The last time I was able to go back home to Birmingham, I got a call just as I was driving into town. It was from my childhood friend Frank Wilson.
"Bill, what part of the country are you in right now?"
"Your part of the country."
"You mean you're in Alabama?"
"I mean I'm in Birmingham, about five miles from your house," I said with a laugh.
"No kidding? That's great news. Can you come by my office?"
"That depends. Can you put me up for a few nights?"
"Of course, that's no problem at all. Get your butt over here pronto, I have a proposition for you."
As I drove through the city, I had to smile. I had lived most of my life here, and this place would always be special to me. I went to school here, fell in love here for the first time. So many milestones. There was a sweet and heartwarming charm to the place, and a kindness to the people you'd meet everywhere within the city limits.
A half hour later, I walked into Frank's office, and he rapidly walked over and gave me a hug. "Great to see you, Bill. Welcome home."
"Good to be home."
"Home is where the heart is. But you know, a great man once said 'You can never go home again'."
"And yet here I am."
"Here you are."
"Here I are, on this day in the year of our Lord, in the city of our Lord."
Frank busted out with laughter. "Damn if you don't say the oddest things sometimes. That's part of your charm, Bill."
"Oh yeah, I'm charming, I'm just oozing with charm."
"You're an oozer, for sure."
"So what do you have for me?"
"You mentioned a proposition on the phone."
"Oh, of course. OK, my marketing firm has been hired by the Alabama Theater to do a big promotion for them, and I could use your help."
"What can I do?" I asked.
"You're a mighty fine writer, and can snap some damn good photos also. I want to put those talents to work. Feel like making a little money?"
"You bet I do. And you know how much I love the Alabama Theater."
Frank started what had become over the years our screwball comedy rapid fire
delivery. "I know that's right."
"You know that's right. Woo-hoo!"
"Bill, you're a nut."
"I'm a coco-nut!"
"Are you cuckoo for coco-nuts?"
"Why ask? You know I am."
"I know you wish you were."
"I know that you know that I know... wait, what?"
Frank smiled and shook his head. "You never change."
"You'd be disappointed if I did."
We went back to Frank's house, where he cooked some thick steaks out on the grill. We drank cold beers, and after dinner he lit up a cigar. I was disappointed when he told me that he hadn't received some checks I was expecting in the mail from Riff at work. I used Frank's address for all my mail.
"So let me ask you," Frank began. "Just how are things going on your job?"
"No so great. I mean, I do love the driving, but my boss doesn't pay me like he should. There should be nearly $1000 in back pay waiting for me here right now, and he promised he'd sent it."
"That's not right."
"No argument here. What can I do about it, though?"
"Easy, you quit."
"Yeah, and then what? I don't really have a fall back position right now."
"Hmm. I see your point. Well, we're gonna have some fun tomorrow."
"I can't wait."
Early the next day, Frank and I went downtown to the old Alabama theater. Frank said that he was going inside to talk to the Manager, and I stood out front and went through my bag. I had pens, blank spiral notebooks, and my camera. A strange little man came walking towards me with a determined glare. I hoped for a moment that he'd just walk on by me, but I should know better by now. Strange people are attracted me to like a magnet.
"Hey you!" he said.
"Yes you, of course you, who else but you, it is you I am talking to."
"What can I do for you?"
"Oh, I just bet you wish you were gonna get off that easy. But it
doesn't work like that."
I shrugged. "What doesn't work like that?"
"Are we gonna have a problem?"
"You heard me, I want to know if we're gonna have a problem?"
"No, no problem."
"Because if it's trouble you want, I can accommodate you."
"No trouble, no problem."
"I think maybe you are just problematic in general."
"You may be right."
"Are you mocking me, Mister?"
"No sir, I am not."
"Are you sure? Would you swear to that on a stack of
"Would I... huh?" About that time, Frank stepped out the door and grabbed me by the arm.
"We were having a conversation," said the strange man to Frank.
"Go bother someone else," Frank said abruptly. He is not one to mince words. We walked into the lobby, and Frank smiled as he said, "You know Bill, the reason all those weird people bother you is because you engage. Most folks are like me, we just walk on by and ignore their craziness."
"I can't help myself."
Frank patted me on the back. "No you can't. It's what makes you you." Then Frank introduced me to the Manager at the theater, and we listened to him give us a detailed history of this great old movie palace. He followed that by giving us a tour, and sharing bits of history that we never would have known otherwise. The place is so ornate, and I remembered a hundred different movies that I had seen here growing up. And the organ that rose up out of the stage.
After the tour, I spend an hour going around and taking lots of pictures. I wrote my thoughts down on paper, and made some notes for things I'd want to expand on later, when I was sitting at a computer. I went up to the uppermost balcony and just sat and took it all in. What a great place, so superior to the new modern multiplex theaters. This place had style and grace and a big heart. That's how I felt, anyway.
It wasn't long before Frank came up and joined me. "Are you enjoying yourself, you knucklehead?"
"So much that I don't even feel like I should get paid for this."
"I can arrange that," he said, kicking off our rapid-fire repartee.
"Don't you dare."
"I just may dare."
"If you do dare, then beware."
"Oh, I'll beware."
"And I'll be there if you're beware, in your hair, just to be fair."
Frank nodded and laughed heartily. "You're a ryhmin' fool, Bill. I'm so glad to have you here."
"I miss Birmingham all the time. And I miss my house."
"Can I tell you something?"
"You can tell me anything."
Frank rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. "You lost your job, a good job. And then the bank took your house."
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. "What's your point?"
"All of that happened to you in a short period of time. Most guys would be pretty devastated by such a turn of events. But you... you just drive on, getting on down the road, delivering cars and meeting and befriending people wherever you go. I guess I just wanted to tell you that I admire you, buddy."
I was at a loss for words. "Uh... thanks, I guess."
"I want you to know that you are a very unique creature. There is no one else on the planet who is anything remotely like you."
"We're all unique and different, it's what makes the world go round."
"Yeah, but you are really different. You are quirky and goofy, you're a nut, you're a mutant in the truest sense."
"You should be. I just want you to always be true to yourself, and love yourself. Because who you are is pretty special. The world could use more people like you."
"I think there's too many people who are worried about what's in it for them. You genuinely care about other people and want to reach out and help them." Frank rose and patted me on the back. "Keep it up."
I finished up the work in a few days, then had a car to pick up in Tuscaloosa that was going to Albuquerque. It was tough to leave Birmingham, and I looked forward to the day I could come back and afford to buy a home again. But for now, I would continue to drive and earn and survive. And to carry Frank's kind words in my heart.