Category Archives: Politics

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon

Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon




Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).

Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.

The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.

The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.

Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.” Continue reading

Believe It or Not

Believe It or Not

Christopher Hitchens. (Photo courtesy of the Fixed Point Foundation.) (click for larger version)
September 02, 2010

Acclaimed writer and noted atheist Christopher Hitchens, whose books include God Is Not Great, will debate renowned Paris mathemetician Dr. David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, on September 7 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham. Presented by the Fixed Point Foundation—an organization dedicated “to publicly defending Christianity through education, events, and the development of innovative resources that empower Christians and challenge skeptics”—the event includes a luncheon and reception in addition to the debate, which is titled “How Atheism Poisons Everything.”

Dr. Berlinski is a self-described “secular Jew and an agnostic” who is perhaps best known for his appearance in Ben Stein’s film Expelled, produced by Stein to defend belief in a Supreme Being. Hitchens and Berlinski will explore the question, “What are the implications of a purely secular society?”

As if any further drama is needed, Hitchens was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The hard-living, chain-smoking author has commented on his illness in recent weeks. When asked by interviewer Charlie Rose if he would live the same lifestyle knowing that cancer would be the result, Hitchens responded, “Yes, I think I would. I’ve had to reflect on this, of course, a lot recently, and trying to imagine doing my life differently and not ending up mortally sick. But it’s impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights . . . without that second bottle.”

The disease was diagnosed on the heels of Hitchens’ just-published memoirs, Hitch-22. The September issue of Vanity Fair features a chilling, amusing, and brutally honest assessment of his current health status, as penned by Hitchens himself. The writer sums up his fate in his classic style: “The word ‘metastasized’ was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.” &

“How Atheism Poisons Everything,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 7. Sheraton Birmingham, 2101 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North. Tickets: $25, with additional cost for luncheon and reception. Details:

A Word on Words

A Word on Words


In his latest book, author Roy Blount, Jr., puts the English language under the microscope.


November 13, 2008Despite frayed nerves and his fears that flawed voting machines would ruin another presidential contest, author Roy Blount, Jr., was his typical dry, comical self during an Election Day telephone conversation from his Massachusetts home. Having voted at 7:30 a.m., he confessed, “I can’t stand to listen to anybody talk about it anymore. I just want it to be over.” Blount talked about his latest book, Alphabet Juice, which offers amusing ruminations about the origins, meanings, and distinctive sounds of select words. Blount will discuss Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory on November 18, 6:30 p.m., at a charity event hosted by Alabama Booksmith at the Doubletree Hotel.

Black & White: As a Georgian, were you excited when Jimmy Carter was elected president?

Author Roy Blount, Jr., will be signing his new book at a charity event benefitting WBHM. See below for details. (click for larger version)



Roy Blount: Yeah, I was sort of astonished and bemused. I just never expected anybody from Georgia to get elected president. I liked Mo Udall in the primaries. But when Carter got nominated, I was for him. I wrote a book called Crackers, which was largely inspired by my surprise that the leader of the free world was, all of a sudden, a white guy from Georgia. When we were watching the nominating convention, my brother-in-law Gerald, who is from east Texas, jumped up and hollered, “We ain’t trash no more!”

You once compared Democratic presidential candidate and philanderer Gary Hart to former Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom because of Folsom’s habit of kissing women on the campaign trail.

I never met Big Jim Folsom, but I heard a lot of good stories about him. Supposedly, he was at an air show with a bunch of French people. The Alabama National Guard had some kind of trick-flying formation. And all of a sudden a bunch of them ran into each other and exploded. There was an awkward pause and Folsom said, “Well, kiss my ass if that ain’t a show.”

Until I found it in Alphabet Juice, I was not familiar with the word “swive.” [Blount writes: "As early as the beginning of the fourteenth century, this was the most common slang term for 'to do it with someone.' It's a good one, too, smoother—might even say more suave—than the F-word."]

“Swive” is a good word, I think. It has a kind of nice force to it. It’s like “swing.” Most of the “sw” words, like “swing and swag and swagger,” are kind of groovy. A word that starts with “f” is often harsh.

You recount film critic Pauline Kael’s review of Reds, where she wrote that Warren Beatty’s character was “pussy-whipped,” and you told her that the New Yorker would never print such a word.

I suggested she change that to “uxorious,” and she just rolled her eyes. [Kael eventually described Beatty's character as "timid."]

