Under the dome of Birmingham: Stalking the elusive mom and pop breakfast places

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The man of a certain age sits alone in the diner, his girth mastering most of the booth space.

He eats his breakfast as if he’s never eaten before, smacking and stuffing and sopping and glugging, like he’s not had a meal for days, though it’s evident that he’s been frequently well-fed and well-groomed. He leans into the food and stuffs away, his blow-dried sprayed whitening hair and monogrammed track pullover shirt quivering in the morning fluorescent light.

He is his own world for a few minutes in the crowded eatery.

Across the room, a mustachioed baseball-capped good ol’ boy with hand in napkinned lap eats mannerly and methodically, gazing all the while into the indiscernable space before him, ignoring the blaring TV set hanging from the ceiling.

Worldly waitresses, ears slanted from cached pencils, skillfully walk the tightrope assigned to their lot—the tightrope walk between appearing simultaneously aloof and chummy, careful to balance the roles of Mom and Flirt and Nurturer and Businesswoman while keeping all these morning shovelers of food happy and distant.

Four elderly men at Table 4 grunt and chat and laugh and tease as they relate oft-repeated stories about how the world is going to hell and how the young people these days…

They are having the best time they’ll have all day, for a smattering of minutes avoiding all responsibility and duty and honey-do tasks which will face them down later in the morning, no matter what.

One four-year-old sits with his grandmother and diligently stabs into waffles and syrup and butter with zeal usually assigned to a nervous dog digging for its favorite bone. In just a few years, he, too, will be trying to find the perfect breakfast place that replicates this perfect childhood experience he’s having right now.

He, like all of us in the diner, is imprinted with the combination of taste, texture, fragrance, feel of what it’s like to be in a safe, familiar, non-threatening place, being cared for by kindly strangers whose only goal is to feed you well and stay out of your way while you soak up all that nurturing atmosphere, the nurturing atmosphere you take with you to start the day right, even if later on, some grumbly non-breakfasted bastard wonders why you’re in a better mood than he is, and tries to take it all away from you



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Born Beneath the Paper Mill Mist, Living Under the Truing Iron Man

Listen to Jim: http://jimreedbooks.com/mp3/bornbeneaththepapermillmist.mp3

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Early memories of my father always include the sounds of his four-second morning sneeze fit.

“Wah-CHOO!” again, and then it was all over.

Who knows where my father’s sneezes came from—there are suspects all around, but like all environmental irritants, it takes generations for subversive researchers to dig out the truth.

Could it be lung remnants of unregulated coal dust he breathed, working in the  1920′s coal mines of West Alabama? Could it be the rotten-egg-smelling mist that lay heavy on the morning air of Tuscaloosa back then, generated by the Paper Mill that dominated the town? Could it be some sort of undiagnosed allergy that today might be muted or mutated through mysterious prescriptions?

Maybe it was just hereditary, since I now have his same sneezes.

By moving from coal-mining country and paper mill stench in Tuscaloosa to densely-particulated air in Birmingham, back in 1969, did I manage to ameliorate my throat-clearing sneezing habits of old? Nope. Still do it, still don’t know the real cause, still muddle on through.

As I make these notes that you are now reading, I can see Vulcan the Iron Man through the window, a 55-foot-tall cast-iron statue of the Roman god of fire and armor—an unlikely overseer of Birmingham. He looks out over a vast valley where the particuates settle and are inhaled each day.

If you ever get to visit Alabama, don’t miss Vulcan. He’s what we have to show off—the world’s largest cast-iron statue. St. Louis has The Arch, Paris has The Tower, we have Vulcan.

Anyhow, one of the things I like about this enormous hulk is that, while macho and tough and stocky of build, he has a finer, more gentle side. For one thing, he is holding aloft a metal spear he is fabricating, gazing up the shaft to see if it’s straight and true, obviously taking great pride in his work above the hot anvil at his feet. The other nice thing about him is he’s thinking of his secret love across the valley, a 23-foot-tall gold statue of the beautiful (and nude) Miss Electra, symbol of the harnessing of electricity to make things work better.

