ATLANTA – Most Fridays in the summer of 1999, I left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building, climbed into my Corolla, cranked Outkast’s Aquemini CD and headed for the ATM at the base of the Bank of America skyscraper in Midtown. Once there, I would park illegally, dash to the machine and feed in a $550 check (minus taxes). For a 20-year-old intern, this was eff-you money. After I paid for the lower-loft bed I rented at a Georgia Tech frat house, I blew most of the rest on beer. But most weeks, ten of those dollars went to Eats.
I returned to Eats this past weekend. I was elated to find that it’s the same dump it always was. They’ve put in a fancy Whole Foods just down Ponce de Leon Avenue, but Eats remains as it was in one of the most informative summers of my youth. It’s dark, a little dingy and staffed by a heavily tattooed crew that looks menacing but couldn’t be nicer. They still make have separate ordering stations for meat-and-three and build-your-own-pasta, and I still walked right past the pasta station to order jerk chicken*. They still have stacks of Creative Loafing issues by the window, and I still grabbed one on the way to my table.
*I was on a bit of a jerk chicken kick in 1999 after spending spring break eating it at the roadside stands in Negril, Jamaica. When I returned from Jamaica, I opened my mailbox to find that the AJC had sent a drug-test kit for my impending internship. For some reason, Peach State institutions just don’t appreciate proper spring break tomfoolery. After three weeks of being too scholastically busy to visit the testing lab, I complied with the AJC’s request and passed with flying colors – though I probably did test positive for Scotch Bonnet peppers.
Even 13 years later, ten bucks buys a massive platter of jerk chicken and three sides with a fountain drink. I ordered black beans, rice and collard greens. I’m a sucker for good collards, and Eats makes a mean batch on Sundays. Though it seemed impossible, the staff seemed even more heavily tattooed. The gentleman who took my order had the requisite neck tat, but he also added muttonchop tats and the always-difficult-to-pull-off forehead tat. To complement these, he wore a tarpon-covered shirt that looked as if he bought it at Jimmy Buffett’s garage sale. In spite of facial ink Mike Tyson would consider excessive, he was exceedingly polite. The same went for the guy on jerk chicken duty, who patiently complied when the whiny customer in front of me asked him to chop the chicken in a manner that would separate the white meat from the dark meat. “You aren’t supposed to do that,” forehead-tat told him. “I know, I know,” the guy on cleaver duty replied. I appreciate this policy. The staff at Eats understands there is no room in this world for poultry racists.
The jerk chicken was as delicious as I remembered. The staff posts a sign at the counter warning diners the jerk is spicy, and they aren’t lying. Proper jerk chicken should make the taste buds sweat buckets, and Eats makes proper jerk chicken. I devoured that chicken as I leafed through my Creative Loafing. For a moment, it was 1999 again, and my most pressing concern was finding a bar that wouldn’t card me.
As I walked back to the parking lot, a panhandler accosted me. This extended another Eats streak. I’ve never made it in and out of that lot without someone asking me for money. Usually, I ignored the guy and go about my business, but back in 1999, one less fortunate member of Atlanta’s gay community offered a unique pitch. He hit on me. At first, I thought his Gaydar had malfunctioned. Then I realized he was a genius. He was doing me a solid, trying to make me look more attractive to the female AJC intern dining with me. He probably knew as well as I did that I didn’t stand a chance with her, but I appreciated his effort to tilt the odds in my favor. He got $5.
I hope he put it toward jerk chicken.