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Livin' in the South Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be. It's a Whole Lot More.
Mobile Bay at Sunset
Re-Discovering My Southern Pride
When I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I couldn't wait to take off and leave this place. I imagined some grand adventure in which I would never look back on the place that many people refer to as a glorified small town. I imagined living in some upscale apartment in New York where the city would never sleep, and life would be constantly moving. My friends and I continuously complained as kids do about how boring this place was and that there was never anything to do except go to parties, friends' houses, and the place we called “The Coffee House”, a hang out for the “weird” kids like me that featured punk bands and mosh pits on Friday nights and a local guitarist playing songs by acoustic as we sang along on Saturday nights. Yet, we all felt that there had to be something better out there. Given we lived in a port city in which a beautiful beach was hop, skip, and a jump away, and we could go swimming, skiing, surfing, and what have you any time that we wanted, but this wasn't good enough for us. Like so many before us, we took for granted would we already had that was free for us at our disposal because we are convinced that there always has to be something bigger and better.
When I was eighteen, I couldn't leave Mobile fast enough, and I moved to the big city of Birmingham. Yes, such a big step. I threw myself into the club life, and believe me, I lived through some very interesting nights going to just about any club you can imagine and dressing in the latest club fashion, always sporting some sort of cool boots, leather, velvet, or lace. Meanwhile, I spent my days mountain biking and hiking with my sister and her friends at Oak Mountain. All I knew was that I was out on my own, and I was going to experience life. My friends and I frequently drove into Atlanta and experienced the night life there as well. We went to three leveled clubs with such names at each level as Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Anyone that has frequented clubs in Atlanta, knows which club I refer too. I even walked into clubs in which cages were hanging from walls while people wearing fetish gear danced, locked in the cages. Meanwhile, shows stranger than anything you could imagine were being performed on a stage overlooking a huge dance floor. At the time, I thought that all of this was the life. I loved immersing myself in a culture that some people couldn't even imagine was in existence, and at the time, it gave me a since of pride in myself that I was letting myself experience this world, but just like anything else in life, I became bored with the same thing all the time. As I got older and walked into these clubs, it just wasn't exciting anymore. I felt separated from a group of people that I had once considered myself to be in association with, but I no longer felt I needed to prove myself to these people or even to myself. That pride had long since gone, and I found myself searching for some type of “new” pride.
Once again, I found myself moving back to the deep south and back to my home town of Mobile. I immersed myself in graduate school, but I was still teeter tottering on this line between loving and hating Mobile and trying to find my place in society and in this world. On the one hand, I wanted to grow up and come into my own, but on the other hand, I was having trouble letting go of this rebellious past self that I felt necessary to cling to define myself. I started hanging out with people from my past that had lived that club lifestyle, and I chose again to be sucked in by these people. I felt I was living a double life, so to speak. I was going to graduate school and trying to feed that more intellectual, grown up side, but I still held on to the secret part of myself that I did not really want my colleagues to be a part of of even know about. The pride was no longer there, and my definition of myself had clearly become muddled. However, I found myself exploring the bar scene of downtown Mobile on the weekends, staying out late and dancing all night with some of my old club buddies. Most of it seemed superficially fun at the time, but I could feel myself screaming on the inside for something more fulfilling. I knew that something had to give. I stayed in Mobile for a few more years, and I immersed myself in my work. By this point I was a teacher. I had stopped going out at night, and I basically, worked and slept, worked and slept. I was also married and fighting against being married to someone who still wanted to immerse themselves in this lifestyle that by this point, I was trying not to let define who I was. I did not want to give in, and he would push me to try to get me to give in to turning back time. I know now that he really never knew me or who I was or even what I really wanted out of life.
My teaching career came crashing down on me with this cold reality of what it truly means to be a slave to the school system as it smacked me clean across the face. The frustration from this caused my husband and me to pack our bags and move to Orlando where I worked at the Happiest Place on Earth while he went to school. It was such a great experience living in Orlando and working for Disney. There was so much to do in this one city. Unfortunately, I learned very quickly that it also cost a lot of money to live in this city and do the things you wanted to do. The longer we spent in Orlando, and believe me that it is true when they say Central Florida is not the South, the more and more I missed the South. I was swimming along in this huge melting pot, and I loved all the cultures that were thrown together in this one place. I loved that most of my friends were from Puerto Rico, Brazil, or Cuba. I loved that, and it taught me so much. I loved that sometimes I felt like the minority at work when everyone else around me was speaking Spanish. I think all Americans should experience this at some time in their life. It changes so much of your outlook on people, customs, and religion. These people also gave me something else though. As I stood at work with my friends from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Germany, and New York, I realized that we each were an important part of that group because we each were a representative from where we came from. Talking to my friends and explaining to them about the South and where I came from, I became proud of Mobile and what it has to offer. I would watch shows like True Blood, and while the story itself is fantasy, it would remind me of certain aspects that you could only get in the South and nowhere else. First off, you can't get any better seafood than here in the South. Southerners themselves are quite entertaining. We are a breed apart, and southern women especially know how to fight for what we want with a determination like no other while throwing in a twist of a gentile smile along with our sweet southern charm. I'd like to see one of those women from Manhattan pull that off. Like I said, all of this made me homesick for Mobile and especially Mobile Bay where I had spent much of my childhood swimming, boating, and shrimping or fishing with my family. Sometimes I would hop on a quick flight from Orlando to Pensacola just to spend a few days on the bay with my family. It was always so hard to leave at the end. No longer was I bored when in Mobile. I had learned to appreciate the smaller things like drinking a cocktail on a long southern porch with my family while we stared out at the bay. These are things so many of us take for granted that some people can't ever experience in a life time. Some people live their whole life without ever seeing an open body of water. That just sounds like torture to me.
