"Today, you can find the last of the old-man-people-watchers, but you have to make a long drive into the sticks. "

“This is bad traffic," said my mother-in-law, Mary. "But, I don't mind sitting. I like watching things."

"Watching?" I asked.

"Yep, like old men used to do in Brewton, they'd sit down on benches by the department store and just people-watch, tell jokes, and cuss.”

What I would've given to be people-watching. Instead, Mary and I sat in stand-still-traffic. Car bumpers touching, exhaust vapors potent enough to make you see pink elephants.

The Land Rover behind me wouldn't quit riding my tail. If he crept any closer, he would've been in my lap.

Mary went on,

“Back then, all the farmers would do their shopping on Saturdays. Daddy kept the store open late. The country ladies would drop by, bringing jams, vegetables, berries. Mama called them Daddy's lady-friends.”

She laughed.

“Sometimes, we'd spend whole evenings just eating one bowl of ice cream until it turned to soup.”

Mister Land Rover laid on his horn. He was trying to get around me. I don't know where he was going, but if he didn't get there fast,…

"Imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck."

I'm watching a single mother right now. She's young. Her rebellious toddler is refusing to eat coleslaw. He screams. Everyone in the barbecue joint watches while the boy flings a spoonful onto her blouse. She's embarrassed.

And I can tell, just by her face, this child will never walk on two legs again.

I have a soft spot for single mothers.

If you want to know what it's like to be one, try this: imagine you haven't slept in ten years, your washing machine explodes, your car breaks down, and now you have coleslaw running down your neck.

That's a good day.

On a bad day, it's frozen pizza.

Listen, it's hard as hell in this world. I can't think of anything more difficult than navigating through it. But for a single mother, it's like trying to balance the Titanic on your nose.

These ladies survive on coffee and bad habits. They work until their fingerprints wear off. They spin and grind until they can't do anymore—and then they do more. And right around five in the afternoon, they cry in the bathroom with…

"I know it's hard to imagine, but in those days we had complete conversations. And we looked each other in the eyes. "

I wish today's children could spend one summer like we did—before smartphones. Back when life was about bikes, fishing, and honeysuckles. When we did daring things kids wouldn't dream of doing today.

Take, for instance, the tire-swing down by the creek, that thing was a death trap. Or: piling four kids onto a bicycle, and rolling down a steep hill. Or: building the world's largest paper airplane, then riding it off a shed roof like a bobsled team.

That was summer.

Maybe this seems pathetic to you. After all, you have handheld devices capable of actuating nuclear weapons using your thumbprints.

The only devices some of us had,

were phones in the kitchen with cords long enough to reach Russia. To chat with friends, we had to stop by their houses on bicycles. Often, their mamas would invite us for lunch—usually a sandwich and sweet tea. If you played your cards right, you could hit two houses in one day and get two lunches.

Which was the greatest summer blessing of all.

Years ago, I met a man in a bar who'd consumed enough liquor to fill a goldfish bowl. He wore a Rolex as big around as my head,…

Also in the congregation were field workers, house painters, roofers, landscapers, and farm hands. The pastor, for instance, worked on a tomato farm.

Nine o'clock at night. I stood in a double-wide with one hundred Mexicans. They sang at the tops of their lungs. I recognized the tune, "Blessed Assurance." I did not recognize the words.

The first thing you should know: these people are workers. One woman told me she had two jobs—a dishwasher in a small Alabamian cafe, and a maid at Best Western.

“Don't you ever sleep?” I asked.

She laughed.

Also in the congregation were field workers, house painters, roofers, landscapers, and

farm hands. The pastor, for instance, worked on a tomato farm. When he preached the people shouted, "Gloria Dios!"

I hollered an "Amen!" Which made my buddy laugh until he almost peed himself.

Well, It bears mentioning: I'm not familiar with other cultures. In fact, the most ethnic experience I'd ever undergone was JB's Chinese Buffet in Freeport.

