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.
Karen Erwin-Brown - April 12, 2021 8:09 am
Sandi. - April 12, 2021 8:36 am
Great story, Sean! I hope that the sassy eleven year old Girl Scout and her dad will read about themselves and smile big time!
pdjpop - April 12, 2021 9:26 am
A Conversation that we all need to hear. Another word to replace sassy….. strong. She also adds a bit of hope in her “sassiness”
eliza - April 12, 2021 10:19 am
I love how you can take the most ordinary things and make them important, or maybe remind me that every moment is important. Thank you!
Joey - April 12, 2021 12:34 pm
Wow! Eliza said it perfectly!!
Debbie g - April 12, 2021 10:39 am
Inspiring !! may they always be. (The flag and the 11 year old and you Sean ) thank you 🙏
Jan - April 12, 2021 12:51 pm
Fantastic start to my Monday morning, Sean. You take the mundane and elevate it to star status. You make me stop and be so thankful for the little (maybe not so little) things and people all around us who make our lives not just bearable but joyful! Thank you, Sean.
Jim Thomssen - April 12, 2021 12:53 pm
Here, here. Nicely said Sean….
Helen De Prima - April 12, 2021 12:56 pm
I’m in love with this man!
Kyle Viertel - April 12, 2021 1:02 pm
Thank you Sean for continually lifting our spirit. Your daily writing follows my bible study. I look forward to it. Most days I cry at the end. I’m an old rancher and retired music teacher. I feel like I’ve seen about as much as you have in my lifetime, but you help us dig into what is underneath the things that are going on around us to see them more clearly. Kind of like scripture.
Marilyn - April 12, 2021 1:03 pm
There’s food for thought in your words. Thank you for seeing the good out there. Not watching the news and reading your column are helpful in keeping my state of mind positive..
Melanie - April 12, 2021 1:04 pm
I hope he brings some Girl Scout cookies 🍪 to sell to you-schedules permitting. Real good read, Sean. Glad you are able to get out and about.
billllly - April 12, 2021 1:11 pm
Your writing gets my mornings off to a good start! I don’t know how you come up with such a quality piece every day, but I am glad you do.
joan moore - April 12, 2021 2:25 pm
I’m not sure if I can choose between my coffee or your column first!
Bob Brenner - April 12, 2021 1:20 pm
Really a touching column ❤️ Well done Sean!
Donna Belcher - April 12, 2021 1:26 pm
Thank you. You are what I need every morning. May day is better for reading your stories.
Virginia A Johnson - April 12, 2021 2:54 pm
Do I detect a little sadness beneath the nostalgia?
Leigh Amiot - April 12, 2021 3:12 pm
Oh, the beauty of an in-person conversation…two men’s view of the world. The most powerful line in this column to me: “Let’s hope she never learns.”
We’re going to have to pull ourselves out of pandemic mode while there are forces that would prefer we stay feeling somewhat trapped. I mean this both figuratively and literally. My intention is to break completely out of fear!
Christina - April 12, 2021 3:13 pm
Yes Sean, we are from the same place. And the future belongs to the sassy ones selling Girl Scout cookies.
Cheryl Buchanan - April 12, 2021 4:17 pm
Yes, they are.
Linda Moon - April 12, 2021 4:34 pm
I remember learning how to fold flags when I was a Scout. I like B zombie-movies, but not when they become reality in Birmingham. Sassy little girls often grow up to be great women, and I know lots of them. Join us, Sean. Be Sassy. You’ve made it this far, and we’ll be waiting for you!
Lucinda Harding - April 12, 2021 5:28 pm
Reading your words give me hope about the future for my young grandkids. Thank you Sean.
Lindsay Warren - April 12, 2021 8:29 pm
I can’t believe you didn’t buy at least ONE box of Girl Scout cookies! If you’ll share his contact information, I’d be happy to buy a few boxes!
Suzi - April 13, 2021 1:23 am
thank you for taking the ordinary and showing us the extraordinary❤️
Jacy - April 13, 2021 1:49 am
Love this story. A reminder, we all need to take time to appreciate Old Glory (our history) and our innocent, sassy children (our future).
Margaret S Todd - April 13, 2021 4:39 pm
Nothing like a sassy “leven” year old. They’ll bring you back to earth.