The reality television road was coming to a halt. Having finished interviewing Michael Breland, who ran two bail bonding shops in Mobile, Ala., I had found what I believed was the final candidate in a diverse group of bounty hunters that also included a former biker, a loose cannon and two lesbians, from which the network could choose to base its show around, entitled “I Am The Law.”
Now it was time to move past Mobile’s seedy underside, and take a moment to admire the city’s charm. I had a hotel reservation that night in Orange Beach, Ala., so I had a limited time to investigate Mobile, but wanted to hit one or two places to get a better feel for what went on in the city and how accessible it was to someone passing through.
Food and a beer would get this goal accomplished. Mobile sits on the water, so seafood was the natural choice. The central park area or Bienville Square is at the heart of the downtown area. The primary artery running past the park is Dauphin Street, which is filled with bars, live music clubs, restaurants and coffee shops.
I chose Wintzell’s Oyster House, partly because it appeared so inviting, with its large porch and easy parking. It also had a lively number of people inside for mid-afternoon, and laughter was spilling out onto the street.
Wintzell’s is located about half-way down Dauphin and perfect for those walking around downtown.
Named for its former owner, J. Oliver Wintzell, the restaurant opened in 1938 as a six stool oyster bar. Now its a modest chain with 12 locations along the Gulf Coast. Famous for its fresh Gulf seafood and oysters (served fried, stewed or nude).
The Dauphin Street location is the original. Inside are two main dining rooms, and a central bar holding residence for those wanting a quick fix of raw oysters.
The interior has an eclectic flavor, littered with Alabama sports memorabilia, particularly Alabama football (Roll Tide!), but the predominant decoration is hundreds of different colored cards and plaques with homespun statements from Oliver Wintzell.
People who are too sharp cut their own fingers.”
“You can sometimes get a pearl from an OYSTER, but it takes a pretty girl to get a diamond out of an OLD CRAB.”
“If the knocking at the door is unusually long it isn’t opportunity knocking – it’s relatives.”
“If work is a virtue, many of us are living in sin.”
It was after 2:00 p.m., too early for happy hour, but the bartender, Jared, informed me the appetizers were half off this afternoon. I took a chilled mug of ale, an order of fried crawfish tails (can’t argue with half-price) and a half dozen oysters on the half shell. Being this far east was enough to allow oysters to be readily available and not overpriced due to the BP oil spill.
The oysters were plump and flavorful, and the crawfish had a light, spicy batter set off with a creamy remoulade dipping sauce. This was just the hearty lunch I needed to travel. Jared informed me about the live music scene in town, and which areas were more frequented by tourists versus locals. He also hooked me up with contact information for a bounty hunter at Metro Bail Bonds who frequented Wintzell’s, which was an added bonus.
I had enough time left to visit one other spot. I wanted to hit a locals watering hole and opted for The Garage, located a block up from Wintzell’s.
The name reflects the previous occupation of this space. In fact there remains a commercial garage door that is rolled up on nice days to allow patrons to easily wander in and out of the establishment.
Fred was tending bar. With Happy Hour only minutes away, business was beginning to pick up rapidly. I explained why I was in Mobile and provided Fred several of the “I Am The Law” flyers, which he volunteered to put up in the bar.
There was no way getting around it, this was a dive, with high ceilings, a pool table and good tunes to complete the scene. It had slab concrete floors, so water and beer could easily be swept out the garage door. They also did live music – a band would be showing up shortly to rock through Friday night.
The crowd was decidedly local, and had a power crowd around for happy hour, including attorneys from the downtown law firms, politicians and their operatives, all hanging together with the regulars. By the time I was leaving folks were spilling out the front and around both sides of the building, where apparently drinks were allowed.
This was all I needed from Mobile, food, drink, a bounty hunter and some hospitality. It’s a sleepy little city, with a comfortable downtown area that’s enlightened enough to keep folks interested, and sufficiently distracts from the troubles that can be found in the less hospitable areas.
I was ready to leave the confines of city life behind for a moment and make tracks for the beach. The thought of open spaces, the ocean and big tropical drinks sounded appealing. I had been chasing this reality television concept for a week, and was going to keep chasing it into Florida, but heard about the scene in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and wanted to check it out since I was in the neighborhood.
There were two watering holes that particularly jumped out, LuLu’s at Homeport Marina and the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package.
Across Mobile Bay and 45 miles down AL-59 is Gulf Shores. This is a seaside resort town of around 5,000 people, whose population greatly expands in the summer months, when the beach front hotels and condominiums are filled. The beaches here, and along Orange Beach and Perdido Key are famous for their bright “sugar white” sand.
Along the north shore of the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores is LuLu’s at Homeport Marina. This serves as the home base for its owner Lucy “LuLu” Buffett, the sister of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who owns a string of themed properties known as Margaritaville.
