Does Not Belong

Why is a bare chested Michael Phelps standing on the corner in front of the

The door was pulled open. The air was sucked out and displaced with the Boss Man. He strode in with a purposeful swagger. 

The staff looked up. It was neither a surprise nor a source of stress to see him. That was weird because he had been generally absent, at least until he fired the general manager last week. 

That was weird, too. Not so much that he was fired. There was a palpable relief upon his exit. The weird was that he was fired at all. Nobody believed  that would ever happen. The bastard had maintained his reign of terror without consequence for the past two years. That’s a lifetime in this business. 

So Boss Man let his boy go. And, he was newly, and fully, committed to turning this joint around. Honestly, he was primarily committed to establishing his own restaurant group–so this second place needed to succeed. 

His flagship was handily making its numbers. A lineup of basketball players, an occasional actor receiving a White House honor and famous politicians’ spouses provided the attention and space to coast a bit. This outpost concept was not as blessed. He was on a mission to understand why. 

He tapped a bearded staffer near the bar. It was quiet–the time between brunch and dinner. “Come back with me.” 

They walked into the office. Boss Man was talking all the way. He wanted the staff to help him. This guy was thoughtful and verbose. Boss Man pulled up some emails. 

“Like we left a hundred-k in events on the table.”

“Seriously? You want to hear from me?”

“Of course man, I want to know it all.”

“Your boy likely left 500k on the table. Tito saw this and prolly booked 400k.”

“Tito?”

“Yeah. Before your dick-boy let him go. Tito cared more about this place than anyone.”

Boss Man head bobbed up and down in violent agreement. He was writing checks. “Give this to the delivery?” The guy took the check and left the office. 

The bartender came in. She was getting ready to call it a day. The guy came back and she gave him a playful push as she walked back out.

“Look, can I just give you a piece of advice?” Boss Man looked at him earnestly. 

“Yeah. I just want all my staff to just talk to me. Let me know what’s going on. I appreciate you and your honesty.”

“Well that’s what I have to tell you about. What you really need to do, man, is to pay attention to your employees. You need to know them better. Like me. I’ve never worked here for a single day in my life. I work down the street. I don’t work here, Man.”

Boss Man was panicked behind his calm mask. His eyes gave it away though. They became wide as saucers. That’s why he didn’t play cards. 

“Yeah. You’re right. Thanks.” The guy was peeing himself. Boss Man couldn’t be more clueless. Playing off his indiscretions–sharing internal emails, revenue info, his inside line to the city and a panalopy of personnel gossip like who should be a manager–was part of his problem. The guy outed himself before Boss Man asked him to be the GM. He had to stop his side of the game before it went too far. He wanted a good relationship with Boss Man. Boss Man was well-connected. 

“Really, the sad thing is that I want your joint to succeed more than your old general manager did.”

“Yeah.” Boss Man shook his head slowly from side to side. He was looking at a spot on the ground between him and the guy. “Sad.”

The guy turned and walked away. To stay would just embarrass them both. “I gotta go. I gotta get to work myself. I just came here for late lunch. Here’s my number. I’m happy to provide additional help–but depending we might end up with a consult fee.” He laughed. 

“Right. Thanks, man. Close the door?” Then he put his head in his hands. He drew them across the smooth surface of his shaved head, pushing back until he saw the back of the door again. He sighed long and low, breathing out the word “fuck.”

Boom Clap

A pint of beer topping the bar, flanked by a napkin dispenser and a religious candle.

It was a classically delightful bar, from the worn wood floors to the mirror-backed shelves stocked with firewaters to the small well-curated selection of brews  Friendly people were amassing to watch the game, like they did every Saturday afternoon. The stalwarts arrived early to stake a seat around the cozy bar.

The folks in the front, lining the bay window had been there for a while. They had that end of the night volume, and it was just 2 p.m. There was the crash and shatter of a glass. The hands of the guilty flew into the air with a flurry of apologies. The server quickly arrived to clean up the shards.

A few minutes later he was at the bar for refills. He wisely ordered cans this time. The smash and splintering of a second glass hitting the floor ensured everyone’s attention. Patrons clustered around the bar all individually and as a group exchanged glances that said, “Who are these people and I hope they leave before kickoff.”

