Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Years later, in the course of my service to humanity, I found I was actually quite good at dealing with New Yorkers, somewhat to my chagrin, a bittersweet understanding, something I should have realized long before. Initially abrasive, testy, demanding, appearing not to be easily satisfied, qualifying their orders by how things should be done exactly, they would inevitably turn out to be fun, joyful and friendly and even solicitous. And this pleased my passive love for them, as if I'd been waiting for them gently. Maybe it was that they were discovering that someone they perfectly expected to be a rube and a bumpkin largely incompetent and ignorant of the finer details of life turned out to be a pleasant not completely uncultured fellow, capable of conversation and humor. But it was always as if these qualities were reasonably well hidden upon their entrance and the initial encounter and the 'here's the way I want it and what can you do about it.'

But the realization, an ongoing one I would have repeatedly over the years as a quiet polite barman, would always, as I say, have an amount of sadness, for the life I did not take, the route I didn't follow, the talents I did not develop in that place so appropriate for them, the musicality, the literary, the conversational. And the girl I'd fallen in love with, well, my talents would always be latent, too shy and undiscovered, largely out of my own initial youthful hick quality that then seemed to settle in on me like a patina I could not shake, as if, like Lincoln, I would always wear ill fitting clothes and have a 'Mr. Cheerman' sort of twang in my lips, which then had become a sort of twenty five year prison sentence and a blight upon the real career I should have had had it not been for certain things and depressions.

My deep simple love of New Yorkers, experienced on gut level, would then remind me of the parable, if it is a parable, of the shepherd father's happiness at recovering the one lost sheep that has strayed from the flock. It was as if the sheep had leveled all sorts of presumptions about the father and made accusations of him and even scorned him quite terribly even though it was all rooted in innocence, but then realized all the shepherd father was actually about, so that all could rejoice.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It's Sunday. The sun is out. It's reasonably warm. The author is getting ready for work, folding a non iron shirt into a legal pad notebook, putting something of a sandwich together for later, filling the water bottle for the bicycle. I'll ride up the big avenue, then cut into the woods, into the park and wind my way down then up by Dumbarton Oaks. It's Oscar night, and I wouldn't mind watching, to see how storytellers are plying their trade these days.

My mom has mailed me a copy of Synge's The Aran Islands, and I find something very real about it, the tales of the locals, the recording of their folk tales. I'll take those scenes of the islands with me as I work in the upstairs room, the wine bar, not getting any richer, but showing up. Good story telling, always a comfort to the living of life and all its cares and concerns.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Clever magazine article titles that play on words and phrases. A sign at the museum at Dumbarton Oaks, "Cross References," above a Christian cross. (Jesus, is anything sacred, immune to such picnic treatment?) Something that involves taking a phrase we all seem to know, like 'happy days,' and making it 'happy daze,' that sort of thing, a pun. And, not always in good taste. I guess it exercises the brain like a cross word puzzle, and so, dumbed down as we are, we click on it. 'Rapper' could show up as 'Wrapper,' nights as knights, but anything, any phrase, 'ham and eggs,' let's say, is fair game. Hot dogs. Tits and ass, that could show up as anything that rhymes with it, say, brits and brass, fits and class... it's all so subliminal, sort of, not really, that we enjoy the brain connection. And if someone should come up with something a bit original, oh, it will be copied in this cheesy way. I don't want to think that a good song Rainy Night in Soho will ever be popular enough to suffer receiving the treatment. And sometimes one wishes that more pithy statements, like Emily Dickinson's 'an admiring bog,' got a little more play, because within the words, a lesson, a point that gets across.

What does this show us? Where does this lead our minds? Sometimes well, but not always.

I think it's a bit of a selfish attitude. The appropriation of one thing, letting that show up as shorthand. We never have to read anything. We just make references to it, to show we're smart. "islands in the stream.' never mind hemingway, and all the work he put into a late novel.

And what does it amount to? Basically, I think, a disbelief, a disavowal, a repudiation, really, of... genius. Yes, this is one big way we put down genius. One more way to say, 'oh, god, he's singing in that voice again.' One more way to say Mozart is this, Beethoven is that, MacGowan is this, Kerouac is that. Dante, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Jefferson...who knows. Masked behind our appropriations of words and phrases, a dismissal. Behind the neat header, a misuse, a smirk at something once said cleanly and purely.

