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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Singing in the bathtub with Billy Eckstine and John Lee Hooker

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The Wanna-Be Billy Eckstine Bass-Baritone Life Plan Caper

I’m a barely-teenage superstar belting out my acapella rendition of “That Old Black Magic” in the privacy of the family bathtub, and my audience of none thinks it’s the best thing ever heard on planet earth.

That old black magic has me in its spell.

That old black magic that you weave so well.

Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

The same old witch-craft when your eyes meet mine.

The same old tingle that I feel inside

And then that elevator starts its ride *

The bathtub is private tonight because I have the house to myself for a while—a rarity because two parents and five kids usually live here.

This is back in the early 1950′s in Tuscaloosa, when pre-rock ‘n’ roll singers who make it to the top of their profession know how to enunciate and carry a tune and actually SELL lyrics to the listener. Once you hear the most dynamic of these performers, you are hooked for life.

Anyhow, I’m singing away in the bathtub, hoping against all hope that someday I’ll have a great voice that can belt out “That Old Black Magic” to beat the band, a voice that will make me the most popular kid on the block.

Among the best of the best of all pop singers is Billy Eckstine, whose powerful bass-baritone voice and sense of jazz-disciplined improvisation make him an icon alongside the great male vocalists of the day—Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Bobby Troup, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Big Joe Williams, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Steve Lawrence, John Lee Hooker, Fred Astaire. These guys are wonderful storytellers and back in these times they all get to be heard on local radio stations. This is long before music appreciation becomes segmented and self-limiting, long before a true Sinatra fan isn’t allowed to appreciate Hooker, long before it is unfashionable to pair Lawrence with Williams, or Satchmo with Mario Lanza.

In my family household, a great singer is a great singer, regardless of genre or age or race or style…so we listen to Hank Williams and George Beverly Shea and Dean Martin and Leonard Warren and Homer and Jethro equally, because we know each has a talent that must be embraced and appreciated.

That’s why I’m anxious to be home alone now and then so I can bellow out songs that bounce off the tiles and echo my temporarily enriched tones. Today, I’m emulating Billy Eckstine, whose incredible range and clarity make me feel I could make any woman within the sound of my voice swoon.

Funny thing about my particular generation is that we not only love our own music, but we love our parents’ and grandparents’ music as well. Our recordings span half a century—waltzes and bebop and scat and honky tonk and opera and polka and Cajun and country and gospel and schmaltz and jazz and blues and satire all combine according to the mood of the moment.

Later, when I become a disc jockey, I get to play all these forms of music, perhaps the last time any disc jockey is accorded this honor. As soon as the mid-1960′s approach, radio stations begin segmenting, specializing, becoming frozen in playlists. But for a while, I get to ply my trade in several worlds:

At a public radio station, I play classical and opera and ballet, along with show tunes, jazz, folk and international sounds from various exotic cultures. At commercial radio stations, I play “mood” music, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, comedy tunes, country gospel, ol’ time religion, barber shop quartets, upper-crust sacred works—you name it, I am exposed to it. Plus, I get to expose my audience to this wondrous variety of talent.

Nowadays, in the nervous present, I find it difficult to explain my taste in music. Hip hop fans know nothing about bluegrass, punk rockers don’t know who Howlin’ Wolf is, opera enthusiasts look at me funny when I mention that John Denver made recordings with Pavarotti. And heaven forfend if I suggest that Dennis Day also sang with Spike Jones.

So, the evergreen memory I hold close is one of pretending that I, like Billy Eckstine and his generation, might actually, for a coupla seconds at a time, sound great.

This love of understandable lyrics carries me into the future and influences what I later do for pleasure. After all that practice emulating male superstar singers and male superstar actors (Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Dick Martin), I grow up knowing how to make clear what I am saying, how to express the meaning behind the words. It serves me in good stead when, now and again, I get to perform in public, teach, act, communicate the love of great books. I have Billy Eckstine and all his buddies to blame.

So, many moons after the Tuscaloosa bathtub performance days, I still sing at the top of my lungs in the shower—but only when no-one is around. After all, the worst thing anyone could tell me is that I may sound more like Don Knotts than Eckstine.

Darling down and down I go,

‘Round and ’round I go,

In a spin, loving the spin I’m in

Under that old black magic called love! *

Denial of unpleasant truths is something I’ve honed to a fine art. It keeps me going forward, keeps me from facing unwanted realities, keeps me performing for my admiring shower stall audience of none

© 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

( Listen to the man himself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SATmftj-Qbc )

(The above lyrics are verbatim from the original sheet music by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Lyrics found elsewhere on the internet are inaccurate–and mostly transcribed phonetically.)



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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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