Tag Archives: montgomery

Is Retail Dead?

Grandma Advertiser told us this week that Foshee Management is going to start in earnest on mixed-use properties on Dexter. They’re calling it the Montgomery Market District, which is a little odd because a) Dexter Avenue is a name known around the world and b) there’s no market there, unless they mean the slave market, which was right there, and they can’t possibly mean that, can they? Anyway, they’ve bought a domain name and set up a website for this part of town. This website informs us that Dexter used to be called Market Street. Perhaps it was renamed for a reason.

Quibbles about the name aside, the idea of retail returning to downtown is pretty exciting — especially given that it’s struggling around the city right now. The Look left Five Points for Zelda Road and is now shuttered. Talbots closed over there too, and there’s been no replacement for some time. M. Bagwell’s been closed so long we’ve forgotten what it looked like inside. Locally-owned hardware stores are vanishing. Ciao Bella moved down to that trailer/incubator down by the Alley; the Mulberry Street businesses seem to be in a constant state of turmoil with a few exceptions, perhaps because it’s hard to park over there. The Dandy Lion seemed so promising and is now suddenly closed. There’s a weird absence of retail in the Alley development itself. And although there are some bright spots (the Herb Chateau is a welcome new business, as is Hue Studio over in the A&P lofts, and Fairview Homebrew seems to be doing fine; of course we can’t mention everyone here, please don’t write), there’s just not a lot of places to buy interesting stuff around here. Which is weird.

Except that it’s not. This week The Atlantic ran a piece called “Radio Shack is Doomed (and So Is Retail)” that delivered some sobering facts about shopping. Amazon, it turns out, is more than three times more efficient at selling products than the competition. That’s part of the reason this chart (from the article) looks the way it does:

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This is part of why Zelda Road looks the way it does – tons of tutoring businesses, health places, food options, but not a lot of shops.

Ever since a trusted local business owner told us that retail was dead, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this matter. Driving around our town and others, we’ve asked each other: What store would you put there? What makes this street so cool and this other street not so cool? The answer seems to be a mix of establishments. Bars and restaurants are cool and all, but they’re generally more hopping at night. What about daytime options? What about contributing to the arts and culture vibe of a city? As much as we’re not into rank consumption, tangible things remain important to our lives, just like everyone else.

I know Montgomery’s not New Orleans, but one of the things that makes the French Quarter so fun is its abundance of awesome used bookstores. And other shops – not the big tourist/gator head/hot sauce emporiums, but places like the store where they hand loom rugs. We were in Memphis a year ago and visited a cool neighborhood with a great record store and a few other shops worth wandering into after we ate a great vegan meal and picked up an awesome cup of coffee. Down in Mobile, they’ve opened a big cavernous vintage/antique/junk shop type place downtown – it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. Birmingham’s Five Points has a great eyewear store, a shop with strange gifts, a health food market which covers all of your incense-and-hippie needs and an amazing record shop. The Second Avenue development has What’s On Second (highly, highly recommend) and a few other places to complement the bars, restaurants and cafes there. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue has an amazing mix of one-of-a-kind retail, food, bars and cafes, even with the recent addition of an Urban Outfitters.

There’s something about a well-curated shop or two that makes a neighborhood special. We’re not talking about a chain store; we’re talking about someone who lives in your neighborhood picking out things for sale that they think other people in the neighborhood might like. When you transact with this person, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re transacting with your neighborhood, engaging in a conversation whose currency is nominally monetary but even more important than mere coins and bills.

Up in Decatur (Morgan County), we wandered into a cool shop that combined a performance space with records, comics, vintage clothing and a few arcade games. This was perfect – the kind of place where you want to chat with the owner, spend some money, and even meet some people you might like to know. We think RAD! Vinyl Records Shop over on the Atlanta Highway is promising. Why didn’t that shop get tax credits invited downtown to make the Alley a more interesting place? As it is, it’s a drive-to destination, rather than someplace you  might shop before meeting friends for a drink or a meal. Retail is social; this is a major thing the big boxes miss and something Amazon will never capture. Sure, your trash bags or dishwashing detergent may not be a social purchase, but buying a well-made shirt or a vintage mirror might be. Or could be, which is the point here. Retail should be aspirational, not merely (only) transactional. As much as some of us make fun of the artisanal facial hair boutiques of Brooklyn, they do provide a particular retail experience not offered in the current market – these folks should be celebrated as entrepreneurs even as their sideburns are relentlessly mocked.

We’re not merchants and have never run a retail shop, but we keep asking ourselves what we would sell, given the chance. Sure, we’d love to run a bookstore – not to compete with Capitol Book & News, but to complement them. We know that record stores are having a hard time right now, but they have an awesome one down at the planned Seaside community in Florida. And we know Montgomery’s not the richest place in the world, but there are folks here with disposable income, especially if you give them well-priced stuff and a good shopping experience. We need more antidotes to Wal-Mart, something different and more human-scaled than Eastchase. It’s probably only a matter of time until Eastdale goes under too, then the city’s going to have another dead mall on its hands with no schools willing to move in. Is retail dead, or does it just suck?

Maybe people shop online not just because it’s convenient, but also because shopping is pretty unpleasant at the big box stores. Maybe the chain stores are too predictable, and you can find something more interesting online at Mod Cloth than you can at Ann Taylor. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Painted Pink over on Mulberry does it right, even if their clothes aren’t for you. They have outstanding customer service and great communication with the outside world (they post pictures of new clothing regularly on their Facebook page). When you go in there, even if it’s just to browse, you feel like you’re being let into the closet of someone with very specific taste. A great store is like a great museum: It’s specifically organized, with rotating exhibits and leaves you feeling good afterward, even if you didn’t buy anything.

But of course, you need to buy stuff. If you don’t, retail operations fail. We could set up a couture gowns store in the Alley, and everyone would come in and coo over the merch, and we’d be out of business before we could even make a single rent payment. So it’s clear that shops need to offer a mix of the affordable and the aspirational – heck, even Wal-Mart knows that. You might admire the new lawnmower but walk out with a deeply discounted pack of Axe Body Spray – still, they got you in the door and relieved you of some of your monthly paycheck.

