Wednesday, August 29, 2007

One Bourbon, One Cognac, One Beer

The English don't know whiskey. Granted their ales are bar none, but when it comes to whiskey they are all whistling in the dark. In particular bourbon seems to mystify them. If you ask an English chap if he likes bourbon, he will probably reply that he loves Jack Daniels . . . if this occurs don't even try to explain the difference as it will be like trying to teach a pig to sing (it frustrates you and annoys the pig). I have walked into bars with a selection of different bourbons and requested a single of bourbon and been served everything from single malt scotch (not that upsetting) to Courvoisier (very disconcerting).

Thus I found myself camping in Wales with a group Northerners (North England that is, Hull to be exact). Like a good Southern boy (Georgia that is, Thomson to be exact) I brought along a bottle of bourbon (Jim Beam to be exact). This was a handy thing. You see, living in London I have become quite use to the London accent, but apparently if you drive a few hours North the entire language changes. I was sitting in the midst of a conversation that sounded like it was being being spoken in old Norse. I decided my best plan of action would be to pass my bottle around and attempt to slow down this thick gravy like speech. I also took great pleasure in watching these English boys make little sissy faces every time they turned up the bottle of elixir. Anyway my plan seemed to work, as the next morning the language was more decipherable (although there was still some vocabulary confusion) and most of the bourbon was missing.

It was a camping trip, so bourbon for breakfast seemed to be in order. The dregs of the bottle began to circle again. Until, that is Mike took a swill to go with his black pudding and found that some lovely Welsh insects had taken a liking to the beverage. Unfortunately for Mike, this involved him ingesting one of the creatures

"No, worries mate we've got another bottle in the car." No worries? Seems to me there is plenty to worry about. First I know what you people consider to be bourbon. Second, Mike just ate something that looked as though it was out of Alien and if his chest explodes on me its going to ruin my trip.
The reason we were in Wales was for a wakeboarding and music festival called Wakestock. Attending such an event is a way to feel old (for those of you looking into this sort of thing). Generally, I don't feel old, I'm not old, I'm still shy of thirty, but here i am at a music festival that is populated by primarily 17-18 year olds. There were moments when I would have like to have felt like the old wise man that can still hang, but instead, more often than not, I just felt like the old dude. This was not helped by a conversation with a girl from a tent nearby.

"Hey," she said.


"Are you from New Zealand?"

"No, I'm from the United States."

"Are you Peter Jackson?"

Yes, that's it you've found Peter Jackson camping in the rain at a music festival. Now I'm old and fat. Actually I'm old, fat, and bitter as I'll never forgive that girl.

So, there I am old, fat, bitter and soon to be depressed. Not a real depression, more like a depression that a teacher feels when her student still can't add. The depression started when I was handed the reserve bottle of bourbon. It looked cheap from afar, so I just turned it up without reading the label. My mouth was filled with the flavor of rotten cool aid. Taking the bottle from my lips I read the label to discover that this was Aldi Brand American Bourbon Liqueur. Yummy. Grocery store brand Southern Comfort knock off. I said "Thanks, I'll stick to the beer." I thought, teacher like, "I'm disappointed in all of you. None of you paid attention to last nights lesson." But we'll try again tomorrow.

The next day. It rained. All day. The ground turned to a slushy mud substance. It was the rave night at the festival. After spending the day out in the country side of coastal Wales (which by the way is not to be missed if you are in the area), we decided to head back to the festival site. "I'd like to run in here and grab some bourbon," I said. I'll go in on the with you a couple of voices said. We walk up to the counter. There is no Bourbon.

"There's no bourbon, would y'all rather have . . . "

"Yes there is. There's J.D. right there."

What the..."Yeah, you're right." Hey, its better than Aldi Brand So-Co imitation with a twist of booger.

When we got back I settled into some Jack Daniels (which still isn't bourbon) and prepared to feel very old at a rave. But I didn't. I sure that as I danced, I looked very old, very uncoordinated, and probably a bit like I suffered from a debilitating disease. But, thanks to another girl I didn't feel as old. She walked directly up to me and asked if I was 21. Apparently she was being chatted up by one of our group who told her we were all 21.

"Sure am," I replied.

