Saturday, July 7, 2018

Birmingham, Alabama: Five Points

We are terrible at relaxing. So terrible at relaxing, Eric had to change out hoses on the Jeep and I had to put a second coat of stain on the front door before we could “earn” our planned-for-over-two-months-ago, out-of-town-for-one-night getaway.  This is NOT normal behavior.

With promises to each other to do better at relaxing and getting away in the future, Slim and I hopped on I-59 and headed south to Birmingham.  Our destination was the art deco Hotel Indigo (formerly the Hotel Highland…more formerly than that, the Pickwick Hotel…and even more formerly, the Medical Arts Building), overlooking The Storyteller Fountain in historic Five Points.  The inspiration for the trip was a gift certificate from the clever and thoughtful Steven and McKenna to Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill.  A gift certificate that was just over a year old, having been intended as a gift for our birthdays LAST YEAR.  Have I mentioned how bad we are at relaxing?  The upside of waiting a year to spend a gift certificate to a restaurant like Highlands is that IT MIGHT WIN ANOTHER James Beard Award during that year.  Which is exactly what happened back in May when Highlands won “the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award as the most outstanding restaurant in America.” 

The downside to a James Beard Foundation Award for the most outstanding restaurant in America (if there is a downside), is that even if you call several weeks in advance to make dinner reservations for a Thursday evening, you may find that there are no reservations to be had.  And in a case like that, thank goodness for the bar, which requires no reservations.

We arrived in the ‘ham in time for a late lunch at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken.  Our server Kordell helped me navigate around the gluten, which resulted in a very tasty basket of grilled chicken tenders with slaw and potato salad.  Eric managed a basket of spicy fried leg quarters with fries.  After watching Anthony Bourdain sweat through a hot chicken basket from Bolton’s on his Nashville Parts Unknown, we had both ordered cautiously in our heat choice, but agreed that we’d go hotter next time. 

Maybe it was because the corporate inspection threw off our check-in at Hotel Indigo and someone took pity on us, or perhaps it was our Gadsden (and Nanda Patel) connection with the young woman handling guest services that afternoon, but we ended up with the most extraordinary corner suite of rooms with a view of Red Mountain’s Vulcan instead of a standard room with a nothing special view. Upon entering # 307 and first seeing a sofa, coffee table and TV, with a kitchen and small dining set just beyond, I thought, “Oh, no!  Where’s the bed?” We realized very quickly and quite to our disbelief that we were standing in a parlor and that down the hall, past the sliding-industrial-doored-bathroom was the bed, a closet with safe, a desk, a chaise lounge and another television.  

Swanky room left behind in favor of a walkabout in the neighborhood, we stumbled upon Charlemagne Records.  The concert-poster-plastered stairwell was just like it was twenty-four years ago when I hesitantly ventured there while killing time before my Physical Anthropology grad class.  Red carpet still stained.  Bins like a feed-n-seed store, full of old and new vinyl as well as CDs.  Two original Howard Finsters swung from the ceiling.  And although I’ve been paring down my CD collection, I purchased Cannonball & ColtraneSon House’s Original Delta Blues, and Atlantic Jazz’s Best of the ‘50s.  Another promise made, this time with just myself, to get my old CD player from mom’s house and take time to listen to CDs again.  Slow life down some and enjoy it.

Highlands Bar & Grill was already hopping by the time we stepped over their threshold at 5:30PM.  Seated at the bar, we enjoyed an adult beverage while we daydreamed of home projects. A Pecan Old-Fashioned for Eric (Knob Creek, pecan orgeat, orange peel, Angostura Bitters), a Bourbon Crusta for me (Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, Cointreau, Luxardo Maraschino, lemon juice). 

As we sat with our drinks and dreams, Eric’s face took on a look of someone who has seen something that they are excited about, but also want to be cool about.  “Are you okay,” I asked.  Eyes growing wider, through clenched teeth, “Yesh.  I think I just saw the guy.” “What guy…Oh, Chef Stitt?” I totally couldn’t turn around to look because it would’ve been completely rude, and would’ve betrayed my fangirl feelings towards chefs, including all of those feelings left raw and exposed from Anthony Bourdain’s death.  So, I kept my back turned and my mouth shut as we ordered another round of drinks, a Buffalo Creek for monsieur (Knob Creek, ginger syrup, lemon juice) and a Paradise Cay for madam (Appleton Signature Blend, Ferrand Dry Curacao, Lustau East India Sherry, orange, lime). 