So who do we take to be 'genius' these days? Steve Jobs. I'm sorry, I know we want to think of people as geniuses, that it might help our own business projects, but, really? Yes, he built a better phone, as one builds a better toaster. He, and Bill Gates, and many others, changed the economy, and streamlined, but, the word genius is better preserved, I think, for other folks. Mozart. Maybe Lincoln. Beethoven. Modern culture has gotten quite a bit off as far as recognizing real genius, as much as it would insist that it is vigilant.

The restaurant business, being tough, is, I think, one clear example of what genius must go through. That is my opinion. To be a genius is very demanding. It has odd hours, completely different viewpoints. It is a completely odd life.

And us, now, none of us are all that kind to the geniuses in our ranks and in ourselves. Act a little different, a little funny? March to your own drummer? Guess what kids, you're bound for rejection.
You go through a lot at work. You go through a lot emotionally. And it's true of bartending. You go through a lot, many emotions, and if you don't manage to stay reasonably calm, it spills over onto the rest of your night and the day after. Shaken up so, by the ups and downs, you can feel a little disturbed when an incoming email pings at you. And if you go out, you can get carried away by the opportunity of relaxing, of letting it all go.

Well, you have to do yoga. It clears the mind, and sets you back right.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do you accept Shane MacGowan as your personal savior?

Well, yes. Here's an example of the artistic spirit that can be fostered as people do what they will do. One can enjoy some wine, hang out at a pub, and be not an aggressive bullying prick but a musician forwarding a venerable traditional culture.

I finally went out and did it. I bought a decent amp for my acoustic. I got a microphone, one of those internet deals, a very decent Shure SM58 complete with cord and microphone stand for a hundred bucks. And now, no longer testing out the confines of the backyard in the middle of the night, my attempts at music reverberating off of brick walls, hoping not to be called out by an angry sleepy neighbor (which has happened), trying to hear how I sound, now I have a way to hear myself, which is enormously beneficial as far as staying in pitch when you sing.

And, come to find out, going through my Pogues song list, I don't sound half bad, which amazes me, as I had the opinion that I couldn't really sing all that well. Of course, it's a matter of finding the range your comfortable with, and pleasantly, for me anyway, my range isn't that far off from Mr. MacGowan's. And maybe it has something to do with the nature of the music played by The Pogues, which is basically traditional Irish. It's a music of the people, a folk music. It's not meant to be fancy or overproduced. You grab an instrument and you play, and probably pretty much anyone with half a mind for it can come up with something.

We don't, I think, get to pick out our talents and what we're exactly good at. But a love of something, a form of art, a way of making it, can lead us to try it ourselves. We might find out we're not Chekhov when we sit down and try to write our own story, but then again, the main thing could well be just letting it happen, if it is something you're given to do.

And so for years and years, I loved that music. Timidly, I started to play it. "Well," I thought, "I'm not harming anyone. It's within my rights to try and practice..." Okay, the cat doesn't like it, and runs from her sleepy chair to a hiding spot in the bedroom. Okay, maybe not at 4 AM in full volume, the lawyer, every bit a lawyer, comes out on his deck, 'stop.' Okay.

Give yourself a shot at it. Try it out. Have a little fun, and you may end up surprising yourself at the level of quality.

And so, a guy who has a beer, as one does in college, gets a little creative. Tries writing, tries poetry, and somewhere deep inside, the gut instinct, the desire to play music, Irish music fused with rock n roll.

But.. "Are you mad? Look at MacGowan, and what's he's done to himself. It wasn't just wine and beer and pot. It was acid. It was, quite regrettably, heroin too. Okay, that is true. He wears the years of abuse of a musician on the road.

On the other hand, you might say he has been prescient about the crisis young people in Europe, in London, in Spain, in Greece, in Italy, are facing, having not been left with much and not much in the way of opportunity. It's a situation that brings to mind a number of Pogues songs. "So thanks for sweet f*** all..." Indeed, his music offers a refuge from shallow consumerist materialism in favor of embracing solid and grounded human emotion.

People will be people. They will drink wine and dance and make love and find pastimes to relax themselves. As with everything, it's the attitude they bring to it, good or bad.