Finally, we packed our bags and moved back to Mobile after three years in Orlando. We moved into my childhood home, which is a 100 year-old house in the Historic Garden District of Mobile. Soon after, I kicked my husband out of the house, which was a much needed decision based on the realization that so many women have when they wake up one morning, “How did I end up getting stuck married to this asshole.” As I became a single woman again, I felt myself embracing Mobile and all it has to offer. With closing the door on my husband, I was also able to close the door on that lifestyle and those people that I was fighting hard to walk away from, since he was the last thread trying to hold me to that lifestyle. It was amazing how much easier it was to literally “remove the crud” when I removed him from my life. The more I stepped away from this, the more my eyes opened to the possibilities this town offered. I found myself exploring so much of my childhood again, and it filled me with an inner peace that had left me so long ago. I started to see Mobile for what it truly was. First off, there is more than your fair share of bodies of water here. There are rivers, creeks, bay, and gulfs. Wow! How cool is that? I started taking advantage of this. I spent a month out on the bay with my family in October. In the mornings, we would drink coffee, not in front of the television, but on the porch by the bay. At night, I would take my dog out for a walk while listening to the sounds of the shrimp boats humming along the open waters of the bay. I would think about how special this was and how much I should appreciate and embrace these experiences. I started to get up in the morning and go kayaking. One day my sister and I were heading back out of the mouth of Weeks Bay on our kayaks, and as we came out, we noticed a school of dolphins. Some of their fins popped up right in front my kayak. We followed them out of Weeks Bay, and I saw one of them jump and flip out of the water. It was incredible. Another day, I was out in the kayak with a friend, and as we closed in on the mouth of Weeks Bay, we noticed several fins in the water. We realized that there had to be at least twenty or more dolphins in the water. They were coming right up to our kayaks, and we stopped there for several minutes just watching and enjoying this experience. My friend was sticking his hands in the water and snapping his fingers. The noise got a reaction from the dolphins, and they would swim closer to find the noise. Since then, I have been out in the boat with my family on a few occasions, and we have seen dolphins out feeding and flipping in and out of the water. We would pop the motor into neutral and sit watching as the dolphins gave us an amazing show that so many people wait their whole lives and pay lots of money to watch, but here we were, getting this wonderful free show that some only see on the Discovery Channel. Never again will I take such moments for granted.
Beyond the bay, which is reason enough to move to South Alabama, we have so many other fun aspects that keep people coming back to visit. The food along the Gulf Coast is hands down some of the best in the world You can't beat the fresh seafood, and we know how to spice our food just right down here. One time, I went to Oregon with my family, and we carried a shaker of Tony Chachere's wherever we went to add some spice to the West Coast food. Mobile is also the birth place of Mardi Gras, and with New Orleans only two hours away, you have your pick of good times when you come to the Gulf Coast this time of year. This past Mardi Gras, I spent days joining in on the revelry and had a blast. One of my friends sets up tables out on the street by the parade route, and we bring food for grilling while waiting for the parades to start. One of the most famous and significant days during Mardi Gras is Joe Cain Day, and that day, some of the people I knew boiled up fresh crawfish that morning, and they had generously set up a table for everyone to enjoy some crawfish while they drank and watched parades. On Mardi Gras day, we brought down chairs and drank mimosas (How southern is that!) all day and periodically would get up to get grilled food, gumbo, and chili that some of our friends had prepared. Then, when the parades came by, we walked up and started shouting for throws. Now that is doing Mardi Gras in style. Incidentally, I had also been up late the night before walking up and down Bourbon Street in New Orleans and catching the Orpheus parade before heading back to Mobile for Fat Tuesday.
Mobile is also a growing city, and much of the younger generation sees the promise in this place. I believe that right now Mobile could be one the South's best kept secrets, but I do think that one day the cat will be out the bag on that one. We already have a growing arts community that includes art galleries, performing arts, and a rich music foundation that includes the Mobile Opera and the Mobile Symphony. We also have two universities and one college, that as the years go by, they can't help but make this small city grow bigger and bigger. I continue to go back to Orlando to visit my friends, and I find it funny that when I talk about my experiences in Mobile, the bay, and Mardi Gras, I find these people who are “living the dream” in Orlando to be jealous of my daily lifestyle. I was showing a friend pictures of my bayhouse, and he looked at his girlfriend and said, “We're doing something wrong.” I talked about Mardi Gras, and I could see that they were slightly jealous of how I was living my life. I smiled to myself with pride about where I came from and realized how lucky I was to be raised in the South with great food, grand landscapes, and a strong upbringing of southern charms and gracious attitudes. I was so happy that I once again found something to have pride in. Sometimes life can be full of surprises as you re-discover who you are and where you came from.