It is hot in Alabama. Spitefully hot. Recent rains have turned the grassy parking area at Rickwood Field into beef stew.

I exit my truck and step directly into a mud hole that reaches clear up to my shins.

A guy in the parking lot says, “They didn’t pave parking lots a hundred years ago, and the folks at Rickwood are all about preservation.”

Lucky me.

I enter the ancient ballpark with muddy shoes. I pass through the antique turnstiles. I visit the concession stand and order a Coke. And I fall backward in time by about 112 years.

Rickwood Field is the oldest professional ballpark in the United States. It is a small park, seating roughly 11,000. Being here feels like walking into a James Earl Jones monologue.

These stands were built when William Howard Taft was still sleeping in the master bedroom of the White House. This press box was getting nailed together while the Titanic was still being constructed.

Today, there is a travel-ball game being played, so the park

is filled with parents wearing team T-shirts and tennis shoes. But I can’t see these people.

Instead, wherever I look I see ghosts in fedoras. Women in A-line dresses. Kids flat caps and knickers. I see handlebar mustaches, spats, watch fobs, and bags of penny peanuts.

I take a seat behind home plate. The sun is brutal. But the Coke is sweet enough to break your jaw. And I’m now living in 1910, the year before my grandfather was born. The year Halley’s Comet visited the earth.

The boys are warming up. Pitchers are loosening their arms. The outfield billboards feature classical ads from a former era. “Drink Pepsi 5¢.” “Try Coca-Cola—relieves fatigue.” “Budweiser—with meals and lunches.”

This park is located 7 miles from my front porch, and yet I’ve never visited it. In fact, many people in Birmingham have never even heard of this ballpark. When…

I got home and found a stack of mail on my desk.

Most of it was bills, bank statements, or catalogs for J. Crew, which advertised a stunning new summer collection specifically tailored for ordinary men and women. And by “ordinary men and women,” I mean people who are college age, over six foot, and weigh approximately 29 pounds.

So you can imagine my surprise when I tore open one envelope to find a type-written letter produced by a manual typewriter. Single spaced.

Moreover, this letter contained perfect grammar, flawless punctuation, and was written by a brilliant 14-year-old girl named Meg.

A girl who not only writes well, but also uses the Oxford comma.

See, Meg, I have a long history with the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, the final comma, or the comma that is smoking crack). I love this comma.

For the unbaptized, the Oxford comma is placed before the conjunction at the end of any list.

Here is an example sentence:

Whenever you come to

Mrs. Biderbecke’s class, please bring a notebook, pencil, eraser, a protractor, and a compass which students will never use except to carve bad words into desks.

The last comma in the previous sentence is an Oxford comma. Personally, I use this comma all the time because this habit was beaten into me from an early age.

My grade-school teacher, Mrs. Biderbecke, was a Pentecostal preacher’s wife with a 14-foot tall beehive hairdo. She taught our class with a King James Bible in one hand and a riding crop in the other. She compelled all God’s children to use Oxford commas.

And it was good advice, too. Because the Oxford comma is so lithe, functional, and cute. It works so well that it’s nearly invisible. It is the Jan Brady of the punctuation world.

It is, however, easy to go overboard when using commas. When I was…

BIRMINGHAM—Red Mountain filled my windshield from end to end. The sun was coming up. And the waffle gods were calling me. So I pulled over.

Waffle House was slow. The place was mostly empty except for a trucker, a teenage boy, and a cop eating hash browns.

The cook was staring out the window, sipping coffee. George Strait played overhead, singing about a clear blue sky. It was cold enough inside to hang meat.

My waitress was a motherly looking woman. She had long woven hair, done up in crimson braids. She approached my table. She placed my napkin and silverware down.

“Know what you want to drink, baby?”


I ordered a sweet tea, eggs, a pecan waffle and a few strips of sowbelly. She called out my order to the guy at the grill.

The cook lumbered into action. He was wearing one of those little paper hats. When I was a young man, working in the greasy bowels of an American diner, I wore a hat like this. We

called it “the confidence killer.”

I listened to the symphony of a kitchen begin to play. Refrigerators opened and closed. Eggs cracking. The hiss of a flat top. The metallic chop-chop of a steel spatula on a griddle.

I watched my waitress approach the teenager in the booth in front of me. He looked like a rough customer. His arms, neck and chest were painted in an assortment of artwork.

I had a perfect view of him from where I sat. There was the tattoo of a lyre emblazoned on his chin. There was the image of a demon on his shoulder. On one bicep was a four-letter word. A well-known word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

The kid was apparently hungry because he was on his second plate of food. When the waitress asked if he wanted to order something else the kid thought…

A no-name beer joint. Just off the highway. Somewhere outside Atlanta. Glowing Coors signs. Unlevel pool tables. I had been driving for several hours. I’d just hit town and my throat was dry.

I stepped into the dark room and made my way to the bar alongside the other hands. There was a kid playing music on a plywood stage. He had tattoos, a trendy mullet haircut and he wore his ballcap backward. He looked like a frat boy. He was singing what passes for country music in today’s melodically deprived America.

Then the kid started “country rapping.”

“Country music is dead,” said my bartender, who was pushing 70. Or maybe he was pulling it.

“The real cowboy singers have disappeared,” he went on. “I miss Willie Nelson, every day.”

He brought me a cold Pabst and asked what I wanted to eat.

“A burger,” said I.

He leaned onto his elbows. “We got vegan burgers, black bean burgers and chicken burgers.”

“Vegan burgers? I thought this was a beer joint.”