Lacrosse Ghetto

An aspect of high school/college lacrosse of late has come out in the UVA murder trial. A thuggish culture I've heard of directly from parents effected by its bottle-throwing bullying, kids from privileged schools, aggressive, destructive, an eagerness to humiliate any and all in a team's way. The events resulting in the murder trial of a young man who found his lacrosse player girlfriend was dating a player of a rival team reveal, perhaps, a cultural milieu. Where lacrosse teams have acted with arrogant impunity, with parents supportive and powerful enough to enable the worst behavior, now, perhaps, some light will be shed on the violence and aggression that is part of this 'sports culture.' One can hope more accounts of such will surface.

Now of course this is not true of all of high school and college lacrosse. But...

As a necessary afterthought, to say this is of course a complete and gross overstatement.  It should not be applied as a blanketing statement.  Sports are beautiful and good for people, and it is through them that we learn sportsmanship.  At issue is the sense of self-entitlement that certain attitudes might engender.  Lacrosse is not the issue, and events that happen are most likely unrelated.

Monday, February 20, 2012

President's Day Weekend, the Sunday night shift... The couple that won't leave; the French chef in for dinner, Pepe Le Pew, a colleague calls him, whose refrain, "I like food, I like wine, I like to talk about food, I like to talk about wine," the couple seated next to him, planning a trip to France, is getting a lot of; the woman who's had too much Sancerre (or without any dinner) who asks me what my deal is. The waitress goes, I send the busboy home, the downstairs waiter comes up to watch the show... Chef Pepe has moved on to tipsy woman. "Are you in control of the music? Put on The Clash," she says. It ain't pretty. I turn the lights up, eat my salmon tartar over in the corner, ignoring the "come, sit next to us." I am left in a peculiar kind of purgatory as the fruits of my labor bring me toward wrapping things up. I just want to go home. Le Pew leaves, with a jolly "thank you, my friend, good luck," and one last shot at getting her to leave with him. "I like women," added to the list. She will stay and continue her inquisition a little while longer, the likable person she was now feeling spurned. I turn the music off, and finally, the last leftover first date couple makes toward the stairs. Finally, after making sure she has everything, I walk her down the steps and hail a cab. Thank god for cab drivers.

It all strikes one as a bit disturbing, this serving of wine to people. Why did I get into it? How to get out of it? Yoga, do some yoga, then meditate... that helps. The unsettling feeling stays with me as I ride home on my bicycle, as I sprawl on the couch watching a PBS show about Lincoln's years as a lawyer, as I wake up the next day, as I go to work the next day, as if my life were held hostage by that element of society which sneaks out at night and bares itself after the politeness is over, the selfishness coming out.

But, as a friend puts it, do I continually create my own hell just by going in there? Wow. I would hope it's just a job, and it does pay the bills; I can see what she means. Nerves jangled, I'm more prone than I would be to need three glasses wine in succession, more prone to bad decisions of the same sort I've whiffed all evening, of drunkenness leading to blind sensual fixations, a person carried away with slaking various thirsts. This doesn't happen when I am home reading and figuring out what to do about dinner and other chores. And writing.... is all this 'material,' as in material for the next prose attempt? Do I really care that much about the ins and outs of wines to feel dedicated to all the details of the world of wine? Maybe some people can handle wine, in that they enjoy it as an element of dinner. But I'm not sure I can, and you know, you get tired of waking up feeling green around the gills, and maybe on top of that, a bit ashamed of yourself for the pleasure-seeking that went with a bit too much wine.

This is, I guess, why I do it four nights a week, no more. That's enough.

Last night, working alone, I was getting off easy. Until two conducting an affair come in (one is a psychologist), just as I'm getting rid of the last diners. C'est la vie. I end up eating my roast beef sandwich at the same corner of the bar I took refuge in the night before. They let me off the hook, now that I have nothing left to do but stare at my iPhone propped up against a wine decanter and finish my dinner, as I make note to myself that I must go and get canned cat food at the Safeway, and some baby food too, as the cat is constipated.

Ahh, I get home again, wiped out. Amadeus is on the old telly, and so the night sinks in as I ponder my own childishness, until I've had enough of the tension of Mozart's destruction, and head off to bed.

