273 Montgomery, AL: New York Office

Montgomery, Alabama: New York Office

"We don't date our cousins down here," I was reassured by Jina, the woman running Montgomery's visitors center in the pretty old Union Station, a train station Hopper might have portrayed. She was a freckled twenty-something, with an elfin nose and brown eyes. A diamond pendant necklace graced the black T-shirt beneath her white, broad-lapelled shirt. "We get people from all over the world in our visitors center, and they're all surprised how nice Alabama is." As if to prove it with a dose of southern hospitality, she presented me with a Montgomery T-shirt. I felt like it was a bribe, but maybe we Yankees just don't get it. Everyone down here told me as much.

A city of slightly more than 200,000 souls on a sharp turn in the Alabama River, this was one of the last places I went, but it was one of the friendliest. Montgomery was also the only city in the Deep South that had a Hopper, so it had to shoulder the load for a large part of the country. I found certain clichés true about Southern hospitality and willingness to talk for a long time. The clichés were also true about secrecy and racism.

Jina insisted that people in Montgomery were not isolated, but when I asked, "What about from the rest of the country?" she hemmed, "Ooh, well there you're on to something." When I asked about African American relations, she said things were much better now, but conceded, "That didn't start till after the bus strike. After that, we began to think maybe we should try working together rather than butting heads."

When I asked where I might find artists, she looked baffled but eventually ventured, "Maybe '1048' would be a good place to go. They have jazz." Then she added, "They have artsy types there; you know, berets."

I took her advice and started my exploring at the coffee house 1048, where I found three guys who were studying at Maxwell Air Force Base, the Air Force's biggest school. One was boyish, with chubby squirrel cheeks, a recessed chin and big blue eyes. He wore on his balding head a blue cap bearing an insignia of Athens, Greece and pins of each the American flag, Greek flag, and Olympic flag.

The second was tan, with jet black hair, dark heavy eyebrows and a strong chin colonized by five o'clock shadow that he must have had to work hard to keep in line with his trim military look. He wore a primly pressed blue-checked shirt with a pen in the breast pocket and never turned entirely towards me, as if I was something he did not want to acknowledge or was suspicious of.

With them sat an Asian man with a very long face that ended in a black goatee. A small fanglike tooth grew beside his front upper teeth. He wore a tight black T-shirt, and had short feminine fingers. He was a hairdresser friend who had tagged along here with the other two, all friends from DC. He said he owned a Hopper poster, and all of them knew his works.

When I asked whether people in Montgomery were isolated that way, the military-sharp guy answered, "That's been my impression. Gosh, people tended to interact more in DC, I think in part because there were more places like this. This is the only coffee house in Montgomery, and in DC we had one every block. Rather than just people sitting at an individual table being engrossed in their book, there was a lot more interaction, not only with folks from DC but also folks from everywhere."

"There really is not a place here," the guy in the Athens cap offered, "that offers any kind of mixing or cosmopolitan nature. If you visit the downtown area of Montgomery, you're going to find [like in Hopper] the stark office buildings and almost no city life at the sidewalk level, especially after five or six o'clock. If you go to a more cosmopolitan area, like DC or New York, a whole different crew takes over in the evening."

"I agree with them both," the soft-spoken Asian hairdresser chimed in. "I lived in DC for twenty years, and I would sit in coffee shops and see total strangers, and we would just have conversations, and I haven't been able to do that here with anyone. And we've been here for about eight months."

"You're very lucky," the military-sharp guy said, "to find this place so quickly 'cause this is in an odd area. It's kept its character, and it's vital. It's not, you know, mass-produced, pre-assembled housing. It struck me when I moved into the apartment complex: the people who introduced themselves to me were just like me. They were in the area for just a short time, and they were much more apt to reach out and introduce themselves. I've yet to really get to know any native Montgomerians."

"Like in DC," the Asian explained, "if someone from South Africa moved in next door you might be like, 'Well, I only have one year to get to know them; we'd better have dinner.' As opposed to, 'Oh these guys are just going back home, so…' I was very interested to talk to people who were not from DC. No one's from DC anyway. When I moved into the neighborhood here, nobody really came around and introduced themselves. I had one neighbor did stop by, but that was because I had a downed cable."

