Non-Fiction

Henry Hanson

I’m at the Amtrak station in Birmingham, Alabama, waiting for a train to New Orleans. I was in Birmingham for a couple nights and stayed at a seedy little motel just off the interstate. It was about a twenty-five-minute walk from the train station and I had booked it as it was the only reasonably priced place close-ish to the city. I was surprised that, as Birmingham is a city of more than 200 000 people, there didn’t seem to be any hostels or much accomodation for tourists. However, as I quickly realised once I arrived in the city, that was probably because there was seldom a tourist to house.

 

On arrival, I was immediately struck by how grey everything seemed; the city was practically deserted, there were plenty of empty shop fronts and the streets were littered with unattended road work sites. Guitar and backpack in tow, I was greeted at the front desk of my motel by an old Indian bloke and his son. They seemed bemused to see me there, like they were in on a joke that I was not. However, they were kind and helpful and seemed pretty stoked to have me there.

 

The motel itself was two stories high, a sort of angular horse shoe shape that enabled every room to have a view of a car park that was barely a quarter full. The car park was strewn with sporadically placed piles of cardboard sheets and, strangely, a blue kid’s bicycle that was tied to a staircase for the duration of my stay. Later, when I mentioned to a bloke that I was staying there he laughed and said that he had once bought drugs from a dude in the car park.

Later that afternoon, I set off towards downtown. On my way, I was stopped by three or four homeless dudes asking for money. I would’ve been happy to give out some cash but I didn’t have any on me, so instead I handed out cigarettes (which were only $4.40 a pack at the service station — compared to the $11 I had paid in DC). I was clearly a fucking high roller in Birmingham. In fact, on a high from my newly discovered affluence and social status, I started to barter with the local homeless population. A guy would come up asking for a dollar and I’d offer him two cigarettes instead. On the surface, sure, for him, it looks like a great offer. However, if you take into account the going rate of darts in Alabama (which, bizarrely, no one seemed to do) you’re looking at just 22 cents per durry. Everyone’s a winner ­— the bloke asking for money comes away with two sweet gaspers and I’m only 44 cents worse off; he’s enjoying a bit of nicotine and I’m laughing all the way to the bank. I mean, I guess if you take the time to break down the economics of the transaction, the joke really is on him. Although, as I was quickly learning, trading on the streets of Birmingham is largely unregulated - and at the end of the day, loopholes exist to be exploited. 

Anyway, after a couple hours of successfully duping the local homeless population out of dinner, I reached beautiful downtown Birmingham. My favourite thing about the downtown was how streamlined it was. Clearly, the powers that be had put their heads together and come to the conclusion that you don’t really need that many shops or places to eat. It was cool as well to see how minimalistic the shop fronts were; some of them didn’t even display anything at all. However, after a bit more walking around and buying an older homeless guy a bunch of food from the Family Dollar (he had clearly had the old cigarette trick pulled on him before), I found somewhere to eat and drink. 

The bar was a swanky little place on the outskirts of downtown that was crowbarred in amongst a few worse-for-wear industrial looking buildings. Having not eaten all day, I ordered a burger and  threw it down my gullet. I think it must have been a combination of culture shock and low blood sugar, but I noticed myself visibly shaking as I sat at the bar. This happens to me quite a bit and it always surprises me when it does — I’m often not consciously aware that I’m anxious or nervous until I realise I can’t hold a menu straight or that my beer is all over my lap. Or maybe it’s just my debilitating case of early onset Parkinson’s disease - who knows. 

Later that night, I ended up at a place called The Good People Brewing Company. I guess the people there were alright, but I’m not convinced as to whether they were quite good enough for their ‘goodness’ to be the main selling point of the business. The beer wasn’t that great though, so maybe they couldn’t call it ‘The Good Beer Brewing Company’ for legal reasons.

The next morning I was astonished to awake to a pretty sizeable snowfall. Well, considering it was the first time I’d experienced snow, I didn’t really know whether it actually was a sizeable snowfall or not, but there was lots of wet, white powder everywhere, alright? Either way, the rest of Birmingham seemed to agree with me, as once I ventured out of my room, I found the downtown to be practically deserted. Without knowing what else I should do, I made my way to a pub that was completely packed out. I sat down at the edge of the bar and snorted down a few brown ales. After the alcohol had done its best to improve my otherwise poor social skills and alleviate my crippling social anxiety, I started to talk to a couple of the other fellas at the bar. I asked them what there is to do in Birmingham. They said there wasn’t much to do unless I liked to eat and drink. I, being a big fan of providing my body with substances necessary for survival, asked for a few recommendations.

That night I rocked up to a place called the Atomic. It wasn’t a nightclub, but it had themed rooms like I’d imagine a nightclub would (do nightclubs have themed rooms? I feel like some do, but if they don’t, disregard the whole nightclub comparison). One of the rooms was jungle themed — pretty cool! No, in all seriousness, it was a pretty cool place. There were a whole bunch of old TV’s lined up in the first room, showcasing some really nice static with some words emblazoned over the top. I can’t remember what they said exactly, but it was something about creativity or being different or not being a slave to the system or that we’re all brainwashed. 

