Notes in Bottles Float to the Center of the Universe

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Some days at the shop, my visitors remind me of notes sealed in bottles.

Each customer brings a message to me. Often, the customer is not even aware.

But I see the message and treasure it.

Some examples of messages plucked from bottles that floated to the center of the Universe, which is what Reed Books/The Museum of Fond Memories is, most definitely:

1. One reader tells me how he discovered his first John D. MacDonald book by accident, while staying at a rat trap motel back in the 1980′s. Since MacDonald was so good at describing the underbelly of Florida night life through the eyes of its movers and victims, it was the right time. I sell the customer a bio of MacDonald, wishing I had read it first. Travis McGee was one dude.

2. A good ol’ boy browser noses about with his wife, and manages to do something any ventriloquist would envy. He talks without touching his lips together. You’d have to be there, if you don’t already know what I’m experiencing. “All right” becomes “awe ITE” and “yeet yet?” is actually “Have you eaten yet?” and so on. He was a cool cat back in high school. His ducktail has thinned.

3. Another junkin’ couple cruises the shop, and the male partner expounds on his store of imcomplete knowledge: “See that Ray Bradbury book? You know, he created Star Trek. He’s dead now.” 92-year-old Bradbury is not in great health but he’s still happy to be alive, according to all reports. Don’t know whether the late Gene Roddenberry is happy.

4. One more curiosity-seeker walks around with his pal and is heard to say, “With all them computers, people ain’t even gonna need books no more.” Employee Marie Peerson overhears this and reports back. She, too, is entertained by messages in bottles, even if the bottles sometimes leak and make soggy the messages.

5. A large baseball-capped man is awed by the life-size stand-up of Elvira, Mistress of the Cleavage, or whatever her stage name is. “She got me through my formative years,” he chuckles.

6. One silent customer forces me to read his mind, as he looks at an old publicity photo of Lauren Bacall. “Does she feel as pretty as she looks?” and, studying a Rolling Stone Magazine with Tina Turner thereon, “Does she do it like she dances?” I distract myself from further mind-reading. As Bugs Bunny said, “Enough is enough, and too much is plenty!”

7. One enthused customer is everywhere at once, overwhelmed at the variety of literary treasures she’s unexpectedly finding in the shop. Her shoes defy gravity, and she finally purchases more than she intended. I wish for a moment that I possessed a remote control that would allow me to replay her energy for the inspiration of other customers.

8. A happy young man picks a leatherbound Robert Louis Stevenson collectible book for his library and is already looking forward to the next visit. Yet another collector spends the entire day carefully deciding upon which century his next selection will time-travel from. He loves it all.

9. A Lincoln-conspiracy scholar has me order two more obscure assassination study volumes for his collection. He and his wife are always smiling and satisfied when they leave. Wish I could bottle them, but they are already bottles, and I their opener.

So it goes.

Anybody anywhere anytime who claims the old-book business isn’t fascinating and educational and riveting just hasn’t dared to take the time to come in, spend an hour or two, and allow the tomes of yore to whisk them away to better lands and imaginations

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed




Me, in my first car.

Listen here: or read on…

The afternoon is blistery hot and the red bugs and flies are having a field
day on my bare ankles and arms. But the heat of the day and the radiant heat
from the metal of my pedal car aren’t noticed at all. That’s because I am
three years old and I have yet to understand that you’re supposed to spend
parts of each day commenting on and whining about bugs and heat and

My mind is too clear, too uncluttered, to worry about such stuff.

What my mind is filled with is the sight of the sidewalk that runs from the
front steps of our small asbestos-shingled home to the asphalt pavement in
front of it. My pedal car is aimed toward the avenue, but my gaze is to the
right, toward 15th Street East and across it to the large high-fenced
federal medical and housing complex known as Northington Campus. That’s
where Daddy works all day, maintaining the buildings and sometimes talking
with the German prisoners of war who live there.

I’m waiting for Daddy to limp home from work, just a hundred yards from
here, but oh, so far away, since I am not allowed to leave the front yard
and even if I could, a hundred-yard trek would feel like crossing a damp

The pedal car squeaks as I work it back and forth on the sidewalk, and the
rusty steering wheel is hard to turn. No power steering invented yet. My
attention span snaps for a moment and I look across the avenue at the field
where my neighborhood playmates and I will be playing as we get older.
The golden grass is nearly three feet tall and it waves so gracefully in the
occasional breeze.

