The Port City

It’s a great day for a drive in the Azalea City. The afternoon sun is on the bay. The grass flats are stretching toward the horizon like furry islands.

I ride through the tunnel, which shoots me beneath the Mobile River and spits me into a mild-mannered, picturesque French colonial city. I love it here.

I had a friend from Mobile once say that if you want to make locals angry, tell them Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans.

“These are fighting words,” said my pal.

If you say such a thing to a Mobile-person, their face will contort, their nostrils will flare, they will speak in strange tongues, and their head will rotate 360 degrees.

Then they will spit out facts about how Mobile has the oldest organized Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. They will also explain that Mobile’s Mardi Gras fun was happening in 1703, long before New Orleans was even wearing a training diaper.

Then they will fling beads at you.

When I was a young man, I played music in a crummy bar band. We were always getting gigs in Mobile. The guys in the band would carpool together, and I was usually the driver.

This was before GPSs, back when early man was still using Rand McNally products. The truck would be loaded with musical junk, amplifiers, and instruments. And five of us idiots would be riding through town looking like the cast members from “Hee Haw.”

To us, Mobile was the biggest city around. Three times the size of Pensacola or Dothan. It wasn’t like other mega-cities, either. People were friendly in Mobile.

As long as you didn’t ask stupid questions about Mardi Gras.

The first thing I’m always struck with here is that this is a baseball town. Hank Aaron was born Down the Bay. And so was Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. And Satchel Paige is one of my all-time heroes.

They say the skinny kid was tall, and loose-built, often seen running these streets in the 1920s, always getting into trouble.

He finally got sent off to reform school and it was there where an old preacher taught the Alabamian teenager to pitch a baseball like a Biblical saint.

For five years Satchel learned to pitch while incarcerated. When he got out, he became one of the greatest gentlemen to ever hold a ball.

But I’m going to skip over the baseball trivia because I can see your face turning to wood.

Right now I’m driving the town’s mainstreets, side streets, backstreets, and horseshoe turns. I pass antique iron balconies, and rainbow rows of historic buildings.

You get it all in Mobile. Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne architecture out the nose. The huge oaks look like titanic tarantulas. The salt air sticks to your lips.

When I was 19, I went to a funeral in Mobile. It was a lavish affair in an ancient building. The service was unlike anything I’d ever seen. There were free drinks, an oyster buffet, background music.

But what really got me going was the brass band outside, banging away in the street. They were blasting “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

It was great. I asked someone why this loud music was happening on such a serious occasion.

The guy laughed and said, “Well, this IS a wake.” As if this explained the whole thing.

Mobile-people are different, I tell you.

I remember that night I stepped onto the sidewalk to get a better view of the musicians. The band was made up of young men, all dancing. The bass drummer had dreadlocks and powerful arms. The trumpeter played with his entire body.

A crowd gathered on the sidewalk. Members of the funeral party started clapping. An elderly woman began dancing with a trombonist in an extremely non-religious way.

It was the most joyous funeral I ever attended. My friend leaned over to me and said, “Boy, when I die, I wanna go out just like this.”

And he meant it. My friend was actually killed in a car accident several years later. I told his mother about his brass band request. She didn’t think it would be a good idea to have a second line band at a Presbyterian church.

But she came to a middle ground with his wishes. She had the pianist play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I believe it was the most excitement those Presbyterians had seen in years. I think I even saw someone in the congregation move a facial muscle.

My friend would have liked that.

My wife and I pull over at a small seafood joint. We’re not starving, but we don’t have anywhere to be for a little while, and oysters sound good. We order a dozen on the half shell and a few iced teas.

Our waitress is young, wearing a COVID mask and latex gloves. And I am reminded that this world has changed so much it’s almost staggering.

Regular society is nearly foreign to me now. I sometimes wonder what our deceased loved ones would’ve thought of our post-COVID world. My granddaddy, for example.

But the waitress is in a good mood. She delivers our dozen with a smile. I can tell she’s smiling because her eyes are squinty beneath her mask.

Just for kicks, I ask the waitress if it’s true that Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans.