Upon walking into the bar, the change in temperature meant my glasses fogged right up. This was good as it enabled me to have some banter with a few people at the bar. Great comedy. After I sat down, another guy rocked up. Being bespectacled himself, the elements were no kinder to him than they were to me. Seeing my chance, I practically fell over myself in an attempt to explain that we shared a similar plight. However, he was having none of it and proceeded to drink alone. Despite this, a few weird looking cocktails later, he became more responsive to my attempts at conversation. 

I don’t know whether there was much coverage of it back in Australia, but in the states the preceding weeks had been dominated by an election taking place in Birmingham. The centrepiece of this coverage was a Republican called Roy Moore, who, by Australian standards, is essentially a lunatic. In addition to his comparatively sane-seeming stances against abortion and immigration, he has declared that homosexuality should be illegal, that ‘there is no such thing as evolution’ and that 9/11 was evidence of God’s wrath being felt on earth. So yeah, despite not being fluent in the nuances of Alabaman politics, I feel pretty safe in saying he’s a bit of a cunt. On top of this, multiple damning allegations of sexual misconduct arose in the months leading up to the election. One woman was 14 when she said Moore, 32 at the time, initiated a sexual encounter with her. Unbelievably, in spite of 8 other women coming forward with similar accounts of assault, the president continued to stand by Moore. 

My stay in Birmingham happened to coincide with the closing days of the campaign. I was surprised that there weren’t many overt signs of this in the city itself — considering that, even without being in Birmingham, much of the last three weeks of my life seemed to be dominated by this election. However, while sitting next to my bespectacled, cocktail drinking friend at the Atomic, it all slid into focus a little bit more. He genuinely seemed like a nice guy — probably in his late thirties, tall, slim and looking like he’d just come from work. He was interested in what I was doing, and was quick to give me recommendations about cities to visit. He almost seemed apologetic about Alabama as well. As in, he wanted me to be aware that he knew that Birmingham isn’t exactly New York. However, in a similar way, he was earnest in stressing that at least it wasn’t Mississippi. 

This apologetic, almost embarrassed tone continued when he started talking about politics. He began by telling me that he’d voted for Trump despite being aware that he’s an idiot. He could reconcile that According to him, she’s a compulsive liar and done some really ‘evil’ things. I was slightly taken aback by how passionate he was about Hillary. His hatred for her seemed to be less about any particular policy or ideology and more about a visceral emotional reaction. However, I guess you could probably make the same case for the way a lot of people I know talk about Trump. 

Seeing that I didn’t really know what to say, he stressed that I had no chance of relating to how he understands politics. He said that for him, and for a lot of the people around him, gun rights is the issue that determines whether or not a certain politician will get his vote. Leaning forward, he said ‘Henry I own 35 guns. I’m always armed.’ 

I asked him if he had a gun on him right at that moment. He said, ‘yeah I have one in my car. If there’s the slightest hint of danger, I can have it here in 15 seconds.’ Despite being sceptical about whether having a gun in your car actually counts as being armed at all times, I opted to stay quiet: he had a gun in his car. Eventually, the conversation reached Roy Moore and the upcoming election. He assured me that he thinks he’s a cunt and he won’t vote for him. However, he said that his elderly mother, a devout catholic and lifelong Republican, had gone to great lengths to explain to him why they needed to vote for Moore. From what I could gather, this guy’s Mum knew that he was a predator and an awful man, but for her that was not enough reason to allow someone with opposing political ideals (i.e. the democrat running against Moore) to represent her and her community. 

This sounded almost jarringly similar to what I’d heard countless times over the past few weeks. It became sort of trite — everyone I’d talk to about the election, my family especially, would trundle out the classic, ‘what the fuck is up with Alabama? They’re so backwards, they’d rather elect a predator than a Democrat.’ I began to echo this, without really knowing the in’s and out’s of the situation. However, sitting here with this dude, I realised I actually had no idea about how people from Alabama actually thought and, as he stressed to me, I didn’t really have much of a chance of finding out. I realised that the idea of conservative Alabamans ‘preferring a sex offender over a Democrat’ wasn’t really that accurate. Of course Roy Moore supporters don’t like him because he is a predator — they like him in spite of the fact that he’s a predator. They like him because he espouses values that they relate to. Values that, no matter how alien they seem to me, strike accord with a considerable percentage of the population, and are entrenched enough to transcend Moore’s despicable personality and deplorable actions.

I left Birmingham knowing that any conclusions I’d come to or observations that I’d made were definitely ignorant, and ultimately, they were probably wrong. It would be stupid of me to even entertain the thought that I could comprehend Southern politics or identity from only a few weeks of drunken conversations and cursory glances. Despite spending a lot of time in the mid-Atlantic (where my family lives), the South seemed completely foreign in many respects. I was a complete outsider for the duration of trip; I spent so much of my time and energy attempting to acclimatise to constantly changing landscapes, there was no way I could have come to any meaningful or insightful conclusions. Everything that happened in Birmingham now seems like a bit of a dream; a collection of weird memories that I don’t really know how to piece together. 

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