The server came around a second time with her broom and dustpan. She was much less cheerful this round. “You can’t break any more glasses.” The folks in the front knew that, but in a bar you have to be very clear with your instructions and warnings. Drunks aren’t the best at comprehension or nuance.

The man at the bar was worried that they would be asked to leave before they could finish the beers he just ordered. He safely cashed out and was joined by two young women who defiantly ordered more drinks. A guy watching the pre-game warmups suggested plastic cups for their round of vodka and tonics. The new bartender on shift verified that they were the ones with “two strikes.”

She asked to see their IDs. She was a bit gruff, but she was establishing dominance. She had a long shift ahead. She needed to assess their sobriety levels. Her goal was to make sure they stayed within the lines. This wasn’t her first rodeo. And anyway, she was a bit hungover herself.

It was time for kickoff.

 

Whiskey Sour

A fancy drink on a wooden tray on a wooden bar.

He watched her study the cocktail menu. The place was very dark. He took his phone from his pocket and set the flashlight. He held it above the menu for her. She looked up from her examination and smiled as she waved him away. “I can see okay.” She held the menu closer to the lit votive and looked at him as if to say, “See? I got this.”

She returned to her selection process. He returned to watching her. She looked down at the list, and her averted lashes cast a shadow on her smooth cheek. He appreciated the contrast of the thick black eyelashes against her creamy skin. He liked the corkscrew tendrils of her curls that fell over her shoulder. Her chin and her nose were a little sharper than what he thought of as his “type,” but she was objectively pretty.

She flung her head back up and looked at the drink he had in front of him. “I can’t decide. I’m thinking either this Cicada Song or the Whatever Doesn’t Kill You. What are you drinking?”

Ugh, he thought. Here we go. He purposely got there early so he could order before she arrived. He wanted to avoid this part of the conversation.  He didn’t drink, but having drinks is what people do. So he invited her for a drink.

He was soft-spoken but it was clear that he grew up in a New York borough. “It’s a club soda.” He waited for it.

“What?”

“I don’t drink. I never have. It’s not my thing. But you go ahead. We can get some snacks.”

She started to feel very awkward. “Well,” she dragged the word out as she tried to pull her thoughts together, “Well that’s cool that you don’t, but why did you invite me to this bar if you don’t drink?” Drinking alone was not what she had in mind for a first date.

“Well this place was top of the cocktail scene on Yelp and it’s a cool place, don’t you think?” Would she go for his diversion? He looked into his cooler glass as stirred the ice and poked at his lime with the cocktail straw.

“We don’t have to stay here if it’s not your thing,” she offered. “There’s a new coffee joint down the block–they have this special single origin organic & fair trade coffee that they roast on site. Why don’t we go there, and we can talk?”

“Sure, we can do that.” He left a bill on the bar. She pulled her tote over her shoulder, and they walked out into the early evening. She stood still for a minute as her eyes adjusted to the brightness.

She was much shorter than him. Online he didn’t realize she was so small. She skipped a little to keep up with his stride. She was a little sorry that she wouldn’t try that pink drink with the mezcal and egg white. She decided that she’d come back with her roommates sometime to try it.

The sidewalk was full of people making their way to and from restaurants and happy hours and to the theatre. He lost her for a minute as a posse of teenagers stepped between them. He stopped and looked around. He was supposed to keep track of her. Meanwhile she was opening the door to the coffee shop. She looked up and wondered what happened to him. He followed her in a long minute later.

She drew in a breath of the eau du cafe. It smelled amazing. None of that burnt coffee smell, just the earthy sweetness of coffee. There were just two people in front of them.

“What are you going to get?” He had his hand on his wallet. He had asked her out.

She motioned to the cashier, “You go first.”

“Oh, me?” He took a step back. “I’m not getting anything. I don’t drink coffee.”

She stopped herself from asking the snarky question that was forming in her head. Instead she just repeated him, “You don’t drink coffee?” Her phone rang. It was her best friend. She was so glad that they took care of each other. “Sorry, I need to get this.”

Her roommate asked her how it was going. She answered forcefully, “Oh no! I’ll be right there!” She looked up at her non-imbibing companion and drew her most concerned face. “I’m so sorry, but there’s trouble with our plumbing and I need to go home. Text me?” She stepped out to the curb, threw up her right hand and hopped into a cab.

