I Am The Jefferson County Courthouse

It’s safe in my head—clacking that typewriter, striking and singing
across my temple—belonging nowhere else on earth anymore
but my press room, my courthouse, being enlarged in my amazement.
Yes—Sheriff MacDowell is there
looking out the wide window of his basement,
resting both rough-shod feet on a 50-year-old roll-top
imaginary desk, hiccupping amidst the cigar smoke.
He is thinking—all over this county
deputies are serving warrants, five dollars a service,
in mud-spattered old Fords,
investigating murders, socking the suspects,
thinking up dumb answers to give
to smart defense attorneys showing off for juries,
buying Camels from bootleggers
in falling-down general stores covered with Retonga signs,
the sinks of galvanized iron set
on tanks of seething smelly mash.
He’s thinking of this network of crime
sluicing for miles to Warrior and Birmingport–
as he watches—his eyes closed, he knows all,
like the Sphinx, he does nothing, thinks everything.
Like the Sphinx, his nose is eaten away by acne.

Every morning the black ladies in blue domestic,
the white-trash ladies in phony leopard-skin
are hurrying past in my head, twittering like barnswifts
in the flyway, blocking the passage to Judge Boner’s court
getting ready to call each other “bitchy,”
to stand in a circle shouting “yessir” to the prosecutor,
puffing out his throat there, glaring power,
his skinny rump on the desk of the shorthand clerk.
This is his lily pad, from which he addresses
a green pond of obedient bullfrogs.  They crouch out front,
waiting for him to signal.  Then they will sing.

Today, the judge tells him—you—be quiet now–
the judge is going to speak–
it’s Decoration day, he will deliver the annual oration.
All year long he crouches behind that bench.
Now we shall see what he looks like!
Resting his pear-shaped paunch like a ripe fruit
on his blotter, he does not mumble,
“case dismissed for lack of evidence”
or “$25 and costs, pay the clerk.
Today, instead, he remembers how he was a doughboy,
and what a privilege, to be this crowd of citizens we are
star-spangled over by that mighty, motionless
banner gathering coal-smoke there!
We gawk.  He spits, then sits down.
The Chairman of the Democratic Committee
is now to be bound over for rigging election returns–
and the drivers of two tow trucks are standing there to be fined
for shooting it out at a traffic accident with signal flares,
and standing together to punch the highway patrol.

Here comes the governor’s nephew, charged with sodomy!
Hooray!—case dismissed for lack of evidence!
Still, there is much more ready to be brought up
in the cockpit of my divided remembrance—how, far up–
past the tallest elevator, each with its paraplegic doughboy,
veteran pilot soaring like a hawk, we fly to the solicitor’s aerie!
His office with its weary view of stars and coke convertors,
of Woodrow Wilson Park below and beyond, the lair
of his gloating nemeses across the way in City Hall.
There’s nothing between us and Heaven but the jail,
with the prisoners overhead to keep us humble.
(He requests them not to sing.)
We never hear them but always know they’re there.
This is our Mr. Perry, he spares a moment for us always
in our dreams, out of his jinxed war with evil and Bull Connor,
senility and Judge Wheeler, all those multiple
assaults of intractable human nature,
the surprises of the hundred kinds of dumbness
ready to fall on you from behind with a leaded weight.
And I think—it’s the burden of being too bright
gives him wrinkles and tired soft patches about the eyes
–that he cares about things—that he softly, kindly
asks us what can be done for us today.  Being honest
he knows there is nothing much
either of us could ever do for the other.
Both of us wonder why.

In a quiet corner of the imagination there is a press room,
filled with black machines.
Out the window is a giant lintel, over the east door.
A workman is innocently embracing a farmer, and both
rest and malinger under the knee of the brawny lady
blindfold, and by that token, called by everyone Justice.
Press Room!—my heart folds under—den of ancient
falling apart clickety-clackety typewriters.
Place of never resting more than a minute.
Always we hurry again down yellow, terrazzo, Talladega Marble floors
clacking our heels, to the Deputy’s washroom
—off to read the latest graffiti–
which tells me somebody—is sleeping with his own daughter,
that’s today’s news—and has since she was thirteen,
and she’s a wonderful screw,
would anyone else come along to join and let him see?
And after that we stop for coffee to talk with a Chancery Judge.
He just today disposed of twenty-five million dollars.
–We come away all silvery feeling toe to chin.
–And sit and think about it all, over lunch –.
There in my head these persons and places
take on their own life, assort themselves
in their appointed directions and positions–
to the east, the jittery plaster faced highway patrolman
checking new drivers, hoping they’ll not
collapse him beneath a turning postal van.
To the north, Jimmy, the Deputy Coroner,
driving to work with photos of gunshot heads and slashed throats.
–Through the revolving door of the courthouse
junior clerks escaping for coffee with plump legal typists,
and even this moment, perhaps, the Chairman
of the Personnel Board—meditating whether to call the County Auditor
–dolt—bindle headed ass!—for a front-page fight!
Off to the west, the red and white calla lilies
nod shyly under the tulip and locust trees
whispering like so many bored distracted gentry.
The litigants burp and wad the paper from lunch.
To the south, Miss Frances Mallom’s students
sing see-saws and ladders up in the Ridgeley.

