Politics, Alabama Style

Contrary to popular wisdom, moving from New York City to Alabama produced little in the way of culture shock for Lifelongnewyorker, Mr.NYer or either of their two New York-bred cats.

The political shock, on the other hand, was both immediate and, it turns out, long-lasting.

When you’ve lived in one place for a long time, you absorb a lot of political knowledge that translates into a kind of shorthand, e.g. if someone were to say, “He’s a Guiliani-era throwback,” I’d know exactly what it means. So, even if a new name entered a race in New York, you could get a bead on a candidate pretty quickly just by toting up her political allies.  With my prior knowledge of Alabama politics extending only to George Wallace, I felt like I landed in a corn maze.

And I can’t say that I’ve found my way out, either.

Back in New York, Republicans were nearly an endangered species, except for the protected habitat of Staten Island, which sheltered a robust colony.  In Alabama, the Democrats are almost extinct.  Republicans have taken over the statehouse and the governor’s mansion.  They hold our two U.S. Senate seats and six of the seven seats in the House of Representatives.

But I would hesitate to call any of them representative.  Not of me and not of most people I know here.

Here’s what political life in Alabama means:

  • We have a 10 percent sales tax, including on food.  But real property taxes and state income taxes are quite low.
  • This year we had a budget crisis, during which the legislature was faced with a choice between raising taxes or drastically cutting state services.  At the 11th hour, they saved the day by transferring millions of dollars from the educational trust to the general fund, raising cigarette taxes by a quarter, and imposing a 5.5 percent cut on most state agencies.  Since then, the governor has closed DMV offices — which are one of the main places people go to get the government-issued ID they need to vote — across the Black Belt, the poorest counties in the state where, by the way, a lot of African Americans live.
  • During the last hours of the budget crisis, as the clock was ticking, one state senator, Trip Pittman, “attempted to introduce a resolution calling on colleges to stop scheduling football games before noon,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
  • Many municipalities in the state have decided one of the best ways to get revenue is to charge outrageous fines for minor violations and then jail people who can’t pay them and charge them court fees on top of that.  They’ve turned to outside collections agencies — called “private probation companies” — to manage the job.  In New York, we used to called this kind of thing — extorting money from people under threat — something different.
  • By the way, the extortion doesn’t always work, and people actually get sent to jail because they can’t pay fines.  Yes, they go to debtor’s prison.
  • If the court can’t get your money, it turns out it will take your blood.
  • And the hijinks don’t end with exploiting poor people.  One of Alabama’s members of Congress, Mo Brooks, has said that Hillary Clinton, should she be elected, could be impeached as early as Inauguration Day because she used a personal email server.
  • Donald Trump held his first mass rally at a football stadium in Alabama in August.
  • It’s not just driver’s licenses that are hard to get; you can’t get a marriage license in eight counties because the probate judges have decided that’s the price everyone has to pay so they can continue to deny the right to marry to lesbian or gay couples.
  • This is the state that re-elected Roy Moore to be the state’s chief judge.
  • This is also the state that out-did Arizona with its mean-spirited anti-immigrant law, the main impact of which was to deprive farmers of workers who could harvest their crops and cost the state a fortune to defend a raft of lawsuits.  Which Alabama lost.
  • In Gallup’s list of the top ten most conservative states, Alabama is #2.  Thank God for Mississippi.

90 Miles on Highway 65

Interstates may all look alike, but there are subtle differences to let you know you’re not in New York anymore.

Today I drove along I-65 from Montgomery, the sleepy Southern capital where I live, to bustling Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.  To give you a sense of the difference:  Birmingham has sidewalks.

I had been asked to deliver the keynote address during lunch at an academic conference.  Birmingham’s only 90 miles away, and the audience was mainly professors of education, so I said yes.

For my Northeastern friends and families, brace yourself.  Some aspects of Interstates in the South will make you weep.  No tolls.  And, because we don’t have a freeze-and-thaw cycle, no potholes.  Speed limit is 70, which means you can cruise along between 78 and 80 miles per hour and get where you’re going quickly.

