Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cough cough.

So I fell off the planet for a bit there. Weddings, vacations, school restarting, and a broken wrist all came together to make it pretty difficult to post regularly. I've got some stuff to write up though, so now that I've gotten used to typing with this cast, I hope to get back on track.

I missed you. I had an amazing summer and feel great. Dear readers, let us enjoy this brisk entry of autumn with crunchy leaves, gourds galore, and strange times. Read more...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Barography: 9C

So we were talking about bluegrass. Last week I couldn't make a post, I was visiting the family back in the Bluegrass State, Kentucky. The closest I was to a bar there was an Outback where I had one Corona. My mother and grandmother tried and liked the taste of it with a lime. It was quite a moment. But last time I posted I told you about the Bell House and the amazing bluegrass show I saw there. Since then I've been to the Newport Folk festival and saw Thile and Daves again, and they still slayed. (Saw a lot of stuff, actually, but that's for another time.)

I remember around 1995 or so, my friend Brigid (an amazing musician in her own right), told me about a bar in Alphabet City that had a bluegrass night. Well, this was obviously something I had to see. The bar was called 9C, and those of you with a passing familiarity of Manhattan can guess the cross-streets. Every Sunday night, it was Bloody Mary Bluegrass time. From the first time I went, I was in love.

I was skeptical of the sort of bluegrass musician one might find living up here in New York. I should not have been. Whether transplants from other areas or born-and-bred yanks, these folks could play. Every week there'd be a different group of folks, but some would always be there. The two I remember most strongly are the Sheriff and Joel. Obviously you remember dudes that go by "the Sheriff," that is just a scientific fact. But Joel was a special case.

Joel was a middle aged man from deep in Queens, and he had the accent to prove it. But that fella could pick a banjo. It just so happened that I was about to shoot my thesis film and I needed a banjo player. Joel agreed. He played the father of a friend (the family was clearly based on the Pences mentioned last time I wrote) the main character interacts with. The friend was actually played by a pre-Always Sunny Charlie Day. My brush with fame. Anyway, Joel did his best and they played "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and I later realized I couldn't afford the rights so that film died. (It should have died. It was awful, they were the best part.)

Click to see full picture, by Meredith Riley Worden, which for some reason isn't showing up right here.

That's not the point. I would occasionally go back from time to time, but the rest of the next two years were about graduating college. And that senior year was about a girl. So, of course, upon graduation, the First Dark Times started.

My first love was a fucked up thing. It was with a friend who had a boyfriend. Your first love should not be a cheating affair, but I've never been one for doing things wisely. Obviously, this ended horribly. I recall looking down at the street from my dorm as she drove away, hitting the radiator with a chair, screaming "NOT EVEN A GOODBYE?!?!?" Yeah, that kind of end. The kind of end that leads to the Big Dark, that depression that sets in and becomes a part of everything you think, do, or see.

After graduation, my buddy Josh from my hometown moved up to New York and we moved in with my college friend Anna in Jersey City. (My address had the word "Jersey" in it three times. Dark Times indeed.) I commenced trying to cope with both real life and crippling depression. I fared poorly at best. Screaming fights with poor Anna, who had stresses of her own. Josh was working crazy schedules for radio news. Both of us were usually out of our minds.

We had one true respite. Every Sunday, we had bluegrass night at 9C. No weird Path train smells could stop us from our holy day. The owner/bartender, Roger, was my first Favorite Bartender. The one novel I've written so far* is dedicated to him. Those big pint bloody maries were like communion wine for these two protestants from Appalachia. We'd sit and tap our feet and nod our heads and hoop and holler and generally forget the girls and the jobs and the grime and the murk and the confusion that was the rest of our lives. We'd go home happy, drunk, and foolish, but at least we had that happiness. Sad and lonesome as the songs are, it is still impossible to be unhappy listening to bluegrass.

I just recently climbed out of the most recent Dark Times (on a chemical ladder) and so it is with a strange nostalgia that I think back on my experiences back then at my one happy place. The private New Years party Roger invited us to, whereupon we discovered normally the place was a punk rock bar--the weekday regulars bonded with us on Johnny Cash, of course; the time the one new bartender I ever saw Roger try out thought "a glass of Makers" meant a pint of Makers (amazed I remember that one); the Japanese harmonica man that just fucking KILLED it, damn he was good; the general peace I felt getting away from my own head for a few hours every week; all these times, and thoughts are still dear to me.

The bar itself closed long ago. In its place rose Banjo Jim's, a fine bar in its own right. I am sometimes strangely sad, though, when I'm there. It's just not quite the same. Nothing could be. The current owner was apparently another fan/regular of 9C. We waxed on memories one night over whiskey.

I suppose the point is, Dark Times will come for us all, but there will always be a way out. Good friends and good music will almost always be the first step. Booze and the right drugs aren't too shabby either. But when you get out of those Dark Times, hell, at least you'll have some damn good stories.

*-Said novel was a sort of exorcism of Another Dark Time, whereupon I foisted all that was bad or negative or weak about myself onto the main character and made him suffer. This Dark Time was also caused by a girl.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mono-Lagering: The Bell House

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a very special Mono-Lagering. Don't worry, it's not the "very special" sort of thing that means one of the less popular comedy characters gets molested or something and then we all feel weird for the rest of the half-hour. This is just one that I've been looking forward to for quite some time. The Bell House is a bar I've visited many times, and never had anything but a great time. It's actually half-bar and half-venue, and whereas that usually means more "shitty bar and shitty venue" it's actually really great at both.

