Monthly Archives: January 2002

Tired No More

Tired No More

By Ed Reynolds

The mystery of Ira “Tex” Ellison’s disappearance months ago was resolved recently when his green 1985 Fleetwood Cadillac was discovered at the bottom of the Coosa River near Pell City. Relatives speculated that the 72-year-old Ellison, a diabetic, became disoriented and accidently drove into the river. Birmingham barbecue aficionados knew Ellison as the Tired Texan, the late-night barbecue king who maintained unorthodox hours, his barbecue stand sometimes open only three days a week, from noon to the wee hours of the morning. His first location, a tiny concrete structure at 8th Avenue North and 15th Street, was a smokey pit of intoxicating aromas and a late-night oasis for the uninhibited. Leaning into a small window illuminated by a single bulb, a diverse clientele of doctors, lawyers, bartenders, prostitutes, and drunks congregated to order barbecue. Picnic tables across the grassy parking lot were the only seats available. There patrons gnawed on ribs until sunrise. Slices of white bread often functioned as napkins, when not used as edible sponges for sopping up barbecue sauce.

Ellison began selling barbecue with his wife Madeline in the late 1950s as a Marine stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina. The couple opened the Tired Texan Country Club at the military base, building the structure with the help of Marine privates under Tex’s command. Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and jazz legend Lionel Hampton were pals who sometime stopped in for a drink. Ellison had joined the Navy at age 16 in 1945, but switched branches three years later when the Marines offered to send him to electronics school. By 1956, Tex had been assigned to El Toro, California, where he was the Marine Corps’ first black air traffic radar technician. Ellison also maintained a profitable television repair business. “I always had other things going on the side,” laughed Tex during a recent interview. “I had a TV repair service and barbecue place while I was in the Marines.”


Ira “Tex” Ellison, 1928-2001

Ellison left the military in 1967, eventually moving to Birmingham to start the Tired Texan and T&T Records, where he and his wife recorded Church of God in Christ services to sell as 8-track tapes. Although he relocated his restaurant between Legion Field and BirminghamSouthern College in the 1990s, the menu remained the same: sliced pork, hot franks, pig ears, ribs, sweet potato pie, pineapple-banana cake, and the legendary Dammit to Hell Sandwich. The Dammit to Hell was a red hot, sloppy Joe-style creation made from sliced pork scraps, bits of hot franks, and chicken necks, hearts, livers, and gizzards that Tex bragged would “dissolve in your mouth.” Oddly, the sandwich didn’t start selling until Tex raised the price. “They think you’re using scraps, and that’s what you’re using. That’s what you have to be able to do, be able to deviate. If they won’t buy it under one name, dammit, give it another name and raise the price. Make ‘em want it.” The secret to the Dammit to Hell’s fire came from the original Mancha’s Mexican restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. Owner Carl Mancha traded his atomic Agent Orange sauce for Ellison’s pig ear delicacies. Tex poured Agent Orange into his own sauce without restraint, adding ground cayenne peppers (including the seeds!), which were grown in his backyard. Tears flowed as customers drained endless styrofoam cups of sweet iced tea (blended with coffee) to extinguish the inferno. Tex finally had to give up tasting the blistering sauce at age 60 due to stomach problems. “The sauce started biting back,” he laughed as he demonstrated his mastery of sniffing to determine the correct amount of pepper spice to add. Dining on ribs and sweet potato pie one evening at his west Birmingham home, Ellison explained the appeal of his barbecued pig ears. “I had a special pig ear, what you call a sandwich ear — a little ol’ pig about seven months old with no hair. You cut the fat off and cook that sucker till he falls apart on you.”



Tex finally closed the Legion Field Tired Texan in 1996, just after the Mexican Olympic soccer team lost. “As long as Mexico won, we stayed open, ’cause the Mexicans were the only ones spending money,” the shrewd restaurateur laughed. Once Mexico lost, he shut the doors for good, citing “too many headaches” and the beauty shop next door. “Some of those ladies needed to spend 50 bucks to get that ugliness out!” Tex howled as he recalled his constant battle with the shop over parking space. The VFW Post 668 lodge was the final stop on Ellison’s 30-year odyssey of barbecue joints, an appropriate final bow for an ex-Marine who introduced Alabama to sweet barbecue sauce [his grandfather's 1899 recipe] and the incendiary trademark Sandwich.

