The air is different in the summer. It does not carry the same freshness, the permeating redolence of flowers and of newness that I’d grown accustomed to. Instead, it smells chiefly of heat. It moves differently too, slightly thicker, a weight I can feel on my face and through my lungs, the sky’s way of tricking me into thinking I’m more tired than I actually am.
Tuscaloosa is different in the summer too. It lacks a certain franticness, a nervous energy that I’ve always associated with it. And yet, in an odd juxtaposition, the city moves again: cars glide unimpeded on glimmering roadways, restaurants are no longer marked by throngs of people standing utterly still. Despite the heaviness of the air, and the sun’s warm blanket lulling plant and animal alike into contented sleep, the city seems to pulse, to breathe.
I had never seen a Tuscaloosa summer. For all my years, I’ve been migratory – an ephemeral citizen of the south. Like so many others, I made this city my own through the fall and spring, but as temperatures began to rise, I turned and fled to cooler climes. It was a moment I looked forward to during those first years, a desire I could feel grow within me until it became unbearable, metastasizing into a burning need to escape the monotony of school and the city, akin to the need for food or water.
In light of this, my admission will lack novelty: I never wanted to come to this town. As a high school senior, I feared the stories of bigots, the hyper-religious, the fraternity men and the act of getting lost. Not the physical act, mind you, but the act of losing myself, of being a footnote, just one of thousands and thousands in the ever-expanding population of the University of Alabama and Tuscaloosa. I saw myself as settling, as failing to reach my lofty ambitions of strolling onto campuses decorated in ivy, where intellectuals and students with illusions of grandeur would sit and debate Proust or Nietzsche long into the night. Instead, here I was, shuffling head-down onto a campus defined not by a towering endowment nor an abundance of Nobel laureates, but by football, by Greek life, by activities in which I had no experience and no interest.
I don’t hold an illusion to my close-mindedness. Looking back, I realize that I was a walking embodiment of all that I chastised. I judged people without restraint or consideration. I was my own protagonist, and everyone around me lived only to be my foil. And as the collegiate story so often goes, it was my time here in this city that broke me of this mold. What in my mind existed as only a backwards, hateful town fueled by cheap beer and big hits, existed in reality something much more dynamic, something much more cultured.
It’s difficult to characterize a city in so few words, especially one as fluid as a college town. A massive part of the population only sticks around for just over half of the year. The city’s personality balloons up, engulfing all of the passions those people bring: new music, movies, whatever fad happens to be in the public eye. But the clocks keep running, and those people leave, and all that remains is an impression. A bar pushed a little farther forward, a list of things a little more acceptable, a list of acceptable things a little bit longer.
But it isn’t what mark we leave on Tuscaloosa that is important. It’s the homogeneity in our favorite restaurants. There’s a reason all the best ones are bogged down by excruciating waits: they’re good and no matter where we’re from, we love them. It’s the spirit of being here, of walking these roads, of the pilgrimage down University Boulevard towards the stadium, the temple where we all, creed, color, class, cheer for championships, for the glory of our town and our boys and us.
As I write this essay, I struggle to avoid being cliché. There’s no drama in the boy who goes to college and learns to accept what he once shunned. It’s the same old tale, told over and over in kitschy movies and books. There’s no surprise, no skill in storytelling. But there’s a reason that it’s so common: it actually happens. I will leave with a new perspective, a new appreciation of people different from me. They were actual people, much to my surprise. And we bonded over simple things – cheap beer and the runaway success of our peers on the football field. In the noise and the commotion, who we were and what we believed and what we knew didn’t matter. What mattered is that we were here and that we were yelling and that Tuscaloosa had leapt up and swallowed us whole.
Maybe my new addition to the familiar story is the revelation that as it ends, I am largely dissatisfied with my college experience. I didn’t accomplish a fraction of what I dreamed of. I didn’t take the risks I should have, I didn’t meet the people I came to know were out there. Sure, I had new experiences, I tried new things and I grew considerably, but for much of my time, I existed on the fringes.
But that dissatisfaction, that disappointment, that’s on me. Those are the steps I took, or didn’t take. That wasn’t Tuscaloosa, or Alabama or the people I feared so much. And that’s probably the hardest part: to know that any frustration was my own doing. Tuscaloosa did everything it could. It offered me culture, clubs, experiences, list after list of things that I sat at home and didn’t do.