The girl’s eyes are no longer smiling. She places our oysters on the table by dropping the plate a little harder than necessary.

“Just so you know,” she says, “Mardi Gras started in Mobile.”

Oh, this really is a great place.

24 comments

  1. My home’s in Alabama - September 2, 2020 9:47 am

    Mobile is the greatest place I know. My hometown.

    Reply
  2. Leslie - September 2, 2020 12:11 pm

    Being a Mobile girl, I want to thank you for this nod to the Port City. I grew up there, and although I no longer live there, I go back often. I’m a Mobile girl at heart which means I have a few tweaks to add. Yes, Mobile WAS the site of the original Mardi Gras and Funerals are like weddings. But we Also throw Moon Pies in addition to beads. It was a place growing up where early morning your parents handed you a grocery sack in the heart of downtown Mobile and said meet us back around 7pm. Times have changed. It was a magical time for me back then. As for that Presbyterian church, I believe my daddy is the oldest active member today and he threw that first moon pie. This coined the phrase “throw me something mister”. Happy Mardi Gras y’all🎭

    Reply
  3. Bess Rich - September 2, 2020 12:26 pm

    Mobile is full of wonderful people. Thanks for letting your readers know all about us! And not only did we have Mardi Gras first it was a Krewe from our City that went to New Orleans to show them how to do Mardi Gras!
    Sean if you and your wife want to visit at Mardi Gras time I can arrange for you to ride on our City’s Float. Seriously please let me know.
    Bess Rich
    Councilwoman City of Mobile

    Reply
  4. Randy K. Walker - September 2, 2020 12:42 pm

    Being from Mobile, and having lived in many other cities and states, I always correct people about Mardi Gras.

    Reply
  5. Jan - September 2, 2020 12:53 pm

    Love this and love Mobile!

    Reply
  6. Southern Girl - September 2, 2020 1:10 pm

    My home town, too. Just so you know Elvis also loved Mobile – even mentioned it in one of his songs.

    Reply
  7. Phil (Brown Marlin) - September 2, 2020 1:21 pm

    Suggested reading: Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever by LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, who is also credited with the phrase, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

    Reply
  8. Martha Black - September 2, 2020 1:31 pm

    “pitch a baseball like a Biblical saint?” I love it. Sort of like Deadeye David with his between the eyes sling & a rock…….. with a true hand………
    Your descriptions bring everything you talk about come to life for me.
    And as for funeral music, I agree! I’d love to have a good brass trumpet player send me off as they scatter me about. I was “born” in March so I need to be sent out in March. Lord willing it’ll be a good windy March day and when they dump me I’ll be caught up in a swirl & never hit the ground! Play a March for me, like this………
    !https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=762772460577993&id=424045484450694

    Reply
  9. elizabethroosje - September 2, 2020 2:00 pm

    enjoyed reading this!

    Reply
  10. Connie - September 2, 2020 2:03 pm

    Born and raised in Mobile. I love it and hate it in equal measure. I love the old buildings, the wonderful architecture and stately trees, not to mention Mardi Gras. Like every Mobilian everywhere, I’m always correcting people on the origins of Mardi Gras. I still live close enough to visit but avoid it if I can. It has become a traffic nightmare. Where there were small towns nestled in the larger whole of Mobile, now there are only suburbs of the city. Such is progress, I guess

    Reply
  11. Ginger - September 2, 2020 2:13 pm

    And Memorial Day originated in Columbus, Georgia, my hometown.

    Reply
  12. Barbara - September 2, 2020 2:42 pm

    Sean, if you go to Mardi Gras, be sure to go to the Joe Cain parade. It’ll bring back memories of that funeral you attended when you were 19.

    Reply
  13. Helen De Prima - September 2, 2020 2:55 pm

    I love this! I’ve been to Mobile only once, as a teenager. My dad was an executive with the old L&N RR and had been asked to participate (I think he was the Grand Marshall or whatever) in the Shrimp Festival, which included Blessing of the Fleet. We went out on a boat owned by the Mavar Shrimp and Oyster Company, with the Mavar’s college-aged son in the crew. I fell madly and hopelessly in love with him — never saw him again but never forgot that lovely afternoon on Mobile Bay.