Still full from our late Hattie B’s Hot Chicken lunch, but not wanting to miss out on the amazing food from Highlands, I ordered a Belle Meadows Little Gem Lettuces salad of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and Green Goddess dressing, while Eric ordered the Prime Beef Tartine on sourdough with Arugula, pickled onions and Roquefort aioli.

After several hours on a bar stool and a final nightcap, we made our way back along the tree-lined streets, past The Storyteller and to the Indigo.  A pack of bicyclists pelotoned past us at one point, a festive, motley group of neighborhood riders, reminding us of the two whose gift certificate prompted the getaway in the first place, and a silent thank you went out to Steven and McKenna.  

We tucked into our decadent digs early, wanting to take advantage of the luxurious suite…and the cable TV in two rooms.  I woke the next morning disappointed that we had not experienced any of the supernatural goings on that other guests have reported at the hotel, but Eric was quick to point out that maybe all of the little odd things we experienced were our version of a supernatural force (room mix up, elevator refusing to come when called, staff accidentally opening our room up for inspection…with us in it).  A final meal at the spectacularly understaffed Waffle House allowed us time to people watch and dig deep into our wells of patience before hopping back on I-59 to head north to Gadsden.

Hattie B's Hot Chicken

Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo

Vulcan from Hotel Indigo

Charlemagne Records

Charlemagne Records

Charlemagne Records

The Storyteller

Friday, January 26, 2018

This time, last year.

Last week, Eric and I were reminiscing about how this time last year we were in Atlanta for the American Library Association's Mid-Winter convention.  And how one night we (and Amanda & Jeremy) had dinner and drinks with Joshilyn Jackson ('cause she and Amanda are BFFs), how one day Eric met and chatted with Senator John Lewis during his book signing, and how on the final day of the convention we were witnesses to the magic show of NEIL PATRICK HARRIS, a magic show during which Mr. Harris stunned us all with one of the biggest slights of hand I've ever seen (or not seen, because hey, slight of hand).

But once we came back from convention, we got down to the business of having our retaining wall and second patio built.  We went from this:

To this, with the work of our friends from Finlayson Landscape Design:

And then, after moving some plants I'd been saving for the spot, plus the dawn of a new season, this:

Yes, that's Booker in the middle of the planting bed.  With his stick.  The three of us have enjoyed sharing that space with our people.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I was completely hooked by the first chapter of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  The chapter was enticingly entitled “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”  It is to this Cemetery of Forgotten Books that protagonist Daniel Sempere’s father has brought him so that he may choose a book of his own to protect for the rest of his life and make sure that it is never forgotten. 

“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you here has been somebody's best friend. Now they only have us, Daniel. Do you think you'll be able to keep such a secret?” (page 6, Penguin Books, softcover edition)

In that sacred place, Daniel chooses a title by an author unknown to him, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. And in that same sacred place begins Daniel’s quest to find more works by Carax, works that are impossible to find because a mysterious stranger has been destroying them as if in an attempt to wipe clean the world of any evidence of the author’s existence...

Eric recommended Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind to me with the promise of passages reminiscent of Garcia Márquez and Faulkner.  Yes.   Shadow is a lush and juicy story within a story; a literary mystery full of suspense, romance, and murder.  It is the type of book to read and re-read, to protect and make sure that it is never forgotten.  When I came to the end of this book, I thought back to a passage from the beginning, “Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.” (page 8, Penguin Books, softcover edition)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The 1965 Simmons Hide-A-Bed

I've been a lover of all things mid-century for many years, probably because I grew up in a home filled with sturdy, modest mid-century furnishings, and was raised by parents with solid mid-century lives.  It all just sort of rubbed off on me.  I also have several friends who have purchased mid-century homes, which I drool over when I visit, dreaming of the decorating, landscaping and entertaining possibilities.  Martinis and jazz, anyone?

So, when I discover mid-century pieces at local thrift stores, I have an instinct to purchase whatever it is for myself, or to photograph and text my friends to come purchase for themselves.  Which brings me to the mid-century Hide-A-Bed that I found at the local Goodwill three years ago.   It was a dusty, tired mess, but solid and heavy as a rock.  A quick search on Google revealed that it was a 1965 Simmons Hide-A-Bed Tuxedo.  Everything was original, right down to the upholstery, the small arm pillows AND mattress (frightening, I know).  And it was $65.  I convinced Eric that it was the perfect piece for The Bungalow office/guest room, that I would pay to have it re-upholstered myself, and that we would all three live happily ever after.  And one day I expect that he will stop taking my phone calls.

