everyone needs a sunday somedays

Nestled in the corner of a parking garage that leans over the Mass Pike, you’ll find Bukowski Tavern (one of two in the Boston area): gunslit windows, prosaic graffiti on the bathroom walls, and an extensive microbrew selection. If you drink every microbrew they carry – and the list is near five hundred – you get a glass of your own to hang above the bar with a number and an author’s name engraved on it. You pick the author. Other than that, and the name and the location, Bukowski shares all the elements of well-loved bars in American cities: narrow walls, dim lighting, low ceilings and a crew of regulars. It’s also one of two places in Boston where I’ll order a hot dog.

I had two hot dogs with fries before going to see Ted Leo at the Paradise on Saturday. I arrived in time to see the second act: The Obits out of Brooklyn. They have a solid, four-on-the-floor 70s/80s punk sound that I took to like a mule to crabgrass. All four of them look like they’re no younger than their early 40s, so they may have been 80s punks. Or at least they grew up on that sound and wanted to hearken back to their childhood. Either way, they loved what they were doing and I loved their sound. I bought their CD from the merch table.

the-obits

Standing in front of me – three rows back from the stage – were a couple in their 50s who looked like they’d just come from dinner at the Olive Garden. The woman had curly white hair and a cardigan of like hue; the man looked like he should be wearing a tradesman’s ring, or at least have an IBEW cap tucked in his back pocket. I wondered who they thought they were here to see when Ted plugged his guitar in and the older man went wild. His wife was clearly there as a favor to him, or else was the more laid back of the two. But the old man was bobbing back and forth, pumping his fist with the rest of us young punks. We ended up screaming the chorus of “Ballad of the Sin Eaters” at each other. He knew every song I knew, and I knew a lot.

My biggest fear – and the reason I blog so obsessively – is that I’ll get old and forget the antics of my youth. My biggest hope is that getting old won’t stop the antics. That there’ll be a bar with my name on a glass, and that there’ll still be a club with bands I want to see.

ted-leo

For the encore – the final song of the final stop on their tour – Ted Leo and the first act, the Screaming Females, covered “Since U Been Gone” at maximum volume. Thanks to them, now I got what I want.

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remember the weight of the world; it’s the sound that we used to buy

My parents also flew in to visit this weekend. Brief highlights:


  • They stayed at a Name Brand hotel in downtown Boston. “I have a niece who works at a Name Brand,” my father told the woman behind the desk.

    “Really? Which one?”

    “Jessica.”

  • Waiting in Filene’s Basement on Newbury St for my mother to buy a scarf, the Carmen McRae cover of “Take Five” came on the PA. “That’s what this song was always missing,” I told my dad. “Words. Every song becomes better if you add words to it.”

  • My parents were in town not just to see me, but also to drive to an Oddfellows meeting in Worcester. My dad asked if he could borrow my car for the weekend, rather than get a rental. Since I get around Boston by train five days out of the week, I agreed.

    I handed him the keys outside their hotel. “Now I want you back by midnight,” I said. “If you leave this place where you’re going, you call me and let me know. And if I don’t know who you’re going with, I want to talk to their parents first.”

  • Long story short, my mother now has the key to the City of Worcester.

  • After seeing Hot Tub Time Machine on Sunday afternoon*, we went to the Beantowne Pub to watch the Baylor/Duke game. We had to sit at a table instead of the bar, however. A couple sat at the bar between us and the nearest TV, making out with the unconscious shame of the fourth cocktail. They would talk forehead to forehead for a while, then whisper in each other’s ears, then stroke each other’s forearms, then kiss sloppily.

    This was a constant source of disgust / amusement for my parents. Didn’t bother me; maybe I go to more bars than they do.

  • Saturday night, after returning from the fancy dinner function in central MA, my parents had a nightcap at the Name Brand hotel. They were served by a beaming Turkish barman, who presented their order (Maker’s Mark for the old man; sambuca for my mother) with a flourish. “Tell me, sir,” he asked of my dad. “You’re in a beautiful suit, you’re with a beautiful woman, you’re drinking expensive bourbon. Does it get any better than this?”

