December 27, 2017

Gingko Leaves in Puddles of Beer: A Barfly’s Lament


Some people can bury their dead and be done with it. Others just circle around the grave, a rote perambulation, lighting a kerosene lamp and hoping the light will penetrate the meters of earth and all good memories will leap up again, pure and whole. Burn the incense, light the Camel filter between fingers that shake, pour out the cheap beer over the grave and try to summon the spirits of the dead. I keep calling to them, but they have nothing to say to me. 

I’ve lived in Athens since the summer of 2010, and I arrived here as dopey a mousey virgin as one could have imagined. That was the first loss, and the most welcome, as a rangy kid from Duluth with a molly habit and a viola taught me how to get drunk on a Tuesday night and make out on a trampoline. The losses that came after were less welcome, and ranged from the mildly annoying (a fuck buddy flakes out on you, unceremonious staff changes at your favorite gas station, your landlords throw out your awesome patio furniture and Keystone Light can-towers because they look “trashy”) to the devastating (you wave goodbye to the only friends you’ve ever had and smoke a cigarette just so you don’t have to talk and then everyone will hear the quiver in your voice thick with tears; you bury your cat on your birthday). A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a loss that hangs, unpleasantly liminal, in between these two extremes, something more than trifling but less than heartbreaking, a dull ache, a wistful yearning for things that were. 

I’m talking about Copper Creek, which closed its warm-hued doors in November after 15 years in business. Long before Tropicalia was a perfumey twinkle in anyone’s imagination, the Creek was slaking thirst and assuaging hunger under its rafters festooned with assorted skilletry and walls adorned with vintage advertisements. It pains me to think that now no soft yellow light reflects off the hundreds or thousands of pennies that winked under the glass when, if you were anything like me, you would finger the moisture-beaded side of your pint and absently flip through a Flagpole while waiting for wings. I always got the special. My favorite was the parmesan, always six, always bleu cheese, always with celery. 

It was a prime spot for people-watching, gazing at parades of fake-ID havers floating by in clouds of neutral colors, clip-clopping in heels down Washington Street, drunken late-teenage sway. Oh, kids. You can’t hold your alcohol yet. But you will. This town schools us all, eventually. I will miss the place dearly. Walking by now feels like gazing ruefully at pictures of departed friends. I know why they are gone, cerebrally, but emotionally all I can do is whimper and wonder why what was once warm and familiar and familial is now shuttered and motionless and cold, dark windows that were once eyes a bright and inviting face. 

If I’m getting overly sentimental about a bar, so be it, because it wasn’t just a bar to me. It was a haven of beer and good company, a place to watch football and stumble into the kind of spontaneous conversations with strangers that make this town so addictive and extraordinary. It was more than a bar, it was a companion. And change is inevitable, but I always cry a little when my companions are gone. 

One of my friends in town, one of the many people that I met on Creek’s narrow patio, drew upon her two decades in this town and reminded me the other day, sagely and gently, that over the years many Athens institutions beloved and venerable had dissolved or transmogrified into something else—Tasty World into Magnolia’s, Jittery Joe’s into Max and so on and so on, over and over. But I haven’t been here that long, and the profound and unwieldy sentiment I carry for everything about this place—the yellow fans of gingko that right now scatter and skitter across the downtown concrete, the row of eclectic houses on Pulaski, even the redolence of stale booze and human shame that lingers downtown on Sunday mornings—carries with me almost unbearable heft. First high, first friends, first fuck, first heartbreak, first true intimation of poverty, first time ever feeling happy—all happened here. 

A while back a bartender—or a friend, I don’t remember, and what’s the difference, in the end—told me I was made for this place. Yes, I thought, I for her and she for me. My disaffected ebullience finally found its match in a city where the sublime and ribald seem to assault you on the reg, sometimes in the same day, same hour, same bar or person. 

I agree with the sentiment, but it’s not enough. Yes, I belong here, cold Midwestern roots and frost-poisoned accent notwithstanding. Every time I go back to Texas, my parents and siblings complain about my speech patterns, ever softening in the Georgia heat, cadence unraveling towards lugubriousness, fealty to schoolhouse grammar diminishing daily. Gingko leaves pressing upon my heart like those that land in soft concrete, permanence imparted to delicate veins. 

On one of the final evenings I spent outside the Creek’s wide front windows, I commented to some friends, or incidental acquaintances, really, united by the beer and easy camaraderie the place inspired, that we would all cease to exist once the doors were shuttered—that we arose, free of cause, mirages cast by puddles of stale beer, and would dissolve again into smoke and din once those oases in concrete evaporated into the air. It was only a bar, really. But it was for a certain cadre of Athenians a perfect bar, a relief in miniature of everything I have loved about this town since I moved here, hapless and naive, nearly a decade ago. I was made for this town, into which I came an alien and for which I could not feel greater affection and gratitude. I, like so many of the barkeeps, artists, musicians and all-around weirdos that make their homes here and make it in turn wild and wonderful, was made for this place. 

But more even than that, we were made to love her.