For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. On a recent long layover in the Minneapolis airport, I was delighted to find a store specializing in local products. This was evidently the product of a special initiative. It makes the airport about a million times better (that, and they have pinball machines on every concourse). It’s too much to ask for something similar at Montgomery’s tiny airport, but it should certainly be part of the Market District, if not the Alley. You could say that there’s not enough local craftwork to fill a permanent store, but I’m sure that’s false. Even if it’s true, that’s a chicken-egg problem. Artists are encouraged to produce when there’s an actual place to sell their stuff, not clawing for attention on Etsy.

Also there should be a store that sells weird stuff. A mix of vintage and new, like the Tip Top Atomic Shop in Milwaukee would be cool, even if rockabilly’s not your thing. One key will be not to poach other retailers, even though I just said we think RAD! Records should be in a different place. Maybe Montgomery can’t support two record stores just yet, but if you want to build a vibe downtown where young people want to live and work, you need to give them places that sell cool things to spend money on. Definitely a junk shop should be high on the list – lofts need interesting furniture, and paying top dollar for loft living means that you might need a slightly cheaper coffee table.

Obviously, there should be a cool coffee shop. It should also sell stuff, like books and stationary and cards. It should also have a performance space and a pinball machine or two, while we’re dreaming. Chris’ Hot Dogs shouldn’t have a pinball monopoly in this town any longer! The Standard up in Birmingham is awfully nice as a model for using old space, but could be combined with a little retail for added interest here.

Most importantly, there needs to be some kind of grocery store — one kind of retail that will never go out of style and isn’t likely to be eroded by online buying. The lack of one stymied downtown living in Los Angeles for many years. Sure, there’s not going to be a Publix downtown anytime soon, but there needs to be a functional market where people can get milk and eggs and canned goods without paying a fortune. The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.

On Dexter Avenue, which seems like an improvement over Market Street even as you can learn (as we did) how Andrew Dexter got the street named after him. This guy, in an alternative future a Apex Predator-level Goldman Sachs employee, was a Rhode Island banker who bought sight unseen land in Alabama and moved in aggressively to found New Philadelphia, across the fountain from Alabama Town. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown streets meet at weird angles, Dexter’s partly to blame. At first, Montgomery was two cities that merged around an Artesian well (also the slave market site) – read Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow for more. In any case, this guy was kind of a swindler. He ran a bank that failed its shareholders in spectacular fashion in the early 1800s, even as he set aside land for what would become our state capitol. He gave some of his land to be used as a burial ground, but himself ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere on the way to Mobile, not even 50 years old.

This is the global brand we embrace? Fairly you might ask after the costs of remaking it into the Market District. But Dexter is the one that took us to the dance. He performed in a predictably clumsy way at first but warmed up later, surprising us with his innovative footwork much later on, dipping us in ways we hadn’t expected until our whole world changed. Why are we ditching him? Andrew Dexter was our city’s first failed retail experiment. We should still embrace his inadvertent and lasting legacy, at least when it comes to the delightful narcissism of branding.

Maybe you’re of the Olive Garden school, where it’s commonplace so guaranteed; maybe you’re of the Chipotle school, where it’s known and therefore good; maybe you’re of the El Rey school where people you know know it so it’s good. Wouldn’t you rather be on Dexter than in the Market District? Wouldn’t you rather say you’re a few blocks from the failed Subway or Dr. King’s church or close to the failed Winter Building with the alleged shackles in the basement? You don’t have to be Cayce Pollard to feel like something dangerous could be afoot here. We say to Montgomery: Make the right decision. As crazy as it might be, being a little more New Philadelphia than Alabama Town might be the right direction for our fair city right now. Minus the racism, and the oppression/appropriation of indigenous peoples. Is that even possible these days? And can we add charming well-priced gifts?

We’re doomed.

Flying Out

There’s a lot to be said in recent weeks, about the direction of the city. A lot of questions have been raised, worth asking in public:

  • Will the departure of (Deputy Mayor) Jeff Downes and (Development Director) Chad Emerson fundamentally change the direction of the city’s development? Downes split for Vestavia and Emerson for Huntsville, both of which are richer (and whiter) than Montgomery. Who will replace their talents? Will the city keep doing the same stuff with regard to buying up buildings downtown and selling them at a loss to motivated developers? What about smart code? Will the city remain committed to spreading re-development to non-downtown areas (especially West Montgomery)? Will Mayor Strange replace these guys with visionaries or with functionaries?
  • What effect will the summer heat have on our skyrocketing murder rate? The Montgomery Advertiser has been doing something that closely-resembles journalism by running a three-part series on our violence-spike. But we need more than PR from the police chief and a college professor keen on blaming rap music for everything. We get it: Some popular music promotes criminality. But that music wasn’t just invented. So all this cultural stuff doesn’t explain the spikes. Solutions involve investing in communities and not treating them as source of potential athletes.
  • When does the substance take hold? It’s perfectly fine that the city is talking about a Wright Brothers sculpture to adorn the Wright Brothers park before we pay money for some weirdo’s private (and terrible) “Wright Brothers collection” to turn it into a Wright Brothers museum. Or bowl games. We might get some Sun Belt team to play in the Nobody Cares Bowl, which is not to be confused with the college football all-star game we launched last January. These are all terrible topics of conversation, especially if we’re not talking about anything below the surface. Does the city need some tourism stuff? Sure, the Chamber of Commerce has its place and we’re glad to attract visitors and all that. But is the newspaper doing any digging beyond helping the city publicize its various schemes? In a world where we don’t have a real alternative weekly (going, for example, to city council meetings), I expect more from our civic voices.

Just a few stray thoughts while sitting delayed in the Montgomery Airport. Speaking of which, it would do a lot for Montgomery tourism and our general reputation if they could do something about all the delays to and from Montgomery. This place should seem like an inviting destination, not a prison from which it is impossible to escape. Our sleepy, broken, lazy airport adds to the perception that nobody is in a hurry to help anybody get anywhere, certainly not if you’ve raised up the audacity to try to get on a flight out.

