I’ll never eat there again, that venerable old place on 21st St N in Birmingham. It’s like a death or something.
My last night in town, I’m having drinks at The Collins, a bar on 2nd Avenue N, with my old friend Jack and his wife Angela. I’ve known Jack for 45 years, but during much of our early contact, he was married to someone else. We used to have quite a gang, and in between vegging out in front of the early days of MTV, when they played videos like this
and finding abandoned fields or lots so we could sail and skip our master Frisbee, we’d go out to eat. Our favorite haunts were Bessemer’s Bright Star, of course, and Birmingham’s John’s. Both restaurants specialized in Greek snapper, and both were high quality. John’s served sweet rolls as an appetizer, and a slaw covered in their own homemade dressing, and sometimes it was these two things that decided for us where we’d eat that night.
The Collins is a cool bar, and I have no idea what office or service it housed back in those days. The three of us are drinking Old Fashioned’s on this night, and Jack is telling me about someone we both know who has fallen further than even I could figure. Before we can order a third — a would-be big mistake given how many steps it takes me to reach the Men’s room — I realize that I’m due up the street at El Barrio for supper with my oldest, bestest friend Fred, his wife Janet, Fred’s son Eric (who just happens to be the lead guitarist for Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires and whose new record Youth Detention is available now at your finest independent music stores), and Eric’s “newly-acquired” wife, Katie.
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While the margaritas and mojitos look incredible, I opt for the safer Coca-Cola to accompany my fresh-made Tamales, which are too good to describe here — corn-based with fresh corn, peppers, and chorizo.
“Do you know what happened to John’s,” I ask Fred.
“Well, it turned into John’s City Diner for a while, but we haven’t been in there in over a decade,” he says.
The last time I went in, when my brother Mike and I were both in town visiting our mother, we dropped by for lunch. No sweet rolls, no fresh snapper, though the slaw still existed. There were vegetables, but no one with taste buds could doubt they were canned.
“I think it’s gone,” says Eric.
I tell the story then about the first time I ever ate in John’s. Mike was there and so was Fred. We were teenagers, 17–18, and we all ordered the fried snapper. It was somewhere beyond delicious, but what I remember most is that Mike poured ketchup on his snapper, and as he was eating, Mr. Phil, the owner of John’s, walked by and feigned a heart attack, or perhaps he was only half-feigning:
“Ohhhh, you put ketchup on my good fish…”
I’m sorry Mike, but at least you never did that again.
Fred remembers the story, too, and as learning experiences go, it’s right up there with your first speeding ticket, and your first really bad date on a church hayride, and for God’s sakes, why did you ask that girl whom you barely knew and had no assurance beforehand whether or not she would enjoy making out with you somewhere deep in that old truck?
Of course I don’t know how many occasions brought me to John’s over the years I lived in town and when I’d return from school. My family loved going there, and at some point, I figured it was a good place to take my dates. That usually impressed these young women, although once, it failed, mainly because my date — our second date ever — had had her heart set on going to a local dinner theater. I should have gone along with her desire, because she sure as hell didn’t enjoy the finer aspects of John’s. But maybe it was a good thing after all, because on this night, I learned that not only had she been married before, but she also had a six-year old daughter. I was 20 then, barely ready to balance a checking account.
The occasion that truly haunts me, though, is the time in college when I took Cheryl to John’s.
Cheryl and I had been close friends since our freshman year in college. Very close. Our timing as something more, though, always missed. We had been to Birmingham — driving those back roads from Montevallo, many times, eating with friends at Da Vinci’s Pizza, or the Cadillac Cafe, dancing at The Gizmo amidst the fabulous people to The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power,” or The Miracles’ “Love Rollercoaster.”
On the occasion of John’s, though, something clicked. The food, the atmosphere. I remember driving home that night in Cheryl’s Toyota Corolla, and her telling me that this was the sort of restaurant that she dreamed of — a city place, old world, a place recognized by its reputation with no glitz. Parquet floors, checkered tablecloths: a place that offers no frills, only years of memories for a city that, despite all its struggles, was holding onto a history of downtown life.
When I say that everything clicked, I mean that Cheryl appreciated this place I loved so much — she said, “Anyone can eat at a Bennigan’s, but this place? This is what counts for people like us”—that on our drive home, I looked at this woman and said exactly what I felt in this precious moment,
“I really love you.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I love you.”
And I did then, and I did after, but not exactly.
Capturing certain moments and sustaining them eludes the best of us. It did me on this night.
We talked later, and I don’t want to say more other than, clearly, when my thoughts are stirred by John’s, I see Cheryl and me sitting at a table, in love, but only on this night.
I haven’t seen her in close to forty years, though a few years back I found her email, and we exchanged a note or two. She was such a part of my life for those years, and I loved her. It’s a cliche, but I’ll say it anyway: I just wasn’t “in love” with her after that night. I’m sorry to the extent that we were both hurt, but I’m not sorry because there was that night, and after, there were the people we married, the people we truly love.
After Fred, Janet, Eric, Katie, and I finished eating at El Barrio, we walked down Second Avenue and said goodbye, for now. We stood on the corner of 21st St., and I took this shot:
The shot is too far, but magnify it, and you’ll see what there is and isn’t. John’s is on the right side, middle of the block. The sign out front, when John’s was thriving, would be lit in neon red. That it wasn’t on this Thursday night, that it will probably never be lit again, is part of love and death. I hope you got to try the Greek Snapper there at least once. If you didn’t, please take my word for it: it was an experience you would have truly loved.