You’re In High School Again

I wasn’t going to write about this, but this morning Nirvana’s song “School” has been stuck in my head. Cobain was a genius at taking a simple idea and turning it into a haunting mantra that invades your psyche — the bridge where Kurt mutters over and over “You’re in high school again,” leading to the screaming chorus of “No recess!” I have nightmares that are like this song.

Which brings me back to the reunion last weekend. It’s pretty pedestrian to say, but it really is remarkable how much being in that room made me actually feel as if I was in high school again. And high school was not a fun time for me. Everybody I talked to was nice to me and all, but I just didn’t feel comfortable, in much the same way that I never really felt comfortable 20 years ago. It was a strange and sort of sickening sensation that I still haven’t quite finished processing.

Being back in Alabama has its ups and downs that way, but even the downsides are things that I think are important for me to get through and think about. They are a part of this homecoming experience that is just as important as reconnecting with my family and friends here and being able to eat breakfast for less than $8.


Reunion Day 1

When I was in Dothan briefly in December, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore around my old haunts downtown. Twenty years ago, Mrs. Boomer’s and Poplar Head Pub were the only two hangout spots in all of downtown Dothan. Back then, downtown was mostly empty abandoned buildings and a handful of old wig shops and ghetto clothing stores that would soon be abandoned as well. I always lamented the slow asphyxiation of downtown, and just as I was moving away for college, I considered the demolition of the building that housed the Book & Art shop, where I had worked that summer, the final death knell.

Now there’s a parking lot there. and dutifully, that’s where I left my car. I was glad to see that at least a couple of blocks of Foster Street have been drastically revitalized with a good selection of restaurants, bars, and shops. In December, I had also visited R.J. Saxon’s, the restaurant/bar that replaced the old Mrs. Boomer’s. Since I knew they had decent food, I met a couple of friends there for dinner. In addition, and not entirely surprisingly my old friend Tena was there with her husband and some other folks. We left just as the one-man acoustic cover band was getting started and walked three blocks (incidentally, the waitress at R.J.Saxon’s discouraged us from walking this distance, which all in our party found quite funny) down to Open Mic’s, a bar run by another high school friend Jay Heisler.

This is a really great concept bar. There is a stage with full band equipment always set up, and anybody can essentially get up and perform at any time. Someone takes the stage, and the bartender turns off the house music. And if the performance isn’t working, the person will be asked to leave the stage before too long and give someone else a chance. I played one song and promised to come back later to play a few more after the main event.

Finally, I headed over to District, conveniently located halfway between R.J Saxon’s and Open Mic’s. A cover band played in one room while 80s techno blasted in the next room. I shook hands with some people I didn’t recognize and with others who didn’t recognize me. It was especially good to see Wes Enfinger and Tim Metcalf (who wasn’t in my class, but showed up just to hang out with me–thanks Tim!). Of course, it was interesting to see who had changed a lot and who hadn’t, all that typical high school reunion stuff.


When I was a teenager, most of my friends were between two and ten years older than myself. This was largely due to two things: that I played music in bars since age fifteen and that in a small town you cling to people with common interests despite age differences.

I met Walt Sheffield when he was working at Liverpool Records, where you could find cool imports and other good music that would never have found its way to Dothan, Alabama otherwise. I was 15 and Walt was 25. I was friends with some people he was friends with, etc. Over the next 3-4 years, long after Walt left the record store, we ran into each other a lot around town and got to know each other fairly well.

I had a habit in those days of going out for walks at the crack of dawn, sometimes clear to the other side of town and back. I don’t really know why I did it. It was meditative. It helped me sort through the myriad crazy things rattling around in my teenage brain. I sometimes came across Walt at these times, in the process of a similar exercise. I came to learn that he walked the same route every morning, and that he kept a list of things he observed along the route and how they changed over time. This was part of his writing process.

Walt was working on a novel, and all I knew of it at the time was that it involved a teenage boy and there was something about the impact that rock and roll had on this boy’s life. I always suspected that Walt was mostly interested in me as a kind of research project for this character. After all, I was a teenager in a rock band. His novel was never published. As far as I know nothing he wrote was ever published.

