Back around 1994 I was attending UNC-Charlotte, working on that coveted Bachelor’s in English, and renting a room from a co-worker. The whole thing didn’t go well and I only lasted there about nine months before I got my first real apartment at the now condominiumized Colonial Park.
It’s Christmas eve and my family had just moved back to Michigan in July or August. At this point I still didn’t know a lot of people in Charlotte and I was spending Christmas essentially alone. It wasn’t really a big deal to me. The four years I spent in the Marines I only came home for the holidays once and that was during the first six months of my enlistment and only because the communications school I was attending shut down for the Christmas holiday. After that I spent two Christmases in Okinawa and one in California. I wasn’t even 22 at that point and being alone a long way from home, even during the holidays, was exciting.
In December of 1994 I would have been 26 and all my family is in Michigan and I am alone for the holidays and I’m cool with it. I’ve got books, television, cigarettes and beer. Sure, I’d prefer to be with my family but you can’t dwell on it or you’ll end up depressed and who in the hell wants to be depressed? Not me.
The person I am renting the room from cannot fathom, at all, how I could deal with being alone on the holidays so well. She hits me with a barrage like this, “Don’t you miss your family? You don’t seem to miss your family. I know I would miss my family if I couldn’t see them at Christmas. You don’t seem to. Don’t you miss your family?” Over and over and over. After about an hour of this I did start to miss my family and decided the best thing I could do is get the hell out of that condo. When I tell this story I sometimes say that I said to her when she asked if I missed my family, “I didn’t but I do now!” Let’s pretend I did say that.
But it’s Christmas eve in the bible belt, where the hell can you go? Everything is closed. Everything. Except...Smokey Joe’s. I’m not sure that evening when I remembered that Smokey Joe’s was open 365 days a year but once I did I was out the door.
For a few years Smokey Joe’s on Monroe Rd in Charlotte was the place my friends and I hung out. We liked it because it was real bar kinda bar. It’s not the place you went to watch the big game or do the singles scene. You went to Smokey Joe’s to drink with your friends. That story about the five stages of drinking that Larry Miller told? He may have been sitting at Smokey Joe’s in the early 90s. We loved it. It had a dart board that wasn’t too crowded, you could play ping pong, it had a good jukebox, a nice wooden bar, it was dark and you could get twelve ounce cups of Budweiser for fifty cents. It also had a nice mix of older and younger people there. We went so much that we got to know the bartender and other regular customers. And it was safe place. The only fight I ever saw there was between two women. It was the place we took new friends to once they were in our inner circle.
I remember it being (obviously) a slow night that Christmas eve. It wasn’t dead, it just felt like a slow day at the bar. Since I wasn’t the only person there I could pretend it wasn’t Christmas eve and enjoy myself and forget the reminder that I did miss my family. Who doesn’t miss their family when you’re alone on Christmas eve?