A Winter Walk in my Alabama Neighborhood

A week or so ago, the  sun came out and the temperature rose into the low 70s.  It was a perfect day to take a walk through the neighborhood.  Here are some pictures.  The captions explain it all.

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Night at the Capri

One of the charms the locals used to lure us to Montgomery was the Capri, an independent single-screen theatre that plays films the multiplex takes a pass on.  If we moved into Cloverdale, they told us, we could walk to the movies.

The Capri is both a theater and a movie society, a non-profit that runs the theater.  Becoming a member means tickets are only $6 each–and that’s on Saturday nights.

For my fellow Staten Islanders, the Capri is what the Lane should have been, instead of a night club, dance hall, catering space and whatever else happened there.  The two theaters are about the same size, and look like they were built within five years of each other.

Going to the movies at the Capri is a trip, and not just back in time.  We’ve gone and had to wait for the person selling tickets to come out of the booth to sell us a bottle of water (with a cup full of ice).  You can also get bottled beer at the Capri, or a glass of wine.

You buy your tickets at the one-person booth that sits in the middle, right between two sets of doors that let you into the lobby.  On your left is the ancient popcorn machine (no butter, just the way we like it) and the refreshment counter.  On the right you can pick up the schedule for next month, or flyers for other community events.

Head up a stack of steps and enter the one theater on either the left or the right.  It’s not as intensely art deco as was the Lane, but its got an art deco vibe going on.  There are no annoying commercials running, so you don’t spend 20 minutes before the film starts getting bombarded.  Instead there’s what looks like a basic PowerPoint with posters for the coming movies.

As for the movies, there’s a mix.  Most of them are what used to be called “second-run,” movies that came out to first-run theaters perhaps a month or two before.  I think they hit the Capri, generally, sometime between theatrical release and Netflix.  Plus they’re not the blockbusters that tend to get shown at the Rave, our mall-based multiplex. 

The Capri is where you’ll see the newest Philip Seymour Hoffman film, or, as we did tonight, the Patricia Clarkson film, Cairo Time (spoiler alert: longest case of unrequited sexual tension ever filmed).  But they’ll also run oldies but goodies, like the Christmastime showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, or the special Veteran’s Day showing of Stripes  (yes, the Bill Murray vehicle).  And sometimes there will be southern films, a short festival or something else that seems to fit the town–and the bill.

So you’re in your seat, holding your drink and your popcorn, because there are no cup holders.  If you’re older than 35, you’ll know that theaters didn’t used to have cup holders.  Often, instead, they had ashtrays on the back of the seat in front of you, but this I have not seen at the Capri.  It is not stadium seating, nor do the seats recline.  None of this is necessary anyway.

As movie time approaches, the curtains close over the slide show, the lights go out, and a new image is projected just as the curtains begin to open again.  You remember this, of course — if you are old enough — from when you were a kid.  The image is distorted against the curtain, but as the curtain parts, it freezes in focus on the screen.

Before the movie comes on we’re asked to turn off our cell phones, and reminded that there’s no texting and no talking.  The next screen points out that “courtesy is contagious.”

We only see about two previews, just the right amount to whet the appetite for the film.  When it’s over, everyone stays until the credits are finished.  When you go out into the lobby, people say good night to each other.

We went there a few weeks ago for a special benefit showing of Springsteen’s Hyde Park concert film.  Before it started, the manager came to the front of the house and explained that he’d set the film sound on “normal,” but if people wanted it louder, he’d accommodate us.  The audience agreed that loud was better, and he cranked up the sound.

Anyone want to move to Montgomery?

A Little Bit of Osage Knowledge

Where to start this tale?     

Photos courtesy of Mr. NYer

In a car.  Driving down Narrow Lane Road next to the Montgomery Country Club and seeing what seem to be … tennis balls? … moss-covered softballs? … hybrid softballs with neon green tennis ball covers?    

No! By Jove, they’re osage oranges, and they are all over the place. So that’s what those hedges are!   

My first encounter with an osage orange was in Staten Island.  Although I biked throughout the South Shore as a teenager, I must have skipped the osage season, because the first time I saw one it was sitting atop one of the lunch tables in the faculty room of  the high school in which I taught.    

A student had brought it in and stumped the science teacher, who brought it to the rest of us as a challenge.  Never one to resist, I examined the item carefully, noting its brilliant green color, convoluted  surface, and slightly citric smell.  Slicing it open revealed yellow pulp with tons of seeds inside.  It appeared to be a fruit. I was stumped.      

Next I called the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences and talked with Ed Johnson.  “I’m trying to identify what looks like a fruit,” I explained. It took Ed no time at all to tell me it was an osage orange and to advise against eating it.     

Ed explained a few more things about the osage orange.  It isn’t native  to the Island, nor is it usually found this far north. (It originates in Texas.) The reason it’s on Staten Island at all, he said, was that it was introduced by Frederick Law Olmsted.  And it could only be found in a few spots on the Island — most likely from a row of hedges on Seguine Avenue. I have a feeling Ed knew the specific trees.     