In the past I've been to Biblioball prom-like events there, seen hip-hop, seen trapeze (in case you were wondering, it still makes me feel funny like when I was 8 when girls do trapeze), and New Orleans-style jazz, which, while not really my thing, was certainly fun that night. But last week was something on a whole other level. Good friends to the blog Nicole and E Rike and I got tickets to see Chris Thile and Michael Daves play bluegrass.

We got to the venue a little early. I was already jazzed after having a bucket or so of Budweiser at Jackie's Fifth, one of my top-five favorite dives anywhere in the world. Park Slope and Gowanus is such an odd area, where it's so gentrified and nice in most of it, but the hold-outs are amazing. Anyway, if you've never been to the Bell House it's basically divided into two rooms. There's the front area which is a classic bar with nice couches, seating, and an area for small acts or DJs to perform.

We got beers . . .honestly I couldn't tell you what we got. Maybe a Victory Pilsner? It was good, whatever it was. We sat around, chatted a bit, ran into our friend John, and eventually went on in to the second room, a large performance area with a mini-bar and a full bar on opposite ends. The place was fairly packed, which is great to see for a bluegrass show. I crushed my beer and got a giant can of Tecate. That much I definitely remember.

And then the boys took the stage. No openers, no need. Just two goddam virtuosos with their mandolin and guitar.

Bluegrass and I go a long ways back. I have a pretty rough relationship with where I grew up. I do love my friends and family, and I appreciate that it made me who I am today, for better or worse. But I don't fucking like it. I never liked it. I got out as soon as I could and I have not for a second looked back. There is little and less that I do like about Appalachia or Kentucky. Obviously I love bourbon. But, boy oh boy, do I love that high and lonesome sound, those string bands, that bluegrass.

Bluegrass, to give the most ridiculously abbreviated history possible, is what happened when poor Appalachian whites heard/hung out with old time black string bands. African-descended instruments like the banjo paired up with fiddles and guitars and all the sudden someone said, "Yup." Traditionally, it's only string instruments, though harmonicas are welcome. Modern bluegrass often frees itself from such strict fetters with drums, some amps, and God knows what else. It works sometimes. But that's never what I think of. As a Wise Master Mason once told me, "If it isn't one mic with a bunch of guys standing around it waiting for their solos, it isn't bluegrass."

I always liked it, but what really awakened my love for it was the Pence family. They were my first "second family," a habit I've noticed I pick up on occasion. These days I don't see them much, so my God daughters and their family, the Perezes, pick up the slack. (Before them I guess it was my ex-wife's family, the Paeks. What is it with me and the letter P? Heh, I said "pee.") There were three kids near my age, Billy, Kevin, and Molly. All three were smart, funny, creative, and spontaneous. They were exactly the sort of friends you needed in a town with so little to do. Their parents kind, loving, and also hilarious. Mr. Pence played the banjo and his boys played guitar. I went camping on a family reunion of sorts with them once--amazing weekend--and the bluegrass jams just couldn't have been better for me.

Well they all grew up super smart, super good-looking, and doing great things. But they're far away from Brooklyn, so I had to get my bluegrass fix elsewhere. Enter 9C, the subject of my next Barography. I'll talk about it more next time, but suffice to say every Sunday they had a pickup bluegrass jam that was never short of spectacular. During a rough time of transition after college, those Sundays were almost my church and center.

So anyway, wherever I've been bluegrass has not just been beautiful, entertaining music; it's been warmth and friendship and love. A year or so ago my great buddy Ben from back home came up so we could see Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys together. Ralph is one of the surviving founding fathers of bluegrass and it was an honor just to be in the same room with him. The venue was kind of uptight . . .the rest of the patrons seemed more "wealthy upper west siders listening to jazz" than anyone at a proper hootenanny. Well we hooted and hollered enough for the rest.

But last week, with Thile and Daves? They're no founding fathers, they're both younger than me. But these are two of the best damn musicians I have ever seen; rather, I should say, "Goddam, 'em boys could pick it!" The harmonies were perfect, the solos both beautiful and blindingly fast, and the stage presence genial, funny, and easy. I believe my female friends may have had more to say about said presence, but that's not for me to say.

Twice during the night they called out for requests, with one caveat: fiddle tunes only. That's right, a mandolin and a guitar doing fiddle solos. That's how amazing these guys are. They even improved a medley of two or three requests on the spot. There comes a time when you just say, "JESUS! WHOA NOW! THAT IS JUST TOO DAMN GOOD!"

But we drank it in like we drank the Woodford during intermission. By show's end, we were out of our mind, having water fights on the street, and stumbling towards the nearest pool table we could find.

This weekend we, and some other friends, go to the Newport Folk Festival. Among other acts, Thile and Daves will be there. But so will Earl Scruggs, my friends. That is bluegrass royalty right there. Now if I could just hear the Dillards play "Dooley" just once live . . .

The best things for this Kentucky boy, be they bourbon, bluegrass, or friends, are the things that warm you immediately, spreading through your mind and body like molten happiness. They are the things that even a self-loathing, depressed maniac cannot help but revel in, and would never think not to thank.

Thank you Mr. Monroe, Mr. Stanley, Mr. Scruggs, Mr. Flatt and company for making this great music. Thank you Mr. Thile and Mr. Daves and all your contemporaries for keeping it going. Thank you Pences great and small for giving me an extended family with dynamics I would treasure forever. Thank you Roger for opening one of the best goddam bars I've ever had the privilege to know. Thank you Ben and John and Nicole and E Rike and Eric and Conor and Tom and Anca and all friends for good times and good music. Thank you, the Bell House, good shows.