Three hours later, after the Simmons Hide-A-Bed gouged our wooden floor, scraped two of our door frames and drawn blood from the movers (my forgiving husband and my truck-owning friend), I made the decision that I would teach myself how to re-upholster the sofa myself because it was NEVER leaving the house again.  And really, how hard would it be to re-upholster a sofa...

With new mattress purchased, I began to research DIY re-upholstery and discovered a blog post by Abby Metz at DIY Design.  Abby’s determination, resourcefulness (reusing tackstrips and such) and attention to detail resonated with me.  The only thing missing from her post was how to recover the cushions, but that was something I was able to figure out on my own by taking apart the cushion covers myself (labeling and numbering and reusing the original zippers).  Abby’s blog post was perfect.  I read and reread it for probably a full year before I finally pulled the trigger on my own project. And it only took me two years to complete!  Seriously, it didn’t take that long...I just worked on it in two phases because, you know, life.  I tackled the cushions last summer, then upholstered the body this past January.  It is Booker’s favorite sofa to sleep on, which freaks me out because it’s like he knows all the work I put into it and he tries to psych me out by kicking off all the pillows and burrowing frantically under the pet cover we keep on it to protect it.  Many a night Eric and I will search for the dog only to discover him hidden under that cover, laughing at us.  

Fresh from the Goodwill!

Taking apart the cushion cover.

Cushions complete.

Pre-upholstered body.

Removing the back panel.

Removing the arm upholstery.

Removing old batting.


Fitting the new arm piece.

Cutting the front kick panel.

Pulling the front back off.

Going off script for the back.

After two days and sixty adjustments.


Where's Booker?

Right here.

Waking up.

Still waking up. Or he's laughing at us.  I don't know which.


Friday, June 9, 2017

The Fawn & the Beer Can

Yesterday morning mom sent me the following text, “There’s a fawn in my front yard.”  We were all thinking of the fact that it was the one-year anniversary of dad’s death.  My response was, “If that’s not a sign, then I don’t know what is.”  Mom replied, “I think it was a sign that he is ok.  My granny always believed in signs.”  And that made me think back to late winter of this year when we were prepping the backyard for the retaining wall and I found an old Miller High Life can full of target practice holes.  I looked down at the can in disbelief and said out loud, “Oh, wow.  That’s totally dad’s brand…and look, it’s a pull-top from the 70s!”  I took it as a sign that dad approved of our building plans. 

So, I’m going to believe that dad sent us signs, both in forms that spoke of his personality and humor, and both in forms that the receivers would understand.  To mom he sent a fawn.  To me he sent an old Miller High Life can.   

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Myth of Ken Roark

“And that’s when I discovered that my father hadn’t been dying after all.  He was just changing, transforming himself into something new and different to carry his life forward in.  
All this time, my father was becoming a fish.
I saw him dart this way and that, a silvery, brilliant, shining life, and disappear into the darkness of the deep water where the big fish go, and I haven’t seen him since-though others have.  Already I’ve heard stories, of lives saved and wishes granted, of children carried for miles on his back, of anglers mischievously dumped from their vessels and emptied into various oceans and streams from Beaufort to Hyannis by the biggest fish they’ve ever seen, and they tell their stories to anybody who will listen.
But no one believes them.  No one believes a word." 
Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

This time last year, dad passed away.  With characteristic hyperbole, I like to say that his soul took its leave through the bedroom window that mom had left open (like any good wife of a dying Irishman).  And with additional hyperbole, on that day, to quote Daniel Wallace, “my father became a myth.”

Writing an obituary for dad was not easy.  It was impossible to sum up in a handful of paragraphs seventy-eight years of a life well-lived.  So, with help from mom, Vicki and even dad (don’t ask), I pieced together a modest, presentable obituary.  But anyone who actually knew Ken Roark probably took one look at that obit in the Gadsden Times and knew there were about 647 additional pages of his story missing.  So, on the first anniversary of his death, for the sake of sharing a bit more about Dad, I’d like to add to his obituary.  Not an additional 646 pages, but probably another four pages.

“Kenneth Victor Roark, passed away at his home on June 8, 2016.  He was seventy-eight years old.  A long-time resident of Rainbow City, Mr. Roark was honored when he was named the first king of the Alabama Chocolate Festival in 2006.  No other king has been named since.”  This is all true.  Ours is the royal house of Roark.  He is the one and only Alabama Chocolate Festival King.  Which makes mom a queen, Vicki and me princesses, and Eric and Tony princes.  With no sons, I believe the crown and scepter will one day go to his grandson Alex. 

