Sure, Go For It: Whynot, Mississippi: Why would you name your town Whynot? The answer's kind of self-evident, but here's the explanation I got: "They were gonna get incorporated, so they were sitting around trying to figure out what to name it and, and they were arguing and arguing, and someone said, ‘whynot Whynot?'"
Getting there: The bridge in Selma (Photo: Tim Murphy).Burnt Corn, Alabama—The irony of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is that it's the rare bridge, literal or metaphorical, that doesn't deliver you to a more desirable place than the one you've left behind. The Brooklyn Bridge takes you to Brooklyn (or Manhattan, if that's how you feel about things). The Golden Gate Bridge takes you to San Francisco. The Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 Blood Sunday attack on Civil Rights marchers, takes you…nowhere.
What you find when you walk across is instead, and somewhat improbably, more depressing than the decaying downtown Selma you've left behind: There's the National Voting Rights Museum, which you'll probably never find, because while it relocated recently, no one's gotten around to replacing the road signs pointing you to the old site; there's a monument of rocks with a verse from Joshua: "When your children shall ask you in time to come saying 'What mean these stones,' then you shall tell them how you made it over"; and there's the Civil Rights Memorial Park, overgrown and out of sorts, strewn with litter, broken glass, weeds, and a defined by general lack of maintenance or interest—or basically what you'd expect from a memorial built underneath a highway overpass.*
Unfinished business: Selma's Civil Right Memorial Park, overgrown and out of sight.The passage from scripture, next to plaques honoring Hosea Williams and John Lewis, is kind of beautiful, but other than that, the greatest metaphor in recent American history is immediately followed by shuttered retail and then miles of farmland. On a Sunday afternoon, we see only two other group walking the bridge. But maybe that's kind of the point: Crossing a bridge out of Selma really shouldn't mean that much—it shouldn't require three separate attempts, a National Guard escort, and heavy doses of prayer; just stick to the right, hold onto the railing, and you'll be just fine.
States Rights: America at its best and worst: Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama (Photo: Tim Murphy)Birmingham, Alabama—Forget teachable moments; if you want a break from the national conversation on reverse racism, head to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. Just across the street from the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's 16th Street Baptist Church (bombed by the Klan in 1963), the park was the launching point for the student marches in 1963, which broke the back of the city’s segregation regime—but not before Birmingham police broke out the fire hoses, handcuffs, and un-muzzled German Sheppards.
On a programming note, I'm finishing up a longer post on my Civil Rights swing through the South and America's greatest living metaphor, but while the world waits, take a minute to a.) watch this somewhat related clip from MLK’s "How Long, Not Long!" speech, on the steps of the old Confederate capitol in Montgomery, because it's worth watching every three or four months, and 2.) try to come to grips with the fact that the drummer from the Spin Doctors once released a song (with corresponding music video!) about the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Go Spin Doctors!
Freedom to Forage: Can we still buy a 10-zillion calorie chili hot dog at a ballpark in Obama's America? Yes we can (Photo: Tim Murphy).Marion, Alabama—Over the course of this trip, we've occasionally heard conservative talk show hosts lament the demise of what I guess you could call the Freedom to Forage: Apparently, the Obamas (they're working together on this one) have unleashed something called the "Food Nazis," who are heck-bent on confiscating all of your greasy, lardy, breaded, delicious grub. It's unclear what their goal is, exactly, but nothing is safe from the Fried Reich—not family restaurants, not school cafeterias, not even ballparks.
But also, well, baloney. The other day, Alex says he ordered a bacon cheeseburger that came with mashed potatoes and onion rings on top of the burger. That was an exceptional case, but only just so. In Atlanta, we stopped at The Varsity, a local fast-food joint that's become a go-to spot for politicians and celebrities; there were no fewer than a hundred other people in line when we got there, many of whom ordered The Varsity's signature dish: hot dogs slathered in chili and cole slaw, with a side of onion rings (at least Cole slaw and onion rings, can, if they go back far enough, trace their heritage back to vegetables). If this is the best the Food Nazis can do, Obama's not nearly as dangerous as conservatives make him out to be.
Besides, even if we assume Obama wants to ban fried oreos or something, there are obvious political obstacles: If Obama shuts down all of the diners, where will he (and GOP nominee Haley Barbour) go for photo-ops come 2012? What will they eat at the county fair—arugula? Logistically, it's just an impossible proposition. So long as the political culture is so deeply connected to fast food culture (to say nothing of the legitimately terrifying food lobby), I think our chili hot dogs, half smokes, buttermilk biscuits, chicken and waffles, cheesesteaks, deep dish, pulled pork, and cisterns of sausage gravy aren't going anywhere. But we'll keep you posted.
Update: Right after I posted this, we drove to Montgomery to watch the Tampa Bay Rays' AA affiliate, the Biscuits. True to form, their mascot is fluffy buttermilk biscuit named Monte (that's him on the right; note that his tongue is actually a giant lump of butter). If Monte doesn't do it for you, check out his sidekick, Big Mo, an anthropomorphized strip of fried chicken. With any luck, Montgomery will have a whole generation of children who grew up idolizing a 1,500-calorie snack. Anyways, let that be further proof, if you needed it, that the South's heart-stopping culinary culture is still going strong.