I went to Alabama and things got very real
Like most people born in the mid-1970s I have a great big messy splodge in my mind where my 20s used to be. This is on account of us somehow being a lucky once-in-a-lifetime generation that was permitted a few years after our free university education to run wild before we thought it time to settled down. It’s not like that anymore, you look at 20-somethings now and they’re driven and anxious, keen to have job promotions and money and good teeth, to marry each other, to have children with the right names and the right clothes. But my lot, we took it easy, we coasted and lounged for a good few years and only when we hit our 30s did words like “responsibility” really enter the lexicon. Anyway I have no idea where I’m going, this whole elongated prefix to the following tale is just my way of saying that I can’t remember anything with accurate chronology or detail between the years of 1996 and 2006 because I was too busy doing nothing and having a great time, so what you’re about to read is only the truth as I know it.
But there I was, tired from lack of sleep and groggy 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 smile 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 Mardi Gras kings and queens. 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 career back in those days, her trust in me didn’t exactly pay off. When I got back to Blighty news had already traveled ahead of me that I’d been scruffy, obnoxious and unprofessional which all seemed about right. I was getting quite accustomed 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 journalistic techniques (honed in the heady world of lads mags), she’d openly cringed at a couple of questions I’d asked of our various hosts during the trip, and had positively blackened in the eyes 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 (early 20s), one guy I remembered from primary school in Merseyside when I was 5 (seriously!), a handful of older folk, and a bloke dressed like a Rockabilly who couldn’t decide whether to speak to people in an American accent or in his normal English one. He never did figure out that particular conundrum. We flew from London to Atlanta on a big plane, then from Atlanta to the middle of nowhere on a little plane, and suddenly we were there, in a smallish City in Alabama. Home to lots of people, including: the mayor’s wife – an educated woman who told me she’d never visit England for fear of being killed by Muslims; and a trombone player who used to play with James Brown – we talked about music, then he introduced me to a local pimp who asked if I might be in the market for some pussy (I declined his kind offer, I was all good for pussy). I met a hot local girl from the tourist office who asked me to slow 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 offer from a hot local girl. So I reluctantly said yes, and soon after I became acquainted with her angry/baffled husband who, rather uncharitably, threatened to kill me – something that’d be hard to compute at the best of times, even harder with a few cocktails sloshing around your brain and a severe case of “slow dance erection” to obscure from view. Yes, this place was home to all of those characters and to lots of others too, all of whom seemed richly intriguing, sometimes a bit backward, and never anything less than warm and welcoming with a chorus of “let the good times roll!” (unless talk turned to doing you in with a gun).
I was there to cover the anniversary of the Mardi Gras parade (the 200th one) and I was expecting a big gay party full of homosexual men and women looking fierce and joyously simulating sex to Kylie hits, but shame on me for stereotyping because this wasn’t like that at all. Rather it consisted of numerous high school marching bands, all either predominantly made up of white kids or mostly made up of black kids, but with one thing in common which was that they were all awesome. They drummed and brapped and played brass instruments, it was a heady concoction, I was pissed and loving it. At one point a sneery middle-aged white woman shouted “here comes the entertainment boys!” as some pretty black baton twirlers came strutting down the road, which wasn’t remotely cool of her and presumably does little for race relations in the city. Amongst the bands and the great music, you’d find floats full of fancy dressed folks from the town blaring SWEET HOME ALABAMA by Lynyrd Skynyrd for the millionth time, and throwing multi-coloured strings of cheap beads into the roadside crowds. Apparently over in New Orleans girls show you their actual tits in return for these shitty beads, but in Mobile it’s all tightened by the bible-belt so I barely saw any boobs during my entire stay which always makes me sad wherever I am.
I did, however, see many other sights: I went along to an evening where debutantes were being introduced to local society in what looked like a big school gym with some guy on a mic going “Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Evelyn!” while poor Evelyn trotted around the hall in a Barbie dress looking proud or embarrassed, depending. I encountered segregation by any other name when each night we’d go first to a celebratory “ball” where the white people were with their Mardis Gras King and Queen, and then ushered gingerly to the “ball” where the black people were with a differently-anointed King and Queen who looked hotter and darker than the last ones. I asked about inter-racial relationships, most people shuffled awkwardly and mumbled about it possibly not being the best idea in the world. 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 to the “Electric Slide” with their families. I got ID’d in Hooters despite my big-beardedness. I met the famous 1980s soul singer Paebo Bryson, I ate astonishingly good food at a country house that looked like something from The Waltons, I had grits for breakfast, I ate baked oysters, I met some lovely local folks who wanted to adopt me despite me being a grown man. For a few days I fell a little bit in love with the Deep South despite all its glaringly obvious flaws.
And then eventually I came to my last morning there. I heard a knock on the door of my motel room – we were staying at the kind of motorway motel with a swimming pool in the car park that you’d expect drug dealers to hide out in. It was 6am. It stirred me but I was too hungover to move, I lay there as it got louder and louder and louder. I didn’t move, I remembered dancing with a hot girl and getting an erection which in terms of nice feelings was inversely proportional to the feeling I got minutes later when her hubby had threatened to murder me. I heard feet kicking my door. Fists banging until eventually they gave up and stopped. I rolled over and went back to sleep and a fair few hours later I made it back to London alive.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d opened the door.