Winter2009

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A Bar Story

Wine, Surrealists, Gypsies & White Russians

By Bryan Douglas

I harbor absolutely no doubt that, as my fellow surrealist has so wonderfully said, yeah, it’s true I am eccentric. But in the same time I am concentric: eccentric and concentric. Sometimes it takes a bolt of energy to the brain in the form of déjà vu to cause the instantaneous realization that all of the events of the past are in some harmonious alignment. The resonation of the moment rings in the ears and all the tiny hairs on the back of the neck stand on end, as the draft of the ghost of the infinite moment now rushes past seeking new landscapes and unfamiliar accents.

There are 30 hours remaining in the year 2008. I walk through the cold damp thick air in the autonomous region of Capitol Hill in Seattle en route to meet up at the Capitol Club with my friend Guillermo, who has just returned from a three-month stay in Andalusia. I enter the club just moments before the performance is to begin. My flamenco teacher is playing here tonight.

The club is dark. Candlelight dances in flickers across the walls decorated in a very Moorish display. If I avert my eyes to the hipsters walking outside, I might for just one moment forget that I am in the States. I walk up the stairs. The sounds of the warm-up for the performance bounce around the blue room downstairs, and a few chromatic notes find their way up the staircase twisting around the iron bars and blend with the conversations at the bar and across tables, all of them over glasses of wine and vodka-based cocktails at variable levels of fullness.

I see Guillermo sitting at the bar with an older Eastern European looking man. “Guillermo, amigo,” I take my hat off and unwind my wool scarf as I approach the bar. “Cómo estás?”

“Bien, bien! Good to you see you,” he says as we embrace.

At this point I’ll point out that we’re speaking only in Spanish, so I’m taking some liberties with translation. But I digress… “How was Sevilla? You have five hundred and two stories to tell, no doubt.”

“Oh my,” Guillermo seems to almost float back into the warm Mediterranean air for a moment, “every day just living tranquil, then every night flamenco parties, playing guitar and listening and learning so much.”

I think I interrupt him here, “So you were studying some, yes?”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah. I studied some compás and cante. Mostly I just practiced and played every day with gitanos. It’s good to be back though, but I still need to find work.”

The conversation carries on for some time. I realize that over the past three months he’s really figured out how to speak the language. When he left he didn’t speak much Spanish at all, and our conversations inevitably were forced into English after just a thought or two. There is something to say about the flamenco ‘family’ or ‘crew’ or whatever word you wish to insert there. It’s the only setting where two heterosexual males can say, “Do you have an emery board or nail file on you? I forgot mine at home,” and have absolutely no eyebrows raised. The nails to a flamenco guitarist are like a bow to a violinist.

Some conversation later with Guillermo and his friend Vladimir is interrupted by the start of the show. The performance tonight is uniquely powerful and still delicate. Not even the uninvited guest flashes of an overzealous point-and-shoot drunken photographer can interrupt the war between darkness of shadow and the warm glow of flames, that wages on the countenance and outstretched arms of the dancer. Halfway through the show there’s an intermission so the performers can refuel on some flamenco juice at the bar. Guillermo, Vladimir, my teacher, a few random characters and I step out onto the terrace with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

We start talking about travel. We talk about home, wherever that is and whatever that means anymore. This guy asks me where I am from. (That’s his dangling participle, not mine.) I tell him Chicago. He asks puzzled, “but where are you from?” Again I tell him Chicago. One of the last times I traveled back to the homeland my trip was made in haste as news of my grandmother’s declining health reached me. I arrive late in the evening to O’Hare International Airport where I am met by my sister, her husband, and the two sugar-intoxicated and sleep deprived boys who forego the standard formalities of greetings and, in lieu, advise me that combined, their total weight is 96 pounds. They had just arrived the previous day from New York by car. Our timing turns out to be perfect. The following morning we make it to my grandma’s house. She is conscious for at least a fleeting moment. The next evening, at about the same time Hunter S. Thompson is sending the contents of his skull on a final voyage of fear and loathing across his kitchen, following the impact of the bullet from the barrel of one of his many firearms, my grandmother quietly and peacefully slips out of this realm of the living as she takes her final breath.

My grandmother was proud south-side Irish. In her younger days, she lived in northwestern Illinois farm country where she was a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse. She used to tell of a day when two boys came in late for school after trapping a funny looking cat in the fields. The funny looking cat, of course, greatly resembles a famous French Looney Tunes character. The whole schoolhouse stunk of skunk to high heaven. She sends an older student into town as a scout, since there was no telephone line, to alert the boys’ parents of the situation. The boys trail a few minutes behind on the journey home where they’ll bathe in tomato juice and then return to studies. For the sake of my imagination, I envision my nephews traversing time and space so to be cast as characters in the scene just set.