Graham Woods Neighborhood Pub

One of the most popular posts over at Midtown Montgomery Living is the one where we published the speculation we had received about an Irish pub opening in the “Five Points” area of Cloverdale. No seriously, if you want to see some hilarious comment section trolling, check out that post. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the label of “Five Points,” I’m talking about the part of town over by The Capri.

An Irish Pub in Cloverdale? People freaked out. Again, check out the “love it or leave it” tenor to the comments section. Also, an Irish pub just opened downtown. The concerns about Cloverdale parking and trash pickup are legit, especially the parking ones. But while concerned, we also don’t want that strip to remain empty. Someone to buy and fix up that building? Sounds great. We support economic development. And if we can get a nice beer in a chill environment, all the better. Competition is good for everyone, and even the sanctified El Rey and LeRoy bar scene(s) could use a healthy (and friendly) rising tide to lift all boats.

So here’s the latest: It’s not going to be the SugrueBAR. It’s going to be named after the original name for Cloverdale, which is at least a cool historical nod. It’s still going with the ethnic gimmick. If you can’t have an Irish pub, why not just switch it to Welsh Gaelic Scottish? And the spelling on their promotional material reflects an attention to detail that is, um, “forthcomming.”

When they say "comming soon," they mean that they will be using communication devices like in Star Trek

When they say “comming soon,” they mean that they will be using communication devices like in Star Trek

For what it’s worth, yes, that is a falcon ripping apart a stork. We assume that the anti-stork sentiment is part of a critique of over-population. And the “Ne Oublie” thing means “never forget,” which the Graham Clan says means we are never to forget “the concept of chivalry, bravery and Christian service to your fellow man.”

So, ladies, keep in mind that chivalry. And Christian service. Two universal hallmarks of a fun bar. And don’t forget that Scottish clan. And beer in the neighborhood pub. Huzzah! Economic development!

The End Times: Brought to You by Publix

For the last several months, we’ve been out of town and out of the country more than we’ve been here in Montgomery. Coming back, we found ourselves lacking in basic foodstuffs and needing to make a serious grocery store trip. So we girded up and went to the Publix on Zelda Road this weekend. No offense to the Carter Hill Winn Dixie, which is easy, affordable, and getting better all the time (though still plays really terrible music and still lacks a good vegetarian selection). We don’t shop at Fresh Market because a) we’re not rich, and b) it’s not really a grocery store. Publix is reliable and carries a surprisingly wide selection of vegetarian and vegan items. They have tempeh and plantains and the good veggie dogs and Daiya – really, it’s a very good grocery store and we feel lucky to live so close to it.

But it’s also a disturbing place. You see a number of products there that make you think simultaneously: “Somebody buys this?” and “Sigh. Somebody buys this.” The difference in inflection, the jump to the declarative that identifies your neighborhood as one where people live who actually buy these things, can drive you insane if you think about it too much. So of course we think about it too much. We took some pictures.

What follows is a sample of the products and trends we found that were horrifying, head-shaking or simply things that make you go hmmm.

1. Shouldn’t that be refrigerated?

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Sure, meats and cheeses have been stored without refrigeration for most of human history. And we did just get a lecture from a fractious European cheese seller about the many ways that refrigeration can kill a cheese. But still, it’s kind of shocking how many unrefrigerated and “ready to eat” perishables abounded in the Publix aisles – including a $15 pack of cheese designed to be melted in a fondue kit. These room temp items are a plus for the preppers among us and a minus for those of us suspicious of nitrates or watching our salt intake.

2. Gee, your house smells terrible.

People of Montgomery, your homes must smell just awful. We have discerned this by noticing that Publix devotes approximately 600 square feet of shelf space to household odor correctors/enhancers. These come in all kinds, from weird little dipsticks to plug-in wafters, from old-fashioned incense to Yankee Candle-style assaults on your brain’s cherry vanilla olfactory sensors. I’m not sure what a mangosteen is, exactly, but evidently many people want their house to smell like that. And also pineapple.

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The above photo demonstrates the shelf space devoted to this stuff. Everything down to the outstretched arm could be filed under the category of “anti-stink technology.”

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A triumph of cross-branding, without any of the sticky residue that clings to your back molars like a bad high school crush. Except whatever caustic films they leave in your lungs after you inhale them.

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New look!

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So many different ways to improve your home’s odors. Or you could just, you know, clean your house.

3. Of course that’s now a brand name.

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This is totally what Kropotkin intended. If you rub this on your body during a shower, the government will totally crumble. And the fact that they’ve jammed 33 percent more of this goop into a bottle not only means that our new social order will be more harmonious, but also that these bottles will fill up the landfill just a little bit quicker.

4. Our planet is doomed.P1040552

Click, swish, toss. No time for space colonies! Click, swish, toss. What is wrong with you people who can’t just have a regular toilet brush like the rest of us? Must the River Region dispose of toilet sponges the aggregate size of Cramton Bowl every year just because we cannot figure out how to keep a regular, less than $9.49, cleaning utensil around and vaguely sanitary? Answer: Yes. Re-use of toilet brushes causes Socialist health care.

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Also, can we talk about your cat? And how evidently he/she needs more varieties of food than all of the “Asians” and “Hispanics” in Montgomery? Because this is wack, people – appetizers for cats? Get a grip. The economy is collapsing around our ears, but as long as Mr. Whiskers gets his amuse bouche in time for you to settle in and watch The Biggest Loser, everything will be just fine. Meanwhile, the Publix does not stock falafel mix, which is helpful in making one of humanity’s most ancient and delicious foods.

5. Nostalgia is toxic. And evidently sweet.

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Need a popcorn popper? Cake pop maker? Snack on a stick maker? Mini pancake maker? Nostalgia Electrics has got you covered. And evidently Publix thinks so highly of their products that Nostalgia Products, LLC gets about the same shelf space as peanut butter. Okay, a little less, but the price per ounce is a money-maker. Perhaps Publix is just betting that your ideas are similar to notorious mini-pancake lover Lou Reed, who famously said: “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.” For the record, the “cake pop” trend is an atrocity and should be ended as soon as possible.