"Now," Athens man cautioned, "what I find interesting is that some place like New York, it maybe the transients who are isolated and the locals very tight. There may be that strong community here; it's just something that we're not a part of, and haven't been invited to be a part of. There are ways that people come together here. Churches are very strong here. But those tend to be long-term residents. And that may be part of the problem we're having is that we're transient, and everyone knows we're transient, so they're not going to bother getting to know us 'cause we won't be here very long."

"So," I said, "for places to go that I might interview people, I guess church on Sunday morning."

The man in the Athens cap laughed, "Or Saturday nights or Wednesday nights. They go all the time.

"Places I've lived or visited," he mused, "they have some common bond. In Washington, so many people work for the government. In New York, it's Wall Street, or maybe the theater. In LA, it's definitely the film industry. So when you meet a stranger there's a good chance you have some common interests. Here, and a lot of smaller cities, there isn't necessarily something that everybody shares. So here maybe it's the locals who find themselves isolated. If there is a common industry here, it's military. I've moved around because I grew up as an Air Force brat, and in some places you have a lot of conflict between the military and the townies (as they call it). I lived in Minot, North Dakota, and the base was fifteen miles out of town. So there was definitely 'wing-nut vs. townie' competition. Not always friendly competition. It's easy for military communities to be isolated within themselves because we have our own services provided on base, as far as groceries, stores, and churches. Here, the response that we get when we go out into the community and they find out that you're in the military is positive."

The military-sharp guy said, "The military move so frequently. So they're very accustomed to short-term relationships, and they recognize making them as valuable. Because isolating yourself is miserable. And they realize that the relationship they establish, even though it may end in two years, you're going to see it emerge again and again. I can foresee meeting these two again. I mean, career paths do that."

"I was walking through a neighborhood in Paris," the military-sharp guy interjected, "and in the middle of a very urban area there was a park. It couldn't have been more than a hundred meters by a hundred meters, but in that park there was probably a hundred and fifty people. And there was a cluster here of old men playing cards; they had ping pong tables made of concrete; and kids playing soccer over there; and a game of cricket over there; and there were probably five different nationalities. You don't see those kind of parks in [U.S.] neighborhoods. If there's a park, it's a kiddy lot kind of park, and you take your kids there to play ball and you leave." He shook his head. "The character of a city changes so much if people rely on their automobile like in Montgomery. When you're on foot, and you pass people, and you walk past the stores, you're more apt to look in them, go in them, and you greet people; there's much more sense of community. When you get in your car and drive to the Starbucks, you don't feel any ownership of that store."

"I've never really studied Hopper," the Asian hairdresser offered, "but I just like that painting." [Nighthawks was on my T-shirt]

"A lot of people," I said, "feel that it does portray something about a very American isolation. And I started this book in 2000. A lot's happened since then to muddy the waters of isolation."

"Now that would be interesting, too," Athens cap pointed out. "Well, that's another book I suppose; pre-September 11/post-September 11. How attitudes changed. Do they connect more because they feel the need to be connected? Do they isolate more out of fear?"

I noted, "You're an Air Force brat, and you're from DC; it's easy to have a holistic view, but I don't think somebody from Nebraska necessarily ever thought or cared about what someone in Afghanistan thought of us. Now you have to care what the rest of the world thinks of you."

"Right, exactly," the military-sharp guy said, "That's, ironically, the very stuff that we're studying. Strategically, what's going on in the world? And how do those forces interact to affect the security of the country?"

A little boy stopped beside our table and tried to pick up a quarter on the sidewalk.

"Can't get that quarter?" the military-sharp guy asked. And the little boy walked off defeated. "I already tried picking it up."

"It's attached," the Asian hairdresser explained to me, "someone soldered it down."

The man in the Athens cap got a quarter out of his pocket and laid it atop the stuck one, then called the boy back to try again. The boy pulled it off and dashed inside to show his mom.

"How sweet," she cooed. "You are so lucky. Collin, you go poke your head in there right now and thank the man for the extra quarter."

