Tuscaloosa

Posted by Ellen

John must have been about eight years old when he came across the special offer in a seed catalog: hey kids, add a penny of your own money to your parents' seed order, and you'll get a super fantastic packet of seeds just for you to plant.

If I remember correctly, we taped the penny to the order form, and I got my seeds and he got his. Both our gardens did pretty well that summer, thanks to the good advice of our neighbor on Fifth Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Mr. Crawford. John's turnip, shown here, must have been exactly the super fantastic return he'd been hoping for on his investment–and yup, he's still a gardener today, thirty years later.

At harvest time, he posed for a Polaroid snapshot in the kitchen with his brothers, Joe and Ted. Joe appears to be checking out a previously shot Polaroid, probably watching the colors emerge magically from the paper. Ted appears to be annoyed. Jealous maybe, of his brother's turnip?

Posted by Ellen

After 15 years of service in a city fire department, which likely involved one or more calls a day, every day, round the clock, round the year, a fire engine is pretty well beat up.

If it's well worn but not completely used up at that point, it goes into the city's reserve fleet, to replace newer equipment that's out of service for repairs or maintenance.

After 5 or so years of reserve duty, it's surplus; maintenance at that point is costly, and there is newer equipment falling into reserve status.

So 20-year-old firetrucks go on the market, at a steep discount, and the purchasers typically are small, volunteer fire departments, which could never afford the $500,000 or more needed to buy a new pumper vehicle.

The duty level expected of the old truck isn't nearly as heavy with a volunteer force, where it might be called out for fires only a few times a year instead of several times a day.

The fire engine pictured here was bought new by the Tuscaloosa City Fire Department in 1984; twenty years later, it was sold to the Sapps–Union Chapel Volunteer Fire Department in nearby Pickens County, which is still using it in 2017 and plans to keep running it forever.

Posing with it are Assistant Chief Troy Jordan and Fire Chief Pauline Hall.

Posted by Ellen

Joe and his friend Beau pose for a picture last spring in Beau's new food truck, Local Roots, which plies the streets of Tuscaloosa serving an international menu that features locally grown foods.

Posted by Ellen

Snow fell on Alabama the other day, and bitter cold settled in. Same thing happened there back in about 1989, when Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa froze up thick enough to run around and slide on, and our three eldest posed for a picture on the ice.

From the bottom: Ted, John, Joe. Note the complete absence of gloves or mittens, and the general inadequacy of winter apparel. In his hat and jacket, Ted appeared to have a chance of staying warm, but the other two just had to tough it out. There is no evidence in this picture of the socks-on-the-hands and/or plastic-bags-in-the-shoes that we recall improvising for wintry moments in Alabama; nonetheless, they all somehow survived.

Posted by Ellen

When Joe got back to Tuscaloosa this month after his semester in Cuba, he had fish to check up on.

He's a fisherman and also sort of a fish collector; for the past year or so, he'd been raising baby fish from the Black Warrior River, the little bream and other small fry that would normally be thrown back into the river. Joe kept dozens of them in a large aquarium in his living room, and dozens more in a pool in a tiny creek that runs into the Black Warrior near downtown Tuscaloosa. He named them and fed them and got kind of attached to them.

But when he left for Cuba in January, he moved all his fish to the little creek and wished them well. They were on their own.

Happily, they survived the winter, though heavy rains apparently washed them downstream into a different pool. In this picture, Joe was walking along a drainpipe that criss-crossed his creek, trying to see how his babies were doing. They were growing and swimming actively and doing all the right fishy sorts of things.

Joe now is living in Philadelphia, where he has a bowl of goldfish. He's completed all his coursework and will graduate in August from the University of Alabama.

Posted by Ellen

This is the earliest known photo of all five boys, taken at Forest Lake, Tuscaloosa, in November or December of 1992.

For what it's worth, all the trees in the background are gone now, shredded by the tornado in 2011. The boys, however, are still going strong: from left to right, there's Joe, now 34; Allen, 27; Ted, 36; John, who just turned 38; and bobble-headed newborn Hank, who's now 23. 

Posted by Ellen

At the Waysider in Tuscaloosa, where another semester and another football season are already so close you can taste them.

RTR

Posted by Ellen

Juniper Self, shown here with her mother Daphne, came dressed to cheer at Bryant-Denny Stadium last week for her first Alabama football game. The Crimson Tide beat University of Tennessee–Chattanooga, 49–0.

Today's Iron Bowl game at Auburn is for all the marbles. Roll Tide Roll.

Posted by Ellen

Shown here in a curled-up polaroid snapshot from a nightstand drawer, eating shrimp on a kitchen table covered with newspaper, probably in 1985 or 1986, back when they were shrimpy little kids and pretty good friends, are Joe Stein and Stephanie Jacobs.

Stephanie and Joe went to preschool together and then to University Place Elementary, and for many years they went to the same after-school program and the same Sunday school. 

Based on this picture, we might guess that Stephanie liked milk with her shrimp, or else liked milk but not shrimp, or perhaps liked neither but had been told to drink her milk.

Joe appears to be a serious shrimp-peeler, despite wearing an obviously unserious sort of hat.

Both Stephanie and Joe have gone back to school in recent years at the University of Alabama, Stephanie for a library science master's in book arts and Joe for a music degree in piano performance.

Posted by Ellen

Music Pals For a Lifetime, by James Conner.

Conner grew up in rural Noxubee County, Mississippi, where he learned to draw from correspondence lessons off the back of a matchbook. He left Mississippi after high school, first for Vietnam and then for about twenty years in Detroit, where he worked as a police sketch artist. But the downward spiral of layoffs that was crushing Detroit eventually reached into the police force and claimed Conner's job.

He was devasted, he said, until he realized that losing his job meant he could finally go home. He'd been homesick his whole adult life, missing Mississippi. 

He was no longer young by the time he got back home, but he married and started a family and went back to school, studying art at the University of Mississippi. He taught art for a while, then took the plunge and became a fulltime painter. He said he was trying to become the black Grandma Moses.

Like Grandma Moses, he is drawn to images from his rural childhood. He seems homesick still for his southern roots. But unlike Grandma Moses, Conner is a trained artist with a twenty-first-century eye, and he is a black artist, with a complicated relationship to southern experience.

In this painting and many others, young men carrying guitar cases venture out into the world. In some of the paintings, they travel, perform, try to make something of themselves. In some, they are headed back home again, for whatever reasons. In at least one of Conner's works, the man with the guitar is stuck in the crossroads. I like this picture; the guys with guitars have places to go, dreams to work out, and probably hard times ahead, but at least they've got each other.