I knew then that I also wanted to be a writer. In fact, everything I knew about Walt was something I also aspired to be. He played in bands when he was in college at the University of Georgia, and he had met members of REM. He had studied philosophy, which was also an interest of mine. Even Walt’s folksy mannerisms became elements of the kind of persona that I was then developing for myself. In short, he was my role model. Never mind that he always had rather menial jobs like waiting tables or managing the produce section of a ghetto grocery store. He was smart, and he was funny, and he lived for the sake of art. And that was what I wanted to do too.

By the time I was 17, Walt was living with a couple of guys that I also knew. One was Tommy Sorrells, who a few years before had been one of my first guitar teachers. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go hang out at their place, where we would play guitars and talk about music and writing and philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Walt was the first person to introduce me to bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who became so important to me in my own musical journey. I remember specific things he told me about writers like Walt Whitman and William S. Burroughs. I remember talking about existentialism and the beats and the early days of punk and feeling like I had been there because Walt just knew so much about everything that interested me.

After a few years, I lost contact with all those guys. But I recently was reunited with Tommy through Facebook, and I found that he ran an open mic in Tuscaloosa on Monday nights. So while I was nearby for the holidays, I made plans to drop in. We had a great time together playing music until nearly sun up just like we used to do almost 20 years ago when I last saw him. I asked him if he knew what Walt was doing these days, and he told me that Walt died in 2003 of throat cancer.

I remember walking through the mall record store with Walt once. He pointed to a poster of Michael Bolton and said, “You know–if I hadn’t met certain people in my life, and maybe if I’d never been to New York City, my hair would probably look like that now.” And I think if I had never met Walt Sheffield, my life wouldn’t look much the way it looks like now either.

Road Trip Days 14-15

On Dec. 14, amid tornado watches and flash floods, I rolled into Dothan, Alabama, where I lived from age 10 until I graduated from high school. This picture pretty much tells you all you need to know.

I found old pal Steve G, and we went downtown to find some dinner, stumbling upon a fairly new establishment called R.J. Saxons. There I ran into another old friend Tim Metcalf. We sat at the bar catching up for a couple of hours, and then I headed over to Steve’s to crash.

The next morning was possibly the pinnacle of my literary career. I was interviewed by Ann Varnum on WTVY. The episode will air on Sunday Dec. 27 at 9am. I will be back in Birmingham by then, so I hope all my friends in Dothan will tape this momentous television event and get me a copy of it somehow.

In the afternoon, I had my book signing at Dakota Coffee Works.

Turnout was not as high as I’d hoped, but I did make a couple of unexpected sales. In addition, folks that I didn’t even know that well drove from as far away from Mobile and Santa Rosa Beach, and we all had a fine time hanging out and telling stories around my large unsold pile of books.

After the reading, Tim drove me out to visit a couple of other old friends, Elizabeth and Steve. They live in a cabin out in the woods outside Enterprise, AL. There, more hilarious storytelling ensued and all manner of delicious locally grown foods and home-brewed beverages were consumed by all.

Dothan Pics

A friend from HS was going to Dothan for Xmas and asked if I wanted pictures of anything. Here is the house where I lived when I was in junior high and high school. My parents haven’t lived there since the mid-1990s. Since then, someone has covered it in a hideous aluminum siding.

My old house
My old house

Here is the world’s smallest city block.

World's smallest city block
World's smallest city block
The plaque
The plaque

Tractor Tie

In response to my plea for people to buy my book, Angie Lane has apparently read the short stories on my website. She reminded me that she was there when the incident on which “Pineapple Tie” was based occurred. It was the summer after we all graduated. I’d had a job interview earlier that day at the Book and Art shop, where I was to work the rest of that summer. Several of us went to Boomer’s, as we often did in those days. On the street outside, a couple of drunk rednecks tried to pick a fight with me because I was wearing a tie. According to Angie, it wasn’t the pineapple tie, which I think I bought later, but a tie with stitched tractors, which she claims she bought for me. I don’t have any memory of that particular tie.