A couple of weeks ago, our scooter had died its ninth death and we were back to being a one-car family so we all dropped Loverpants off at work. I didn’t have a plan and with a full day ahead in the company of two children who would gladly hook their veins up to the Netflix drip for hours, I needed to take them somewhere.
Loverpants’ office is south of where we live, so we just sort of kept driving south. I ran one of those
desperate ambiguous searches on the GPS, and every local attraction we had covered, thoroughly, with ample proof from the gift shops.
Up popped “Depot Railroad Museum,” a mere 30 mile drive in Stevenson, Alabama. Because, unknown town in the deep South that celebrates a heritage of the railways? That might be really fun, or scary, but no way could it be boring.
We got off the exit in Stevenson and I can’t explain the questions I was trying to reconcile while my children went uncharacteristically quiet in the backseat. When abject poverty is thrust in front of you, you might do what I do which is be absolutely overcome with curiosity and denial. When I come across places in America that have not only been forgotten but battered and left behind like an old dog, I am as interested in the story here as I am wanting to wish it away, wanting to refuse to believe that people in my own country, people who are my neighbors to the south are pushed this far to the margins. We are not talking just the occasional busted sofa on the porch but whole roofs collapsed and trailer park after poorly tended trailer park with signs that children, maybe even many children, live there.
I search myself. Like the simple explanation for all of this is tucked away inside of me and I can look at the boarded up windows of businesses and not only understand it, but explain it away. Just as I did when my mom drove us to St. Augustine’s hunger center once a month and we served the same people month after months for years, oftentimes people wearing the same clothes, and the same long, tired faces. My childhood assessment had this poverty thing all boiled down, tied up neat with a bow. The world, this city, this church just needed more food and more jobs helps and more people who cared, and maybe a few more mops to scrub all the dirt from the floors. Nevermind the systemic forces of addiction, recidivism, violence and abuse that cycle through generations and plow plow plow through communities whose voices are muffled, whose housing is redeveloped, whose very existence is terribly inconvenient to someone like me, someone who wants so badly to reduce this down to something of an aphorism so that it doesn’t make me feel so dang uncomfortable.
I want to teach my children that uncomfortable is rarely a negative, and so often it is the only feeling that prompts real and sustainable change.
The railroad museum in Stevenson, Alabama was hilarious and beautiful and impossible to capture. It resides right next to train tracks and a historic hotel (now function hall) that rattle and shake as the train passes by.
Stevenson, Alabama shook me up, too. The Main Street is a wide boulevard whereby one could shoot a canon in the middle of the day and not fear for hitting anyone or anything, save for the occasional delivery truck to the lone furniture store. Up and down the side streets are decrepit houses, rusted out trucks parked on lawns. I want to know more and I want to unknow what I already knew.
Our trip to Alabama was the last day before school began for Baby Girl. I had hoped to have done something significant that would sparkle in her memory like a well-crafted scrapbook page. Instead, we took a tour of what was effectively the dusty high school yearbook of Stevenson High School, class of 1919.
Then I thought, I really hope my kids remember this day, and not necessarily in a good way (“Wow, Mom was such a nutter! She took us on the craziest field trips!”) or bad way (“Wow. Mom was such a nutter. She took us on the craziest field trips.”) I just want them to remember that they had fun and ate junk food with their mom when they were little, but also that they explored and asked questions and did the unexpected, but not the insignificant.
Over the weekend Baby Girl said, “I really want to go back to that place in Alabama where we explored. We should go back and see that train museum sometime.”