But don’t get too tempted.  A fleet of black high performance Camaros roams the highway.  They’re unmarked police cars, and they stop people all the time. When they do, Alabama’s “move over” law kicks in.  It says that when a police car, emergency vehicle or “wrecker” is parked with lights flashing, drivers are required to “vacate the lane closest to the emergency vehicle.”  It’s fascinating to watch: a cop will have pulled a car onto the broad shoulder, and all the traffic swings into the left lane.  Maddeningly, most Alabama drivers move over whenever anyone is parked on the shoulder.

Like other highways, local stretches have been given additional names.  The 90-mile stretch between Montgomery and Birmingham has at least four: Heroes Highway, Purple Heart Trail, War on Terror Highway, and Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway.

The stretch also includego to churchs somconfederate flage distinctive roadside features, including the very large sign, “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You.” It will take another blog to talk about religion in Alabama. A few miles past that is a huge Confederate battle flag placed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I don’t imagine any actual sons are still alive, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

As one approaches Birmingham, the road widens to three lanes each way, and other Interstates appear.  If you take a short detour on one — I didn’t this time — you get another roadside treat: a replica (one-fifth size) of the Statue of Liberty.  I gather it was once at a corporate headquarters that has since been torn down and was moved to another headquarters in a corporate park.  It was made by the same company that cast the original.  And, in some eyes at least, it’s better because the flame really lights at night.

Yliberty replicaou can visit it, too.  It’s called The Statue of Liberty Replica at Liberty Park.  It’s #27 on Trip Advisor’s list of 63 Things to Do in Birmingham.   As you regular Staten Island ferry-riding folks can see, the proportions are not quite right.  But, as one approving reviewer wrote, “Staying in the area to get away from Atlanta. Wrapped up the day visiting this great place. Nothing fancy but a great picture stop and great way to celebrate being American.”  I’ll let you be the judge of that.

On the way back, one might be tempted — in season, at least — to stop in Chilton County, known for its peaches.  They are good, and come in different varieties.  Some have yellow flesh, some have white. Some are free stones, others aren’t.  Some are good for eating, some for baking, and some for ice crpeacheam.  Chilton County farmers aren’t about to let traffic just fly by on I-65 either.  Photos of peaches, peach ice cream and not one but three Miss Peaches — or maybe Misses Peach? — are plastered on billboards.  And, just in case you avoid those, you can’t miss the peach water tower in Clanton.

And really, who would want to?

You’ve Got WHAT in Your Garden? and picture #5

It’s time to talk about garden pests.

In moving from New York (hardiness zone 6) to Alabama (zone 8), Lifelongnewyorker expected some differences when it came to gardening.  Longer growing seasons (mmm … tomatoes in June!), more insects, different plants.

What she didn’t think about was the difference in four-legged pests.  On Staten Island, planting bulbs was like putting out a “dig here” sign in neon for squirrels. And while one could surprise an unwary possum or raccoon from time to time on the deck or front porch, at least they didn’t dig in the garden.

Armadillo 1

Note: We encountered the armadillos seen on this page in Louisiana, NOT in Alabama.

What could we have in Alabama that we hadn’t encountered in New York?  Wild boars?  No. The problem in the South is decidedly more hard-shelled.

I first learned about it during cocktails at a colleague’s house.  The conversation had meandered from hummingbirds to various shrubs when my host leaned over and asked, “Are you having problems with armadillos?”

Not if I don’t see them, I’m not.

Turns out the plated mammals (yes, mammals) entered Alabama in the 1940s. Experts offer the usual explanation — accidental releases from nearby Florida, hitching on trucks and trains from Texas.

As it happens, we’ve never seen an armadillo here in Montgomery,  probably because we have a six-foot brick wall — with proper footing — around the garden.  ‘Dillos live in burrows and dig for grubs and insects.  Besides general garden damage, they fancy excavating under patios, driveways and even foundation slabs.  Since few houses here have basements, it can be alarming.005

But mention armadillos in company, and the stories start. “Oh, yeah … they’re digging up our yard something fierce,” one person will say.  Another chimes in, “They can take out your foundation.”