6. Flavor sauce is everywhere.

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Don’t be shocked, but it turns out that panko-blonde Guy Fieri is a symptom rather than a cause. You may have read the recent and scathing review of The Next Food Network Star’s restaurant in New York. In case not, enjoy. We’ll wait. As you see, much of Fieri’s bro-appeal is a matter of flavor sauces, one piled upon another, as things are madly stuffed inside of other things and deep-fried. This “flavor sauce” thing has legs. It’s basically the whole Applebee’s menu. And now Publix is in the grips too – all the things that used to be called SALAD DRESSING are now called ANYTHING DRESSING. Because salad, that’s for ladies, right? And also, who wants to sell a product just for salad when you can slather it on your muffincandywafflemini-pancakeAxedeodorantinANARCHY™?

7. People don’t know how to cook.

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Look, obviously you have no idea how to cook. Otherwise this would not appeal to you. That, or you just like to sample stuff in tiny plastic cups, in which case you are a) making penguins extinct, and b) stupid for not going to Costco, where there are way more and better plastic cups of crap you will never actually cook. Publix understands your flailing. They give you the recipe and then stick all the stuff in the same refrigerated case so that you don’t have to actually go around the store and collect the ingredients. You just follow the instructions on the card, eat the food, chew joylessly and head into the bathroom. Repeat. Die.

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You know that song by Arcade Fire called “We Used To Wait?” No? Too impatient to look it up on YouTube? Perfect. These QuickCook Blackeye Peas are just the thing for you. We used to wait. Now, you steam peas in the bag with the other veggies in the freezer aisle and think yourself damn healthy as you sink into another season of Downton Abbey. Shovel peas into your mouth in ten minutes. Hell, why wait that long? Just rip open the cellophane and turn the peas into mouth mush without waiting the eternity that the package demands.

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You should be ashamed of yourself for buying this. Deeply ashamed. And if you bought it for your child, even more so. Shake AND pour? Two steps? What is this? The Gulag?

8. The Reading Aisle

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Literacy! You could do an entire entertaining blog for months and months tracking the contents of a grocery store’s reading material. The novels represent an even lower denominator than the airport bookstore. We’re open to being tarred as literary elitists — and sure, we do read the high-brow stuff. But the bleak quality of the grocery store book section is not just an antidote to populism, but is enough to make someone relish the oncoming post-literate age altogether. Skip this section entirely, download some mind-rotting apps onto your tablet computer, and move on.

The magazine section is also fun to examine for the narrow demographic nets being cast, along with the gloomy darkness of depression from which emerge the kind of lonely thoughts that would cause someone to seek something from these shelves. If only they’d make a single magazine about ineptly-rapping brides using guns and hot rods to decorate their country cottages, they could just reproduce the same thing every month. Now with recipes and crossword puzzles!

9. Heat and stir

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Spam is gross. All canned meats are gross. Given the amount of food and water and space and energy needed to raise an animal and kill it, meat should be expensive. Meat should cost more than vegetables. Canned meat like Spam should not be in plastic trays to be put into microwaves. If a “Compleat” is what you are having for dinner tonight, well, maybe you’re doing the best you can and we shouldn’t judge you.

And an entire treatise could be written on how macaroni and cheese has morphed from a single food item into an entire line of products, with cheese in silver foil packets (in both powdered and goo form) being ingested by millions of people every year. Pasta is one of humanity’s great inventions, but retain some galaxy-sized awe for the immensity and sheer amount of shelf space devoted to this bewildering array of one narrow and processed vision of a noodle drenched in cheese (or cheese-like simulation).

10. That should not come in a can.

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11. Positioned at handy child level!

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Tooth rotting cereal meets tooth rotting cupcake in a bar. Lubricated by a few too many brand execs from General Mills (which owns both Better Crocker and the cereal brands featured here), the two go home together and make babies, which are boxed and sent to supermarkets around the world. Dentists rejoice.

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For other leading-edge Lost in Montgomery coverage of Montgomery grocery stores, check here and here.

If You Go: Lagoon Park Softball

Now that the World Series is shaping up to be pretty uninspiring (we hate the Rangers, can’t believe the Cardinals are still in it, and can bring ourselves to root for the Brewers mostly on account of our love for vegetarian slugger Prince Fielder), it’s time to invest in Montgomery’s most high-octane fall sport.

That’s right, dear readers – we are talking league co-ed league softball! It’s too late to join a team this year, but you can still catch some games during the fall season if you get yourself over to Lagoon Park in the next few weeks.

In the future, if you want to play you’ll need to get on a team. This involves making one yourself or joining an existing infrastructure. Some teams are made up of people who work together, occasionally including affiliates like spouses or siblings. Others are linked together by church membership or social group. Still others seem to have accumulated over a few seasons, shedding dead weight and adding better players until they deserve a suitably threatening name. Unless you own some baseball pants and used to play college ball, the latter sort of team is probably out for you.

Before your game, you might want to hit the batting cages at the front of the park. It’s easy to feel the tug of the collective pop-cultural unconscious when you go to the little sliding window staffed by a nice-seeming older man. He dispenses cards and tokens. He’s had to make up new cards because someone was photocopying them. You wonder who would even think of doing something like this, cheating this nice man out of his humble little business, and then sadly remember you’re living in the United States of Goldman Sachs as he gives you six tokens for the cages. Choose among the war-torn bats of various weights and handle tape colors and get to work making hollow noises as you whack at floaty balls coming out of the pitching machine.

Thursday is co-ed night. In the spring season, co-eds play on Tuesdays too. In the fall, they play two games in one night, at 6:20, 7:20 or 8:20. To play, you have to have five men and five women. You can bat six and six, with more on the sub list. You have to alternate men and women, and the league uses a larger ball for men than it does for women. This means one of the home plate umpire’s main responsibilities is handing the relevant ball to the catcher, or throwing it themselves if they are feeling especially frisky (or if the catcher is especially incompetent, more rule than exception given the “dumping ground” status of the position on most of the co-ed teams).