And thank you, Jesus, for bourbon.

Photos and non-youtube video by Nicole Marie Ball. She's a bluegrass newbie, forgive her for cutting off the solos. Just this once

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Five Blended Scotches You Shouldn't Pass Up

For many, the single malt scotch is king. They think there's no comparison to be made between a good single malt and the clearly inferior, obviously untrustworthy blends. Those people are liars. Probably thieves, too. For the rest of us, there's no reason to look down on blended scotch. Why would we? There's a number of excellent blends on the market, crafted by masters that meticulously marry different whiskies into new, exciting combinations and concoctions. There's far too many to go into all of them, but I've selected five to discuss here. My criteria are pretty simple. Did I enjoy the scotch? Should someone be able to find it in a liquor store? Is it affordable? And most importantly, is it worth trying? These five blends answer all of those questions with a resounding YES.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Mono-Lagering: Black Swan

It felt good to get back to Mono-Lagering. With the freedom a teacher enjoys in the summer, I can visit bars more difficult to get to than the usual Park Slope or Williamsburg affairs. So last week I decided to start exploring Bed-Stuy. The first bar I chose was Black Swan, right near the G train.

I had a theme in mind. I had a bag full of nerdery (comics and a brand-spanking new copy of Dance with Dragons), and I spotted some Dr. Who villains lurking on the molding opposite the bar. This was going to be the post where I talk about being a nerd, and everything that means.

It isn't. It might actually be far nerdier than that, as this is the Mono-Lagering where I get serious.

For non New York readers, some background is in order. Bed-Stuy is, like my neighborhood of Bushwick, a part of Brooklyn for decades known as a rather crime-ridden slum. Whereas my Bushwick is largely a Latino stronghold, Bed-Stuy has been home to blacks, be they southern transplants, Jamaicans, or old school Brookynites. Both neighborhoods have of late begun a gentrification process, a process I have watched since its infancy in Bushwick.

In Bed-Stuy, for whatever reason, it seems to be moving more quickly. Cafes, galleries, micropubs, high-end restaurants and lots of new young professionals have gathered in just a few short years.

In New York we don't like to talk about race. Americans in general shy from the topic, but here up north we're used to just assuming that's a problem for those rednecks down south. We weren't the slave-based economy, after all. But that does not change that race is still a Huge and Horrible problem here. New York is one of the most segregated cities I've ever seen. Here in Bushwick I can point you to which streets are Mexican and which are Puerto Rican. The school where I teach has around an eighty percent Latin population, whereas a friend's school a few blocks away has an eighty percent black population.

Now, it makes sense for immigrants to prefer living around people from their country of origin. However, the way New York real estate works, it's difficult for recent immigrants to ever earn enough to either own their own place or move somewhere with more economic mobility. Hence why Bushwick and Bed-Stuy became what they became.

But now it's gentrifying time and here come all these young white kids (to be fair, some Asians as well) with their dreams of becoming New Yorkers. They find a neighborhood cheap enough for them and invade. Next thing you know, landlords start driving up prices. Soon these young whites are all that can afford to live there anymore; the suburbs of America are colonizing our inner cities, and they're winning.

Now, not even I am self-loathing enough to think this is Simply A Terrible Thing. I've been around Bushwick long enough to know some residents are thrilled at the changes. Crime is on the decrease, the streets are safer for their kids, and, frankly, some of the new business are great, welcome additions. As a former secretary at work once said to me when I first moved to Bushwick some ten years ago, "I like it when you whites move in. You pick up your dog's shit!"

BUT, where are the people that used to live here going? I live alone in an apartment; every other unit houses a family of at least three or four. Where did the family in my apartment go? There are nights I spend more on booze than one of my neighbors might spend on food for a week.

Gentrification is inevitable in this American society. And it will always have positive and negative repercussions. Which direction it leans in is for smarter people than me to say. I simply know it makes me extremely uncomfortable when young gringos open up a Mexican restaurant across the street from a tortillaria that's been there for generations, but it makes me really happy to see young tattooed artists helping neighborhood kids plant a garden or paint a mural.

America's strength has always come from the variety of people that call it home, New York more so, and Brooklyn EVEN MORE SO. But it works best when these different folks do things together; not ignoring the differences, not erasing identities, but combining. In a Bushwick Bahn Mi, I want to taste the jalapeño and the foie gras and the cilantro.

So I walked to Black Swan apprehensive. Here was a high-end-ish pub with fancy food and a huge beer list right in the middle of an area warned against just a few years ago. I walked in and it's a beautiful place; stark black and white walls, good wood. Nice long bar with a copper top; books and accoutrements tastefully appointed. I ordered a Reissdorf Kolsch, and it was perfect for that hot, humid day: crisp with just a hint of creamy sweetness.

Their bourbon selection was impressive, and their cocktail list drew me in. I had a "Hensley," which is bacon-infused bourbon with maple syrup, orange bitters, and a flamed orange peel. Good Lord it was delicious. I sat and I drank and I noticed the Daleks and I thought about this nerdy post I was going to write. A girl sat near me marking up a book with a highlighter while wearing some of the shortest shorts I've seen yet this year (thank you, summer). They even had the captions on the ESPN talking-heads programming (I've long been irritated by bars that put on talking head shows and neither turn it up nor offer captions; I do not want to simply look at Woody Paige's face). It was nerd time.

