Montgomery: Not Good
As a kid, I learned a song. I don’t know the name of the song, but it’s about Rosa Parks. A Google search tells me it’s “The Rosa Parks Song,” though it’s not to be confused with the OutKast banger. It goes:
In Montgomery, Alabama
Not a long time ago
A black woman sat down on a bus…
She was tired, she did day work, she sewed clothes, her feet hurt.
And since that day she changed the world for us.
And so on.
Since those singalong days, I’ve wondered about Montgomery, Alabama. What’s that town like? It didn’t sound, based on the song lyrics, like a good place to live if you were black. But what place is? And, it’s 2017 now. The South is changing. I live there, at least, and I never thought I would. Maybe there’s something worth seeing in modern-day Montgomery. Hell, if Detroit is cool again, why can’t Montgomery be?
The song implies that the world had changed since the days of Rosa Parks. Perhaps by visiting, I’d be able to get a real sense of history as well — to understand a little bit of what made Montgomery such a critical part of the civil rights movement.
Even if it was still backward and regressive, that could be compelling in its own, sick way, like slowing down to see the remnants of a car wreck. Disaster porn, on a societal scale.
My romanticized version of Montgomery, which I visited for exactly 23 hours and 45 minutes recently, never materialized. Imagine visiting a place hoping to see, in essence, systemic racism in action, and still leaving disappointed. My visit was incomplete — many of the city’s museums close early on Saturday and don’t open on Sunday, which is very Christian and very annoying if you are visiting for a weekend. So, I’ll never know what the Rosa Parks Museum is like. Because I’m never going back to Montgomery.
A few paragraphs up I mentioned that I live “in the South” now, in Atlanta. I think most southerners would laugh if they heard me call Atlanta the South. I want to laugh at myself now. Compared to Montgomery, Atlanta is Paris. Atlanta is Rome, two thousand years ago, and Montgomery is, I don’t know, some shitty nation-state that the Romans could have conquered, but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
I do hate to make broad generalizations about a place I don’t know well — I recently wrote a post about how you shouldn’t assume you know a place after just a couple of days, and I couldn’t even make it one full day in Montgomery.
But, from what I saw, Montgomery really sucks.
Let’s start with the food, which is always the Most Important Thing.
The best meal I had was the fried shrimp platter at the Capital Oyster Bar, which sits on a bluff above the Alabama River just outside of downtown. To get there, you drive away from the four tall buildings in the city, which takes 15 seconds, and then you find yourself on what you’d swear was a country road. It’s an odd feeling to arrive in a city, only to seemingly leave it again moments later. The road runs past the occasional truck lot and over some railroad tracks, to remind you that civilization is not far away. Signs appear on posts pointing you to the Bar, encouraging you not to turn around and drive back into Montgomery and then out of Montgomery and out of Alabama.
C.O.B. is described as quaint, which is to say its primary decorations are neon beer logo signs and posters of Hank Williams. A man wearing a camo-and-orange Make America Great Again hat may take your order, and your fellow patrons may be large white families accompanied by one large black woman, who is there to see that grandma doesn’t drop catfish down her shirt. Other patrons might include Man With One Abnormally Ashy Hand and Child Who Spends The Entire Meal Running From The Cornhole Set Outside To His Table For One Bite Of Coleslaw And Back Again. The wooden deck that adjoins the main restaurant is simple and unadorned, and the water below is the color of filtered mud. Boats sit in a small marina nearby, waiting for someone to drunkenly pass out inside of them for the afternoon.
Here, the fried shrimp is good — the shrimp themselves are plump and fresh, the fried part is, you know, fried. The fries are pretty good too, well seasoned. Over a Miller High Life, I decided then that Montgomery was off to a decent if unassuming start from a culinary perspective.
Unfortunately, this would prove to be the highlight of my entire trip. I also visited a place described to me as a “gastropub” called Vintage Year with “the best brunch in Montgomery!” It served me, by far, the worst eggs benedict in the history of restaurant food. The ham was one of those block erasers from elementary school. The eggs, barely cooked past raw, ran like they too wanted to get in my car and escape. I ordered coffee and was told the restaurant was “changing systems,” so the coffee would be “just okay.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I said fine, and it turns out the system they’re currently using brews with cemetery dirt. When I asked for hot sauce, the waiter brought Cholula to the table and presented it with a flourish, as if I had ordered champagne, his hands turning up and over as the bottle somersaulted onto the table. Oh, wow, what year was this bottled? I’m kidding, just give me the fucking sauce, dude.
Vintage Year is on a street at the edge of Old Cloverdale, an historic neighborhood in Montgomery that can rightfully boast to be the only decent place in the entire city. Its design was “inspired” by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind Central and Prospect Parks, and it shows — the wide cobblestone streets twist and turn before spilling out into a long stretch of city park, filled with gnarled oak trees facing the old and beautiful Methodist church.
But many of the buildings on Vintage Year’s block, on a Sunday morning, were shuttered, perhaps indefinitely. The other store facades were varying shades of faded green and depressing gray. A closed (abandoned?) gas station across the street set the mood as I chewed my coffee grounds. It felt like the zombie apocalypse had come and gone, and now we were just waiting for the end under a muggy gray sky.
A few blocks away, in another part of Old Cloverdale, is a coffee shop I won’t even name because it is so boring and forgettable. I did not like this place for a few reasons. One, it had the atmosphere of a cave, dark and vague. Two, it didn’t have WiFi, which in 2017 is like a first-world country not having comprehensive healthcare for all its citizens — what are you even doing?
And third (though this was no fault of the shop), halfway through a cup of coffee, a rotund man wearing a black tee shirt and jeans walked in and began slamming his hands together above his head.