Other than building a solid wall that extends at least one foot underground, there’s little else to do but toy with their sense of smell.  According to various websites, the lion’s share of an armadillo’s brain is devoted to its olfactory powers.  Liberal applications of vinegar, ammonia or pine sol may deter the critters.

We encountered these armadillos at dusk in a bayou in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana about five years ago.  We’re keeping an eye out here.

Lifelongnewyorker Catches Up

Consider this a round-up of odds and ends from the uncharacteristically silent (of late) Lifelongnewyorker.

Weather.  Is delightful, thank you.  Today, October 24, it’s 81 degrees and dry.  I’m still hanging around in shorts and t-shirts, the windows are open and a delightful breeze stirs the white linen curtains.  I will enjoy what my mother called “good sleeping weather” later at the nighttime temps drop into the 50s.  Despite the evening chill, though, we’ve decided it’s still too soon to switch to our winter bedding.  Turns out we’re in a drought, which partially explains the unending series of bright summer days.  But the reality is hard to hate: since March, it’s been warm and pleasant.  Gorgeous spring, hot summer, and lovely fall.  Expecting a few days of winter at some point.

Diet.  We’ve already discussed the fact that fears of food deprivation in the South were wildly overstated.   The fine array of foods, coupled with car reliance, led Lifelongnewyorker to gain a few (more than five) pounds since arriving in Montgomery.  With the arrival of September, Lifelongnewyorker is proud to say, she started a diet and has now lost all of the weight that was added.  Mr. NYer has been most helpful, preparing diet-friendly lunches and dinners, and sacrificing his own nightly glasses of wine in solidarity, even though he doesn’t have to.  (Actually, the diet has been even more effective for him, which was not exactly a desired outcome).  The diet led to something that I haven’t experienced since 6th grade:

Going home for lunch.  One day last week, I realized I’d left my lunch in the refrigerator at home, so I got into my car, drove home, ate lunch at my kitchen table, visited for a while with the cats, read the mail, got back into the car, and arrived back at the office 45 minutes after I’d left.  Try that in NYC.

Cat intelligence.  Harpo, our older and friendly cat, had long been in the habit of taking “constitutionals” in our Staten Island backyard.  Mr. NYer would let him out and instruct him to stay in the yard.  After a certain period of time — usually 20 minutes or so — Harpo would wander away.  Mr. NYer would fetch him and bring him inside.  More than once, though, the cat slithered under the deck or wandered farther afield and couldn’t be found, and then I’d be enlisted in the effort to get him.  Simon, the younger cat, is skittish and fast.  We have never let him out.  When we moved into the Alabama house, Harpo had spent about a month in a second-floor apartment where going out was not a possibility.  Warned about the ferocity of the local flea population, we decided that Harpo was now going to be an exclusively indoor cat.  

Now, what you need to know is that the Island excursions turned him into a howling pest.  He would stand at the sliding screen door and cry to go out.  Frequently the cry worked, and Mr. NYer would let him go.  Here in Alabama, Harpo’s voice has been raised only in anticipation of food, or when he hauls one of his toys around.  He has never asked to go outside, and has never made any kind of dash when the French door to the patio is opened. 

Until Saturday, when somehow he dislodged the window screen while sunning himself on the sill.  I was roused from bed by Mr. NYer calling me urgently; by the time I emerged from the bedroom, he already had Harpo in arms, in the living room.  But Harpo had discovered that Alabama had an outside, too, just like Staten Island.  And he’s been standing at the French doors, howling, since then.

It’s safe to go out again.  Sort of weather-related, but we’ve been striking off exploring a bit again.  Last weekend, we went to the Kentuck Folk Art festival in Northport, just across a river from Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.  We decided to avoid Saturday, the day of the Alabama game (Roll Tide!), because filling a stadium with 102,000 people leads to a certain amount of traffic.  The festival was great, with a combination of artisans (pottery, textile, jewelry, etc) and real, honest-to-goodness folk artists who often worked with found and discarded objects.  Music played from one of two stages, and it was good.  Every aging hippie, young hipster, and countercultural person in Alabama was there.  It was  a great vibe, and we bought a nice pottery vase, a pottery earring bowl, and some jewelry. 

