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Life in Chains: Beginning and Ending at TGI Fridays

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Welcome to Life in Chains, where writers share the essential roles played in their lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer and comedian Sara Benincasa on friendship, familiarity, and TGI Fridays.


I

’ve been thinking a lot about TGI Fridays because I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death, and thus TGI Fridays, and thus Jack Daniel’s, a whiskey of which I am inordinately fond despite my ability to access any number of higher-class, higher-value liquors. TGI Fridays has a menu that answers the question, "Exactly how many items can we soak in Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey?" (That answer: thirteen.)

A vast swath of TGI Fridays menu real estate is occupied by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. There are Jack Daniel’s appetizers. There is a Jack Daniel’s burger. There is a Jack Daniel’s handheld chicken sandwich, and there is a Jack Daniel’s dessert. I haven’t even counted the cocktails. I am relieved, and slightly disappointed, to note that the kids menu is Jack Daniel’s-free. (It does, however, offer a Cup of Dirt dessert, a beloved suburban PTA mom treat featuring "chocolate pudding, crumbled Oreo® cookies and gummy worms.")

I wasn’t around in 1965, when Alan Stillman spent $10,000 to open a place called T.G.I. Friday’s at the corner of East 63rd Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. I wasn’t around when it became known as one of the first singles bars, fueled in part by its pioneering use of ladies’ night promotions (something unheard of at bars in that day).

We were seniors at Central. I didn’t even care much about football. But I did care about TGI Fridays.

But I was around in 1999 when the Hunterdon Central Regional High School football team won the championships in the biggest division in the state of New Jersey, at a game played at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. I wasn’t at the game. I was at TGI Fridays (it had lost the punctuation, by then), though I can’t remember if I was at the slightly older one at the Somerville Circle or if I was at the brand-spanking-new one back home in Flemington, just a mile from the high school. Somebody got a phone call that we’d won, and my table of popular friends celebrated with some kind of giant dessert soaked in Jack Daniel’s. We were seniors at Central. I didn’t even care much about football. But I did care about TGI Fridays.

In a town packed with mall outlets and fast food franchises, fine dining options were few and far between. Surely the Flemington Family Diner, or "Flem Fam," didn’t count; Gus, the old Greek owner, did not see fit to include any whiskey-flavored dessert items on his menu, although he did serve a great Belgian waffle. Flem Fam was worn and homey and half-choked with cigarette smoke in an era when teenagers could comfortably smoke in a suburban Jersey diner without worry of harassment from well-meaning adults. It had a lot of plants to shield the smoking section from the non-smoking section, and I can’t for the life of me remember if they were real or fake.

Flem Fam was where I went with my weird friends, the artists and theatre fags and pierced freaks, the queer kids with homemade tattoos and drug problems. These were my real friends, the ones with whom I went thrift-store shopping and to whom I cried on the phone when I was depressed. I wouldn’t be properly medicated until I was 21, in the wake of a suicidal nervous breakdown that sent me home from Emerson College in Boston and landed me right back at home in Flemington, New Jersey. So I cried a lot back then. These were the kids who listened.

Then there were my TGI Fridays friends. My other friends – pretty, well-spoken, good at field hockey and lacrosse and Student Council and socializing with adults. These were the popular friends with whom I could cut out of school for a TGI Fridays lunch, only to return to a wink and a smile from the school secretary. I had acquired these friends in ninth grade, to my enormous delight after four years spent as a total dork in middle school. We all wore a lot of J. Crew and American Eagle and we did not smoke cigarettes, make our own tattoos, do drugs, create art, or engage in the suspect practice of "acting."

I even managed to have a brief fling with one of the anointed, a good-looking school athlete, which momentarily encouraged in my parents the notion that I might turn to dating "normal" types instead of musicians. Alas, it didn’t work out. But though I was attracted to more artsy types, I fantasized about dating the kinds of guys my friends dated: football heroes and lacrosse champions and future heads of sales and marketing for pharmaceutical and/or tech companies.