The churches of my childhood weren't like this place.…

Listen, I don't know where the world is going. To tell you the truth, just the prospect makes me sick to my stomach.

Birmingham, Alabama—in traffic, a busy intersection. I saw a man with a long wiry beard wander between the cars, holding a cardboard sign that read: “God bless you.”

The car ahead of me opened its passenger door. A young boy leapt out and handed the man a box of pizza. No sooner had he done so, than someone from another car gave the man bags of groceries. Then, someone gave him money. Then another person.

And another.

Soon, there were twenty hands poking out

of car windows. I wish you could've seen that fella's face.

Santa Rosa Beach, Florida—I got home from work to find my wife playing cards with a complete stranger. A sixteen-year-old girl, with dreadlocks, glittery-jeans, and a smile on her face.

“This is Taniqua,” said my wife. “Her car broke down, we're waiting for the tow truck. Wanna play five-card draw?”

I stood dumbfounded.

Of course…

When Robert went to greet his nephew, he noticed a seven-year-old girl waiting in the cubicle next door.

You got kids?” Robert asked.

I shook my head. The closest I've ever come to fatherhood is cleaning dog poop off my kitchen floor.

"Lucky you," Robert said. "I've got four boys. It ain't easy."

So I've heard. Friends with kids tell me being a father is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree with a hammer. And I understand motherhood is the same—minus the hammer.

"My sister-in-law," said Robert. "Now there's a terrible

parent. She's got no business being a mother. The state of Georgia took her son away when she got hooked on crack."

Crack. And I thought dog dookie on the kitchen floor was bad.

“They took my nephew to some kinda social services place,” Robert went on. “I went to get him back. It was a damn mess.”

You'll note: I've cleaned…

People hollered things like, “glory,” and, "praise the Lord," then started singing, "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands." Which seemed like a strange song.

It was on the side of the road, outside Phenix City. The small crowd of folks crawled out of their cars, wearing their Sunday best, walking toward a small pond. It was a curious sight, to see vehicles lined up on the shoulder in the middle of nowhere.

My buddy said the whole church came to these events. Which wasn't saying much—there weren't many members.

No sooner had I stepped out of the truck, than a woman in a frilly hat shushed me, whispering, “Y'all almost missed it, you're just in time.”

Lucky us.

Three men waded into shallow brown water while the small crowd sang a song

I didn't recognize. My friend knew it by heart, something to do with the River Jordan.

One man stood in the water wearing rubber chest waders, the kind meant for fishing. The boy beside him wore tennis shoes, a bathing suit, and a long white T-shirt.

"Purpose," said the man in waders. "God has a purpose for this boy."

The man went on to explain that one week prior, the boy, had survived a motorcycle wreck. Somehow, the boy walked away from the accident without breaking a bone or sustaining a single…

Little houses dotted the sides of the highway. Each with an outdoor workshop—a place men go to tinker. “Piddling,” my granny would’ve called it.

On a two-lane county highway—somewhere in Alabama. The weather was perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean it.

"Look at that barn," said my wife.

I looked.

We must've passed fifty of them. Each looked like a photograph. Dilapidated things—old wood and tin roofs.

We rocketed by pastures that rolled up and down like little oceans. Herds of cattle, huddled beneath enormous shade trees.

A church bus passed me. The side of the bus read, "New Zion Methodist Church, South Carolina." The folks inside were singing. So help me, singing. The lady in back looked like Aretha Franklin—only happier.

Behind them, a busted-up yellow truck with so much rust it hardly qualified as yellow. A bumper sticker read, "Go to church and live right, or Nick Saban will get you."

We shot past ponds, big ones. I can't look at rural bodies of water without wondering whether they're full of bream and bass. What would be the point of having them if they weren't?

We stopped at an elderly man's vegetable stand. I bought forty-seven homegrown tomatoes.

"You're wiping me out," he said.


He winked. "Well, hell. What am I gonna do with all this money?"

