A cell phone rang — the jingle was the tune to Lynard Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama.
In the ladies room, I heard one woman tell another, “Dang! It’s cold as a truck stop in here! Ain’t they got no heat in here?”
And I thought, “What in the world am I doing?”
It was February, and I was in the Atlanta airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Mobile, Ala., where I would interview for a job.
There’s a part of me that panics when I get too far from a major city. Having grown up just a bike’s ride from the Monmouth Bay, which overlooks the New York skyline, I’ve never lived outside of the shadow of a global city.
Even when choosing colleges, first in D.C. and then Chicago, I made sure that I would be living where the action is, thus earning me the nickname from a close friend, “Action James.”
I’ve always taken a strange comfort from population density – I need people – lots of them in all colors and cultures, or else I feel choked.
But then I moved to London, a city of 8 million, and I was surprised to realize that I didn’t want to live there forever. Instead of feeling like a part of something larger than myself, I simply felt lost in the crowd.
When I watched Americans go to the polls in the 2004 election from across the ocean, my East Coast snobbery hit me in the face – I had no clue about the 143 million people who don’t live in or near the country’s top fifty cities.
Red state, blue state – we’re all American – and I wanted to find out about the other half.
Upon returning to D.C, a job posting for a night cops reporter in Alabama caught my interest. But I hesitated to send my resume.
Do I really want to live in Alabama? How would a Jersey girl fare in the deep South?
The more I looked into moving south, the more I resembled a character from Alan Jackson’s song, “She’s Gone Country.”
Rent is cheap. Life is slower. The city is on the Gulf Coast, at the top of the tropical belt. Mobile is Jimmy Buffet’s home town. People grow palm trees in their front yards.
It would be a great place to work as a journalist, with lots of opportunities to shine and make a difference. I grew up in New Jersey, one of America’s richest states. Alabama is one of the poorest.
It would be fascinating. Even the tax system is completely reversed – food and clothing is heavily taxed instead of property and income.
The legislature worries about things like Ten Commandments displays and sex toys, while the tax system remains unchanged.
And I could explore race relations, which fascinate me, in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.
So, I applied for the job and the paper arranged to fly me in for an interview.
I arrived in Mobile during Mardi Gras, and the whole city was rocking.
The Catholics settled Mobile, so the city isn’t as strict on alcohol as upstate, which is full of Baptists. Christmas trees decked out in beads were everywhere, even in the airport!
My taxi driver to the Best Western was a friendly character, kind of smelly, born in Louisiana. Little did he know that I was studying him as if he belonged to a foreign culture. This was my chance to see what it would be like to live and work in this place.
He explained why there would be two parades that night.
“We was s’pose-ta-had the night off, but dat dair rained, and they ‘sponed the parades ta tonight.”
Then he gave me some beads from the dashboard.
“I’m the only taxi driver in this city ta give dem out,” he said proudly.
For the next 45 minutes, we rode past big old southern homes, shaded by even bigger trees whose leaves formed a forest green canopy over the main road.
He “splained” the history of the buildings and told me some other basics.
For instance, he told me that there are black people in Mobile, but I shouldn’t be concerned or scared.
“Now I don’t know what you’re used to where you’re from, but we do have black people walking ’round downtown,” he said. “We all get along down here, it’s not like upstate or none. They have their own parades, and they live on the other side of town, but it’s voluntary segregation.”
Thank God he couldn’t see my face, I didn’t think my eyebrows could go that high.
Then he told me what’s really important.
“God, football and family. That’s all there is.”
Ah-hah. Yes, this is going to be a whole ‘nother world.
The next two days confirmed that life’s next stop would be Mobile, Ala.
I found that many people are apologetic about the state, as if they suffered from an inferiority complex.
“We’re already the laughing stock of the entire country,” one person told me.
The executive editor of the paper took me out to dinner, and everyone at the paper made me feel at home. They even arranged for me to have lunch with four Medill alums.
The alums gave me the inside scoop on the paper – who the cool editors are, where people hang out and office gossip.
Then the business editor took me aside and told me that the paper was interested in hiring me for the business section. While that was an honor, I didn’t really want that job.
So I told her the truth: I had offers to cover business in London and in D.C., and that I didn’t need to come to Alabama to write about business.
But she convinced me. I’d be one of two business reporters, and I could really help grow the section. Business is underreported in Southern Alabama, and I would help change that.
So, I accepted the business job, which pays more, and will work the night cops beat a couple of times per month.
In two days, I graduate from Medill. One week later, with my sister’s help, I’ll make the big move to Alabama — land of collard greens, chicken dumplings, moon pies and R.C. Cola.
For the first time, I don’t have a definite plan for the next two years – so I’m just going to live and be happy and see where life, and journalism, takes me.
Make sure y’all come and visit me sometime, ya hear?