Eagles games since the 1980s, I'm pretty much expect a few fights to erupt during division games between fans of the opposing teams.

So I was surprised how polite Braves fans were. No one said anything. When I was climbing over seats to get back to my row Braves fans volunteered to hold my food. After the game they were coming up to me joking how I ruined Bobby Cox appreciation Day (Phillies won 7-0). Had this been Philadelphia, a more likely reaction from hometown fans would have been voluntary vomiting.

I was also surprised with how many Philadelphia fans were at the game -- easily 10% of the crowd. Some people must have been from Philadelphia -- roundtrip flights on Saturdays are only $150 and Braves tickets are very easy to get last minute. Despite the Braves still being in the wild card race at that point, I was able to get tickets three days before the game.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lawn Care

It may nearly be October, but down here in Central Alabama, every day it's still sunny, in the 90s, with a almost no rain.

On my way home after work I've started to notice people watering their lawns. I took a close look at my lawn the other day and saw that it was no longer a healthy green. It was beginning to go yellow from the lack of rain. While the landlord takes care of cutting the grass, I suppose making sure the grass doesn't die is my responsibility -- he's not going to send someone out to turn a hose on it for a few hours every day.

Because water is including in my rent, I took it upon myself to get one of those cheap sprinkler attachments for a hose and join in my neighborhood's nightly lawn watering ritual.

And that's when it hit me. I've become everything I've hated: a suburbanite. Now that I'm taking care of my lawn, there's no denying it.

The whole thing confirms why I hate the suburbs. Lawns are total money pits. They don't do anything except cost money and eat up time.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I found this running around my apartment the other night:

It makes Central Alabama seem so much more exotic than it really is.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The South is Rising Again in Selma, AL

This article speaks for itself:

Story posted 2010.08.25 at 11:08 AM CDT
Posted by Cody Holyoke

SELMA, AL (WSFA) - The City Council chambers had to be cleared Tuesday night after things became heated between council members and protestors.

A group of demonstrators say council president Dr. Cecil Williamson was a member of the League of the South, a neo-confederate group.

Protestors also allege Williamson hosted an event and headed a group honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who they say murdered hundreds of black soldiers and became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

For those reasons, protestors called for Williamson's resignation.

"We don't have any legal jurisdiction to throw him out, but we're hoping that, if he really loves and is concerned about the city, that he will respectfully resign," explained Franklin Fortier, president of the Selma-Dallas County branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Once everyone entered the council chambers, the meeting soon erupted before members could even get to business.

With tension at a fever pitch, Mayor George Evans called for order.

"That's the message on the street. That you all called everybody and told them to come here and raise hell, so they couldn't arrest everybody," he told the crowd.

When that didn't work, the council cleared the chamber for nearly half an hour. Then, hour after hour. members made their way through the agenda, while police officers watched the crowd.

Councilman Samuel Randolph, the sponsor of the resolution, read the measure aloud.
"We request that Cecil Williamson voluntarily resign from his position," Randolph said.

After discussion, the majority of the council rejected it. Williamson denies most of the claims and says he's not a racist.

"The council expressed itself and voted it down overwhelmingly, and I hope that will be the end of that part of it," Williamson said.

Meanwhile, some residents are left shaking their heads, hoping the city can get it together and move on.

"I'm just amazed that, in this day in age, and in this historical city, that this is what's happening. You know, we have bigger issues here," said John Carroll of Selma.

Meanwhile, the controversy will continue. Protestors say they rally outside City Hall and the headquarters of the local newspaper until Williamson is no longer council president.

Stay with WSFA 12 News for the latest developments in this story.


This is all happening 50 miles from me.

But hey, Philadelphia City Council has had its own run-in with the KKK recently.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Street numbering madness

Without doing much research, let’s accept the following as fact: until the 19th century, the street plans in cities were not planned, they just grew organically. Philadelphia was one of the first planned American cities using a grid system (1682) with a planned numbering system -- streets running north-south were numbered and east-west streets were named after trees (to reflect that the City was a garden city).

Of course, the problem with using trees as the names of streets is that even with the logical grid system, if you’re unfamiliar with the City there’s no way to know where Walnut St is in relation to Pine St. So not surprising, in the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 for Manhattan, it was decided that everything above 14th St would be laid out as a grid, and both the north-south and east-west streets would be numbered streets.

Birmingham, AL is relatively new city (founded 1871), and before anything was built, the planners decided it would be a grid with all numbered streets.

Now you’d think being such a new city it would have the most logical street design and numbering system because the planners had the benefit of seeing what worked and failed in other American cities over the last 100 years -- Manhattan’s 1811 plan had been around for 60 years. But something went terribly wrong. As my friend describes it, the City ran out of street names.

Here’s a map of part of Birmingham:

I was in a car with my friend; he was driving and I was navigating. We were going west on Dennison Ave and needed to turn at 16th Way SW. I told him to do this, but not to get excited when he saw 16th St SW or 16th Pl SW -- neither were our turn; we were looking for 16th Way SW.

