It’s one-thirty-four in the morning at the Atomic Lounge in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. My friend Jay, with whom I’d just enjoyed a wine-soaked dinner of glossy oysters and duck-fat-poached swordfish, flaps his toucan wings and makes the sound he thinks toucans make. Bald and wry, a real estate guy by profession, he wears round black glasses and broadcasts joy. Twenty-plus years after graduating from college, Jay still talks about music like his life depends on it.
Feizal Valli, who owns and operates the Atomic with Rachael, knows how to read Jay. He flicks through a Spotify playlist in search of just the right Pixies song. As they talk nineties rock and assonance and dissonance, Rachael slides a piece of paper across the bar and into my blurred field of vision. She knows how to read me, too.
Written in tight script on one of those green-and-white guest check pads, her words account a surrealist barnyard: “gecko elastic, cookie armpit, giraffe crotch, zebra elastic.” I had noticed Rachael working on the far end of the bar, pulling costumes from cubbies and then carefully refolding and restacking each one. But I hadn’t realized that she was doing triage, making note of which of the thirty or so costumes they stock needed repair.
Such is the life of a bar owner, her work seems to say. Such is the stuff of a bar that promises more to its customers, I begin to think.
Seven hours back, I started my night at the Atomic, drinking a very good mescal cocktail, stirred with grapefruit, served in a chilled coupe, garnished with a sage leaf set afloat on a skid of bitters. Seated at a white faux-marble-topped bar, beneath a mural of famous Alabamians painted by Feizal to replicate the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, facing a small diorama plastered with the legend YOUR MONSTERS ARE MY MONSTERS TOO, I talked to a smart and conservative man in a smart and conservative blue blazer. And I talked to a proud member of the congregation of the nearby Catholic cathedral, a retailer who laughed hard and often. His parents named him Ignatius, he told me, but everyone has long called him Jerry.
We three talked about religions, novels, racial hierarchies, stained-glass windows, Greek restaurateurs, labor issues, coconut cake, Jewish merchants, segregation academies, and the future of Birmingham. The man in the blue blazer talked global dining destinations and economics. He threw around opinions like a hippie tossing flower petals at a barefoot wedding. Jerry talked to me about the apostle Paul. And he confessed that since he was a boy, he has wished people would call him Ignatius. “But it’s just too late for that now,” Jerry said. “You can’t just become something else.”
As they talked, I made a game of spotting the Birmingham folk who populate Feizal’s Beatles-inspired mural. There was John “Big Daddy” Bishop, founder of Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Here was Sun Ra, the musician who, faced with the racism of Jim Crow–era Alabama, reckoned he couldn’t possibly be from here; instead, Herman Poole Blount claimed Saturn as his birthplace and took a new name. In the canon according to Feizal, Sun Ra, dressed in George Harrison’s red drum-major outfit, deserves front-row placement alongside chef Frank Stitt, garbed in Paul McCartney’s royal blue getup and clutching an English horn.
To our left I heard a whoop so I turned, glancing over the men’s shoulders toward the conversation pit, staged in the front window of the bar. A woman dressed as a duck sat cross-legged in a slipper chair, smoothing her bright yellow plumage and pulling on a Miller High Life. A young man in a penguin costume, seemingly two or three drinks ahead of her, made the sound he thought penguins make and sipped something brown from a rocks glass with one of those icebergs poking up and out.
A third man, wearing a brown squirrel costume with beige chest markings, stood tall, prancing back and forth like a dimestore marionette, looking for a shadow of his squirrelly self in the light that bounced from dangling light fixtures and spangled off starburst pendants and refracted in the plate-glass front window. Jerry never saw that squirrel. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And I couldn’t quit thinking about Jerry. About what he wanted, and what the Atomic promises, and what might come of time spent here.