    Reply
  14. Marianna Parker - September 2, 2020 3:10 pm

    Hey, Sean! I love reading what you write and thank you for the tribute to Mobile. My hometown is the best place in the world to enjoy living. Just so you will know…..during this COVID19 time, I attended a funeral (outdoors, at my Presbyterian church, no less) where a brass band performed “When the Saints Go Marching In”, among other selections. Alas, no drinks or seafood were served.

    Reply
  15. BamaBroad - September 2, 2020 4:02 pm

    I grew up in Birmingham, but have lived in Mobile for more than fifty years. There is no better place to be.

    Reply
  16. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - September 2, 2020 4:05 pm

    That offer to ride on the parade float is something. You are a really big deal. Couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow. Let us know what you decide about that. I might drive 5 hours to wave at y’all.

    Reply
  17. didyouseethis - September 2, 2020 4:26 pm

    Please, don’t skip over the baseball trivia.

    Reply
  18. Becky Souders - September 2, 2020 5:52 pm

    I’ll be happy to read whatever baseball you write about!

    Reply
  19. christina - September 2, 2020 8:58 pm

    Never learned and enjoyed so much about the native land of Mardi Gras and the joyous funerals. Thanks Sean for taking us on your trips! I’ll be prepared and ready for fun!

    Reply
  20. sharon suleski - September 2, 2020 9:10 pm

    I am new to your posts and I just finished reading your book have another on hold at the library You are such a great writer your book was a page turner Yes the world has certainly changed post COVID Im 77 so it seems Im starting to have more loved ones in heaven than here on earth I too wonder what they would think especially my deceased son who died too young at age 35 he always said “when I m seated at that supper table in heaven the things on earth will no longer matter to me” Thank goodness I have good music good books and kind friends I need to reminded myself with all the made man foolishness in this world I need to keep practicing gratitude

    Reply
  21. Linda Moon - September 2, 2020 9:11 pm

    I haven’t spent much time in the Azalea City. But I’ve been the short distance from there to Spanish Fort and Fairhope many times. From this Alabamian (me), I’ll tell you that people from the Alabama coast to the Appalachian foothills are all different. When COVID quarantine ends, I hope to see both great places, South and North, again. Come join me, Sean!

    Reply
  22. Sue - September 2, 2020 9:14 pm

    Welcome to Mobile! I was born about 70 miles northeast of here and spent 20 years in Georgia. When we got a chance to come back to this area, we took it and have lived here 27 years and love it.

    Reply
  23. Ann - September 2, 2020 11:12 pm

    Once again…this is so visual and comforting …. it makes me want to travel to Mobile when this things lessons…thanks for the “ trip”

    Reply
  24. Anne Riemer - September 4, 2020 10:32 am

    Dear Sean,
    I read your post this morning about the lady who paid for a single Mom’s groceries and nearly lost it. It’s so hard these days, and your wonderful stories are a kind of lifeline for me. I’m a PA here in Massachusetts (that’s physician assistant, NOT physician’s assistant) and I see patients all day. They tell me about the effect this virus has had on their lives. Most of them are fine but plenty of them are not… and too many of them are wearing their masks under their noses which drives me batty, but I think we’re all trying our best.
    I just want to thank you for sharing these stories with us about decent people doing decent things. Honestly I’ve come to depend on you for reminding me that the world is full of good people doing their best to do the right thing. I try not to watch the news much, just enough to keep up, but it’s usually such a downer about people uncontrollably angry with one another – forgetting we’re all citizens of the planet and need to get along as best we can… and talk to one another civilly about our differences.
    So thank you for talking about kindness, and baseball and tomatoes and your dogs and pound cake. After so many mentions of pound cake I had to go out and get a cake pan and looked up Southern Living’s recipe (though they have way too many!) and find one – it was delicious. Just wanted to say God bless you and your wife and mother-in-law, I hope you keep your spirits up and remember He loves you.
    Anne
    Groton, Massachusetts

    Reply

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