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DAY 11

BESSEMER


Why does the giant roadside cross give me such anxiety? I have never been afraid of calvary shrines. There were plenty of them, practically at all intersections, in my childhood in Normandy. It must be the aggressively proselytizing business aspect, nothing quietly traditional here. It’s one of Birmingham’s mega churches. I must really be in the South.
In the same category, there is also a real space rocket in an upright position. It should really be in a museum. I find such roadside installations to be dangerous visual distractions!

RIBS N’ BLUES


Bessemer, Alabama… I have barely left the car that I already have a god feeling. We are really far here. I have an address in my pocket. Alabama’s last Juke Joint. That’s what brings me here: Mr. Gip.

The first place where I inquire is a kind of historical monument that is a bit ritzy, an old restaurant in right  “downtown”, on the main street where no one comes since the 50s. Economic activities have since relocated a few blocs away to strip malls and chain stores.

I ask the way to Gip’s. The response comes in a cold and slightly annoyed tone but I am given a copy of the route. I stop by a pharmacy to ask my way again. Everything is closed, no windows, no way to see outside because of the debilitating heat. The pharmacist is charming and tells me that Gip is a “good man“. I follow the instructions. So I cross the “other side of the rail track“, literally, to the black part of the city. Here this expression is not an image. It’s a bit of a desolate area.

There seems to be someone in the trailer home ahead of me. I first see two legs and socks; a strong black woman with glasses is looking down, not really the smiley kind. I wave to know if I can come closer (I am paranoid by the thought that everyone has guns around here). Before I know it, we are smoking, they offer me a beer, I feel like we’re getting along.

The lady’s name is Bay. She introduces me to a friend who just arrived, a short plump and friendly blonde. We move onto some kind of sponge cake. I come to understand that they are neighbours who have actually taken Mr. Gip –no longer a youth –under their protective wings. They are good friends, and decide to help me. They find the idea fun and they’re starting to believe me. I wonder if wouldn’t be a good idea to film them with Gip, beyond just spending a great evening with them?

Everything is negotiable. If I bring the ribs, I’m allowed to film them tonight. They send me to a good address, not the restaurant where I had landed before coming to see them, which was a real tourist trap. Rather, they send me to a small neighbourhood’s joint. A gem. It’s minimal, a little torn-up and empty, super clean, and minimum service. On the wall, I notice the famous singing fish next to an image straight out of the civil rights. I am fascinated by the juxtaposition, as I wait for my ribs.

I spend the afternoon wandering around the deserted city. In fact, much like the entire country, there are several cities that are juxtaposed yet don’t seem to have any relationship. The new neighbouring white town made of malls and clean small houses for the middle class. It could be anywhere in the world: in the suburbs of Toronto, Paris or even Shanghai. The new downtown, with a major artery where a mix of cheap international brand signs such as “Waffle House”, IHOP, and McDonald’s alternate with more traditional establishments.

The old city downtown is deserted but reflects some poetry. Here, a tourist will find American myths, although they have seen better days. Closed windows. There is a small office that specializes in bail loans. This indicates the presence of a large number of litigants among the clientele who can’t afford bail money. Ironically, the owner has displayed an old sign that still says “Shoeshine: 10 cts”. In the old diner that sells hot dogs, an evangelical poster announces the end of the world for the previous year.

The art of double businesses seems to be very common, such as this carwash/barber business where I go to freshen up. An old Motown song is playing from a radio in the laundromat next door while little girls play hopscotch as the laundry dries. After this little excursion, I go back to Gip’s place with my styrofoam boxes of ribs.

GIP THE OLD BLUESMAN & HIS GUARDIAN ANGELS


There is a party tonight’s, but I quickly understand that there is some tension.

Gip’s is at the center of a controversy; the municipal government wants to shut down the place, one councilor in particular. It’s true that Gip sometimes hosts a few hundred people… right in his “garden”. Technically, this informal bar where people come to drink alcohol and possibly listen to music is not a real Juke Joint. There is nothing to sell here.

Since back in the 50s, Mr. Gip facilitates a somewhat permanent party on his private property, and people can bring their “own drink and food”. A donation is suggested to support the site.

At 93 years old, this old bluesman who’s still a gravedigger doesn’t live in poverty, as his hut would suggest. He is the owner of several cemeteries and surrounding land.

The accent though…I don’t quite understand all of what he says, but he gently shakes my knee while we sit in the shade sipping on our beers. Someone passes him several small plastic cups that he chugs down right away.

Meanwhile, I get acquainted with Max. He has the looks of a weary adventurer, khaki shorts and military hat, a large beer in hand. My first thought is that he’s a musician, but he’s actually a financial analyst. He inherited a great fortune and a mother whom he takes care of, she lives with Alzheimer’s disease since 9 years.  He just found a caretaker for his mother, and this is the first time he has gone out for more than three hours in years. Although he’s lived in this place for 50 years, he has never been here before. He found Gip’s by chance one day as he was hiking and was attracted the sound of the guitar. He will not leave again.

A few hours later Max, who’s had a little too much to drink, shows off his juggling flags skills. He always has these flags on him, for some reason… My ribs are getting cold in their boxes. I’m so used to eating on a “fixed on schedule”. I thought that we were going to eat at six, but it’s not until eleven o’clock at night, well after the evening started well, that I get to film Gip’s two guardian angel girlfriends feast on the ribs, after a little prayer, of course. Indeed, a small sign warns, “If you do not believe in Jesus, go to hell!” Gip has since gone to bed due to the little plastic cups.