  • You know, it probably doesn’t. The last four years have made me more progressive, to the extent that I can recognize that I am incredibly privileged, but I’m not at the point where I feel guilty for it. My grandfather was born in a region of the Carpathians that changed hands between Ukraine and Slovakia several times in the 20th century. My father was born in a steelworking family in Pittsburgh. I was born to white-collar professionals in a suburb of Baltimore. Should I one day spite the world with children, they’ll be born in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in America.

I just do things I really enjoy. I enjoy acting. When I’m driving to the studio, I sing in the car. I love my work and my wife and my kids and my friends. And I think, “You’re a lucky man, Gregory Peck, a damn lucky man.”

– Gregory Peck

* Goofy silly. See it with a bunch of straight guys. No need to see it in the theaters.

vegas 2010, part 5

Dave and I had dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Bar and Grill in the MGM. I had a prosciutto and goat cheese pizza on flatbread. We were getting on well with our waitress so I asked her for a recommendation. “This may shock you, but we’re tourists,” I began. I asked her which bars or clubs she’d recommend on the Strip, as a local. As a local, she replied, she wouldn’t go to any of the clubs on the Strip. But the two bars in New York New York – the Bar in Times Square (which we’d visited) and Nine Fine Irishmen – were fun places to get a pint. We thanked her for the advice.

For a Vegas bar pretending to be an Irish pub in New York City, Nine Fine Irishmen does all right. The man next to me ordered a Guinness; I checked with him on its quality. “It’s all right,” he said with a sage nod. I ordered one myself and validated his judgment: I’d say about a seven out of ten. Better than most bars can manage, but not as good as the best you can find in Boston. We stuck around long enough to watch a Celtic rock band play a few numbers and chat up some of the tourists.

nine-fine-irishmen

I had talked Dave and I onto the guest list at Tabu, a privilege which would expire around midnight. So we left New York New York at 11:30 and sidled to the front of the line, brushing past the texting tourists. “This is the Vegas experience I was looking for,” Dave observed. Once inside, Tabu proved to be a typical nightclub scene – dim lights, deafening music, suspicious guy/girl ratio – albeit with the added liberty that Vegas induces. I kept the floor warm until I could coax Dave into partying, whereupon we found a cluster of girls to dance with until 3:00 AM Pacific time. We let them go then (they had to catch a flight in three hours) and retired soon thereafter.

where, only there; when, only then

Two blocks from the school where I study (and teach) jiu-jitsu is a bar called 21 Nickels. It’s built in the low, narrow style of urban bars: bar running from entrance to bathroom, row of bar stools, aisle and a row of tables. This makes sense in the heart of a city, where square footage is at a premium; less so in the Watertown suburbs. But architecture is a language; the space evokes a type of bar, just like the high ceilings and faux ranch construction of an Outback Steakhouse evoke a type of restaurant. Realizing that occupancy counts more toward rent than ambiance, however, the owners added a side car. Literally: a dining car, rolled up on the long-rusted tracks that used to bisect Watertown, welded onto the side of the bar and connected via two sloping walkways. The dining car’s windows, which look out onto the wild grasses between a clapboard tuxedo rental outlet and the local Armenian lodge, are framed with imitation velvet curtains.

The jiu-jitsu class goes there at least once a month, typically after the belt test and promotional on the fourth Thursday. The owner recognizes us and goes out of his way to accommodate our size and post-workout stink: grouping tables in the back, firing up a preliminary order of nachos before we even have to ask, pouring out pitchers’ full of ice water. Last time we were there he kept the kitchen open late. We migrated from our usual exile in the dining car (don’t mind us) to take over the front bar, which was empty save for a middle-aged Mediterranean romancing a bottle blonde with a tan like a Camry’s driver seat. Every time we’re there we order vast quantities of food and streams of beer, then try to split the check six or seven different ways. And they always oblige. Not that Watertown’s a bad neighborhood, but most bar owners would consider being known as “the bar where the jiu-jitsu school drinks” a sound business investment.