Inspired, we took at chance at a closer-in craft fair in Prattville, the next town.  This time the entertainment was provided by a succession of dancing school troupes — one set of little girls in costume after another.  There were hula skirts, bumble bees, lady bugs, princesses.  We were astonished that Prattville had such a concentration of children to maintain this unending supply of dancers.  No boys.  They were all at peewee football practice. 

We didn’t stay too long.  Although there were a few wonderful quilters and one potter, most of the crafts were homemade and followed one of two themes: religion or football.  Seriously, I had no idea the Christian cross could be affixed to so many objects, including folk-art rustic birdhouses.  Nor that there were so many ways to wear or display your allegiance to Auburn football (Go Tigers!).

We stopped in the center of Prattville, a tidy and well maintained downtown.  The Autauga Creek runs next to Main Street, and nineteenth century mills sit just north of the downtown area.  Strolling along the beflowered Creekside walk, we saw a father and son fly-fishing in a rocky part.  Upstream just a bit was a dam with water pouring over.  Very picturesque. 

Meanwhile, an antique store/cafe beckoned on Main St, and we wandered  its aisles for a while.  Leaving, we peeked into the windows of the Red Arrow hardware store, a going concern that outdid the antique store for old-timey curiosities.  This hardware store looks like it hasn’t been in any way since perhaps 1945.  Wood floors, deep and dark, and inventory that, well, it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to restock it anytime soon.

Yes, there were modern things for sale, including an open rack with guns (“Do not handle guns”), garden hoses, screws and nails and paints.  But there was also a huge selection of cast iron cookware, galvanized steel tubs, porcelain-on-metal basins (my mother’s favorite for all sorts of chores, including washing of babies), and crockery.  Crockery like you’d put moonshine in.  There were butter  churns.  Farther along, there were replacement glass tops for coffee pots, as in stove top percolators.  Remember those?  Then there were flyswatters with whippable metal handles, not plastic.  You could buy a brand new Radio Flyer wagon, or a brand new metal Radio Flyer tricycle, just like the kind I had as a kid.  I wanted a jug, a wagon, a stove top percolator … but we left just happy to have stumbled into this place out of time.

Cornering the Market on Mint in Montgomery

If anyone in Montgomery was looking for mint this weekend, they were out of luck.  Mr. NewYorker bought every last package to be found in Winn-Dixie, Publix and Fresh Market.

You need a lot of mint to make mojitos for a crowd.  Lifelongnewyorker should probably have surveyed the mint situation before she invited 20 people over for a night of Mojito Madness.

Back on Staten Island, the what-to-do-this-weekend dilemma had many possible solutions.  Go out to dinner at one of many many restaurants. Catch a local play in which friends were appearing.  Head into Manhattan for music or theater or dinner.  So many activities, to be done in the company of friends or in the company of strangers.

The pickings are slimmer here.  There are a half-dozen restaurants worth eating in.  The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) puts on excellent productions, but not that many.  After a few months here in the South we realized that, if we wanted to have a social life, we were going to have to entertain.

I now believe I’m on the road to becoming the Pearl Mesta of Montgomery.  Well, of  a certain slice of Montgomery’s population.

Our first foray into entertaining was in May when we held a housewarming.  We told people to come over around 7:30.  This was our first lesson in how people here are different from those in New York.  At 7:25, the doorbell rang and our first guest walked in.  By 7:35, there were twenty people in our living room.  The folks who rang the bell at 7:40 apologized for being late.

I like to entertain, but the 25-person party is work, and I could see that Mr. NewYorker didn’t feel like doing it once a month.  So the next foray was right out of Martha Stewart: we invited about five friends over for a Make Your Own Pizza night.

