South Carolina, my home state. Number forty-eight in SAT scores and number two in gonorrhea. We always jokingly said “thank God for Mississippi” because it always seemed that we were in a death roll headlock scrambling with them to either stay off of the top or bottom of some damn list.
Arkansas—my friend Dawson revels in forwarding me links to news reports about the always absurd shenanigans that go on in South Carolina. She feels better about her native Arkansas when she finds a little bit of embarrassing S.C. skinny to share. And even she’ll admit that her hopes for Bill Clinton’s presidency offering Arkansas a bit of polish were childish. Instead of a spiffed up image, Arkansas “got nothing but a schmear of tarted up red lipstick”. Her words, not mine.
It seemed that a few years ago there was something going on in my state every week. And this was several years after they finally got the damned rebel flag off the top of the state house. Everyone knows about our governor being MIA while supposedly taking a walkabout on the Appalachian Trail.
And an assistant state attorney general and former legislator, old enough to be an historical relic, found drunk in his SUV with a teenage hoochie coochie merchant and an array of sex toys and poppers throwed all about in rolling playpen. I got an urgent SCUD email about both of these unfortunate events, annotated of course by Dawson.
And the one that Dawson took particular relish in sending over was the video clip of a South Carolina beauty pageant contestant speaking some kind of Pig Latin pidgin incoherency when answering her finalist impromptu question during the Miss Teen USA pageant. Her email simply said “You must be proud”.
It ain’t always easy being Southern. Oh, and before I go any further with this overwrought sub Mason-Dixon workout, let me say that the rest of the contiguous forty-eight ain’t any cleaner. It’s just that when we Southerners sin, we do it with relish. Sweet pepper relish. And devilled eggs, and pimiento cheese, and sweet tea and…shut up.
I’ll never forget a documentary I watched about the efforts to integrate the University of Mississippi. They interviewed students who were there amidst the conflict. And one member of the 1962 SEC champions, undefeated OleMiss football team from that year choked up during the interview. He confessed to the journalist that he’d been trying to make peace with the legacy of his beloved state for his entire life.
He was a big boy, and one who seemed disinclined to show much emotion and certainly not while a camera was rolling. But you could tell that he was still hurtin’. And he said to the journalist in halting utterances, parsed to hold back his tears; something to the effect that “I’ve been speaking to any and every one of you who’ve ever contacted me over the years. And none of you get it right”. I don’t think the boy felt like anyone had ever really heard him and I think he felt like none of this journalist’s predecessors had done anything to help Mississippi heal.
Oh sh_t, I’m five hundred and fifty words in and I got side tracked. This was supposed to be about Alabama and Alden Pebble Grain tassel loafers. Hang with me, crackers.
I’m not sure why Alabama never entered my mind as I sought solace through finding at least one other Southern state to benchmark my crazy ass Palmetto patch against. Surely it hasn’t been easier to be from Alabama. Let me see here…Bull Connor, firehoses and attack dogs, church bombings and of course, Selma.
One of my colleagues when I was in the pharmaceutical industry revealed to me something one night. And within his confession, I could tell that after all these years, he still didn’t know how to wear it. He tugged at the too tight collar of it all while uttering every word to me. He grew up in Montgomery and it was his municipal bus driving uncle, his father’s brother, who ordered Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.
|"Get your left hand off of my ass Mister President"|
Thank God for Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Zelda Fitzgerald, Helen Keller, Winston Groom and Bear Bryant is all I got to say. Oops. I just realized that I threw a few crazies in this thank God compensatory Alabama bandage.
My sister married her high school sweetheart the October after they graduated from college. Just like she was supposed to. They moved to Birmingham and thus my association with the Pittsburgh of the South began.
My brother-in-law was my five year older brother. Not the older brother I never had. I had him. He was my brother. He was the older brother who told me that if I wanted to be a Knight of the Kappa Alpha Order like him, I had to do this, that and the other before I ever hit the doors of college so to better my chances of getting in. I had to pull my baggy Levis 501s up and cut my hair. And after I pulled my baggy jeans up I was told to trade them in for some khakis. And I bought a pair of Weejuns and remember thinking that if I didn’t get a KA bid, I had no clue what I’d do with those shoes.
Mind you, I was still trying real hard to be a hippie—something I never was really good at.
I’m on the record as saying that I’d a sold my mama to get a bid from the KA’s. And y’all know how much I loved my mama. (Let me clarify. He wasn’t my actual blood brother. My characterization here is strictly metaphorical. I just panicked at the realization that some of you Yankee asses who read my caca might actually believe that we Southerners marry our siblings. That’s an ugly stereotype. We draw the line after first cousins.)
And so my two or three times a year visits to Birmingham were always fun. Visits made more so by the addition of young’uns—first a nephew and then a niece and another nephew after that. But my brother-in-law used me like a tool while I was there and I loved it.
I was his excuse for getting out of the house and going honky tonkin’. And he’d sorted out all of the best ones…the nicer, more respectable places around Five Points as well as the low-er brow ones sprinkled all over town. And God knows how back then I loved a hyper-air conditioned Southern juke joint. I still do. Here I am one morning after a Birmingham night out. L.L. Bean Mocs, LaCoste knit shirt, old surplus khakis from Fort Bragg. Just about to spew.