I can’t hang like I used to – I could never really hang – so I’m usually one of the first to go. 21 Nickels is covered in sports memorabilia, old press clippings and iconic photographs, like every local bar in every suburb in America. As I exit, I note one that strikes a subsonic chord in my gut every time. Google Image Search isn’t helping, so I’ll have to describe it; this’ll be a good exercise for me.

A white man – not just white, but white – in a turn-of-the-last-century suit and tie, chin at his chest, eyes closed, mouth curving into a smirk’s imitation of a smile. He hovers over the State House like a giant ghost rising out of the earth; it’s visible through his torso. Hundreds of hands reach up from the bottom of the illustration, clutching the air through which this titan passes. A vague limning along the top of the black-and-white drawing, perhaps meant to convey a halo over the hovering figure, suggests nothing so much as a slow dawning horror, especially as the rest of the picture is chiaroscuro black. The entire drawing invokes nothing so much as a Lovecraftian terror – Nyarlathotep, perhaps – and the listless hordes drawn toward him. “THE MAYOR OF THE POOR,” the caption reads. “ELECT CURLEY.”

everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language

So I’m at a bar on Saturday with the other jiu-jitsu students after one of our own promoted to nidan, or second degree black belt. We rented the back room in one of the nightclubs on Boylston St, less than a block from where I work. The outside’s full of scheming scenesters with unbuttoned shirts; the back room is quiet and full of fellow students. One of these has just returned from a year in Israel, where he practiced krav maga four hours a day six days a week. He has a friend with him from Paris, who has black belts in karate and jiu-jitsu. The Parisian speaks good enough English to point across the bar I’m leaning on and ask, “What’s tonic water?”

“Well,” I begin, “it’s water that’s … tonic. Y’know, like in … gin and tonics?” My voice tightens, already apologizing for my own words.

The visitor asks the bartender for a glass of tonic, with ice, a straw (“a pipe”) and some lemon. He stirs and takes a sip. “It’s like a Schweppes,” he declares.

One of the reasons I want to be a writer – and one of the reasons I suspect I come across as a pedant – is because I’m always looking for the best possible way to convey something. I’m never satisfied with a “clear enough” explanation. When I give directions, they have to incorporate street names, landmarks, turns and fail-safes (“if you hit Trinity Church, you’ve gone too far”). When I describe someone, you not only need to know what they look and sound like, but which celebrity they resemble; if I can describe them in a way that makes you chuckle, so much the better. And when someone who speaks perfect conversational English asks me what tonic water is, I need something better than “it’s got quinine in it.”

I care more about whether something’s evocative than whether or not it’s true. Not that we can ignore truth – nothing turns me off more than the line or description that rings false – but it waits its turn behind the image. If I share a common language with someone but not a common culture, I want to find the words that bridge that history.

The bartender produces the gin and tonic I didn’t order. I was thirsty anyway. I slide a packet of bills across while the Parisian describes the search for a valid form of identification for the bouncers outside. “In the States they check your ID,” he explains. “In Paris, they check your shoes.”

slow down, little one; you can’t keep running away

I hadn’t planned to spend six hours drinking with Yelp people on Friday. I only knew one person there (the indubitable Emily G), so how long could I stay? You can’t approach any social engagement without a plan – at least not when you live in my head – and I had one. Stop in, have a beer, say hi, maybe make some introductions, and then retreat to the other side of the river where you actually know people.

Six hours, two beers and a shot of Jameson later, I caught the last train home.

Not the first time this has happened with Yelp people, either. To be fair, it happens in my other social circles too (friends, ImprovBoston people, jiu-jitsu students). But it always works this way with Yelp. Why is that?

Since I clearly can’t figure it out, I leave the answer to you:


  1. Since I don’t have any expectations for how the evening will turn out, I approach each event with an open mind.
  2. Yelp draws in people in similar straits: twenty- and early thirty-somethings who aren’t hanging with a crew that evening, and are therefore just as eager to make new friends as I am.
  3. We all drink a lot.
  4. Other (supply your own).
Show your work; partial credit will be awarded.

