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.

Culture Shock

It’s what everyone says when they learn that Lifelongnewyorker has moved to Montgomery after a lifetime in the Big Apple.

“Wow, talk about culture shock.”

Maybe if I’d been striding purposefully through the streets of midtown after lunching at Le Cirque and suddenly found myself on Fairview Avenue in Cloverdale on my way into Sinclair’s I might suffer shock and awe, but mostly it’s America down here.  People talk about the weather, which is too cold;  they discuss Big Love and American Idol; they like food.

So, my answer has generally been “No, not really, not too much shock.”

Until last night, that is, when Mr. NYer and I walked into the Home Depot from an Alternate Universe.

From the outside, it looked like any Home Depot, perhaps a little neater and cleaner, with a fresh delivery of carts.  We’d gone there after dinner to check out some light fixtures and appliances.  Entering, I spotted some patio furniture and headed over to look at it.  A young man, clad in signature Home Depot apron, stood nearby stocking some items.  He approached us.

“How are you folks?  Anything I can help you with?”

I don’t know whether people often stare at him as if he’d just stepped out of the Black Lagoon, but Mr. NYer and I were struck dumb by the mere fact of being approached by a Home Depot associate and asked such a question.  In Staten Island, one finds few carts and fewer workers.  To locate someone who can actually help you involves a recon mission that takes you through half the store.  When an associate has been found and brought to ground, he or she, it usually turns out, does not work in that department.

After a few moments, we regained our senses and told him we were just looking.  “Well, you just let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he replied.  Nicely.

From the patio furniture we wandered to the lighting aisles and then to the appliances.  Along the way they appeared, like pod people:  one friendly Home Depot associate after another, all eager to say hello and help us in any way they possibly could.  After telling the sixth one that we were “just looking,” — my mother’s code for “leave us alone,” — I succumbed and began asking questions of the appliance guy.

He volunteered that tonight was not a good time to buy.  “Come back tomorrow,” he said, “when all the Energy Star appliances are 10 percent off.”   The sale, he added would last for a week.

Lest you think that perhaps the Home Depot employees have been subjected to some kind of cultish on-the-job training regimen, there’s more.  Now that he’s here — and retired — Mr. NYer has taken on a long list of local errands like arranging for insurance, visiting the mortgage company, and going to motor vehicles.  At home I’m finding lists, in unknown but legible handwriting, of doctors, dentists, restaurants and mechanics.  Everywhere he goes, it seems, people want to help him find his way.

“Just let me write down a few recommendations for you … and call me if there’s anything you need to know,” they offer.

Wow.  Talk about culture shock.