“There really ain’t no difference
in Michigan and Maine
If you ain’t here to see this I’m missing just the same.” – Jason Isbell, ‘The Blue.’
I realize the absurdity of the notion, but there really ain’t no difference in Boston and Birmingham.
The former is the sixth-largest media market in America, while our Magic City is the 43rd. The former saw the American Revolution play out in its’ streets, while the latter was one of the largest stages of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s. The former is home to the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, the Bruins. The latter just moved its’ AA baseball team back downtown three years ago.
Boston counts John Adams, Samuel Adams, Aerosmith, Louisa May Alcott and Ben Affleck among its most famous natives, and that’s just among things that begin with the letter “A.” The most notable people from Birmingham are all athletes, but its’ at least an impressive list that includes Willie Mays, Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson and Vonetta Flowers.
But there was a very important thing that I realized this year when I accompanied my girlfriend to her hometown for the first time. Our geographical differences had always been a source of contention, with my Southern insulation and subsequent instillation of shame the most guilty party. I’m boastfully proud of where I’m from, where I grew up – but I had always been led to believe that we were looked down upon. And I don’t think that’s entirely false, even now, but it’s not entirely what I believed it to be, either.
Boston is old. It’s really, really, really old. And the buildings in that city are 300 or 400 years old. Birmingham is barely over a century old. It’s probably one of the youngest parts of Alabama. And the buildings here are…not old. That all seems like common sense if you studied American History at any point in high school, but it absolutely doesn’t sink in until you have seen it in person. And it probably also seems pretty basic – yeah, I’m 33-years-old and I had never genuinely toured any part of the Northeastern states or New England until this year. So forgive Blake Clampett for walking around and looking up at stuff in disbelief. “Golly! It’s a subway that goes on top of the ground too! How many Dunkin Donuts you reckon a place can have? Shoot fire! Dang y’all don’t need central air conditioning? Heck.”
I mean, Harvard University was established in 1636. My alma mater, Auburn University (East Alabama Male College, Alabama Polytechnic Institute), was established in 1856; 220 years later. Fenway Park was built in 1912. And while that was two years after Rickwood Field, the latter hasn’t been used regularly since 1987 and the former has fielded one of the most popular professional sports franchises in America every year since. Boston is really, really old.
That’s what makes Boston undeniably different from Alabama. It has a lot of famous natives, a lot of old sports teams – hell, it has a lot of people. Because there was a point in our American History where people were only in, like, four places, and Boston was one of them. So those people had sex and people after them kept having sex and now here we are. Boston is really, really old and Boston houses a whole lot of people. I came from Native Americans or the Dutch or something like that. Almost no Southerner has a really cool story of their forefathers immigrating. Which is probably why they also have such a difficult time wrapping their heads around outsiders seeking better opportunity for their families by coming here.
But what makes Boston and Birmingham the same? The heart of its’ people. Boston is kind, but it’s also been bullied by people from other cities that think they’re superior. Boston is blue collar. Its’ busted its’ hump for everything it has and its’ done so in the name of family. Boston is fiercely proud of the sports teams that represent it, because those blue collar guys realize that their sports teams that represent them are what they’re better at than most of those bullies. Boston swears more in public because sometimes it gets really, really fucking cold.
I carry a chip on my shoulder because while I never personally starved, and while I personally had things pretty great, I grew up surrounded by poverty. And I didn’t know that then because I wasn’t taught to judge. I carry a chip on my shoulder on behalf of all of those people that couldn’t get out, and even on behalf of the ones that simply didn’t want to get out because it’s the only place that feels like home. I’m not sure that I could ever feel the same, but I empathize, and I have a louder voice.
That all came back this week when comedians rushed to judge Alabama for leaping to the forefront on the issue of Syrian immigration. We’re an easy target, what with our Southern drawl and resistance to change. But then, oh wait, Massachusetts did the same thing. The comedian has the loudest voice because so many came from Boston and New York. That’s when it becomes frustrating. “But they make fun of everybody!” Maybe, but it’s never as simultaneously harsh and socially acceptable as when they make fun of the South.
Before we left Boston, we visited my girlfriend’s 90+ year old grandma. She said to me, “Alabama? Well I’ve never been down there, but I always assumed they hated us.”
Yeah, samsies, grandma. Maybe if we could all sit down and talk it out, we’d realize we aren’t that different. Maybe a little prideful, maybe a little naive about what’s on the other side, maybe a little paranoid about how people that we’ve never met feel about us. But really not that different. Mostly the same.