Cabin Pressure

Tom Waits and the North Georgia Woods

A tale of two men, two flight attendants, a once-in-a-lifetime concert, the world’s best/worst strip club, 9mm Glocks and some possible incest. 

“Once in a lifetime” doesn’t do it justice. A chance to see Tom Waits live on what would likely be his final tour? Give me a break. Twice?! Count me in. 

My friend Vida had procured tickets for the final show of the U.S. tour in Atlanta while I bought the tickets for Mr. Waits’ show in Houston. On Sunday, June 22, I rode to Houston with friends and we ducked into a couple of great bars near Jones Hall, the venue. One of those oddly shaped symphonic halls you’ll see in just about every major U.S. city. 

A 21-song set and two encores, the man was on fire. 

A month or so later, I’d arrived in Georgia for Mr. Waits’ final show of the tour. 

Meeting the ladies. 

After landing in Atlanta, Vida took me to a fancy pants bar near the old Lenox Square Mall. I’m not one for fancy pants bars but it was the 4th of July and we would have a clear view of the Buckhead fireworks. I’m still not sure why that mattered, we were men over 30 – but Vida knew the city better and seemed to have a plan so I acquiesced. 

An hour went by, with twilight creeping in the patio fires were lit and the bartenders began a bottle-flipping, juggling and tossing routine that would make the 80s blush. At one point, the main bar became a bridge of rocks glasses in three rows, each row filled with liquors of a different color, red, white and blue. Then everything was set aflame and liquid patriotism dripped into another row of… I lost interest. I was starting to get frustrated because I just wanted a Coors Light because I’m classy.

Once the bartenders actually started bartending again, Vida and I were approached, flanked in fact, by two well-dressed ladies who’d recently spent a bit of time in front of the mirror. But not too much time. Just the right amount. They smelled like fresh rain and lavender and brought out the big smiles. After introducing themselves, they offered to buy us a drink but Vida was way ahead of them. The man was a professional for crying out loud. 

We stood at a high table with our new friends and talked and laughed effortlessly until the fireworks began. After pretending to care about the fireworks, I recommended going to a more comfortable bar. Then Vida asked the ladies if they wanted to go back to his place and they quickly accepted. This was all new to me, I genuinely wasn’t this guy but here we were, off to pick up some mixers and snacks for our off-duty flight attendant dates. Vida was smooth enough for both of us.

Vida’s gigantic English mastiffs were escorted to the backyard while I put out the cheese, on so many levels, crackers, wine glasses and candles. The patio torches were lit, the non-invasive jazz was on and the girls knocked and entered as if cued by a stage director. Vida and I mostly told old stories about Austin. a city we’d both lived in before and joked, even sang, and probably talked way too much about the Tom Waits concert the following evening. All-in-all, it was a fun, stress-free night, a damned Michelob commercial. 

The following morning, after our guests left, I cleaned up and did some laundry while Vida ran some errands. He told me to go ahead and get ready and throw on a jacket, there was someplace he wanted to take me for lunch before we began pre-concert festivities. One of those $25 cheeseburger joints with foie gras and 75 IPAs on tap. In other words, not my thing but an excellent meal and experience all around. 

After arriving at the first dive bar on our pre-concert crawl, Vida sprang the news on me. The flight attendant I’d spent the slumber party with owned a cabin in the North Georgia woods, about an hour away, the ladies wanted us to head up there after the show. Get out of a show past 10, possibly 11pm, make a scheduled stop at a legendary local club – then drive an hour into the North Georgia woods? Why not. 

The show was Mr. Waits’ last stop on the U.S. tour, I may have mentioned that a couple of times, and told hundreds of people since – magnificent from the moment we stepped foot in the Fox Theatre to the last note of the last encore. We got to see a living legend from the fifth row of what may have been his last big U.S. show ever. We certainly hope not though. 

Off to the Clermont. If you’re uninitiated and statistically you likely are, Hotel Clermont was a dirty place with an even dirtier bar where the now-famous Blondie, a short, stout African-American woman in a blonde wig, would crush empty beer cans between her bare breasts. The Clermont was a strip club but also it wasn’t. The walls looked like that of the interior walls of Napoleon House in the French Quarter, untouched since 1790. 