This idea came to me while sitting at work and I sent the invites out without quite doing my homework.  Our crop of basil was flourishing, so we’d have pesto.  Likewise, an abundance of ripe tomatoes meant slow-roasted tomatoes would be offered as a topping.  I checked via e-mail with my old hairdresser, Jimmy, that my recollection about making a nice light pizza sauce was right (it was: crushed tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper and a little bit of dried oregano; cook for no more than 15-20 minutes).  To the two sauces we’d add three cheeses: goat, feta and mozzarella.  For toppings, we knew we could get pepperoni, olives, artichoke hearts, onions and red pepper.

Which left the issue of the crust.  Back in New York, I’d have visited either Johnny’s pizzeria or stopped at Moretti’s bakery and picked up pizza dough.  But that option is not available here.  So we went shopping on the Great Pizza Crust hunt.  I thought flatbreads would work nicely, but Mr. NewYorker was aghast at the idea of using pita as a pizza base.  We’ve been told that the Publix in Florida offers frozen pizza dough, so we carefully inventoried the contents of three frozen food aisles before confirming that the Publix in Alabama, alas, does not.

Near the gourmet cheeses we found a display of Mama Mary’s perfectly formed crusts, or bread disks as I came to think of them.  They were geometrically pure, and pocked at regular intervals with mysterious round indentations, clearly made by machine.  They were firm, like LPs.  But they were the right size and hey, what else were you gonna do?  But just as I moved to place them in the cart I saw the “use-by” date: December 27, 2010.

Pizza dough with a 7-month shelf life?  I put them back.

Finally, we found the Boboli, a pre-made crust we used often when the Abandoned One was small. We wanted the personal size, and visited several markets in search of it.  Finally I went online and entered my zip code.  Alas again, if I wanted personal size Boboli, I’d have to drive to Birmingham.  But the 12-inch would do.

Wanting to duplicate the crispness of New York pizza, I simply slid each pie laden with toppings directly onto oven racks, as the packaging suggested.  I then took one of my guests on a house tour, only to return to the kitchen in time to find smoke billowing from the oven.

The toppings had dripped.  A lot.  But the pies were fine, and the next day we simply put the oven into self-cleaning mode.  Four hours later, all that remained were five small ash piles on the oven floor.

Last week I decided it was time for another party.  Again, this thought happened at work.  I’ve become a disciple of spontaneity, so I dashed off an invite to a Mojito Party and asked my guests to bring some tapas.  I included Mr. NYer in the invite so he would know what to expect. Folks really liked the idea of mojitos.  A winner!

What neither of us expected was a shortage of mint.  The mint in people’s gardens? Bolted, burned and gone to seed.  Mr. NYer travelled from market to market in search of mint.  I came home on Thursday to find a few small plastic packages in the refrigerator.  I looked up recipes for mojitos by the pitcher.  According to these, I would need anywhere from six to ten cups of firmly packed mint leaves.

So, on Saturday morning I went out in search of mint. Perhaps Publix had a delivery.  It didn’t.  I went to the Curb Market, a farmer’s market downtown.  None.  I came home and pulled the mint out of the refrigerator, and stood there gazing at it.  Mr. NYer came in, “Do you want me to go out [in this 100-degree heat] to Fresh Market?” he asked.  “I’ll do it if you think we need more mint.”  Well I did think so, and he made yet another mint run.

You know the end of this story, don’t you?  I made about 16 quarts of mojitos Saturday night.  It was good.  And I have plenty of mint for my iced tea this week.

Bingo, Taxes and Title Loans

It’s time to wade into Alabama politics.  Just a little.

I’ve been advised to “try to get to like us first” before starting to follow state politics.  This advice came from a person who would like us to stay in the state.

Knowing that I now live in a state that elected Jeff Sessions to the U.S. Senate, I’ve tried to follow that advice.  I do know that elections — primaries, I suppose — are coming up, because lawns have sprouted signs in addition to weeds.

If Young Boozer wins the Republican primary for the post of state treasure, I have to admit I’m tempted to vote for him, if only because of his name.  If he loses the primary, I will most likely vote for the Democrat, regardless of his name.  Because the name of the other Republican is enough to almost keep me from voting entirely:  George Wallace, Jr.  Yes, the son of that George Wallace.