My popular friends and their popular boyfriends were squeaky clean, on their way to college degrees and solid corporate careers and 4-bedroom, 3-car-garage houses with nice long driveways and in-ground pools. Sure, there was some underage beer-drinking and sex and once in awhile somebody cut school altogether to get to a Dave Matthews Band concert early, but that was about it. I didn’t tell them about my fears and my problems and my strange moods because I knew they wouldn’t have understood, and I suspected they wouldn’t have cared.

Among this crowd there was a lot of bitchery and cunning and (for me, at least) a lot of trying so, so desperately hard to fit in. I knew I didn’t really belong with these shiny new friends, any more than I belonged in that shiny new TGI Fridays. I wasn't like these people. I was a Flem Fam person with Flem Fam friends. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I wanted to travel the world and see strange and interesting things. I liked gay people. But this group had power in the familiar hierarchy of our American high school, and I wanted to be one of them.

A funny thing happened while I threw back my head and laughed those high, fake laughs with my popular friends: I grew to really enjoy TGI Fridays itself. I liked the memorabilia on the walls: black-and-white photos from a bygone era, quaint old sporting equipment, signs for local teams. I liked the food. I liked the atmosphere. It was homey and warm and fun, and while I wasn’t yet permitted to enter the rarefied realm of the bar, I had a feeling things got interesting over there, too.


A

t some point, tragedy has to enter a life, in some form, even peripherally. Bad things happens to the popular kids, too. When I was eighteen years old, a friend called me at home to tell me that the gorgeous all-American football player I’d had a crush on at summer camp had killed himself. He had set himself on fire, and he’d just gotten a football scholarship to school in Boston, and wasn’t it sad, and could I believe it, and did I want to go to the funeral?

I did not want to go to the funeral.

I wanted to go to TGI Fridays.

I dragged my real best friend, a beautiful weirdo, to TGI Fridays, partly because she was the one with the car and partly because I didn’t feel like seeing all my real friends at Flem Fam just then. The hostess sat us in the smoking section, near the bar. I’d never sat there before. My friend smoked quietly while I stared into my iced tea. I emptied too many sugar packets into it, just so I could watch the crystals slowly dissolve. I pushed my food around my plate and I didn’t eat it, but it was okay because we were at TGI Fridays, where nobody bothered you about finishing your meal or asked you if you’d finished your art project or how your mother was. At TGI Fridays, you could be the you you wanted to be, and that day I wanted to be anonymous.

At TGI Fridays, you could be the you you wanted to be, and that day I wanted to be anonymous.

A few years later, after I’d ditched my unreal friends and hung on to a select few of my real ones, after I’d sunk to the depths of suicidal depression at school up in Boston and dropped out, I found myself with no degree, no real career prospects, and a gig making smoothies at a health bar inside a giant gym in Flemington. My brother was a senior in high school, and sometimes I took him and his friends out to eat at TGI Fridays, because I was older and had a little money. They made me laugh, and I needed that. None of them played football.

Eventually, I got better and got it together. I resumed school down at a little place called Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. I went full hippie and learned about horticulture and permaculture and the right herbs to take for the flu. I grew my hair out (head, legs, armpits) and started caring about where my food came from. I stopped going to chain restaurants. I became, at various times, a vegetarian, vegan, pescaterian, pollo-lacto-ovatarian, and locavore, whatever the hell that means.

I moved to the Southwest. I ate burritos with green chile peppers at Roberto’s every day and gained twenty pounds, but they were twenty locally-owned, independently operated pounds.

I moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and turned my nose up at the chain restaurants with their blaring neon signs in Times Square – TGI Fridays among them. Why would I go to the Olive Garden when Zabar's was right there?

I moved to Bed-Stuy and found just the right coffee shop, the Outpost Lounge. I moved to the Upper East Side and found a Greek diner.

