I writing this week’s blog from my air conditioned hotel room in Columbus, Georgia. I’m down here for two weeks for work. It is hot and steamy down here right now. Georgia in August! W00t!
When I travel for a long-ish period, I think about what sort of personal items to pack. I stick to one suitcase and one backpack, and beyond work clothes and my ginormous work laptop, space becomes a premium. One time, I brought my Dr. Rhythm to Japan for five weeks, only to not really use it. It turns out programming drum tracks alone in your hotel room is not all it’s cracked up to be.
I figured this time, I’d use the opportunity to challenge myself. I recently purchased a field recorder for my new podcasting hobby, and I remember an episode from This American Life where nine reporters drove to different parts of Georgia looking for a story. Maybe I could do the same! So I packed the recorder, a mic, and cable into my backpack and down I went.
I had Wednesday “off,” so I snapped a few Facebook photos along the Columbus riverfront. Storytelling friend Aaron, who collects oral histories of WWII veterans, commented with the following:
Uh oh. Whatever you do, don’t cross the river and go into Phenix City, Alabama. And if you do cross the bridge, don’t go into an establishment called “Ma Beachy’s.” And if you do go into Ma Beachy’s, don’t get into any fights with paratroopers.
Well. There’s a story in there somewhere. Turns out Ma Beachy owned a seedy club called Beachy’s Swing Club, the most notorious gambling and prostitution house serving Fort Benning. Phenix City was known as “Sin City” back before Las Vegas took that name over. Aaron told me about an M4 tank driver who got the stuffing kicked out of him at Beachy’s, and threatened to drive over the establishment with his tank. His commander calmed him down by warning him that the club might have a basement that he’d drive into.
Phenix City was cleaned up sometime in the 1950s, and Beachy’s is long gone. But do the people who live there now know of that spot’s seedy past? One way to find out, right?
A little Googling uncovered an old newspaper add with the address. And so, after a typical Georgia dinner, I headed across the 13th Street Bridge to the Central Time Zone (sort of) and off to 11th Avenue.
Phenix City is… well, it’s like the East Hartford to Georgia’s Hartford.
When I arrived at the address, of course the club wasn’t there. In it’s place was an auto body shop. However, stories told that Ma Beachy owned three houses across the street, which she rented out to prostitutes, and it looks like those tiny houses are still standing. Here are some pictures I snapped…
Notice how they’re taken from the safety of the inside of my rental car. An intrepid This American Life radio producer would have exited the car and start knocking on doors. Or, if you’re Stephanie Foo, you spend weeks researching so that people are expecting you when you arrive.
But I’m not one of these producers. I’m some weird dude in a rental car that parked on some random corner in some poor town at 6PM on a Thursday evening. I did not knock on doors. I did not even get out of the damn car. There’s a BBQ and soul food joint around the corner, and I thought briefly about stopping in, though I already had dinner. But… never meant to be?
It’s not all bad, though. I did make recordings of some weird-sounding cicadas in my hotel’s parking lot. That means something, right???
This being rural-ish Georgia, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to people and get ideas for stories. People actually talk to other people around here. Southern Charm, y’all. But alas, my fears of approaching and interrupting people from their normal lives keeps me from getting the stories.
Maybe I should get all Stephanie Foo on this. I should treat Connecticut like she treats Houston or Alberta. Sit down and do my research. Go back through the local papers twenty years. Look for comedians who do long form. Scour Craigslist. Find the people first, before I have to knock on doors randomly.
Be prepared. Practice “Kung Foo.”