“Born in 1938 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Mr. Roark served in the United States Navy on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain from 1955 to 1959.”  Indeed, he was born in Cincinnati, which is where both of his daughters were born.  And yes, he served on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain, which sailed many places, most notably, the Mediterranean Sea.  While in the Navy, dad was in two police actions: one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the other in Beirut, Lebanon.  And while he didn’t often talk about his time in the Navy, certain stories about dad were common knowledge in our household.  I certainly grew up knowing the name Buford Greer, the man who kept a young and underweight Ken Roark from being blown off the deck of the ship during flight take offs and landings.  I also knew about dad’s jail time in Lisbon, Portugal for throwing a man through a plate-glass window while defending a woman’s honor.  And I knewabout that one time his ship caught on fire.  It’s hard to think about dad being that young and tender, experiencing so much before he was even twenty.

“It was after his military service that he began working for Proctor & Gamble in downtown Cincinnati, where he met coworker Joan Smith, who would become his wife in 1962.  In 1971, he moved his wife and young daughters, Vicki and Carol, to Gadsden, Alabama to work as terminal manager/owner operator with D.O.X. Trucking Company.  He served in various management and driving positions related to transportation and distribution, including working for the Goodyear Wingfoot division for ten years.”  Yes, my sister and I have P&G to thank for our is a long-running joke in our family.  And yes, we did move to a rental house on Noccalula Mountain in Gadsden (our backyard was on the banks of Black Creek), and then further out to up-and-coming Rainbow City when he purchased the old Hamilton Place.  And much of the last part of that paragraph was a fancy way of saying that dad was, simply put, a trucker who also acted as a manager and owner/operator at times during his career.

Now, it was during his tenure at Goodyear that the myth of Ken Roark was further developed, like the time he was driving his eighteen wheeler through downtown Demopolis, AL during the Christmas season and, with holiday ornaments and trappings hanging too low from the traffic lights, tore down ornaments, lights and all with his semi, resulting in some jail time (probably more for what he might have said to the officer of the law who reported the accident).  And the time his truck was hijacked…dad, luckily, not being in it.  The short version of that particular story is that dad’s truck was stolen while he slept in a hotel room.  When the truck was found a few days later, it had been stripped of its load and of all dad’s possessions.  When dad testified at the trial and was asked if he could pick out the defendant in the courtroom, dad pointed at the man who stole his truck and said, “That’s him.”  “How do you know this is the man who took your truck?” asked the defense attorney. “Because he’s wearing my boots,” responded dad.  Dad never got those boots back, saying, “He must need ‘em more than I do.”

The stories continued to be told about dad’s adventures when he began long haul, coast-to-coast trucking for Tyson.  He’d haul not just chicken, but Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, steak and other things that sounded like delicacies to me.  One especially blizzardy haul through Colorado found him stranded just outside of Aspen/Snow Mass with a number of other travelers in a rest area on I-70.  The roads were closed and the storm showed no signs of letting up.  Folks were hungry and there were no stores or restaurants near.  So dad broke the seal on his trailer, and pulled boxes of frozen chicken out from the back.  Starting up his truck’s engine, he cooked that chicken on his manifold that night and everyone ate.  As a trucker, breaking the shipping seal on your trailer is illegal, punishable by termination.  Dad didn’t lose his job.

And then there was that one time dad was on the lam, having had a disagreement with the California delivery warehouse that made him sit with his truck and wait until they would accept his delivery of celery…a wait that lasted so long, the celery went bad and they refused to accept his subpar produce.  Dad had some words with them that probably included something about their efficiency and where they could stick it.  When told to relinquish his truck and take the Greyhound home, he responded with, “I came out in this truck, by God, I’m returning in it.”  At the time, he was supposed to meet up with me somewhere in the Four Corners region of the Southwest on his return trip, as I was on a two-week geography/archaeology camping excursion with JSU, but he couldn’t risk the stop.  Instead of telling me that dad was a wanted man, mom just told me he had a change of plans and was coming back to Alabama.  It was days after I returned from my trip that I found out what really happened.  