But then I noticed something else. This was the most racially diverse group of patrons I had ever seen in a bar. The food offered something for everyone; Jamaican jerk chicken alongside a tuna nicoise salad wonderfully prepared. This was a local bar where both new and old locals sat together. A dozen different accents talked about sports, work travails, and sex.

I won't say we were no longer whites and blacks and Asians and young and old and immigrant and native; of course we were still all these things. But we were also all Brooklynites, we were all at the Black Swan, and we were all drinkers, drinking together.

The Black Swan is doing it right, and I'll be back as soon as I can.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Barography: The Reservoir

You've got to be kidding me! Sorry, that has no context for you, reader. I just finished writing out a few paragraphs of introduction explaining the lack of posts on this blog for the past month. And right when I was about to wrap it up, I somehow unplugged my computer and lost the entire thing. I could not make up how, when I finally got to explain the frustrations that kept me from writing so long, A VERY FRUSTRATING THING HAPPENED TO KEEP ME FROM WRITING.

So, you know what, this blog isn't about my ailments or breakdowns (well, not directly), so maybe that was a sign to just get on with a new Barography.

When last we left, I had found my first New York bar, Shades of Green. While I still will go there from time to time even today, the second half of my college years found me having a new semi-permanent haunt, The Reservoir. The Reservoir was quite a bit more convenient for me, only about four blocks away on the same street as the dorm I lived in all four years of college. (Those of you who did not go to school in NYC, getting an apartment as a college student is an insanely expensive/difficult procedure. Those of you who went to NYU, yes, I stayed in Weinstein all four years, but guess who never got his ass booted out to Broome St or some other semi-official wayward home. I got my own room, yeah.)

The Reservoir was and is a local, sporty bar. Wood walls all around, plenty of TVs with various games/commentary on, a pool table, a juke. They serve food late, and their burger still is one of my top ten favorites. The staff has always been friendly; in fact, this was the first place where I truly made a friend with someone on staff. My dear Anna-Lisa was/is an NYU classmate, the introducer of Old Whiskey River, partner in crime, Jets and Mets co-fan, wedding date, and all-around great person.

Anyway, at Reservoir was when I really came into myself as a drinker. No more ciders, no more whiskey sours, no more starter-set bullshit. This was a place for bourbon and beer. It's always had a decent selection of both, and plenty of good specials throughout the week. I was there fairly recently where every pint was three dollars. You can bet I enjoyed that special, yes I did.

So Reservoir is where I went from "a guy who drinks" to "a drinker," if you can parse that distinction. I found my habits, my tastes, and my path. It was a home to parties for years. It remained my regular after college . . .it's not like I was going to pick a joint in Jersey City. Not until I moved to Brooklyn did I begin to switch over. So, while the Calamity Cafe is where myths were born in my drinking life, Reservoir is where stories started.

One of the great pleasures of drinking, whether with old friends or someone just-met, is the sharing of stories. We all have our canon, don't we, along with our apocrypha? We have our epics and our picaresques, all our life-bits with ample amusement or portent. Reservoir might be the home of my short stories. I've got several all set there, some only a line long. For instance, it's still the first and only bar where, while sitting at a table talking to friends, a waitress approached, asked if I was in fact, me, and then told me there was a phone call waiting for me at the bar. That was a nice feeling.

Reservoir was my bar when I first fell in actual adult love. It, of course, was a terrible, terrible idea; this helps explain some of my more erratic behaviors there over the years. One night, while seeing a friend walk in and sit at another table. Well, I thought of the funniest joke ever and knew that was the time for it. I stood up at the couch where I was, next to a wooden column. I then screamed, "DAVE MORREALE! THIS IS YOUR FUCKING HEAD!" upon which I stuck my Spyder Knife* into the column as hard as I could, stared him down, then laughed and sat down. Dave got it, but my companions at the time and many patrons were much less comfortable.

I also recall, one odd night, burning holes in my t-shirt and then ripping it Hulk Hogan style. (This girl really did a number on me.) My dear Captain, Kirk Diaz gave me a shirt to cover up with. I was lightly hit by a Taxi upon walking out of the bar that night. We were caught nearly breaking into the NYU library. "You're a very good guard," I recall saying.

That's not the only time I lost my shirt there. I remember a girl coming up and asking to buy my shirt emblazoned with the symbol of Cobra (GI Joe's terrorist nemesis) for her brother. I haggled her to 20 bucks and stripped right there. I think Kirk came to my rescue again that night. (Perhaps he was just saving himself from looking at my hirsuitery.) We all thought that was pretty cool. Of course, it wasn't until a day or two later that I thought, "Hey, maybe I should have talked with her for a while. She might have been flirting." Again, this girl had really done a number on me.

The last great Reservoir story, at least so far, was when I first started the Teaching Fellows program. Here I was, surrounded by girls near my age, smart, young, dedicated. We'd spent our first week in courses, started to get to know each other. I invited my table to a bar for lunch after class on Friday. Out of the six, two agreed. As we ride the train there, one says, "So this is a bar? I don't really go to bars. I don't drink much. I mean, occasionally I'll have a glass of wine while reading Shakespeare."

The other girl agrees**. Well, you can imagine the panic I was feeling. A) This sounded like an awful time and B) I was worried this might be the norm in this program (it most definitely wasn't). So in my desperation I start playing along. "Yeah, I don't really go much either. I don't drink much. Yeah, uh, this was just a restaurant near my college . . .I think they're a bar, too."