Friday, February 17, 2012

At the end of the week I have a chance to read, to climb back toward the liberal intellectual world, a book my father nudged me toward for offering a clean fresh look on how the Gospels might be interpreted. In King Jesus, Robert Graves, informed by extensive scholarship, proposes a version of the original story, along with popular misinterpretations and mistakes in the narrative as passed down in Christian tradition.

This exercise of the mind brings back to me the riches of my father's thoughtful mind and gentle spirit. He attained much in his lifetime, and he was your basic kind and broadly intellectual college professor, who would touch on Yeats in the course of his botany lectures, who had a great grasp on the life of the mind. And compared to his achievements, his good works daily as an educator, a son can sometimes wonder how well he has honored such a tradition. And I know I have had my issues, discovering how to be in academic trouble, for whatever reason, in a time when it's better not to be. And of course the usual issues often come up, concerning what one is doing with his path in life and all that sort of thing.

The best thing one can do, actually can do, is realize in some way that he is 'sick,' in some way, or to put it better, and aligned with a helpful tradition (to say the least), in need of a physician. So one turns to a book, and this one about, well, wise people, from Hillel on through to a Jesus struggling with how to bring the Law of Moses along in a living world. Graves description of Hillel, through the eyes of Jesus, gives us a poor man who studied the Torah, stayed humble, kept a fine sensibility about all things meaningful, all the while maintaining his connections to the trade of carpentry, that is to say, an unpretentious fellow.

It is easy, I would gather, to be down on yourself for the life of trade that you've fallen into. But it is good medicine to look at it another way and see that maybe just so you have in fact accomplished some good in the world, some extension of kindness toward your fellow human being and neighbor in the course of your work. Maybe you don't specifically, in particularly authoritatively tangible ways, help people. But I know, in my gut, and from my own experience, that one's conscience can make you feel sick about yourself, and that what one really needs then is some form of acceptance, a permission to be good and kind, even as that might strain upon one's worldly logic.

And in a public house, I think the offer is primarily of kind acceptance, so that people can be themselves, let the demons of their guard down, and relax in some way, which then in turn gives them permission to not just sit around feeling guilty about all their lusty thoughts and of what they've done, but to have a sense of themselves as good and soulful people, a regaining, if you will, of humanity.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I fall, all too easily, into the cycle. After work, getting home past midnight, all alone, you feel like you need a reward of some sort. A creature comfort that engages a tired body. Too hard to read, after all that, a typical shift. Before, earlier in my career as a barman, I fell into the cycle of unwinding with my work buddies. The drinking part of the social drinking grew into a habit. But these days, there aren't any coworkers left standing when I'm done, so I get home and drink some wine, and sometimes too much wine. The wine keeps me up as it relaxes me, I suppose. I watch late night television. I look at YouTube for musical ideas. And alone, late at night, there is the creature comfort of the internet by which to pleasure one's tired body to as a way of relaxing.

Some life. A perpetuation of a false reward system. Days of wine and roses that draw one further and further into being lost. It's nothing to glorify, beyond acknowledging as another form of human suffering, of which there are, obviously, many, and maybe life itself being, when you look at it, something touched by sadness.

So you stay up too late, 'til it's light out by the end of the work week. Finally, you drag yourself off to bed in a darkened room, shutters shut, curtains drawn. In wintertime a whole week can go by in darkness. Artificial light, an artificial life. Perfect situation of having nothing to look forward to, along with a sense of shame over what one has done with his life, 'being a writer,' the perfect system of offering no reward.

Shane MacGowan, on the song that gets him out of bed in the morning, found on YouTube, a song by The Sex Pistols, "No Feelings." He tells of just getting out of a mental hospital, and here's this song, about a kid who hates his job, 'just wants a blow job, and fuck off,' as far as his relationships. He'd had a dream about playing really loud music in a band, and here's this song. "I got no feelings," Johnny Rotten sings. "It makes me feel great," MacGowan says, his voice clearing out of his inward mumbles. And that's a pretty good description of a particular kind of reward system to be had at night when you don't fit in. Maybe that's not an unhealthy place to start from: I hate my job.

