After my disappointment in Memphis at only getting to see part of the Civil Rights Museum, I was glad to hear the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham had also received rave reviews. The museum begins with a short film about the history and origins of the “separate but equal” state we found ourselves in during the 20th century. The last shot of the film shows a set of water fountains – one for blacks and one for whites. The screen then rises up and reveals a set of matching replicas that mark the entrance to the museum. Because a person could walk on either side of the constructed fountains, it almost seemed to imply that one entrance was for whites and one for blacks. Most of the other patrons watching the film were black, and walked on the side marked with the black fountain. Whether this was by choice, accident, or unconscious implication I’m not sure. I crossed to the other side of the theater to follow them, even though it was more crowded. In the end, no one entered on the white side.
The museum has replicas of black and white school houses, info boards about important court decisions, and old advertisements that played on black stereotypes. There’s a full Ku Klux Klan robe on display with a placard listing it as an “anonymous donation.” At one point I walked into a room filled with faceless, life-sized human figures etched in glass. Over the speakers I heard voices reciting the old white sentiments of the era, and a projector showed the words on the wall. Some were polite. “I don’t believe there is a race problem in Alabama.” Others were not. “I don’t want my kids in school with niggers.” Other museum patrons passed through the room as I stood there, staring at the wall. I couldn’t move. I listened to the whole horrific tape, only leaving when it began to loop. I wanted to cry.
The exhibits continued, talking about bus boycotts and freedom riders. More-so than in most history books, the institute gives a sense of the danger of the time. These were protests that could end your life. This was a world in which you could be murdered by a mob and no one would stop them. A world where fighting for justice meant dying without it. Walking out of the Institute, two different black men nodded hello to me as I passed them on the street. I thought about the things I’d read inside. For a black man in the south in the 1950s, looking at a white woman the wrong way could get you killed.
I had lunch at Miss D’s, a soul food place down the street that was recommended to me by my host. He told me it was a classic “meat and three,” meaning a serving of meat plus three kinds of vegetables. The definition of vegetable was pretty broad however, and encompassed any number of other side dishes. I sat down with my comforting plate full of starch, the only white person in the restaurant. It was two days after the Treyon Martin verdict, and the story was playing on the TV. The newscaster was speaking with viewers who would call in with their two cents, and a man on the telephone was saying, “I can’t believe that in 2013 we’re still talking about racisim.” The host seemed to stumble a bit, and I will admit I also wasn’t sure what sentiment the man was trying to get across. There was an awkward pause before he elaborated that it seemed to him that we should be done with this already, and that we sorted out this kind of racism a long time ago. I remembered a video I’d seen inside the institute. An older white woman from the 1950s was saying how she didn’t think they had a problem with prejudice in Birmingham. She told a story about her involvement organizing an art contest for children, and the winner was a young black boy. When the boy and his family tried to visit the exhibit where his art was on display, they were turned away. They were not allowed in to see the art. They contacted this woman to explain the situation, she made a few phone calls, and the family was let in. She didn’t see that it was much of a problem. It was just a misunderstanding and besides, everything worked out in the end.
Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, which hosts a number of commemorative statues, especially in reference to the violence against the Children’s March that took place there in 1963. On TripAdvisor, many people had recommended the park for it’s beautiful and moving statues, but complained that there were an awful lot of panhandlers there. When I first walked up to the park, an older black man approached me. In my normal life I admit that I probably would have done my best to ignore him and get him to go away. But I’m on an adventure, and standing in broad daylight twenty feet from a parked police car seemed as good a place as any to start a conversation with a homeless man. His first words were to let me know that he was not a danger and not trying to hassle me, and then asked if I was about to see the park. I told him I was, and he offered to walk with me inside for awhile. He gestured to the statues and said he was about 8 years old “when all this happened.” He’s lived in Birmingham ever since. I asked him if things had changed, and he said yes, they certainly have. He hesitated as though he was about to say more, but then only repeated, “Yes, they have.” At one point in our conversation he asked if he could have twenty dollars, and I told him I could give him one dollar. I handed it over and we talked some more. After a while he told me he should probably go sit down somewhere, because to be honest, he was “a little drunk.” As he was leaving, he handed the dollar back to me, telling me to have a nice day.
I continued around the park, and found a shady spot next to a fountain to sit down. There were many seemingly homeless people in the park. Most were keeping to themselves. All were black. A man got my attention, but I couldn’t hear him very well. Once again, in my everyday life I probably would have used that as an excuse to ignore him, but instead I got up and went to sit beside him. We talked for awhile, and I learned he was an army veteran. He told me he wasn’t homeless, that he had a home. But his home was a long way out of town, and there was no bus from here to there. He had to be in the city to get his benefits from the V.A., so “this is where I am.” He asked if I could spare $1.36 for him to buy some comfort, and I gave him the dollar the first man gave back to me. He thanked me, and said with an earnestness that I could not help but believe, “this will come back to you two-fold.” As I left I casually said, “Take care of yourself.” He pointed to the sky and replied, “He’s taking care of me.”
I thought a lot about how to end this. I thought about other times in my life I’ve experienced or witness racism. I thought about a busker in Scotland yelling out offensive noises to a friend of mine who sometimes seemed like the only black person in the U.K. I thought about that same friend explaining that his last name comes from the salve holders who owned his family. I thought about George Zimmerman, and how someone had said that if his last name were Martinez we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It reads like a bad tree falling in a forest joke: “if a hispanic man shoots a black man in Florida, does anyone care?” I thought about a friend of mine in high school, whose college admittance essay was about moving from North Dakota to Seattle and encountering racial diversity for the first time. I thought about the church in Mobile, and the park manager in Chickasaw. And I got no where. I can’t think of a single insightful thing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. And that is our legacy in the United States. We can talk it to death and still not fix it. This is something we did that got us where we are, for better and for worse. And sometimes it makes me angry, sometimes I feel guilty, sometimes I don’t even notice, and sometimes I want to cry. And sometimes the best I’ll be able to do is take the word of an old drunk man I met in a park who told me that things have changed. Yes, they have.
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.
My 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.
After 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.
The 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.
Jon 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.
The 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.
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.
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.