Sometimes I think that I should just write, and if I can’t think of how the current story should end, I should just start writing the story of my life, not for anyone to read, but just to stay in the practice of writing.
I always say I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. That’s only partially true. I lived there until I was ten, and I went to college there for two years. Conveniently, my parents live there now, but they didn’t live there at the time when I was last living there. Going home, for me, is not really going home. My parents live in a house where I never lived. When I go see them, it’s kind of like staying in a hotel.
Sometimes when I visit Birmingham, I go back to the old neighborhood where we lived when I was really young — the place with which I associate most of my childhood memories. I drive around. Once I stopped in an antique shop there, and I told the woman working there that I had lived in the neighborhood twenty years before. She asked who I was, and when I told her, she recognized my name. She was the mother of one of my classmates in elementary school – a lanky, soft-spoken kid named Jaime. I didn’t know him well, but he had been on the basketball team with me.
I told Jaime’s mother that I was writing a book. I asked her what happened to the woods. I had discovered earlier that afternoon that the woods I used to play in had all been torn down and replaced by really ugly, generic houses. Jaime’s mother said that developers did all that so quickly that nobody even had time to protest it. She was as disappointed as I was. Those woods were sacred to me.
I wasn’t allowed to play in the woods, but I did anyway, almost every day. I think my mother was afraid that vagrant child molesters hung out in the woods. I never saw any. However, when I was ten and we moved to Dothan, there were also woods nearby, and I saw a lot of creepy old men in those woods. They creepy old men never bothered me. Sometimes I would talk to them, but they never tried to touch me. I never felt in danger.
In the woods in the Birmingham neighborhood, there was a trail that you could take that would take you directly to the little strip mall where there was a video arcade and a drug store, the two important areas of commerce for a fourth grader. The appeal of the arcade was obvious. The drug store was mainly for buying candy. It was a Big B, a chain that has since been bought out by a larger chain of drug stores. I got an allowance of five dollars a week, and candy and video games were the only things I spent money on. I hadn’t yet started buying records.
I recall buying Willy Wonka Bottle Caps and separating them out by color, storing them in a drawer in my room. I would eat them slowly over the course of many days, consuming my favorite flavors first: root beer then cola, then grape and so on. It was an odd ritual I had surrounding this candy. Looking back, I don’t quite understand it.
I remember that I liked to look at a map of the city, which seemed so enormous then. Our suburb of Bluff Park hadn’t yet been annexed into the city of Hoover, a suburb itself. Hoover alone seemed enormous to me then. There were two other suburbs between Hoover and Birmingham proper – Vestavia and Homewood. We went to church in Vestavia, but we rarely went further into town than that.
Earlier in my childhood, too early for me to remember with any clarity, we had lived in Homewood. Later, as an adult, I explored all these neighborhoods where I had lived as a kid, trying, without much luck, to invoke formative memories, something that would be novel-worthy.
I was mostly clueless, at this point, about the dark history of civil rights conflicts in Birmingham, which came to a head less than a decade before I was born. I knew only the long and hilly streets of my own neighborhood. Birmingham is full of hills, winding roads, expansive suburban enclaves that careen up the sides of mountains and then suddenly drop off again.
It is a very conservative town, but because of that, there is a guilty pleasure in anything wild, smoking pot, or staying out all night drinking at some dive that only the most hardcore all-nighters know. Regular bars close at two, but there are a couple of “private clubs” that stay open all night and have live jazz until four or five in the morning. It always feels like playing in the woods. There’s a sense of playing part in an obscure Grimm fairy tale.