There you have the romance and beauty of pollution. The unrequited affair of Vulcan and Electra, their pride in rising above the heavy, dusty mists, their stoic stances representing the spirit of all of us who are powerless to change the course of industry and nature, their very symbolism keeps us going.

No matter how tough things get, there’s always some hope that us little folk can keep our heads up, our pride intact, our babies nurtured, our kindnesses perpetuated, our love affairs familial and romantic and sustainable…

And each time someone nearby goes “Wah-CHOO!” it’s nice to reflect on what that strange noise means, it’s nice to raise a truing spear or a bolt of energizing lightning to the sky and give a silent salute to the meek—the meek, who will not inherit the earth but who can at least now and then contest the Will

(c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed



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F.W. Woolworth socks it to me

Listen to Jim: http://jimreedbooks.com/mp3/fwwoolworthsocks.mp3

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I don a fresh pair of socks each and every morning of my life, always wondering when I’m going to run out of the really good ones.

That’s right—I go through fourteen clean socks a week. I’m an Activities of Daily Living guy who uses routine and ritual to contain my excited and artistic impulses. If I didn’t subscribe to certain repeatable and comfortable exercises, I just might wander off absent-mindedly while imagining my next story, my next speech or performance, my flights of fantasy that allow me to compose and edit and manage the Muse who tracks me, my acquisition of rare and unusual reading material for longing customers.

So, wearing clean socks is part of the act.

This particular morning, I find two holes in the right sock and, since no-one in America has darned a sock since 1959, I reluctantly toss it into the trash. The abandoned sock is one of the last really good ones I’ll apparently ever own. Can’t find soft, durable and comfortable ones anymore.

I’m about to run out of the last F.W. Woolworth socks in the known universe.

A sock is not just a sock, you  understand. These socks were purchased at one of the final real variety department stores, purchased decades ago when stores still had clerks who knew where things were, and who gladly assisted you in finding them, making sure they were right for you and checking to see whether you had an enjoyable experience in the process.

Wonder when the last real store clerk disappeared from view? Looking around, it’s hard to see any evidence that they ever existed except in the minds of geezers of a certain age.

For instance, at the library, librarians sit staring at computers and don’t voluntarily look up. You have to stand over them and clear your throat loudly to get them to tear their gaze from the screen. Even then, they only know how to vaguely point directions without removing seat of pants from seat of chair.

The branch bank on the corner seems equally bereft of eye contact. Employees sit and stare at screens or bow their heads in religious adoration of hand-held devices. They not only find it hard to look at me, but there is impatience in body language and demeanor. Just let me get back to the real virtual world! they seem to be saying. They don’t seem glad to see me.

It’s hard not to feel guilty, interrupting these clerks who have learned to respond warmly to electronic messages and images. What an annoyance we real people are!

Anyhow, I miss the days of one-on-one real-time real-presence social exchanges. I’m adjusting to the lonely world of sock-hunting on my own.

There’s proof in the message—if I tried to tell you this sad tale in person, you’d be fidgeting and creeping toward the door, longing to get back to texting or youtubing or facebooking snarky comments about other people’s lives. But the fact that you read this story online simply means that I’m already on your side, despite my whining. We are virtual people communicating virtual information in a virtual world.

Wonder what the real world is like? Maybe we’d better look up once in a while, just to get our bearings.

Now that the F.W. Woolworth socks are depleted, I wonder what virtual socks will feel like

(c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed



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The Disembodied Book Re-animator Strikes Again

Listen to Jim: http://jimreedbooks.com/mp3/disembodiedbookreanimator.mp3

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The corpus delectable lies before me this morning, waiting for my re-animation skills to kick in.

It’s a book.

