The Streets of Decatur

DECATUR—Right now I’m onstage at the Princess Theater. People in the audience are looking intently at me as though I am wearing thong underwear. This is what it feels like to perform.

The Princess is one of those theaters that’s expressly American. The tall neon marquee is unforgettable, towering over the wet streets of Second Avenue. Photographers come from all over to take the marquee’s picture because everyone loves art deco theaters.

This building was originally a livery stable back in 1887. Which means that this floor was once covered in, literally, millions of fresh horse apples. This gives me chills.

In 1919 they renovated the building, turning it into a vaudeville playhouse and silent picture theater. Soon, the floor was no longer covered in horse excrement, but popcorn. The theater entertained mostly kids who screamed at a silver screen while an elderly woman, probably named Miss Ida Mae, played an upright piano along with a Charlie Chaplain flick.

Throughout history some big acts played the Princess. Ray Charles once performed here, so did Glenn Miller. They all stood where I am standing. That’s kind of cool.

In honor of this occasion, I’m playing my old crummy guitar. It was built in 1919, the same year this room was resurrected.

I got this guitar from a trim-carpenter in Houston who found the guitar shattered in a dozen pieces. He was not a guitar maker, just a run-of-the-mill carpenter. He glued it back together the best he could, but he admits he did a sloppy job. I didn’t care. I’ve been playing it ever since.

It’s not a valuable guitar. For its whole life it’s been a low-grade instrument owned by a list of no-name street performers. In other words, it’s a glorified piece of junk.

But I’ve always liked pieces of junk. Because when junk lasts for a hundred years, it’s no longer junk, it becomes archeology. There’s something to be said for lasting and still making music, even after you’ve been busted.

I am fingerpicking a melody that was written around 1919. My granddaddy would have been eight years old in aught ‘19, and I like to think about that.

This is my second time playing the Princess. The first time I did a show here a few years ago, my guitar broke. I had to go on with no music. I’ll never forget that night because that was the first night I met a lady who would become one of my book editors, Stephanie.

Stephanie came to the show and sat in the back. I was nervous to meet her because she was a big-time editor for a big-time publisher. She drove all the way from Tennessee just to ask if I wanted to write books for them.

I didn’t know what to say. I was floored. Actually, dumbstruck is a better word. For one thing, I was wondering why anyone would want me to write a book.

There are a million accomplished authors out there, and I will never be one of them. I don’t have the training, the pedigree, nor the physique to be “accomplished” at anything.

For example, I once spoke at a writing conference a few years ago, filling in for an author who was sick. The only reason they called me—the lady on the phone actually said this—was because nobody else was available.

I felt out of place. I was on a panel with some well-known writers and you could see the audience scratching their heads when they saw me. I could read their thoughts. They were thinking: “Who is THAT guy?”

The audience asked questions like: “How much diagramming do you do for characterization analysis?” Or “Can you describe your pre-manuscript outlining and plot sequence development?”

I just sort of looked at the audience, scared horse-apple-less.

When a young woman asked me how I employed “active voice” to aid “antagonist-protagonist relationships,” I almost passed out. I had to ask her to repeat the question. She repeated it three times and I STILL had no idea what the hell she was asking.

So I cleared my throat over the microphone and it almost blew the loudspeakers. Everyone in the audience covered their ears and I wanted to die.

“Um…” I said. “When I write, I just try to do a good job.”

Nice going, dork. I might as well have been wearing bib overalls and shouting “WEE DOGGIE!” Everyone chuckled like I was making a joke. And I realized something very important that day. I am a joke to some literary people.

But somehow I lucked out and my editors are beautiful human beings. And that night at the Princess Theater was the beginning. Stephanie drove several hours just to tell me personally that she thought I was special.

And she’s not my only editor. One of my other editors, Jocelyn, went to a Braves baseball game with me in Washington D.C. and—this is true—DID THE TOMAHAWK CHOP beside me. They don’t teach the Tomahawk Chop in grad school.

Here on stage, I am lost in my own head. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I am kind of like this old livery stable. I know what I am underneath the trim work, I’m covered in horse apples. Or maybe I’m like this old guitar. I was once a piece of junk. But someone looked at me and saw something else. Then a carpenter put me back together.

54 comments

  1. Sandi. - February 5, 2020 7:01 am

    You’re a gifted writer, Sean, and the fact that you willingly share your gift with others is like extra frosting on an already wonderful cake. Keep on keeping on!

    Reply
  2. Dawn A Bratcher - February 5, 2020 7:10 am

    Praise the Lord for that Carpenter!

