I remember the day that AM radio first called me to life. It was June 1968, and I was eleven years old. The song I remember best on that day was The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” Birmingham’s WSGN must have played it three times that afternoon. It was an especially tough year to be living in Birmingham: I knew people who laughed when Dr. King was killed and who called Bobby Kennedy a “nigger-lover” even after Sirhan-Sirhan murdered him in a service area. The kids who laughed and rejoiced weren’t inherently ignorant, poor, or trashy. But they were hard on anyone who was shy or plain, anyone whose skin color was dark, anyone who didn’t fit into the crowd. It was difficult and usually impossible to buck these kids, that is, if you wanted to be part of the most popular group around.
On Facebook today, these no-longer kids are the ones “liking” the “Duck Dynasty” family. I can’t lie. What they say still matters to me.
But one of the great equalizers in our youthful era was the AM radio. In Birmingham, that meant WSGN, WVOK, and WAQY. These stations, contrary to other public institutions in Birmingham, knew no racial bias, at least not in their playlists. Neither did they discriminate among popular genres, playing healthy doses of Rock, Pop, Soul, R&B, and Country from Led Zeppelin to Marvin Gaye to Ray Price. Even the semi-classical theme from Love Story and Judy Collins’ version of “Amazing Grace” made it to mainstream Birmingham airwaves. And if no one in my crowd admitted to loving Judy or Marvin, or Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” then explain to me why these songs lingered in the Top Ten week after week?
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not reminded of this era. I pass a fast food drive-in or sit in some carpool line; sometimes I’m even walking through the Prague airport and hear a piece of music I subjected my parents to. Or I read something about my culture, as I did last night when I picked up the latest issue of The Oxford American and ran across a beautiful, insightful journey into the history and fandom of Country star Charlie Rich. While the article should be required reading for anyone who cares about the 60’s, or the South, or rawboned music, what hit me was the first page, the lyrics to Rich’s most beloved song: “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?”
Why do song lyrics, or just those words on a page, make me travel to certain streets–to houses that I saw frequently but never entered? Why, when I hear Rich singing those words, do I remember a girl I barely knew from my high school days?
The music from that era is one thing. The era itself, quite another. I can’t say that I was happy living then, happy that I was living then. For so many reasons I didn’t fit: my long hair, my father who in the land of the protestants was Jewish; my refusal to hate Black people. But in one area at least, I was horribly normal, breathtakingly average.
In elementary school, I didn’t understand what being class-conscious meant. What I knew was that some kids couldn’t afford to bring lunch money or wear heavy coats in winter. That some kids smelled bad or didn’t wear underwear and had to walk to school no matter the weather. My parents explained that some of these kids were so unfortunate that they didn’t get to eat breakfast or might not have a parent waiting for them when they got home. That possibly their mothers or their daddies had left home years before, or were still there but drank excessively.
Once, my mother showed me a newspaper photograph of the mother of one of my second grade classmates. She had left her home, been arrested for some form of theft, and sent off to the women’s prison near Montgomery.
“She’s crazy,” my mother said. “She just left those kids!”
And all three of her children were in my second grade class: a pair of twins who had been held back in first grade and their younger sister.
I knew these kids, knew they were poor, though I couldn’t have told you why. I asked them, once, where they lived.
“Down Arlington. In the projects,” the younger one said.
In one of the parts of our town that wasn’t segregated, though not by anyone’s choice.
They don’t teach economics in second grade, but it was enough to see how many of the poorer kids struggled with basic reading and arithmetic. Many of my friends called these kids “dumb,” said they had “cooties,” and laughed at them often to their face.
And sometimes I did too. For I was privileged: a middle class boy with two parents who worked, cooked, and provided everything I needed, and often even what I wanted.
But in the supposed great equalizer of public school, middle-class kids like me got exposed to other kids who truly were left behind or who commonly used words like “bitch” or “bastard” or “nooky.” I’m sure I would have learned these words anyway, but the fact is that I learned them in 1966 from kids who lived in broken down houses–kids who saw or experienced a world I was blessedly insulated from.
So in time, I became aware that “poor” meant low class, crude, and trashy. “Poor white trash.” That was the phrase we used. It followed me throughout high school, as I saw and judged kids who weren’t exactly poor and certainly not trashy, but who lived in parts of town that were a step or two down from my neighborhood in the south hills of town where some of the earliest town pillars formerly dwelled before they moved to the exclusive Lakewood community just west of town. I knew these poorer kids were off limits as friends. I shouldn’t want to play or ride with them, and certainly I shouldn’t invite them to my house or set foot in theirs.