Ira Ellison was a paradox. Tex might begin a sentence with a string of obscenities and end it quoting scripture. He often bagged his sandwiches in Krystal Hamburger sacks, and he carried a gun. “I’ve always got my .38 with me. Even in church. And everyone knows I’m kinda crazy from my Marine days — crazy enough to use it.” His wife Madeline says that in the past year he had talked of having a mobile barbecue stand near the recently opened Honda plant in Lincoln. Above all, his work ethic was relentless, and a grill was his constant companion. “I barbecued everywhere I damn went,” Tex claimed. “Even now, if it’s 3:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep, I’ll go out in the backyard and fire the grill up. Cook some hot dogs or something. Relaxes me.” &

City Hall

City Hall

By Ed Reynolds

January 15, 2002

Residents from Birmingham public housing are present today to challenge Mayor Kincaid’s recent appointments to the Birmingham Housing Authority. [The Mayor has appointed three new members to the five-person board in recent weeks, one of which must come from the public housing community. The appointments have been met with some controversy.] Demanding the reappointment of Thelma Patterson, a public housing resident whose two terms have expired, the group asks Kincaid to elaborate on why the majority of appointments on the Housing Authority Board must come from him. “New blood and new invigoration are vital,” responds Kincaid, noting that he was elected to represent all of the residents “and not just one particular segment.” He adds that residents have a newfound belief that housing is a right. “We lost 7.6 percent of our residents, and a lot of them left because we didn’t have adequate housing policies,” explains the Mayor. He asks that his appointments be given a chance.

Last call for alcohol amid Public Safety confusion

An off-premise [carry-out] beer and wine license for Food Fair Market returns to the agenda, along with a petition bearing 250 signatures supporting the license. Attorney Ferris Ritchey notes that three other stores in the area sell alcohol, and therefore enjoy a competitive edge over his client. Councilor Elias Hendricks points out that one of the supporters recently had a run-in with the law. Hesitant to reveal what the incident was about, Ritchey says the man “took things that didn’t belong to him,” acknowledging that the man was not a community resident but an employee of the store. The Public Safety Committee has no recommendation, but Councilor Gwen Sykes promises that the committee will be meeting that afternoon to render an opinion. Doris Powell of Fountain Heights is upset that the council will not act on the license this morning, especially since police had to respond three times in one week to incidents at the store: twice for burglaries and once to calm an altercation stemming from accusations about who the thief was. Sykes again promises a verdict from the Public Safety Committee at next Tuesday’s meeting, but livid residents refuse to back down, prompting Council President Lee Loder to explain that confusion has slowed some committee activity. [Sykes put up a fight to head the Education Committee, which put her appointment to Public Safety in question.] Loder recommends that there be no wait for committee opinion, and the council votes against the alcohol license.

The request by Tiki Bob’s Cantina [in the former Magic City Brewery location] for an alcohol license causes more Public Safety Committee confusion. Councilor Carole Smitherman is surprised that the committee has recommended approval of the license when it has yet to meet. “Well, you’re absolutely right,” admits Sykes, adding that she met with Birmingham police representatives about the lounge and felt comfortable with approving the license personally. Smitherman tells Sykes that the recommendation should come from the committee, not the chairperson. Loder says Smitherman is correct about procedure. A police representative says that the Five Points South Neighborhood Association had written a letter supporting the Tiki Bob’s license. Councilor Hendricks urges the council to act on the license, as the club has met all requirements. Councilor Roderick Royal, a member of the Public Safety Committee, also urges approval, as does the remainder of the council.

January 22, 2002

Environmental court

Mayor Kincaid announces the beginning of the long-awaited Environmental Court program, warning the council to get ready for a barrage of complaints. “We are not trying to be punitive. Our Environmental Court is more about information, education, and cooperation. We think that if people know better, they will do better,” says Kincaid. He explains that older neighborhood blight cases will be addressed first on the court docket, with some unresolved complaints dating back to 1981. The Mayor says court decisions will be “race-neutral,” and that businesses will be prosecuted just as residences are.

Neighborhood fumes over truckers and prostitutes

Watkins Trucking Company seeks re-zoning to “light industrial” so that it can park some of its 65-unit fleet on land that is zoned residential. Woodlawn residents are present to voice disapproval of truck fumes, noise, and prostitutes. Office and business use by Watkins is allowed, but it took a 1992 court order to grant limited parking as long as restrictions such as proper landscaping and limited hours of operation were met. The trucking firm is presently parking trucks illegally on land that was purchased after the court ruling.