At the next table, a bearded construction worker about 30 wearily tossed down his dusty bandana from his head to beside his hard hat. He wore a white T-shirt dirty from work, jeans, and sleek sunglasses. He said his name was Eldon, and he spoke methodically with a deep resonant tone maybe made more so by the Camel cigarettes he nursed constantly throughout our interview.

"Yes," Eldon answered, "we are isolated as a people. In Montgomery, I noticed this more financial thing. Competing with the Joneses. Half of our neighbors haven't spoken to us, and it's because I work for a living. I don't sell insurance, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a lawyer. As a result, they see me as scum of the earth. My neighbor next door, he's a working man, and we get along really well, you know, we help each other out."

"It's definitely a class structure, " he continued. "It's not quite the chain of being of the Victorians, but it could be. On the other hand, I choose not to associate with the soccer moms in the SUVs, either. So it goes both ways. But I like watching people. You learn so much by watching your fellow citizens. If you sit at this little coffee shop and watch as people go by, there's some that won't look at you. There's others that will sit down and talk with you all day long. Good with the bad."

"I don't suppose," I ventured, "you'd find people sitting in a city diner late at night in Montgomery, this type of isolation." I pointed to Nighthawks on my T-shirt.

"The closest thing we have to that," Eldon answered, "would be if you go to the Waffle House at two or three in the morning. There's usually that old man who sits by himself. He drinks coffee all night; he chain-smokes; and he might know the waitress; but he does not want to speak to anybody. He just wants to sit there. And that's every Waffle House I've ever been to. I've been that guy.

"In Montgomery," he said, "as I'm a new face on the scene, my wife and I are very isolated. We're 27 both of us. We've been here for almost two years, and we have no friends in our age group. We hang out with people that are 50 years old. But we have yet to meet anyone our own age that is actually willing to stay in touch with us. If you didn't go to high school with these people and haven't known them your whole life, it's really hard to break in with the group."

"I work for a little Mom-and-Pop company," he explained. "It's one of the best I've had the pleasure of working for. You have a company that is all black guys or all Mexicans, but very seldom do you have a racial mixing in the construction industry. Some of my fellow workers live out in the country and have their sheets. I lived in a neighborhood where my friends were afraid to come visit, and I would walk up to the store on a Saturday night and talk to the guys and never have a lick of trouble, you know. It's all about your attitude. I've been to New York, I've been to Boston, I've been to London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfort, Hawaii. People are the same everywhere you go. There are good people, and there are bad people. And it's my humble opinion that there are a lot more bad people than there are good people out there. You have to really watch your back. And take everything with a grain of salt that you hear.

"There's skeletons in every closet, and it's a general rule that you got to keep it hush-hush and quiet. You don't ask, you don't tell. Keep the crazy aunt upstairs, you know. That's the way it is down here. We take care of our own problems. It's that need to keep up appearances. You know, the lawn's got to be perfect; the cars have to be washed. Never mind that daddy's smoking crack; the grass is level. The hypocrisy is blatant. And like I said, there's good people that'll bend over backwards to help you out, you know. But my philosophy in life is balance. I feel that extremes are bad, and few people have any balance in their lives. And they're the ones with the ulcers and the crack, what have you. Just stay spiritually and mentally balanced and keep an open mind."

"Which way do you think most people go out of balance in Montgomery?" I asked.

"Chasing after that almighty dollar," he said, inhaling smoke. Then breathing out, he said, "The almighty dollar: whereas it's necessary, that's not the answer. You've got to look after relationships with your wife, your parents, your children; you've got to look after your own people instead of squishing their little heads to get ahead."

The Hopper here, New York Office, shows a woman in bright sunlight standing in a great cavernous first-floor office window boxed in by rusticated façade columns. Along the impossibly high ceiling, a line of yellow oval lamps trails off into the distance. She holds a letter at arm's length, as if apprehensive about its contents. There is no glass in the window, so she almost seems to be standing on the street or where we could reach right into her office and touch her.

The Blount Collection also included two Hopper watercolors: Lighthouse at Two Lights and a view across a strange dark rust-colored trawler bow called Deck of Beam Trawler. Thus, they have an example of each of Hopper's major series: women alone in urban settings, New England landscapes, and sailing scenes.