"I'm 29, that makes me pretty old to be here, huh?" she said with a flirty little smile.

I raised my hand and pointed in her face: "HA, HA, HA. I'm only 28. YOU'RE older than ME. HA, HA, HA." (Lt. Blount's friend making tool #21) Rolling someone over in their own misery will sure improve a night of dancing in the mud. Later I was overheard trashing Liverpool (which I've never been too) to Liverpoolians and being derogatory about London to Londoners.

Day two of the festival was called off as the entire festival ground had apparently flooded. The mud was ankle deep, and the bridge to the parking lot could be seen floating in the middle of an impromtu lake. This was probably a good thing. You see, we were all wet, muddy and miserable, but also we were not quiters, and if the show had gone on most likely we would have, too. We piled into cars and moved on down the road, leaving the land of the teeny boppers behind and moving towards a more mature business like existence.

Later that day I was dropped at the North Greenwich station in London. I boarded my bus with a full garbage bag, the scent of a homeless guy, and the looks of a muddy Peter Jackson. I am the essence of maturity. The older guy in the seat facing me says something.

"Whats that?" I say.

"Nothing," he mumbles, but then decides to explain "I sometimes talk to myself, you know the pressure gets to be to much. . . self. . ." he trails off, and I give what I hope appeared to be a knowing nod, but probably looked very patronizing. We ride in silence after that, except for the sound of him pulling a new fifth of Wild Turkey out of his satchel, opening it, and taking a few big pulls every now and then. Don't worry fella, you've still got taste.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

War of the Asian Girls

"I hate you."

"You've changed."

These were words actually spoken on Kathryn and my second anniversary. Unfortunately for all the ladies out there (I'm still taken), they weren't spoken by us, but by our upstairs neighbors.

In April, two (or three girls) moved in to the flat above us. Before, we never heard a sound from the inhabitant of the flat, but now we hear every footstep and every conversation. They are stompers and yellers and they vacuum a lot. Oh yeah, they fight.

On these long summer evenings we often find ourselves sitting next to our open window trying to decipher exactly what's going. They are both (all three?) Asian, but they fight in English with heavy accents. We can only pick out words: boyfriend, room, TV. I'm fairly sure its a combination of all three of these as well as the mere presence of the other(s) that is leading to their little brouhahas, but for all I now it could be the carpet.

I guess it's part of living in a city, this feeling that I am constantly in the middle of someone else's life, and that someone else is a complete stranger. I mean these folks don't care that everyone on the street can hear their fight. Don't get me wrong, now, I'm not saying that I'm not entertained. Hot summer night, evening cocktail, Asian girls fighting . . . I could probably sell tickets. Hell, I have one neighbor that thinks they are filming porn for the internet.

However, things may be changing soon. The other evening they really went at it. They yelled. Feet stomped. Doors slammed (and not like people going through them but over and over as a noise maker), and silverwear was even thrown. It was the type of fight that you enjoy the devil out of, but are always wary that at any moment you will be put upon to call the police. The police ruin evening cocktails with Asian girls fighting.

They finally stopped. The next morning we heard through the ceiling, words that denote a new understanding and a new dynamic to confrontation. Cold War politics have taken hold upstairs, and we the audio voyeurs can only wait for the nuclear weapons. We heard them say, very cool, to each other:

"I hate you."

"You've changed."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Gentleman's Sport

It was Sunday afternoon, and I found myself drinking tea and eating scones with a bunch of men dressed all in white. Had I still been in Mississippi this might have been a cause for concern, but as it was, my buddy Mike had invited me out to view a cricket match, and tea is what they do at half time (at quarter and three quarter time they all have drinks together on the field).

"You see, it's a gentleman's sport," Mike told me.

And I thought, well, this is certainly different than the way two sports teams in the United States would behave. Tea and crumpets, might be replaced with beer and pretzels, and as for the teams being able to dine together, that might be a far stretch (we don't just suspend hate during half-time). I mean these teams (and granted it was Sunday village cricket and a little more relaxed and convivial then say Saturday cricket . . . or so I've been told) even umpired for each other without arguing over close calls (which do generally go to the umpires team).

