I awoke early and went for a walk with my dogs through Magic City. The sun wasn’t up yet, so I had to let my eyes adjust to the tar darkness.
The locals call this the greatest city in the world. Which is sort of stupid, if you ask me. Birmingham is a pretty small city, compared to your mega-cities. The greatest?
We have nearly 1 million in the metropolitan area. And three barbecue joints on every block. The area we live in is not swanky. I tell all visitors to carry a baseball bat.
Even so, it’s a nice town. The cashiers at the supermarket know my name. The guys working the local taverns know which variety of Ovaltine I always order. It’s nice.
Once upon a time, Birmingham’s primary employer was the steel manufacturing industry. Now it’s healthcare. We have hospitals out the wazoo. In short, this city saves more helpless souls than Oral Roberts and Doctor Ruth combined.
It’s early morning. A dog barks. A distant train sounds. A cop car passes me at slow speed.
Not long ago, newspaper carriers would have been out at this hour, throwing papers. But those days are gone. Birmingham has no physical newspaper anymore. Neither do many American cities. For the last few years, America has been losing two newspapers per day.
Readers in Birmingham now get their daily columns from hack writers on the internet.
Take, for example, this column.
I wound through old neighborhoods on foot, passing old houses which have been standing here since the Titanic was a household name.
On my walk, I passed a few joggers. They were running at breakneck paces, covered in sweat.
“Morning,” they wheezed.
“Good morning,” said I.
They looked like they were going to die.
Those poor souls. Personally, I make it a point not to engage in strenuous exercise. My most vigorous form of exercise comes from serving as pallbearer for my deceased friends who exercised regularly.
I arrived at the local park. The sun was above the treeline. The foothills of the Appalachians were kissed with purple and gold.
My dog sniffed every blade of grass until she finally urinated in the same spot she has used for the last 3,298 consecutive mornings.
There were a few people in nursing scrubs, power walking in the park. They stopped to greet my dog. They said they worked at Children’s of Alabama Hospital. So I thanked them for their service. They didn’t know what to say to that.
“You don’t have to thank us,” they said. “We’re not in the military.”
But I am a local columnist of the lowest pedigree, who has written about throngs of kids whose lives have been saved by the staff of Children’s of Birmingham.
“You are on the frontlines,” I told them.
On my way home, the sun was already up. I saw young professionals getting ready for work, rushing to their parked cars with insulated cups of coffee. I saw young mothers loading children into SUVs for school.
I saw an old man on his porch, smoking a cigar. And I paused to breathe it in. Cigar smoke takes me back. I remember the men in my childhood who smoked cigars.
My granddaddy, for instance, had a taste for cheap cigars. He paid $6 per box. When he got older, however, his tastes became more sophisticated. He started paying $7.
Granddaddy was a disciplined man, who believed in moderation when it came to his vices. He made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.
By the time I arrived home, I saw my little house standing in the distance. With its hanging ferns, and the little twinkly lights my wife strung along our porch for my surprise birthday party recently.
My wife threw a world class party, with lots of libations, live music, 19 Episcopalians, and one Episcopal priest. Or so I’ve been told. I can’t remember any of it.
Our little house. Our little life. With so much love in it. I had a hard childhood, but now I have a house full of love. I have to keep reminding myself that I live here. I have to remind myself that I am lucky enough to be living in Magic City.
The greatest city in the world.