I should have known it would not be that easy. We walked in to find three people: a bartender, a patron, and a waitress. The bartender immediately says, "Hey, Joe!"

The patron turns. "Joe Rice! Good to see you!"

And the waitress was the aforementioned Anna-Lisa. She hugged me. "Joe! What are you doing this weekend??" I stammered and answer as she brought us to a table. She asked for their drink orders (water) and didn't ask me. She came back with a bourbon neat and a beer.

"Why do you have two drinks?" the Little Miss on the Prairie asked.

The jig was up, so I dove in. "Because that's how I like it." I downed the bourbon and chased it with beer. I knew then it had been wrong of me to hide. I am a drinker, unashamed and unrepentant.

There were lots of little times at the Reservoir. Snowy birthday cab rides with roommates; a free round in tribute to the just-died King of Pop; after-hours Yahtzee; the time Kirk tried to light Dubin on fire.

The Reservoir may not be home to epics, other than The Worst Idea for Love Ever, but I love all these small stories. Perhaps the Reservoir is the best Anthology of Short Stories my drinking life has had.

*-So, in preparing for this post, I looked up those Spyder Knives. I lost mine years ago (to the thanks of many), but thought I might get another now. It was an impromptu Christmas present from a buddy's dad. He gave us both one. I remember his solemn advice. "I know you two are assholes. If you find yourselves in a fight, I want you to take this knife and throw it as far away from you as possible. I don't want your asses beat AND cut." Anyway, DEAR GOD they are pricey, never mind.

**-I thankfully later found out this second girl, Juli, was just as horrified as I was. We've had many a beer since.


Monday, June 27, 2011

I know, I know

It's been FAR too long since I've updated. Let me finish school tomorrow and we'll be back in the swing of things. Traveling Mono-Lagerings, and some really important (to me) Barographies on their way.

I love you.

I'm on the wagon.

It sucks.

I'll be off in two days.

Yay!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Drinking Through The Ages: Age 30

Click to enlarge and read the finale of this series!! Read more...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mono-Lagering: The Gibson

Given a gift of free beer coupons from 30 different bars from Brokelyn.com, Mr. Rice has decided to visit each one, and record his thoughts.

The school year is wrapping up, which is great, but which is also quite difficult. By this point in the year I'm pretty tired of my students, and they're definitely tired of me. Slight annoyances repeated for ten months seem like personal vendettas. WHY CAN'T JOSE REMEMBER WE DON'T ASK TO GO TO THE BATHROOM WHILE SITTING IN THE MEETING AREA?!?!? Seriously, Jose. Knock that shit off.

So this time of year is kind of a stress enhancer: you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but everything is falling apart anyway. I don't know who is more ready to get the fuck out, the teachers or the kids. So, to make things easier, these next few weeks I'm keeping it local. This summer I will Mono-Lager all over Brooklyn, visiting Red Hook, Bed Stuy, you name it.

But this time I went to the Gibson in Williamsburg. I have apparently been there twice; the more recent I definitely remember, as it was a post-concert little trip with my dear friend the Highlander and her handsome husband (GUESS WHO TAUGHT AN ALLITERATION LESSON THIS WEEK). She claims I was also there the night I was the stripper/guest at a bachelorette party, and she may well be right. I certainly don't recall it.

On one of the first really beautiful days in New York this year they had all their windows thrown open, creating a nice open air feeling in the main bar, and the backyard was open. I sauntered in, mood as warm as the weather. It's not a particularly remarkable space physically, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it. Foosball table in the corner, giant TV for games or events, decent sized bar, and various seating arrangements. I ordered an Old Chub that was 8% APV. The beer was sweet and definitely strong, and would have been perfect on a cooler day.

I began to notice an odd abundance of real bar amateurs, or at least super weirdoes. One girl came in and asked how much "wine" was. It took the poor bartender a while to get her to figure out what she was actually asking for. The next guy asked for a "Yagermeister" (short a sound) straight. A whole fucking glass of the shit. The tender poured heavy and charged him ten bucks, to which he said "Well, if I knew it was going to be that much, I'd have gotten something else . . ." HEY ASSHOLE YOU SHOULD COMPLETELY HAVE GOTTEN SOMETHING ELSE. FUCKING GROSS.

Just a bit of eavesdropping explained that there was a book club meeting there. You could completely tell if someone was going to that when they entered the door. They were not bar types. Nobody had a damn clue what to do.

Anyway, everything was so "Summer is coming," in a reverse House Stark kind of way that I switched to the Anchor Summer beer, which was smooth, crisp, and just what the doctor ordered. I reread some more Game of Thrones and waited for my friends to arrive, happy as a clam.

I didn't always look to summer with such gleeful anticipation. As a kid, I really didn't care for it that much. Summer, to me, was a sweaty time where I didn't see my friends as much and had to do things I found less pleasant than homework. I was a nerd; I really enjoyed going to school. An only child, I didn't get to see nearly as many people when we weren't all mandated to be in the same place for eight hours every day.

My mother, a music teacher, LIVED for summer vacation. Every year we'd go to a beach, usually Myrtle Beach (hillbilly mecca). Going to the beach and laying out was and is one of her favorite activities in the world. She never understood quite why I disagreed. I was what you might call an "indoor kid." I wanted to play with my toys, read books, maybe watch TV. Hell, it wasn't that I minded being outside. I just hated, just utterly loathed laying out and tanning. Dad would take me into the ocean and jump waves and swim with me. That was great. But every day had to have periods of tanning.