Mike plays for the Polytechnic and they were playing the Academicals, or at least that is what a few of the Polytechnic thought their opponents were named, but it seemed debatable. I comprised the only spectator and sat there slowly sipping my beers as they did things like bowl at wickets (more than just an Ewok), lose stumps, and bat spinners. Actually, cricket is one of the great ways to get in good with the British. Here is the scenario: You are in a pub by yourself drinking lonely on a pint. You are American. Cricket is your way in, simply look at the gentleman next to you and begin the conversation with, "This cricket thing, what gives?" For the next two hours you will be regaled with rules, diagrams, and cricket pitches made out of condiments. Granted at the end you will probably understand the game less than when you started (it really takes a few lessons), but its an instant conversation.

Don't let them fool you, though, half time tea and sandwiches and convivial quarter time drinks aren't what make it a gentleman's sport. It runs a little deeper than that.

When I arrived, the Polytechnic was fielding. So, there being no spectator seating, I sat on the ground next to the Academicals (a highly unlikely name for this motley looking crew) who were batting. I was barely into my first beer when a few guys from outside the fence of the field began yelling some stuff at the field. I missed the beginning, but I think it had to do with a few racist comments directed at the black gentleman playing for the Academicals. The next things I know I'm sitting in the middle of an exchange that is taking advantage of all the most colorful turns of phrases that the English language has to offer.

"You want a $#!^%$ bat wrapped around your *&%&^* head, you little (*&^((* hole."

"&^$%*& you. Your mother (*&^(&^ my (*&(*&( last night."

"Oh yeah, I'll bloody knock your ^%$$% off your ^%$$%# %$#^%. You %$#@ ^%$#% and ^$%#$ your %$# with ^%$$. Bollocks."

As these exchanges became more and more heated, with one of the street side yellers threatening to go and get his weapon from his flat. He did this by signifying a gatt with his hand (using the international sign so wonderfully developed by Master P or someone). I of course thought to myself, "if you were really the gangster you thought you were it'd be on you" and "way to idolize urban black music you stupid racist." Due to the fence, not much could happen, it was about a quarter mile down to the gate and back to the yobs. While, the Academicals pondered whether they should abandon the game for some well needed "practice" (I assume this referred to their batting), I pondered how gentlemanly an all out street brawl would be.

"I'll $%#^$# you the %^^$ #^%$ up, you $%^$#."

"Are you daft there are twenty-two of us over here with bats?"

And this is what makes it a gentleman's sport. While in the midst of verbal hand grenades which encompassed oral combinations that even I hadn't heard before, the true nature of a gentleman had been exposed. You see there are only eleven people on each team, thus the assumption was that the other team would gladly join in on behalf of their opponents. And he was right. If the Academicals had run out into the street the Polytechnic would have been right behind them.

Cricket is about camaraderie as much as it is about competition, and the hoodlums on the street would have had the crap beaten out of them by a band of comrades who would then go and finish the game. You see in modern usage the word gentleman refers to person with "self-respect and intellectual refinement which manifest themselves in unrestrained yet delicate manners." A street fight followed by tea seems to sum up "unrestrained and delicate to me." The word also references the ability to treat others in a "respectful manner." I can think of no way better way to show one's opponent respect than by taking up arms with him in order to fight a goodly battle. You see it's not about refinement its about respect, and they had it for each other. The also had some damn fine halftime scones.

Oh yeah, Mike got a wicket . . . whatever that may be.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Where We Belong

My younger brother was over for a visit on his birthday. We decided that we would go on a wee pub crawl and tour the illustrious drinking establishments that can be found in our little neck of the woods. Instead, we ended up giving him one of the most special birthday gifts ever: Karaoke Fighting.

Our first stop was a little pub called the Angerstein. When we walked in we immediately felt like the youngest people in the room (strangely when we left we felt like some of the oldest). Worse than that, however, it was Karaoke night - lest you forget Karaoke still upsets my stomach. We watched as a pair of ghoulish women were preparing the stage, while we quietly sipped our pints. We knew it was show time when one of the largish pair donned a pair of sunglasses and lit up a cigarette and they began to maim a Sugarbabes song (or some sort of rubbish like that). I would like to make this clear to all: wearing sunglasses in the dark has not actually been a cool thing since the Blues Brothers did it, so unless you are blind please refrain.