“New management.”

“But, I want a beef patty that’s

bleeding so badly it needs Band-Aids.”

The bartender sighed. “Don’t we all.”

The barman looked like a real cowpoke. He had smoker’s teeth. His skin was crepe paper. He wore a tan so rich he looked as though he’d been born in the Mojave.

His hands were veiny and rough. I know this because we actually shook hands. Just the way real guys used to do before the “fist bump” made us all look like schoolgirls playing Patty Cake at recess.

The kid strumming the guitar was still rapping. It was hard to watch.

The bartender looked at me. “They call it redneck rap. It’s all over the radio these days. Kids eat it up.”

“But it ain’t music,” said the guy next to me. He was wearing a crumpled suit. He looked like Fred Mertz after a long day.…

The sailboats are in the Charleston Harbor. White sailcloth, trimmed tightly. Hulls of every color.

Fort Sumter stands in the distance, the artificial island where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

There is a boy next to me. He is redheaded, chubby and wearing Chuck Taylors. He doesn’t have to tell me that his name is written on the inside tongue of the shoes. I already know.

The boy’s hair is curly. His freckles are too much. He has a lifelong overbite. He answers to the name Sean.

“Are you having a good time in Charleston?” I ask him.

“Yessir,” he says. So polite. “It's one of my favorite cities.”

“I know.”

“Do you like Charleston?” he says.

“One of my favorite cities,” I say.

Long silence.

“So,” I say, “what sorts of things have you done here so far?”

He shrugs. “Mostly just eat. You?”


I know this boy. But I haven’t seen him in years. I always forget what a nice boy he is.

And this niceness attribute, as it happens, is where a lot of his problems stem


Because the old saying is true, nice guys really do finish last. It’s merely a matter of physics. In the game of life, the role of the nice guy is to hold the door for everyone else. To refill the other guy’s iced tea.

But it’s a double-edged blade because nice guys aren’t usually nice to themselves. Nice guys have a hard time loving old Number One.

Nice guys, for example, don’t like their photos taken. “Oh, Lord,” the nice guys say, “I’m so ugly.”

In academic settings, sometimes nice guys don’t make very good grades. And even though a teacher assures them there is nothing wrong with their brains, the nice guy responds, “Why can’t I understand this? Why I am so stupid?”

Thus, the nice guy is predisposed to disliking what he…

I’ve always liked South Carolina. But I like it even more on days like this.

The weather is overcast. The sky is cloudy. The air is so humid you could sip it with a straw.

Although the humidity is one of the best parts of South Carolina. It seeps into your pores, into your olfactory senses and into your clothes. And if you have curly hair, for example, you are screwed.

I’m on the road today. The wide saltmarshes pass by my windows like smudged impressionistic canvases of green and gold. The sky is a swell of grays. I see a blue heron in the distance, standing on a dead tree.

I stop at a little seafood joint. The place is surrounded by marshland grass, a wide open sky, scattered live oaks, and roughly 8 million Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The place looks like a tourist trap on crack. But it’s getting late so I go inside and order a beer.

“You want a South Carolina brewed beer, sweetie?” the waitress says.

“Is a bear Catholic?” I say.

She pauses a beat.


don’t get it,” she says. “Is that a joke?”

I get no respect.

She brings me a beer that’s brewed in Greenville. She cracks open the tallboy can. The brewery is called Birds Fly South. The beer is named “Days Like This.” It’s a Kölsch, whatever that means.

“Days Like This,” I say, reading the can.

“It drinks pretty good,” the waitress says. “It’s one of my favorites.”

Then she hands me a menu. “You want some oysters? Just got’em in a few hours ago.”

I fold the menu closed. Because this woman is singing my culinary song. I am a Florida child. Raw oysters are my love language. Especially on Days Like This.

The waitress brings my platter of bivalves.

“Any hot sauce, sweetie?”

I shake my head. I don’t need hot sauce or fresh lemon if…

A filling station. Somewhere near the South Carolina state line. I made a pit stop. I have a long way to get to Charleston. I raced inside the store with both hands gripping my bladder chakra.

I asked the clerk where the bathrooms were.

I was already doing the “I really gotta go” dance. A dance that looks like you’re running in place while also undergoing a public brain seizure.

The guy behind the counter was named Jeremy. I know this because it was on his nametag. Jeremy wore a Metallica shirt. His ballcap was sitting back on his head, revealing a sweaty mop of grayish hair. He was covered in a slick film of sweat, reading an auto magazine. He had a five o’clock shadow that was pushing six thirty.

Jeremy slowly pointed to the bathrooms.

Very. Slowly.

“Bathrooms are back there,” he said.

I was so grateful I almost exploded into a river of pure gratitude.

I walked to the men’s room, stiff-legged, trying not to make any sudden movements that would compromise the integrity of strained urinary muscles.

I grabbed the doorknob.

I tried to turn it. But the door was locked. So I jiggled the knob a few times.


I walked back to the front counter, moving even more gingerly than before, just in case the spirit moved.

“The men’s bathroom is locked,” I said.

Jeremy looked up from his magazine and gazed at me with the same blank stare often seen on the faces of the comatose.

“Your men’s bathroom,” I said again.

He looked at me but remained silent.

“It’s locked,” I said.

He nodded. “Okay.”

I smiled.

I tried to breathe deeply. But not too deeply. Breathing too vigorously flexes the body’s diaphragmatic breathing apparatus, which is located very close to the urethral sphincter. Breathe too deeply with a full bladder and you’ll end up in the ER.

So I went to…