    Reply
  3. Liz and Mac - February 5, 2020 7:19 am

    I had never heard of you until a friend of mine invited me to hear you speak in Dothan several years ago. After that night, my husband and I subscribed to your daily emails. We currently live in Germany and look forward to getting your emails every day! You are the best story teller of this generation and maybe of all time. Thank you for always bringing a bit of “home” to us through your stories.

    Reply
  4. sparkerlpc - February 5, 2020 10:19 am

    Or perhaps you’ve been put back together by a carpenter’s foster Child. Hugs….God bless!

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Harmon - February 5, 2020 10:22 am

    I bought tickets last night for my daughter and I to see you in Huntsville next month. Can’t wait!
    This column is the epitome of why I love you and your writing. You are real, right from the heart.

    Reply
  6. Sharon Lawson - February 5, 2020 11:02 am

    Wonderful ending!

    Reply
  7. Susan - February 5, 2020 11:33 am

    Amen

    Reply
  8. Tammy S. - February 5, 2020 11:44 am

    Some people write books, others, like yourself, weave stories that touch our hearts. I am thankful for you this morning, and for The Carpenter who put me back together!! God Bless you, Sean.

    Reply
  9. Connie Havard Ryland - February 5, 2020 11:57 am

    You are the best at closing your column. I look forward to your stories every day. But today your last line was the thing that will stay with me today. I needed that.

    Reply
  10. Ronnie Burlison - February 5, 2020 12:04 pm

    Sean, my wife and I came to Decatur to the Princess last night and really had a great time. My wife regrets not taking notes as it is rare to feel you are in a beer joint and then in church. We enjoyed being with you- great job. I am a retired accountant and live in Falkville, AL and we have material that you can use here in our small town. Most notable is the sign on Hwy 31 that reads ” Cows cross under Highway”. I make writing pens from old wood stadium seats. Got some from Fulton County Stadium. Tell me where to mail you a pen and I will do so.

    Reply
  11. Mara - February 5, 2020 12:11 pm

    Love your last line! I am very familiar with the story behind that last sentence- that is, what the Carpenter can do with a beat up piece of busted up junk.

    Reply
  12. Tim Lacey - February 5, 2020 12:16 pm

    Decatur, Georgia, or Decatur, Alabama?

    Reply
  13. Sandi. - February 5, 2020 12:20 pm

    Tim, the Princess Theater is located in Decatur, Alabama.
    Have a wonderful day!

    Reply
  14. Anne Arthur - February 5, 2020 12:26 pm

    Thank God you don’t think about outlining, voice, present tense vs. whatever-tense because all that theoretical nonsense would kill your god-given skills to write beautiful, honest, and real-life-heartfelt words that touch your readers every time you post a blog or publish a book. You are a gift to the world – talent, flaws, and all. Keep being who you are: real!

    Reply
  15. Joanna Thompson - February 5, 2020 12:40 pm

    I wanted so badly to come to your show last night… but I had to come to Houston for a business trip. As always, I loved your column this morning. Where would we be if a carpenter hadn’t glued us back together? Safe travels, Sean. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    Reply
  16. Nancy Brown - February 5, 2020 12:51 pm

    In my very humble opinion, this piece is one of your most thoughtful and inspirational. Thank you.

    Reply
  17. Sue Riddle Cronkite - February 5, 2020 12:58 pm

    I was put together by a carpenter. He helped me write a book too. You’re a blessing, Sean.

    Reply
  18. Bobbie E - February 5, 2020 1:22 pm

    The best one-liner ever! Thank you for sharing your gift and your testimony. God bless❤️👏👏👏

    Reply
  19. Dianne Edwards - February 5, 2020 1:30 pm

    My home town! I saw Mary Poppins there as a child. My first movie at that theater. Back when they called them thee-a-ter. Glad you were there and hope someone treated you to Bob Gibsons bbq. 😁

    Reply
  20. bkr - February 5, 2020 1:50 pm

    In one sentence you said it ALL. This might have been my favorite story so far. Thank you! And yes, I cried again. Because of that last sentence.

    Reply
  21. Gerald King - February 5, 2020 1:59 pm

    Never saw the last sentence coming. So special. Brilliant writing – however you developed it – to set up that ending.

    Reply
  22. Judy - February 5, 2020 2:02 pm

    Had a wonderful time last night. Now, as I read your post, in my mind l see you up on that stage telling your story.

    Aunt Judy

    Reply
  23. jnearen2013 - February 5, 2020 2:26 pm

    “Then a carpenter put me back together.” Nice!

