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Friends in Low Places

The original Foxz Tavern was a home base for the queers, punks, rednecks and redneck queers of Normaltown.

I don’t recall receiving an invitation to join the Foxz tribe. I don’t recall nursing a desire for one. During my tenure as a semi-regular at the Athens, Georgia, bar in the early 2000s, in my mid-twenties, I followed a Groucho-Marx approach to membership of any sort. A bar on the outskirts of my social world—which at that point consisted of dish pits, dingy rock clubs and the University of Georgia campus—Foxz Tavern offered me escape, a dark cave where nobody knew my name. Until I leaned under the billiard lights to sink an eight ball prematurely, I could hide my face and speak only to strangers. I sought anonymity and took comfort under the influence of Dwight Yoakam on the jukebox. Like any good family, Foxz knew when to draw you near, and when to let you be. With her sturdy, bespectacled presence and live-and-let-live attitude, the owner, Nancy Fox, encouraged this sort of relationship.

In Normaltown, the townie neighborhood a mile from downtown and the university, the windowless basement bar could only be accessed by alleyway. Far from the foot traffic of one of the busiest music scenes and college campuses in the country, this small, commercial pocket anchored by a hardware store and an Army Surplus shop felt like a hinterland to tourists and underclassmen; regulars liked it this way. Upstairs, a burger joint called Allen’s, opened in 1955, buzzed, but the bar’s survival depended on repeat business, quality and consistency over volume.

Foxz was a clubhouse for the family that called it home. Budweiser neons lit portraits of softball teams from decades past. Hanging from the ceiling were plastic and inflatable sharks, the predator having become the bar’s mascot in part because Nancy hated receiving fox-shaped trinkets. You could join the brood—secure a stool, earn your photo on the wall—only by consenting to hear Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel from Montgomery” played on repeat. Families need anthems. And only family would endure such claustrophobic bathrooms.

When the bar opened in 1980, Athens was gaining international fame for homegrown bands like the B-52s and R.E.M.—but had hardly shed the conservative leanings of the Old South, and a blue-collar lesbian community became Foxz’s first family, invited and welcomed by Nancy. The people who called it a lesbian bar didn’t drink there. Foxz didn’t define itself, instead allowing a rowdy but respectable multitude of queers, rednecks, redneck queers, punks and plumbers to shape its identity. They could all sing the Garth Brooks hit by rote, and so they too became friends in a low place.

A musician and a dishwasher at the time, I first drank at Foxz as part of a new wave drawn in by a karaoke night kicked off by a bartender in 1995. It was unclear whether townie types would take to sing-alongs, but it turned out to be as on-brand as sponsoring a softball team. The only downside, perhaps, was that the event attracted a new cohort of artsy weirdos. One night a week, Foxz transformed into a cellar theater where waitresses ripping into “Barracuda” were cheered on by head-banging, gyrating fans who’d jump on the mic to punctuate the refrain.

My crew of white punk rockers and art school dropouts came in droves, often using Foxz as an after-party for underground punk shows. Through the early 2000s, dear friends looked on as my best buddy, Ryan, and I mauled Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and always tanked, near naked, off-key and belting atop someone’s shoulders.

Soon after, in a fit of growing pains, I quit my band, left the service industry, and avoided punk shows and downtown bars out of shame. I’d spent the previous few years touring the country and when I returned home it was to the tight-knit music scene. When I dropped out, I lost my roving clubhouse, and turned to Foxz (dodging karaoke nights) as a hideout of sorts. In doing so, my world expanded.

Karaoke night notwithstanding, people thought of Foxz as a white redneck habitat. It was certainly working class; the carpenter and house painter gangs I had fallen in with were all regulars. But the place I remember wasn’t homogenous, at least not around the pool table. Two tables crammed into a tight nook meant negotiations with neighboring players. I bumped asses with strangers, replaced beers when my cue knocked one over, shook hands and made small talk in the process. I met African American couples on date nights, and we shared gossip about friends from high school. I arranged table rights with Salvadoran men even though we didn’t share a common language. Years away from becoming a journalist, it was clear these nights were exercises in the craft I would adopt: listening to other people’s stories. Eventually, hiding out lost its allure.

In 2005, market forces kicked Foxz out of Normaltown. The owner of Allen’s, Billy Slaughter, watched his business dwindle and the bones of his building degrade. He chose to close the burger joint and redevelop the property, which meant the building’s other tenants—a newsstand and an antique store—shuttered or found new locations. Foxz opted for the latter. The bar was unmoored, plastic sharks boxed up. Everything was transported a mile down the road to a shopping center with decades-newer ducts and pipes—a vast improvement on what was left behind. Bulldozers pummeled the old place into rubble. Today, the land houses a parking deck and medical offices.

Foxz’s regulars migrated to the new spot. Everything, technically, looked the same. There was more room, which felt weird, and the room glowed a bit brighter, thanks to fresh paint. I went once and never returned. I was building houses, slowly earning a college degree, settling into married life and preparing to have kids; the freedom and desire to drive for a beer dwindled. At the same time, the count of bars within walking distance from my house increased. Not one boasts a country juke, and I don’t recognize the beer brands they sell. When I go I bring my young daughter and the bartenders don’t care. The regulars aren’t familiar, but we probably have this in common: We’re lucky enough to find family under our own roofs, a bar like Foxz is no longer a social or emotional necessity. The low places have become part of our past.

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Tagged: dead bars, dive bars

André Gallant is a journalist based in Athens, Georgia, and the author of A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster from the University of Georgia Press.