The Colonnade restaurant / Courtesy photo

When Memory Leads to Yearning and There’s Nothing There

It really was not my intention to dine in a mausoleum last Sunday. I just wanted some good fried chicken and maybe a few memories. Yes, I know that the 96-year-old Colonnade has long been called “home to the gays and the grays,” but I wasn’t expecting to enter what felt like a house of mirrors full of dead and nearly dead people milling before my eyes.

One of the things our brains inevitably do as we age is ferment memory in nostalgia. It is bittersweet. It tugs at the heart, pulling us back to lost time, casting a kind of slanted light on the remembered. But there is a more mysterious experience that is not limited to the old but is probably more common among us. There’s not an English word for it. The Portuguese call it “saudade” and it refers to a deep, melancholic yearning for something that is typically beyond description. If you want to hear and feel what I’m talking about, listen to the song “Sodade” by the late Cape Verde singer, Cesaria Evora.

I started dining at the Colonnade back in the late ‘70s with my first partner Rick. It’s where all the gay boys went for their mama’s homestyle cooking.  Rick and I were both shy unless we were looking for sex – it was the ‘70s! – and we could always count on seeing somebody there we had fucked a few times but never knew by name.  And it’s true that the dining room was also always filled with surrogate grandmothers with bouffant hairdos and portable oxygen tanks. The Colonnade throughout these years was cheap and the chicken was routinely declared the city’s best. It was skillet-fried, and the crust seemed to have a whiff of bacon or lard. I continued dining there regularly with friends throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s until that day I woke up and realized all the men I called close friends, including Rick, had died. Literally. Then, I became bicoastal and had to limit dining to restaurants I was reviewing. I rarely went to the Colonnade after then.

So Sunday, I  was overwhelmed by memories as soon as we set foot in the Colonnade parking lot, which it shares with the Cheshire Motor Inn, a former popular cruising space. (You could walk by the windows and pick a group or get a quicky in the bushes or utility room. You could also get easily arrested.) We went to the large bar area to wait 30 minutes for a table, and I was immediately swept into shock and grief. There were no “gays and grays” in the bar. It was all old gay men and a few lesbians. The overwhelming presence was the ghost of my long-ago copy editor at the AJC Sunday magazine, Nancy, who took up nightly residence there in the ‘80s. That’s where I went to get the news of her funeral. When we were seated in the main dining room at a table, every place I looked seemed to stir a memory. There were memories of friends who had died during the AIDS epidemic, memories of a close younger friend who I last saw there during a rare visit just over four years ago. I saw a few men walking through the room I vaguely recognized. We looked at one another, both disoriented by the change that age has brought to our appearance.

The old ladies did show up in the dining room. One, beautifully dressed at a table next to us, was trying to figure out how to do something with her new phone. She stood up and looked around. “I’ve got to find someone young to explain this to me,” she told her husband. The server conscripted two young people in their 50s who couldn’t help. The woman tore across the room to a teenager at a table with her mother and grandmother. The teen’s fingers flew to work and solved the problem. Her annoyed husband kept trying to pull her away. The woman screamed, “Never get old!” My hand flew involuntarily into a high-five, and I whispered, “Never get married!” When they left, their table was taken by four gays. One of them, who kept referring to himself as fat, suffered from Compulsive Talking. The sun was setting, and the darkness made the crowded dining room feel like I really was descending into a chaotic meeting of lost souls.

That’s when “saudade” hit me. It is so hard to describe. In the face of all the memories of the dead and in a darkening room where 90 percent of us were not long for this world – not that anyone else was feeling this way – I felt this gigantic existential, unnamed absence of something that could make sense of this life. We battled religion, psychiatry, and the law just for the right to love one another. We died and still die by the thousands if we do not protect ourselves from a disease that can turn love into torture and feeds the evil righteousness of those who hate us. Was my partner Rick lucky to leave this life so young? He told me: “You were the sex maniac, not me.” I said: “I’ve always wanted to kill myself.” There was nothing to reconcile. What is the point?

Love is the point. I know. It was just dinner at the Colonnade. But these moments can hit us anywhere. It’s not regret. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not mystical. It’s not mental illness. We need to love one another. And the chicken was pretty good.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist turned life coach, specializing in creativity;, 404-518-4415.