Mention of Olmsted’s name piqued my interest.  I knew he’d lived on Staten Island and that his farmhouse still stood–albeit enlarged and somewhat transformed–not far from where I lived.  Long interested in Island history, I had been encouraged by a college professor to apply for a grant to document the history that was still standing in photographs (and oh, I wish I’d followed through on that).      

Olmsted's Staten Island farmhouse as it appeared in 1924

My research included an interview with Staten Island historian and preservationist Loring McMillen in his office in the old court house in Richmondtown.  I asked about the Olmsted house and can still see him sigh, shake his head and advise me not to bother. “Yes it’s there,” he said, “but its in terrible shape … ” In residence then, according to McMillen, were Carleton Beil–a naturalist and cicada expert who learned at the feet of William T. Davis–and his wife.  McMillen shuddered when he leaned forward and told me they had refrigerators and old appliances on the porch.     

Having identified the osage orange, I was bitterly disappointed to find that, although she had framed the challenge as a contest,  my science colleague did not in fact offer a prize.  What kind of a contest doesn’t offer a prize?!     

Didn’t know about the Olmsted-Staten Island connection?  Olmsted was Yale-bound when he contracted an intense case of poison sumac that affected his vision (and you though poison ivy was bad). So, he knocked around for a few years, went to sea, that kind of stuff, and then he decided he wanted to pursue “scientific farming.” After not doing well in Connecticut, he bought a large farm on Staten Island in 1848, when he was 26 years old.  He called it the Tosomock Farm; later Erastus Wiman bought the land for development and named it Woods of Arden. As far as I know, the house still stands. For the next seven years, Olmsted practiced scientific management of crops, developed a tree nursery, and planted non-native species, including the osage orange.  He also managed to travel extensively through the South for the New York Daily Times and his writings on the conditions under  which both slaves and poor whites lived helped solidify northern anti-slavery opinion.  He left the farm upon his marriage to his sister-in-law (his brother had died), but they returned to it later in life and his son, Frederick Jr, was born there in 1870.   

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought much about osage oranges again until we began seeing them everywhere.  I asked Mr.  NYer to take some photos. He took a few  environmental shots (above) and then brought some specimens home for a still life.  I think they look like something offered for sale at Pottery Barn.    

As it turns out, a fair number of people do indeed bring these colorful fruit into their homes at this time of year, though not for decoration.  A folk belief holds that they repel spiders and insects.  I’ve even found a place online where you can buy them if you don’t happen to live in a place where they fall by the roadside.    

They are known by an array of names: hedgeapples, bois d’arc (the wood supposedly makes dandy bows), bodarks (an Americanization of the French one imagines), or horse-apple.     

Although not technically poisonous for humans, I have read that they are not really that tasty, except for the seeds. These are as easy to extract as cotton seeds from the boll, so don’t look for little snack packs any time soon.  Squirrels don’t seem to mind the effort though.  Horses and cattle sometimes munch on them, but unwisely.  They are a choking hazard.    

The trees from which they droop rather pendulously make fine hedgerows.  If you come on down to visit us in Montgomery, I can show you some.

A day in a big city

A brief business tip to Philadelphia — Philadelphia, big-city wannabe!–reminds me of just what Montgomery is missing.

I arrive in Philly and immediately set out on a city walk — no destination in particular, but plenty of stops along the way, in and out of shops and keeping pace with the vibrant sidewalk traffic.

There are places that sell clothes.  Clothes I wouldn’t mind wearing.  If only I needed to … but, damn! my office wear has degenerated into jeans and capris.  Who knows — I might even appear in shorts one of these days. So no need for those kicky skirts, trendy tops and free-form dresses in the shops along Walnut Street.

There are bikes here, and bicyclists riding alongside cars on the narrow streets.  Mr.  NYer and I have decided that the only way to bicycle in Montgomery is to carefully map out a route that avoids main thoroughfares … forget bike lanes, even the gutters are dangerous.

As if I weren’t already all too aware that life in Montgomery is … different, I was pulled into a bit of romantic espionage that only happens in big cities.  It’s 10:30 when a dozen or so of us arrive at the restaurant for dinner (in Montgomery, even the kitchen staff would have long gone to bed).  I’ve been working the crowd at a donor event and have shaken hands with hundreds of people.  In the car en route to the restaurant, a colleague has convinced me that I’m courting disaster unless I sanitize immediately, so as soon as we hit the restaurant on Rittenhouse Square, I make a beeline for the ladies’ room.

There I happily discover industrial-sized soap dispensers, and wash my hands like they’ve never been washed before.  A quick dash into one of the stalls and I’m back at the sink for a second round of hand-cleaning when a young woman asks if I have a pen.  I do, and dig into my bag for it.  Visibly thrilled, she grabs the pen and begins to write upon a paper towel.  She finishes and approaches me to return the pen.

“Listen,” she says, “I know this sounds strange, but I’m on a blind date and it’s a disaster.”

Three of us turn to hear her tale of woe.