He was confused. He stood in the doorway of the coffee shop until somebody pushed their way past him. He should have hailed the cab for her. She was gone. He walked towards the garage and realized that her eyelashes were so long and thick because they were fake. Also, she was entirely too short.

Next week she would go back to the cool bar. With her friends. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t bump into him.

Postcards

A triangle, a pool cue and a few balls inside the triangle and a few balls outside the triangle. The table is green. The balls in the triange are 3, 5 and 9. Nine is striped.

There was this joint a few blocks away. It was tiny. There were two rooms, not including the johns. It was on the far corner of Colorado Avenue, and you had to walk a few steps down to reach the entrance. Not many. Maybe two. Max was three.

The door wasn’t the sturdiest, but the bar was solid. When you walked in you’d see a few dozen coffee mugs hanging from the wall. And, when you walked in, it was as a bell heralded your entrance. There wasn’t a bell, but you still felt a chime. As you crossed the threshold, Becky would come from behind the doorway to greet you.

She was a slight woman. She had thick bangs that topped big, thick plastic glasses. She wore her hair pulled back in a pony tail. It wasn’t long and luxurious. It was thinnish and a dull blonde. The rubber band was functional. This was her joint and she had work to do.

I don’t know that anyone else worked there. She must have changed her own kegs. She made the sandwiches–my favs were the turkey and the roast beef. I really really liked her ice cream scoop of potato salad. It was a big scoop. I don’t think she made it herself, but it was standout in freshness and flavor. The food wasn’t cooked. It was fixed–in the kitchen behind the bar. The only thing served hot was the coffee.

There was a great story about the robbery at Becky’s joint. A guy walked down the steps where he knew a small, fortyish woman tended bar, and he had a gun. He very nervously pointed it at the proprietor and demanded her money. She looked at him and said she would bring it from the back. As she stepped through the open doorway to the kitchen, the sweaty guy heard the click, click, click, click, click, click,  click, click, click, click of  ten guns being drawn. A heavily mustached man sitting at the far end of the bar spoke. His eyes were facing the shelves at the back of the bar. He didn’t move his head.

“Man. You done went ahead and fucked up. See all those coffee mugs on the wall. This is where we come to get a coffee. During our patrol shifts. Why don’t you put that gun down now, son. And I will have the police officers behind you lower their weapons.”

It was a cop bar. The would-be robber fell to the ground, was cuffed and taken away. Then Becky came out of the kitchen. She refilled the mug of the man with the mustache. Nothing else was said.

Just to the right of the bar was another open doorway, to the second room. That room was mostly for darts. There were leagues that played there some nights. Other nights people would pull their flights from their pockets and throw. It was fun.

There was also a misshapen pool table. You’d ask Becky for the balls if they weren’t on the table. If she didn’t know you, you might need to leave a driver’s license. But if she didn’t know you, why would you be playing pool there?

We were drinking Miller, the champagne of beers, from longnecks. We met up with some union brothers of The Spouse (when we were dating and not married, but let’s not confuse things by giving The Spouse a new identifier). Five of us were at the pool table playing a very unskilled game of eight ball. Slop counted. Someone brought another pair of handfuls of Miller.

She was a bit aloof, but not for any reason other than she didn’t know everyone. She was tall and had a quick smile and a throaty laugh. Her eyes were big and expressive, especially when she was making or parrying a point. Her layered dark blonde hair was heavy enough to stop it from flying all over the place. Still, her bangs danced just above her brows and cascaded along her cheeks and down her back.

I knew her husband, but she wasn’t with her husband. She was with a different union brother. I liked the one she was with better than the husband anyway. The crowd were mostly members of the local, except for me, her and her future her sister-in-law. Then there were four of us at playing pool.

In those next minutes, which were less than ninety, I became friends with my best friend that I ever had in Washington. The most regular person I knew here. She mostly grew up around D.C., versus the transplanted folks that were the majority of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends.

She had both a kindness and a take-no-prisoners air. I think that any prisoners would have been glad to spend time with her, though. Even if she upbraided them, she would relate to their experiences while demanding better. They would try harder.

