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Downtown Birmingham, Waiting to Exhale 

There may be nothing more eerie than a chiming ice-cream truck on a Saturday morning in downtown Birmingham, Ala. Not a soul on the street, except for a homeless man in the distance leaning against the freshly scraped facade of an old building with empty storefront windows. The life that once agitated here must have been etherized or buried below the sidewalks. Only a single barber pole has escaped the mayonnaising of the place, but it's been left there on purpose, an orphaned skeuomorph. One of the storefronts has the name of an architectural firm gold-lettered on it, but the actual business seems to be still outside the area, moving at a snail's pace through shopping malls and new developments where the temptation to remain is great. In the local newsweekly, the editor complains that the City Council just subsidized a grocery chain store for three quarters of a million dollars in an area where there are already three of them. Not around here, though. I walked 12 huge blocks in search of coffee, paying no mind to the useless traffic lights, and I couldn't find any. The homeless man vanished after the ice-cream truck passed. The chime died abruptly.

Birmingham was founded by absentee steel moguls from the East. The ruler of the town is Vulcan, a Greek-styled sculpture of a giant bearded man who now stands bare-buttocked on a pedestal, turning his back, variously, on parts of the city. He's turned around every few years by the city fathers to express current hopes or displeasure. I tried to locate his buttocks from downtown, but I didn't see what the locals call "the moon over Birmingham." Maybe he's a part-timer. It is said that the great Vulcan once had a light on his head that turned green every time someone died. Now he just holds an arrow in his hand, having at various times gripped a hammer, a suffragette, an ACLU lawyer, a tube of toothpaste and a corkscrew. Don't underestimate the arrow, though: Vulcan is no Cupid. That thing can hurt. And those buttocks! The latest absence from the city are the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were court-ordered out of town. I asked where they were now and was told that they were on the back of a truck being displayed in small towns all over the South. People in those towns were buying tickets to see the exiled words of Moses. On the other hand, everyone I met outside the deserted area was very nice and carried a full pail of syrup on one arm, just in case of sudden unpleasantness. Highly recommended weekend for Nietzschean melancholists and fans of the neutron bomb.

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