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.