“Well, at least I can tell it’s going nowhere.  My blind date thinks it’s great.”   We nod in unison.  We’ve all been there before.

“And there’s this guy at the bar that I’m really interested in, and I know he’s interested in me.  So would one of you help by giving him my name and number on this towel?”

I don’t know whether I’m appalled by the chicanery, or thrilled to be back in the world where humanity is so densely packed that this kind of thing is a matter of course.  Before I have a chance to nod yes or decline, another bystander steps forward.

“I’ll do it!”  she offers.  The blind date tells us that the object of her desire is sitting at the end of the bar, wearing a suit, finishing a bowl of mussels, and named Brad.  I have no idea how she has obtained this information, but I’m impressed.  I head back to the table just in time to steer the good Samaritan to the right person.

I don’t know if Miss Lonelyhearts every hooked up with Mr. Mussels, but I can tell you I savored this slice of urban life.  A slice you just don’t get in Montgomery.

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.

Sights from my Office

Some people have been clamoring for pictures.  Here are a handful take from or near my office.  Apologies for the haphazard layout — I haven’t figured this part out yet.

I’m on the 4th floor of the SPLC building with windows on three sides of my work area.  The downtown is a mix of office and government buildings and some structures dating from as far back as the mid-19th century.  These, originally homes, are now mainly used as office buildings. 
These pictures are completely inadequate, but give a sense of where I’m at every day. 
Above is the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin.  The memorial and museum behind it are part of the Center, and commemorate the people killed in the modern Civil Rights movement.

 Not sure what is housed in the white columned building, but it’s diagonally across from the center and illustrates the scattered older buildings that dot the downtown area. 

The remaining photos are view from my office.  First is the view looking north.  On the left is the Regions bank tower, and the new construction is being built above a historic courthouse building.  Those cranes, so common in New York, are terrifying when they swing in our direction. 

The red building is the Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor. 

The white buildings are mainly state offices.  The domed building beyond is the Alabama capitol.  It’s just two blocks away.

Here are some links:

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

City of Montgomery

Montgomery on Wikipedia


Alabama state capitol

Sweet or Unsweet Tea

Montgomery has passed the iced tea test with flying colors.  

No matter where you go, you can get freshly brewed, real iced tea.  Without sugar.  With lemon.  Oh, sure, you can also get that syrupy sweet stuff if that’s your poison, but it’s not mine.

This is a real issue, and frankly one I didn’t adequately suss out before coming.  Mr. NYer and I like our iced tea although our New York habit is mostly a fair weather one.  Come one especially warm day in late March or early April, Mr. NYer will decide that iced tea season has arrived and will drop six  or seven tea bags into a covered pitcher, fill it with water, and sit it on the deck.  Once that day arrives, we keep the fridge stocked with lemons (me) and limes (him) and drink vast quantities of the stuff.

Many years ago, before the Abandoned One was born, we took a camping trip to the Outer Banks.  There we discovered a few things:  1) camping on the beach is not for us; and 2) the iced tea in the south was perfectly awful. 

The only iced tea we could get, it seemed, was a chemical brew that came from a machine, had a metallic taste, and was heavily sweetened.  It was truly closer to Coke than to tea.  This vacation brought a series of indignities and injuries:  high winds ripped our shade canopy on the first day; a tempest-like storm flooded our tent on the second; seagulls stole the steak from our grill on the third.  With only a two-man tent and no canopy, we could not escape the sun.  We thirsted for real tea, and for shade.  Neither was to be found. 

We did the beach, visited the lighthouse, even biked, as I remember, but could never escape the relentless sun.  We decided to take the ferry to Okracoke, the southernmost of the Outer Banks to which you could take a car.  Driving off the ferry, we followed the strip of sand for miles to the little town at the southern tip of the island.  We emerged into the blazing sun and spotted the Okracoke Inn.  It looked shady.  And cool.  We ducked inside for lunch.

The waitress seated us in a large dark dining room with ceiling fans.  We ordered the shore lunch (fresh, huge and wonderful even if it was fried) and, bracing ourselves, asked for iced tea.  She brough it in large ice-filled glasses, and we could tell from its orangey-amber tone that  it was fresh-brewed.  Sliced lemons accompanied it.   We lifted our glasses,  drank deep and set them down, at which point the waitress reappeared with a pitcher and refilled them.  She continued raising the elixir to the brim for the entire time we stayed in that dining room, and we stayed a long time.  We agreed that, most likely, we had died from sunstroke and gone to heaven.

Montgomery must be a room in that heaven, because the same limitless iced tea policy operates here.  They have two kinds, sweet and unsweet.  The waiters sweep along the tables armed not with one, but with two pitchers, ready to top off the glasses of the sugar-obsessed as well as those of us with more astringent tastes. 

I haven’t gotten used to the term “unsweet” tea.  I order “unsweetened tea,” and they must understand me because soon this fresh, golden brew, adorned with lemon slices, is sitting before me.   Give me a couple of months and I’ll adopt the local  lingo. 

Either way, it’s sweet.