12 November, 2020

Exploreum in the '90s

Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville

My favorite place to be in Winter 1996 was wherever she was. Like most boys at that age, I was infatuated with someone I found impossible to stay away from, so when she wanted to drive downtown to explore the "big" city of Mobile, I gladly followed along.

Ervin S. Cooper
Mobile, Alabama, was a city of 200k residents back then, and the city was then actively working on making the downtown area a much nicer place. Cooper Riverside Park first opened in December of that year; we would frolic and gaze and rest and vigorously enjoy ourselves there. Nearby was the Adam's Mark Hotel (now known as the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel), the tallest highrise hotel in Alabama at 28 stories. Despite its size, the foyer would be deserted at 3 a.m., save for the person on duty behind the desk, so I could play their grand piano to an audience of just two for forty-five minutes or so. I wasn't terribly good, but that didn't matter; it was wonderful just to have a grand to myself for a few minutes each night, regardless of the quality of my playing. We never went to bars, or interacted with others beyond a word or two. We just walked from park to park, sampling the smells of azaleas and camellias, sitting on benches next to statues, and finding secluded green areas for privacy. We took full advantage of the new downtown developments as they came up. By 1998, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and IMAX Dome Theater opened across the street; I flashed the news crew as it filmed the Exploreum's grand opening live for the evening news; it was the first (and hopefully last) time I've ever been stark naked on live television.

Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel
Later, when I was by myself, I still loved visiting downtown Mobile. I would go well after midnight and stalk the platforms of the Arthur C. Outlaw Convention Center. I would lie on the grass at Cooper Riverside Park and listen to the waves gently crash against the pier. I would gently ask the Adam's Mark receptionist if I could play the grand piano so often that the employees working at 3 a.m. would eventually just immediately gesture to the piano the moment that I would walk in. I would play light jazz, improvising notes with my right hand while holding a basic chord progression on my left. I would (poorly) play songs by Nobuo Uematsu, often slowing down during the hard parts that I hadn't yet learned. I would play more than I would play.

St. Josephs Chapel organ by Heissler
(Even later, in 2003, I would spend two nights each week going up to the Heisler tracker pipe organ at St. Joseph Chapel at 3 a.m. to continue the tradition, though I'd almost always play to an audience of none there, and I'd immediately stop if anyone came into the chapel. No one needs to hear me play Uematsu's Dancing Mad at three in the morning when they've come to the chapel likely for guidance of a very different kind.)

These memories mean little to whomever ends up reading this. But it's not written for you; it's written for me. To me, these memories are precious. They're moments of time frozen in amber back when I was too immature to realize that the world didn't revolve around me. They're memories of a self with so much naiveté that, even now, I cannot fathom how I could possibly think the way that I did. They remind me of happy times, but, also, of the shame that comes with not appreciating it the way that I should have. They help to ground me in the changes that I've made over the years — they cement the surety I feel that the many dividing lines between then and now are worthwhile and good. They make me more fully appreciate the joy I feel in the simple pleasures I take in the here and now.

The deep regrets I have for what my ancestor did may loom large, but these memories help to remind me that no man is pure evil. That the error was in grasping too hard, in assuming that fate had a plan, in tasking myself with making it work instead of letting it go. The error, too, was in my drastically poor choices, but, behind that, it was an error of faith. I stand here ever so grateful that I will never again make that category of error.

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