All of the Other Things that Happened in Birmingham

I met Jon, my couch surfing host, at a BBQ joint in Birmingham for lunch. Back when I was in the southwest, I was often told where to get good Mexican food. Since Kansas City I’ve been told where to get good BBQ. As an appetizer the waitress brought us slices of plain white bread and sauce for dipping. I had never seen such a thing before. I talked with my host about the various attractions that had been recommended to me for Birmingham, and he added his own two cents. Jon is a regular host for CS, and is used to travelers. We figured out a plan for my afternoon, determined a good time to meet back at his home later, and then he went back to work.

Vulcan PointingMy first stop was Vulcan Park, a lovely public park on top of a hill overlooking the city. While the skyline is nice, the real view is of Vulcan’s godly posterior. The largest cast iron statue in the world, the Roman god Vulcan looks over the city, a testament to it’s early roots in the iron and steel industries. For whatever reason the God of Fire and the Forge has been given an apron but no pants, and his bottom seems to sit in the uncanny valley between realism and fiction. It’s hard to look away.

Liberty from BelowAfter the park I headed over to the scaled down replica of the Statue of Liberty that sits on the grounds of the Boy Scout Headquarters. While the online reviews clearly indicated that it was probably not worth the trip, it seemed like just the sort of kitschy American thing I had to see. There is absolutely nothing of interest in the area directly around the statue, and standing there I started to count how many versions of the Statue of Liberty I had seen in my life compared to how many there invariably are in the world. I certainly didn’t expect Birmingham to be the site of so many large statues of Roman gods.

I had some time to kill before my host would be home from work, so I looked up a coffee shop not too far from his place where I could do some writing. The classic chalk menu on the wall behind the register had less than a dozen items. It was the kind of place that offered a limited selection of specialty drinks. No coffee was just coffee, but strange combinations like Dark Nigerian Pomegranate Roast and Wild Mint Apricot Tea. I don’t like coffee, so I usually order a hot chocolate or a hazelnut steamer (steamed milk with a flavor shot). I was trying to figure out if they would even have hot chocolate at such an esoteric place when the barista noticed my confused and vacant stare.

“Were you thinking coffee or tea?” he asked.

“Tea,” I told him, knowing I’d at least prefer it to coffee.

“Have you ever had a tea latte before?” he asked.

I suddenly realized that my normal aversion to coffee and my inability to get a job as a barista had turned me into one of the few remaining Seattlites who had no idea what a latte actually was.  I must have stuttered or mumbled or just stared awkwardly for too long, because eventually he added, “It’s sort of a half tea, half milk.”

“I’ve never had it,” I told him, “but it sounds good.”

“In that case, I would recommend the almond chai tea, it makes a great latte.”

I agreed, knowing that in terms of food I tend to have good luck by trusting the advice of locals. I claimed a table and set up my laptop while he fixed my drink. It was absolutely delicious, and the chai latte would become my new go-to drink at coffee shops for several weeks. It was a blow to my finances to be paying for a regularly priced beverage for once, but at least I finally had something to buy in a coffee shop that felt grown-up. Odd that I had to go to Alabama to learn how to order like a Seattleite.

Back at the apartment, Jon and I decided to cook up some frozen fare at his place rather than go out to eat. We feasted on re-heated chicken breast and talked about people we’d met and places we’d seen. I asked him if he felt Alabama was as bad as it’s often portrayed. He told me that while you’d certainly find that sort of racist redneck mentality out in the country, Birmingham was a city like any other. He told me a story about a conservative friend of his that moved out of South Birmingham because it reminded him too much of Berkley. “Cities are cities, country folk are country folk,” he said.

SlossThe next day I went to see Sloss Furnaces. It’s an old iron plant that is now a historical landmark. Many of the old structures are still there, and visitors are invited to walk around the grounds and explore. There are a few arrows painted on the ground to let you know where the info boards and cell phone audio tour stops are, but for the most part you’re on your own. Truly dangerous places have been permanently blocked, but there are any numbers of heavy doors to open and dark, dripping staircase to walk down. The whole place looks like the beginning of a Bones episode right before you find a dead body. There’s ivy climbing up the walls and old chairs next to the machines. There are basements and tunnels and rail tracks leading nowhere. I felt like I was eight years old. This place begged for imagination.

