I find it ironic that two of my best friends each own popular Atlanta bars within aerobic stumbling distance of my front door. Years ago I would have foamed at the mouth to be in a position that allows me to freeload booze with such abandon. I would have bounded out my door gleefully every damn day, I tell you, and descended on these places with my own personal copies of the keys I would have insisted they make for me. But those days are over, eradicated by a morning years ago when things changed.
I remember it fairly clearly, considering. I’d been partying the night before at the Vortex, owned by my first bar-owning best friend Michael Benoit, and I was accompanied by Grant Henry, who is now my second bar-owning best friend and who, for some reason, felt the occasion called for us to forgo glasses altogether and just allow Michael to pour the hooch directly down our gullets.
Back then my favorite drink used to be something called a Smith & Wesson, which consisted of equal parts lighter fluid, cola, cream, plutonium, potatoes, and frog pieces, pretty much. Michael needed protective goggles to mix it, and when he wasn’t pouring it directly into my piehole, he’d serve it to me over ice “in a big glass with a big straw,” which, for some reason, were details upon which I always insisted.
That night, the one before the morning when things changed, Michael told me he knew why I always wanted the big straw. “It’s because you like to chew on it while you write,” he said. This took me aback, because I hadn’t realized I did that. “Yep, you sit right there,” Michael said, indicating a particular seat at the bar, “you chew on your straw, and you write in your notebook.”
The next morning I woke up with a hangover so severe that I swear I could see my liver lying next to me, breathing rapidly and wearing an extremely angry expression. The hangover was epic, like a milestone that delineates your life into segments. For example, four years post–Epic Hangover, I sold my first book, and about five years pre–Epic Hangover was when I’d met Michael in the first place.
And I was the one who introduced Michael to Grant, although neither will likely give me credit for it. I suspect the reason is because their friendship has ballooned so huge they want to attribute its genesis to something more monumental, like maybe Moses and the burning bush. Recently, when Grant quit his job in order to open his own bar, he did so under the assurances of a prospective partner who then dumped him like a toxic turd soon after Grant burned all the bridges necessary for him to take this big step. It was Michael who helped Grant proceed on his own, partner-free. Under Michael’s tutelage, Grant created Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium, a bar that is so popular it often draws crowds big enough to be seen with the naked eye from other galaxies.
This year Michael’s bar will celebrate its twentieth anniversary, while Grant’s bar will celebrate its second. I will probably make a point to be there on both occasions, even though I no longer frequent bars in general. There was that Epic Hangover, see, the one where I awoke fully clothed with evidence that my bra had been soaked in red wine while the rest of my outfit was perfectly stain-free. I do not remember how that happened. I do remember, though, that Michael asked me what the hell it was that I was constantly jotting down in my notebooks, and my answer was the first time I ever voiced in public my aspiration to be an author. I also remember that in response, Michael looked at me levelly and asked, “What’s stopping you?”
The next morning, the morning of the Epic Hangover, I lay in bed, the room spinning, my angry liver flopping on the floor like a trout. I guess there comes a point like this in all our lives when we can choose to keep walking a path even though we clearly see what is waiting to meet us at the end of it, or we can take a slight turn. All I know is that this particular morning, the morning of the Epic Hangover, Michael’s words kept ringing in my ears—“What’s stopping you?” Nothing is stopping me, I thought, and with that I could feel it, the slight turn. And that was the morning when things changed.
Illustration by Peter Arkle