In her final resting place, my grandmother proudly wears a glimmering emerald shamrock brooch. She and the other south-side Irish who in another day were looked upon with the same skewed perceptions that today so many do with degradation the immigrants and their descendants from our neighbors to the south, are probably turning over in their respective graves.

I am not being political. I am talking about a pub I recently visited called the Irish Immigrant. Ellen and I are out Saturday night and decide to stop into a random pub for a drink. I won’t bore you with the detail of our costume. Suffice to say we look like we just strolled into this Seattle neighborhood via New York’s Greenwich Village. We open the door to the pub to find a beer pong competition on four or five tables already underway. Aside from this, the pub is somewhat empty save the faint metaphysical cloud of weirdness lurking everywhere thick. The doorman asks to check ID cards. As cards come out, there is a cascade of coin spewing forth from Ellen’s purse. We’re already fish-out-of-water, and now the frat party people and general weirdoes have reason to glare openly at the commotion and the odd couple that’s just walked in. It’s like a scene out of an old western movie where the saloon doors are swinging and the needle on the record skips and screeches to a halt and all heads turn to the doorway. We reach to the floor and recover the shiny coins, careful not to mistake coinage for spent chewing gum stuck to the floor in great abundance. I’ll not be reporting on the toilets in this establishment. That’s one place I just did not want to go. I can only imagine it to be something like the schoolhouse where my grandmother taught on that rank and fetid skunkified day.

Our entrance exclamated, we proceed to the bar for white Russians. To the patrons, we probably look like immigrants. Taking a look about the place, I point out the full jar of candy necklaces behind the bar for individual sale. This of course is the pub grub one might expect at a traditional Irish pub. When a party of guys walks in wearing navy blue blazers, white tennis shoes and upside down visors tilted to the side ready for the beer pong championship round, Ellen and I make eye contact, laugh heartily and make an unspoken agreed decision to leave after this one drink.

There is obviously nothing about this bar that is Irish, unless we’re talking about the old joke:

Q: What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?

A: One less drinker!

I have not the faintest idea what the immigration status is of the bar, but as we walk out of the dreadful place I realize that we, these foreigners to the strange and barren wasteland of spent chewing gum, brain cells clinging on for dear life to synapses with clenched fists in the skulls of mildly homo-erotic fraternity brethren, are now Irish Immigrant emigrants with only a cash register receipt as legal papers. We arrived bringing forth change. That, my friends, is something you can believe in: no doubt.

Back at the Capitol Club, we light up another cigarette as the bartender swings by to refill the wine in our glasses. Vladimir tells this story: A guy walks into a bar and sits down next to me. The bartender comes over and this guy throws a big wad of cash onto the countertop. “I would like twelve shots of vodka,” he says to the bartender. So the bartender looks at the guy and looks at the pile of bills on the counter. What the fuck? The bartender pulls twelve shot glasses down and sets them on the counter. When the first drink is poured, this guy pushes it to the side. The bartender continues to pour the next ten shots. When the twelfth and last shot is poured, the man slides it too aside, just next to the first shot poured. Of course, one takes note to such eccentricities. So, then this guy proceeds to down ten fucking shots of vodka, one after the other with not even a breath in between. Then, like nothing happened, he starts to get up and walk away. At this point, I’ve got to say something. I ask the guy why he left the two shots full on the bar. I mean, he obviously has no problem drinking ten shots in a row, so what’s another two? The guy laughs and says as he leaves, “My friend. You never drink the first drink. It always goes down too harsh and burns the back of the throat. Also, you should never drink the last drink, because you realize after the last drink you had one too many and it’s this last drink that always makes you sick in the morning.”

We all have a hearty laugh, raise a glass in toast, and head inside for a refill. Intermission now over, it’s time for the second set. Midway through, my teacher begins to make a strange face. It seems he is in great pain about something. I know that flamenco is basically the Spanish blues, but there’s something more going on here. He is wincing all through the last half of a bulerĂ­a. When the song comes to an end, his wife, who does baile and cante, announces to the audience, “I am sorry, we must take another intermission. It appears that we have a bit of a wardrobe malfunction. My husband has broken a nail.” Guillermo and I wince and check our pockets for an emery board. The rest of the patrons at the club laugh it up.

The show must go on, and with the blood cleaned up off the finger and some glue affixed to keep the wound shut, so it does. About an hour and a few glasses of wine later as the last song is coming to a resolution, we all raise a toast, finish our wine and head across the street, as the hour is now midnight. There are twenty-four hours left in this old year and there’s a 21st birthday celebration going on at Linda’s since it’s now the thirty-first. We will not drink that last drink.

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