Sentimental Value, February 2, 2015
You remember the first time at the Mobile Civic Center. It was May 28, 1995, and you were there for a ballet recital rehearsal. You’d danced in the first town you lived in but nothing like this, nothing this...prestigious.
Your mother drives you to the theatre (it’s sublime weather in Mobile, Alabama, as springtime in Mobile is always a row of perfect days), you meet The Civic Center lobby, a big, cavernous, empty, shell of a room in dull gray. (In your adulthood, in reflection, you realize that this probably looked quite modern when it was built.) The following year you’re accepted into the pre-professional ballet company and the world cues, call times, sequined tutus and famous guest dancers becomes the center of your universe -- you’re in love with being on stage and its something you can’t replicate anywhere else. Everything that you do that first year: listening to Duke Ellington’s jazzy “Nutcracker Suite” on drives to the theater, having McDonald’s post-show, doing homework while you stretch in the wings, has become tradition that you cling to.
Looking back, those were “The Good Years”. You had some early childhood trauma, but those years on stage were the years before it sunk in; before the delayed reaction, before you would realise, before the anger and the sadness. (You can’t write that there was a bookend to that, either, once that starts it’s a machine that doesn’t end, even now). Which is why that time was important, it was rosy and uncomplicated. But you come to love this theater because it has become synonymous with The Good Years. Eventually you quit ballet.
After college you decide to move to New York to become a writer. On your last night in Mobile you take a drive past it and park outside. You look into the darkened lobby and remember -- damn, there are so many good things: the time the famous Joffrey Ballet dancer told you that she thought you did a “great job”, the hide-and-seek games on the third floor, the time you got locked outside of the theater with your favorite ABT dancer, seeing snow flurries during a rehearsal for “The Nutcracker” (a rarity in the south), the time you were leaving and a group of African-American school children stopped to wave at you and marvel at the “black ballerina” (you could only smile sheepishly). Your mother says the first time she saw you pas de basque across the stage in a pale pink, romantic tutu, that tears sprung to her eyes.
Years pass. You have integrated into New York life. You go back to Mobile sporadically for the occasional wedding, debutante ball or Christmas, and you make it a point to drive by the Civic Center Theater.
You get news in the winter this year that the new mayor Sandy Stimpson (who you haven’t even heard of, a sad reminder of your constant distancing from Mobile) wants to tear the Civic Center down. This news makes a crack in your heart, a precursor to it breaking. You pen a terse letter to the editor of the Mobile Press-Register and fume privately. A few days later the Mayor announces an official timeline for a demolition (April of 2016) and your heart, still intact, cracks deeper still.
The city thinks the Civic Center is a revenue suck; an ugly waste of space. They like the gilded-age, old-timey look of it’s rival, the Saenger Theater. You wish they could see what you see. When you close your eyes you’re brought back to a typical “off” day at the venue -- a janitor in a burgundy blazer with a whistle that echoes through the halls and the tap-tapping of a hollow dustbin. For some reason, this quotidien scene is romantic to you.
You know that these things happen. You’ve read every quote about change and you hate them all. There was a time when you used to see people protesting when they closed famous, decaying department stores and diners, and read their quotes in the paper and think they’d gone mad. You try to forget about it, you consider a formal protest, handcuffs to the building, posters and tie-dye, but then you remember that you might be the only one who cares.