And as I moved through puberty, I knew that I could never think of dating anyone from such straitened places.
In my junior high days, I aspired to the highest of social cliques. But the closest I could get was to hover near these kids. I’d occasionally be invited to the right parties or have one of the cool guys over to spend the night with me. And even when I officially made it into the clique—though how I made it or why or even exactly when, I don’t know—I still couldn’t find a girlfriend within this crowd. I’d write notes and call and ask these girls out. They’d talk to me, sometimes for hours on the phone. But if I ever hinted at a date, they’d shut me down:
“Sorry, Momma’s calling me.”
“Don’t you know that I like Don?”
“I’m not allowed to date someone who doesn’t go to my church.”
These were only the tips of my rejected iceberg.
Yet despite my frustrations and “striking out,” I never considered asking out a girl who was “beneath” my social class. If I thought about it, I’d hear Johnny Rivers singing “The Poor Side of Town,” and then I’d look again to the goddesses of my class—the Mary Jane’s or Melissa’s or Robyn’s—and my fantasies would evaporate into the reality that if I asked out a girl who wasn’t quite in my economic class, I’d be ridiculed or worse:
I might be considered one of them.
Today I see that some of the girls I liked in that highest clique were not so well off either. Their houses were small and plain, though clean and set in “acceptable” neighborhoods. Acceptable, at least, by the lower middle class standards of our insular community. I really don’t know how I judged these things back then other than I listened to too many class-conscious people who passed their judgments on to me.
Judgments that kept me from seeing the most beautiful girl in that particular time and world: the one who sat right behind me in homeroom every day.
Karen was tall. “Lissome” is the word I’d use now. Golden brown hair hanging to her shoulders and in some years even longer. Her eyes were brown and set fairly wide apart. She used a heavier black eye shadow than most girls of that era, or at least most girls who moved in my circles. Her mouth was wide too, but it was hard to care because her lips were so full—not red exactly. In fact, I remember them as pale pink, and I don’t remember her wearing lipstick or even gloss. Some of my friends said Karen had a Chinese look, though as far as I know, her parents were Caucasian.
I never met her parents; never saw them even once. Somehow though, I knew her father was gone, though I didn’t know whether he had died or just left them. She had a sister, Debbie, two years older, equally tall with darker hair. Debbie epitomized the term “hippie chick” for me, especially when I spied her at the local mall, tooling down the corridors in bell-bottom jeans, brown moccasins, and beads dangling from her neck. I might not be remembering this correctly, but I think Debbie got pregnant early in life, not long after or perhaps even before she graduated high school. I knew that wasn’t supposed to happen to kids in my group, though some time after I graduated, I realized that a couple of the supposedly “better” kids got a little too close in our junior year: one of those situations where the girl wears oversize coats for a couple of weeks, then one Monday, she looks just like her old self. Her old coatless self. And she remained in the popular group. If anyone in the group knew then, they just looked the other way—the way that all of that class can look because, of course, their class allows it. Funds it.
But Debbie chose otherwise. Or maybe she had no choice at all.
Karen’s house sat on one of our main routes to the mall, at the intersection of Clarendon and Ninth Street, a neighborhood that middle class people escaped once their incomes said they could. If you looked to the left before you turned onto Ninth, you’d see it, second from the corner, on the opposite side of the street. Two rocking chairs sat on the front porch, and in all seasons, one or both of the sisters would be rocking in them, talking, looking out to the street, thinking about guys or music, or something I’ll never know that went on in the world within their house.
In our alphabetically ordered high school homeroom, Karen sat next to Mary Kate Blake who had bleached-blond hair set in a semi-beehive. I don’t believe they were just desk-friends, for I could hear them discussing more than homework on those occasions that my own desk-mate, Gary Barlow, wasn’t trying to talk to me. I’d be lying if I said I could recount anything Karen or Mary Kate said after all these years. But I’d guess that their boyfriends were often in the mix. I don’t know who Mary Kate liked, but for some of these years, Karen liked an “older” boy, Ricky Russo, whom I’d had seen around since first grade. He was one grade above us, and as far as I know, was a nice enough guy.