When the Banshees finished the sacrificial rite, the one with the shades and the cigarette and the superfluous chin got angry at the crowd for paying no attention to the piece of performance art that had just occurred. Strike that - everyone payed attention as there was no choice (one simply can't ignore a train wreck that is happening in the room one is sitting in), she was angered due to the lack of response, which I actually found to be a quite polite gesture by the tortured crowd. As the duo began another, I lovingly named the shaded one Uncle Fred.

The only other person that we saw sing at the Angerstein was an older fellow who did "My Way." The crowd liked it, and applauded quite graciously. This ired Uncle Fred who then berated us. No, really, she specifically pointed out the triad of which I was a part, this was probably due to the zealous applause we had given to the nightingale of a gent. As much as I loved Uncle Fred, though, my wife hated her, so we left as she began to do hari-kari on a Dixie Chicks number.

We moved on down the way to the Pick Wick. These pubs might be 3/4 of a miles apart, yet somehow it was Karaoke night there too. I was feeling as though my head might explode, but as we went into the pub I was put at ease. There on the stage a man was singing "An American Trilogy." This was good, we settled down to our pints and it all began to happen.

Recognizing us, the bar tender comes over and asks my wife (who has sung at this very establishment before) to do a duet with her friend who has no one else to sing with. The request was agreed to, and the little slip of paper turned in. Singing would commence.

Finally, Ricky and Kathryn are called to the stage. As the music begins and they chat about how this song should be sung, I notice a small commotion off to the side. It's mostly load talking but it seems to be growing. Uncle Fred would have been really pissed if people were doing this during her song (I can see her raging now). I see, though, that the bartender hasn't bothered to stop serving drinks, so I decide it is nothing. I was wrong, because, about then, Ricky, from the stage and into the microphone, says "Terry, mate, no..." and then begins to half heartedly sing.

The bartender is still serving and some older gentlemen have moved over to the small knot of people, surely this is nothing, but, suddenly, Ricky leaves the stage and bounds towards Terry as a bunch of men begin to do the push around the bar dance. Kathryn (with more demeanor than Uncle Fred) stands quietly with the Karaoke man. The melee swells as more and more do gooders jump in to keep the pugilists apart, but I sense that there is some confusion as to who exactly the pugilists are, but the bartender has still not stopped serving drinks (to the peaceful onlookers who watched over the fight much like those picnicers at Gettysburg long ago).

Then I hear it over the speakers, Kathryn has stepped in to do her part. The music swells and her crystal voice extends out an olive branch, "Love lift us up where we belong/ Where the eagles cry..." My brother is in hysterics and is clapping an laughing like an autistic child. Fearing the "what are you looking at syndrome," I request that he cease and desist. The bartender has still not stopped serving drinks. "...On a mountain high/ Love lift us up..." At this moment a man, a pool cue, and a bar stool all land at my feet. I think all three are broken, but he hops up and takes half of the pool cue back into the fray. I kick the rest out of the way. "...where we belong."

The bartender is still serving drinks. As thethe song ends they have cleared out at least one half of the problem as the fighting has stopped and Terry can still be sighted wandering about (having the priviledge of remaining he gets to tell his side of the story). Suddenly, Kathryn jumps up and runs over to the Karaoke man and then to another guy. I later find out that she had to go and ask the pub's owner for permission to do another song. She retakes the stage.

I wish my younger brother a happy birthday and apologise that we took him on a two pub crawl. The music begins, and on that crisp cold Charlton night, through the animosity of the broken glass and violence of the smashed stools you can hear her singing...

"Tuuuurm around, Every now and then I get a little bit lonely...."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Every Now and Then I Fall Apart

Charlton, London, England. February 15, 2007. A Bedroom. My eyes popped open and a voice in my head sang, "Turn around...."

Charlton, London, England. February 14, 2007. This year I started off Valentines day by taking down a half bottle of champagne with a late breakfast. We'd just moved into a new flat in Charlton, and fulfilling every expectation I could possibly have of a letting agency, the flat had not been cleaned and there was no hot water. Champagne seemed like the only answer. Beer seemed like the answer at midday. Wine was definitely the answer all evening long.