Tuscaloosa’s greatest gifts to me weren’t these experiences. They weren’t a blossoming love of football, or the southern charm or the memories. As I grow old, the memories will rust, and they’ll become nothing more than a story I tell myself, some grip of continuity. And there are sure to be times when our team is weak, and my interest will wane. No, Tuscaloosa’s greatest gifts to me were something far more substantial. Tuscaloosa gave me humility and it gave me discontent.
I came to Tuscaloosa dissatisfied. And I leave Tuscaloosa dissatisfied. But the object of that feeling has changed. I walked onto these streets a teenager brimming with arrogance about myself, my views, and about how little Tuscaloosa deserved what I had to offer. This city, this university were beneath me; I was meant for greater places!
Tuscaloosa didn’t judge me for my arrogance. On the contrary, it extended with open arms its pleasures, its people. And lovingly, again and again, in the face of my bitterness and derision, Tuscaloosa welcomed me back. I may have been just another college student, but here I was, free to take part in the spirit and history of this place. It wasn’t my history, it was a list of people I didn’t know existed, but Tuscaloosa offered it to me all the same.
And it was these people, this list of accomplishments that helped to shape me. I met and learned of people doing great things. They did not require the resources of a metropolis or an Ivy endowment. They only needed a passion and a process, to which Tuscaloosa provided both. Here were a people not living for anything else, only to do great things for the sake of doing them. And as I watched many of those people leave town, they all held in their hearts something special for this place. They couldn’t help but thank Tuscaloosa for its help in building what they did, alongside their mentors, family, and fans.
This process taught me a quiet lesson, one that was never spoken or lectured about, but that resonated with me far more than the ones that were. It taught me that I’m not above anywhere. That my nights turning in frustration, my snide comments and the twisting feeling in my stomach whenever I mentioned where I lived were something I was ashamed of.
So my dissatisfaction on the back end lies solely in myself. My arrogance, my prejudices, they only served to blind me, to keep me entrapped in fear and apprehension. All of these compounded so much that I’m disappointed in what I managed to accomplish. My discontent no longer lies in the city. It lies in myself. Tuscaloosa showed me I can do better, that I should do better. Only, it took just a bit too long to get its message across.
Because this time, my leaving is open-ended. There’s no mandated date for my return hanging over my head and coloring my day. This time, I’m just leaving. While at the start of my time here, I could not wait for such a day, today I pray I don’t leave forever. I pray that somewhere along the line, Tuscaloosa will once again enter my life. I will taste the heat of the day, hear the roar of the crowds, and feel in my toes the energy that exudes from this city. But for now, it’s ending. The length of the list of days we have is depressingly relative; it looks so long from one end, and so short from the other.
A few weeks ago, I left my apartment and got into my car, the inside air suffocating in the sun, not working quite like air should. I drove down University, past the Chimes, past the stadium, to the Avenue Pub, my favorite restaurant in town. I was seated immediately, a nice and expected change from my usual experience. I ate alone and finished quickly, all the while drinking in the muffled sounds of light conversation and the sweeter taste of local beer. Had this been a normal night, I would have looked to enjoy a glass of wine at Carpe Vino downtown, the local wine bar where my friends and I had become regulars over the years. But my friends are gone, and so towards home I went.
I didn’t quite make it. Instead, on a whim, I drove to the top level of the parking garage at my apartment, a level completely abandoned even when the city is not. That night, it was no different, and I had the entire level to myself. After parking, I walked to the outer concrete wall, climbed up, and looked out over Tuscaloosa and Alabama stretched beneath me.
These roads were, are, my roads. And yet, as I sat and watched a lonely car pass 70 feet below, I wanted to feel like I’ve merely borrowed them. I wanted to feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome. Like Tuscaloosa has given to me all that I deserved, and now I must be moving on.
But as I sat and the summer sun set over the stadium, setting alight in the sky flags of our history, built by people from afar who made the pilgrimage to these streets, the greatest irony hits me: just as I was to depart, Tuscaloosa finally feels, at the end of it all, like home.