The Great Double Caper of ’79 (Part 1 of 6)

Part 1: The Mermaids Most Definitely Sing to Me

The first time I saw a full-grown woman’s boobs, in person I mean, and the first time I drank bourbon were one and the same occasion. I did the double at a place called Kelly’s Bar and Grill. I was sixteen.

Kelly’s had been a place of intrigue to me for a month or so prior to my entering its doors. I drove by it twice a day. The stand-alone building looked like a cross between a Bonanza Steakhouse and an insurance office. It had a driveway on one side and a vacant lot on the other. The windows that faced the street were painted over in red. Each window featured a larger-than-life black silhouette of a woman, the kind you see on mud-flaps, but huge. The name of the establishment, Kelly’s Bar and Grill, was in large red letters over a door that clearly had not been opened in years. It was padlocked for good measure. On the ground was a mobile business marquee topped with an arrow pointing down the side-driveway. The sign read, “Girls! Girls! Girls! Use Rear Entrance.” Which, to my man-child brain, was about the funniest thing ever.

I was spending the summer in a suburb of Atlanta with my Uncle Willy. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and he was kind enough to let me stay in his old Airstream out in the back yard. Plan was to work and save money. Then in the fall, I’d take my nest-egg on up to Nashville to pursue fame and fortune. For work, I signed on with a temp agency where I got farmed out to various businesses located within Captains of Industry Industrial Park. I did what they called “light-industrial” work. Warehouse work, mostly loading trucks by hand. In retrospect maybe not the smartest way to try to make money during the sweltering Atlanta summer of 1979. But every morning that I drove to work, and every afternoon as I drove home, the siren’s song of Kelly’s Girls! Girls! Girls! became louder, clearer. Like a nineteenth century sailor, with each passing day I became more determined to jump overboard and swim towards the call. I didn’t know what was inside that building, but somehow, I knew it would be a place of many wonders.

It took three tries. The first time I thought I had made up my mind, I didn’t even make it into the parking lot. The rear of the building wasn’t visible from the road. Clearly I was supposed to go down that driveway, but what I would find when I came out the other end was a big dark mystery. There could be dragons, or trap-doors, or trap-doors with dragons. So that first time, as I approached, I had my turn signal on. I slowed down ready to turn in. But at the last second I panicked, just kept going. Acted like I meant to turn into the Wendy’s half a block down the whole time.

A week later, I made it all the way down the driveway and around back. Turned out, there was an ample gravel parking lot, enough room for probably a couple dozen cars. There were about six when I got there late on a Saturday afternoon. The back of the building had more red windows with mud-flap amazons. It also had a big, heavy-looking wooden door under a red awning. I had demystified the back of the building, but Kelly’s itself, and its Girls! remained unseen, as forbidden as Mordor itself – not an anachronistic analogy, by the way. Mordor was pretty big in ’79. I parked so that I could face the entrance. My plan was to sit and watch for a while, do some fact-finding. See how people went in and out, maybe get a peek inside when the door opened. I maintained my stake-out for fifteen or twenty minutes. A couple of men went in, a couple came out. It was a small sample size, but demographically speaking, it seemed to attract a diverse crowd. White guys, black guys, suits, trucker hats. I tried to figure out what this intel meant to me and my mission. I came up with nothing actionable. I needed more. As far as seeing inside? Well, that was a no. From where I sat, the other side of the door was a pitch-black chasm.

Then, a woman came out. She wore a blue mini-skirt, white go-go boots, and a Falcons jersey. Her blonde hair was in a pony tail and she had a tan that could only be born of a dedicated life of laying out. I can’t really say how old she might have been – to a sixteen-year-old everyone between, say twenty and forty-five is in the same ballpark. She walked to the edge of the building where there was a payphone. I watched her make a call. It only lasted a minute or two. Then she lit a cigarette, standing in the shade of the building, her left arm across her chest, right hand held the smoke – relaxed as one should be on a smoke break. She looked at her nails, she looked up, then down. She took a big drag and held it in as she scanned the parking lot and saw me, just sitting in my car like a prize asshole. We locked eyes. She smiled, blowing out a billow of smoke, and waved the cigarette hand at me. SHIT! I was miles away from being ready to engage. Once again, my nerve shattered like French resolve during a World War. I tried to smile and slapped my forehead, like I had forgotten something important. Pretended to look around inside the car for a bit, then shrugged. I started the car and drove back out.

I said “Shit! Shit! Shit!” all the way home.

I didn’t even wait another week, I came back the next day. And that time, the third attempt? Well, things would be different.

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