Memories of Belonging in Birmingham
Every time that I drive into the city limits of Birmingham my heart literally picks up a pace and I start remembering. As I think back on growing up in the “Magic City” I realize just how magical my childhood was in a city that I just took for granted.
My dad served in WWII and when he left to go overseas we moved in with my grandmother who lived on South Side in fact on 10th Street. We were Lebanese and the Lebanese and Italians all lived within the six blocks of Gable Square. My grandmother’s house was at the very end of the streetcar line so the conductor would turn around in front of our house and head back downtown. I was five and my brother John was two and mother would give the conductor a dime and put us on the streetcar to ride downtown and back. This was her break from us and we always looked forward to our afternoon ride.
When Dad came home from the war he bought a restaurant in Homewood called The Vulcan Restaurant the home of “Chicken in the Rough.” Chicken in the Rough was the first franchised chicken chain, way before KFC, and it consisted of ½ fried chicken, French fries, a roll, butter and honey for $1.00. If only Dad had been a true entrepreneur he could have been king of the chicken world.
Whether at home or in the restaurant, we never thought about eating food from our native country. We were trying to be Americans, not Lebanese.
We moved to Homewood and bought a house on Lancaster Road, a perfect place to grow up. We walked to Homewood on Saturday’s to go to the 1:00 movie. It cost fifteen cents to get in and we would get a dime to spend; A nickel for candy and a nickel for a coke. Life was good! We played in the street and only came in when mother called for dinner.
When I turned thirteen mother and dad decided to buy a new home. Vestavia had just opened up and there were actually only two streets opened at that time. When I drive up that way now I am amazed! There was nothing that way but farm land and Joe’s Restaurant that we thought was in the boonies. Dad tried to buy a lot in Vestavia, but because we were of Lebanese descent, they wouldn’t allow it. He then went to Mt. Brook to buy a home, but the same result. So we finally built a home in Hollywood which mom lived in until she died in 2000.
Once I was in high school it was the cool thing to do to meet in downtown Birmingham on Saturday, eat at the Woolworth counter and then go to the Alabama Theatre for the matinee. Before the show started the big organ would rise from its pit and entertain us for at least fifteen minutes before the movie started. I haven’t been back to the Alabama theatre in many years and I do wonder if that organ is still played.
Anytime that we wanted to go to town we would have to ride the bus. Mom wasn’t our driver. The bus of course was segregated, the whites in the front and the blacks in the back.
One summer I got so dark that the bus driver made me sit in the back of the bus. I thought that was hilarious but when I told my parents, they didn’t think it was funny at all. In fact when I think of it today I am sure that a parent today might have sued and been on national TV.
Birmingham has certainly grown but in many ways has stayed the same. When I went through Homewood on a recent trip I stayed at the Aloft which at one time was the Gold Nugget and I took a walk through memory lane. I went and visited J.L and Leo Shaia who own the men’s store there. My uncle owned the Squires Shop that is now an antique shop and I worked for him all through high school and college. I went to school with J.L and Leo, both older, I might add and their grandfather and my grandfather actually bought up a lot of Homewood before it was the chic place to be. Who knew they would one day call it Soho—with no Golden Nugget or Chicken in the Rough either!
Barbara Dooley finally managed to move out well past the Birmingham city limits—to Athens, Georgia, where she is still a radio personality and wife of former Georgia football coach Vince Dooley and outspoken mother of current Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.