But electoral politics isn’t what’s leading the news these days.  No, the hot fight is over bingo.  From what I can gather, bingo is the word used in Alabama to describe what is known in every other part of the United States as slot machines.  The governor believes bingo violates state law, and ordered the casinos in which the machines operate to be shut down.  But the attorney general is on the side of the casino operators.

It’s hard to escape the Bingo Wars if you have TV.  Actually, we don’t have TV (see previous post), but we still get to witness some of the warfare by way of billboard attacks.  As near as I can tell, the governor and his allies are in the pockets of evil Mississippi gambling interests who want to maintain their regional monopoly.  The pro-bingo forces are the front of shady looking gangsters who smoke cigars in poorly lighted rooms.  There must be an element of morality somewhere, too — after all, slot machines, even when called bingo, are a form of gambling–but I haven’t seen it emerge as a dominant theme.

In fact, Alabama doesn’t seem to be bothered too much by the moral aspects of state financing.  The highest marginal rate on the state income tax is 5%, and your federal taxes are deductible.  Our property taxes are among the lowest in the nation, and, as our mortgage broker noted, “we have the schools to prove it.”  So, the tax system doesn’t impose a heavy burden on people who make a lot of money or can afford to buy a big expensive house.

But woe be to you if you need to buy stuff like food and clothing.  Here in Montgomery, the combined state and local sales tax is — get ready — 10%.  That’s higher than New York’s sales tax (8.5%).  And, to add regressive insult to regressive injury, the tax is levied on everything, including groceries.

I hear there’s a law under consideration in the legislature to finally repeal the tax on food, but it has been introduced before and failed.  In the Commerce Cafeteria at lunch last week, I overheard two suited men — lawyers, legislators or some kind of high-level state officials, I would guess from their appearance — denouncing the foolishness of this effort. “And it looks like they might get rid of the sales tax this time,” one said in a voice filled with chagrin, “Well, how do they think they’re going to make up that revenoo?”

But it’s OK, because poor folks have ready access to easy money: Title Loans.  There are more Title Loan offices here than there are pawn shops in Las Vegas, I am certain.  I wasn’t exactly sure what a title loan was, although judging from the locations of these places, I was pretty sure it was basically a legal form of loan-sharking.  The storefronts look a lot like those check-cashing places you see in lower-income neighborhoods in New York.  Both business make their fortunes off the “unbanked.”

Today I saw a title loan place advertising — on a huge banner — its interest rate: 9.9%.  Got that?  Nearly ten percent when CDs are paying less than 2%; when you can get a mortgage for less than 5.5% (well, if you can find a bank willing to make the loan).  This drove me to Google, where I found out more about the business model under which these places operate: you borrow against your car.  Apparently, all you need to do is bring in the title to your car, and you too can be paying ten cents on the dollar for a loan.  Can’t pay?  Well, they’re a step up from loan sharks, I guess.  They just take your car.  I’m thinking Repo Men.

So, let’s get this straight:  You’re a member of the working poor — maybe you have a job at a casino.  You live in a city without much public transportation, so you depend on your car.  If you work in a casino, you REALLY need a car, because they’re all in the middle of nowhere.  You live paycheck to paycheck, which means that you spend 100% of your income.  And the sales tax is 10%, so essentially it knocks your purchasing power down by 10%.  (Folks who make more money tend to save some portion, and another chunk of their spending is discretionary, so the 10% sales tax doesn’t hit them proportionately).  And then the governor shuts down the casinos, you’re out of a job at least temporarily, and the day comes when the rent is due.  So you dig out the title to the car and borrow some money …

Unlike members of the Tea Party, I believe in taxes. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “They’re the price we pay for civilized society.” But not these kinds of tax policies.  What ever happened to progressive taxation, based on the ability to pay?  Gone, I guess, with the progressives.