The whole city looks like this. It appears that streets were added after the original plan, and instead of giving the streets proper names, Birmingham wanted to keep as many streets as possible named after numbers. It's led to total insanity.

So going north to south, there's 31st Alley N, 31st Ave N and 31st Alley again -- except there's no directional suffix. And then 31st Alley becomes 30th Alley N. WTF?

How about this:

From east to west there is:

  • 1st Alley W
  • 1st St N
  • Center St N
  • Center Alley W
  • Center Pl W
  • 1st Alley W (again)
  • 1st St W
  • 1st Alley W (again)
  • 1st Place W

It's massive FUBAR.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Memphis, TN

Last weekend I was in New York and I went through hell flying back to Montgomery. I wrote Delta a 1,200 word complaint letter, but in short, here’s what happened:

I checked-in online the night before my flight on Saturday. When I arrived to Newark airport on Sunday evening I found out that my flight to Atlanta was delayed so late that I would miss my connecting flight to Montgomery. The line to see an agent at the counter was easily 50 to 75 people long, and there was only one person at the counter. Meanwhile, there were three people working the Medallion status counter doing nothing.

Realizing that if I wanted a chance of rescheduling the flight that night, I needed to talk to someone on the phone ASAP because it could be hours until I would get to the counter. After calling a few random number on the Delta website I was able to get someone on the phone who could handle booking. At first they suggested that I fly to Atlanta that night and get a new flight to Montgomery in the morning. I asked if they would pay for a hotel, and they said no. I asked if that meant I would have to pay for one myself or sleep on the airport floor, and they said yes. Instead they booked a new flight for me the next morning (this time flying through Memphis).

Now let’s pause here a moment. Had Delta notified me of the delay, I would have never gone to the airport. Penn Station to the Newark airport costs $15 on NJ Transit. So as I see it, Delta owes me $30 for a unnecessary trip to the airport (and then back to Manhattan). Had I received email notification about the delay, I would have never gone to the airport. And they definitely have the technology to do this. As soon as my flight was changed I received email notification and an automated call.

My flight the next day was at 6:30 AM. So I went to bed early, got up at 3:50 AM, got to the airport at 5:00 AM, and the same thing happened all over again. My flight to Memphis was delayed so late that I’d miss the connecting flight, I needed to see someone at the counter, the line was 50 people long (despite it being 5:00 AM), and there’s one person working the counter while there were three at the Medallion status counter. And had Delta altered me that my flight was delayed, I would have gone back to bed at 3:50 AM.

I got to Memphis at 9:30 AM, but my new flight to Montgomery wasn’t until 2:30 PM. There was no way I was going to sit in the airport all day, so I got a taxi and headed to downtown Memphis. I felt like doing some sightseeing would somehow spite Delta.

The taxi dropped me off at Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. It’s best known for its ducks, which I did not see while I was there.

After checking out its ornate interior I walked around the surrounding downtown area.

There were a number of well manicured pedestrian friendly streets that featured restaurants, bars and clubs, but being the middle of the day and extremely hot, there was no one around. There was also a trolley line that went through most of these streets and connected to various points of interest in the downtown area. So the city does have a well thought-out tourism strategy, especially compared to other southern cities.

My time was limited, so I headed to the city’s The National Civil Rights Museum which has been built at, into and around the Lorraine Motel – the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The façade of the main museum building looks like the motel as it looked in 1968. Out of the various civil rights museums I’ve been to so far, this was by far the most comphrensive of the civil rights movement. At this point I’m not learning much new from these museums, but I still spent about an hour and a half there.

One of the advertised highlights of the museum is that they’ve recreated the rooms that King and his entourage stayed in. It’s kinda cheese since it just looks like a period motel room. More significant is that you can lookout (but not stand on) the balcony where he was shot. As one woman there summarized to her young daughter: “You’re standing where a very important event in history happened. You don’t understand do you? Well, you’ll understand in 10 years.”

The museum has taken over the Young and Morrow Building across the street -- it's the former rooming house where the shot was fired that killed King. In it there is a exhibit dedicated to the assisination and you can lookout from the window where James Early Ray fired his gun. When you think about it, it's kinda interesting that they've turned a crime scene into a museum.

After leaving the museum and looking for a taxi, I spotted this sign in front of a mini-mall:

It's pretty clear who they're trying to keep out. Next time I'm in Memphis I'm going to go in there wearing my jeans low, with hat sideways, and a shirt that says:

I Love Dick...
for President

Nixon/Agnew '72

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Strange Park

There's a park near my house that I drive by almost daily, but until today I have never gone to it because it is inaccessible except by car.

The park is shaped like a triangle, probably 2 acres in size. On two sides major traffic arteries run along it. On the third side is a street that connects the two other streets. There are no sidewalks along any of the streets on both sides. So it's impossible to walk to the park (except for the people who live directly across the street). There's also almost no parking -- the only place to park is along the third street. The park has benches, a fountain, lots of trees, is regularly maintained (new trees were planted in it last month), but since I've been down here only once have I seen someone in it.

