I can’t write about Mobile, Alabama without pausing, walking away from the computer, abandoning the pages and essentially, giving up. It’s hard to describe the hold that it has on me; before my seven year courtship with New York City, downtown Mobile almost claimed me as their resident with its streetlamps, oak trees and French and Spanish-influenced architecture. All the good moments in my life seem to revolve around it: in my childhood I danced in the basement of the Saenger Theater in a summer ballet program, afternoons at Mobile Symphony rehearsals and concerts during high school, and in my college years I was darting in and out of art galleries with a camera around my neck and a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket writing about art. In short, those blocks are as integral to my childhood as was sight, or sound, or thought.
In April I returned home to Mobile during my vacation. I blocked out a week for lazy couch-sitting, Starbucks drive-throughs, television and home cooked meals. A short trip to New Orleans was smashed in the middle of the week, along with some reunions with high school friends I hadn’t seen in 10 years.
It was an idyllic week, in retrospect. Mobile weather in April is beautiful, and on the last day I drove with the top down to downtown Mobile to meet one of my high school chums. She works at a famous hotel and I jumped at the chance to go back there just for the atmosphere and catching up and seeing an old face.
As my car crept under the arching trees on Dauphin Street, I saw younger versions of myself on every sidewalk -- specifically the girl I was back in college, that relentless, driven college newspaper arts editor who dreamed of living in New York. I could only sigh at her visage and say: “Are we ever really happy?” and “What the hell happened to me?” “Can you ever go home again?”
I reached the hotel restaurant at noon, where my friend was already waiting. She had the same posture, hair and look as she had many years ago. No time lost between us as we rehashed the last ten years. Unlike me, she’d managed to have a good, stable relationship with someone and they were saving up for a wedding and a house. I was glad to see her happy. Post lunch we darted around the hotel lobby and ballrooms. We opened the door to their grandest one where the lights were out, the tables covered in cloth, our voices echoed through the space from wall to wall.
I had an hour to spare before my next high school classmate reunion at a coffee shop so I stopped in Space 301, a contemporary art space that had opened when I was in college. I covered it heavily way back when but hadn’t visited it since moving to New York.
As I expected, the gallery was empty. A young girl sat at the front desk.
“What’s on right now?” I asked her.
“Well, right now there’s this… thing,” she waved her hand at the green graphics on the walls and chalkboards. “then do you hear that noise? That’s the video installation. It’s the last day it’s up.”
I looked beyond the front portion of the gallery to a big back room, I could hear loud grating sounds. I thanked her and started walking.
“That thing” up on the walls was an exhibit devoted to Mobile. Gigantic chalkboards prompted people to make comments on Mobile’s growth or progress. The chalkboards were covered with scrawling complaints. I wasn’t surprised.
Mobile lost its charm for me when I realized that it would always be reaching for bigger and better. They gave everything a good college try – they built a cruise terminal for “revenue” and tourism and abandoned it and put money into of parks, and museums that remained empty and hoped for sports teams that died fast and just kept building. All the shiny new developments or buildings remain largely unappreciated. Ironically, the dialogue about this growth and revenue and tourism is still a hot topic for citizens.
Mobilian’s always walk around saying, “Yeah, Mobile’s got a lot of potential,” but potential is a very dangerous thing. It keeps us chasing emotionally unavailable men, and buying flawed vintage goods, and hiring novices. Potential makes us believe that something could be better, but we forget about the risk, the other probable outcome (read: failure). It’s an easy time suck to wait around for something to be what you want it to be. Or you could just get something that already is. For years I exhausted myself trying to make change in Mobile, but it didn’t happen, and I realized quickly that all the things I wanted in a city were somewhere else. It’s a heartbreaking revelation to have. I stood in front of the chalkboard exhibit remembering exactly what made me board a plane on December 15, 2007 and also the very thing that made it difficult to leave.
In a farther room, I could hear music from the video installation. I followed the path to a big warehouse sized room with high ceilings and unfinished walls with concrete floors. A video of animation was swirling on all sides, the second movement of the Poulenc Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, FP:146, was playing.
Immediately I was taken with it. The music was so beautiful, the scenes were engaging. For the first time in a long time there was a feeling inside of me that I was pleased with myself and I didn’t know why.
“I may never be this way again – this girl, at this age, in this room having this moment,” I said. I started to cry in my sappy, pathetic, “Ariel” way where I over think every moment in a bizarre hyper-introspection. I’m the type of person who seeks keys, doors, conclusions, relationships. I’ll stick my neck out for a window into the past if I can get it.
I watched the installation five times. (I would learn later that it was Xavier de Richemont’s “Hokushima”.) It was ironic that I’d spent last April in the Lourve and frequented the museums in New York, but took a trip back to Alabama to find something that really moved me.
I drove west on Old Shell Road and took great pains to make sure I passed my high school and my grade school (all on the same few blocks). I arrived at the town’s cutest coffee shop, Carpe Diem, for my meeting with Rach. I ran into a high school friend of my sisters, L., who used to hang out religiously at Carpe Diem every Saturday night. It was delightful to see him in a place that I’ve always associated him with. Some things never change.
“He was the resident troubadour at all my sister’s house parties,” I said when introducing him to Rach.
He laughed. “That’s a good way of putting it.”
The three of us had a fun discussion. Rach had moved to Florida and worked as an aeronautical engineer. L. was considering going to Portland -- “everything is cleaner” -- or maybe moving to Asia to teach English.
“New York is great but it’s just so dense and congested, so many people all the time,” he said. With the way everyone in Mobile hemmed and hawed over me living in New York, you’d think New York was a war zone that I had just returned from. I threw my head back and laughed.
“I like the craziness,” I said.
A few hours later, I reluctantly I gave Rach a hug goodbye and shook L’s hand. I thought deeply about my afternoon on the drive back through Springhill. The sun was setting and putting pink light in the flora overhead. I tried to come up with the right phrase to describe the day, but it was a silly idea. It was time to stop ruining it by picking it apart.
It was time to shut up and enjoy the oak trees.