    Reply
  24. Rebecca - February 5, 2020 2:42 pm

    Sean, your column is always uplifting, showing that perfection doesn’t live in what you DO but what your HEART ❤️ tells you is true! God bless!

    Reply
  25. Amy - February 5, 2020 2:45 pm

    Sean, you are a gift to the world! Thank you for your heartfelt inspiring writing! This one is fabulous! Keep doing what you are so very wonderful at! Can’t wait to see you in Dothan!

    Reply
  26. KATY - February 5, 2020 2:46 pm

    ☺️But Sean, you ARE an accomplished writer in your own right! You broke the mold, and you do not need to compare yourself to any other writer! Now say that to yourself until you believe it! 🥞☕️

    Reply
  27. Shelton A. - February 5, 2020 3:09 pm

    The carpenter I know who fixes broken people did an outstanding job with you. Never doubt yourself…and there are no horse apples anywhere near you, on you, or in you. You are a good soul. Jamie, Thelma Lou, and Otis Campbell can confirm that. God continue to bless you, Sean and give you peace.

    Reply
  28. Jennifer Abell - February 5, 2020 3:36 pm

    We had such a great time seeing you last night.. you are such a delight! Your ending was so touching, then and now. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

    Reply
  29. Cathi Russell - February 5, 2020 3:37 pm

    How blessed we all are that same carpenter sees fit to put us all back together. Sean, you’re such a gift!

    Reply
  30. Sharon E Brock - February 5, 2020 3:50 pm

    It used to surprise me no end when I received compliments on my work, or my garden, or my needlework. It took time for GOD’S voice to get through the external negative noise. Eventually I understood HE was telling me I was damn good. So are you Sean.

    Reply
  31. Tom Wallin - February 5, 2020 3:51 pm

    Sean, you are describing all of us. I think the same thing most days. Then I get on with it and enjoy life right now. Thanks, Tom

    Reply
  32. Steve Winfield - February 5, 2020 3:51 pm

    The world is a better place for it. You make so many of us take note of the many good things that are still around. I’ve said it before & sure I’ll say it again.
    Thank you. I love you.
    Steve

    Reply
  33. Sylvia - February 5, 2020 3:54 pm

    Love your stories…..

    Reply
  34. Tom Shaw - February 5, 2020 4:04 pm

    I just started getting/reading your daily article. You are a tremendous writer- you write to my soul. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes my eyes leak. As he does with everyone, the “Carpenter” put you back together better than you were to start with.

    Reply
  35. Dee Thompson - February 5, 2020 4:59 pm

    You are an amazing writer. I have an MA in Creative Writing and I’ve written 4 books and published countless articles and blogs, and I am a huge admirer of your writing — and I can’t find an agent to save my life. Education really has nothing to do with writing talent. One of the best writer/bloggers out there is my friend Cindy LaJoy who never attended college for even 5 minutes. I keep encouraging her to write a book for all us moms of adopted children who are not “neurotypical” and who need faith and inspiration. [She and her husband just opened a pizza/ice cream business to give 3 of their kids gainful employment — check out Buckaroos Slices and Scoops next time you’re near Montrose Colorado]. Don’t put yourself down please, Sean. You write beautifully.

    Reply
  36. Patricia Gibson - February 5, 2020 5:03 pm

    Sean you make a difference in my life everyday.

    Reply
  37. Ala Red Clay Girl - February 5, 2020 5:17 pm

    Decatur is my hometown, and I spent many Saturday afternoons in the Princess Theater as a child. Wished I had seen you there last night, but I did get to see you last year in Athens. The “Carpenter”… in His eyes we are all worth dying for.

    Reply
  38. Linda Moon - February 5, 2020 5:26 pm

    I like Larry McMurtry’s STREETS OF LAREDO, and if I’d known you were on Decatur Streets, I would’ve been there. The Historic Talladega Ritz was one one my favorite places to see you onstage…telling stories, singing, and playing that old guitar. THIS OLD GUITAR that Neil Young and EmmyLou Harris sang about reminds me of you and The Carpenter. He,The Carpenter, did a great job with you! I’ll be on some street somewhere soon to get YOUR book, Author.