“COFFEE,” he shouted, and the barista complied. I gathered that these two knew each other, because no sane person would talk to a stranger this way. The barista called this barbarian Pete* while pouring his coffee and he responded by walking over to the counter and banging his hands on the counter while continuing to yell for coffee.
(*Name changed in case this dude one day reads this and wants to come shoot me with a gun he could purchase very easily in Alabama.)
I was confused, at first, then mildly amused. But in thinking that this man would be engaging, friendly, fun — what is the south if not full of genial people, looking to pass the time with idle chat? — I made a mistake.
Where are you drinking tonight, Frank, oh fuck, I mean Pete*?
He pointed across the street, at a bar called Leroy.
Nice, I’ve heard that’s a good spot.
It’s the spot, he confirmed, and then without another word went outside to smoke a cigarette and then leave.
But Leroy ended up being the first stop of the night, only because Google offered few other “good” options for bars in the city. Leroy has a speakeasy vibe, with its menu of drinks on a movie theater marquee above the bar. It’s dark. It’s fine. It’s a place to drink.
I spoke to a few people there. They ran the gamut from friendly to drunk ass. This is not unique to Montgomery, so I don’t want to besmirch all of the city’s residents by harping on how annoying the drunk people were, slapping my chest a bit too hard in greeting and looking at me, yet past me, with eyes that had long ago died.
There are more bars downtown. You can walk through a tunnel called The Alley, guarded by a Jimmy John’s, to reach a few of them. They are either full of frat guys, sorority girls, or older, somewhat creepy men in the military who are stationed nearby, holding two beers and speaking with the measured cadence of someone who is trying not to sound drunk.
I felt I had seen everything I needed to of Montgomery’s nightlife after two hours. Out of the house by 9, home by 11:30.
So how about day time in Montgomery? After C.O.B., we visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Outside the building is a black granite wheel laid out like a round table, in front of a matching wall. Water flows from the top of the table and lays on its face like glass. The wall is engraved with a quote from Dr. King that reads “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It’s quite moving.
Inside, a self-guided tour is two dollars. This tour lasts about five minutes. It could be 10, if you read the placards slowly. I went back through twice just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
After that? Uh. Take a walk? The streets near downtown are wide and the buildings alternate from blinding white (government offices) to brick red (churches). The State Capitol of Alabama sits at the head of Dexter Street. I liked to imagine Jeff Sessions standing in front of that building, taking in a hot Alabama day before going inside to curtail people’s civil rights.
During my visit, down the slight hill from the Capitol, a sort of festival appeared to be going on. The street was blocked off and there were people milling around. Activity! We ambled towards it. A couple of ambulances sat with their lights on by the barricade. At first I thought this was part of the festival — I remembered getting to tour a first aid vehicle at a Brooklyn street fair once. But then I saw a gurney being loaded into the back of one.
The festival celebrated the 100 year anniversary of Chris’ Hot Dogs. I approached two people on a bench nearby. One was a black woman, the other a white man. This felt Very Important and Notable to me. I had heard from several people in the run-up to my trip about how Montgomery was still quite segregated. This was evidence, however small, to the contrary. I approached them.
I wanted to ask: How do you feel about each other? Is Montgomery a good place to live? Are you happy here? Are y’all friends, or are you just sharing a bench? How does Montgomery’s civil rights legacy affect you today?
Instead I said, “So, what’s up with this hot dog place?”
The woman swooned. “They’re really good!” she said, and the man nodded.
“Those hot dogs are terrible,” my Uber driver, a man originally from New Jersey, told me later that night as I escaped from The Alley. “Don’t ever go there.”
Back to the festival. I asked why the ambulance had been there.
“I think someone ate too many hot dogs,” the man said out of the corner of his mouth, feigning a whisper. We all laughed. Ha ha. I don’t know if the potential hot dog gorger died.
Having just eaten shrimp, I declined a chance to wait on the line that snaked down the block for an historic hot dog, but looked around at what remained of the celebration. The street itself was mostly empty at this point; people mainly sat in the shade near the beer tent, sluggish with pork.
Nearby, a group of musicians wandered back onto the makeshift stage set up for the occasion. “We’re going to play a few more for you here,” a man said, and soon after his bandmate broke into a warbling, ear-splitting rendition of a song I’d never heard before and hope to never hear again. We left a few notes in.
By this time, we realized that we had essentially exhausted Montgomery’s offerings. Most of the museums were about to close and wouldn’t re-open until Monday. Not even the First White House of the Confederacy was open to visitors. We’d asked someone if there were botanical gardens in Montgomery, and they replied, “Yes, there is a planetarium here!” and showed us the not-gardens on a map — which were closed on Sunday.
So we did what I think most people in Alabama must do to pass the time: Went to a lonely liquor store by an overpass, bought a bottle of whiskey, and drank it at the house.
Is there a part of Montgomery I missed? Probably. I expect that’s the case with any place you visit. Maybe I should have hit Mrs B’s for some soul food, or spent time along the waterfront downtown.
But there is something about a city’s energy. All great cities have it — a benign lightning, crackling with excitement, propelling you forward, making you eager to see what’s around the next corner. Good cities are populated by diverse, interesting people, standing or sitting or walking among unique, beautiful, thought-provoking monuments, sites, parks, buildings, even street corners.
Montgomery doesn’t have any of that. It’s a strip mall stretched out over the Gulf Coastal plain, like a tiny rubber glove on a moist hand. It’s sad. I feel badly for the people there. Drive around it rather than through. If you must drive through, hit the C.O.B. for some shrimp and then keep on truckin’.