Just like old times
For my spring vacation, I decided to take a road trip.
It had been about five years since I’d seen my Southern friends, and so I mapped out a route that would take me to Birmingham, Ala., where I lived and worked for several years after graduating from college.
But my first stop was in Virginia, at my friend Heather’s. I met Heather in Albany, when we lived on the same street, and I was excited to see her new house, where she’s putting into practice many of the things she’s long talked of doing: gardening and raising chickens, and building sculptures in a large backyard shed. Before I arrived, she asked whether I’d be willing to attend a mushroom party hosted by a member of her sustainable living group.
“What do you do at a mushroom party?” I asked.
“Cultivate mushrooms,” Heather replied.
She explained that she and her friends were hoping to grow their own shiitake mushrooms, and that this entailed drilling numerous holes in logs, nailing small wooden plugs colonized with mushroom spawn into the holes, and sealing the holes with wax.
I agreed to go, mainly because when I hear the word party, I imagine something fun, with music, drinks, snacks and interesting conversation. Instead, I found myself performing physical labor for about two hours, my ability to converse with people limited by the loud buzzing of drills and pounding of hammers. Once the logs were inoculated, Heather and I began carrying them over to a pickup truck and tossing them onto the flatbed.
“Just like old times, huh?” she said.
“Yup,” I said.
Because when Heather lived in Albany, she often roped me into her insane projects, which typically involved lugging large pieces of wood or scrap metal through downtown Albany. I can’t even tell you how many times she turned to me and said, “Here, carry this,” and handed me an unwieldy and heavy object to bring to her apartment. The mushroom party, I could see, was simply the latest iteration of a long-standing tradition.
As the trip progressed, “just like old times” became my mantra.
The lives of my friends have changed dramatically since we all worked together in Birmingham, at a newspaper called the Post-Herald, but their personalities, predilections and habits remain much the same.
Almost every stop entailed visiting an old haunt, or a favorite activity, or an odd quirk that I had forgotten about. For instance, as soon as I arrived at my friend Leigh Anne’s, after a nine-hour drive from Durham, N.C., she asked whether I wanted to go to a movie — an activity both she and I enjoy.
We decided to get dinner first, and settled on the Fish Market, one of my favorite restaurants, where I wolfed down a plate of oysters on the half shell and barbecued shrimp and grits. I ate at the Fish Market roughly once a week when I lived in Birmingham, often with Leigh Anne and often before a trip to the movies, and the restaurant was just as good as I remembered — perhaps better.
After we finished our meals, we headed out to the dollar theater. We didn’t consult the schedule, and had no idea what was playing, which is not my typical approach to going to the movies. My typical approach involves studying the movie schedule as if it is a sacred text, and picking the film that looks like it is the best.
Leigh Anne’s approach to moviegoing is somewhat different. It involves driving out to the theater, glancing at the marquee and making a selection from the short list of movies that are about to start. I’ll be honest: This approach to moviegoing drives me bananas, because the lack of planning almost guarantees that you’ll wind up seeing a bad movie. Or at least a mediocre one. But on that particular night I found it strangely endearing, and as I settled into my chair for a screening of the poorly reviewed film “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” I smiled. Going to see a terrible movie at a mall just outside Birmingham — just like old times!
Overall, Birmingham is different than it was when I lived there.
Like any place, the city has undergone a number of changes over the past five years, some bad, some good. Some neighborhoods are doing better than ever, some are doing worse. New restaurants and bars and businesses have sprung up, while others have closed.
One positive development, in my mind, has been the growth in local breweries thanks to a loosening of the state’s beer laws, and I forced Leigh Anne to take me to a brewery in the up-and-coming Avondale neighborhood.
When I lived in Birmingham, Avondale had little to offer, and was regarded as somewhat unsafe. But today it’s kind of a hip place and I was eager to take in the scene. That said, I soon found myself uttering five words I’ve said many, many times: “Let’s go to The Garage.”
The Garage is my favorite bar in the world, and as soon as I walked in I felt at home. The place had changed very little — the bathrooms had been renovated, but that was it — and I happily ordered a BLT and a can of beer from a new brewery up in Huntsville. One of our old colleagues happened to be there, which brought me back to the time when almost everyone I knew hung out at this particular bar, and I was constantly running into friends and acquaintances and colleagues there.
A tour of downtown Birmingham quickly disabused me of the notion that nothing had changed.
Leigh Anne and I drove past the site of our old newspaper, which folded about seven years ago, forcing many of my friends to change jobs and careers. The building that once housed the Post-Herald has been torn down, replaced by a parking lot. For some reason, I felt a strange urge to erect a sign that read “Journalism once practiced here.”
Yes, my trip was just like old times.
Except when it wasn’t.
Sara Foss is a Gazette reporter. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.