It is splayed open to the title page, begging me to bring it back to life. It is missing its hard covers, the tattered spine needs stabilizing, a few spots of age decorate its interior…but the words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs and chapters are all intact and awaiting the touch of a reader or a collector or a hoarder.

There are many ways to resuscitate a book.

I can read it, thus infusing it with renewed vigor, donate my interpretation of the printed words to its 95-year-old collection of memories, turn its pages and admire the four centuries of trial-and-error printing craftsmanship that brought this object to this moment in time, marvel at the reproduction of the Edgar Allan Poe portrait facing the title page, ponder the life and times of publisher Charles C. Bigelow and Company, study the copyright year 1918 and determine what else of significance was happening in the world right about then, think on the near-century this book lay dormant and ignored in an attic of detritus, trace the route it took to arise from storage and wend its way into my hands this very moment.

I can also read its contents and marvel at the words that cause the imagination to become excited and nimble.

I can pick one story at random from this book, “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” and then imagine what the thousand-and-third tale might be, fantasize whether Scheherazade had another unpublished thousand-and-one tales within her, admit the fact that I, too, might have as many stories to tell if only I’d get on with telling them.

Upon further examination, I notice that the Scheherazade story has never been read by the owners of this book—the pages are still uncut, meaning that the avid reader of the day would purchase a book, take letter-opener in hand, and carefully slit the closed pages open so that the contents could be properly read.

This means that I could be the first person to read this story within the pages of this book. I will become the explorer, the adventurer, the first-ever enjoyer of these pages. Cheap thrills, but thrills, nonetheless!

What happens next to this tome? I might take it home and read it in lone silence. I might have it rebound and reinforced for its next 95-year journey, I might share it with another booklover, I might shelve it as is and hope that those who someday scrounge around the remains of my estate will do something more meaningful than send it to the dumpster.

For now, it is a foundling and must be protected from society’s thrower-awayers, society’s censors, society’s bookburners, society’s illiterates, society’s unappreciaters of the Past, society’s disapprovers.

How many booklives have I saved in a long lifetime? How many will I rescue from bookhell, how many more orphans will you and I conceal from the enemies of books?

The disembodied book re-animators of the would could be Us.

Or, if you don’t want to embrace the task, perhaps I’ll have to do it all by myself. But just think of the fun you’ll miss

 (c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed



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CAN’T STOP MY BRAIN flashthoughts #835

LISTEN: cantstopmybrain.mp3


Things happen when you’re sitting all alone in the airport cellphone parking lot in your transportable solitary cell, waiting for the call to do a drive-by at the baggage area to give your wife a ride home.

Yes, things happen when your brain won’t be idle,

even though you’re on idle and your car is idling.


1.  When a fugitive, would you rather be at large or on the loose ?

2.  Does the poor grammar of the song Live and Let Die bother anyone but me? “…but in this everchanging world in which we live in…”

3.  Did you run your car off the road when the local public radio station interviewer and interviewee simultaneously and repeatedly pronounced Pythias as PIE-thee-us?

4.  Do you love the passionate poetry of this passage from a Howlin’ Wolf song, “…this bad love she got…makes me laugh and cry…makes me really know…I’m too young to die…” ?

5.  Why do I obsess over the fact that Gene Autry mispronounces Santa’s reindeer’s name as Donner ? It’s Donder, I tell you, Donder. See http://donder.com/  (I learned it at the annual Donder party.)

6.  Do you find it inexplicable that the more Ahmad Jamal or Dimitri Shostakovich or Miles Davis repeat a musical phrase or note imterminably, the more it grows on you and becomes a powerful statement?

7.  Isn’t it remarkable how drummer Joe Morello’s burst of laughter and relief at the end of Dave Brubeck’s tune Unsquare Dance makes the piece just about perfect? You have to turn the volume up real high to hear it.