“He was a generous soul, exhibiting his civic-mindedness by being active in numerous organizations: Rainbow City Lions Club, Cedar Bend Masonic Lodge, local VFW Post 2760, Shriners International, and Scottish Rite.  For many years, he assisted with the Rainbow City Public Library’s Summer Reading Program.  And until illness prevented further service, Mr. Roark volunteered as a van driver and coordinator for the Veterans Administration.”  Yes, dad was a member of all of those civic organizations, and gave back to his community any chance he could.  Whether he delivered dozens of pizzas to children for their summer reading program party, drove eighteen wheelers of supplies to communities in need of disaster relief, or raised money by flipping pancakes and selling brooms and mops, he could be counted on to help.  And to say he was generous doesn’t even come close to describing his soul.  I don’t know how many times he gave away or traded one of our family cars to someone who needed it, or came up with odd jobs around the house (ones that were not necessarily necessary) that “needed” to be done so he could hire friends who may have been cash strapped.  And I still on occasion have people who rode in dad’s van to the VA hospital in Birmingham tell me how he not only drove them to their different appointments, but that he personally pushed their wheel chair through the hospital wings to get them where they needed to go, and often bought them lunch and sat with them when the wait for treatment stretched too long.

This is where I leave his obituary behind completely, because there was no room to talk about the times dad saved people’s lives.  The young woman who attempted suicide, only saved by my dad and a priest who witnessed her jump into icy waters from a bridge and dove in after her.  The child at the YMCA who was choking on a piece of candy, heimliched by dad into coughing the offending treat out of a blocked airway…there were others.  So many others. 

And there was no room in his obituary to tell the end of his story, an end that began the day before Thanksgiving of 2015, when he became terribly ill.  While Eric and I were in Kansas visiting family, my mom tried to nurse him back to health at home, because that’s what they had always done.  When that failed, Vicki took him to the doctor, and then on to Gadsden Regional.  And having an understanding that when dad was hospitalized, it was never for a short period of time, Eric started the thirteen-hour drive home so that we could be there to help circle the wagons.  The next day, dad was transported to UAB for a blocked bile duct and a mass on his pancreas.  There, dad and I were roommates for five days. We talked about life.  We talked about death.  We waited for tests.  We waited for results.  All of the nurses, interns, residents, orderlies and surgeons liked dad.  Of course they did.  He was a funny and caring person who liked to connect with everyone he met, even in the most difficult of circumstances. I’ll never forget the day an orderly came with a gurney the day before surgery to take dad to have an ultrasound on his kidneys.   Once on the gurney, Dad asked the orderly if he wouldn’t mind pulling the sheet up over Dad’s eyes because of the brightness of the light. Dad then joked that maybe he shouldn't pull the sheet up because it would look like the tech was pushing around a dead body. The orderly laughed, pulled the sheet over dad's eyes and told him that it would even more cool if, while wheeling dad down the hallway, all of a sudden dad sat up like he was miraculously alive. They rode off together, conspiring, leaving me to wonder where we would go if dad was kicked out of UAB for bad behavior…

The day after dad’s surgery to repair his blocked bile duct and the revelation that the mass on his pancreas was most likely cancer, we were told he could leave. I was in total “handle it” mode, completing the tasks I needed to do in order to make sure we had everything before we left the hospital:  both sets of our possessions, medications from the pharmacy located in a totally separate building (three buildings away, accessible via hobbit hallways that may or may not have contained giant man-eating spiders), and instructions from the nurse as to how to give said medications (one of which was an injection to be administered twice a day by shooting it into the stomach meat).  It was four o’clock, Birmingham rush-hour time when I buckled dad into the passenger seat, and prayed silently that my Waze would work us around the never ending downtown construction.  Dad, looking remarkably energized despite the day’s exertions and super interested in my iPhone doubling as our GPS, chuckled and said, “We got can do it.”  We exited the parking deck into a pouring rain and followed the back alleys and rail yards upon which Waze sent us to avoid traffic.  We arrived home safe and sound approximately one hour later, just in time for me to beg his forgiveness as I gave him his first injection (unfortunately for him, it was my first injection, give one, at least). Luckily, mom took over from that point forward...and she nursed him at home for the next seven months, with some help from Vicki, Tony, Eric, me and our hospice nurses. 

So, I only want to tell one more story about dad, and it’s not because there aren’t any more to share.  There are quite a few.  It’s just that most of dad’s stories beyond this point are too personal, too private.  We cried with him.  And we laughed with him.  Dad was courageous.  And he was home with mom by his side when he departed.

Even though dad passed on Wednesday, June 8th, our final adventure together took place on Thursday, June 16, 2016.  I received a call from Emily at Morgan Funeral Chapel while I was at work, letting me know that dad was ready to go home. As I was signing paperwork at the funeral home, the gentleman asked if I needed help getting Dad to the car.  My response was, “No, thank you.  I’ve got him.”  I seat-belted his platinum-trimmed, navy urn into the passenger seat and headed home.  But along the way, I stopped for French fries at the Arby’s on 77 because I was hungry.  And because Dad would’ve totally loved the story of me stopping to get French fries with his urn riding shotgun.