Unchanged, in that Press Room I have by me,
Ed Strickland is busy typing out a scoop.
He’s scooping us, what do we care?
Tomorrow we’ll scoop him.
The creaky machine is flying,
cranking out the lies and appearances,
the happenings that have nothing to do
with what is really going on that you can see—
I sit there and make the novel of my memory.
We are all the plots.
Innocent of compassion or desire or greed
–see, we’ve finished, we type two stars
at the bottom of the page.  Life!  Life!
Captured at last, tied with an inky ribbon.
We exult and crack our heels.
Something is knocking upon our head upon the door.
Laughing, the copy boy comes in and cracks his gum.

© 1981, by Andrew Glaze. From I AM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY COURTHOUSE


In an interview with Steven Ford Brown, my father said, “I wrote that poem as a sort of rhapsody. A time when I was happy, young and filled with a sense of joy, humor and perversity of life. I could not experience the same events now with such a sense of flying over them. I would inevitably be drawn into the suffering which those external events signify. I would experience more of the pain. One has to choose the tone of a poem of course. This one I wanted to be a flight of joy. A memory.” Brown then described the poem as “Panoramic”, which seems extremely appropriate, like a movie camera scanning and capturing a period of time in history.  

 But how the heck did a poet end up working in a Birmingham Courthouse?

Having arrived late to WW2, my father had to wait to be shipped home again. Once home, he initially accepted an invitation to do graduate work at Stanford in California as part of a program run by Wallace Stegner. After six months he concluded he did not want to become a teacher, and returned to Birmingham.

 Figuring the logical thing to do with his writing skills was to work for the local newspaper, he became a Junior Reporter.  “Through editor Jimmy Mills, I got a job as a reporter on the old Birmingham Post, later the Post-Herald.”

Strangely enough, his first major story was one he couldn’t write.
“When Robert Frost came through for his annual reading at Birmingham Southern, he asked if someone could contact me and invite me to spend a day with him. The good Professor, who called me, was obviously baffled. Who in the world was Andrew Glaze? Why in the world would Robert Frost want to see him? Frost was notoriously impatient with younger poets, but he was kind to me, I’ve always suspected, because I never asked him to read my manuscripts. And he knew I’d never write a news feature about him. It was treacherous to my responsibilities as a reporter, but anyway, it made for a nice day.”  (To learn more about my father’s relationship with Robert Frost, you can read the poem and blog entry titled, “Mr. Frost”.)

 Clearly, my father worked for the Newspaper Entertainment Desk at some point. We have press photos of him interviewing both a parakeet and a movie star German Shepard. For many years my father regaled us with his story of interviewing a teenage aerialist gymnast  visiting Birmingham with a Circus. “We took her up to the roof so our photographer could capture action photos of her. The next thing we knew, she hopped up onto the parapet wall and nearly gave us heart failure.” 

Oddly enough, that didn’t turn out to be the end of the story. In 1971, for 9 months, I came home from dancing in Europe and joined the (no-longer existent) ballet company of Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. “Radio City”, showed one movie at a time for several weeks, four to five times per day, and offered a live show in between movie showings. Each show had a main theme running through it and offered a mishmash of ballet, singers, guest performers of all types, and The Rockettes (a synchronized tap dance and kick line of statuesque and long legged females who are all over 5’7” tall).

Dancing at Radio City Music Hall was a quick and easy way to make extremely good money, without a long term contract, although doing 4 to 5 shows per day made it challenging to do ballet classes and stay in condition.  At one point we did a circus themed show. A Las Vegas choreographer was brought in to teach us a jazz routine in which we were supposed to be tigers. Our unusual but creative costumes had stripes, headpieces with black feathers that shed all over the place, and skin toned fishnet tights. As for the rest of the show, I vaguely remember an act involving spinning plates on sticks, and then there was a trapeze aerialist.  She didn’t swing on the trapeze as much as creatively and gracefully hang by one leg, one foot, one arm, one hand, and so forth, all without a net below her (granted she wasn’t more than 9 feet off the ground). Pretty, with a lovely figure, she was foreign born and very pleasant to talk to. 