It was hot, it was boring, and it was humiliating. I know mom wanted me to fit in with the cool kids at school; but I basically already did, I just didn't look like them. I never got the appeal of burning your skin to a crisp. I can only imagine some of those girls I went to high school with now look like an old purse. And, God, when I was on my back, I couldn't even read, because the book would "block the sun from my face." YES, EXACTLY.

So I never could quite get up the same sort of pseudo-mythologized love of summer that basically everyone else in America has. Years later, when summer was simply a time that I could basically do anything anytime, well, then I got the point. Summer, now, is endless possibility. Want to stay out all night on a Tuesday? YES. How about road trips to stupid places? YUP. Road trips to delicious places? EVEN MORE YUP.

This is how the lobster roll became my quintessential summer food. I had always loved the sweet meat of crustaceans (seafood restaurants were a giant highlight in those early forced beach days). But there's something especially magical about mayo, lobster, butter, and a hot dog bun. Rich without weighing you down, and ridiculously flavorful. One summer, my ex-wife and I took a trip up the coast of Maine, hitting every lobster roll joint we could find.

That was a good goddam summer.

So, as luck would have it, the Gibson was premiering a new thing where every Wednesday they serve lobster rolls in the backyard for just sixteen bucks (if you don't eat them often, that is actually a good price for them in this city). Unfortunately, my stomach was on the fritz and I had already eaten, so I didn't get to sample one, but several of my friends enjoyed them with sometimes frightening intensity (Vacuum Nicole, I'm looking at you).

So friends old and new dropped by for a drink or eight, some lobster, and mostly just laughter. Summer is no longer that time I don't see my friends much and I have to do things I hate. It's done a complete one-eighty turn. Summer is freedom. Summer is deliciousness. Summer is dicking around 24/7. Summer is girls in dresses. Summer is linen shirts and light suits. Summer is friends.

Summer is fucking awesome.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Barography: Shades of Green

Last time I told you about the first bar I chose to go to, back in Appalachia. Today I'd like to talk about my first New York bar, Shades of Green. My pal Alex has already talked about it at World of Awesome, but I think I might have a thing or two to say about it myself. For me, Shades is particularly relevant to me as it is the first bar I ever drank at.

I've talked before about how I didn't drink as a teenager. I saw little reason to; I didn't particularly care for those yokels who talked about nothing else, and my buddies and I were having fun in our own weird, incredibly nerdy ways. When I first entered college and heard the term "straight edge" I thought, well, hey, that's me.

That's right, I once thought I was straight edge. After puberty's wildest throes had hit and I remained the same insecure, dateless nerd as before, I settled in a sort of "well if I'm going to be like this, I might as well be this way on purpose." So I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, and I didn't allow girls to touch my dick. (Dry humping was extremely OK.)

But this isn't here to be an examination of my weird sexual hang-ups as a young adult. You have to pay therapists lots of cash money in order for them to pretend to be interested in such; I can't imagine casual readers of this blog, looking for some laughs, some recommendations, and the occasional sexy picture of yours truly, could be paid enough money to read about it. No, this blog is about drinking, and this entry is about how I started drinking.

It started, like so many life-altering decisions throughout my life, with a crush on a girl. Margo was my first college crush. She was fun and funny and seemed to think I was, too. I started hanging out with her and her friends my freshman year, hoping to win her over, and, I'll be damned, it started to work. But, oh, how I remember that fateful day.

"Hey, this weekend we're going to Shades of Green. It's a bar nearby, you should come." I was almost ashamed to admit that my alcohol consumption to date had been a few sips of Natural Light given to me by my father as a sort of reverse psychology maneuver when I was six and a Budweiser a buddy smuggled in for me at Academic Appalachian Camp at Transylvania University (those are all real things) that I drank out of obligation.

I realized the reasons I hadn't drank in high school were pretty much not applicable anymore. It seemed quite unlikely that some dumbass redneck I could barely tolerate sober would swing by a bar in the Village just when I was finally drunk. So I nervously agreed to go along and the rest is history.

God, I remember those early days, those "trying to figure out how to do this" days. I hadn't acquired the taste for beer yet, nor, really, for anything else. I believe my first regular drink was a whiskey sour. A goddam rail whiskey sour! Lord, the thought of it gives me the sweaty mouth something awful. I recall experimenting with white Russians--another punch to the old digestive system, there. For a while I settled upon bourbon and the occasional cider.

But that's not altogether interesting, is it? The more I look back at the time and all that it led to, I find that the pertinent question is not "Where did I start drinking?" nor "How did I start drinking?" but "Why did I start drinking?" and even more "Why do I drink?"

"Why I Drink." Sounds like the worst essay ever. But this isn't so much a list of grievances (though Lord knows my students give me new and weirder reasons every day) or heartbreaks (I try to contain that in my songwriting, for your sake, dear reader) or occasions (End of the World Day!) or what have you, it's more a "why did I take to this activity I never thought I would like?" situation.

The answer requires a bit of backstory that I never quite understood until, well, until I saw a therapist. Near the end of my marriage I sought out therapy in order to learn how to argue with my ex--arguing and fighting seemed like an anathema to me, and it was driving her crazy. Well, one week in, we split, so for the next year I basically met once a week to figure out what the fuck was wrong with me. And, as far as we could tell, it all pretty much boiled down to one thing.

