BIRMINGHAM—There is an American flag flapping outside my hotel. A slight breeze lifts the banner while the sun rises over Magic City.
A hotel janitor with dreadlocks is standing beside me, we’re watching the flag flap while I drink my morning cup.
Two hundred and forty-four years. That’s how long the colonist’s colors have been flying from flagpoles like this. I bet the early colonist’s worst critics never saw that coming.
They are brilliant colors. To watch the 13 battered stripes flutter in open Alabamian daylight, putting on their morning matinee, never fails to move me.
“Pretty ain’t it?” says Jefferson County’s leading custodian.
He cracks the tab on an energy drink. “My daughter’s in Girl Scouts. She folds’em sometimes. Flags, I mean.”
I’m not sure why he’s telling me this, but I grin anyway.
“How old is she?”
“Leaven. And sassy.”
“She get that trait from Mom or Dad?”
We’re quiet for several minutes.
Then: “Yeah. She practices folding flags with my mom sometimes, for Scouts. They use a big ole bed sheet so they don’t drop it. My daughter always be shooing me away, saying, ‘Daddy, get out the room!’”
He sips. “Sassy.”
And I’m thinking about how our flag was designed by New Jersey congressman Francis Hopkinson in 1777, first stitched by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross. And 244 years later Girl Scouts are still folding them into tight triangles.
He makes a professional inquiry. “So how’s your stay with us, sir?”
My hotel is nothing fancy, it’s your basic highway-side deal. But it’s clean. There’s even a continental breakfast featuring the American traveling-man’s greatest hits. You have your expired yogurt cups, English muffins suitable for usage in hockey tournaments, and “egg-like” omelettes that glow in the dark.
And, of course, there’s complimentary carbonic acid which someone mislabeled coffee.
“She sells cookies,” he says.
“Scout cookies. My daughter sells’em.”
He takes a sip. “Been a hard year for her. All the COVID stuff. Nobody bought any of her cookies this year. Broke her little heart. And mine.”
“I hate to hear that.”
“Not more than me.”
Approximately one year ago I was in this same hotel, staying for work. That was when I first heard “COVID-19” used in a complete sentence.
I remember turning on the television to see a panicky young newswoman saying something to the tune of: “Good morning, America. You’re all going to die.”
And in a moment of mild anxiety I had this gut feeling that societal life was about to change forever.
When the pandemic hysteria hit Birmingham, it was as though a switch had been flipped. In a matter of weeks the city took on a B zombie-movie atmosphere.
Suddenly the world closed. And just when it couldn’t get any worse, Piggly Wiggly ran out of my beer.
He takes a gulp, then wipes his mouth with a sleeve. “Wish I could give my baby a normal world, you know? Or at least one like the one we growed up in. But, well…” He looks at his Nikes. “Hey, wanna see a picture of her?”
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to beg.”
He brandishes a Samsung. He taps the screen. “That was us for Easter, last week.”
And it is against this backdrop that my morning’s first images are of Old Glory, and a stunning Girl Scout.
Above me are the same stripes I was looking at one year ago when nobody knew what was happening to this world; when nobody knew what the pandemic-year would bring.
Before me, on the tiny Samsung screen, I see tomorrow. And she makes my heart crow hop like an excited foal.
The man kills his caffeine drink. “You know what my daughter always say to me? She say, ‘Daddy, you worrying too much. Don’t worry so much. God says not to worry.’” He shakes his head gravely. “Shoot. Way things are today, I gotta worry, man. She juss don’t know how it is yet. She don’t know.”
“Let’s hope she never learns.”
Sometimes I wonder whether it really happened. Did we really live through a pandemic? Have we really made it this far?
The answer is yes. Yes. We made it here. And if you ask me, I choose to believe that “here” is a good place to be. Wherever Here actually is. Because, dang it, at least we’re here together. And I hope we always will be—together.
Sort of like this janitor and me, standing beneath the three prettiest colors in Jefferson County, and history’s most remarkable idea.
He tosses his can into the garbage and is about to return to professional hospitality. He adjusts his surgical mask. “So where you from?”
I nod to the flag. “Same place you are.”
He smiles at the insufferable smart Aleck beside him, then turns to go.
Before he leaves I ask him to wait because I have a request. Something important. I call out, “Will you thank your little girl for me?”
He stops walking. He laughs once. “Thank her? Why?”
“Because sometimes I wish I were more like her.”
He laughs walks away laughing. “Well, good luck with that, cause that child is sassy.”
Well. The great ones always are.