Hopper's fellow Jazz Age artist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an army lieutenant in Montgomery and married local girl Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Like Hopper's, F. Scott's marriage was turbulent, and Zelda was occasionally institutionalized. She had three paintings in the museum: squiggly dancer-like figures in theatrical settings.

After being housed for its first sixty years at first a school and then the town library, The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts moved in 1988 to its current location in the Winton M. Blount Cultural Park in a domed red brick building with Greek columns lining a terrace overlooking a pond. Blount forged a contracting company that built the New Orleans Superdome, Cape Canaveral launch pad, and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia (at two billion dollars, the largest construction contract in history). Blount's company proudly advertised that they sell "almost everything needed to build an old-time fort and defend it:" lumber, power equipment, and ammunition.

A cheerful African American woman was working as the security guard. She had a round face, round nose, and thick curly black hair. When I asked her about the painting, she said, "You know it's very cold. And there are plenty of, I mean, the majority of people I meet, especially that come here to the museum, are not warm individuals: first impression. They are kind of cold like she is. And I spend five days a week here.

"I like the lines," she added. "We were learning from the docents how these lines move directly to her. And the other thing I like is just the colors. Bright. A pretty blue. I love his light. His watercolors are just totally different. I just like his work; he's just got so much talent to me. At least compared to a lot of stuff I see. I don't like junk. But Edward Hopper has something I enjoy. He's strange, but... I would like to have met him."

"Is part of why you relate to his paintings is that you relate to that sense of being alone?"

"You know," she thought, "it could be. Because I feel alone, I just lost my son. I mean, I'm still married, but you know. Even married, I'm pretty sure he must have felt like that still. But I don't mind that feeling; some people find it lonely, but to me it's just good quality time. I'm not afraid to be alone myself."

"Is there an isolation between African Americans and whites here?" she asked herself, rhetorically repeating my question. "Yeah, for sure. To be honest with you, yes. I think so. My opinion is."

Afterward, she drifted into other galleries, and a pair of teenage girls came to look at the painting.

One girl was beefy with too much blue eye shadow around her dark green eyes. Her thick frizzy brown hair and refusal to meet my eyes as she clutched her black purse to her blue top gave her the impression of being a bit on edge. The other one was bony and pale with insect bites on her neck and forehead. She had green eyes and squiggly blond hair bunched up atop her head.

When I asked my question, the beefy one answered suspiciously, clarifying my motives. "What do you mean isolated? You mean just from, like, general people, like stay to themselves and like? Nah," she sneered, "they might, individuals, stay by themselves. That's basically it. But a lot of the youth stay close."

Her bony friend ventured, "Just like all people, if they see you walking down the street, they won't say 'hi' unless they know you."

"Well, it's kinda like all people," the beefy one defended. "It varies. The youth group, like the youth and teens, isolate into groups."

I asked, "Why are the cliques not interrelated?"

"People are too different," she answered. "And they're shy, and they think that they'll be okay if they stay in their own groups with the people they already know. People don't like to really get to know other people, to be friends with them. 'Cause they might think what their other friends will say if they saw 'em out with someone different. So, they just stay in their own little group."

"Do you think that teenagers today are isolated from society?"

"To a certain degree, kinda, maybe," she conceded. "They stay in their own world, in their own little group. They don't really venture out, and they don't really know what's going on in the world."

"Would you find someone in Montgomery isolated like this?" I asked of a man whose spine slouched into a paunch of stomach, and whose sleepy brown eyes showed off long feminine lashes. His soft blue terry shirt was halfway unzipped. "Gosh," he drawled from the back of his raspy throat, smelling of smoke, "I'm sure there's a few. Just like this one person here? Oh, I'm sure. But in general, it's probably less isolated than other cities. You know, we're the South, and I think we've got good values, and I think we're just very friendly in this town. We have a couple of major Air Force bases, so we get an influx of, you know, at any one time probably ten thousand people from all over the world, different areas. And a lot of those folks, they come back and retire here or close by, so I suspect we're doing something right.

"Montgomery, it's a big town, but it's got kind of small-town ideals, you know. I guess we've got about 200,000 people, but if you live here you can get a chance to know everybody in this town if you get out there and walk."