8.  Notice that if you think real hard about it, there are at least eight (maybe more) museums within quick walking distance of Reed Books/The Museum of Fond Memories? Tourists already know this. Here they are: Sports Hall of Fame/Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Radio Museum (at the Alabama Power Company building), Birmingham History Museum, McWane Center exhibits, Ullman Museum, Reynolds Library Medical Museum, Civil Rights Institute/Museum, Museum of Fond Memories... I’ll let you fill in the rest.

9.  As Shel Silverstein said, “This town grows old around me…” but as it grows, it only gets better and better. Brigitte Bardot commented, “It’s sad to grow old, but nice to ripen.”

As the center of the Universe, Birmingham is ripening and ready to burst into a new future. As the bookstore at the center of the center of the Universe, Reed Books, too, becomes more beautiful.

Those are my fragmentary momentary thoughts. Just can’t stop my brain…


The Seventy-Cent Four-Minute Shopping Spree

LISTEN: http://jimreedbooks.com/mp3/seventycentfourminute.mp3 or READ ON…

Historic Downtown Birmingham is my neighborhood, and my little bookstore and museum constitute the center of my personal universe. Most days, I live in the peaceful world by staying out of the way of gypsies, tramps, thieves, wolves and cranky people…but the one thing I can’t seem to avoid is the plethora of City Employee Attitude Provokers. These folks are scattered here and there, and they appear to pounce only when I least expect it…only when I am otherwise having a nice day.

We can take care of the elephants, but the gnats are annoying to the max.


It’s first thing in the bustling morning of the big city, and I do what I do at least three times a week—pull up to a parking space in front of the town’s only variety store, FAMILY DOLLAR, this time to pick up some trash bags and paper towers for the shop.

I check the winking metal meter and scrounge around for a nickel, which I know will provide six minutes of parking time, just enough for me to do my thing. There’s no nickel, but the dime I find will suffice—what the heck, I can spend twelve minutes looking at the gewgaws and jawing with the employees.

I stick the dime into the winking meter—and it just keeps on winking. Oops!  It’s another broken machine in the traditionally broken-meter ethos of Downtown. Maybe it was dozing instead of blinking…so I stick another dime in the slot. Blinking continues. At this point, I have to decide whether to risk receiving an overtime ticket, or just dash in, hoping to beat the system. Then, I notice a Meter Maid (don’t know what her real title is) who seems new to the beat. She’s checking cars and issuing tickets and she’ll soon be coming my way. I decide to let her know about the meter, so I won’t have to worry about the fine.

“Hi, I notice that this meter isn’t taking my money.”

She snaps, “What did you put in?”

“Two dimes.”

“Well, you have to put in a quarter,” she replies impatiently, which I know not to be the case—just guess she’s new to the beat and trying to seem efficient. I do not mention this fact.

“Hmm…wonder when they started requiring dimes only?” I say, searching my pocket for some quarters.

She doesn’t reply and huffs away to look at another meter.

I insert a quarter into Winky, and, sure enough, it continues to wink. No results.

“Uh, it isn’t taking quarters, either,” I say, since she’s only a few feet away.

She grimaces and snaps, “Well, how do I know you put anything  in the meter? I didn’t see you put it in.”

I’m stunned but still on task—I just want to make my FAMILY DOLLAR purchases and get to the shop before opening time. The only thing I can think to do is seize the moment.

“Well, please witness this for me, I’m about to put another quarter in, but can you watch me this time?”

She freezes, can’t seem to think of any snappy comeback, and stands about two feet away looking at the meter while I place the quarter where it’s supposed to go. It doesn’t work. She WHAPS the side of the meter, hoping that will solve the problem, but the winking continues.

The Meter Maid starts to walk away, turns back for a second, waves her hand dismissively, and says, “You’re OK.” I take that to mean she won’t issue a penalty.

I make my purchase (it only takes four minutes) and am relieved that there is no ticket when I return.

