S. mentioned to me Thursday night that Joe Barry Carroll was suing The Tavern at Phipps, an upscale restaurant and bar in Phipps Plaza.
Normally, this would have no significance for me, because I don’t follow NBA players of today, let alone yesteryear, but in this case, I had to laugh, because we’d attended a Kwanzaa celebration a couple of years ago where Carroll was also a guest. It was a pretty small gathering, so we all ended up talking to each other quite a bit during the evening.
If you can picture a shock of long braids on a seven foot tall black man in a tailored blue business suit, the most XLLLT white-on-blue dress shirt I’ve ever seen, and a pair of two-toned leather spectators that looked half a mile long, then you might have a chance at imagining his presence back then. When a dude this big talks with his hands, you listen. Although, being the Brown Man, that didn’t last long, and after I got over having to tilt my head back to look up at him, I was back to being my usual bombastic self, arguing with him and the others about everything and nothing.
He was a smooth talker, who looked like he was used to being the center of attention, but then, who wouldn’t be at that height? He didn’t hold his tongue that night at the holiday celebration as we talked about everything from pop culture to societal issues to politics. I imagine the same Joe Barry Carroll was on display at The Tavern at Phipps, a bar I’ve frequented myself.
I thought of all this in just a couple of seconds before I responded to S.
"I’ve been to The Tavern At Phipps. It used to be a broker bar, a financial services bar, a lawyer bar, a sales rep bar, the kind of place where shit talking and political incorrectness reigned after work, that also attracted some of Buckhead's moneyed elite. The bar staff wasn’t really there to serve you – they did bar tricks. And the customers are arrogant as hell. I don’t think this is the first time they’ve been sued for discrimination. I think two black guys sued them a few years ago."
It turns out Carroll was one of "the two black guys" who sued them a couple of years ago – their case is just now coming to trial. More accurately, pre-trial stuff that will determine whether or not the case goes forward.
"I guess he must live on the Southside," I continued, "because any black guy who hangs out on the north end of town knows how quick the whole place looks up when you walk in." I thought about my own run-ins over the years in the waterholes right around John’s Creek and Alpharetta, where black people doing anything in them besides bringing your drinks can still be a rarity. In particular, I thought about a story I wrote about on this very blog, one of dozens of times it felt like I’d walked back into the fifties.
I was in my own neighborhood bar a couple of years ago, a bar I had frequented enough to have a few friends and a rapport with the bartenders that found my favorite beer waiting on me by the time I sat down, when I ran into a guy on a mission. There was only one seat open, so I sat next to him. Because the bar was busy, I had to wait for my beer to be served. The next thing I knew, the guy sitting next to me turned in his seat, looked directly into my eyes, and said, "You know buddy, I think you’re looking for another bar."Why do you go to a place like The Tavern At Phipps? Because at night it is glitz-and-glamour tits-and-ass central, with waitresses who look like they could work at a strip club without changing clothes, and a clientele that is all swagger, some of them in designer shit you never heard of, with married, single, divorced, and "girls night out" cleavage everywhere, a heightened swirl of testosterone and estrogen hanging thick in the air. The music is too loud and the crowd can be obnoxious as hell, but if you go there in the right mood, in the right threads, AND NOBODY ASKS YOU TO GIVE UP YOUR SEAT BEFORE YOU ARE READY, it can be a fantastic time.
He looked like all the other guys in for a few cold ones, guys whose company I’d grown to enjoy. So I said "what’s wrong with this one?"
He leaned in, as if I was a mouse in a cage in a science lab, his eyes piercing, a snide laugh escaping his lips. "I just figured – you know – a fellow like you might like this bar over in Roswell a little better."
I was kind of annoyed because my beer was taking so long, so I answered him before I realized what he was trying to say. "Dude, this is the closest bar to my house. Roswell is too far."
He snorted, his nostrils flaring, and took another tack. "I think you’ll enjoy the music they play over there better than the stuff they play here. You know, the music your kind of people like."
In half a second, he had taken all the prospective fun out of my Friday night. I was alternately livid and outraged, as well as angry at myself for getting too comfortable in a place where I stood out like a sore thumb. In another half a second, I’d made up my mind. "This sum-bitch is not running me out of this bar tonight" I said to myself as I glared back at him. Then a smile came over my face. I leaned in towards him. "Actually, I like the music in this place. Jeff is a pretty damn good musician. When he does Sinatra, he’s on the money."
from Afraid Of The Dark : Racial Animosity
I wasn't there the night Carroll says he got the boot for being black. I didn't read the lawsuit, although I would imagine, if he got kicked out along with his lawyer, it's probably a pretty damn good one. None of that really matters. I don’t know what proof the judge wants, but if he needs more evidence, he can call me.
Because Carroll is right.
The way some people look at you if they come into The Tavern At Phipps and see you sitting at the bar can make you feel like a cross between O.J. and the Scottsboro Boys. Most of the white guys there who are customers there don’t give a damn how black you are, so long as you don’t bother them, or you know who won the game last night.
But there is a certain type of Buckhead Betty, or Buckhead Betty lookalike, who purses her lips like she is trying out for a starring role in Gone With The Wind, whose dander gets up when it looks like dark-skinned interlopers have invaded their inner sanctum and deprived them of prime real estate - seats at the bar.
They make private clubs for people like these.
There have been times when I’ve been at The Tavern at Phipps and given up my seat when I knew I was about to finish my drink…
…and the women eyeballing me were cordial or friendly, or even a little flirty.
And there have been times when I have stared right back at women whose arms were laden down with bags, women with sourpuss faces whose insistent, fidgeting stances were meant to signal to me that they wanted, no they DESERVED the seat my ass was in. Stared back at them and bit slowly into my burger, or sipped slowly at my drink, because I had come there for a piece of prime bar real estate myself.
I reserved my angry black man scowl, the one that completely rearranged the flesh about my eyes, giving their brownness a murderous glare, for those breathy, brassy types, the ones who were forward enough to tap you on the shoulder while a half eaten burger was still on your plate and a fresh beer was in your hand to ask "are you going to be here long?" if I was eating by myself next to a single empty bar stool
I’m nowhere near as tall as Carroll, though I imagine he can scowl just as fiercely as I can, only he's got more face to work with, so I can only wonder at the kind of uproar that might have ensued.
All I can say is, I hope he was wearing those cold-as-hell two toned spectators that day they kicked him out.