Do you recall any particular arguments with editors regarding words you were defending?

I remember I went down to Mansfield, Louisiana, to interview the mother and the football coach of [Major League pitcher] Vida Blue because I was doing a story about him for Sports Illustrated. And I talked to his mother, and then I went and interviewed his old football coach. The coach said, “Well, Vida’s left-handed but if he got in a tight, he could throw with his right.” The editor wanted to change it to: “If he got in a tight ‘spot,’ he could throw with his right.” I said, “No, no, no! It’s got to rhyme!” I finally talked him into it, but he just didn’t see why. [The editor] thought that would be confusing: “Nobody’s going to understand. They would think that we inadvertently left out a word.”

You once wrote: “Rush Limbaugh is like Dom DeLuise trying to do George Wallace.” Have you ever met Limbaugh?

[Laughing] I’d forgotten that, but I’m glad I said it.

No . . . We don’t travel in the same circles. I haven’t listened to Rush in a long time. He reminds me of all these people of my ethnic background that I have, to some extent, justly scorned. In my formative years, I felt embarrassed by all the white Southern men who were holding forth in various mean-spirited and dismissive ways. I realized that I had some kind of connection to that heritage and I needed to just separate myself from it and explain it to some extent and all that. But suddenly, when people like Rush Limbaugh came along, basically saying the same thing—except a little less crudely, I suppose—that really pissed me off.

Do you think Al Franken would make a good senator?

Well, I haven’t been following his race. I know Franken a little bit. It’s strange for a comedian to aspire to be a senator, of course. But [former Republican House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay was an exterminator, wasn’t he? And, I hear, a good one. &

Admission is $35 and includes a signed copy of Alphabet Juice. The evening’s proceeds will benefit WBHM 90.3 radio. The Doubletree Hotel is located at 808 20th Street South; 933-9000.

City Hall — Larry’s Kingdom Come


Larry’s Kingdom Come

Mayor Langford starts his tenure with a bang.

November 29, 2007

On inauguration day, it soon became clear that the new mayor wasn’t kidding when he repeatedly opined during his campaign that what Birmingham needs a “crazy man” to run the city. After Alabama Congressman Artur Davis saluted Birmingham because “a city that lives on a hill can never be hidden,” Larry Langford took the microphone to address several hundred people gathered at Boutwell Auditorium on November 13 for his mayoral swearing-in ceremony.

Langford’s theatrics were on display for the constituency that voted him into office without a runoff in a field of nine candidates. (During the inaugural speech he boasted that he could have beaten 40 because “If God be for you, who can be against you?”) As he addressed the crowd, a Hispanic interpreter desperately tried to decipher Langford’s every sentence; the new mayor’s Baptist preacher oratory and the interpreter’s frantic Spanish frequently collided.

“We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” —Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford

Langford choked down sobs as he told the crowd about a woman dying of cancer in Calera whose final requests included meeting the new mayor—a wish Langford was more than happy to oblige. He warned the crowd, “If in the next few minutes I say something you do not like, I want you to know that in my heart I do not care! . . . I’m not coming out to patch your streets. We are coming out to rebuild your community.” He acknowledged that Birmingham is currently losing 5.6 percent of its population yearly. “If we [the city] were a patient in the hospital, they would put us in intensive care,” he said. Regarding crime, Langford urged parents to raise their children with more discipline: “I cannot hire enough police to keep us from killing each other . . . It’s nothing that a good ol’ fashion butt-whipping [won't solve].” A man in the crowd yelled approval: “Larry ain’t playin’!”

Langford derided city residents, asking, “When did we lose our mind? We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” The crowd responded enthusiastically, shouting, “Amen!” Langford was on a roll: “Our children are direct carbon copies of us . . . I don’t want to deal with no 50-year-old teenagers!” He added that he would “not tell the city or council how to set the table without bringing something to the table.” Another supporter loudly sighed, “Larry’s crazy!”

• • •

On November 19, the Birmingham City Council met with the new mayor to dissect his big spending plans for improving the city. Langford has asked for a 100 percent increase in business license fees and another 1 percent boost in sales tax (increasing it to 10 percent) to raise a projected $72 million to finance a domed stadium, the transit system, economic improvement, street and sidewalk refurbishment, police and fire department upgrades, and a student scholarship program. A separately proposed $7 million expenditure would be used for the scholarship program as well as purchasing laptop computers for city schools. It’s the additional $7 million request on which the council was taking an “in-concept, in-theory” advisory vote (as described by Council President Carole Smitherman) on this particular afternoon. The vote was not binding. Councilors Carol Duncan, Steven Hoyt, Miriam Witherspoon, and Maxine Parker spoke enthusiastically in favor of moving ahead with Langford’s ideas.