 My parents always came to see me in each of our productions, but after this particular show my father was very animated and excited. “That’s HER!  I’m sure that’s the girl I interviewed on the roof of the Birmingham Post Herald building, the one who suddenly hopped up onto the parapet!”  I confirmed this with her later that week, to my father’s great satisfaction.

Life at the newspaper in Birmingham had its moments, some entirely unintentional. My mother used to tell a story of a colleague of my father’s whose name she remembered, but I do not, who was sent to write about a Mario Lanza concert in Birmingham. For some reason, he ended up downstairs or below the stage, opening doors in search of a telephone. Instead, he stumbled across a young fellow manning a tape recorder. They chatted briefly and the young man said he was playing a tape of Lanza for the performance. The reporter didn’t think much about it (my mother said he’d never been one of the brightest employees), left, wrote his story and casually mentioned the fact that a tape recorder was being used. All hell broke loose, because up to that point Mario Lanza had managed to hide the fact that he’d lost his voice and was lip syncing his concert tour. It quickly became an international scandal.

 By the mid-1950’s, my father was assigned to report activities at the Jefferson County Courthouse.  Some of the time he covered things like, “Beechwood Homeowners Go To Court, to block expansion of airport, by Andrew Glaze Jr, August, 1956”.  But by the mid-50’s the Civil Rights Movement was evolving and Birmingham was at the heart of it. Alabama still had very specific Jim Crow laws of segregation between black and white citizens. Blacks were relegated to their own bathrooms, benches, water fountains, restaurants, the back of the public buses, and the balcony of churches that were run by whites.  Having them march in large groups, day or night, even peacefully demanding to be treated as equals, was considered illegal and threatening. “Bull” Connor was a fervent anti-segregationist who held the political position of Commissioner of Public Safety, and he was arresting protesters on a constant basis. My father was reporting on these events both inside and out of the court room.

The effort to suppress Civil Rights Protesters was just as futile as the effort to keep the airport from expanding, but as part of his job, Connor was allowed oversight of both the Fire and Police Departments and he used that power to his full advantage. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, “He became an international symbol of institutional racism. Bull Connor directed the use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against civil rights activists; child protesters were also subject to these attacks. National media broadcast these tactics on television, horrifying much of the country. The outrages served as catalysts for major social and legal change in the Southern United States and contributed to passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”. 

But in the mid-1950’s, Connor could be as much of a bully as he wanted, and the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper was one of the few places that maintained independence and complete honesty.  “My boss, Duard LeGrand, the City Editor at the Post Herald, was one of the best people I’ve ever known. When my days as a courthouse reporter brushed up against the race issue, and I had to give controversial testimony, he snatched me out of what he thought might be a dangerous situation, and gave the courthouse beat to another reporter.  But that couple of years was fun.”

The “controversial testimony” was as a witness to the beating of a black man, by white police. Afterwards, my father said a sheriff who was involved plaintively reproached, “Now, why did you have to go and do that Mr. Glaze?”  He seemed genuinely perplexed.  In 2010, a book titled, Speak Truth to Power; the story of Charles Patrick, a Civil Rights Pioneer, was written about the racial turbulence of that time and my father was interviewed both about newspaper articles from the Times-Herald at that time, and his testimony at the trial.

My parents decided this was a good time to get out of Dodge. By the following summer, we were living in New York City. 

In closing, I should mention the Art Deco facade of the Jefferson County Courthouse, which has a controversy of its own.  In 2010, my brother created and posted an audio recording of my father reading, “I Am The Jefferson County Courthouse” to Youtube.com.  It featured a photograph of the courthouse.
One day he received a question,
Will you tell me about the swastikas on the court house?
!!!!!!—————Swastikas???????
After a bit of research he replied:
“The broken cross images on the courthouse were carved in the late 1920s and are actually a Native American symbol that was used by a tribe that had inhabited the area. The symbols were placed in tribute to that tribe.”

Considering the fact that the original Native American residents from that area were displaced to begin with, I guess the phrase, “Karma will eventually catch up” might be considered appropriate when referring to the design debacle.

……E. Glaze

Jeff co courthouse steps
The left side of the marble base on the left shows the Native American design that causes controversy, despite the fact that it was built in the 1920’s. These are the steps to the main entrance of the building, although the brass facade is a relatively new addition.

Andrew Glaze 1955 B'ham post herald. Interview with a parakeet.
“Interview with a Parakeet”. Birmingham Post-Herald press photo, mid-1950’s. I’m pretty sure this was a parakeet that talked and belonged to an acquaintance of my father’s.  I remember him talking about a parakeet that sang a popular Hank Williams song.

 

 

 

 

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