The bow-tied maitre’d at Highlands Bar and Grill directed me to a table near the front window framing the church across the street bathed in soft light. Three men at the table looked up, but remained seated. One extended his hand across the table.
“Tom Collins,” he announced. “My associates, Rob Davis and Davy D’Angelo,” with a casual sweep of his hand. They nodded, but did not offer to shake hands.
Tom Collins. The name fit. His shirt was bright, patterned, loose, and open half way to his navel. Several gold chains, one holding a medallion, nestled in his black chest hair—quite a contrast to the businessmen at Birmingham’s best restaurant in their blue and gray suits with quiet ties tucked under their chins.
“Waiter, get a drink for this man—what ever he wants, and bring us another round of Chivas on the rocks.” Then Tom turned to me and said, “The mayor says you’re the man we need to talk to about the Redmont Hotel.” His associates nodded again.
“My organization helps developers invest in downtown. In addition to lucrative tax credits, a $3 million, low-interest loan is available for renovation. Tax exemption…”
“Look, we just want to buy and renovate the hotel,” Tom said leaning forward. “We don’t want government loans, tax exemptions, or other programs with local politics and red tape. I don’t have time to fool with any of that crap.”
“OK. Have you spoken with the owners about price?”
“Rob and Davy flew in this morning and offered the asking price. Hospitality investments are money makers. We’ll have the hotel under contract in a few days. No problem,” said Tom with a wave of his hand.
“Those guys were happy as pigs in shit,” added Rob.
“Good! How about financing?” I asked.
“Have you ever heard of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ralph Sampson? I represent them and several other NBA players that you would know if you’re a fan at all. I negotiate their contracts with team owners, make investments on their behalf, pay their mortgage payments, and provide their monthly spending money.”
“Wow! I read that Kareem is making over $1 million a year,” I said, feigning amazement.
“He’s the Laker’s franchise, and I made the owner pony up. Kareem’s set for life even if he blows out a knee tonight,” said Tom. “Listen, we need you to make this project go smooth. I don’t want any problems with zoning, building codes, inspections, permits, or any of that shit. Time is money. We need to move fast on this renovation and start bringing in money for my guys. Can we count on you?”
”Absolutely. I’ll work with Mayor Arrington to intervene if there’s any snags. A big part of my job is troubleshooting for developers,” I replied.
“All right, I’m trusting you. Don’t you dare let me down,” Tom said pointing at me with his arm fully extended.
”Let’s get some food. I want a goddamned steak and another drink,” Tom said and shouted for the waiter across the dining room. When he rushed over, Tom said, “Don’t let this glass get empty again.”
After we ordered, I said to Tom, “I’ll bet you get great seats at NBA games.”
“Yeah, the best, but the main reason I go is to talk to my guys. I know they’ll be in the locker room after the game. I put a pen in their hands and get them to sign stuff. I have total control over their finances, but I get signatures on deals when I can. I also find out if I need to keep paying rent and credit card bills for girlfriends—usually more than one. They buy them diamond rings, fur coats, even cars, and then drop them.”
I told them about the new office buildings downtown and conventions that would bring business for the Redmont, but the response came in grunts and shrugs. To spark conversation, I inquired about the Lakers’ chances in the coming season, but Tom told me about the big bonuses he negotiated for his players if they reach the playoffs or the finals.
When we ordered desserts, Tom insisted that everyone needed some Bailey’s Irish Cream. Tom said, “I need to be able to say I’ve seen this Red Man Hotel, but my flight is early tomorrow. Let’s go see it tonight. What the hell.”
“It’s the Redmont Hotel, boss. I got the keys, but we can’t see it tonight. There’s no power,” said Rob. “No lights and no elevators in a goddamned 14-story building? No way,” he adds and shakes his head.
“I don’t give a shit. You carry flashlights for vacant buildings. I need to fulfill my fiduciary responsibilities. We’re going tonight,” said Tom with steel in his voice.
“But…” Rob began before Tom frowned and stared at him hard. “OK, boss.”
* * *
When we had climbed out of our cars on a deserted 21st Street, Davy and Rob trained their flashlights on a naked woman lolling in a ten-foot tall martini glass painted on the hotel’s ground floor window. “Now there’s the hospitality industry for you,” Tom snorted.
Rob led us to the double doors with a heavy chain padlocked onto the handles.The lock sprang open. The chain rattled and fell to the sidewalk. I wondered how we would explain ourselves if the police came by. In the two-story lobby, the flashlights illuminated circles on walls, ceilings, and the high front desk like searchlights. Rob’s flashlight lit up the marble staircase and he took the lead sweeping the stairs before him with light. Davy fell in behind Tom and me and shone his flashlight on the steps in front of us. . On the balcony, we looked down on the two-story lobby and the flashlights lit up an iridescent crystal chandelier.
“I’m amazed that chandelier is still here. Must be plastic,” said Tom. We followed Rob back to the stairs and continued upwards, stopping on the second and third floors, venturing a short distance down hallways and peering into tiny hotel rooms without bathrooms. Beds, chairs, and dressers were overturned. Our footsteps stirred puffs of dust.
“Jesus, I don’t want to run across any bums,” said Davy when we saw nests of blankets on mattresses on the third floor. Tom yelled, “Hello, anyone here?” as we emerged from the stairwell on the fourth floor. The booze was wearing off, so we moved slower and stayed closer together.