The rules are extremely gender-conscious. If a man walks, he takes two bases. This is ostensibly to prevent teams from walking men so that they can pitch to women. Lineups must be gender-balanced in the infield and outfield, so that you’ve got two men and two women in the outfield (yes, there are four in the outfield) and a three/three split infield. Some of the women are extremely good at softball, just like some of the men are. But there are some teams where women have clearly been drafted and/or bribed to play so that the team will “make.” We once played a team where all the women had pink bats and batting gloves. They said they had demanded the special equipment from their husbands as compensation for playing on the team. I think I would have asked for something better than pink softball equipment. Women rarely pitch, so the catcher is almost always the weakest female player on the team after whoever gets sentenced to stand out in right field (hell during mosquito season, a dreamy abandoned heaven on cool fall nights).

Softball isn’t baseball. In the first place, there’s a different architecture of noise: bats chunk or clink rather than crack, many players don’t know how to call catches or organize plays (or they are too selfish to try) and there’s a surprising amount of heckling both between teams and within teams. The rules are different, too. There’s no sliding and no bunting. If your team hits a home run, any subsequent hits out of the park will get you out until the other team scores with their own dinger.

Everyone seems to manage their team a little differently. Some are obviously rabidly competitive, with folks getting chewed out for bad plays and humiliated by their peers. Others are competitive, but having a good time – there’s lots of good-natured ribbing exchanged between players, much of it loud and hilarious. Still others have decided to eschew competition altogether, preferring instead to rotate folks through positions and not hassle each other when errors pile up. The most fun games to watch are when serious (but not too serious) teams play each other.

Lagoon Park is one of Montgomery’s few integrated social scenes. This is true even though the teams themselves are largely segregated (“that’s one of those black teams,” folks will sometimes say, the “black” sotto voce the vocal equivalent of two raised eyebrows, as in: You know what I’m saying, and I know what I’m saying, but in case you don’t agree with what I’m saying I can always say oh no, that’s not what I meant at all).

Casual racism doesn’t stop the diverse crowd from lining up peaceably for overpriced concessions. You can pay movie theater prices for the usual sweet and salty snacks – over-iced Cokes in styrofoam cups, round and vaguely stale chips served with a side of slippery cheese and then move along to the bleachers to watch a game.

The games themselves are fun, fast and too often over before they start. Teams forfeit because they don’t have enough women, or men, or just because people were drinking and smoking in the parking lot and didn’t make it into the park in time (Lagoon Park is “family friendly,” which they explain means no booze, no smoking and no cursing). You could miss other games while in line at the concession stand because the “mercy rule” kicked in 15 runs into an especially lopsided matchup.

The fields are well kept and studiously monitored by the folks sitting up in the central tower, who will demand your lineup and hassle you if you make illegal substitutions or commit other rule infractions, even as they are unfailingly polite and as Southern as the red Alabama infield dirt. Which is surprisingly hard to get off in the laundry, adding place to the variety of prides felt in evidence of an illegal slide or a diving catch.

Win or lose, nachos or popcorn, spring or fall, Lagoon Park is an unfailingly fun place to spend a weeknight playing or watching a sport that gets a bad rap as the pastime of the people too drunk, stupid or female to play baseball.

Downtown Smoke Monster

We don’t watch a ton of TV.

But one of the shows we did plow through (thanks to Netflix) was the popular ABC show “Lost.” If you’re unfamiliar with the show, we commend you. If you’ve seen the show, you understand how mass produced popular entertainment can pollute your mind to the point that when you are walking around downtown and you see a giant column of smoke, you think of the mysterious smoke monster.

This is the first view, taken August 2nd, from near downtown Troy State:

Then, I got a bit closer and this is the view from over by the Post Office:

Turns out, it’s some old abandoned apartments (housing projects?) that are on fire. I get a little closer, but it’s a bit dicey back there with broken glass and weeds and, well, a giant inferno. Firefighters have closed off several of the roads and there are hoses connected to hydrants and it’s overall quite a big scene:

Cruising the news the next day, I learn that the fires were actually intentionally set by the Montgomery Fire Department as a training exercise. They were/are called the Caroline Street Apartments and I certainly support our city’s first responders having the very best training possible, with realistic simulations and everything. But there’s also something sort of sad about these apartments downtown, owned now by the city, being torched. The article says they were/are an “eyesore” and that’s certainly true. I’d honestly be afraid to go up there and poke around too much. It’s not like the surrounding neighborhood is all that much better. But there was a time when people lived there, and the city didn’t own it, and it was nice to be downtown, by the river.

It’s sort of like those weed-covered lots, where there are brick retaining walls and sometimes even steps … that lead up to nothing. Downtown revitalization is a popular phrase, and progress has been undeniable. We love everything from the Biscuits Stadium to the Train Shed to the Urban Farm and the proposed Cypress Pond Park project. But there are also places like the Caroline Street Apartments and all of the mansions (and shacks) there on the hill — some hurting areas and neighborhoods that could use a grocery store and a park and some bike lanes. And we don’t see a lot of promise for the Chamber of Commerce slogan, “Montgomery: Come See Our City-Owned, City-Torched Downtown Abandoned Housing Project Fires.” And it’s not like the place is gone now, burned into ash that drifted away on the river breeze. It’s still there, still abandoned — just with scorch marks on parts of it now.

Somebody somewhere will be a better historian of the Caroline Street Apartments than me. Nobody is going to be living there again, although the property might get redeveloped into something good, provided the city can find a buyer with some money and a vision for downtown living.

For now, we can just drive by and wonder if they ever freed Mike White, over there on Mildred Street.

If You Go: Minneapolis

Since late July, we’ve been on the road – Florida, Minneapolis, Denver, Scotland, New Mexico, and now after a brief respite we’re off to Milwaukee and New York. Lots of travel, but it always feels so good to come home to our beautiful house – Montgomery really feels like home to us. Sometimes we wonder if we still feel like we are “Lost in Montgomery,” since we know more than our share of shortcuts, local weirdos, restaurants and contractors. We don’t want to be those people who live in Montgomery and are always putting it down. You know who we’re talking about – they’re always comparing Montgomery to some other place they used to live where lattes grew on trees and people actually had a choice of what live music to see after eating in some vegetarian Ethiopian fusion restaurant. We’re not saying we don’t like lattes or live music, but it’s pretty tiresome to hear people moan about your home city all the time.