I hear Disney World is lovely this time of year.

We drove past magnolias, live oaks, and enough pine trees to make you sick of pine trees. Which could never happen.

Little houses dotted the sides of the highway. Each with an outdoor workshop—a place men go to tinker. "Piddling," my granny would've called it.

It was inside a workshop, my uncle showed me how to change the oil on a Chevy. And once, during a family reunion, when they ran out of beds inside the house, I slept in the bed of that truck. I fell asleep staring at old political posters on the garage walls. Things that read: "I like Ike," or, "Carry on, with Roosevelt," or, "United we win."

Once, when I was much younger, I stood on this beach at midnight. I was wearing a stiff shirt and necktie.

You ought to visit the beach at midnight. If for no other reason, than to see this starry sky. It's magnificent. It looks like someone sprinkled powdered sugar on a puddle of motor oil.

And sometimes, Gulf waves sound like the earth breathing. In and out. Or, maybe it's God whispering the same thing over and over. Such as: "It's gonna be okay. Okay. Oooookay.”

Once, when I was much younger, I stood on this beach at midnight. I was wearing a stiff shirt and necktie.

Earlier that same day, I'd attended the funeral of a friend. It was open casket. My pal looked like he belonged in a wax museum. The whole thing reminded me of my father's funeral, which made me sick to my stomach.

While I sat in the sand, I saw a man dragging a cooler. He noticed me sulking and mumbled something in Spanish.

I gave a confused look.

So, he opened the cooler and offered me a beer. “I sit here?” he asked.

It was a rude thing to say. Especially since

I was trying to be miserable in peace.

He sat down, anyway.

The man didn't say a word since I wouldn't have understood him. He only stared upward.

Finally he pointed his bottle at the night and said, “Big. It's big, yes?"


He made the international hand-gesture for, "big"—like measuring a whale with his hands—and dropped his beer.

I laughed.

So did he.

Of course, he was right. The night sky is more than big. It's gargantuan, loaded with flecks of light. The entire brain of God is up there, smeared all over, for us to see exactly what he's thinking.

In fact, if you ever start to feel sad, you ought to go stand waist-deep in the night water. You'll see things before and above you that make you feel tiny. Your heart will start slowing down, and you'll begin…

You’d never know Sarah survived the Great Depression to look at her.

To live in rural Alabama during the early ninteen-thirties was about as fun as eating a bowlful of dirt. Take it from ninety-year-old Miss Sarah, who spent her early childhood in the poverty of this forgotten era.

“Back then,” said Sarah. “My brother and I outgrew our shoes. And because Daddy had no money, we didn't get new ones. Had to go without. Daddy wouldn't even let us walk into town. He didn't want other folks seeing us barefoot, knowing how poor we were.”

You'd never know Sarah survived the Great Depression to look at her. When I met her, she wore a pastel pant suit, complimented by her brilliant white hair. And, it bears mentioning: I've never seen so many pearls on one woman before.

“See," she went on. "When cotton prices fell to rock bottom, and the boll weevil ruined Daddy's crop one year, we fell on hard times. It only took a few months.” She snapped her fingers. “We had nothin'.”


Today, such a statement might mean

not having cable television, internet, or health insurance. In Sarah's childhood, it meant sewing dresses from feed sacks, making soup out of ketchup and water, bathing in the creek with no soap.

And eating grits.

“We ate grits until I hated them,” said Sarah. “It was all we had. Grits, grits, grits, every day. Daddy took ill, the doctor said it was because he wasn't getting enough nutrition from just eating hominy."

In fact, her father became so sick, he was too weak to work his wage labor job at a nearby farm. So, Sarah's mother took on the role of family breadwinner.

Her mother walked miles into town to take in laundry. She also worked as a seamstress, cleaned houses, cooked, and even gave piano lessons to local children—one dime per lesson.

“I've forgotten a lot from those years,” said Sarah, closing her eyes. “But I can still…