So what can you do when things get like that? What you do reach out for as something to trust? I guess you can only start by leaving the blinds open a crack, so that a little daylight can get in to your life even as you rest. A little yoga, sure, that's going to help, help you stand up a bit straighter. And getting out of the house into the light for a walk, some form of modest exercise just to get you going. That's hard enough, and maybe sometimes it is enough, just to get you out of one cycle and more in tune with a more natural circadian rhythm. And maybe it will get you out into the woods, into the fresh quiet air, into nature again. Maybe that's enough to get you moving and not too despondent, too much in a lack of direction and wholesome reward.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday night is Monday morning. Come off a pseudoweekend. At least the laundry's done, groceries in the fridge. I hate this week. I've been looking at it since before the holidays. Valentine's Day week. The last in a series of special menus and fully booked tables beginning at 5:30, who knows, maybe even earlier. There's always some nasty surprise. I have nightmares about the couple that changed their order after they ordered, the foie gras appetizer I pleaded with the chef and everyone else about that just wouldn't show up, so that I had to slink back to the bar and face their stares.

I hate Valentine's Day. I hate the restaurant business. It was all a lie, that I would get some writing done on the side, and eventually work my way out of the shit arse routine of smiling at people as you wait on them, that just gets deeper and deeper a hole, because, in your great pain, you become an empathetic and kind being, even as your own life goes to lonely shit. Some days you just want to tell them, oh fuck off, leave me alone, I don't feel like talking and am tired of the shitty pretense that my job is taking me anywhere.

My mother told me and I should have listened when I signed up with the restaurant business when as a luckless college grad I fell in with it. "It will break your heart." And she knew from experience, her father a chef, her mother a waitress. Even though one should be happy to have a job these days, I guess.

Green tea, shit, shower and shave. Fold a shirt, put it in with my legal pad in my courier bag and head off to Monday morning. Bundle up, walk through the woods to work, maybe that will help.

Ahh, don't take it so seriously, lighten up, you'll get there and it all be fine, a voice says. Don't get your blood pressure worked up. Be positive. Wake up and say, 'this is going to be a great day.'

I wish I could. I've never been that sanguine a person, to begin with. A long time ago, a young lady, as if it was painfully obvious, half shouted at me over the phone that I was a masochist. I can understand Melville for creating out of inner self-knowledge Captain Ahab. Damn you, whale. Or passive martyr type, snatching misery from playful happiness. Yeah, be my valentine. I'll be glad when it's all over.

Post Script: Oh, well, it wasn't that bad. You get into the flow. At least it was a busy enough night to keep me from thinking too much. A solid five hours of entertaining on your feet. I ate my dinner, a loin of lamb, alone after they'd all left, along with a glass of Paul Mas' Malbec from the Languedoc. A cab home in the cold. The week has started.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It's 5:05 AM and Vincent Van Gogh, actually Kirk Douglas playing him in a movie on TCM, is about to cut part of his ear off. Gaugin is played with great character by Anthony Quinn. But the movie arrival of Vincent in Arles and setting up shop seems to dredge up something of one's values in life, the simplicity of living, if that is a choice. It's probably just the time-honored custom of Europe, the basics, the healthy things. Light. A place to cook. A routine of work. Decent food.

And for a moment one is reminded where modern appliances fit in. The microwave, its rotating dish just cleaned in a tub of soapy water in the kitchen sink, has just reheated a simple take on a lamb stew, a mishmash of Navarre and Bourguignon style with too much olive oil, but tasty after two days of storing. The microwave, a quick oven. The television, if we still call it that, reminds one of books, the way one travelled through their windows. A good movie shows us things, and here, in this movie shot on location, Lust for Life, we glimpse scenes we would otherwise miss, the realism behind the paintings of Van Gogh in Arles and St. Remy and elsewhere. The guitar, plugged into a new amplifier, becomes a better amplified instrument, like a piano, to the listener who is also playing. The stew tastes good. A mini casserole of zuchini and broccoli and tomato with parmesan heats in the toaster over to finish. The sink has already seen to the cleaning of earlier dishes, and now dirty plates are rinsed and left for tomorrow's batch of hot soapy water. A glass of wine is enjoyed, a Malbec from the Languedoc, as Van Gogh and Gaugin have an absinthe.

For a moment modernity boils down to modern takes, modern adjustments to make up for a lack of a big hearth fireplace to cook over, but essentially the same thing. A little stew when one comes home from work. A glass of wine. A book to travel a bit, a guitar to strum before getting sleepy, before turning in. The bartender known about town relaxes after plying his art and thinks of how to fall asleep, tomorrow another day.