LuLu’s is similar in look and feel. Its a beach-like compound by the marina, with multiple live music stages, vast restaurant seating and plenty of sand for volleyball and the kids. It’s pleasant enough, boats cruise slowly down the inlet, giving a honk and a wave. If you’re looking for a refreshing beverage, the Bama Breeze and LuLu’s Rum Punch are excellent on a hot day.
The place started as a high class dive, now it’s an entertainment empire and basically a huge tourist trap. LuLu’s offers the idea of a local marina dive, but it’s so commercialized and overly styled in full Margaritaville fashion, that it rings hollow.
Word of warning – stay away from the food.
I did a grab-and-go on drinks and headed east to make sunset. Perdido Key and Orange Beach are only 20 minutes down the road from Gulf Shores.
Billed as the “last great American roadhouse,” the Flora-bama Lounge and Package resides on Perdido Key beach and is aptly named for its strategic position on the Alabama/Florida border. It’s actually slightly into Pensacola, Fla., but only by about six feet.
Originally constructed in 1964, this mostly outdoor establishment is really a series of multi-level connecting structures that prior to hurricane damage, consisted of 20 bars and space where four live bands.
Part of the allure is the crowd. It’s noted that patrons could sit with a millionaire to one side and a biker on the other. Many of the people imbibing this day were alumni from universities in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), as college football taunting was in full swing. The crowd was skewing older this early in the evening. There were a lot of late-30s to early-50s folks getting their drink on.
Judging by the howls from the ladies in the crowd, it wouldn’t be long before these cougars would be prowling the beach for young prey. As I walked into the main stage area, where the tented-ceiling is lined with bras that have been thrown over rope lines, the band was offering up a free CD to whoever had the smallest penis. There were two men vying for this prize, with the winner actually brave enough to claim his victory. There’s no shame at the Flora-Bama.
Then Big Earl & Little Pearl lit into the catchy, “I got a half-hearted hard on to love you with tonight.” With poetry like that you can only expect big things from your evening.
I needed a moment away from the action to make a phone call, and came across the most bizarre contraption. It was an arcade game called The Lobster Zone. It was one of those deals where you put in the money and maneuver a claw over some objects and try to score one, only in this game the tank is filled with water and you’re aiming at live lobsters. The game glowed this deep red from the water tank and each crustacean had a $5 bill rubber banded to its claw. If you catch one the Flora-Bama will boil it up.
Outside the back deck is an immediate change in scenery. Music can be heard from the outside stage, but after traipsing down the long wooden walkway across the sandy beach, I was deposited before the ocean, only feet from the surf. Out here only the waves could be heard. I did have to watch for the occasional precision parachuter landing on the beach, but otherwise it was utterly peaceful as the sun dipped below the horizon.
The big event at this beach is the annual Interstate Mullet Toss, hosted by the Flora-Bama every April. With over 1,000 participants, there will be cars lining the road a mile in each direction.
The mullet toss involves taking a 1 1/2 pound bottom feeding salt-water fish and chucking it as far as possible. It’s a perfected art, and if done with skill, a mullet will sail 150 feet. The fish are recycled I was glad to hear, and told they routinely toss better than 300 pounds of these critters from the Florida side into Alabama.
To round out the festivities there’s a Ms. Mullet bikini contest, a wet t-shirt extravaganza, best “Hiney” competition, volleyball, skeet shooting, a keg toss, three bandstands and 17 bar stations.
As Jimmy Buffett likes to say, “the Flora-Bama Lounge & Package is the place your parents warned you about.”
That evening I had a great blackened Grouper filet at the Wolf Bay Lodge, and then took the advice of my server and went to HammerHeads night club in Orange Beach for the female Jell-O wresting matches. Sorry no photos, I couldn’t bring myself to record the event.
I went in to Pensacola the next day, but that was a nightmare of gaudy consumerism. After making a few inquiries for the realty show I pulled up my tent stakes and headed back home to New Orleans.
In the end the network decided to shelve the reality show “I Am The Law.” Their feeling was any portrayal of the bail bonding profession wasn’t unique enough considering the success of A&E’s ongoing program, “Dog: The Bounty Hunter,” which chronicles the professional life of Duane “Dog” Chapman, a bounty hunter in Hawaii.
I argued that the characters I found in the deep south are more real, and able to be related to by audiences because they’re more like regular people. The inherent danger of their job requires they carry firearms, where Chapman is unable to possess a gun because he is a convicted felon. These guys crack heads for real, and some have worked with Chapman’s people on cases, and all have extremely derogatory opinions of his work.
They operate in an unpredictable work environment, have destabilized home lives, often make questionable lifestyle choices and are half-crazy themselves, but remain enthusiastic about getting the job done.
Regardless of whether this story every reaches the airwaves or print publication, I’ve met some amazing people and found several great new places to play in the Gulf Coast region.
Besides how can you beat driving past the beach on a warm day with the windows down. Crank up the Lynyrd Skynyrd – it just sounds better in Alabama.
“Big wheels keep on turning/Carry me home to see my kin/Singing songs about the Southland/I miss Alabamy once again/And I think it’s a sin.”