A few mismatched stools surrounded an oval bar, square? I don’t know, it was a shape. The girls would insert their own money in the jukebox, play what they were about to dance to then they would take a sip from their daiquiri glass – a drink they also paid for from their own pockets, sometimes. Then they would climb up on the far end of the bar, or pick a spot on the floor close to the tables in the other, smaller, even more dingy room and have at the entertaining

It was the kind of fun, sordid place you took out-of-town guests to, not your run-of-the-mill gentlemen’s club in a strip mall, no pun intended, near the airport. No. It was the kind of place celebrities popped in and enjoyed because it was the cool and right thing to do. Now, of course, it’s a boutique hipster magnet with avocado toast and no sign of its past. A shame but it happens every day to even the best of them. 

But that night, it filled all of our expectations. Until, that is, we reminded ourselves of where we were supposed to be headed hours before. An alarming but not too panicked jolt hit us and we climbed in the SUV and headed north. Luckily, one of us was smart enough to use the previous few hours to sober up. That wasn’t me. An hour later, we were reunited with the 4th of July Flight Attendants and dancing in the living room of a two-story cabin in the North Georgia woods like people who’d just seen The Big Chill

Later that night, I heard a loud laugh come from down the hall, it was obviously Vida’s laugh. The thin, wooden walls upstairs weren’t enough to protect me from what had happened a moment before. My bedmate was making noises of delight and while doing so, yelled out the name “Eric!” several times, with great passion and vigor. Shortly after came Vida’s guffaw. 

Though she had just screamed what wasn’t my name several times, she never acknowledged it in any way, shape nor form. 

The following morning, Vida and I were actually the first out of bed. He was pouring orange juice and grinning ear-to-ear. As soon as I made eye contact with him, he started his high-pitched, infectious cry-laugh. He caught his breath and asked, “You know why I was laughing last night?” I had a pretty good idea, so I – still doubled over – nodded a ‘yes.’ He, still catching his breath, shook his head in disagreement. 

Vida pointed to a graduation photo on the fridge and said, “That’s Eric,” now he was scaring me with how hard he laughed, “…that’s her son!” 

Vida was now on the floor. The color drained from my face and my temperature grew cold, frigid even. I just kind of shuffled onto the front porch, staring off into the treeline. All I could hear was Vida’s laugh-scream and resulting choking and coughing. In my opinion, he was enjoying this a bit too much. And, if it was true, was that legal? Can you yell something like that during sex? Did I have to report this to someone? 

I needed any and all philosophical references, notes, quotes and anecdotes at my disposal immediately. Something just won’t make it past your psyche and shouldn’t, they can do some real damage in there. So I decided to shake it off, pour a very stiff screwdriver and put on some Otis Redding. Once the ladies made it downstairs, we had an awkward breakfast and decided, like many grown adults with jobs and bills, that we would hang all of the Christmas ball ornaments from the attic on the small box pines out front and shoot them with a pellet gun. 

That’s how it came to pass that the four of us, strangers just 30 hours before, drank cold beer on a Sunday morning and shot a bb gun at ornaments until the liquor came out and the bb gun turned into a 9mm Glock and the ornaments became paper man silhouette targets. The logical progression. 

In that exact moment in time, “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. was wildly popular so why wouldn’t we play the song loudly and squeeze off four shots at the target timed perfectly to the song? Back in Austin, I had a Basset Hound, subscribed to The Economist and listened to NPR on a daily basis and here I was acting an absolute fool with a firearm. And loving every minute of it. I was actually a bit worried about how into it the girls were. And they were tremendous shots. 

It was now Sunday night. Vida and his lady friend had to get back to Atlanta whereas I still had a full day of vacation left. My holiday partner, yes, the one who – as far as I knew – had shouted out her own son’s name during sex, and I had a much more laidback evening by comparison. In the morning, she took me to the Waffle House where we barely spoke, then had a long, silent ride back to Atlanta together. 

I never saw nor heard from her again.

That evening, my last in town, when my good friend Vida got home from work. He threw his keys into a bowl on the kitchen counter, turned and took one look at me and fell onto the floor where he laughed for nearly 10 minutes. I thought that was a bit much.