Close to shopping

I’m at the taco truck yesterday with a colleague who moved here two years ago. We’re comparing notes on places to go that are an antidote to a bland and hideous landscape of strip malls, or places to eat that aren’t The Olive Garden, home of Steak Fonduta.

Is it the newishness of this city that is its downside, the absence of texture, the lack of a higher aesthetic sensibility, or my failure to have discovered its dives? Definitely there is a lack of city planning beyond controlling traffic that gives off a dispiriting randomness. The great thing is the space but then the space lends to sprawl.

A wall decorated with battered license plates is a step in right direction, like at the Faunsdale Bar & Grill (across the street from City Hall, Faunsdale, AL, miles from here), which supplies crawfish for the crawfish festival, or the local branch of Tuscaloosa-based Dreamland BBQ, which moves towards more deliberate down-hominess, but makes up for it with stacks of white bread and barbecue sauce as a complimentary appetizer. But take a step further, with the bottled secret sauce and the T-shirt sales and you’re into corporate theming, a sort of Universal Studios version of the Deep South.

When people say the fries are really good and then in the next sentence define that goodness as crispy, curly, cajun-spiced fries, you realize that you are your own barometer in all things.

My colleague tells me that while househunting they viewed many listings with a triad of virtues: proximity t0 the school where we work, to a popular public elementary school, and to shopping. It took him a while to work out that this meant the Super Target, which is in a vast former pasture now also home to a Barnes & Noble, Marshalls and Pet Smart.

In London, a dead giveaway that the estate agents hated a place was when they said it provided “easy access to The North.” That meant it was on the congested Edgware Road or the polluted vortex of Swiss Cottage. London traffic was bad, but not so bad one had to live on the highway to escape.

But being close to Super Target really is a plus. You actually do go there. And, come on, the estate agents bake for open houses.

There is no shopping street or district here, no neighborhood in which you might happily  alight and wander in and out of stores. You arrive at Super Target with grim determination. The parking lot is so vast and hot that, even though it offends your urban sensibilities, you drive from one store to the next. There is so much to buy. You will never adequately fill your needs.

A high-end mall in the next town over tries to create an urban feel by having outdoor sidewalks with piped in music. It doesn’t reek of acrylic nail varnish like our neighborhood mall and they have an Apple store. They used to offer the Venetian canal experience, but the gondolier quit.

Shopping occupies a huge part of the weekend. The girls want to spend their allowances, the swimmer needs to buy green candy for her swim team “big sister.” I am writing the first part of this post and being faced with the specter of actually having to go to Target so I put my foot down. This is technically a city and theoretically we have options. I can moan about Target for the rest of my life, but as we used to say to each other in college, Get over it.

When you’re in a new place, every time you do a new thing it requires some degree of planning, thus once something works you repeat it, thus ruts. Remember the old neighborhood my daughters wanted to live in with the small houses and the porches? Back there, behind some public housing, is a textile mill that has been converted into a community theater/arts center and they have¬† a Saturday market.

I think my children have missed elevators. They enjoyed the ride up in a manually operated, great wooden cage. We met a young woman and her pet rabbit — a rescue bunny that was a gift from her housemates. A craftsperson explains how she melts down candles and remolds them into skulls. There are banjos made out of cigar boxes. I bought a vintage paisley dress for $17 and a used copy of Lush Life by Richard Price. My daughter bought a macrame and iridescent green bead necklace for her swim sister and some handmade peppermint lotion. We are used to shopping this way, from stall to stall, and it is funny to think that all this time it has been going on and we finally discovered it.

As we are leaving, the city shuttle bus is coming down the road from the direction of the taco truck. I haven’t figured out the bus yet, but it covers more ground than I have given it credit for. The route banner on the front reads “Tourist Loop.” If my life were an art film, the bus would appear from time to time, as it does, and deliver such a message so that one could ponder one’s own direction, the contradiction in terms and the dramatic timing of the event. Oh, and the great detail that might not make it into the film because it is too over the top is that the sides of the bus are emblazoned by an ad for one of the local bail bondsmen.

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