The City That Never Woke Up (Birmingham, AL)

The shot that must be taken – photo provided by author

You win some, you lose some.

It’s always a bit of a crap shoot when you do a road trip with very little itinerary, and extremely light research. You hope that the towns you pick will open themselves up to you, and steer you toward more interesting encounters than you ever would have thought of yourself. Sometimes this approach pays off beyond your wildest dreams. Sometimes — ahem — sometimes, you just have to accept the randomness of the universe and make the most of the time anyway.

Which is where your choice in traveling partner is key. Never, ever skimp on that part.

My partner and I chose Birmingham as our first stop on our windy, twisty southern road trip last year (affectionately known as our Super Summer Southern Sizzler Tour). We arrived on Sunday night, checked into our hotel for the night, explored the downtown streets, and eventually found the one bar that was open late on Sundays.

Aw, southern cities are adorable, we mused, taking a few photos with our phones — until we were yelled at by a homeless gentleman who voiced his strong disapproval about aiming camera phones in his general direction. (I’m paraphrasing.)

Aw, southern cities are just like Detroit, we noted.

We had a couple of drinks in the bar, surrounded by periodic table wall art and other various chemistry and mathematical gimmicks … and a sign near the back indicating restrooms, darts, and despair. Oh my. Overall, it was a quiet, charming spot for a long conversation about religion and magic (you know, the usual casual fare).

Taking mixed drinks to a whole new level – photo provided by author

The evening came to a close, with much more excitement in store the next day. The plan was to immerse ourselves in civil rights history museums and galleries, sweet music to our photography and social justice hearts. We didn’t realize until we ventured out the next morning, that Monday is the day when everything is closed in Birmingham, Alabama.


It was hot, everything was closed, and the city itself seemed undercooked. Clearly some work had been invested to renovate the parks and the buildings to prepare for a renaissance of their downtown — but it was as though a bunch of money had been poured into the effort, and then someone pressed the pause button.

In retrospect, my experience of Birmingham felt a lot like it feels now, to walk through the streets of Detroit in the middle of a pandemic. So much money, effort, and energy put into making the city come alive again, and then — full stop. Like a cliffhanger ending to a promising character- and world-building season of TV, only to learn that the show has been canceled until further notice.

Yet despite all that, I had an amazing time. I was with my favorite traveling partner, and we were both definitely “watching the same film”, as they say. We did about an hour of street photography, shared our observations about the ghost-town ambiance, and laughed at our unfortunate timing.

We wanted to get a bite to eat before heading out. Our first stop was highly recommended by my Things to Do Google search — cocktails, salads, delectable sandwiches and soups — but apparently we had selected prime time corporate lunch break hour, and everything there was just a little bit too “froofy” for our taste. We opted for an air-conditioned deli that we’d passed on the way, where after a few minutes seated at our window seat table (score!) we realized that Depeche Mode’s “Violator” was playing, in its entirety, over the deli’s speakers (double score!). We knew we had chosen the right place.

I’m telling you, don’t ever skimp on your choice of traveling partner. Get that right, and even when you “lose”, it’s still very much a win.

5 thoughts on “The City That Never Woke Up (Birmingham, AL)

  1. I love this! I have extremely fond (also somewhat odd) memories of Birmingham as well, despite things not going at all “as planned”. Many travelers might have been tempted to write that experience off as a loss. To the point of this entry (and your overall theory, as a perspectivist) – You’ve absolutely won the traveling partner game, when you find someone who can roll with any development, and has the super power of turning losses, into total wins!

    Liked by 1 person

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