I wasn't screwed over by my parents or some touchy relative or high school melodrama. I was simply aware of too much, too early. This may come as a shock to those of you who know me now, but I used to be a weirdly smart kid. Standardized tests were my bitches, gifted classes, academic team, the whole shebang. And that did very well for me in a lot of ways. God knows I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't used to be really smart.

The problem was how early I was so smart. When other kids my age would be at the pediatric dentist's office, they'd run straight for the play area where there were blocks and such. I can distinctly recall being four or five and sitting next to my mom in the waiting room. I knew about the play area; I wanted to go there desperately. But to ask seemed crass; I would not go unless the subject came up from an adult.

I was a hopeless social neurotic since before I could multiply. Every single thing that would happen my mind would race the way only a precocious only child's could. I was used to living in my head, and this brain of mine used to work quite quickly. Every second of social interaction would include my brain coming up with a dozen ways this could be embarrassing if I do it wrong. I've tried to explain exactly how this works in my own stream-of-conscious internal narration, but I can't possibly layer all of it.

Take a simple thing like an attractive girl saying "Hello." My brain would immediately come up with at least ten reasons she said hello, each with its own backstory and connotation and reason. I would ten proceed to think of a dozen or so responses TO EACH OF THOSE REASONS and play them out in my head for possible missteps. At the very same time, I'm also thinking at least five or six things about myself, what I look like, how I'm holding myself, how I think that looks vs. how it looks to her, what other people looking in on this interaction might see, etc. Also simultaneously I would think of a slew of other times attractive girls greeted me and how they went wrong or right. All of this happens in the space of a second.

And it never stops. This is what it's like to live in my head, twenty-four hours a day. It takes me at least an hour to get to sleep as I replay everything in my head like an obsessive quarterback, imagine alternate ways things could have happened, and hate myself for how they did happen.

I spent eighteen or so years feeling this constantly. The first time I ever got it to calm down was that first night at Shades when I got drunk for the first time. They say alcohol dulls your brain, but for me, at least, that can be a good thing. Intoxicants are a much-welcome vacation from my own thought processes. Of late I've somewhat quantified what happens: with good booze or smoke, my head feelings lay low while my physical sensations seem intensified. I react with surety, whether wrongly or rightly, and, in fact act on my own accord as to what feels right. There is no microscopic examination of every possible meaning of every word or thought; there is sheer blissful existence.

I know that cannot be a permanent condition. Hell, I wouldn't be half the man I am today without my weird brain circumstances. Rare is the situation where I can't make a friend or get along well with folks, and I don't doubt the computations and permutations have helped greatly with this. It's helped as a teacher, too. I can smell a neurotic kid a mile away. I've taken some aside, "You're thinking this, right?" and their eyes widen in recognition.

Why do I drink? Oh, there's more reasons than I have time to tell you, from the exuberant to the melancholic; a night out cracking jokes with friends, a series of whiskeys to put a bad day away, to loosen up those dancing shoes, to give thanks for what I've had, to mourn the things I've lost. But the overall "Why does this guy like drinking so much?", the big reason? Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy myself and shut down the crazy parts of my brainstuff.

Anyway, Shades is a fine place with great Smithwicks and hordes of fond memories. I remember chasing tail with college buddies (to absolutely no avail). I remember taking my visiting parents there for lunch when the waitress said in her thick Irish accent, "Joe Rice, what are you doing here this time of day?"I remember having my fedora stolen, saving me from being a guy that wore a fedora. When I think of early good college times, I usually think of Shades, and it's not lost its charm yet. And they let you play Settlers of Catan in the back!

Author's note: I went through all my college photos and couldn't find a single one taken at Shades. I think that might actually speak to how much fun was had there. I did, however, find lots of embarrassing stuff to put on the facebook.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Age 12

Double click to ENLARGE

Saturday, May 7, 2011

'Tis Summer, and PEOPLE Are Gay

Those are definitely the lyrics, not revised, nope, don't look it up.

Just taking a time in my grooming for this austere occasion to wish all you readers a very enjoyable Derby Day. Here is a very serviceable recipe for a tasty mint julep. I love a good julep, but cannot really do more than one or two before I switch back to straight bourbon.

Anyway, today is the day to dress extravagantly while drinking excessively; the most exciting two minutes in sports (very similar to the name some have given me in the boudoir), the Derby is rich with tradition in a state all-too devoid of culture. So tune your fiddles; break out your best hats, ladies; prepare the linen and the seersucker; and most of all get ready to dive in to one hell of a day.

I'll be at Harefield, yelling like a damn fool.

P.S. Insider tip: if the rain really comes, Shackleford is a known slogger. Read more...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mono-Lagering: Union Hall

Given a gift of free beer coupons from 30 different bars from Brokelyn.com, Mr. Rice has decided to visit each one, and record his thoughts.

Back on the road for another Mono-Lagering--well, back on the subway, at least. My ignorance of Park Slope geography showed up again as I found out Union Hall was also ridiculously close to my friends' apartment. So this past Tuesday, I decided to drop by for a couple of drinks to relax after a stressful day of watching my students try to puzzle out the labyrinthine tricks of standardized testing. My first hint of what was to come was outside, where a placard advertized burlesque (more on that in a second) and "Adult Education: Social Anxiety."