I give a little to you, I give a little to him, I give a little to her

I had two encounters with comical anger on Saturday:

Item the First: chauffeuring Liz B. around on Saturday, I thought I’d lucked into a parking lot on the far end of Newbury St near the public gardens. I saw a car pulling out of a spot and swerved across an open lane to take it. I was just wondering how to correct my initial approach when an SUV barreled toward me in reverse, rocking to a halt a few feet away.

My eyes had glossed over the SUV without pause when I first saw it: a double-parked vehicle with its hazards blinking on Newbury St on a Saturday doesn’t merit the evening news. But apparently he’d been waiting for this guy to pull out. Yet here I was, already in the spot.

It had been so long since I’d contested a parking spot with someone that I wasn’t sure of the procedure. Am I in the right here?, I wondered. Should I back out? Is he going to give up?

SUV precipitated the decision for me, not by rolling down his window to scream obscenities but by opening his door. However, he was in such a hurry to get out and confront me that he forgot to remove his seat belt. He wrestled with the strap while standing next to the open driver side door, lips creased in a snarl. I already had one hand on the stick shift (D to R) and the other up in an “easy there, killer” open palm.

Seeing me reverse, the driver gave a curt nod and a “move along” gesture with his hand. I didn’t linger to watch the aftermath.

I don’t know how that would have gone down if he hadn’t become tangled up in his seatbelt on his way out the door. Check that: I know I wouldn’t have started a fistfight on Newbury St over a parking spot. But that moment of pure slapstick defused the tension for me. I recognized the man for what he was – someone very vested in a Lockean notion of property rights re: parking spots; he had mixed his labor (waiting with the hazards on) with the soil (nine feet by four next to a meter) and expected it to yield fruit. My life is richer for avoiding crazies, not confronting them.

(And I shouldn’t call the man “crazy” based on twenty chaotic seconds of interacting with him. He doubtless had a different anecdote to share that evening: “So I’m circling Newbury St for, like, twenty minutes looking for a spot. Then I see a guy pulling out, so I park right in front. But then this prick in an Audi swerves across to try and snatch it from me! I’m sittin’ there, in plain daylight, and he tries to poach that shit. So I get out to give him a piece of my mind, and he backs right the fuck down.”)

I ended up parking two blocks away, just over the Pike. Added maybe five minutes to my walk.

Item the Second: I took Liz to see ImprovBoston’s mainstage show that evening. Afterward we lingered in the bar, chatting with the performers and house staff. I introduced Liz to Narragansett, Boston’s answer to PBR (which I hadn’t thought needed answering, but hey).

A woman in platform heels and a colorful, ill-fitting outfit walked out of the back hallway, probably coming from the Cabaret studio. She stepped outside to light up a smoke. Another woman followed her in short order and conducted a brief, quiet argument with her. This second woman then came back inside, to where Natalie B. was working the bar.

“Do you guys serve alcohol here?”, she asked.

Natalie nodded.

“Lemme get two raspberry Stolis and lime.”

“We don’t actually have hard -” Natalie began explaining.

“Okay, two Coronas.”

“We don’t -”

“Two Heinekens, then.”

Natalie, an adorable ball of energy, smiled and gestured at the fridge behind her. “We’ve only got a few beers stocked here. Harpoon, mostly.”

The woman got a few Harpoons and some bottled water and vanished. Twenty minutes later, the 9:00 show let out. She and a similarly dressed crew emerged, tottering and shrieking, to wait in the lobby for their ride.

“And they don’t even have fuckin’ Heineken,” the original woman was explaining. “They’ve got some bullshit beer. What was it? Fuckin’ O’Doul’s?” She asked this of Ted, possibly the nicest human being on the face of the planet, who was reading a book behind the cash register.

“It’s Harpoon,” he explained.

“Harpoon? Whaddaya, whaddaya.” If I hadn’t suspected they were out-of-towners before, the Brooklyn accent and the ignorance of Harpoon proved it. The Brooklyn ladies waited in their swarm until their stretch Hummer pulled up on Prospect St.

I don’t have a lengthy explanation for the above; sorry.