Feed Your Head

Guitar playing at a party. It was fun.

Oh jeez. It was the damn Olds again.

They’re the ones that throw the parties. They have the green. They cater the pulled pork and brisket and whatever else their food intolerant old friends require. But back to the pork and brisket. There’s coleslaw and super bacon-ey baked beans and the most decadent macaroni and cheese that was drawn from a secret pond by nymphs who loved butter and eggs and noodles and cheese and more cheese. And a bit more cheese.

There was salad, too, with ranch dressing and a gross mistake of a vinaigrette. The latter was only drizzled on the greens by the aforementioned food intolerant old friends of the Olds or by those who were late and found no ranch dressing left. But the latecomers didn’t really care. They may have been high.

The Olds relived their youths a bit by bringing on a keg or two. There was a half-barrel of Bud and a quarter-barrel of some fancy beer that tasted of tar and citrus rinds. Youth friends were grateful for the former. Olds’ friends were impressed by the latter but drank the former. It was lite.

Except for the females Olds. They drank “wine.” But it was so gross. It tasted of a time in a frigid midwestern winter when your tongue got stuck on the metal swingset or like a big bowl of berries that went bad and were tossed into a pile of loose tobacco or like something that tasted sweet going down but after a few too many clear plastic cupfuls came back up full of bitter bile.

Under the wooden beamed canopy at the party section of the state park, seated on the picnic table facing out, and with sneakers or work boots tapping on the concrete slab defining the social space, sat the uncle. Skinny and scraggly with black-rimmed glasses that would be considered hipster on a younger man and a camo colored trucker hat with a commercial symbol that none of the youths recognized, he had his guitar on his knee. He picked it fiercely and expertly, his thinning ponytail switching back and forth in time. His baby brother sat next to him.

The “baby” was almost six inches taller and was holding on to his hair. So far. His mustache was an impressive, slightly abbreviated, horseshoe. His guitar was on his knee. He hung back. His brother took the lead. Big brother leaned over to help his middle-aged sibling get his chords right. Honestly he had it, but his big brother always made him nervous. He could play much better without him, but his brother also made him play better.

It was a family event with live music. The music was played more for the sake of nostalgia, of the times when their entire family would pull out all types of instruments for the funnest jam session. Today, the draw of Dixie Chicken, Give Me Three Steps and Ring of Fire drew some of the guests like bugs swirling around a lamp. Not many, but those who fondly remembered the live music of their own juvenescence. They grinned, swigged from their solo cups and sang, too.

The Youths were doing their youthful things. Shotgunning beers, sneaking to the outskirts to smoke, eating more BBQ, throwing a sports ball and flirting.

The Olds continued to play.

The big baby brother shouted for his daughter. “We’re doing your song next.” Her mother skitted off to go find her. She was on the swingset. She was flirting. “Dad says your song is coming next.”

There was a worry, like it was live TV and they had to get another segment in before the commercial break. It was driven by the baby brother’s deference. His brother was the band leader, and he called the next song. Outsiders would not understand his anxiety. He really didn’t either, but he felt it.

She hurried but was not hurried as she grabbed her guitar case from underneath the picnic table. The “band” was on break, so she had enough time to fiddle with the knobs on the neck of her guitar. She handed the instrument to him. She could tune it, but he had the experience. After he was done, he double checked with his brother. No sour notes.

The skinny, scraggly man nodded then tapped his foot one, two, three, four and strummed the intro with a 4/4 beat. Three fingers, three strings along two frets. Fingers shifted for the next chord, and they were all in time. The leader looked up and signaled another round of intro and the dad translated the signal into words for his daughter. He didn’t need to, she knew to follow the band leader.

The brothers had been singing together for forty some years. They naturally harmonized, their intonations in sync. She brought a richness to the chorus with her strong alto. She weaved her voice in and around her father’s and then her uncle’s, holding her notes and joining their nasal twang as they drew out the words.

There was a baby in a stroller who clapped and gurgled along, his mother swaying back and forth, peaking into the pram and making big eyes and forming her mouth like a life saver. That was meant to encourage the baby. Grandma came and released the baby. She twirled him around. It was his first dance to live music.

The boy who was flirting with the daughter at the swingset sat on the top of a picnic table, keeping her in sight. The rest of the youths found themselves with fresh beers, singing along and throwing out requests to the “band.” And so the party tradition passed to another generation. Score one for the Olds. And the Youths.

Shook Me All Night Long

Captain Jack Sparrow, offering, or at least toasting you, rum.

He was fit. In that way that the word is used to describe someone who is teetering on the top, but not yet quite over, the hill. Let’s call him Steve.

Steve was a common name in his elementary school. There were two other “Steves” in his fifth grade classroom and seven in all of the fifth grade. They would be called by their first name, Steve, and the initial from their last name. It would be Steve P., or Steve J. It would not be Stevie because you lost the diminutive form of your name before kindergarten–except with your aunts. It would not be Steven because people were never called by their full given name when he was in fifth grade, or even eleventh grade for that matter.

He was born at the very beginning of Gen-X, but was constantly confused with the Baby Boomers. His musical history was Stones, Zep, Rush, the Eagles and Journey to newer music like Bon Jovi and Genesis. Maybe some Men in Work and The Summer of ’69. For hipness there might have been some Elvis Costello and The Clash. Maybe not, though.