There’s nothing like leaving the country to get some perspective on America and Americans, but you don’t need to pay the increasingly steep passport fees to get some perspective on Montgomery. Time may or may not do the trick, but you may be so old when you finally get perspective that you can’t do anything except complain to your nurse about the kids these days. Perspective doesn’t necessarily require distance, though some intervening miles can often help you catch your breath. Perspective comes when you can look at something differently than you did before. When the familiar looks strange, you’ve got perspective by incongruity. Creativity is a good way to make the familiar look strange, but so is exposure to other ways of doing things. A recent trip that took me to Minneapolis  did the trick nicely.

I’d never been to Minneapolis (but for a brief speaking engagement once at the downtown Convention Center). That place is a Habitrail for the nametag-and-totebag crowd, complete with tunnels and basements and endless steamy vats of industrial eggs. It could be anyplace in the world, and you’d never know the difference. And we’ve flown through the airport a few times, and always make a point of (after a visit to the Larry Craig Memorial bathroom) stopping to play one of the dozens of pinball machines throughout the terminals. They may not be super well kept up, but they are pinball machines, and since we live in a city that has exactly one such device (Bad Cats! at Chris’ Hot Dogs), every chance to play is worth it.

On this trip, I had basically a whole day to play around in the city after my work outside of town was done. I got on the light rail at the airport. The Hiawatha Line ran everywhere I’d need to go during my stay, including the Government station just a block and a half from my hotel. The train area at the airport was surprisingly clean – not the freaky/arty European action film clean of the fascist-scale Dulles tram system, but exceptional and comfortable. It was a short train ride downtown, and it seemed like everyone getting on the train after the airport terminal had a bike, a library book, or both.

The hotel, the desk workers told me, had been recently remodeled by “people from New York.” The lobby was full of drapes and lounging chairs and a wine-dispensing machine I’d never seen before, but which evidently relieves business hotels of the burden of selling wine while relieving patrons of substantial per-glass fees, all with a card linked to your room number. My room was deliciously cold and extra feathery. A nap and a shower later and I was ready for action.

At Government Station, near my hotel.

My first stop was the Walker Art Center. I walked a few blocks, easily found the right bus and went right to the museum. Just this little trip reminded me of what it’s like to live in a place with functioning sidewalks, buses that stop frequently (rather than every hour), and shelters at bus stops. Sure, the weather gets pretty inclement in the Twin Cities, but it’s not as if Montgomery’s without its own share of weather extremes. Let’s face it – our bus system is famous for other reasons besides accessibility and usefulness. There is free wireless throughout downtown, something that Montgomery is working on but is still limited. On my walk I noticed that downtown Minneapolis is really clean. The library was massive, beautiful, and bustling on a workday lunch hour.

The downtown public library branch.

The 6 bus goes to the Walker. I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd on the bus, including a colorfully dressed hippie girl in striped tights who was museum-bound like me. I love to ride the bus. I love the feeling of asking for transfer even though you are pretty sure you won’t make it since you will stay too long at your destination.

At the Walker, full of galleries that are densely built up on each other in aphasic array of stimuli, I saw an exhibit curated by notorious weirdo John Waters. There was an exhibit that tried to mimic cabinets of curiosities, a la the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I enjoyed an amazing meal at the museum restaurant (a cocktail called the Minnesota Mule, a watermelon/feta/arugula salad, a goat cheese pannacotta). The museum’s got a cool outdoor area where they sponsor all kinds of community programs and encourage children (and adults) to play with a variety of art supplies and toys. You can also order beer!

Outside the Walker Art Center

Across the street from the museum is a the massive Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with, well, some pretty massive sculptures. The most famous is Spoonbridge and Cherry, seen below to give a sense of scale.

Evidently the spoon weighs 5,800 pounds and the cherry a whopping 1,200.

There’s also a beautiful glass conservatory that contains a massive fish designed by Frank Gehry and a whole host of beautiful art everywhere you look (Henry Moore! Noguchi!). I left the garden by crossing a huge bridge that connects to a large park.

On the bridge is, evidently, the world's longest poem.

I took the bus back downtown. While I walked back to the hotel I noticed the city’s ample biking facilities, including a very cool bike rental system that seemed very affordable and accessible. Nice Ride MN seems pretty amazing. You pay to rent and then pay for your time. You can rent a bike for a day for $5 plus a trip fee. Half hour trips are free. It’s designed for short-term trips, and I saw a lot of racks in my short time in the city. The Twin Cities also offer free cycling lessons through a cool program called the Bike Walk Ambassador Program. Needless to say, there are bike lanes. I wish we had bike lanes. Then maybe we can make with the bike rentals.

Bikes for rent

Minneapolis loves it some baseball, just like our fair city, so I spent my evening at a Twins game. I took the train, which was a dollar for the whole evening (I think they do this for games and other special events). I could have walked, but it’s fun to take the train. The Twins were playing the Red Sox, and Jim Thome was on the brink of 600 home runs, so there was a full house. My section was full of little league all-stars overflowing with sugar and peanuts and meat products. They had many theories about the game, some of which were corrected by the garrulous adults sitting in my row.

Note the awesome moon in the background.

Target Field sure is nice. We went to a game at the new Nationals stadium on a D.C. trip earlier this summer, and that stadium feels hastily constructed. It lacks soul and context. It’s cool that D.C. is trying to use its stadium to revitalize the Anacostia area, but still you can’t help but feeling that they could have tried harder. Target Field is new – the Twins have only been there since 2010 – but it feels homey and embedded in the city, like it’s always been there. There’s a giant Harmon Killebrew autograph on the right field wall (the little leaguers behind me were obsessed with it and insisted that Twins outfielders had to PROTECT THE AUTOGRAPH from marauding balls). There’s all the sausages you might expect from a Minnesota ball game, but there’s also whole stands that only sell beer made in Minnesota. Which is pretty amazing. And the beer’s good too. And they sell fried cheese curds. The Twins pulled off a surprise win against the playoff-bound Red Sox, to the loud delight of the crowd.

Art at the Walker

After the game, I walked back to the hotel with the rest of the crowd, peeling off euphorically one by one into bars, strip clubs, trains until I was the only one left to walk into the chi-chi lobby and take the old-timey elevator up to my ridiculously comfortable bed.