I hop in my time machine and head for work, where I will spend the rest of the day laughing at the incident, marvelling at the unnecessary energy required to have just one tiny justice done on the streets, and hoping to avoid any additional encounters with City Attitude employees, at least for the rest of the day

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed


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My Red Clay Diary continues to write itself each day. Here are a few things that flashed across my path this week:
Third Avenue North in front of the shop (Reed Books/The Museum of Fond Memories) has been barren but fun today (Friday). The Jackie Robinson film “42″ is being shot—in part—in Birmingham.
I’ve met film crew members who became customers (thank goodness! since regular customers were not allowed on the set)…strutted down a street bereft of traffic (going the wrong way on a one-way street—legally—is akin to walking naked down Madison Avenue)…eaten a hotdog prepared by Rhonda at Goodyear Shoe Hospital (Goodyear has been Downtown since 1919 and is still going strong)…discussed Birmingham and its beauty and style with the movie’s artistic director (these folks work really hard—they’ll be filming all night)…been dismayed by the rude attitude of a city employee (no matter how much the City attempts to bring wonderful things like moviemaking and sports to our area, the message never seems to trickle down to most workers, since they are just plain mannerless and humorless)…been delighted at how out-of-towners love our city (“It’s green, architecturally lovely, friendly, and the site of great eateries.”)…been happy to acquire some great books to add to our shelves (a carload came in today and another is due tomorrow).
And Saturday night, the entire experience was enhanced one degree by John Marc Green, the director of a new short film (Lippidleggin’), who hosted a screening at Five Points South. It was strange and exhilirating to see myself and fellow actors Whit Russell and David Seale on the big screen. They did a great job! Guess you’ll have to wait till film festival time to see the flick yourself. Stay tuned!
So…what’s a Red Clay Diarist to do next? The dilemma is always there—each time you see something fun and artistic and inspiring on the streets of the City, there’s often something that doesn’t quite fit with the rosy picture.
The good news is, the moment you get over your annoyance at those folks who just don’t care about Birmingham, there’s always something great and positive to note and ponder on.
Thanks goodness for the ponies we find among the haystacks of detritus. They keep us coming back for more
(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed

Those who love are always around

Listen: http://www.jimreedbooks.com/mp3/thosewholove.mp3 or read on…

I can’t seem to rid myself of all the long-ago formerly-living people who have filled my life, fleshed out my life, enriched my life.

You’d think that, once people you know die, you’d be able to put aside your memory of them and get on with meeting new people, having new experiences.

Just doesn’t work that way.

There are many dead folk who continue to influence my life:

Helen Hisey, my 8th grade speech teacher, taught me not to be afraid of speaking my passion in front of audiences. She taught me that it’s OK to slow down and respect the crowd, have faith in their ability to absorb worthwhile information when it is delivered to them with  zeal and humor and love. Helen still guides me, all the way from my starring role in the play Tom Sawyer  (at age 13) to my role as Gabe in the new John Marc Green film Lipidleggin’  (at age 70).  

Sadie Logan, my 2nd grade teacher, brought me up from a very deep and fearful place to a position of importance. She never, ever stopped believing in me and letting me know that I was the most special kid on earth. Fifty years later, I learned that she made virtually every student she’s ever taught feel the same way. We are all the offspring of Sadie Logan.

Jon Charles Palmer and Elmo Riley and Pat Flood were my childhood playmates who just plain accepted me as their friend and never had any reason to harm or dismiss me, no matter how stupid I acted, no matter how far away and out of touch I became. I still hang out with them in memory ever fresh.

Frances Lee McGee Reed, my mother, always laughed at my corny humor, always knew I was special, never let me get away with a lie or an exaggeration or a misdeed, forever believed that I was Number One in her book—even though my brothers and sisters felt the same way. She taught me that the greatest entertainment there is, is people-watching, and I spend most of each public day doing just that, with her invisible presence setting me straight.