Langford was more subdued at the November 19 meeting than he was at his inaugural, but not by much. He addressed councilors (all but Joel Montgomery were present): “Just once in this community I want to see somebody say something positive about Birmingham without the ‘buts,’ the ‘ands,’ and the ‘conjunctions’ [added] to it. We keep buying into people who are painting this city with a broad brush. . . . Yes, we have a crime problem in this community and we will address it. Let me just be straight up about it. Black-on-black crime in this community: we have to speak out on it as you have been doing, only with a louder voice. We’ve got to get into our churches and get the faith-based communities involved in this deal. Because if we don’t do this quickly, we are going to run the risk of being the only race of people in the history of civilization to kill itself off.”

Langford believes that scholarships are a first step to avoiding the picture of impending doom he had just painted. “When you put scholarships in these children’s hands, now they’ve got something to say ‘yes’ to. We keep telling them to just say ‘no.’ Give them something to say ‘yes’ to. Now those Mommas and Daddies are gonna have to read and [be] with their children because the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be a train coming to run over them!”

As a sign of support for fighting crime, Langford had already ordered that mayoral staff cars be turned over to the police department. “I have pulled in every car that’s on the mayor’s staff,” Langford said. “I’ve never used a city car, I will never use a city car. I want my own car. I want to be able to go and come as I please without somebody following me and saying, ‘Oh, you stopped off at T’s.’ If I wanna stop at T’s, I’ll stop at T’s.”

Langford was appalled that police officers are riding one per vehicle. “Tell me why you would send a single police officer into a crime hot spot by himself,” he demanded. “We have narrowed these little beats down so small that it requires taking the officers and splitting them apart and buying twice as many cars as you need rather than giving them a defined beat area and put two officers in the car, for the officers’ protection as well as for the protection of the crook.” Langford said that he personally would not drive into some of the crime areas if he were a lone policeman. “That’s why it’s taken 35 or over 40 minutes for them to answer some of these calls,” he observed. “They’re scared!”

Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she needs more information about Langford’s proposals, whereas Councilor Roderick Royal expressed concern that small businesses will not be able to afford the proposed doubling of the business license fee. Councilor Duncan said that she had been talking to residents and independent business owners in her district and has found few objections to Langford’s notions. Duncan added, “Education? The laptops and funding the schools? I’ve been in here six years, I think we’ve given them what, about $40 million trying to keep them from going belly-up! $7 million sounds like a bargain to me.”

“You can’t be against laptops and you can’t be against giving school scholarships,” Councilor Royal said outside the council chambers. “[But] I was in the army and you don’t make major moves in the army, as an army officer, without an op order. It’s a five-paragraph kind of thing. And that’s what’s happening today. You have a mission that you’re going on, but there is no op order. There is no command and control, in my opinion. There is no objective. . . . Yeah, okay, you want to build a dome, those kind of things, yes, you have goals but how do you get there?”

#147;I couldn’t be happier. It made this whole campaign worthwhile,” Langford said of the council’s reaction to his proposals during a press gathering after the meeting. When asked to comment on the morning headlines that Birmingham is now the sixth most dangerous city in America, the mayor replied, “To deny the numbers, you can’t do it. It is what it is. . . . That’s why I was pushing today for scholarships and for improved street lighting and improve the police department and in talking about economic development. You’ve got to give people hope right now. That’s what’s lacking in this community.” Langford elaborated on the computers for schoolchildren. “These are exceptional computers! For those who say, ‘Well, it’s a computer, but . . .’ Where’s your 15,000 computers? If you don’t like this 15,000, give us 15,000. Let’s see if you’ve got something to say other than just lip service.” Langford added that he is sick of critics who offer no help. “We’re gonna go ahead, we’re gonna move forward, we’re gonna help our children, we’re gonna do the things we have to do. And this council is on board and I love it! It is what it is!”

At the next day’s weekly City Council meeting—Langford’s first—he was anointed by the pastor from Council President Smitherman’s church, More Than Conquerors Faith Church. The ceremony took nearly 10 minutes. The council later set up public hearings for the following week to hear citizens’ feedback on the mayor’s proposals. &

Open Season

Open Season

Southside’s entertainment districts have become a hunting ground for muggers, car thieves, and murderers.