A bi-plane buzzes overhead, and I automatically salute it, a ritual drummed up by my sister and me. The patriotic thing to do—right now,during World War Two, while my uncles are overseas fighting—is to recognize the importance of aircraft, using them as a reminder to have fun, but not so much fun as to forget about all those soldiers and sailors and paratroopers and marines and WACS and WAVES and WAFS and Air Corps people and Coast Guarders who might die at any moment so that I can be safely riding my rustypedal car each afternoon. Somewhere over yonder, my Uncle Buddy McGee is
fighting his way toward Germany. My Uncle Pat McGee is repairing some GI’s
wound, and the husbands and sons of our neighbors are each doing something
to help the war end sooner than never.

A black Model-A Ford automobile, as rusty and hard to steer as my pedal car,
turns off 15th Street onto Eastwood Avenue, my avenue, and pulls up to the
house next door. Pawpaw Burns gets out of the car and stoops under his
enormous tree to pick up a couple of pecans, which he cracks open with
one hand–something I won’t be able to do for a few more years. Pawpaw
regards me while he picks the sweet meat from the bitter shells.

“Whatcha doing, Master Jim?”

I blush, not expecting to be spoken to.

“Nothing,” I reply, and I vigorously pedal the car to show Pawpaw how robust
and strong I am—deserving to be called Master!

“Well, maybe you’ll be doing something later,” he jokes, adding, “It’s never
too late, you know.”

Pawpaw knows more about me than even my own family–I can tell that, because
he’s very old, and very old people are wiser than three-year-old people and
grown-up parents. I am embarrassed that he can read my mind, but I am awed by
his taking notice of me. I will regret many times not being old enough to
sit down with Pawpaw and hear his tales and feel his wisdom, and I will
often try to make amends for that loss by spending time with people older
than me. It’s never too late.

Pawpaw leisurely picks up a few more pecans and goes inside his home to see
what Mawmaw is up to.

I look up the avenue again to see if Daddy has appeared yet. I really am
looking up the avenue—not down—because it slants upward toward the street. I
will use this one-block incline to my advantage as I grow. It will be great
for coasting in a wagon. It will assist me when, on a windy day, I don
roller skates, grab Mother’s old umbrella, and let the wind fill that
umbrella and push me downhill for a block that feels like a mile.

“Clunk,” goes the manhole cover on the street before our house. It makes
that sound every time a car rolls over it, and I will hear that sound mixed
with the lonely mellow sound of a train whistle throughout many days and
nights on Eastwood Avenue.

Even now, in my book loft 55 miles and 60 years away from Eastwood Avenue, I
still hear that train whistle each day. It may even be the same train
whistle, because the engines seem to keep on rolling. It is the same
railroad track, I do know that. I have no way of knowing that in half a
century I will still be living and working by the same tracks that run by
Eastwood, having the same lonesome going-away feeling in my belly that I
have now, sitting here in this rusty pedal car.

I gaze at that field again, anxious to go hiding and adventuring among the
golden weeds. My brand-new baby brother, Ronny, is abed inside the house,
dreaming of warm milk and warm breasts. My older sister, Barbara, is
swirling crayons in her Shirley Temple coloring book, her artistic skills even now
pushing themselves into full view. Barbara’s coloring is full of shadings
and interpretations that kids like me can never achieve. It’s no fun for me,
coloring within the lines, but sister Barbara does it so well, I just know
she’s going to be a famous artist like my Aunt Matty Wooten in West Blocton.

I look at my small palms and marvel at the red dust and sweat that have made
themselves into clay in the folds and wrinkles and under the fingernails. I
wipe them on my short pants so that Barbara or Mother won’t make me wash

Up the street, I see the figure of Daddy, and I scramble out of the pedal
car because it can’t go as fast as I can. My father limps from an old coal
mining accident. He wears khaki pants and a pith helmet, just like Jungle
Jim does in the movie serials. I race up the street and hug his leg, and
maybe this is the day he brings me a hand-made gift from one of the young
German soldiers. It’s a beautiful curved bottle with a painted figure
thereon, and we will keep this small treasure in the family from now on,
never knowing the name of the prisoner artist, but knowing that it is a
special and unearned gift from a stranger in a strange land to a family he
will never meet.