As I wandered off to sleep I thought about what Montgomery could be like. Beyond Helicity, beyond the endless charrettes and multi-use zoning planning and green space Facebook groups, can we not get together on some basics? We applaud the Dexter rehab. We are waiting to see the West Fairview “demonstration block.” We think the new hybrid eco-buses are probably great, but have yet to ride one. Seeing Minneapolis gives you perspective. What if Montgomery had rental bikes and bike lanes and classes for riders and bikers alike? What if we had a working bus system with sidewalks and shelters and libraries throughout the city? What if we had more than a handful of bookstores and a central art museum? What if we had public art in weird places that caused us to rethink our relationship to the usual?

Update

The Red Sox did not, in fact, make the playoffs.

Montgomery’s Best Red Curry

Depending on where you are in the world, people mean different things when they say “curry.” The word “curry” is from Tamil, basically meaning “sauce.” Indian “curries” may or may not actually have much in the way of sauce, but often use a blend of spices that is sometimes called curry powder that may or may not contain some combination of coriander, cumin and tumeric. Usually spicy bits like fresh or dried peppers are added separately. In Japan, the stuff they call curry is largely a disgusting brown goo draped over meats on rice. It is related to Indian curry in the same way that Corey Feldman and Sir Alec Guiness are both actors.

And then there’s Thai curry, the subject of this particular post. In a Thai restaurant, when you order a curry you can usually expect to receive some combination of ingredients with a savory sauce. The sauce is made from a curry paste and liquids that might include coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, soy sauce and assorted other goodies. There are a few staples, including yellow curry, green curry, red curry, Massaman curry and Panang curry. Their difference is less about the things that get “curried” (although Massaman usually has sweet potatoes or some kind of starch) and more about what’s in the paste. We like all these kinds, but we are partial to red curry. It’s usually more spicy than the others (with the exception of Panang) and tastes richer to me somehow. So we wanted to see where Montgomery’s best red curry might be. And we went on a lunch adventure.

Lek's. The worst of the three.

First stop: Lek’s Railroad Thai. It’s a nice spot, for sure – used to be the main place we’d go for vegetarian food here in Montgomery before we lived here. The decor is nice, the train station is pretty awesome, and it’s easily walkable from downtown. Plus they are really fast at serving what can be a very substantial lunch crowd (even though they may be the only restaurant in town without an obvious system to distinguish between the sweet and unsweet tea and tea pitchers). The lunch specials include a spring roll (pretty good), some soup (didn’t eat it, full of chicken), and your choice of a few items. The red curry costs a few dollars extra for tofu, which is pretty wack – it’s not like you’re getting shrimp or something, but it comes out fast. But it’s just not very good. You get a generous set of tofu pieces, cooked to a medium consistency, topped with a smattering of bell peppers, with a scoop of rice and a fan of cucumber slices. Over the tofu, the curry tastes cloying yet thin, like some canned coconut milk that heard a rumor of curry nearby but only got a passing whiff. It’s lacking all of the depth and flavor of Thai food, coming closer to the overly sweet Americanized “Chinese” food that they serve at horrible places like Ming’s Garden.

Next stop: Ala Thai (Midtown). There are two Ala Thais, but we only really go to this one because it’s closer to our house and reachable for a work lunch. Like Lek’s they can rock a slammed restaurant for lunch. We’ve rolled in with huge parties and gotten out with fabulous food and good service in shockingly good time. There’s lots of good stuff on the menu, and they’ll make it as hot as you want. This particular day, though, we were only interested in the red curry. Which did not cost extra for tofu but which came with either noodles or rice. We chose the rice. When the curry arrived you could have smelled it all the way over in the Shoe Circus, or whatever other awful stores they have in that mega-complex. It was spicy and sweet and deeply flavored, generously soaking in a lot of sauce that ended up merging perfectly with rice progressively ladled into the bowl. There were a number of vegetables, but not so much that it detracted from the perfectly cooked tofu.

Green Papaya. Decidedly meh.

Third stop: Green Papaya. We have been meaning to go here for the three years we’ve lived in Montgomery. Now we’ve gone, we’re not sure when or if we’ll be back. The red curry is basically a bunch of deep fried tofu mixed with what seems like pre-bagged veggie stir fry  mix (you know, little slivers of red pepper, tiny broccoli florettes, flat and vaguely scalloped carrot wedges). It is not especially savory or unique, making up for flavor by using a full-fat coconut milk. At least the “medium” is spicy (at Lek’s, “medium” seems to mean “insipid), and the the “hot” is sweat-inducingly hot. But it’s generic, and boring, and, well…you could do much better on your own.

Speaking of on your own, I want to say how easy it is to make your own red curry at home. You don’t need to make your own red curry paste from scratch (though I have, and it isn’t hard) – the Taste of Thai stuff they have in the little jars in the “Asian” section at Publix will do perfectly well. I do mine in a wok, but you could just use a big saucepan. With tofu, you press it first, slice it thin, and brown it in a little oil (I like peanut). Take it out and keep reserved. Then a little more peanut oil, and fry several teaspoons of the red curry paste till you can really smell it. Add in onions and whatever veggies you’re going to use. Then coconut milk (I like the light stuff) and some stock, depending on how soupy you want it to be. Add in equal parts brown sugar, fish sauce (there’s some vegan options for this, or you can just omit) and soy sauce. You may want more soy sauce after. Cook it down. The end. Good with some lime juice squeezed at the table and maybe some toasted peanuts to top.

Davis Theater Explosion

Montgomery is home to a really cool theater.

Well, that is to say that Montgomery is home to a really old building — which is kind of cool if you are into historic preservation — and it functions as it once did in 1930 — as a theater. And that’s about the extent of the coolness.

The Davis Theater is inexplicably terrible.

It looks cool. But in three years of walking by it on a daily basis there has not once been a single thing that has even remotely piqued our interest. They have shows, of sorts, but it is the worst kind of stuff you can imagine: professional jugglers, gospel concerts, singer-songwriters you’ve never heard of, Michael Bolton, boys choirs, hysterically evil animal exploitation shows. Imagine a Grade D quality Branson, Missouri, with a rotating cast of touring acts that remind you just how deep the showbiz barrel really is.