October 04, 2007

Even as the mayor apparently refuses to recognize that Birmingham is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live, crime continues to haunt the city’s merchants and residents. Mayor Bernard Kincaid speaks of a “perception of crime” as he seeks re-election on October 9. Candidates vying for Kincaid’s job and Birmingham residents, however, believe differently.

Über-bohemian: Per criminology’s “broken window” theory, some feel that Five Points South has become so riddled with “colorful” characters that a signal is being sent to potential criminals that their crimes will go largely unnoticed. (Photographs by Mark Gooch.) (click for larger version)


In Five Points South, recent robberies of patrons walking to their vehicles from various establishments have drawn attention to the area. But not many owners or employees at bars and restaurants are willing to share crime anecdotes. One exception is bartender Cat Hawkins at Dave’s Pub, who says that the area seems to be getting more dangerous. Hawkins says that female patrons at the bar are now escorted to their cars by a security guard after dark.

James Little is president of the Five Points South Merchants Association. Little constantly chases away vagrants from the sidewalk in front of the area coffee shop he manages. While talking about the problem in front of the business on a recent afternoon, he confronted street people, then returned to explain, “Certain people—transients, vagrants—know that [Five Points South] is an area where they can go and can hang out and drink, do drugs, panhandle, harass . . . Because nobody will say anything to them. Nobody will question them.” Little says that such behavior is not tolerated in Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Hoover, or Homewood. Panhandlers actually come into his business and ask customers for money. Little has urged police to tell vagrants that they must leave the area instead of simply sending them across the street, where they continue to loiter. “I know a lot of businesses in this area are hurting right now,” says Little. “This area could possibly be like Woodlawn in a couple of years.”

Frank Stitt, owner of Highlands Bar & Grill, says the city must address problems in the area. “City Hall needs to re-energize their emphasis on making Five Points a secure, a safe, an attractive, a clean area—whether it’s the street departments, whether it’s more policemen, whether it’s more lighting, whether it’s security cameras. We need all of that. We also need the police to actually be accountable for not allowing these street criminals, transients, vagrants, and drug dealers that hang out here. The church [Highlands United Methodist] invites them all for coffee and donuts and washing laundry every morning, and then they just pretty much use the Five Points South area as their home base. I think the church certainly has good intentions. . . . But to leave them here so half of them can deal drugs and just get into trouble all day long is a bad end result . . . City Hall and the police department have not followed through on helping make Five Points a secure and attractive area.” Stitt admits that the police have a difficult job, but notes that other municipalities in the county do not allow such activity.

“These aren’t narcotics, just muscle relaxers”: One homeless man shares meds with another in an alley near Five Points South. (click for larger version)


On August 19, after a man was found shot to death in the 1200 block of 20th Street South near Bell Bottoms nightclub on Highland Avenue, the department said that police presence would be beefed up in Five Points South. On September 22, a man stabbed his wife several times on a Saturday afternoon in front of the fountain across the street from The Grape restaurant.

• • •
T.C. Cannon has owned the bar TC in the Lakeview entertainment district for the past two decades. Before that, he and his brother operated the Upside Down Plaza near Five Points South for 25 years. Cannon has decided that he’s had enough of the local criminal element. He has put TC up for sale and has given up plans to open a bar in a building he recently purchased, the former Battery Warehouse a block from TC. “It was going to be my last bar, a super-duper bar,” says Cannon. “But I’m heading north somewhere. . . . Crime is out of control.”

(click for larger version)


In the middle of the afternoon six months ago, Cannon drove to the Battery Warehouse building only to find two men dismantling one of his vehicles he had parked in front. He got out with his .38 pistol and confronted the thieves, who fled. According to Cannon, police were called but it took half an hour for a lone officer to arrive.

Cannon has watched the neighborhood deteriorate for some time. A little over a year ago, a dead body was found in a parking lot adjacent to TC in the early morning hours. “Here in Lakeview, it’s getting like Five Points South. If it wasn’t for valet parking, the nice restaurants would not exist at all,” said Cannon. “Now it’s personal. The thieves, when they see a golden opportunity walking down the street, they sit in the shadows and wait on some good victims. . . . Why break into the car when you’ve got them?”