Once, I intruded on Karen and Mary Kate’s talk, informing them that the football game that week was being played not at home, but in Oxford. “My Dad’s driving some of us,” I said, and as I looked into their faces, or more correctly, into Karen’s face, I know a part of me hoped she’d say, “Oh…could I have a ride?” But of course she didn’t. As marginally in that upper clique as I was, Karen knew that my world and hers would never get any closer than that three feet of desk separating her chair from mine. I know she knew this. I knew this.
But I never considered that she might have hoped otherwise; I can only wonder now if she ever did.
That’s how life went back then. Eventually I dated four or five different girls in my high school years; some I brought home to meet my parents, others, I didn’t. Whenever I did get a date, though, it wasn’t my parents’ approval I sought, for my first date was with a Baptist girl—a girl I didn’t pick solely because my mother had “forbidden” me to date a Baptist girl. But with my friends, I tried to pick girls that met their approval. Or stay away from those who didn’t. I can’t believe it now, but I know I did.
Or maybe I should admit that I believe it now all-too-well.
Some time after we graduated, my best friend Jimbo confessed that he found Karen to be exotically attractive. Jimbo had come out of the closet by then, but in high school could have had any girl he wanted. Most of the girls he wanted—and many that he got—were also the ones I wanted, but never got. So if he had told me in tenth grade that he thought Karen was worth going after, maybe I would have considered talking to her.
It was only when I got to college that I realized that the “in group” I tried so hard to belong to wasn’t worth it—that they were, in the end, that era’s high school snobs. And it was only then that I realized who Karen was: a girl I snubbed; a girl I couldn’t appreciate.
A girl who never looked down on me.
The C-Shell Lounge, circa 1975. I’ve just finished my freshman year in college, and my roommate and I are having beers to celebrate. He’s from my hometown: Rodney Rockett, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten though we didn’t become good friends until we were thrown together as dorm mates.
The C-Shell Lounge is the bar in Bessemer’s Ramada Inn–one of the few places in Bessemer where you can get draft beer and dance–named after its proprietor, Claude Shell, a 70-year old man whose “assistant” was a 30-ish woman named Phoebe.
I’ve often wondered what it must feel like to name a Ramada Inn lounge after yourself.
The lounge itself is dark with swiveling black faux leather chairs and a murky-colored shag carpet, perhaps reminiscent of a beach bar somewhere. I’ll know the C-Shell better next summer when I become the part-time handy-man at the motel, which means that every Sunday morning I’ll get to clean the bar and cart twenty-five enormous garbage bags full of Pabst and Bud bottles to the dumpster. Not to mention all the plastic cups and cigarette butts. All for minimum wage, which in the summer of 1976 is $2.25 an hour. My earnings go toward helping pay for one semester’s tuition and room/board at The University of Montevallo, which the self-proclaimed “best bargain in higher education” in Alabama. I would have rather gone to Birmingham-Southern or “Sewanee” with my best friends, but tuition in those institutions is three times what I’m paying, and there just aren’t enough Sunday morning beer cans in the C-Shell Lounge.
So Rodney and I are sipping our Buds and feeding the jukebox, which contains a sordid combination of rock/pop and country and all points in between. Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” has just finished, and true to his name, Rodney has also punched in “Rocket-Man,” and he sings along as if the song was written for him. About that moment I look up and see two girls I know enter the bar: Susan, who lives just down the street from me, and Karen.
They sit at a table near us, and then Susan calls my name. Though we’ve known each other since 7th grade, we’re the sort of acquaintances who will always speak to each other, maybe exchange neighborhood gossip, but that’s usually it.
They move to the table next to ours. Susan and I talk, and every time I glance over at Karen, she looks down. Is she shy? Ashamed? I don’t know, but she’s wearing flared-brown jeans and a loose top with sleeves hanging to her wrists. Her hair is longer now too, straight and lush. So far, we haven’t said a word.
An upbeat song pours from the jukebox: “Let Your Love Flow” by The Bellamy Brothers. This is their one pop hit, for afterward they will declare for the Country side of things and I will forget that they ever made the pop charts, except when I recall this scene: the definite beat, the precious melody. The moment when I ask Karen to dance.
She finally looks at me and says,
“Well, it’s not that bad. Besides, it’s just dancing.”