Daddy smells familiar and manly, as daddies usually do. A bit of coal dust
from the summer-dormant furnaces at Northington settles down and shakes its
essence up whenever Daddy and his workers move about. Some sweat—no
air conditioning in the hospital or the barracks. Some hair tonic fragrance,
but mainly the smell of Daddy. He picks me up high and my cheek rubs against
his swarthy, unshaved cheek, and I will forever remember that texture,
because there’s never been another experience like that. I don’t rub cheeks
with adult men, so my encounter with Daddy’s face is a fresh and uncluttered

Mother actually starches and presses Daddy’s khaki trousers, so that he
starts each day fresh and tailored. He walks down the avenue with a small
three-year-old dancing around him, and we go inside our cave, smelling
cornbread cooking in a greased iron pan, turnip greens bubbling in their
sliced-egg broth, and freshly-fried chicken waiting for kids to fight over
drumsticks and pulley bone wishes.

The rock is rolled before the entrance of the cave to keep the sabre-toothed
tigers at bay, and our little Stone Age family huddles together to await the
fireflies, the purple-starred night, and the likes of Fibber McGee and Molly
crouching inside our radio set in the living room, getting ready to
entertain us before we leap fresh-toothbrushed into our hand-washed
bedclothes to sleep the only innocent and pure sleeps of our long lives.

Can I, the grizzled old memory-man, return to those days and wrap myself up
in their warm purity, and, once more, feel wanted and loved and cared for
and safe?

As Pawpaw Burns would say, still regarding me closely after all this time,
“It’s never too late.”

(C) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed 

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Nobody Ever Gets Out of the High Chair

To become a bartender or a waiter, you don’t have to have a PhD in psychology or social work, but that doesn’t matter, because your customers think you have a PhD in psychology or social work.

In other words, in a bar or a restaurant, people often revert to infantilism and look to the barkeeper or waitress as confessor and adviser.  We DEPEND on these people to make us forget the day’s troubles…we depend upon them to act as substitutes for those long ago folks in our lives who fed us and made us feel secure.





Bring back the eateries of my youth!

In memory yet green, I can still walk into all kinds of restaurants that used to exist in Tuscaloosa, and I can still get well fed with Food for Thought, even though the restaurant may be long gone and dearly departed.
In the 1960’s, as a skinny bespectacled radio and TV announcer, I used to take myself and wife to the restaurant beside the Moon Winx Motel and eat an enormous filet mignon with baked potato and goodness knows what else, for under $2.00 on Friday night.  That neon partial-moon still winks at me in my imagination, and I’ve always regretted that I never spent a night there, with that glow leaking around the curtains.
In the 1940’s, I used to be hauled by Mother and Sister to H&W Drugs when it was right across the street from the Bama Theatre.  There, we would eat the known universe’s best danged chicken salad sandwiches on toasted light bread cut in two, glugged down with soda fountain Coca-Cola.  I can still taste that wonderful oniony flavor and would give just about anything to have one of those sandwiches right this minute.


We used to drive past the Teapot Diner when I was little, but I never got to eat there.  It would have been an exciting thing to do–eat inside a teapot!  Then, to cap it off, what a treat it would have been to spend the night in the Wigwam Motor Court toward Bessemer!  Wonder what kind of food THEY served?


Some of the best dining I ever had was while standing on the concrete floor of my grandfather’s store in Peterson, R.L. MCGEE GEN MERCHANDISE, and eating some ice cream washed down by a Grapico, flavored with love and affection from my grandmother Effie and Uncle Brandon and the postmistress, Aunt Gladys.


The best loaded cheeseburgers I ever had were from the Soup Store cafeteria in the Student Union Building at the University of Alabama, where I worked as an announcer for the public radio station.  Back in the early sixties, I’d put on a long symphonic work for the listeners, then dash down to the Soup Store, grab a burger and a Coke and some chips, and rush back upstairs, hoping against hope that the LP vinyl recording hadn’t gotten stuck in the meantime. 


