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The Kindness of Strangers

August 12, 2012

Southern hospitality is no joke. Just about everybody we’ve encountered on this trip has been super friendly and helpful to the point where I’m starting to feel indebted. Birmingham, though, seemed to take it up a notch. I’ve already mentioned the kind lady at the Civil Rights Institute who pointed us, unsolicited, to the fantastic McWane Science Center, and the kind lady at McWane who let us in for free. What I haven’t mentioned yet is the kosher food fiasco and how it got resolved.

We spent shabbos in Memphis, but the plan was to get to Memphis pretty late on Friday afternoon, so I didn’t expect the kosher places to be open when we arrived. That meant we’d have to pick up food for shabbos in Birmingham, which the Interwebs says has an Israeli restaurant and a takeout place called Marie’s Sweet Cakes with prepared foods of all kinds. Just to be sure, while we were on the road from Montgomery to Birmingham Thursday I called the Israeli place. No answer. So I called the takeout place and asked Marie when she’d be open on Friday. She stammered before explaining that she’s not a storefront but a caterer who only cooks to order and was completely booked already for any weekend orders. She also explained that the Israeli restaurant closed down recently. Instead of ending the conversation there, she asked my circumstances so she could figure out a way to help. She said she could make me challah, and that a friend of hers in Memphis would pick up food for me there Friday morning and hold it for me until I got into town. I was blown away and didn’t feel comfortable asking strangers in another state go grocery shopping for me but Marie insisted and I didn’t have much other choice.

An hour later we arrived in Birmingham at Vulcan Park. While Sam looked around I made a few calls. As it turned out, a supermarket with a robust kosher counter in Memphis was going to be open longer than I thought and we’d be able to make it there Friday before they closed. I called Marie back to let her know she could tell her Memphis friend to stand down. Before she hung up she gave me directions to Memphis.

Friday morning our first stop was to pick up challah from Marie at the Chabad Center where she does her cooking. She wasn’t there, but the chef who was insisted on making us wait a couple of minutes so he could give us challahs that he was about to pull from the oven. (OMFG our car smelled incredible the whole drive to Memphis!) While we waited I told him everything that had happened, and he pulled a container of soup from the freezer and insisted on giving that to us, too.

Up next was the Birmingham Barons. The team is on the road all week, but the ballpark is one of the oldest in the country so I was hoping we could take a tour. When I called to ask the guy I spoke to said they don’t do tours but we could just come in and look around if we wanted. So we did. One employee let us in, led us around wherever we wanted to go, told us about the new stadium opening next year, and answered our questions. Another employee opened up the team store just for us and, after I asked the price of a mini helmet that turned out to be just for display, managed to find a second one and gave it to me for free.

Maybe because of their similar roles in the civil rights era or maybe just because I’m an idiot, I was expecting Birmingham and Montgomery to be pretty similar cities. I was very happy to be wrong. Birmingham is not only much bigger but also much nicer to look at and much more fun, and we were sad to leave.

Meanwhile when we got to Memphis (after a brief stop in Tupelo, Mississippi to visit the house where Elvis was born), we headed straight for the kosher supermarket counter. Another shopper pegged us for out-of-towners and showed us around the kosher stuff. Pretty soon we were well stocked for shabbos and at the checkout lane, but not before I found the greatest prize of all: a copy of Friday’s New York Times!

Shabbos was a bit of an adventure. Our hotel room, while nicer than any other on this trip, is laid out in such a way that left leaving strategically placed lights on impossible, leaving us largely in the dark. Also, we discovered Saturday morning that the stairs down to the first floor lead out of the building, and the only way to get back in is either with our electronic key or through the electronic sliding front door. So we were stuck in our mostly dark for much of the day. After lunch we were getting cabin fever and decided to head out to the outdoor pool and just hope for the best in terms of getting back inside when we were done.

For once the weather was fantastic: sunny and warm with little humidity. Helped in part by the long drive from Birmingham to Tupelo and Memphis, my body finally figured out on Friday that I haven’t been to the gym for two weeks and I haven’t been treating it very well, and it started falling apart. Sitting poolside for a few hours with a good book helped quite a bit. Meanwhile there’s a big family reunion staying at our hotel this weekend and a bunch of the reunion kids were in the pool with Sam. Lucky for him there was an odd number of them, so they quickly included him in their games and after a trying morning the afternoon turned out to be great for both of us. Even better, we didn’t have to wait long before someone came along to let us back inside.

The past few days have had their challenges but worked out pretty well, thanks in large part to some friendly, giving people we’ll never be able to adequately thank. So if you’re ever in Birmingham and in need of something to eat, call Marie. Just make sure to call her a couple of days in advance.

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