Tants, The Plaza, and some really dodgy joint out near the airport come to mind. We would drop my brother-in-law’s Jaguar off with a guy who detailed private airplanes. His name was Ike and he detailed the dooky out of cars too. We’d then go to this joint nearby and eat a cheeseburger and have a dozen beers. Nirvana.
My Birmingham sorties trailed off for various reasons and until a couple of months ago, I hadn’t set foot in Birmingham for a decade. My sister and brother-in-law divorced he, the Topsider wearing, heavy starched khakis, bourbon and branch swilling good ole boy has been living with his current wife in New York for many years now.
My mother’s twenty month odyssey before leaving this world was transformative for me. Her passing was too slow coming and she’d be the first to tell you so. And it wore me out so as easy as I can say that it was transformative, it’s too soon for me to tell you what the final transformation will net-out.
I was just getting used to wearing my orphan existentiality when I got the text that my niece was dead. It’s been three months the shocking cruelty and acuteness of it still has my head spinning. It’s a punishing world when four months after ones mom passes, the universe decides to rip the fledgling scab off of your heart by taking someone so young.
So my sojourn back to Birmingham was gut wrenching. But I was happy to be in the service of my sister while there. I ran the errands and did the mundane as well as the less than joyful duties involving retrieving ashes and such. But after a few days, I needed a break. So I let my errand running send me over to Mountain Brook in search of the old Richard’s of Mountain Brook haberdashery site.
I’d revelled in my buddy TCD’s email from a few years ago about the shop and I posted it in a previous blog story but let me share it with you again….
“Every now and then when I write something that really resonates with someone; I’ll get a private email in response and sometimes the correspondence itself is post-worthy. I wrote Nuanced Authenticity back in August and received a delightful recollection about a haberdashery in the affluent area of Birmingham, Alabama known as Mountain Brook. I’m sharing it with permission from my buddy TCD because his email is to me, as evocative as my original story.
Or maybe it just hits all of my maudlin buttons. At any rate, here’s to the “Richards of Mountain Brook” caliber haberdasheries of days gone by. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sorry that y’all…the younger set of Trads…missed these gems. And as my cousin Tin-Tin says of our now more derivative than ever world…“Not as good as it was. Better than it will be.”
Here’s TCD’s email…
“This post hit so many memory keys that I can't take the time to list them....but....
Our version of "your Singleton's" in a suburb of Birmingham, AL called Mountain Brook was "Richards of Mountain Brook".
It was located on a shady side street called Petticoat Lane in an old Tudor style building with two bay windows flanking an imposing door with a leaded glass coat of arms.
We knew we were adults when we graduated to Richards from the "CanterburyShop" a half a block away.
"Canterbury" was our "nuance 101" with Bass Weejuns ( $14.95), Gant OCBD, surcingle belts in about one hundred color combinations, Corbin trousers & Southwick Blazers & sport coats....
"Richards" took a high school freshman to his Dad's world & instantly verified it was where you wanted to be even if it had not occurred to you before.....
As you stepped into the doorway, you were confronted by a huge round mahogany table with reps, clubs, & foulards (all of course labelled..."made in England expressly for Richards".... arranged spoke in-wheel around the table grouped by color. Guarding the display on either side were two complete suits of armor.
Beyond the battle-ready armor were shelves and credenzas of Troy Guild OCBD....
Just down the center-hall, waist-high shelving displaying shoes (Crockett & Jones) and socks....
Suits (private label with requisite..."made in England" as well as Norman Hilton)....
Richard had a great eye and understood "Nuance" whether in selections offered or in antique furnishings which abundantly decorated the shop...
Just a great place (& owner) with a sixth sense in how to deploy service and an intelligent knowledge base of background of fabric, weave, fit, hand, & pattern as well as a flair for what was complimentary in terms of tradition or, if you dare, sprezzatura!
He magically combined both during the Christmas Season when posted Welsh Guards in full regalia in front of the shop and conducted Changing of the Guard twice per day....and then, when you had made your purchases....all were gift-wrapped in festive holiday color combinations of paper & ribbon in complex bows, each of which held a Johnny Walker scotch miniature.....
Thanks for the nudge to remember the late 60s and early 70s.....wonderful then and cherished now!””
And I found it. The old Richard’s of Mountain Brook space is now some kind of design shop. But as I snapped a few iPhone photos, I imagined it as TCD described it. And standing there gave me the same great feeling that I so enjoy when I walk any patch where years previous or centuries past, something significant occurred.
I kid you not, the feeling is no less when I discover a Richards of Mountain Brook site than when I’m standing in the Huey Long assassination corridor fingering the bullet pocked granite walls of the Louisiana State House or looking through the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Suppository. (Ask any country boy…that wasn’t an impossible shot by any stretch)
So my errand running reprieve from bereavement nourished me even though I knew that the unguent was short acting. I shot some photos and emailed TCD to let him know that I was on the grounds of his former sartorial mother church. And then I rounded the corner…
I'll have Part Two ready for you sometime in early 2017. Shut up.