I went to Alabama and things got very real

Like most people born in the mid-70s I have a great big splodge in my brain where my 20s used to be. This is largely on account of us being a once-in-a-lifetime generation that was permitted a few years after university (for free back then) to run amok before settling down. It’s not like that now, of course, you look at 20-somethings and they’re driven and anxious, debt-ridden and keen to have job promotions and money and good teeth and property ladders. But my lot, we took it easy, responsibility could wait until our 30s. The point of this prefix being that I can’t remember anything with accurate chronology or detail between the years of 1996 and 2006 because I was too busy having a good time, so what you’re about to read is only the truth as I know it.

But it was sometime in 2003, I was tired from lack of sleep and drunk from beers, confused by smoke billowing all around me as relative chaos ensued. People flanking us seemed to be laughing and cheering but the woman in charge of the whole mess was in a blind state of panic, ushering us off the float in fast-forward while I lurched around with a gormless look on my face. I stood on the pavement and lit a cigarette as some dude calmly fire-extinguished the problem and we watched as converted buses and garish pick-up trucks paraded past us, jealous that they weren’t on fire as well. Being on fire had been rubbish, being not on fire had been excellent. For a handful of minutes we’d felt like fucking royalty. I was on a press trip in Mobile, Alabama, once home to the first ever Mardi Gras parade, and I’d been on the “Self-Conscious British Journalists” float before it’d burst into flames.

Mobile (pronounced “Mo-Beel”) was where Forrest Gump was filmed, and I was there to do a piece for a national newspaper after the travel editor had exhausted her list of decent journalists and finally got me on a recommendation from a girlfriend. As seems to be the case with much of my journalism back then, her trust in me didn’t exactly pay off. When I got back to Blighty news had already traveled ahead that I’d been scruffy, obnoxious and unprofessional, which all seemed about right. I was getting used to being called “unprofessional”. People said it like it was a bad thing. I was scruffy then too, I had lots of thick unbrushable hair, and I was playful rather than obnoxious, but you know – potato, potarto. Our 50-something chaperone didn’t appear to enjoy my various journalistic techniques (honed from a handful of years at the coalface of magazines like more!, J17, and FHM), the blood had drained from her face and her eyes had positively blackened when I’d suggested that some of the locals appeared to be celebrating “Fat Tuesday” in Ku Klux Klan outfits.

But let’s rewind to the start of the trip then thunder through the details, because if we loiter too much this piece would be far too long for you to bother with and too much for me to write. So we assembled at an airport, a group of chancers (me) and professional travel journalists (them) – a couple of girls my age (mid-20s), one guy who was at the same primary school in Merseyside as me when I was six (seriously!), a handful of older folk, and a bloke dressed like a Rockabilly who couldn’t decide whether to speak with an American accent or an English one. We flew from London to Atlanta on a big plane, then on a smaller one from Atlanta to Mo-Beel, Alabama. Home to lots of intriguing people, like the mayor’s wife, an educated woman who told me she’d never visit England for fear of being killed by Muslims, and an elderly trombone player who used to play in James Brown’s band. We talked about music then he introduced me to a local pimp who wondered if I was in the market for pussy (I wasn’t, I was good for pussy). I met a super-hot local girl from the tourist office who asked me to dance with her. I didn’t want to on account of my two left feet and my over-sensitive middle-leg, but apparently it’s the height of rudeness to turn down a dance in The South. So after being corrected I reluctantly said yes, and soon after became acquainted with her infuriated husband who, rather uncharitably, threatened to kill me for dancing with his hot wife – a suggestion that’d be hard to handle at the best of times, but was even harder to navigate with a few cocktails sloshing about and the inevitable protrusion of our off-beat grinding to hastily obscure.

Our small group was there to cover the anniversary of the Mardi Gras parade (200th? I think 200th) which, turns out, wasn’t the lavish LGBTQ celebration I was expecting, but rather a litany of high school marching bands circling the streets, all either predominantly black kids or mostly white. They drummed and brapped and played brass instruments. At one point a sneery middle-aged white woman shouted “here comes the entertainment boys!” as some black baton twirlers came strutting down the road, which was very uncool of her and presumably does little for race relations in the city. In between marching bands, you’d find floats full of fancy-dressed locals, or terrifying rednecks blaring SWEET HOME ALABAMA by Lynyrd Skynyrd for the millionth time that day, all chucking cheap beads into the roadside crowds. Apparently over in New Orleans girls show you their tits in return for the beads, but in Mobile it’s all tightened by the bible-belt so any roadside boobs stay out of sight, just like Jesus would have wanted.

I did, however, see plenty of other curious sights. I went along to an evening where debutantes were being introduced to polite society in a big school gym – some guy on a mic going “Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Evelyn!” while poor Miss Evelyn trotted around the hall in a Barbie gown looking proud or embarrassed, depending. I increasingly encountered segregation by any other name when each night we’d be ferried first to a celebratory “ball” where the white people were, then ushered gingerly to the “ball” where the black people were – both with their own separately anointed Mardi Gras Kings and Queens. I danced to jazz in a room where everyone had their umbrellas up, I watched in astonishment as old men dressed like Grand Wizards line-danced with their families. I met the famous 1980s soul singer Paebo Bryson, I ate astonishingly good food at a country house, I had grits for breakfast, baked oysters for tea, I met a kindly local couple who wanted to adopt me despite me being a grown man.

Then eventually I came to my last morning there. For some mad reason, we’d been put up in the kind of seedy motel you’d expect drug dealers to hide out in, and there was a knock at my door. It was 5am. It stirred me but I was too hungover/drunk to move, so I lay there as the knocking got louder and louder. I stayed perfectly still. I remembered dancing with a hot girl, I remembered her husband threatening to kill me. I heard feet kicking my door with increased urgency. Fists banging it until eventually whoever it was gave up and went home. Nothing doing today.

I often wonder what would’ve happened if I’d answered. And who’d arrived to kill me anyway? The husband or the tour guide? It’s a mystery for the ages.

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