I also believe in banks, and wish they’d work harder to revive the spirit of thrift — can you imagine if banks spent as much money on direct mail promoting savings accounts as they do pushing credit card offers?

Living in zone 8

We may be city-bred, but Mr. NYer and I like to garden.  Well, mainly Mr. NYer likes to garden.  Shortly after the vernal equinox, Mr. NYer would disappear into the basement and shortly after that, styrofoam cups filled with dirt and a seed or two, and capped by baggies, appeared all over the house.   At first they sat atop the old boiler whose massive inefficiencies guaranteed warm soil and rapid germination.  Then they moved up to various south and west-facing windowsills, where either a cat or I invariably knocked one over.  The final stage before being set into the ground was a week or two in the cold frame.

You couldn’t trust how the weather felt to know when to plant.  After investing weeks nurturing the plant from seed, Mr. NYer didn’t want to risk too-early planting and the possibility of a frost.  He was conservative.  Even though we lived on the northern fringe of planting zone 7, he followed the calendar for zone 6 when setting those seedlings into the ground.

Parts of our yard definitely enjoyed a zone 7 micro-climate.  In one spot, out of the wind and backing up against a masonry wall, both cactus and rosemary thrived.  They wintered over and came back to life every spring.  In fact, we harvested the rosemary all winter long.

Here in Alabama we’re in zone 8, and I’m just beginning to realize what that means.  Alabama’s not like Florida or New Orleans, where even in winter there’s plenty of green.  Here, the grass turns to straw, the trees lose their leaves, and it looks like winter during January and February.  Now, though, it’s April 2, and spring has sprung.  Big time.

There’s pollen everywhere.  Back in Staten Island there’d be a couple of weeks in May when, especially if we parked under a tree, the car wound up with a greenish-yellow coat.  Here, yellow dust sifts down on the car whether its near a tree or not.  On our way back from our daily trip to Lowe’s, we saw a column of smoke rising from a copse of trees–and then realized it was a cloud of pollen, like a dust devil rising with the wind.  Once attuned to it, we saw it everywhere.  A puff of breeze, a stand of trees and a yellow smog rose into the atmosphere.

It’s been warm the last few days, going up to 80 degrees or so, but with mornings and evenings cool.  And it’s dry, so we opened windows in the new house rather than turn on the air.  There are no trees nearby.  The kitchen windows face a mowed field, with the nearest shrubbery about 60 feet away.  And yet, at some point I looked at the countertop and realized it was covered with yellow dust.  So were the black knife handles, and the knobs on the range, and the faucet.  I wiped it up, and three hours later it was there again.

It’s going to be lush here, I can tell.  The plants at the garden centers look like they’ve been belted by gamma rays.  The begonias have leaves four inches across, not like those puny things passing themselves off as begonias back in New York.  The geraniums sitting on my neighbors patio must have been given steroids.  I can’t wait to see the tomatoes.

Last night after unpacking I came into the living room, turned on the lights and sat down to read.  A weird buzzing, like the sound from a faulty florescent light, surrounded me.  Is it the lights?, I wondered.  Perhaps some kind of radio interference?  I got up, switched one set of lights off and the other on, and vice versa.  The buzz continued, and I considered the possibility that it was an auditory hallucination.  When I sat I could hear that it was coming from the front door.  I checked the lock, the as-yet-unconnected security system, the outside light.  I flicked it on, and that’s when I saw the source of the noise:  a 3-inch long grasshopper sitting atop my outside electrical outlet.

On April 1.  Not August.

And then this:  I walked into the kitchen to find the Lunatic stretching and pawing at something on the other side of the screen.  Most likely a moth, I thought.  That’s what the cats usually find on the other side of a screen when it gets dark.  Just then the Lunatic lunged and I saw his prey–a flying insect, about an inch-and-a-half long, with curved antennas … yikes–it’s a flying roach! Yeah, I know, they’re palmettos or something like that.  Nothing like those nasty New York roaches.  But they fly!!  And it’s only April 2.  I thought I’d have more time before I encountered the flying vermin.

Now I know why so many windows in the houses I looked at were painted shut.