The first night I spent in Tallahassee, the previous tenant of the house I was renting showed me how the office locked from the outside. She and her ex used to take turns locking each other in to work on their novels. The office smelled powerfully of cigarettes. I loved it, and her, at once. After she gave me the keys, she asked me if I wanted to go to Bird’s.
We met two of her friends there. They were also writers. I was new to town, but already everyone I knew was a writer. I had moved to Tally from Connecticut-by-way-of-Brooklyn, to teach and study for my PhD at Florida State. Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack, where I immediately became a regular, is not what a person might think of as a writerly bar—it’s a dive near busy Tennessee Street, just down the way from the Greyhound station. There’s a giant mossy oak you park underneath, but my arborist friends back north had told me to never park under a live oak. One of them had actually gone so far as to get bar-drunk weepy and say he might never see me again—not because I was moving far away, but because the South prioritized beauty over arboreal upkeep and he was sure I would soon be squashed to death in my bungalow by a fallen branch. This is neither here nor there. The point is, by virtue of writers monopolizing Bird’s—with its graffiti sticker bathroom, its kiss-of-death comedy open mic, its grind-house movie screenings, and, most of all, its perfect sandwiches—maybe it was a writerly bar.
The menu, a laminated front-and-back one-sheet, had limited options but seemingly infinite combinations of those options, and everyone I knew was convinced their combo was the best. Mine was the grouper sandwich, blackened, with cheddar, jalapeño, tomato, and table hot sauce and tartar sauce on the side. I usually got fries, but sometimes I got slaw instead. I regret nothing, except the fact that as I write this, I am living in the part of New York people sometimes call the North Country and no one will make me a grouper sandwich unless it’s part of a Lenten fish fry.
The Bird’s menu is a linguistic joy. A stipulation around the chicken sandwich says, “You need to understand these are sandwiches and not whole chickens,” which is more narratively compelling than any novel. My favorite bit of Bird’s poetry is one of the options for preparing sandwiches: “Fried (except for today).”
The menu, since I moved to Tally in 2013, has always said this. And every today has always been an exception. There has never been a grouper fried on my watch. But I love how the description implies that, while never once has it happened, a sandwich could be fried. Maybe, someday, it could. It implies that today, in some way, is exceptional, even if all you’ve done, for example, is stare at the draft of a novel that just won’t bend to your will and then knocked off to Bird’s.
One time, I got stung by a thousand fire ants while mowing my yard, and my ankle swelled into a cankle. I was full of steroids plus pitchers of beer, and this was enough to get me on the Bird’s stage to sing Alanis Morissette in front of a road sign hanging on the wall that says: SPEED HUMP. One time, on his way to meet us after work, our friend Ben swung by the Dunkin’ Donuts dumpster. He idled in the alley until the day’s garbage bag of stale doughnuts was thrown away, and yoinked it. By the time he pulled up to Bird’s, we were truly drunk, our last grouper sandwiches consumed hours earlier, the kitchen closed. And then there was Ben. He popped the trunk of his car and sliced open the bag and we had a doughnut feast.
We ate at Bird’s, and drank at Bird’s, but mostly Bird’s was where we went to gather, to chain-smoke under the parking lot pergola, shouting over traffic and shooting the shit. We gossiped about the writing program. We cried about our drafts. And we had art fights. Which writers we thought were good or bad or overrated. It all seemed so vital back then, though if I’m honest, the thing that most defined all the writers we gossiped about was that they were successful, and we weren’t. They were probably in New York, drinking martinis at the Algonquin with famous editors and the ghost of Dorothy Parker, while we, well, we were at Bird’s. Eating doughnuts from Ben’s trunk.
When we ran out of gossip and art fights, we played games. In one, we turned our names into measurements of the things we were known for. A Kilby was a unit of righteous rage. A Hoover was a frequency of sighing. A Hauser (me) was either how much someone’s face scrunched up when they smiled or a degree of mercy. Another game was more rudimentary: We took book titles with the word heart in them and replaced heart with dick. The Dick Is a Lonely Hunter. “The Tell-Tale Dick.” In the Dick of the Dick of the Country.
The other day I watched Pretend It’s a City, that docuseries in which in theory Martin Scorsese interviews his longtime friend Fran Lebowitz but in practice Lebowitz just talks about how she sees life while Scorsese wheezes with laughter in close range. At one point they’re talking about places where they used to drink and smoke and complain. They’re talking about the smoking ban, talking about old times. It sounds a lot like gossip about after-hours artist hangs, a lot like memories of f**king around. But no! Lebowitz says. Those hangs were something. You know what artists sitting around smoking and drinking in bars is called, Marty? It’s called the history of art!
The history of art!
The history of art was written by Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, sure. It was written by Ernest Hemingway at Harry’s Bar. It was written by Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern. And it was written at Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack. Which is to say, it is written anywhere people who are trying to make things gather. Because after a day of sitting alone with your own mind on the page, it is such a gift to play, to be ridiculous and bawdy and stupid. To get drunk and sing Alanis even though the doctor told you not to. To lean too close to the cute girl in your workshop during the grind-house feature. To crush your lipstick-stained cigarettes into the same glass dish as someone else’s as you fight about which Bonnie Raitt lyrics are the best.
Play is the history of art, Marty.
People always ask writers about their craft, about their desks. But that’s not where it really happens. Ask them where they play. Where they cut loose. Where they go to stay sober. Where they listen to each other tenderly or go on long walks. Ask them where they go when they’re afraid they might never be fried sandwich material, might never make anything extraordinary. Where they gather with beloveds in the hopes that the normal Fried (except for today) rules of the universe might be suspended, even if just for the night.