SELMA, Ala.—I am covering the arrival of December today, in one of my favorite towns. ￼
The whole downtown is done up for Christmas. Pinery everywhere. Lights. Jingle bells. Little reindeer, tinkling in the snow.
Nobody does Christmas like small-town Alabama. The main drag is a Norman Rockwell. Saint Paul’s Episcopal church is a Monet. December looks good in Selma.
“The problem with Selma,” says one local woman, “is that the news always uses us as a scapegoat. They make us evil. If people would just visit this town, if they’d just meet us, they’d realize that we’re okay. We are not the Selma you see on TV.”
I see a few things while I am here.
When I am walking into a gas station, for example, an elderly woman trots ahead to hold the door open. I am 40 years younger than this woman, and yet she holds the door for me.
I thank her.
She says, “Okay, baby,” and she rubs my shoulder.
She has skin the color of mahogany. Blazing white hair. She wears scrubs. And she is just getting warmed up with her goodwill.
Because when the old woman walks inside the gas station, she is immediately confronted with an elderly man standing at the counter. He is gaunt, missing his teeth, dressed in faded rags. The man is hitting up customers for money.
“Ahwan baahasuh frussa,” he mutters.
I can smell liquor on his breath. He has a hard time standing upright without toppling over.
The old lady knows exactly what he’s saying. She translates: “He’s trying to buy some gas-station chicken, but he is a dollar short. He says he’s hungry, but he just needs four quarters.”
Before I can reach into my wallet, the old woman has already taken care of the man’s bill. She digs into her purse, and pays the cashier a lot more than one dollar. She places a wad of bills on the counter. She tells the clerk to put more breasts and short thighs into the old man’s to-go bag.
The toothless man mumbles something to her. I hear a “thank you” in there somewhere. I also see a few tears.
Then the old woman answers him, “And also with you.”
Before I leave, I ask the old woman why she just paid for this man’s food. Why would a perfect stranger give cash to an old man who smells like a distillery?
“Because he’s hungry,” says the old woman. “That’s reason enough.”
Later, I am surprised again. I am walking into the Winn-Dixie. At the door, I’m greeted by a man ringing the bell for the local Salvation Army.
Astoundingly, there are actually people standing in line, waiting to put money in his bucket. People are clambering to give.
“We’ve had a banner year,” says the bell-ringer. “People have been so unbelievably generous. Donations have been through the roof.”
I stand in line to donate. There, I meet a woman. Her hair is in cornrows. She wears a fast-food uniform. I ask why she is donating today. The woman just gives a smile. “Why not?”
I talk to another woman in line.
“I grew up with a mama who couldn’t work ‘cause she was sick all the time. Year after she died, everyone showed up on our porch, few days before Christmas, brought us presents and toys and food and stuff. We never did without, even though we should’ve starved. That always left an impression on me.”
Another man in line says, “I give because I’ve been on the receiving end before.”
And another. “I give because I can.”
All in all, I have a beautiful day in Selma. As I am driving out of town, I’m thinking about how the Hollywood portrayal of this city is all wrong.
Believe me, I’m not saying the Queen City is without its problems. I don’t know enough to say anything. So I’m not saying this place is flawless. But then, neither is your town.
What I am saying is that, despite what you might have heard, this is a community. For better for worse. For richer for poorer. There are real people here, stalwart people, with large hearts. There are folks. There are artists. There are writers. Poets. Singers. Saints. Angels.
“We’re a town of good people,” says one local woman, as she cheerfully places her money into the bucket. “Stick around. You’ll see. This is Selma. We gotchoo, baby.”
And also with you.