Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005

In Birmingham, waiting to exhale

By Andrei Codrescu

There may be nothing more eerie than a chiming ice cream truck on a Saturday morning in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Not a soul on the street, except for a homeless man in the distance leaning against the freshly scraped facade of an old building with empty storefront windows. The life that once agitated here must have been etherized or buried below the sidewalks.

I walked 12 huge blocks in search of coffee, paying no mind to the useless traffic lights. and I couldn’t find any. The homeless man vanished after the ice cream truck passed. The chime died abruptly.

Birmingham, Alabama, was founded by absentee steel moguls from the East. The ruler of the town is Vulcan, a Greek-styled sculpture of a giant bearded man who now stands bare-buttocked on a pedestal, turning his back, variously, on parts of the city. He’s turned around every few years by the city fathers to express current hopes or displeasure. I tried to locate his buttocks from downtown but I didn’t see what the locals call “the moon over Birmingham.” Maybe he’s a part-timer. It is said that the great Vulcan once had a light on his head that turned green every time someone died. Now he just holds an arrow in his hand, having at various times gripped a hammer, a suffragette, an A.C.L.U. lawyer, a tube of toothpaste and a corkscrew. Don’t underestimate the arrow, though: Vulcan is no Cupid. That thing can hurt. And those buttocks!

The latest absence from the city are the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were court-ordered out of town. I asked where they were now and was told that they were on the back of a truck being displayed in small towns all over the South. People in those towns were buying tickets to see the exiled words of Moses.

Absent from downtown also were signs that Birmingham had once been the site of a great civil rights battle, but then not everything in the future was yet in place.

Highly recommended weekend for Nietzschean melancholists and fans of the neutron bomb.


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