In the midst of all this a music video TV station was airing the 100 Greatest Love Songs of All Time. As one might imagine this made for very entertaining TV. Example 1: did you know that in the video for "Nothing Compares" Sinead O'Conner's ears wiggle whenever she hits the big notes? Its actually very scary as the bulk of the video is a close up of her face and those dreadful ears to which nothing compares. Example 2: Meatloaf in "I Would Do Anything For Love" is he supposed to be a vampire or the Hunchback of Notre Dame?

But it was down somewhere in the forties that I found myself watching the most psychedelic bit of footage ever released: the video for Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Trippier than anything they ever attempted to film in the 1960s or 1970s, it is a night time fantasy in which Bonnie Tyler sings amongst ninjas, football players, men dressed like John Travolta in Staying Alive, and choir boys. The freaky choir is led by a young boy who has "bright eyes," which is more than metaphorical as he looks like he has sun flares emitting from them. I was well into the wine by the time the video came on and I found myself transfixed by the song and the images and the history...

Athens, Georgia. Summer 2006. Walker's Pub. Karaoke is a terrible sport. You get there sober and all the people that can sing are passing the book around. Then the pressure begins with the inevitable "what are you going to sing?" You excuse yourself to avoid the question and go to the bar. You do this multiple times. Soon you are no longer avoiding the question but seriously looking at the Karaoke book scanninf for a song that is more or less keyless. More pressure mounts as you know the deadline to get your entry in is up coming. You know that you can't live with not being part of the fun, but you'd like to let the deadline pass so you can escape without another miserable "I Shot the Sheriff" experience. You excuse yourself to go the bar again. Now though your thinking is muddled and you find that pen and paper in your hand and you are scribbling words that you will regret and blaming tequilla for this transgression. You think hard. Only one song is in your mind "Tuuurnnn Arrround..." Then your musical wife is agreeing to a duet. You are saved as all you have to do is sing "Turn around" she'll "need you more than ever" and "we'll never be wrong together..."

Cambridge, England. Summer 2003. Pub Unknown. Karaoke night. I'd been drinking pints for quite some time and been dragged to Karaoke. I have been babbling at the table and avoiding answering the question: "So, what are you going to sing?" (the correct answer is, "nothing...if you are lucky"). I look over and a man takes the stage. He is small and when he sings it it is flat and monotonal, but he is singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Within seconds of the first "turn around..." the whole bar is singing. This was the night that a bitter sweet romance began between Bonnie Tyler and me.

The next day it was stuck in my head. Throbbing there. I realized though that the only words I could remember were "turn around." I walked around for the rest of the day singing: "Tuuuuurn Arround nananananaaana Tuuuuurn Arrrroud...." Soon I learned another fact about my new favorite song. Regrettably, if I woke up with the words "turn around" racing through my head I would be in for a hellish hangover. This lasted the summer and I never bothered to learn the words. I made for a strange sight at the Buttery of Downing College. Greenish pale, matted greasey hair, bloodshot eyes, and hovering over a plate of beans on toast in a Zen like trance while trying to use the bit of Yoga that I learned in my Introduction to Acting Class to control my internal functions and conquer breakfast and quietly humming my mantra "Churn around...."

Marks, Mississippi. Spring 2004. Tio Pepe's Mexican Restaurant. Karaoke night in a small small town. Kathryn is begging the Karaoke Man for the last song, which she dedicates to me. I sway as she begins to crack each note. I think that she is singing it poorly because she is jealous of Bonnie. "I need you more tonight, I need you more than ever..." The bar quickly empties as she implores the people paying their bill to dance "because it is my birthday" (it was not her birthday). I turn around and am the only other person there. It is just me, the wait staff, Karaoke man, Kathryn, and Bonnie Tyler whose presence can be felt in this old depot in the middle of Cotton Country in the Delta. "Forever's gonna start tonight," but first the tab...

Charlton, London, England. February 15, 2007. Its still dark outside. I reckon 3.00 a.m. I know what I am in for this morning, Bonnie always liked "love in the dark." It happens whenever we drink champagne together. "Tuuuurrn Arround, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you're never coming around..." At least now I know the lyrics so I'll just be sick instead of sick and annoyed. Happy day after Valentine's Day Bonnie. I love you.