It’s sad that this lovely-looking theater is being used to import a never-ending stream of performance waste. It’s good that it’s owned by a university so that it probably isn’t expected to turn any sort of profit.

Seriously, take a look at the calendar of events and see if anything on there looks less than terrible to you. It’s amazing when the graduation ceremonies for prison guards isn’t the least depressing thing on your event list. Historic preservation is good, but if you’re going to have someone book acts, maybe they shouldn’t be born in the year that the theater opened.

All of which is totally unnecessary preface as an excuse to show the following two photos that I took today:

Post Father's Day Gospel Explosion

Talent Explosion

How could anything that explodes so often be so little fun?

Reggy the Purple Party … Sigh

There was a confusing five-letter word on our minor league baseball tickets:

R-E-G-G-Y

“What does that mean? Is it like “Reggie,” like Reggie Jackson, or does it rhyme with “Geggy,” you know, from the band Geggy Tah?¹ You know, like someone who begs too much has gotten beggy?”

What? I don’t know. I mean, if the local NBC affiliate is sponsoring it, can it be bad? It’s WSFA. It’s the Montgomery Biscuits. I guess we’ll see when we get there.”

It turns out that Reggy is, in fact, pronounced like Reggie. It also turns out that he is a giant purple furry who attempts to entertain the public by loudly and stupidly expressing a desire to “party.”²

Reggy, as it happens, has a webpage and makes appearances at various minor league baseball stadiums across the south. And WSFA, home to the ever-trusted Bob Howell and Rich Thomas, inflicted Reggy on a stadium half-full of mostly unamused Biscuits fans. We would have been frankly better suited had they wrapped a drugged Huntington frat boy in several yards of dirty carpet and shoved him out over the firstbase line while blaring “Hot Potato” by The Wiggles.

Reggy, according to his Wikipedia page, evidently studied mascoting under someone who once performed as the legendary and awesome Philly Fanatic.³ We, as fans of mascotting — and particularly minor league baseball clowning, find this hard to believe.

Wait a minute! That's not the umpire!!

We, as much as anyone over the age of 5, appreciate quality pratfalls and the ancient art of harassing the other team’s base coaches. But Reggy seems like a smelly weirdo, emerging from his seedy-seeming basement to announce that he’s ready to “party” with the fans of the Lansing Lugnuts or Carolina Mudcats or whatever. He falls over, has an inflatable gorilla costume, dances around in drag, and takes a crotch shot or two. He got some decent play from an umpire that he draped with a feather boa, but mostly just left us (and several kids nearby) sort of uncomfortably shifting in our seats, wondering about the post-game rituals of sadness that Reggy must endure at some hotel bar.

And that’s not all we wondered about: What’s that thing dangling from his nose supposed to be? How did something as lame as Reggy become the spokes-mascot for the Mascot Hall of Fame? Why hasn’t the Mascot Hall of Fame updated its website since 2008? Are there no new inductees? How is a “mascot” different than this giant falcon, allegedly called a “skin character,” designed to promote debate in the nation of Qatar?

Reggy is at his worst when he grabs the microphone and uses his creepy “guy talking to little kids at a birthday party” voice. It was at this point, even before the Biscuits had taken the field, that we knew that we needed to blame WSFA for sponsoring this monstrosity.

Look, we understand that you have to spice up minor league baseball with crap like “fireworks night” and “clap your hands if you support the troops” night. The game of baseball is just too boring for the average modern ticket-buying rube, who can’t call a sporting event “family fun” unless it’s a Facebook Friday or a Limited Edition Porcelain Figurine Giveaway. God forbid people actually know who’s pitching or that the Biscuits are in dire need of a second baseman.

Even so, Reggy was taking things too far. His lame crotch gyrations certainly got the crowd around us talking … about how much we missed the decently-serviceable Biscuits mascot, Big Mo. Look, Big Mo may be a lame amorphous anteater-thing, so lumpy that he actually looks like a pile of poop wearing a baseball uniform. We get that. But he’s our pile of poop. He doesn’t do that much, shoots some biscuits out of a cannon at the crowd (the most important selling point, frankly, that I ever mention when describing our local game experience to out-of-town friends), and generally wanders around like a tolerable oaf, getting his picture made with the babies and whatnot.

We like Big Mo, especially in comparison to Reggy’s highly-contrived Spuds McKenzie antics, made all the worse by the fact that he shops said antics around the minor league baseball circuit like some kind of amethyst whore. Ideally, we’d have a mascot that was the actual team logo: a giant biscuit that would walk around and touch people with his butter-pat-tongue. And that tongue would taste like butter and it would also breakdance and have a better name than Big Mo.

But we don’t have that giant grunting edible biscuit walking around. We have Big Mo. And we like Big Mo. You know what you think about when the local TV station pays to bring in some imported teamless mascot when you already have a perfectly decent mascot at your minor league stadium? You think about the economy being in the toilet and outsourcing and how lame it must be to put on a suit in 95-degree heat and know that your employer is letting some guy from YouTube show up and throw frisbees to your crowd.

We like Mickey, the mayor of the Biscuit Bunch, doing their awful little line dances and Cupid Shuffling on top of the dugouts. We even keep quiet during his awful donning of the Indian headdress during YMCA. We frantically applaud his frantic waving of the Biscuits flag as Carmina Burana blares before each game.

Reggy? Well, we’ve already said it: WSFA, we blame you.

¹ It should be noted that as great and catchy as Geggy Tah’s song, “Whoever You Are” may be, the album on which that song appears is staggeringly weird. Hearing that entire album, it is no surprise that they could produce something so catchy and yet also disappear into obscurity.
² Your idea of what it means to “party” may, in fact, and likely will, greatly differ from Reggy’s idea about what “partying” seems to entail.
³ The Fanatic, while cool, is far from our favorite pro mascot. That honor goes to Youppi, formerly of the Montreal Expos (now of the Montreal Canadiens). One of many online looks at the world’s worst mascots can be seen here. This link is particularly good because it includes the reprehensible Izzy, but also several very strange and disturbing mascots from European soccer.