She was an artist. She had huge feelings. She was the best mother I knew. She honestly and lovingly challenged my own failures in a way that pushed me to fail less. I want to be more like her.

Today would have been her birthday. Facebook told me. I found my head in my hands and cried again at losing her. Every year I cry a few times because I miss her.  I wish she was here to slap me upside the head and tell me the truths that I am too dumb to see. And I remain grateful, so very, very, very grateful, that she was my friend.

Dearest Kris, having a wonderful time and so wish you were here. xoxo

Good Forms

Agent (of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Melinda May uses her mad fighting skills to kick a bad guy. She's not hurt. She's boss.

The smell of french fries crossed the street on its own. It was actually the smell that conjures fries. More like the smell of the fryer. And salt. Not potatoes. The potatoes have no smell.

The lurkers on the sidewalk turned their heads in the direction of the scent. Some looked more plaintively than others.

There were two types of yearners. Some were hungry, either because they didn’t eat dinner yet or because every time they smell fried food they wanted it. There was a subset of this group that were both. They were the most dangerous.

Others looked longingly when the door to the tavern opened. They could almost see the outline of the polished wooden bar. The welcoming stools waiting for a perch. The pours lined up and reflecting off the back mirror. They might be interested in the fries, too. Salt to wash down the spirits.

Yet they remained posted up in front of the dual storefront. There were scores of square feet of glass. There were three short rows of metal chairs closest to the doors of each store. Mostly moms sat in. Mostly dads stood outside.

The moms on the inside might spend time on their phones, but as the weeks of class wore on, they knew each other. They spoke about the trials of homework, mismanagement of time and the concomitant fines, inequities at work/home/country and their pride in their offspring. The dads on the inside were primarily silent but observant. They were tracking the progress of their progeny purposely. They knew the color sequence of the belts.

The few women outside were either sitting in strategically parked SUVs or smoking a cigarette. The outside dads milled around. A group discussed the Redskins practice and hopes for the preseason. The sole–and loud–Cowboys fan was there to be razzed. And he was. The outside moms didn’t track the inside. The outside dads would frequently glance over their shoulders and mark their kids.

The inside parents ensured that all belongings were accounted for, stuffed in backpacks or purses or bags. Most outside moms followed up. The outside dads who limousined the kids every week were on top of it. The dads who were intermittent chauffeurs asked the kids if they had everything. The kids always said yes. Sometimes they were mistaken. Sometimes there was a trip back to the storefront. Sometimes there were later recriminations. Less in the summer. More during the school year.

Just the one dad would take his kid across the street after class. The dad would order a beer he liked. The kid would have orange and cranberry juice with a spritz of club soda, a cherry and a single drop of bitters. They called it his cocktail. The dad and his kid would split a fry. And the kid talked up the bartender and learned to tip, too.

Close Cover Before Striking

Public handwashing. Not handwringing.

So there’s this interesting new bar and restaurant design. It’s not about tap placement. Well, not  in a traditional view of bar taps, that is.

It’s not about the relative space of standing room to table. It’s not about the frenzy to biergarten-esque shared space. It’s not about $15 craft cocktails with artisanal bitters and homemade tonic. It’s not even about beers that taste like the ripe sweat wrung out of a summer half-marathon runner’s shorts.

Nope. It’s about the john.

In paean to efficiency, privacy and the quagmire of single-sex bathrooms, new joints are opening up with a cluster of individual water closets with toilets and, frequently, baby changing tables, to serve the tail end of customer needs. There are a series of doors, could be two, could be eight, that open into a lobby of sinks, all to better wash one’s hands after doing one’s business.

Gone are the days when The Big Guy and Baby Bear would lament the lack of personal hygiene of their bathroom cohorts. “Doc, the guy DIDN’T WASH HIS HANDS!” (Frankly, I was always pleased to hear this. It made me believe that they were washing theirs.)

Gone because, now, everyone can see the water and soap action of anyone leaving the toilet. I especially like seeing the signs above the sink exhorting employees to do the right thing. Now, we all know. Anyone can see. Hand washing has become more public.

The data was there; three in five folks have observed others not washing their hands after peeing or pooping. And one in four people don’t use soap. Eww.