Kelly Pierce has been a bartender at The Oasis in the Lakeview district for more than six years. In 2005, she and two employees were robbed at gunpoint while closing the nightclub. Pierce says that automobile break-ins have been the primary problem in the past year. She does not feel as secure as she once did. “I used to close that bar by myself and be fine with it. But I would not want to do that again,” says Pierce. “It’s been scarier the past two and a half years.”

Pierce had her 1984 Chevy truck stolen twice on Southside. The first time, Bessemer police recovered it in a Lowe’s parking lot with “a ball joint broken out,” said Pierce. When she went to pick up her truck, there was another license plate on it, presumably stolen. When she asked the Birmingham police officer present if he wanted the plate, Pierce said she was told to “just throw it away . . . don’t worry about it.”

The truck was stolen a second time in May of this year from in front of her apartment on Idlewild Circle, where she moved after the first truck theft occurred.

• • •
South Avondale resident Brent Marshall told mayoral candidates at the Redmont Community mayoral forum on September 20 about crime in his neighborhood. Marshall and his family returned home from a vacation this past summer to find a bullet beneath the window of his three-year-old daughter’s bedroom. In an interview, he elaborated on crime in his neighborhood, especially the questionable activity at a nearby apartment complex on Fifth Avenue South.

“There’s lots of gang activity . . . I [often] hear gunfire,” he says. “There’s not enough of a police presence.” Marshall’s home has not been burglarized, but his neighbor’s house has been broken into twice, and several other houses on the block have been burglarized over the past two years. He says that residents willing to revive neighborhoods deserve better treatment. “People take an interest in Birmingham,” said Marshall. “People take a risk to move into an area like this and try to establish a community. People are on the verge of leaving—especially people with children and families.” &

Networking Crime

Networking Crime

Victims create a MySpace page to draw attention to Birmingham crime.

September 06, 2007

After being mugged near Five Points South (at the corner of 12th Avenue South and 18th Street) on April 27, Southside residents Lydia Simpson and Greg Martin decided to create an internet forum where other crime victims could share their stories. The resulting site, “Victims of Birmingham Crime” ( began with a recounting of their experience. Soon other stories were posted, detailing terrifying holdups at gunpoint and an often indifferent attitude by Birmingham police officers.

“Response [to the site] was kind of off and on [at first],” says Simpson, who also had her automobile broken into last December during the day (as have two other employees at the Five Points location of Bailey Brothers Music, where both Simpson and Martin work). “But It’s developed a real community feeling to it, where people come together to talk about possible solutions and make other people aware of what’s going on.”

In the case of Simpson’s experience, she and Martin had left Bailey’s Pub late at night and returned to their car when two men pretending to panhandle approached the couple. Simpson was already sitting inside when one of the strangers jumped into the car before Martin could get in. One assailant shoved Simpson against the door, grabbed her by the throat, and yelled, “Give me your purse, bitch, give me your f***ing purse, bitch.” He also burned Simpson’s arm with a cigarette. Outside, the other attacker was punching Martin after knocking him to the ground. After the men fled with Simpson’s purse, a policewoman who had been flagged down by the couple chased the muggers. That’s when a second group of men hanging out in a nearby parking lot began approaching Simpson and Martin, yelling at them. The couple immediately headed toward Bailey’s Pub but the second group of thugs caught up with them and gave Martin another beating. He and Simpson eventually broke free and ran back to the club.

Simpson was not happy with the comment made by the officer who arrived to fill out a report. According to Simpson, “The response by one of the officers was, ‘I guess that’ll teach you to stay out of Southside.’” However, she is quick to defend Birmingham police officers in general. “In the first interview that we did with CBS [local affiliate CBS 42] . . . the angle had been that the police are discouraging people from reporting crimes, and that’s why the statistics are skewed. So when CBS asked [the police] for a comment, they basically just denied it outright. The sergeant in charge at the Southside precinct can’t possibly know exactly what all of his officers are saying at all times. I don’t think it’s necessarily a departmental policy; they’re just overworked and underpaid. When it comes down to doing the paperwork for something that they see every day, they’re just burned out.”

Another account on the site is from a couple who were returning to their car around midnight on a Friday night. The vehicle was parked a block away from Bell Bottoms nightclub in Five Points South. Two men ran toward them and surrounded the car. The female was already seated behind the wheel. Her companion was not yet inside when one assailant thrust what was believed to be a 9mm pistol into the man’s stomach, demanding money as he began counting backwards from “three.” By the time the attacker reached “one,” the male victim had his cash out. The panicked woman screamed for the assailant not to shoot, at which point he aimed his gun at her and demanded her money and phone. The other mugger then grabbed her purse, but an oncoming automobile interrupted the robbery before the car keys could be handed over.