    Reply
  39. Connie Pearson - February 5, 2020 5:49 pm

    Sean, you grabbed me with your last sentence. I’ll be chewing on it for days to come. Also, I hope you enjoyed Decatur. I wish I’d known you were so close. I live in Hartselle and would love to have had you over for dinner. 🙂

    Reply
  40. Neil Mathews - February 5, 2020 5:49 pm

    Great testimony “I was once a piece of junk. But someone looked at me and saw something else. Then a carpenter put me back together.” That carpenter was also a pretty potter. Keep Writing, please. God Bless

    Reply
  41. Edna Barron - February 5, 2020 7:31 pm

    I have to agree with another reader, stop putting yourself down. If you have a gift, be proud of it and do the best you an with it. I love your stories, but not when you are putting yourself down. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  42. Jim Sturges - February 5, 2020 7:44 pm

    I’m “from” Dothan, and you remind me of the good that persists there in spite of the Trump-foolery that has arisen there.

    Unless I misread, you’re giving credit to the Carpenter from Nazareth for putting you back together. He did a great job.

    Reply
  43. Rebecca Souders - February 5, 2020 7:47 pm

    “I don’t have the training, the pedigree, nor the physique to be “accomplished” at anything.” Sean Dietrich, you prove that statement wrong every day! Thanks for your accomplished words; they lift me up!

    Reply
  44. Sheila Bolyard - February 5, 2020 9:59 pm

    Love it Sean. The Carpenter is working on me too. I’m thankful for where He has guided you because you make the world a more joyful place. Thank you

    Reply
  45. kellie40 - February 5, 2020 10:00 pm

    The stage at the Princess theater is a sacred place, where you can come alive…and let your voice be heard. I’m so glad you got “all the feels” during your recent performance.
    Whether it was through telling stories, playing an old guitar or summoning those who have stood before you, livestock included.
    As a young girl, Decatur’s beautiful Princess Theater is where I debuted as an actress…I starred in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, waited anxiously in the wings, and took a curtain call bow. Fast forward 30+ years and I’m a writer in Boston, but I’ll never forget the awe I felt on that stage, telling the age-old fairy tale. I’m honored to learned we’ve shared the same feeling and location. Along with the other greats you mentioned.

    Reply
  46. Lori Wilbins - February 5, 2020 10:18 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  47. chip - February 5, 2020 10:38 pm

    Strange, a carpenter – a Jewish carpenter actually put me back together too and I try an help folks get to know him … I publish a lot of his art on my facebook page

    Reply
  48. June Batchelor - February 5, 2020 11:04 pm

    Myself and 3 other friends came to hear you last night at the Princess. Two of us saw you I thought last year at the Princess and then my son and I went to see you perform at Athens State College in Athens, Al maybe last year. You get better each time I’ve heard you and I don’t think you have repeated any of your stories. That’s a feat in self. Your ending was awesome. God bless you and Jamie and the fur babies. Hope to see you again soon.

    Reply
  49. Margaret C - February 6, 2020 6:56 am

    “Then a carpenter put me back together.” You are not broken. You have been made whole. The Carpenter loves you and so do your readers. Now keep writing those stories and playing that beautiful music on the guitar that was broken and made whole again. ❤️

    Reply
  50. Paula Link - February 6, 2020 1:36 pm

    You make me smile, give me hope, and speak my heart language. You’re better medicine than Grandma’s hug, and I am so glad that God is blessing you so that you can bless other. Please don’t stop making your own special kind of music.

    Reply
  51. Winona Clark-Colvard - February 6, 2020 2:25 pm

    Sean, I try to read your post every day! I have seen you perform at Robinson Springs Methodist Church in Millbrook, AL and at Pintlala Baptist. Today’s post made me cry! I think it was the horse apples part that got to me: I have been deeply involved with horse apples for 70 of my 73 years. Still have two super producers here on my hill, plus a mollie mule who is expert at producing mule-apples. While reading your post today, it occurred to me that on April 28, 2021, Lord willing, I will reach the Big 75. Do you think you might be available to help me celebrate somewhere near that date in Elmore County, AL? My address is 306 Clark Road, Deatsville, AL 36022. Phone (334) 285-5260. All good wishes for you and yours!

    Reply
  52. Guy Tunnell - February 6, 2020 4:35 pm

    And what a “carpenter” He is! My wife and I saw you at another theater “gem”, the Imogene in Milton, FL (we’re the one’s who have coffee with you every morning!). Great atmosphere, great show, and the Blue Mullet(s) were equally great!
    God bless,
    Guy

    Reply
  53. Jean - February 6, 2020 10:55 pm

    You sell yourself far too short. You are a very talented guy. I couldn’t do what you do….it’s just not there. Keep on doing what you are doing….we love you.

    Reply
  54. Carol Rothwell - February 9, 2020 10:08 pm

    The carpenters name was Jesus!
    Love ya!

    Reply

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