So now, given the public commons for handwashing, there’s a new way to publicly shame people. Guys, women are watching. Women, we all know. Watch your fellow patrons leave the water closet and see if you can make them wash their hands with your disapproving eyes.

Frankly, you should have been doing this all along. Just wash your hands!

Fell Asleep Beneath the Flowers

Sherlock Holmes experiences a ridiculous dream.

Window down and the sun warms my elbow as the deep throated scream of a mouth organ asserts itself from the public radio Saturday blues show. Cue the dissolve for a flashback.

[Insert the the strums of a harp interrupting the bass groove. I’m shaking my head violently back and forth, trying to immerse more fully in the memory and erase that damn, incoherent harp.]

It feels like a day for a street festival in Ann Arbor. We’d sit on a paint-peeled porch as the sun was passing the noon mark. We didn’t drink in the morning. Our beverage of choice recipe included plenty of ice, many cans of frozen lemonade and Popov. Our people would gather with the supplies. Sometimes someone would get cocky and bring the Smirnoff. The one with the extra proof.

I don’t think the person who lived at the house with the porch had the blender. I’m sure that we left it there. I’m pretty sure that it was a yard sale find.

It’s a miracle that we didn’t burn that motor out. It’s not like it was a will-it-blend? Vitamix model. No. It was a lowly Oster that probably once belonged to a graduate student. We stuffed it with ice cubes and frozen lemonade and enough vodka to make a slush. We didn’t want to dilute the liquor too much. The ice should have been too much for that cheap blender. But it wasn’t.

Ann Arbor is small enough that the porch could be central. We could get back easily in between bands and when our cups were empty. Or we could just do the brain freeze downing of the slush and leave the cup behind. This method was optimal for dancing, if not for responsible drinking.

We’d find the schedule on a poster plastered on a wall or in the student newspaper. Someone or two would pour over the schedule to optimize our band selections–avoiding the bluegrass and making sure we hit the reggae cover band–and so we would know where to meet up if we were separated.

The best music was the blues. There were old bands and young bands. The young bands were usually made up of white kids who grew up in suburbia and had instruments and listened to Cream, the Stones and others in the British Invasion. They discovered that there was an entire history behind that music. That it originated many generations earlier. There were also the old bands. They were usually more diverse, and had traveled along the circuit from bar to bar. They were done with the circuit and now stayed closer to home. They played when they could. They had day jobs.

When we were lucky, when the sun went down there were bands that were still playing the circuit that would come through. They’d be in the bars after the festival wound down rather than on the street stages during the day.

We’d all be salty and gritty from sweat. Hair would be amuss. Sandaled feet filthy. Maybe someone needed a bandaid. Occasionally someone would bow out due to a sun stroke or bad meat*.

We’d try and get there early enough for a table. We’d order pitchers of the cheap beer. And we’d stand close to what would stand in for a stage, listening to people 10 or 20 or 30 years our senior playing the blues.

We didn’t understand the blues ourselves, but we felt that chord progression. We incorporated the growl of illicit sex–either the cheater or the cheat-tee. Sometimes we couldn’t tell exactly who was wronged. We’d feel the rhythm section through our feet and sometimes the bass would explode directly from our hearts. The thud of the bass drum and the hiss of the snare would knock us woke.

We would stand in front of that stage and sway. We’d sing. We’d dance. We’d make out. We’d feel it. We’d pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.

The tiny snug bars didn’t have dressing rooms or green rooms. The bands would come in, set up and play. They didn’t have a quiet space. For breaks they’d go outside to smoke, get someone older than us cheap kids to buy them a drink. They’d fade into the crowd or hang out near the dumpsters behind the joint. Once, I met up with Koko Taylor in the ladies room. There was a line of cocaine that disappeared from the restroom vanity. Gatemouth Brown and Bobby Blue Bland held services from those risers that stood in for a stage. There were guitarists, horn and harp blowers of renown. We didn’t know.

The bar was dark. It stunk. The floor was sticky. We didn’t tip for shit. We were just college punks, drunk, dirty and loving the blues. And, in festival season, we’d get up the next day and do it again.

What a beautiful day.

[Next time I do a memory, I’m going to fall into the pensieve rather than do the Gilligan’s Island dissolve to the next scene.]

* a euphemism for being sick from drink.