On the fifth floor, the light was brighter as Robert’s flashlight shone through the door of a room. The ceiling was mirrored. “The oldest profession, the ultimate hospitality industry,” said Tom.
“Every floor is the same. I’ve done enough goddamned due diligence,” said Tom. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Everyone quickly agreed.
* * *
In the morning, I was sipping a much-needed second cup of coffee when my secretary rang, “Mr. D’Angelo is on three.”
Davy got right to the point. “We’re buying the Redmont for Jabbar, Sampson, and a few other ballplayers. Our offer’s been accepted, and we’re closing as soon as possible.”
“That’s great news! The mayor will be thrilled.”
“Boss don’t want no big publicity now. Maybe later. Got that?” said Davy.
“Sure, but the mayor would love to welcome Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ralph Sampson, and the others to Birmingham as soon as you’re ready.” I replied.
“Not going to happen. Tom does the deals and they play basketball. I’ll keep you informed. Got to go.”
A month later, the Birmingham News, Post-Herald and local TV stations reported on the planned renovation and the involvement of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other athletes. Soon a construction fence enclosed the hotel and part of 21st Street and Fifth Avenue and held a large sign announced “Historic Redmont Hotel, Grand Re-opening in 1985.”
The publicity prompted a call from Angi Grooms Proctor, a former member of the City Council, requesting a contact to offer her services as an interior designer. I put her in touch with Kirk Hyde, a California businessman and friend of Tom Collins. I knew Kirk was in Birmingham. I saw Kirk and Angi at Bottega that evening and learned that she was to be one of the decorators.
In a couple of weeks, Davy called to complain about a snag on the building permit, “They want a new cornice like the original. Years ago most of it rotted and fell from the top of the building onto the sidewalk. Birmingham ain’t Williamsburg! Fix this, dammit.” Fortunately the historic preservationists had proposed a solution: a styrofoam cornice with a sealant that was inexpensive, lightweight, and indistinguishable from the original from the ground. Davy was pleased, and I was relieved.
A steady stream of change orders from the contractor resulted in additional expenses. I told Davy that I couldn’t help him with overruns. On several occasions, he reported that Tom had approved additional letters of credit from Kareem to cover higher costs.
In 1985 just before the Grand Re-Opening, an ivory envelope arrived with an embossed invitation that began: “The pleasure of your company is requested…” The calligraphy continued with arrangements for a celebratory dinner and a room for the night for me and my wife, Susan.
Following a cocktail hour with a jazz combo brought in from New Orleans, Susan and I found our assigned seats. Both baked salmon and New York strip were served by tuxedoed waiters who repeatedly refilled our wine glasses before they were empty.
At the raised head table, Tom Collins’ sky blue dinner jacket stood out from men in the black tuxedos including Mayor Arrington. Angi, a former Miss Alabama and now an interior decorator for the hotel, was the only woman at the head table. She was seated between Mayor Arrington and Kirk. After some polite conversation with the mayor, she gave her full attention to Kirk, the man she later married and raised a family with in California.
Collins rose, his glass in hand, welcomed the guests, and spoke at length about the quality of the renovation and the many fine features of the hotel. He raised his glass and offered a toast to “the best damned hotel in Birmingham.” Then he sat down heavily.
The mayor glanced at me and lifted an eyebrow. The remarks I prepared for him remained in
his coat pocket. Collins had not mentioned Kareem, the other athletes who were investors, or his friend Kirk.
* * *
After renovation, Susan and I usually rendezvoused for a drink late on Friday afternoons at the sidewalk cafe outside the Redmont’s corner bar. Occasionally friends beeped and waved as they drove by. The flags of the United States, Canada, England, France, and Germany stirred in the warm air above us. Our regular seat was next to a window with a view of the lobby chandelier—still glowing, plastic or not.
Jessie, our regular waitress, passed along the week’s gossip overheard from the politicians and lawyers who frequented the bar. One Friday, she hurried to our table and breathlessly announced “Kareem his own self was here on Wednesday. That man is really tall!”
“Did you get to talk to the big man himself?” I asked.
“No,” she said with a grimace. “I saw him though. His was leaning his rear end on the high front desk, feet flat on the floor, waiting for someone to show up to check him in. He looked none too happy.”
“Was that the only time you saw him?” Susan asked.
“Yeah, he hid out in the presidential suite on the top floor. Ordered dinner from room service. Some businessmen came to see him. He left in a taxi early the next morning.” Then she chuckled, and added, “Housekeeping put a twin bed at the foot of a king for him. Someone said he’sseven feet, two inches tall, and I believe it.”
* * * *
On another Friday afternoon, when Bessie saw us sit down outside, she stepped behind the bar. I assumed she was getting Susan’s Chardonnay and my Heinekin. Instead she brought us a Sports Illustrated opened to an article titled “A Lot of Hurt: Inaction Got Kareem Creamed.”
“Just look at this. One of my regulars brought it in. I’ll be right back with your drinks,” said Bessie.
Susan and I moved our heavy wrought iron chairs close so we could both see the article. She skipped to the last paragraph, and said, ”Kareem fired Tom Collins and sued him for mishandling $9 million of his money. Wow! The Redmont was one of those deals.”
I pointed to an enlarged quote from Kareem, “It’s been a crash course in business school, and I’ve paid a steep tuition.”
Bessie returned with our drinks. “I’m sorry Kareem lost all that money,” I said, “But I’m glad he saved the chandelier and this fine, old hotel.”