He missed out on grunge. He preferred reciting Jenny’s phone number over and over rather than the rhythmic dirge of, All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. Some of his friends just saw their dads on weekends. He came into an uncertain job market after college but did pretty well. He married the friend of his best friend’s sister. They don’t see their old best friends anymore, except on Facebook, to mark their own children’s proms and, most recently, graduations.

It was hot at today’s graduation party but the kegs of beer were on ice and tented with a tarp to protect the brew as well as the brew drinkers. He had a rocks glass in his left hand and a fifth of an artisan whiskey held by it’s neck and trailing down his leg in his right. He was holding it there like Kanye held that bottle of Hennessy the night he interrupted Taylor Swift with “imma let you finish.”

Steve purportedly brought the fine southern bourbon as a gift for the host. The bottle, however, never left his right hand. Sometimes he’d swap his rocks glass out for a clear plastic cup filled with beer. Sometimes he would offer someone else some of the amber booze. Only to men, though. And with a story about the rarity or the exquisiteness or the origin of this particular distillery, punctuated with the adjective “smooth” or the feature “no-burn.” Sometimes the tale included all of this.

He wore the bottle swinging against his thigh like it was a medal or an honor sash. It was almost like a marker of his own substance or significance. As the bottle emptied, his swagger was incrementally augmented. He stopped offering to share his bottle and stopped pouring it into a different container before he drank it. He was pacing himself, though.

The bright sun was replaced by multi-colored party lights hung from the tent poles, tiki torches–which gave everyone a quick rush when they were lit and burned off that petroleum smell–and the light from the French doors leading back into the house.

He drifted away, just on the other side of the tents where his peers were tipping back beers and refilling wines and sharing pictures on their phones from their recent trips to Italy and Ireland and Croatia. The music was loud and carried around from the back of the house past the rows of trees to the neighbors’ acre lot. They were invited and this level of noise was so unusual and it was two hours before midnight so there wasn’t a fear of a complaint. He was down to an inch and a half of liquor at the bottom of his bottle.

It wasn’t clear which woman in the floral sundress was his wife or which clean-shaven young man in a tropical shirt was his son. Nobody was checking in with him. When the tinder was torched for the bonfire, he moved into the circle with the group of people who were now all old enough to bring their own beer to the party at someone’s parents’ house. He sat down on the almost unstable white plastic folding chair. He put the bottle on the ground between his legs and soaked in youth.

He heard the air release from a beer can and called for one. There was a cringe from within a tropical shirt. There’s his kid. The youth next to the boxes of Miller Lite made eye contact with the oldster before he tossed him a can. Underhand rather than the rocket he just hurled to his buddy on the other side of the circle. You don’t want to bean somebody’s dad. Because no matter where the guy sat in the circle, he was somebody’s dad.

Steve pulled the last of the bourbon and opened his beer. Some in the circle around the fire were laughing uproariously. Steve was earnestly tightroping between hanging with the “kids” and dispensing fatherly advice. He was a father. He really couldn’t help it. But he was more than a little drunk, too, so he didn’t realize that he didn’t really belong in this circle. The youths welcomed him, but this wasn’t his tribe.

And then, the band started with the chords from an AC/DC tune. No, Steve. Not the air guitar. Yes. The air guitar.

Steve’s son’s girlfriend turned to him and whispered, “at least he’s not trying to twerk like Liam’s mom.” It was a small consolation, but the young man was consoled. By that and by the next rocket launch of a Miller Lite.

Just A Cigar

An attractive box of imported cigar matches. From Cuba.

Was the first cigar you experienced between your lips or between your nostrils? I think it matters.

I was walking to the train and the incense from a cigar wafted past me. I didn’t invite it.

It reminded me of the time I left a happy hour and walked along F Street past Shelly’s Backroom. Shelly’s is a cigar bar.

I don’t know for sure, but given the Barcaloungers lined up outside the storefront window, I wondered if in our no-smoking world you can smoke inside the building, or if you had to smoke in the elements. Even at a cigar bar.

It was a narrow roped off patio. It took up less than half the wide sidewalk. Inside the sanctum were recliners full of men separated by little, low tables that displayed snifters and faceted rocks glasses with various amounts of brown liquors. The subtlety of the whiskeys may or may not have been overcome by the rolled leaves. It would be for me.

Some of the men had their legs splayed out in front of them as their heads were cradled by the high back of the chair, their stogies pointed north north east from their faces. They would look quizzically, with slightly squinted eyes, at the cigar while rolling it between their thumb and forefinger as they exhaled a plume of smoke. Other men sat forward with their elbows on their knees, the cigar in their left hand as they reached for the scotch with their right. These men were talking. The men leaning back were listening, or appeared to be.

It was a delicious night out for them. Domestication and requirements of good health be damned. I think they were mostly enjoying themselves in a peacock kind of way. They thought that they were badasses, too. They would never admit it, but it was true.

As I passed, I didn’t hold my breath so I took in the ashy, pungent and sickly smell of cigar. My memories were triggered. I could only think of one thing. Old men.

Old men from the neighborhood. My friends’ grandfathers and their Uncle Vitos and a stray neighbor with a brown beer bottle wearing a sweat-stained, saggy, v-neck undershirt after he mowed his lawn. None of these men drew me in. Indeed, they repelled me. And looking at the men on the sidewalk with their wingtips and hip striped socks, with their suit jackets abandoned and their ties slightly loosened, and puffing big white clouds all I could think was gross Old Men.

So not attractive. I walked a little faster. Away.