I checked the garbage cans in the park and they were filled with water (from the rain) and a few soda and beer bottles. It seems pretty strange for the city to continue to spend so much money on a park that is pretty much inaccessible. And because of the whole parking issue, there's a cap on how many people can use it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Southerners Think I'm Italian

Since I've been down here a few people have asked me if I'm Italian. I'm sure anyone who knows me is scratching their head right now. While I don't have jewfro hair, I do have the nose, eyebrows, nasal voice and overbearing mother. I'm identifiable enough that up North during High Holy Days random strangers on the street will wish me a happy new year.

I cannot figure out which stereotype is causing people to think I'm Italian -- I can only think of two things: 1) I have dark hair and my skin can tan pretty dark; and 2) My last name ends in a vowel (while up North my last name is obviously Jewish, down here nobody knows that). I suppose these things could throw people off, but I have a very non-Italian first name.

Maybe Tony Soprano is really right: Italians are Jews with better food.

I bring this up because today I was getting my hair cut and the stylist was telling me that she was going to visit family in Europe next week. She then said to me, "do you get back to Italy often?" For a few seconds I couldn't figure out what she was talking about and I just said no. But then I realize that she was yet another person who thought I was Italian.

One of the benefits of people thinking I'm Italian is that the local white supremacists shouldn't come after me. In fact, people may think I'm connected and think twice about messing with me. Next time someone asks me what my father does, I'll say that he's in the olive oil business but he's thinking of buying some casinos out in Vegas. And my brother has been out there learning the ropes of the casino business.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Monroeville, AL

Last month I went to Monroeville to see a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Monroeville is the town where Harper Lee is from, and Truman Capote lived next door to her.

The fictional town of Maycomb is modeled after Monroeville right down to the courthouse where the trial took place (for the film, the courthouse set was a copy of the Monroeville courthouse).

The town has embraced its literary significance. Each year, for the last 20 years, members of the town put on a production of To Kill a Mocking Bird. The first half of the play is a highly compressed version of the first half of the book. The second half is mainly the courtroom scene, played out in the courthouse (the first half is staged outside of the courthouse; during intermission everyone is herded inside). The whole thing is very meta. It's a fictional story, but you get to watch it acted out in the town and building where Lee witnessed events that inspired characters and incidents in the novel. Fact and fiction blur together.

While it was community theater, the actors did a pretty good job. Their southern accents lend a sense of authenticity to the characters -- nobody is faking an accent, this is what the people Lee grew up with sounded like. The director also deserves credit for taking advantage of part of the playing being staged outside. During the scene where Atticus is standing guard at the jail, the director had the mob enter the scene by driving a classic car onto the outdoor set -- the car swung around from down the street and drove through the audience.

Today the courthouse is a museum dedicated to the history of Monroeville, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. From the historic pictures of the town you can see that despite always being very small (a population under than 10,000), its courthouse square was a well landscaped bustling commercial corridor. Today it's mostly baron. All the retail has moved to the outskirts of town where there are a few big box stores, most notably Walmart.

Courthouse pictures:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Alabama Campaign Commercials

The political ads down here are out of control.

As I blogged about before, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim James kicked things off with his "This is Alabama. We speak English" ad.

Right now he's in a recount to see if he'll advance to the GOP runoff.

Then the Alabama Board of Education tried to weaken Bradley Byrne's chances in the GOP gubernatorial primary by accusing him of advocating the teaching of evolution in schools.

He's advanced to the runoff.

After that, Dale Peterson made headlines with his ad for agriculture commissioner that heavily featured a horse and gun.

Funny or Die did a brilliant parody of it.
And now Rick Barber, who is in the GOP runoff for the second congressional district (my district!) has released this ad:

Monday, June 7, 2010

Happy Jefferson Davis Day

In the Union we honor all the past United States Presidents by having a federal holiday dedicated to them on George Washington's birthday: Presidents Day.

In the South, there is one President so important that he gets his own state holiday: "President" Jefferson Davis.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meridian, Mississippi

This past weekend I went out to Meridian, Mississippi so that I could say I’ve been to Mississippi.

Apparently it was the largest city in Mississippi between 1890 and 1930 (population 10k to 30k). For such a small city it has an impressive number of buildings.

I hate to say it, but Meridian has a better collection of historic buildings than Montgomery. From old pictures of Montgomery it's clear that the city had its share of early 20th century brick and stone buildings, but most have been torn down.

What really stood out to me was the Threefoot Building.

Built in 1929, standing 16 stories tall, it visually dominates the city. No other building is anywhere near as tall as it. It’s strange that such a large building was built in such a small city (the timing of its construction obviously sucked). Even today it is out of place. But I guess the economy in Meridian during the 1920s was so robust that the building owners thought they could fill it. It’s been abandon for a while and plans to restore it have fallen apart.

The city must have been represented by a powerful Democratic Congressman or Senator in the '30s -- it has some impressive WPA buildings that are as out of place as the Threefoot Building (look at the pictures of the Post Office and City Hall).

Other pictures of Meridian:

(City Hall)