The couple walked to the nearby Ruby Tuesday restaurant and found two police officers who wrote a report but “seemed not to care,” suggesting that the robbers had probably disappeared into a club.

At the MySpace site, Simpson, Martin, and others are often defiant about not yielding control of their community to thugs. Yet they offer safety tips such as wearing practical shoes “that will not hinder you from being able to escape an attack,” apparently indicating that visitors to Southside should be combat-ready. “I see women walking around Southside in stilettos,” Martin noted, shaking his head. “And it’s a good way to get hurt.” The 37-year-old Martin has watched Southside evolve into an area far more dangerous than the one he remembers from his youth. “I used to hang around the fountain when I was young.” he said. “But I wouldn’t let my child hang around there today. &

Still Southern After All These Years

Still Southern After All These Years

By Ed Reynolds
May 31, 2007

Roy Blount, Jr.’s essays and books of wry observations slice reality into more amusingly diverse shapes than a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. When not defending his fellow Southerners (Blount grew up in Georgia), he turns that much-maligned chunk of America known as the Deep South into a cultural punching bag for the amusement of Yankees everywhere, even while launching hilarious tirades against the North for its ignorance concerning Dixie.

Currently heard on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” Blount first achieved notoriety when he followed the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost a year to write the book Three Bricks Shy of a Load in 1974. Periodically, his barbed-wire embrace of the South gets him wrongly lumped in with Lewis Grizzard, the late redneck humorist who harvested acres of corn-pone jokes, apparently willed to comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Blount writes, “I have been referred to as ‘the thinking man’s Lewis Grizzard’—a description that nearly eliminates every possible market.” Blount adds that Grizzard’s best-selling humor books are “to Southern humor as foot-long pecan rolls are to Southern cuisine.”

In his latest book, Blount recalls the arrival of Krispy Kreme donuts in New York City several years ago: “At a grocery store on the Upper West Side called Gourmet Garage, I came upon a tray full of cold Krispy Kremes for sale beneath a sign that said FRESH FROM THE ANTE-BELLUM SOUTH. ‘Well, now,’ I said to the man behind the counter. ‘They can’t be any too fresh . . . I mean, if they date back to circa 1859.’”


“I did a story about Willie Nelson for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff.” (click for larger version)



Blount will give a lecture and sign copies of his latest book, Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South at the McWane Center at 6:30 p.m. on June 12. The event will benefit 90.3 WBHM. Call 870-4242 for details.

Black & White: When I was younger, Southern stereotypes, as portrayed in Hollywood or books, sort of bothered me. Now that I’m older, I get a perverse pleasure out of insulting perceptions of the South.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” always sort of bothered me. But I always enjoyed “Hee Haw”—well, not every minute of it. There’s a piece in my book about the difference between Nashville, which is supposed to be a great movie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, even though there are all sorts of broad stereotypes, because it seemed to be appreciative. And also the music was really good. Whereas in Nashville, the music was written by the damn actors, and Robert Altman didn’t seem to care anything about what Nashville was really like.

Any thoughts on the Confederate flag?

I get a lot of questions about the Confederate flag. It’s crazy to have a flag that divides people of the region along racial lines. So I suggested a new Southern flag that would be half green for “money” and half blue for “the blues.” And sort of a dark brown male-looking hand and a tan male-looking hand, and the same thing with (two) female hands, and they would all be doing what flags do, which is wave. And the slogan underneath would be “Just fine. And you?” It would be a lot friendlier flag.

What’s your opinion of Don Imus?

I didn’t like Don Imus. I was not sorry to see him go. I never did appear on his show. He always just seemed, to me, to be pushing the envelope to no good end . . . I used to drive my kids to school and we used to listen to him, and none of us liked him. It seemed to me he was trying to be cooler than he was. And you just don’t say “Nappy-headed ho’s.” I wouldn’t say it in private, much less on the radio . . . or say it by accident (laughs).

How did you come to follow the Pittsburgh Steelers for Three Bricks Shy of a Load?

