“A mess, a mess,” Eric says to nobody in particular. “Life’s a mess.”
We are sitting in my car in Eric’s driveway, and he has just finished explaining his legal troubles to me. The history of Hollywood, AL is not all sunshine and nuclear energy stations, it turns out. Eric’s family has lived in town for over a century – hell, they owned a good part of it for most of that time.
I met Eric by chance through his neighbor, and we wound up driving through town (and around the Bellefonte plant and the nearby river) together. He showed me the cemetery where some of the town’s oldest residents are buried, some of their headstones engraved with strange masonic symbols he couldn’t explain. We also went by a house owned by Eric’s family where Jesse James once stayed. The house is abandoned now, ever since Eric’s uncle was killed there several years ago.
This sort of thing – the shadow cast by the façade of the sleepy southern town where nothing happens – is the stuff Eric reveals to me over the course of the day. The town’s former mayor, who Eric will only refer to as ‘Corruption,’ applied for federal grants, won them, and then used the money for personal gain, not to improve the town. And not because Hollywood didn’t need improvement: the water in Hollywood’s water tower (informing you in no uncertain terms that this Hollywood is the real Hollywood) was badly contaminated. Eric pointed out houses in a loop around town, indicating homes where people died of lupus after being poisoned by the water supply. He tells me that during this period Corruption was having cases of bottled water delivered to her home, and that the problem was never permanently solved, just fixed temporarily: Hollywood now gets its water supply from Scottsboro.
And that water tower: it’s not alone in its defense of this Hollywood as the authentic one. By all accounts, this Hollywood was the first, though whether this enhances its authenticity is subjective. The mayor, after directing me to a stack of “We’re the real Hollywood” bumper stickers (which, strangely, don’t indicate which Hollywood they refer to), told me about a meeting convened in the 1980′s in Hollywood, Florida. Present at the meeting were the mayors of the thirteen Hollywoods in the US that have mayors.
I know, right? I need to find the minutes of that meeting. The goal of the conference was to plan a strategy to combat Hollywood, CA’s intended takeover of the word ‘Hollywood,’ as there were plans to copyright the term at the time. The League of Hollywood Mayors succeeded. Hollywood’s current mayor, Virginia Bergman, was not at the meeting, as it was before her time. When asked her favorite thing about Hollywood, she had no ready response. And no response later in the conversation after thinking about it. How refreshing, I thought, to hear some honesty from a politician instead of an empty lie. Mayor Bergman went on to explain to me that Hollywood is located just off of a highway that serves as a bustling corridor for the drug trade, a fact the town is hoping to combat by enlisting the help of a drug-sniffing dog.
Eric had prepared me for this part of the conversation: he made note of the meth labs dotting Hollywood. Occasionally, he told me, they burn down. I guess that’s an occupational hazard of operating a meth lab. Eric found this trend disturbing, as any citizen would, but Eric is particularly invested in Hollywood and its future, since so much of his history is tied up with the town. He’s run for mayor twice, and by his own admission may feel more passionately about the community than anyone else in the world.
On my way out of town, I spotted a huge black cow lounging in the shade behind a wire fence with another, more reasonably-sized cow. I pulled over and climbed through some tall grass toward the fence. The humidity was stifling, and the crickets sang ceaselessly, as they always seemed to do in Alabama, but now they were joined by some new insect that produced a slow, rhythmic clicking, like a metronome dictating the plodding pace of the day.
The cows were uncooperative. The larger of the two stood up and moved away from the fence as I approached, disturbing a vast cloud of tiny flies that had been lounging on his haunches. He was a corpulent thing, all dark skin and swishing tail. A comically outsized, bulbous penis dangled obscenely from his hindquarters.
As I leaned closer to the animal, I placed one hand on the fence to steady myself, and felt a short, sharp shock. Not as bad as the time I electrocuted myself changing a lightbulb at a cousin’s house, when time seemed to freeze and I imagined myself hovering momentarily in the air like a cartoon, but slightly worse than the worst accidental static shock you’ve gotten when shaking hands with someone wearing scratchy socks during winter in the middle of a big shag carpet.
“Ow!” I yelled, “Fuck you, cow!” I actually shook my first at him. The rhythmic clicking I’d heard was not, it turned out, a bug, but the sound of an electric current running through the fence. Grumpy but unhurt, I walked back across the street to my car where I looked down and noticed that both of my legs were peppered with tiny, pill-shaped bugs. How am I covered in ticks from one minute of standing in the grass? I wondered, but as I leaned down to brush them off, I realized they weren’t ticks. Which was good news.
They were nettles. Forty, fifty nettles. I spent five minutes untangling them from the hair on my legs and discarding them on the side of the road.
I had apprehensions about the type of people I would meet in Alabama. In the end, though, everyone I spoke to was unswervingly sweet and generous with their smiles and their time. I like Alabamans.
It’s the cows you have to watch out for.