Councilor Sykes is concerned about reports of truckers soliciting prostitution on the Watkins property. Trucking company representatives vehemently deny any such activity, explaining that there is a guard on duty after hours to prevent illegal shenanigans. Neighborhood residents object, accusing the night-watchman of involvement with the prostitutes. Police reports show no arrests for prostitution at the property.

Residents also gripe about the odor. “It stinks!” says a woman. “Smells like somebody been to the bathroom!” She also complains about the noise, asking councilors, “How would you like a hundred trucks by your house coming in and out at all hours of the night?”

Wayne Watkins, president and third generation owner of the company which has been in business since 1944, says the trucking firm is family-oriented, and needs the extra parking so drivers can go home to families at day’s end. Councilor Joel Montgomery recuses himself from voting on the re-zoning because Watkins’ wife is his Sunday School teacher. The council rejects the re-zoning.

Reynolds commended for flirting with “political suicide”

Councilor Royal offers a resolution asking the Mayor to find interim funding sources for city schools so that education money flow remains uninterrupted until litigation over Birmingham Water Works assets [which includes education funding] is resolved. Kincaid says that it is not feasible to guarantee a continuous flow, and requests that the sentence be stricken from the resolution. Suddenly Councilor Carol Reynolds drops a bombshell when she suggests raising property taxes for schools, prompting Kincaid to duck behind his desk. “Get up, Mayor,” Reynolds tells him. “When I looked at my property taxes when they came in last fall, I was really amazed how low they were,” explains the councilor. Councilor Royal says Reynolds’ suggestion follows the council recommendation to seek alternatives, but also urges Kincaid to include schools in his bond referendum, which the Mayor has not done. Councilor Hendricks commends Reynolds for “bravery and fiscal responsibility” to urge what’s “not necessarily politically expedient.” Councilor Montgomery notes that operating budgets of Homewood, Vestavia, and Trussville are smaller than Birmingham, but are not deterred from funding schools properly. Montgomery disagrees with raising property taxes. “I would hope that my other council members would join with me and look for other ways to reappropriate money that is currently being spent in the budget before we ever mention raising taxes on the people of Birmingham,” he says angrily.

Royal refuses to remove “uninterrupted funding” from his resolution. “I think it’s irresponsible for the city not to continue with the program despite where we find ourselves in litigation,” Royal tells the Mayor. Councilor Valerie Abbott says the city has a lot of money and suggests re-allocation of city money to get priorities in order. Councilor Sykes commends Reynolds for “making that bold stand because some people would call that political suicide when you start talking about taxes.” Reynolds responds: “I’m asking you to step up to the plate. You can call this political suicide. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a politician. You either step up or shut up!” Reynolds also scolds Birmingham residents for going to other cities to shop. “When you go to those cities to shop, you’re taking money out of our pockets that we could possibly be re-allocating.” &

Reynolds Favors Tax Increase For Schools

In a move that some labeled “political suicide,” Birmingham City Councilor Carol Reynolds raised eyebrows at City Hall on January 22 when she suggested raising property taxes to support Birmingham schools. A $261 million commitment to fund the school system’s capital improvement program, begun in 1998 when the city had control of the Water Works assets, is currently unavailable, primarily due to litigation over asset ownership.

A referendum allowing residents to vote property taxes up or down would have to be approved by the State Legislature and City Council, which Reynolds acknowledges would probably not happen until after next fall’s statewide elections. Removing the sales tax on food is also part of the councilor’s overhaul vision. “If we increase property taxes and can get equitable funding and some things worked out, that would be the give and take to me,” she explains.

“It [the property tax rate] truly is ridiculous. We are taxed unfairly on the city level as far as food and everything, but it’s because our legislature failed to step up to the plate and do what they should do about property taxes,” complains Reynolds. “ALFA, USX. They pay pennies on the dollar for what their properties are worth, statewide. It would mean much more equitable funding throughout the state for education if we could get them to do their fair share.”

Reynolds has been a state constitutional reform advocate for years. “The Constitution was set up to benefit a certain percentile of population of the state to create a class system,” she continues. “Until we change it, we’re not going to have ‘home rule,’ and we’re not going to be able to do the things we need to do to be aggressive. And I think that’s one of the things holding Alabama back.”

The councilor prefers that a property tax increase go for operational rather than capital spending. “There is no way I would be for property taxes going to ‘brick and mortar,’ for capital. Strictly operational,” she says. “We need language labs, computer labs, more money for science, math, and the arts.”