I was working at Sports Illustrated and one day the managing editor summoned me to the bar where a bunch of [writers and editors] would sit around at lunchtime—and after work—and drink. And they came up with the notion that somebody on the staff should spend a year with a football team and write a book . . . I had just gotten divorced and I was sort of at loose ends and I had covered the [Pittsburgh] Pirates a lot, and, also, I had done a story about the Rooney family, who owned the Steelers. [Sports Illustrated] wanted me to do the L.A. Rams or the Jets or some famous team, but I had the sense that Pittsburgh would be the place to go. So I said I’d do it if I could do it in Pittsburgh.

What was your reception like among the players?

I think it was better than it would have been in L.A. or New York, because the Steelers hadn’t been covered all that much at that time. This was the 1973 season . . . I really had that team nailed. I knew everybody on the team and the hangers-on and the coaches and scouts. It was a great way to see a cross-section of American life.

I read you were unhappy when introduced once at a humor-writing seminar as “the world’s most sophisticated redneck.”

I don’t think people ought to throw around the word “redneck” the way they do. People from the North don’t seem to realize that there is anything potentially insulting about it. If I were more of a redneck, it would be one thing, but I don’t even have a dog. I’d like to have one. I have had many dogs, but at the moment I don’t have one . . . The “introducer” didn’t know what a redneck was . . . And I’m not all that sophisticated. It was condescending without realizing it was condescending. The taxonomy was all screwed up (laughs).

Was Lewis Grizzard a sophisticated redneck?

Well, he did cocaine and wore loafers without any socks (laughs). In those two respects, he was more sophisticated than I.

Do you still eat Krispy Kreme donuts?

I remember loving them, and I will eat one occasionally. I used to eat half a dozen. Now I think I would die if I ate three. But I nostalgically eat one every now and then. I still think they’re a lot better than Dunkin’ Donuts. At least when they’re hot. I was disillusioned when I was bringing my wife to taste a hot Krispy Kreme for the first time. And the “Hot Now” sign was blinking at this Krispy Kreme store [in New York City]. I went in and they weren’t hot. I said, “You got you’re ‘Hot Now’ light blinking.” And he said, “Well, the manager said to keep that blinking all the time.” And it just broke my heart. You can’t do that.

Chef Frank Stitt was on “The Martha Stewart Show” a few weeks ago to prepare some sort of typical Southern dish, and when he ladled out the grits, the studio audience started applauding.

I don’t know why people think grits are unusual. I do like grits, and you can get grits in New York at some places, not just fancy places. Grits are such a great absorptive substance. The yellow of the eggs and red-eye gravy and stuff. I remember Jerry Clower talking about being served Irish potatoes for breakfast. Explaining grits is sort of like asking an Irishman to explain “potato.” They’re just grits.

I doubt if the marijuana was a surprise to anybody, but how about Willie Nelson also being charged with possession of psilocybin mushrooms a few months ago?

I did a story about Willie for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff. But he’s always been pretty open about that. Mushrooms? Shit, I’m too old to do stuff like that. But then again, if Willie wants to do psilocybin mushrooms, who am I to tell him no? &


City Hall — Council Debates a Bright Future



Council Debates a Bright Future

The Council clashes on the merits of digital billboards.


May 17, 2007

At the May 1 City Council meeting, Councilor Valerie Abbott, chair of the planning and zoning committee, sought a temporary moratorium on LED digital billboards and other outdoor electric business signs. “Our city sign ordinance is very old,” explained Abbott, concerning the need for a moratorium until city codes can be updated to address digital sign technology. The councilor said that the ordinances regulating outdoor advertising in Birmingham were written before electronic billboards existed. Currently, two digital LED billboards operate in Birmingham’s city limits, according to the councilor.

Discussion of the resolution for the proposed moratorium included a public hearing, allowing local residents to address the issue. Surprisingly, few opponents of digital billboards spoke, whereas several advocates expressed approval of the technology. Local radio personality and one-time mayoral candidate Frank Matthews claimed that more advertising generates more revenue for businesses. “When you look at the digital billboards, it gives somewhat of a twenty-first-century perspective to Birmingham overall. . . . I am sick of seeing antiquated ugly signs. I like that newness,” said Matthews. He then accused Abbott of bringing up the issue because she is reportedly running for mayor.

