Mobile, AL

I was in Mobile, Alabama this past week. I love this town. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Savannah and Charleston. Great towns. But Mobile is like an old friend. I was there for the 18th year in a row for the Gulf States Horticultural Expo. Which is a fancy way of saying I was in town to peddle trees at a trade show.

You can’t help but be enchanted by this town. Street after street lined with Live Oaks that make you think Noah planted them after the great flood. Mardi Gras beads dangling from tree limbs along the sidewalks. These folks are serious about the fact that they own Mardi Gras, not New Orleans. The big parade is not for a couple weeks but the beads are already out.

I was here a few years back for this show and it happened to coincide with one of the early parades. Yes, it evidently takes more than one parade to do Mardi Gras right. It was a sight to behold. The only basis I have for comparison is the annual Christmas Parade in Pine Mountain. A few tractors. Hay trailers decked out with a few lights and carolers. Santa on the fire truck.

Let me just say that the folks in Mobile know how to put on a parade. Floats and music and street vendors and beads. In case you don’t know. I never knew this. But the beads have a magic purpose. I ended up with a bucket full of beads. And, I understand what you’re supposed to do with the beads, but since this might possibly be a family friendly story and partly because I am a happily married individual, I just kept my beads and took them home to the kids.

I have learned that downtown Mobile can get pretty crazy at night even without a parade. You get a thousand nurserymen walking the bars in the evening and no telling what might happen. I saw on the morning news a story about a guy who rammed his car into one of store fronts on Conti Street at 2:00 in the morning. Bricks were knocked out of the wall. He backed up over a lamp post. Made it down the street about a hundred feet and got hung up on a section of fence.

The news anchor reported, “Witnesses say the driver might have been impaired.”

I questioned some of my friends at the show the next morning. No one owned up to being the guy.

I don’t stay downtown anymore. The host hotel is expensive and I’m cheap. The express hotel about 10 minutes from downtown along the interstate suits me just fine. Plus, I found a place out there on highway 90 called Dick Russell’s. Their big deal is BBQ, but I’m not in town to eat BBQ. I go there to eat breakfast.

The parking lot is packed. Red checkered tablecloths. Booths warmly lit. Wagon wheel chandeliers with antlers. Paintings on the wall of Indian Chiefs, old town antebellum homes dripping in Spanish moss, a bird dog gently returning his bird to his master. It’s the kind of restaurant where groups of old men gather at the round table next to me. They own the place like they’ve been coming there for decades. The waitress just brings them coffee and food without them having to order.

I could eat the free cardboard breakfast at the hotel, or I could come here. And, besides, the bacon is to die for. I ask for a piece of tin foil to wrap up a biscuit with bacon to take with me. Lunch on the run.

The Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center is right on the water’s edge along the Mobile River downtown. On the morning drive in, the shipping cranes are lit up in the distance. They remind me of the Imperial Walkers from Star Wars, as they rise up through the fog over the docks. Every time I stand out back of the exhibit hall I’m singing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” in my head. Tugs and barges going by. Ten story cargo ships being unloaded. A naval repair yard across the river. To a guy like me who lives in a sea of Georgia Pines, the view is mesmerizing. It’s no wonder Tom Sawyer dreamed of a life on the river.

You want the honest truth? The trade show is great. Good for business and all that. Seeing old friends and meeting new ones. It’s good stuff. But the real reason we’re all here; the one thing that we wait for like Jethro waits on Granny’s vittles, is the sea food.

“Where you want to go eat tonight?” is the question of the day.

“You wanna get a few guys together and run out to the Oyster House?” Heck yeah!

We pile into a truck and take the Bankhead Tunnel under the river and head out Battleship Parkway. The USS Alabama sits off to the right. The waters of the bay lick right up next to the highway. And we dine on a meal fit for kings.

We work the show the next day, but we live for supper in the evening.

The Oyster House one night. The Blue Gill the next night. Maybe Felix’s Fish Camp. But for sure Wintzel’s downtown on Dauphin Street. Oh my! Just say those three little words that call to me. Bacon wrapped shrimp.

Mobile is home to Bellingrath Gardens. My friend and former boss at Callaway Gardens has been at the helm of Bellingrath for the last 20 years. He just retired this past summer. And I found out at the show that he is receiving the Auburn University Lifetime Achievement Award this year. First time anyone from horticulture has ever claimed the prestigious award. Congrats Bill Barrick. This is a man who always made time to drive from Pine Mountain to Dothan, AL just to have a tomato sandwich with his Mama. Well deserved.

Beth was with me on this trip. She has family history here. She spends her days at the Genealogical Library tracking down the bones and stories of her people. We make time to visit places like the Church Street Graveyard, and the old cemetery in Whistler. We even hunted down old addresses where some of her people lived in the mid-1800s. She connects the dots and should one day write a book.

Well, Mobile is in the rear view mirror for another year. I’m up north of Atlanta for another trade show this week. Too much traffic. Too much construction. Too much of everything for me. But you go where the business takes you, right?

I’d rather be sitting on the dock back in Mobile.

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again