Old ChairJon was heading straight from work to “The Hash.” A hash group is typically referred to as “a drinking club with a running problem,” which is a very accurate description. Jon invited me to participate, but both running and drinking beer are on the top of my list of things I do not want to do. Instead he suggested I meet up with them at the bar after the run.  He told me it was Hawaiian themed, but if I didn’t have anything special to wear I would still be welcome. I showed up at the Tin Roof bar at the suggested time, but I didn’t see Jon or anyone else who looked like they’d just been running. I did see a man in a grass skirt ordering a drink however, and I walked up to him.

“Are you a hasher?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “I was just grabbing a beer.”

“So where is everyone?”

“Oh, they’re all meeting in a back alley first, it’s just a couple blocks form here.” The bartender brought him a beer in a plastic cup and the grass skirted man closed out his tab. I explained that I was staying with one of the hashers and was told to meet them.

“Oh cool. Do you want a ride?”

In terms of seemingly bad ideas, getting into a car with a strange man in a grass skirt who is drinking a beer and has offered to take you to a back alley in an unfamiliar neighborhood should be pretty high up on the list. However circumstances being what they were, this felt like a completely safe and reasonable thing to do. We found the rest of the group in a parking lot at the end of the alley, drinking beers and donning running gear and coconut bras. What followed was a highly organized ritual of initiation, tradition, music, lore, posturing, and hierarchy. I felt like an anthropologist.

TracksThe group circled around, everyone with a drink in hand. Three new members were losing their “virginity” with this event, and that required them to recite what they had learned about the group as well as share a handful of personal, intimate, and/or embarrassing details about themselves. They also had to chug a beer in time with a group song or risk dumping whatever remained in their glass on top of their heads. There was a toilet plunger, called the Hashit, that got passed to a different member at the end of each hash. It seemed to be awarded based on some inept or despicable deed as determined by the group. This week it went to the runner who managed to lose his driver’s license in the middle of the run. Each new carrier is asked to add an item to the Hashit, and at the time I saw it the thing was covered in knickknacks and decoration. It should be noted that whoever is in possession of the plunger also uses it as their beer glass. It is commonly filled via “donations” poured from the cups of the other members.

I lost count of how many tunes were sung. They reminded me of old camp songs, but perhaps from a camp specializing in crass and overt sexual discussions. There were songs for people who’d done something well, songs for people who had screwed up, songs for birthdays, songs for announcements, and one song at the end for anyone who had not managed to be in the middle and get sung to already.

Temptations

After about 20-30 minutes of drinking, swearing, and sexual innuendo we headed back to the Tin Roof. This was a particularly special night, as one of the members was getting named. After participating in a certain number of hashes a runner is given a name by the community, usually involving some sort of vulgar pun. This name is generally tied to the specific person and probably relates to some embarrassing part of their past. As such, the naming process involves the runner relating to the group the most horrific, peculiar, and unusual stories about herself, her running, and especially her sexual history. There is a clear theme going on here. Once the stories have been told, the runner steps aside while the rest of the groups debates possible names, eventually voting on one. The runner is brought back to hear the runner up options and is given her new hash name. It doesn’t matter if she likes it. This is now her name.

The new runner seemed pleased with her name, and drinking was enjoyed by all. The night continued with yelling, dancing, and general bar shenanigans. It was like being back in college. Or possibly some mix of college and what high school is like in movies. Drinking is important. Talking about sex is important. Dancing is important. Covers of your favorite 80s rock songs are important. And no one questions the fun. No one stops to wonder if maturity has merit, because it clearly doesn’t in this arena. Jon and I stayed late into the evening and were among the last to leave.

Close up on city map

I looked up Hashing online later, and was surprised to find how widespread it is, and how common most of the traditions I saw were. At the time, they seemed so unique and specific, as I suppose most traditions do when you’re an outsider. The age range at the hash seemed to be as low as 21 and as high as 40, and I wondered if there comes a point when you just feel too old to be singing dirty songs and drinking out of a toilet plunger. Or perhaps one never out grows such things, only finds new outlets for them. Perhaps that’s why we so often associate aging grandpas and uncles with off-color jokes. For me, I could certainly see the appeal, but I wondered how long I would be able to keep up such a thing before I started to feel like I was wasting my time. But we all have our own immaturities we hold on to, whether it’s bad TV shows or eating junk food or never doing the dishes in a timely manner. Maybe maturity is just the word we use to describe giving up the things we love that we’re told are bad for us. Or perhaps it’s the point at which consequences finally outweigh old joys. After all, it’s not easy to get up in the morning after a truly great hash.

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