James Thomas Reed Jr., my father, taught by quiet example. He was clumsy aloud, but his image as a learned and wise man was powerful without words. He was my earliest example of what a real family man does—earn the living, bring home the pay, sit silently in an easy  chair after supper, reading books great and books seedy and books wise, from Mickey Spillane and Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs to Eric Hoffer and Harry Truman and Ogden Nash. A most educated man, though never a graduate, he set the example of steadfast tranquility.

Other dead people who look after me:

Pawpaw Burns was my elderly neighbor who showed me that if you really pay close attention to children, you can get through to them by simply noticing, simply respecting them for where they are at the moment. They can always tell.

Adron Herrin and Jack McGee and Brandon McGee and Pat McGee and Annabelle Herrin and Evey Hartley and Effie McGee and Georgia McGee and Gladys McGee and Matty Wooten and John McGee and Dinah Hassell and Elizabeth McGee and many other kinfolk accepted me, warts and all, and treated me with respect and good humor, making me react in horror when anybody tells me they are separated from their kin, cut off from the nurturing care that can come from kindly people who share your blood, if you will only let them.

There are crowds of dead people in my head and in my life and that’s OK.

Even better news: there are scores of living people who have helped me, too, many without even knowing it.

I see living people.

And, because of the wisdoms and comforts and joys left me by the deceased, I am better prepared than most to carefully weed out the unwise and hang only with the people who trust and accept me and make no judgements.

Thanks to those long-ago-passed, I have become a good student of life, and the lives they lived help me manage the bad days well, and enjoy the good days even more

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed














The Six-Smile Double-Grimace Tapdance Trek to Fond Memoryland

Listen: http://jimreedbooks.com/mp3/sixsmiledoublegrimace.mp3 or read on…


Wending my way from abode to workplace each morning is an experience roughly like driving a bumper car down the freeway or tapdancing around hidden land mines. I’m so relieved and happy to arrive unmolested that I have trouble remembering what it was that made the trek such an adventure.

Let me go back ten minutes in time and examine what happened:

I’m grateful for the smiles. The clerk at the pharmacy is so pleasant and anxious to please that I just can’t help smiling right back. She always asks if anyone ever told me I look like George Carlin. I always reply that she’s the only one, but that I’ll take it as a compliment.

A close-cropped-hair young man stands at the corner outside the pharmacy and begins his panhandler routine. I just say no and wonder how he affords the cigarettes and cell phone if he needs to solicit.

There’s a sign at the corner, FUNKY FISH FRY, which is three days out of date. If I’m to enjoy the fish, I’ll need to re-tool the time machine.

At the post office, the clerk is all smiley and friendly today, primarily because I drew the one who knows how to converse. We have a good, informative time. Yet another smile.

I drop my laundry off and have a pleasant interchange with the employee, who by now knows way too much about me, since she’s been cleaning my clothes for decades. That’s yet another smile.

Driving on toward the shop, I have a revelation—one that I can share at a speech I’m giving this evening. My generation says DUH (pronounced DUUUUUHHH, as in stupid). This generation says DUH (pronounced sharply, DUH!, as in disdainful). There must be some metaphor there. Another smile, this time from me. 

Two large ladies, lawfirm employees, never see me, though I walk past within inches of them outside the shop each day. All they can concentrate on are the cigarettes they’re frantically puffing on, and the gossip they are loudly sharing. All I can concentrate on is not inhaling, since secondary smoke is inescapable on my block.

I finally arrive at the front door and get a special, gigantic smile from the Piggly Wiggly mascot head in the show window. Within seconds, I’ll be safe from dread, boredom, addiction, neediness and superficial patter, all of which I’ve experienced between home and store.

For a few seconds, I’ll be peaceful and secure.

Then, I’ll roll the stone from before the entrance and open myself again to the World, the friendly shoppers, the saber-tooth tigers and the constant surprises that I later can write about on my little computer screen, just for you

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed