Day Four. We have been living in Birmingham, Alabama, for four days and I am lost. Hopelessly lost. Right now I am in interstate traffic and I have no idea where in the Lord’s name I am.

Also, it’s colder than a witch’s jogbra in this city. The temperature last night was 37 degrees and I couldn’t feel my digits.

Before you accuse me of being a weather wimp, I must remind you that I come from the Panhandle, where the median temperature is 103, and our hurricane season lasts from June to the following June.

So I was not ready for the freezing temps a few nights ago. My entire little family slept in one bed to keep warm, and whenever it got cold, my wife threw on another dog.

But that’s what you get here in the foothills of the Appalachians. Because when I asked the guy at the hardware store if it would ever warm up, he explained the weather like this:

“This is Birmingham, dude. You git what you git, and

you don’t pitch a fit.”

Which reminds me: I know all the hardware store employees on a first-name basis now. I’ve been spending a lot of time at Home Depot lately.

Since we are still busy moving into our house, my wife has been sending me on random hardware errands for items such as felt chair pads, shims, sink stoppers, and (Don’t ask) pitchforks.

I go to the hardware store four of five times per day, sometimes more. Sometimes I don’t even buy anything, I just wander the aisles wearing a helpless look, glancing at my wife’s list in a way that causes concerned employees to sidle up to me and ask if I need a chaplain.

Then an employee leads me to an aisle where my item is located and I am forced to choose between an infinity of options, colors, and denominations.


I hung an American flag on our house today. We just moved in. We have only been living in Birmingham for three days, but I thought it was time we flew the Stars and Stripes.

This house dates back to 1923, so this porch has probably seen its share of flags.

When Lindbergh flew across the pond, a flag whipped from these columns. When the Depression hit, and people stood in 10-mile breadlines, there was a flag here. When the kid who grew up in this old house went off to join a global war, and died in Europe, Old Glory was flying from the eaves.

So I went to the hardware store to buy a flag.

“Yeah, we got flags,” said 80-year-old hardware store employee, Steadman. “But I tell you right upfront,” he added, “flying a flag ain’t cheap.”

I thought Steadman was speaking poetically, but as it turned out, he was speaking from his wallet. Flags cost a small fortune.

First there was the oak

flagpole ($35.99), then the mounting hardware ($29.99), the flag hooks ($4.99 apiece), the masonry screws ($8.99), the masonry drill bit ($19.99), and of course, the flag itself ($69.99). For those keeping tally, that’s a grand total of $154.94. It would have been cheaper just to get a flag tattooed on my forehead.

But the American flag speaks to me. I wish I could give you some high-minded patriotic reason for why I spent hours hanging the Star Spangled Banner from my house, I wish I could be ultra poetic and tell you what a great citizen I am. But I’m not a poet. And my reasons are much more low-rent than that.

I just really like American flags.

I love being American. When I was young, people my age were hellbent on traveling to Europe to become internationally conscious. I was so jealous of my friend, Justin, who studied journalism in college. He…

This is our second day living in Birmingham. I am writing this while sitting atop a mountain of cardboard boxes. And I can’t believe this town is officially home.


How bizarre. I keep having to retrain my brain to refer to Florida as “the place I used to live.” Which just sounds so weird. But it’s even weirder calling Birmingham “home.”

Currently, our house is filled with shipping crates. All I see are cartons in each direction. From wall to wall. It looks like I’m drowning in an Atlantic of corrugated cardboard.

Earlier, for example, an Amazon deliveryperson rang the doorbell, but I wasn’t able to answer the door, inasmuch as I was wading through shoulder-high mounds of boxes in my living room.

So I simply shouted, “Just leave it on the porch!” And the sound of my voice caused a massive cardboard avalanche. I was trapped beneath boxes for three hours without food or beer.

The thing about moving is, until recently, I did not realize how much crapola we owned.

Judging by the amount of boxes within this house, I would estimate that we personally own approximately half the earth’s gravitational mass.

The worst part about unpacking all our wares is that I cannot decipher my own handwritten labels on many of the boxes. I have no idea what we were thinking when we tagged these crates with our runaway Sharpies. We must have been inhaling some major paint fumes because the labels are written in complete gibberish.

I am thinking here of one box in particular, which is marked: JAMIE’S PODE STOPES—NEW.

It is unclear what this label means. However, if we use our abilities as trained English majors, we can tell by the word sequence that this box contains a great many “stopes,” or more specifically, “pode stopes,” which evidently, according to the text, belong to “Jamie,” and are “new,” as opposed to outdated pode…

Day One. My first 24 hours living in Birmingham. And in the words of my boyhood idol, Sarah Ophelia Cannon, I am just so proud to be here.

But it’s loud in this town.

I am in our new house, sitting in my new office, staring at a blank laptop screen. I should be doing actual work right now, but I can’t concentrate. The county is doing construction outside my window and—


Pardon the noise, that was the sound of a backhoe plowing into my truck. My truck was parked on the street, but it has now been converted into a steel pancake. Also, because of road construction, we’re without running water.

“Could be worse,” says the construction guy, driving the backhoe. “At least you’re not without power.”

Thank God for little blessings.

Currently, it’s a perfect day in the ‘Ham. Overcast, with touches of sunlight peeking through the clouds. There are birds singing. There are white and pink camellia trees swaying in the central Alabamian breeze—


Construction Guy has just rapped on our

door to inform me that our water is going to be off for several more presidential administrations. I ask him how long, exactly, he’s thinking we’ll be without water.

The man takes a long draw on his Camel and gazes into the distance through hardened eyes. Then he sums up every bureaucracy in a few words: “We’re looking into it.”


I look out the window to see more heavy equipment and more workmen. There are more 16-metric-ton excavators rattling the ground so violently that my coffee has vibrated off my desk.

I’m afraid all these earthquakes are going to turn this house into a pile of rubble.

Our house is no spring zucchini. The structure was built in 1923, shortly after the birth of Cher, and believe me, it’s in fantastic shape. But it’s an old house, and you never…

I am an honorary Alabamian, even though Florida is my home state. It’s kind of a long story, but I promise, if you bear with me, this will be a complete waste of your time.

I first became Alabamian in a hotel lobby full of Alabama officials. It was sort of like spring break check-in at some fancy resort. Only these weren’t teenagers with suntans. These were white-haired people with sport coats and extremely low centers of gravity.

I went to the front desk and checked into my hotel room.

A guy behind me in line said, “So, you’re the keynote speaker for the Alabama Governor’s Conference?”


“Where in Alabama are you from?”

“I’m from Florida.”

“What? And YOU’RE our keynote speaker?”

“That’s right.”

To which he replied, “Huh!”

The enormous auditorium started to fill up. And I’m talking about a room the size of a rural school district. I kept having this feeling that I didn’t belong here. What was I doing? I’m not an Alabamian. I was starting to feel pretty dumb.

Another man shook my hand and said, “So, what part of Alabama

are you from?”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m from the Panhandle.”

He gave a confused look, then he said “Why on earth did they hire YOU?”

So things were off to a great start.

I took the stage. I tapped the microphone. I said, “Hello, is this thing on?” But it turned out that the sound system was screwed up. What everyone heard was:


And that’s how the next forty minutes went.

When I finished, nobody was aware that I had concluded my speech because my voice was still reverberating in the airplane-hangar-like room. For all I know my voice is still echoing in that auditorium to this day.

The thing is, I truly love Alabama. That’s probably why I was asked to speak. I write more columns about Alabama than I…

PAXTON—I am driving a U-Haul through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham where we will begin a new chapter in our lives. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.

I lived in this county (past tense) just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly preacher who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.

It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a titanic abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it.

So he told me to pray for some, and said if my faith was strong, maybe someone would show up to help. Nobody ever did.

Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right

on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away.

The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. The same culture I will miss. You have Baptists coming out your ears, and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.

There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.

And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire eighty-year-plus history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.

It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning…

A backroad somewhere along the Suwannee River. The world was covered in bald cypresses, live oaks and beards of Spanish moss. And I really had to pee.

I had been driving all morning through the Twenty-Seventh State. We are moving this week. These are my last 24 hours as a Floridian, which is almost surreal. Tomorrow my home state will no longer be my home.

My urinary pains were getting worse with each passing mile. Ever since Lake City I had been doing the ceremonial dance of the loaded bladder.

I finally found a gas station tucked in the sticks. It was an old joint with rolling-number pumps, a rusted tin roof, and plywood on some of the windows.

“Here?” said my wife. “You’re stopping here? This place looks like a tetanus farm.”

I hopped out of the car before I could answer.

In front of the station were old men. They were seated in fold-up lawn chairs, chewing the fat. Their caps bore the logos of heavy equipment brands.

Inside, the woman at the counter

looked to be comfortably in her eighties. She wore cat-eye glasses á la 1959, and I could smell the unmistakable scent of Opium perfume my granny used to wear. She was in a rocking chair, reading a “Woman’s World” magazine with her non-smoking hand.

“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked.

I was jogging in place.

She adjusted her hearing aid. “Huh?”

“A bathroom,” I said. “It’s urgent.”

“A what?”

“Bath. Room. Please.”

The woman moved about as quickly as a semester of veterinary school. She took her sweet time digging behind the counter while my bladder swelled to the size of a football.

Finally, she gave me a key with a Ford hubcap attached to the chain and sternly told me to bring it back when I finished. I smiled at her and tried to imagine a world where a man would steal…

Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, the longest river in Florida. I’m sitting at the river’s edge, eating lunch, watching the seagulls beg for my bread crust.