"Do you like Hopper's stuff?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, I do. I saw, and I walked over, and I was thinking, 'Oh, they've got an Edward Hopper.'"

I said, "Do you think Americans are isolated like his characters?"

"I don't know," he mumbled. "I think we go through swings. Sometimes we are a little bit more than other times, but to a big extent I don't think so. I'm trying to think of an office building in Montgomery that would have a person in a window that big right up front like that. You know, when I was a kid, Montgomery downtown, that's where you came. There were no malls. You shopped downtown; you came to see Santa at Christmas downtown. All the movie theaters were downtown. I remember being a little kid lookin' at the big buildings. You could see things like this. You know, it was like, my New York. And the way I knew about New York mainly was 'Family Affair,' just watching that show when I was a kid."

I said, "What would you say about isolation between African Americans and Whites in this town?"

"Ahh, yah, you know I think it's like a lot of towns, like a lot of towns. Whether it's at school and you're in the lunchroom, or it's, you know, one group goes this way, one group goes this way. And then there's a group that's together. And it's like that here, and it's like this way everywhere. You have a predominantly black section, a predominantly white section, and then there's sections that are all mixed up."

In 1540, Hernando de Soto explored this area and battled with Choctaw Chief Tuskaloosa. Some claim that Alabama is a Native American word meaning "campsite" or "clearing," but other groups interpret it as "Here We Rest." Montgomery was named for Richard Montgomery, the first American general killed in the Revolutionary War. An Irishman, he led the American troops that took Montreal but died New Year's Eve 1775 in the battle of Quebec. In 1818, Montgomery's body was transferred here from Canada.

The town of Montgomery was settled where the Alabama River takes a hairpin turn around where a meteorite hit and fused such hard rock that the river had to flow around it. The Alabama license plate says, "Stars fell on… Alabama." Montgomery evolved from a merger of two rival towns: Court Square stands where New Philadelphia's Market Street (now Dexter) once met East Alabama's Main Street (now Commerce).

Commerce Street had a series of preserved old Hopperesque storefronts. The Montgomery Theater opened 1860 but now had a 1950s tin and yellow plastic façade. A sign noted that John Wilkes Booth performed there and the song "Dixie" was debuted there. The city's "Lightning Route" was the world's first electric trolley. Nat King Cole's birthplace still stands here. Country singer Hank Williams lived here 1937-1953, and his 1952 Cadillac that acted as his hearse was on display here in a museum dedicated to him.

A Montgomery office, as opposed to a New York Office, would probably be a state government office in one of the town's many large, whitewashed, Greek Revival buildings. Montgomery became the state capital in 1846 after three other towns had proved undesirable due to geography, politics, or flooding. The 1850 state capitol building is commonly referred to as "Goat Hill," due to the property's original use as a pasture. February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America here. The Confederacy White House nearby, built by William Sayre (one of Zelda's relatives), was a dead-ringer for the one in Hopper's Pretty Penny: green shutters, white wooden sides.

One Court Square, the building all the locals said was most like the one in the Hopper painting, was a huge faceless modern building home mostly to government offices. Older, quainter buildings surround Court Square, which in the 1800s was the slave market called "Artesian Basin." It was from Court Square's Winter Building (still standing) that the telegraph demanding the evacuation of Fort Sumter was sent, essentially starting the Civil War.

Court Square is also where Rosa Parks began her famous bus ride, and Dexter Avenue leads from there up to Capitol Square, where the National Historic Landmark Martin Luther King Memorial Church stands kitty-corner to the entrance of the State Capitol where until 1993 still flew a Confederate flag. (The Confederate flag still flies across the way on the Confederate memorial, which is surrounded by scaffolding and sports a sign saying without irony that it was under reconstruction.)

The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (as it was called when Reverend King was pastor here) was a modest church, with pews haphazardly resined and varnished and hackneyed from years of use. The windows had been replaced after being knocked out by rioting mobs during Civil Rights times. From this church, Reverend King led a boycott of the local bus system for trying to make Rosa Parks sit in black for being black. It grew into a civil rights movement that swept the nation in the 1960s. In a sign of how much things had changed, a movie celebrating Rosa Parks was filming in Montgomery during my visit. I planned this visit in a hurry and didn't pay much attention to my itinerary. But when I began my walk around Montgomery on April 4, 2003, one of the monuments reminded me that I was here on the 35th anniversary of MLK's assassination in Memphis. I asked the woman leading a tour of schoolchildren through the church about racial isolation in Montgomery today. She had short heavily oiled hair and a round face dotted with dark brown freckles.