That juicy cheeseburger would be just right, right about now.


The best food I could have would be in my parents’ home on Eastwood Avenue long about Sunday evening, when the refrigerator still held cold left-over fried chicken and potato salad and Pepsi Cola.  What would I give to experience that again!


And so on.


What are YOUR memories of great food in great places? Let me hear from you.


Just remember: it’s not the food, you know. It’s the circumstances.


When I was feeling safe in a safe little town with a safe little family in a safe little neighborhood, anything I ate was memorable.  When I was playing Shostakovich on the big turntable and drinking soft drinks and scarfing a cheeseburger on campus, life couldn’t possibly have gotten any better for that moment.  When I was Downtown ready to go see a picture show, eating chicken salad with my mother and sister, I was in safe haven.


When I could walk across main street, all the way from my job at WJRD, to S.H. Kress on the other side, and eat a plate lunch for less than a dollar in the 1960’s, I knew life was only going to get better.


Back then we could sit at Pasquale’s on University Boulevard and gossip and bloat for hours, we could go to York’s Grocery Store on 15th Street and load up on snacks, we could go across the street from city hall and sit and sip with mayor Hinton and other reporters after City Council meetings…and, even before that, way back in the 1950’s, I could take part of my lunch money at Tuscaloosa High School, purchase one of those heavy, yeasty rolls at the cafeteria, grab a half pint of Perry Creamery’s Pasteurized Homoginized milk, and hang out with the other nerds and geeks I loved: Patricia Gresham, Pat Flood, Jon Charles Palmer, Barbara Casson, Dot Jones, Jerry Hudson, Doug Bleicher, Arthur Voss and so on.  Then, I could take the unspent part of my lunch money across the street after school to Parkview Drugs and spin that rack of paperback books and get something new and exciting to read.


Every meal is a lasting memory, when you’re young. From my earliest recollection of rubber-nipple-bottled milk and my first birthday cake (all over face and body), to my last meal just a few second agos (crunchy fake tacos and Diet Coke), every meal carries a memory to pull out of the file on a future lonely day, every meal triggers a memory of a wonderful eating experience I had a decade ago or a half century ago.


If I were back in that wooden high chair right now, on my first birthday, knowing what I know now, I would still stick my face and fingers into that white icing and laugh with delight at the prospect of recalling it some 70 years later


(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed



Birds of a Feather

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Fifteen-month-old Reed walks shoeless on the Arabian rug, stepping gingerly over the power cord that leads to the computer on which I am writing this. The cord hurts his foot, should he step on it, so he avoids it.

He mouths sounds that are words and thoughts to him but only guesses to us.

He reaches out to touch the Graco Pack-Play Totyard that’s set up in the dining room writing room where I’m sitting, he gently pushes on the brand-name lettering and looks through the mesh sides to see what’s within this childhood prison compound.

Then, merrily talking with himself, he wobbles slightly bow-legged into the living room where his young parents are conversing and casting attentive glances at him to make sure he’s ok. He circles from the living room through the kitchen, where his grandmother and her best friend are cooking and talking, and they greet him and chat with him as he walks past them into the foyer and then back into the dining room where I am.

He again steps over the power cord, goes to the window where the air conditioning system is blowing the transparent curtains around, looks out, touches the curtains, then heads back to the Graco Pack-Play Totyard, this time running his fingernails over the mesh, which makes a most satisfying noise.

Then, he is gone again.

Earlier, my son-in-law and I rescue a bird that has fallen from a nest in the front yard, place it back into its little home, and hope that the nearby nervous parents will take it back and begin nourishing it again. The little bird has made a foray into unknown territory, had an adventure in which two giants carried it about and brought it back home–a story to tell to parents who probably will think it’s all exaggerated.

Mosquitoes attack us and we spend a few minutes scratching and talking as if we’d never experienced mosquitoes quite this vicious before, but of course we have short memories, and anyhow it’s more pleasant to talk about that than politics, taxes, and how the world will end.

Merry, chatty voices from the kitchen mingle with the voice of Reed, who is making up stories to tell to his usually tired but happy parents when the times comes to make his words understandable to adults.

Now, Reed is sitting on the kitchen floor, banging a Tupperware bowl with a wooden cooking spoon. At times he forgets to pound the bowl and instead tries to fit the small end of the spoon into the mouth of the bowl, as if he’s carefully disarming a bomb, his concentration unbreakable for about forty seconds.

Then, it’s back to pounding that thank-goodness-it’s-soft-plastic bowl with that thank-goodness-it’s-wooden spoon.

All-in-all, it’s quite a productive afternoon in our little household. Reed goes about the business of being Reed, Little Bird is trying to figure out how to leave the nest safely, adults go about the business of being grownups who enjoy the presence of Little Birds and Little Reeds, and the world for at least a few hours cannot intrude its dispassionate self upon our family

–Jim Reed (C) 2012 A.D.

Reflections on a Sunny Day

I like sunny days.

Quiet sunny days always make me reflective. If I’m not careful, these reflections tend to dribble onto the pages of my Red Clay Diary . If you’re not feeling reflective right now, you may want to hide this column away for a brighter time. If you’re ready for a few seconds of flashback journeying, flashback journaling, just humor me. I’ll do the word part, you do the image part.

* Squirrels in the big flat yard run and duck when protective fluttering bluebirds catch them too close to their family. Do birds communicate—or do they just create sounds?

* Do birds know about fireflies?

* Do dogs know it’s Sunday?

* Do fireflies stop lighting up in the daytime?

* Did Napoleon dream of atomic bombs?

* Does the richest man on earth have everything he wants?

* Who sends the wind? Is the wind more powerful than its sender? Does the wind know how fragile it is? Does it struggle to keep from being sucked into space?

* Is there anything bigger than space?

* Where does my fist go when I open my hand?

I am not a know-it-all, but I am an ask-it-all.

Questions help me know I’m alive and well. Answers change and contradict themselves and play tricks.

Give me a quiet sunny day of questions anytime

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed


Listen to Jim: 

or read on…

I was raised in an asbestos-shingled two-bedroom bungalow at 26 Eastwood Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

If the address doesn’t have a familiar ring to it, maybe this will help: The house is two blocks from the intersection of 15th Street East and MacFarland Boulevard. If that doesn’t have a ring to it, maybe this will help: The intersection was hit by tornadoes just one year ago, and virtually everything in sight was damaged or wiped out.

Except for the little asbesto-shingled two-bedroom home on Eastwood Avenue.

I don’t know why our home was spared. Brother-in-law Larry Partrich has repaired the damage and still stays there when he’s in town. Several other homes on the same street are still standing. Nobody died. And nobody knows why.

Being brought up in Tuscaloosa was a wonderful experience, but one thing we lived with in T-town was the reality of storms—primarily tornadoes. Each year of my life we’d have storms and storm warnings. We knew lots of people whose property was slammed, whose lives were altered by these impartial acts of Nature. It was something we just took for granted.

We knew that, should we live long enough, we, too, would be hit by nature, humbled by its terrible beauty. And, judging from the behavior of everybody we knew and knew about, we also knew that, if devastated, those of us who survived would come back and just keep on keeping on.

People have done this since time began.

If you live at the edge of a volcano, you just arise each day, thankful that this wasn’t the day it erupted. If you live on a faultline, you know that time is merely borrowed and that some day an earthquake will rattle your brains. If you reside in a dry forest you are happy that today isn’t runaway-inferno day.

If you live on Planet Earth, you remain thankful that today is not the day a meteor hits you, a solar flare stir-fries you, the finger of an unknown god squashes you, a bolt of lightning decides you are a good conductor, Fate decrees you expendable…

After the storms of last year, I drove through the remains of that nearby Tuscaloosa neighborhood where I played, worked, dated, dared, dreamed, acted foolishly and wisely, and otherwise lived the first 27 years of my life. I was horrified. But I was grateful, too…grateful for all the years I’d spent writing about those early years, describing the streets and inhabitants, waxing nostalgic about my times there, carefully memorizing each location I ever visited. 

Storms can erase the mere physical presence of a town, but they can’t touch or alter my fond memories, they can’t change the fact that the real town is still  here, in memory unshakeable. If I ever see you in Tuscaloosa, I’ll be glad to tour you through the actual town, the town that’s in my heart 

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed