Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Back Home on the Christmas Eve Highway

By Cody Lyon

A Christmas Eve drive home after a holiday party down Highway 78 from Walker to Shelby County provides bubbles of warmth, security and impassioned viewpoints.

From the new car, the hills seem dark, except for trees back lit by the moon, they lean with erratic cold breezes as the white car glides down this dark four lane of asphalt ribbon. Along the way, an occasional run down building every mile or so, some with lights, others empty, almost ghostly. From the car, the outside seems silent, like the song, but the darkness stirs memories long tucked away some place, begging to be found.

This is, after all, the highway where a long time ago another country boy named Elvis drove a truck all the way from Memphis to Birmingham.

Years later, perhaps, Elvis came down this road in a luxury bus, this time on his way to the Municipal Auditorium, a place they now want to tear down.

This Christmas Eve expressway is the place where even before Elvis, a future movie star named Tallulah made her way the few miles south to steel mill lit skies in Birmingham, painted red from blasting iron furnaces, it was there in the magic city, inside a hotel named Tutwiler, the Alabama foghorn had a honeymoon.

The New Yorker was on highway 78 in a county called Walker, a place where moonshine once ruled, even now, dry as dirt, except for Jasper. The 49 Mercury V8’s no longer run like scalded dogs down this dark road outrunning revenue men who sought their cargo, men who chased and if caught, could put the runners behind bars and seize, then destroy their product, lightning strength, often said strong enough to take away a man's breath, sometimes the brew was clear as water, except for tiny bubbles, that meant to those in the know, it was good.

Nowadays, the highway is lined with what is called, charity bingo parlors. Inside, patrons find video gaming machines. These establishments replaced the strip bars of yesteryear that line the road to Memphis or Birmingham, depending on the direction you were headed.

It’s Christmas Eve, and the New Yorker loves casinos, he begs to stop, to have a look, to play a few games, a five dollar limit he promises, his sibling and brother in law reluctantly agree.

In truth, the New Yorker can’t resist the sound of bells, whistles and the potential clanking of a win, it is a simple rush, much like a dance floor, or more accurately, a rollercoaster, he is a thrill seeker and was hoping for a fix of rush before the holiday continued, just a taste from a place he no longer knew like his own, it was, a hidden place, mysterious, appropriate on the lonely old haunted road back to the safety, familiarity of his native Shelby County.

Outside the cacophony of movement and conversation inside the car, smoke rises from a chimney in the distance, and further away, across the vast expanse and darkness of a thick forest sheltered by two rocky bluffs, a tower of cloud rises from a bubble of light and into the moonlit sky, its shape, much like a giant tornado, but this is no storm, instead, steam from a power plant on the distant river. Its generators send their juice back across the forest on towering power lines, into homes, the buildings, the cities down the way, even into the games in the parlors along the highway.

Smokestacks, at least 700 feet high, blink their warning to approaching planes in a crystal clear star filled sky, perhaps too, the lights reassure the children among the trees that this is the place where Santa finds there house, especially if they live on one of the hills that from the safety of the car seem so desolate, so quiet and alone, so far from what he now knew as his reality in Manhattan.

The gambling parlors they've passed so far have all been closed. Maybe that’s good, considering the warnings of a friend, who said, the odds for winning in those houses were bad, since in Alabama, there is no regulation, no gaming commission or lotto that’s run by a public agency.

According to another, the parlors exist legally since they donate part of their profits to local causes, firehouses, even schools.

Finally, off in the distance, lights are seen, cars fill a small gravel lot, the lights say Charity Bingo and loosely hung from the roof of the brown building are Christmas decorations. The doors seem dark, but red neon beckons to “come on in”

It is 1030 pm. Outside, a few SUV’s, a mid size car with an LSU sticker, another old Lincoln town car, a smattering of non descript muddied tires that look to have traveled unpaved roads time forgot, roads hidden from our safe eyes, memories never known, tucked away in the wooded hills, hills long mined for coal, far beyond these loosely hung Christmas lights with their spoon feeding mission of joy coming from a building that once housed something else.

The door is opened, the three go inside. All eyes, turn towards the new visitors as if nervous about an inspection. The two Alabamians watch as the New Yorker attempts to play a 2cent video game, he plays, then a man approaches, he gives him a ticket, like any old ticket, perhaps from a school carnival, perhaps a traveling fair, a raffle, he says something, the New Yorker doesn’t understand. The two Alabamians watch, impatiently both with arms crossed, the small room smells of smoke.

Later, he realized, the ticket was for a drawing, he finally understood what the old man had said. The New Yorker, at home in Alabama, had forgotten his own's way of speech, this made him think, it made him sad.

The twangs among the crowd were soft, but distinct, this was coal country, this land wasn't agrarian, this land was to rocky to grow big crops, this was not the black and rich land of his Coosa valley, this was hardscrabble Alabama, and inside this place, some were hoping to make life a little less hard as well.

Inside the small room lights are dim, there are no bells, no whistles, no whips of exciting sounds nothing that gave the adrenalin he'd found in a real casino, just the sound of quietness, as if something was wrong, something missing, in fact, something empty. No one seems to be smiling, in fact, no one has said much of anything, at least yet.

“There is a pile of something black on the floor” she says to her husband, as the New Yorker continues to press the white light on the video machine.

“Ya’ll go play a game,” says the New Yorker, feeling as if he’d inconvenienced his loved ones by forcing them to stop by the gaming house.

In truth, he had.

Each machine had a chair, each chair filled by someone, usually with a blank face, staring into dim blinking lights that ask for money, two rows of machines, like electronic wishing wells all promising cash, the answer to life’s woes, still across the floor, a field of cigarette butts and the smell of wet tobacco spits, occasionally, a curse or exclamation, but no bells, no whistles, just murmuring on Christmas Eve.

In the Birmingham area, many places have seen incredible growth, prosperity and economic infusions that have changed the face of entire communities. Suburban sprawl now ruled in much of Shelby County, a place that only 30 years ago, was primarily farmland and open space.

His two relations left the room, but later the sibling came back and ordered the New Yorker to come and get in the car, it was time to reenter the cacophony of movement and sound, get back on the highway and take the road on down to Birmingham.

Once past the decorated but quiet streets of downtown Birmingham and on through the city by an expressway that cuts through Red Mountain, a car headed south will eventually travel down a ramp, and onto the highway 280, that leads to Shelby County. At the foot of the ramp from the expressway, the street lights at the were mysteriously not working on Christmas Eve at around 1130. This highway, a place of explosive prosperity, prime suburbia, always crowded was dark at this one spot on this night.

“Those lights aren’t working” said the sibling.

“Maybe it’s for the zoo light safari” said the New Yorker.

“I don’t know but it sure is erie” said the sibling.

They then pass through Mountain Brook, onto Cahaba Heights, through Inverness, they go through Hoover, whiz on past Chelsea and back into the moonlit country roads of Shelby that take them to where they began. They've passed Starbucks, Saks, Whole Foods, malls, strip malls, bar b que and countless manicured office parks.

There were no charity bingo parlors.

It was Christmas Eve and time for one last glass of wine before the sun came up.

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