School maintenance is also an issue. “If they build the schools and don’t maintain them, they’ll be in the same shape the old schools are in. I don’t believe in throwing good money after bad,” she says. “We have to try something, we have to take a daring approach. I was elected to get a job done, to come up with solutions to problems that are workable,” says Reynolds. “And I firmly believe that one person can make a difference.” The councilor says it was a quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that put property taxes on her mind: “Taxes build civilizations.”

City Hall — Hendricks says no more bullies

By Ed Reynolds

Hendricks says no more bullies

It’s a dull day in the council chambers. The only hint of controversy is a discussion on councilors’ abilities to address neighborhood problems with city department heads. The Mayor-Council Act forbids councilors from issuing directives to department chiefs, with termination of council duties possibly resulting. Councilors are allowed to request information, however. Councilor Elias Hendricks says that the process of fielding complaints from residents should be automated, noting that there is a plan in place to deal with the controversy. “I hope we’ll be able to cut through the bureaucracy,” says Hendricks as he notes that it’s time to stop “beating up on people,” a reference to councilors confronting Don Lupo, director of the Office of Citizen Assistance. Lupo’s office is the link between the council and Mayor and citizen complaints. Questioning Lupo or any other department head “about something in the scope of their responsibilities is not beating up on them,” argues Councilor Roderick Royal. “This is not a matter of beating up on anyone. This is a matter of getting the complaints handled efficiently,” adds Councilor Joel Montgomery, stressing that cleaning up the city was “the number one priority the taxpayers gave us when we were elected.” Mayoral chief of staff Al Herbert attempts to clear up the confusion, explaining that inquiries for information on a request can go directly from a councilor to a department head. Council President Lee Loder remarks that the law gives councilors the right to inquire but not issue a directive, though he notes that going through the Mayor’s office is the preferred method for purposes of administrative responsibility.

Chinese noise torture

A business owner in western Birmingham complains about noise “radiating” from the Majestic Club next to the apartment he maintains at his workplace. Though lauding police for stopping nuisances such as motorcycle racing in front of the Majestic Club and acknowledging the club’s right to exist there, the man gripes that he can’t sleep because of the “boom boom boom-type noise” echoing from the lounge. Adding that he goes to bed with “earplugs and mufflers on [his] ears to get any sleep at all,” he asks the council, “You’re familiar with the old Chinese torture method of strapping somebody on their back and letting drops of water hit their forehead every so often until it drives the person crazy? That’s what’s happening with this ‘boom boom boom.’” He complains that he has sustained considerable damage to his property from the bar’s patrons, while acknowledging that he can address such problems himself. “I can repair fences, I can pick up the trash, I can pick up the marijuana that’s left in the area. I can pick up the syringes. I’m not going to pick up the used and unused condoms that are left there.” The noise, however, is beyond his control.Councilor Hendricks asks how police register noise complaints. Police Chief Mike Coppage responds that usually an incident report is filed, which can then be used to swear out a warrant through the magistrate if the magistrate concurs there’s enough evidence to arrest the building owner. Noting that an increase in patrol of the area results following complaints, Coppage admits it’s difficult to hold a club accountable for noise for which it may not be responsible. He adds that a major problem in enforcing noise ordinances is that the racket is usually turned down by the time police arrive. Coppage notes that constituents are afraid of retaliation from signing warrants that could lead to someone’s prosecution in court. Councilor Valerie Abbott confirms that residents are fearful of retaliation as she complains about a club at 500 Valley Avenue called El Sol de Mexico that is shaking the windows of surrounding businesses.

Councilor Montgomery is primarily concerned with noise from moving cars, which he calls a “problem all over this city.” When asked by Montgomery if the noise ordinance is enforceable, Coppage replies no, explaining that surrounding municipalities have more workable ordinances. If his car is bouncing off the ground [from surrounding vehicle noise], says Coppage, he should be able to issue a citation. “But the way our ordinance is written now, we have to go get a decibel meter, and you have to be a physics professor to understand the readings you’ve got to take. I don’t want to trivialize it, but we’ve got more important fish to fry in some of the neighborhoods than running around pointing decibel meters at cars, even though that’s a serious problem for people.” Coppage says the ordinance should be re-examined, to which Montgomery readily agrees, urging fellow councilors to take up the issue. The councilor says he fully understands the Chinese torture comparisons, “I lay in my bed every night and I hear it go by until 4 and 5 in the morning. It wakes me up, it rattles my windows so bad!”

January 8, 2002

Concrete and steel

Mayor Bernard Kincaid and department heads report on the highway accident that shut down parts of the “Malfunction Junction” interchange on Saturday, January 5. Traffic Engineering chief John Garrett says that adjustments have been made to the timing of traffic signals running north and south, primarily on Highway 31 through north Birmingham, which puts east-west traffic flow at a disadvantage. Bill Gilchrist of Planning and Engineering notes that the same principles that caused the eventual collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York were the reasons for the demise of the interstate bridge: metal failing under tension when exposed to extreme heat. The location of the fire underneath the cover of the bridge basically created an oven, says Gilchrist. He adds that a “concrete superstructure” will replace the steel and concrete of the old bridge. Concrete has a slower burn time, but Gilchrist explains that nothing is totally fireproof, and time is the question — how long before a structure fails once exposed to intense heat. He reminds the council that catastrophic incidents of this nature are “few and far between.”

Councilor Hendricks commends the heroism of fire fighters who went under the bridge while it was “burning and cracking.” Hendricks acknowledges a policewoman for doing her job well, even though she initially refused to let him near the site. Council President Lee Loder offers kudos to city worker efforts, saying that he appeared on the scene incognito. “I kept my hat pulled down really low on my head, so I looked like a little boy out there and nobody would recognize me. So I got a chance to observe everybody without them knowing I was there.”

Mayor Kincaid, who was at the accident site sporting his “Mayor” cap, noted the bravery of the eight fire engine companies that responded to the emergency. “The flames were absolutely intense. And you can’t over-dramatize the cracking — the heat from the explosion had caused the bridge to buckle as if it were spaghetti.” The Mayor praises response units for going beneath the bridge to attach cables to pull the scorched truck from the burning debris while cement was falling from structures above.

Councilors say “yikes” to Sykes

Sending a mild shockwave through the council chambers, four councilors abstain from voting Councilor Gwen Sykes as head of the Education and Community Services Committee. Her appointment is approved five to four, with an amendment added by Loder separating Education and Community Services from the Administration Committee, which he chairs. Loder originally headed Sykes’ committee as part of his Administration Committee, but she protested that as a middle school assistant principal, she’s well qualified to chair the Education Committee. [Councilor Carol Reynolds had earlier voiced doubts in a heated committee meeting about Sykes' dual role as a school employee and head of the Education Committee. During that meeting, council debate eventually prompted a defensive Sykes to shout, "I refuse to be treated any different from anyone else! I take it quite personal and political!" Reynolds said that an appearance of conflict of interest was enough reason for her not to support the appointment. Sykes would be in charge of a committee advising the council regarding upcoming school board appointments, among other issues. Reynolds added that she is abstaining from any Water Works matter since she is employed by the city's water system. Reynolds was the only councilor not to support Sykes in the committee meeting.] Sykes appears shell-shocked after the role call vote is conducted, with Councilors Reynolds, Roderick Royal, Carole Smitherman, and Bert Miller abstaining.

Miller says it’s time to go to work

The hiring of two central staff positions for the City Council brings questions from the council about filling jobs on Tuesday that were first advertised in the Sunday daily paper only two days earlier. Councilor Valerie Abbott says such hurried action is inappropriate. She suggests a week’s delay on the vote approving the hirings until more people have had an opportunity to apply. Councilor Montgomery agrees. “We need to observe proper business protocol and let people have time to respond,” says Montgomery, calling the situation “very touchy.”

Councilor Sykes concurs, griping that job-inquiring residents in her district said they were told that one of the positions had already been filled. “I have received numerous calls from my constituents, and I do represent the masses of the people,” assures the embattled Sykes. Councilor Miller disagrees, urging the council to approve the hirings. Miller says it’s time to “put the people in place so they can start to work for the city of Birmingham!” [Miller's favorite phrase is, "We're ready to go to work in my district!"] Councilor Smitherman says that some councilors have salary concerns about several of the staff positions. She adds that office-space requirements for some jobs have not been finalized. “There are too many questions that are still on the dais this morning for us to go forward,” she says. “Fair enough,” concludes Loder. The council delays filling the positions until questions can be addressed at a January 17 meeting. Loder votes against the delay, Miller abstains.

Abbott promises fun on neighborhood joy ride

Councilor Abbott announces a January 26 trip for neighborhood officers, the Mayor, and “anyone else who’d like to go” through her district to view successful projects. A city Dart trolley will be rented at $100 an hour for the journey, but Abbott promises that the Dart will not be paid for with city funds. “It will all come out of my pocket,” she says. “And I will treat everyone to a nice steak lunch.” Abbott adds that the group plans to sing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” during the ride. &