Wednesday, I got back on the book tour road, kicking things off with an early morning flight to Houston, then on to Birmingham, then finally to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a reading that evening. I sometimes forget that it would be a good idea to leave a day for cross-country travel before I need to read, but somehow or another, I managed to roll into Alabama with enough time to spare to drop a bag at my hotel room before grabbing a pre-reading dinner. Driving through Tuscaloosa’s main drag was was somewhat startling, if only because there is a defunct helicopter, suspended on some kind of plinth, aimed directly at the main roadway. Pass by the helicopter, and you find yourself looking down the muzzle of a tank’s gun, also directed right at traffic. I later learned this was a war memorial, tastefully placed in the middle of a mall parking lot. Nothing like frightening passersby to commemorate the war dead. Added to that sight was the world’s jauntiest dialysis clinic, which is housed in what my host, Brian Oliu, confirmed was a former Old Country Buffet.
But once I got into the older part of town, I was in love. The university is gorgeous, and almost eerily clean. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an immaculate campus. And the neighborhood with the beautiful old houses that seem to house much of the faculty of the university seemed as though it had been plucked out of Southeast Portland, Oregon and dropped into the much more humid, but equally green, deep South. Once again, the reality of the place entirely exceeded my expectations.
I must also discuss something very important here: I had my first ever Southern barbecue in Alabama. Now, as a West Coast person who was a strict vegetarian for nearly a decade, and who almost never eats any meat at all these days (which I suppose makes me a non-strict vegetarian if you like labels), I never had the chance to experience this American culinary awesomeness. But with a Snakehandler IPA in hand (did I mention that Alabama does some amazing microbrewing? Which I’m told has only just become legal in the past several years?) I tucked into some turkey barbecue, and it was everything that the Food Network told me it could be. Amazing.
After that, it was off to The Green Bar for the reading. Now The Green Bar is a place where beer is only served in aluminum cans, because this is apparently more green from a recycling perspective. I know I have the technology to put glass in my recycling container, too, but…okay! The reading itself was fantastic; I was especially thrilled to read with Jason McCall, who was one of the first poets I ever published at The Los Angeles Review, and who continues to be a poet whose work I admire. I appreciate the way that Jason is able to write about pop culture so seriously, and the way that he’s able to move from humor to exquisite sadness in the space of a few lines. Hearing him read from his new work and from his brand-new collection, Dear Hero, was a treat.
Though there was one really loud guy at the bar who seemed unable to understand that a reading was taking place on stage, the small crowd that congregated was enthusiastic and attentive, and I met, and heard, some fabulous Alabama writers. As usual, I felt like the least qualified person in that room of highly accomplished writers to stand on stage and read my work.But everyone in the room was extremely generous to me about my work, and I felt the love. The South keeps on making me feel right at home.
Next installment: New Orleans!