Chris Dehaven of Pelham sign company Dixie LED was present to defend the LED signs. He pointed to the billboard’s efficient use of electricity. “It is the emerging sign art, there’s no doubt about it,” Dehaven told the council. “Almost half of all the signs that we do are for cities, parks, schools, and churches. Only about half of them are actually used by business owners. Unfortunately, a lot of business owners would like to have it, but they don’t have the funds [that are] available in the public sector.”

“There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.” —Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama

LED billboards change messages every six to eight seconds, and their intense brightness (which can be controlled) and high resolution are transforming outdoor advertising. Instead of buying space, advertisers can buy time on LED billboards. The billboards also give advertisers the ability to frequently and easily modify their ads.

Reverend Wanda Radford of the organization Mothers Who Want the Violence to Stop (Radford’s son was killed in August 2006 in a random shooting) praised Lamar Advertising for donating billboards that feature images of slain children and the promotion of cash rewards for information leading to solving the crimes. “If we had the money to put up electronic billboards, we would do so,” said Radford, who challenged the city to use digital billboards to assist in searching for homicide suspects.

A DVD presentation by Tom Traylor of Lamar Advertising touted the efficiency and impact of LED digital billboards. “Unlike other elements a driver encounters, digital billboards do not flash nor do they feature animation, motion video, or intermittent light,” according to the video. The billboards’ ability to flash Amber Alert notifications were also praised as a benefit.

Councilor Steven Hoyt is opposed to any moratorium. “There’s not been a moratorium on all these junkyards that appear in the community. Neither has there been one on the beer and wine licenses that we hand out every week, and we’re still trying to rewrite those ordinances and zoning issues. And I’m just not inclined to impede a business that is thriving. Aesthetically, it looks good.” Hoyt continued, “I’m distracted by all this grass that the state department doesn’t cut, going down the freeway . . . I really want to commend Lamar for stepping up their game, and it sets a precedent for others who want to get into the business.”

City attorney Lawrence Cooper, however, warned that the law could be lagging behind technology, and that safety and brightness issues could be distracting to motorists. “If we allow these billboards to continue to go up right now, they may be grandfathered in with some type of technology that is not useful,” said Cooper. “So please be aware of the law trying to play catch-up with issues that we’re presented with.”

A current Federal Highway Administration study has not been completed, which is the reason the planning and zoning committee suggested a moratorium until potential LED sign distractions and subsequent dangers are determined, according to Abbott. The councilor explained that the committee wants to study whether LED digital signs should be allowed at certain intersections where there is a lot of dangerous traffic—such as Malfunction Junction—or if they should be allowed near residential areas. “We’re not saying, ‘Ban the signs.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s stop and look at the issue and make sure we’re doing the intelligent thing in our city.’ Other cities have banned them completely, [or] they’ve put restrictions on them,” said Abbott. “So that is the reason for asking for the moratorium, so that we have time to look at the issue before we have a whole city full of signs and can’t do anything about them because we’ve already allowed them.”

Vestavia Hills revoked a permit for a digital billboard last year after it was determined that the sign failed to comply with the city’s sign ordinance. Lamar Advertising has filed an appeal to have the sign reinstated.

“It was in a pretty bad location on Rocky Ridge Road,” said Rebecca Leavings, acting city clerk for the city of Vestavia Hills. “It’s in litigation right now . . . Our sign ordinance says no changing images or animation or flashing—or something like that. So it comes down to what’s going to be an interpretation by the courts as to whether or not that’s what was [in violation]. But it was in a poor location. Also, it was right down on the road.”

Digital billboards are prohibited in Hoover, according to Stan Benton, assistant director of building inspections services for the city. Signs with electronically changeable messages, flashing lights, and reader boards (except for public service, time and temperature signs, and scoreboards at athletic facilities) are prohibited, as are any new locations of billboards of any type.

“The point is that the city council is responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the general public,” said Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama, in a telephone interview. “It is vital to the traveling public, to our residents and our citizens that nothing hazardous is going to happen [as a result of] those [LED billboards]. We have trucks [dropping] steel coils, we lost an overpass from a crash of a tanker, we have trucks coming through there. [The council] needs to at least know what the safety issues are and make a decision based on that, not just based on ‘aren’t these things wonderful and flashy!’ You need to make sure that no one is going to have a wreck looking at them before you allow them to go in. . . . There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to say, if you’re a responsible elected official, ‘Let’s make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.’”

Lamar Advertising has requested permits for two more LED billboards. The Birmingham City Council approved a two-week delay. At press time, the moratorium was scheduled for a vote at the May 15 council meeting. &