I moved to Queens – beautiful, glorious Queens – and camped out at the Creek and the Cave in Long Island City, consuming California-style Mexican food and margaritas in equal measure. Through the guacamole-and-tequila haze, I managed to write my first book, a memoir.

And then I moved to actual California and settled for a year in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where I adopted Maximiliano as my haunt of choice – they served delicious food that reminded me of trips to Italy, but served by tattooed, pierced young artists in a neighborhood full of Mexican families. When I migrated a few miles west to Toluca Lake, next to Burbank, I found Sweetsalt, where I wrote my next book, a young adult novel, as well as a pilot based on that memoir I’d written at the Creek back in Queens.


A

year or so into my stay in Los Angeles, my grandfather’s health began to fail. I returned home to Flemington for three weeks, while my mother cared for her father-in-law and my father tried to make sense of the mountain of paperwork that immediately appears whenever someone is terminally ill. My grandfather died in the home he built in Bound Brook, New Jersey, the one-square mile town where both my parents were raised, where my grandfather was the principal at the high school where they met and fell in love. My dad had played football on the state championship team; my mother had been on the drill team, resplendent with kicky white boots and cute little skirts. Before he was principal, my grandfather was a teacher who filmed the games as a favor to the coach.

The night they took my grandfather’s body away, we slept over with my grandmother. A few days later, there was a wake, and then a funeral, and a funeral luncheon at a local Italian restaurant, because this is what Catholics do.

"I love you guys," I said to my brother and my friend in the parking lot. "I’m so glad you’re here."

It was a blur of activity. And then, suddenly, it was done – the preparations for his death; the death itself; and all the group events that happen after the death. People went home. I stayed on a little longer.

One night, my brother and my old, real best friend from high school and I found ourselves without anything in particular to do. Someone offered the suggestion that we go out to eat, because there is nothing else to do at night in Flemington. I suggested TGI Fridays.

"TGI Fridays?" someone said. "But there are better places, now." It’s true. Flemington is now home to at least two newer fine dining options – 55 Main and Matt’s Red Rooster, both of which serve wonderfully unpretentious, locally-sourced cuisine that I would put up against any of the best meals I’ve had in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, or any other American city.

"I know," I said. "I just feel like going to Fridays."

And because somebody had just died, and because I was only visiting for a few more days, and because I didn’t make it home all that often, they entertained my suggestion and we drove to the TGI Fridays.

It was the same as I remembered, although now I had access to the bar, which turned out to be less an exotic wonderland of magical delights, and more a welcoming place where I saw a few semi-familiar faces that didn’t quite attach themselves to any name in my memory.

We sat down in a booth. We ordered the Jack Daniel’s Sampler: "Crispy Cajun-spiced shrimp, Sesame Jack™ Chicken Strips and Jack Daniel's® glazed baby back pork ribs." Then I got a Jack Daniel’s entrée, the Jack Daniel’s Ribs: "Full rack of slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone tender baby back pork ribs. Served with seasoned fries and ginger-lime slaw." Finally, it was time for dessert, and I got the Tennessee Whiskey Cake: "Warm toffee cake topped with glazed pecans and vanilla ice cream. Served with butterscotch Jack Daniel's® Whiskey sauce." I should note I also had some fine Jack Daniel’s on the rocks to complement my meal.

By the end of our dinner, I was mildly toasted.

"I love you guys," I said to my brother and my friend in the parking lot. "I’m so glad you’re here." It was cold outside.

"You always did like the Jack Daniel’s menu," my brother said with affection – at least, I told myself it was affection.

We got in his car, three thirty-somethings with nothing else to do, and drove off into the inky darkness of a suburban New Jersey night. My heart was heavy, but my belly was warm with reasonably-priced, tasty food from a familiar place where I could be myself or quietly disappear. And for the moment, that was good enough for me.


Sara Benincasa is the author of the memoir Agorafabulous and the young adult novel Great. She's also a comedian and pretzel enthusiast, and the host of the podcast In the Casa with Sara Benincasa.
Editor: Helen Rosner

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