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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Birmingham

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Birmingham

By Eclipse Award-Winning Writer Sean Clancy

It’s been 20-year dalliance for the southern city and me. I came here, chasing a girl, in 1990. I wound up marrying the woman in 2006; I’ve been the token Yankee at Thanksgiving and Christmas ever since. I’m the one American-ee (as they say) amongst the Kontos family of Birmingham, Alabama. There are other Anglos who have played their parts in the real-life Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I’m the true outsider; blue eyes, light skin and unable to recite the starting 11 of the football team. Roll Tide.

I’ve learned to love Birmingham.

I ate cheeseburgers at Dugan’s, owned by a sister, on my first trip. Never made it to Ollie’s for its barbecue (that was the one thing I knew about Birmingham). Sank Christmas trees in a lake to create a fish habitat. Asked if I hunted, golfed or fished, lied to my future brothers-in-law and told them all three. My brother-in-law John Grenier took me to the Iron Bowl during my first trip – I figured this would happen every year. I’ve never been back.

I’ve met Porter McCollister, a southern gentleman, and John Lauriello, a southern degenerate; I like both of them. Suffered through two funerals – the Greeks do it right, they mourn openly and without positive spin. Flew in and out of Birmingham International, before and after 9/11, and am still amazed by the alacrity of the exercise. Met Phillip and Rachel Parnell, two kids cutting the ties that bind. Philip enrolled at Williams College, Rachel applied to six schools I’ve never heard of but know they’ll challenge her and lead her farther away from Birmingham.

I’ve eaten Greek salads at Zoe’s, dolmades at home, sushi from Jinsei, spaghetti at Gianmarco’s. As my wife says, “Food is love. Love is food.” Drank cocktails and heard stories at the Highlands, the Fish Market and something called the Tavern in a strip mall off 280. Sat in the backseat of a Jaguar, driving around at night, peering into restaurant windows, checking on the scene and reporting back to the web of family and friends about who’s doing the business and who’s going out of business.

The patriarch of the family, Steve Kontos needs to make sure Birmingham’s youth (he’s 90, nearly everybody he knows is youth) stays on the right track. He should have owned a restaurant. He’s the self-anointed, “Guru, expert on all matters.” Love and finance are his specialties. On my first trip, I arrived on Friday and he kept calling me, “My Man.” I thought, ‘wow, he likes me.’ On Monday morning, from his chair in the den in the brick ranch on Brookwood Road, he worked the phone lines like an air traffic controller. His business was produce, he wheeled and dealed for hours that morning, bowl of oatmeal in front of him, cardboard box of papers and the magical phone. He talked for three hours, selling bananas like a peanuts hawker at a baseball game. For three hours, the phone never rang and he never dialed a number, he kept hitting call waiting and answering the new call with, “Hey, my man . . . ” I was gutted.

Years later, I married the youngest of his seven children, in the Greek Church downtown with a halo on my head and a candle in my hand, making three laps around the altar while my Pennsylvania friends smirked from their pews. We white danced to Heather Hayes (Isaac Hayes’ daughter) and Greek danced to homemade cds at the reception, a gastric extravaganza at Bottega. We watched repressed northerners dance with wild southerners, laughing at the homogenization of America, right in front of our eyes. I signed a marriage certificate – and a contract to spend every Christmas in Alabama.

Sean Clancy is an Eclipse Award-Winning Writer. Champion jockey in 1998, Clancy co-publishes Steeplechase Times and The Saratoga Special with his brother Joe. Clancy won the Eclipse Award for writing in 2009, and was part of HRRN’s Eclipse Award-Winning Breeders’ Cup broadcast team in 2010. Sean’s keen eye make his pre and post race insight invaluable to listeners and his unique ability to relate to horsemen helps provide outstanding interviews for HRRN fans. He currently lives in Middleburg, Va. with his wife, son, eight horses, two cats and a goat.

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