I don’t know what makes me say any of this, what I’m thinking other than there’s music, a dance floor, a girl who’s pretty beyond reason sitting next to me. She takes my hand and we move to the dance floor, joining two or three other couples. I’m used to dancing at urban clubs where a more pulsating early Disco beat from Van McCoy or Silver Convention prescribes all moves. “Let Your Love Flow,” however, seems to beg a beat, to insist that you put one foot here, another there as if you wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. Also, it’s not a sexy song: “Let your love flow, like a mountain breeze, and let your love flow to all living things.” Maybe this is what Karen questioned when I asked her to dance. But she’s game, and we’re both trying to hit that perfect beat and not look stupid doing it. I don’t know what music she’s used to dancing to, and I don’t know what she’s looking for in this bar with its seedy furnishings. And honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for either.
After the song, we return to our table, and the four of us talk. Both girls have been living at home this year, working, temporary jobs in retail. Rodney tells them about his communications courses–that he’d like to get into TV production.
“I’m planning to major in Social Work so that I can help the disadvantaged and downtrodden.”
And I actually used those words. It wasn’t like the girls’ eyes glazed over when I spoke, but something happened. Something vacant and disinterested. Or maybe something worse.
Each of us ordered another round of beers. The music got even more predictable. The last song I remember was by another pop band, Exile. Their hit was a love song underlain with a pseudo-disco thump: “Kiss You All Over.” They, too, would later abandon pop for country. So strange.
We didn’t dance to this song, but when it ended, almost by mutual consent, we all decided it was time to go. There was still a lot of night left in our summertime.
But in that time, we were all still living at home. With our parents.
I’ve told myself until now that it was that reality that stopped me from pursuing anything with Karen.
But hearing those old songs, seeing Charlie’s lyrics: I know it was actually the held-over stigma from the preceding years of actually getting closer to a girl who wasn’t part of “the crowd” I normally hung with. Even though there was none of my former crowd around.
Even though I had just spent a couple of hours in a lounge named for a man who was living some sort of playboy dream.
So in the parking lot of the C-Shell Lounge out near the Bessemer Super Highway, I watched Karen get in Susan’s car and drive away, maybe to her home, or maybe to another seedy club where the night was still as young as she needed it to be.
I went home too, and though I can’t say that I kept thinking about that her as I lay in bed that night and the ones after, I didn’t exactly forget her either. Bob Dylan might have chastised me that “I threw it all away,” that night, but he wouldn’t be right except in the way that I couldn’t see then beyond the hills of my own class.
I couldn’t see then, as I do now, that class isn’t an illusion.
Five years after high school, a few grads think it’s a grand idea to reunite the senior high class of 1974. They rent a party hall at the Ramada Inn. The same one where I worked three summers earlier, emptying beer bottles and checking the pool for chlorine levels, and on occasion, moving a bad TV out of a room and swapping it for a marginally better one so that the poor tenant could choose from Rockford or Magnum and then give me a barbecue sandwich as a tip. He had gotten two by mistake from Pike’s Barbecue just down the road. I took the sandwich but told him that Bob Sykes’ Barbecue was better.
The C-Shell Lounge, for some reason, was off-limits to we former seniors. So we crammed into a party room about the same size as a double classroom from our high school days.
Apropos of the strained integration of those high school years, the white alums sat in one half of the room, the Black grads in the other. There was a middle aisle where occasional mixed ex-students gathered. I stood there for a while talking to senior class president Henry Scott, and later to Coach Moton who was maybe supposed to be chaperoning, or maybe just wanted to relive the good times. He was a fair-minded man who once found my stolen gym socks and got them back for me. I wondered back then what sort of a person stole sweaty gym socks. But Coach Moton seemed to know quite well. I don’t think they could have possibly paid him enough back then, even though he was assistant head coach, imported from the now-closed all-Black high school.
Eventually, he got the head-coaching job, but by then, most of the white families had pulled out of the Bessemer public system.
But on this night, like the rest of us, he watched all that hadn’t really changed in our lives. Most of the white guys in my former in-group wore white oxford-cloth shirts and khakis. Their wives looked matronly already. Some had been married since graduation; others were even divorced.
I was still single and heading off to graduate school that coming fall. I wore a pair of un-dyed Levis that Jimbo sent me from New York. They looked sharp with my black boots, or at least I thought they did. My hair was frighteningly long for Bessemer, even in 1979. It’s true that I felt and looked different from my peers. It’s also true that part of me still wanted to fit in.