“It’s not polite to beg,” I tell the gulls.

They simply stare at me with sad eyes because deep in their little bird hearts they know I’m right.

On the shore is an old guy, fishing. He has a white beard down to his navel. He is shirtless. He looks exactly like a Biblical prophet would look if that prophet had also been a founding member of ZZ Top.

The man waves at me. And even though I don’t know this man from Adam’s stepson, I wave back.

“How’re you today?” he says.

“Fine. You?”

“I’d be a lot better if they were biting!” he says.

Then he casts.

And basically, I’ve just described Palatka in a nutshell. Friendly. Small. Nice. Lots of fishing.

Palatka proper is behind me, brilliant in the noon sun, painted with the vivid pinks of a million azaleas. The brick edifices look the way they did 150 years ago.

The bell in the First Presbyterian church rings out a tune. And the town is overrun with walkers. Which I find absolutely wonderful.

You don’t see people walking much anymore. And yet that’s how America used to be. People walked everywhere. These days, however, if you walk as a means of transportation you take your life into your hands.

If you don’t believe me, just take a stroll to your local Walmart on foot. You’ll have to hop eight lanes of traffic, jog across 23 culverts, and dodge at least 450 sleep-deprived truck drivers. By the time you get to Wally World you will be out of breath, covered in mud, and suffering PTSD.

But in Palatka you still see people walking.

“You from around here?” asks ZZ Top, cranking his reel.

“No sir,” I say.

Back to…

The old man in the crowded hotel dining room was wearing dual hearing aids. He smiled and greeted me with a voice that was loud enough to change the migratory patterns of geese.

“You can sit by me!” he said, patting the seat.

Truthfully, I did not want to sit next to this loud guy—I didn’t want to sit next to anyone. But I had no choice. There were no available tables because the room was overrun with a girl’s soccer team.

Hell hath no fury like a girl’s soccer team attacking a continental breakfast bar.

The teenage girls were noisy, fidgety, and flinging complimentary fruit at one another, achieving incredible distances with their cantaloupe wedges.

The team’s adult chaperones wore weary looks on their faces, expressions which seemed to say: “Point me to the nearest liquor store, please?”

So I sat beside the old man. I was tired. I was uncaffeinated. I was not ready for a conversation with a stranger. I tried to send him a “leave me alone” message nonverbally. But the message was not received.

“Hey, pal, wanna hear something funny?” he said.

I looked at the man. I was definitely not in the mood for funny. Even so, I am the child of quiet evangelical fundamentalists; expressing disagreement is not in my repertoire.

“Sure,” I said.

He leaned in and said, “I have really bad gas.”

I stopped chewing. “I’m sorry?”

“Gas,” he said. “I have bad gas. I just had to tell someone.”

I looked around the room. This had to be a prank. Allen Funt and his camera crew must have been lurking around here somewhere.

But it was no joke. The old man told the entire story:

He was chaperoning his granddaughter to soccer camp. Last night, as soon as they checked into this hotel, he developed severe chest pains. He laid on his bed but the agony became worse so that…

I was late for a plane when I saw him. The freckled kid was in uniform. Operational camouflage combat fatigues. Reverse-flag patch on his right shoulder. High and tight haircut.

He was standing on the sidewalk outside the airport. His mother was beside him, straightening his collar. His little sister was there, too. So was his dad.

The young man was carrying a backpack the size of a Frigidare, the thing must have weighed a few metric tons. He was vaping from an e-cigarette nervously.

I could tell by everyone’s body language that this was farewell.

Mama stood three feet shorter than her boy. She stared upward into his young eyes and the expression on her face was mournful.

“You got everything, baby?” she said.

He might be on Uncle Sam’s payroll, but to her, he’s still “baby.”

“I packed sandwiches in your bag,” said Mama. “It’s a long trip, be sure to eat, need to keep your energy up.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Dad jumped in. “How long of a flight is it?”

“Six hours for the first half,” said the soldier.

Little Sister spoke up.

“I’ll miss you. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.”

He nodded solemnly, but offered nothing heartfelt in return. In fact, his side of the whole conversation was about as emotionally charged as a scoop of coleslaw.

Dad said, “Just keep your head down and your nose clean.”

Funny. American dads have been using this exact phrase since dads wore knee breeches and carried muskets to PTA meetings. Head down, nose clean. Here it is 2022, and dads are still saying it. Don’t tell me this isn’t a great country.

Dad clapped his son on the shoulder. “You’re gonna be fine.”

“We’re so proud’a you,” said Mama.

“I love you,” said Sister.

Once the soldier finished sucking on his vape pen, he gave Mama one final hug. Then he stooped to embrace Sister.…