"Yes," she began formally, holding her hands together in front of her blowsy white top. "It's not so much as out in the open, but it's still here. Like for instance, a couple of years ago me and my husband moved up to the east side of town, which is, which was predominantly white, and I'll never forget it, I had a daughter - she was about three. And this lady came down the street, she was a white lady, and my daughter said, 'Well, hey, how're you doing?,' and she kept on saying, 'Well, hey, how're you doing?' This lady looked back at my baby, when she was only three, and she just kept going. And I'm like, 'I don't understand it.' It's difficult for me to explain to my children because, like I told some of the children, if you cut me and you cut a white person, we gonna bleed. We go to church every Sunday; we say we're parishioners, but yet we don't like people because of the color of their skin? I guess that's been true all during the bible days. I thought I'd teach my children not to hate people just because of the color of their skin; judge people by their character and the way they carry themselves. But yes it's still isolated, very much so."

That night, I went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Theater (ASF), home to the world's fifth-largest Shakespeare festival. The man who bought the painting also brought the town ASF. Blount's gift of the theater building was the largest donation ever made to an American theater company, and in appreciation in the circular driveway before the entrance stood a bronze statue of Blount in a business suit, one hand on a horse's-head-topped hitching post.

I interviewed an older woman working one of the shops. She was mousy with a girlish quality, though her thinning gray hair curled around her ears. She wore a white tuxedo shirt with a round gold braid around her throat punctured by a white pearl at its center.

"That depends," she answered through slightly crooked teeth inside a small round "O" of bright red lips, "on where you go and what you bring to it. People are here to see the plays. If you go to the mall or something? You do your own thing. But if you happen to run into somebody, then you're like, 'Hi there,' Because we will talk a lot."

"But here I don't think isolation is that prevalent [pre-VAIL-ant]. My parents moved here when I was like in third grade, and except for going off to school a couple times, I've pretty much been here. And, I'm happy. This is my motto: 'Land where you've landed.' Wherever you are, just take advantage of it, and do your thing there. If something takes you someplace else, you do it there. So, I'm content.

"I've gone to New York, and that was exciting. But, a lot of people that work here [at ASF] come from New York, and they really like it here for a while, then they end up going, 'It's so slow here.' And sometimes I'm going, 'It's too fast!'

"I teach school so I'm working with kids and meeting a different set of parents each year. Working with kids, you have so much to do. And I just want to sit and do nothing but look off into space. And it's hard to have time to do that, you know, but you have to do it.

"I feel there's a little more stress on the females, especially if you're a single mom. Or even if you're married. Because you've got wife, mother, job, house. And if you try to do anything extra for yourself, is it fair? That's not a put-down to the guys; that's just the difference in men and women. Women accept the responsibility, especially of children, a bit stronger than sometimes men do. At least now it's a choice. In the old days, it was assumed that was what they were doing.

"I think sometimes as a teacher, when you see kids all day, and you don't see adults, you feel isolated. That's why I work here part-time, so I get to see adults. You know, people who are well-mannered and polite. Working here is my chill down."

"So" I asked, "if you saw Hopper's people sitting alone and not doing anything, you would think, 'Great, they're getting their chill-down time' instead of they look so lonely and sad; maybe it would be a good thing to be alone."

"Right, sometimes it is. I guess if you feel it's not permanent. Sometimes you just want to have time by yourself. I don't think I feel isolated, 'cause I'm one who I go out and get involved anyway. I'm not gonna stay isolated. That's just not me. I've had a couple situations in my life where I was like single again. And I didn't stay at home. I mean, I didn't go out and party. But I did things, and life goes on."

"I hope you enjoy the play," she said in parting. "We're real proud of our theater. A lot of people think, [with exaggerated accent] 'Montgomery, Alabama got something like that? Uh-uh.' You know? But you're in for a heck of a surprise when you come down here."

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