The music was a DJ playing tunes from our high school era mixed with newer bands like Bad Company and Heart. At some point, the soul of Al Green and Earth, Wind, and Fire morphed into disco, and I might be crazy, but I think the DJ even played “Rapper’s Delight.”
I remember dancing with my friend Jim’s wife for a while, and then catching up with Jo Beth, a girl I sort of dated back when Todd Rundgren sang “Hello It’s Me.”
About an hour or so into the night, as I was wondering how long I’d really stay at this event, Karen walked in. She was dressed in a plain gray skirt, sleeved blouse, and matching gray pumps. She came by herself, carrying an umbrella, for the summer rain was coming down and it wasn’t so gentle.
I watched her look around, walk to a semi-occupied table, and place her umbrella against it. She stood there looking beautiful.
She stood there looking at me.
So I got up and walked over to her. She smiled, and so did I. There wasn’t much to say, and if there was, I certainly didn’t know what.
I keep thinking now of that episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” where Andy’s high school flame returns for their reunion. Barney calls theirs the most “natural romance” of any couple in their class. Well, Karen and I weren’t natural anythings.
But I asked her if she’d like something to drink, and she said yes.
We stood there acknowledging all the other couples, the kids she never knew well; the ones I knew better than I could say.
I didn’t know what had happened in the four years since I saw her just a few hundred yards away at the C-Shell Lounge on the night she rode away with Susan. But it felt like a lifetime of college had never occurred for me. It felt like I had left her just the night before.
The dance floor was remarkably alive, and as we wondered what would play next, I recognized the opening bars of a song from that senior year—one that played all the time on our AM stations but that none of use much acknowledged.
For it simply wasn’t cool to say you liked, or in my case loved, Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”
“My baby makes me smile, Lord don’t she make me smile…”
I didn’t have to ask Karen this time. We just walked to the dance floor and held each other for the next three-and-a-half minutes.
When the song ended, she looked at me and said,
“I have to go; I’m leaving town tomorrow.”
“Because I’m joining the Air Force.”
I stared at her a minute, thinking that whatever I’d expected to happen, this wasn’t it. But I also surprised myself. I accepted her reality, something that was maybe her dream and certainly her way out of this world, this “Bessemer.” In that moment I was happy for her. She seemed happy at least, and more than that, she seemed brave. In that moment, she outclassed everyone at the dance.
“Well, I’ll walk out with you.”
So she put on her coat, took up her umbrella, and without saying goodbye to anyone else, we walked out the door to her car. Standing there in the light of the Ramada Inn sign, I leaned over and kissed her. We parted once, kissed again, and then she said calmly,
“I better go.”
“Yes. Because if I don’t leave now I…”
She slowly pulled away from me. I watched her as she left the inn. As she left my life.
I left then too, and though I went to other reunions, Karen was never there.
I’ve been married for thirty years to the woman I was supposed to marry, someone of whom most of my old Bessemer friends would have never approved, much less understood. We married on a summer day, June 21st, the longest day of the year. My wife is from Iran, but I didn’t marry her in consideration or in spite of those old friends. That much, at least, I learned from Karen. To my face, one of my old friends once referred to my wife as a “sand-nigger.” That’s the dark side of Bessemer, and I’m sure there are even darker spots—spots that I now believe Karen knew all-too-well. I wonder what it would have been like had I recognized back then that these “friends” weren’t really that. I wonder what might have happened had I seen and known Karen and been friends with her. What did she feel or see back then? She chose her own way and didn’t seem to care what anyone in our class thought about it. Or anyone I knew, at least.
Recently I learned that while in the Air Force, she met and married a commercial jet pilot. They travel the world together now and are reported to be quite happy.
Life truly is a revolving door. Just this evening, visiting my old hometown, I decide to drive by the brick house where Karen used to live. I know the house when I see it. And for a second, I think I see two rocking chairs there on the front porch as I approach. But that isn’t true after all. Instead, there is an aluminum barbecue pit and a folding chair. Otherwise, the house looks just as I remember it. I wonder who’s living there now. It looks like a good place to live, just as it always has.
I hope it was a good place for Karen, but like with so many other things, I’ll never really know what went on behind those doors, in a world that I finally see was not so far from mine.