My expectations sank deeper than the Marianas. Was that an actual class? On social anxiety? At a bar? I could imagine few worse ideas. On the other hand, maybe it was just a band with a very terrible name, designed to make sure no one but total freakshows ever showed up for a gig. Either way, I sort of steeled myself, took a breath, and walked in.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The place is fucking huge. This was seriously one of the biggest non-beergarden bars I have ever been in at any point in my life. There's a long bar along the right that had to be fifty or sixty feet long. (Maybe more: my concepts of space and time are horribly lacking.) But that's not all; to the left there was a large library/lounge. I immediately loved that little bit. It felt like an old Gentleman's Club (not the sort where Russian women testily ask if you want a dance every ten seconds), the sort of place Victorian adventurers would gather to swap stories of tigers, intrigue, and turning invisible or something.

And still this bar went on. Behind the lounge were two bocce ball courts, side-by-side. Behind that was a raised section, marked "Reserved for Bruklyn Knights." I didn't even go downstairs, where there is apparently a performance space. This is a bar so big it has a split personality (another point I'll touch on again in a bit).

But the overall vibe I got on that pleasant afternoon was that of Men. From the library/lounge to the competitive sport indoors to the private club planning to meet in the back, everything felt like that mostly-illusive idea of a Club of Men, which has long fascinated me. My grandfather was a fairly high-ranking Mason. My Dad was a member of the local Elk's Club. Both interest me for differing reasons.

My first real experience with the Elks, outside of a conversational reference point, was when my first band played their first show. We were dopey assholes that barely knew their instruments and had songs about hillbillies and making fun of Pearl Jam. We opened up for a punk band called the Connie Dungs. Though half the crowd came for us (we had sold so many t-shirts that we actually had to perform), the other half was decidedly not amused. If I recall correctly, a Taco Bell "burrito" was thrown at us at one point.

But that wasn't the Lodge my father belonged to. Dad's Elks' Lodge was something of a speakeasy. In the middle of a dry area of town, it's a full bar and gambling emporium. I actually got to visit it a couple Christmases ago. Dad and I escaped a boring party thrown by my maternal Aunt (sweet lady, but that party was a snoozer). On the way we had one of those great father-son talks. He was also an early divorcée and, as he put it, the Elks was his Harefield; that is, the bar where he found a second home after a marriage failed.

That made it even more of a significant event, visiting that place. Boy, was it a sight. It was mostly old men grumbling at each other, just talking shit the way they have for fiftysome years. Card games going on at one table with rules Dad did his best to explain to me. Dad bought me a Bud and we chatted and I was introduced to his old bar buddies. It was fucking great. I bought the next round, and put in a shot of Maker's for myself because, why not? When I realized the two beers and a shot cost me around six dollars I never wanted to leave.

Speaking of buying booze, back in the present, I sat down at the top of the bar and selected Left Hand Stout from their twelve, wonderfully-varied taps. It was creamy, thick, and delicious, while not being overwhelming or heavy. The friendly bartender chatted me up a bit and it's apparently very light in both alcohol and caloric content. A sort of micro-brewed American Guinness I guess. I munched on a long pretzel and realized I miss the prevalence of bar snacks.

I've long been fascinated with the Masons. First off, I adore my late grandfather. GK Harmon was one hell of a man, the kind that sends us into tizzies trying to outworship his generation. But also, the Masonic story is fascinating, and the conspiracy theories even more. Directly post-college I tried to drum up interest in joining the Masons with my pals. That landed with a horrible thud. Even if the worst theories are true, damn, man, I want IN on that!

There's just something about a Men's Club that feels . . .intriguing? I'm not sure. I hesitate to dwell on it too much, as I don't especially like the gender politics of exclusion. However, I cannot deny that it's damn fine to just sit around and spend time with other dudes every now and then. I've always been friends with a lot of girls, and sometimes even catch hell about it. But I love a night of Men and I'm not sure if I could ever place why. I don't tend to buy into theories that men and women are naturally so different; it doesn't sit right. Sure, there might be some intrinsic differences (psychologically/emotionally, not just, uh, genitalially), but cultural indoctrination seems more likely for "Men are like ______, but women are like ________!" CUE LAUGH TRACK.

Hell, sometimes hanging with the boys includes a girl or two. Just like I've crossed over into being "one of the girls" there's sometimes a girl who is freely accepted in dudery, from poker night to late-night drunken trips to horrible strip clubs.

Tangent time. What the fuck is up with burlesque? God, I hate it. It has all the weird social discomfort of real stripping except no one gets naked. They wear nerdy costumes, have stupid fake names, feel way too confident about the way they look unclad, and generally just annoy me. I feel this tangent drawing to a close because I just figured out what is up with burlesque. It's Nerd Stripping. Nerds ruin everything, including things that were already terrible.

I'm not sure what exactly makes an individual apt for boys/girls night crossover; could be the fact that this individual never has and never will do sex on any of the members of the opposite gender in question. I could also be gay.

Anyway, Union Hall didn't have many people there at four, but most all were men. There was the helpful bartender, an older man drinking mixed drinks, and two younger fellows playing bocce with some of the weirdest body language I've seen. The Stout had been tasty, but it was too much to have more than one in a row. For my free pint, I chose a Captain Lawrence Kolsch. Been drinking a lot of kolsches lately; the warmer weather is bringing out the crispness. The Lawrence one is particularly crisp with a nice sweetness, very refreshing. To make up for the low alcohol content of the Stout, I paired the Kolsch with an Old Whiskey River.

Musing over the snack menu I noticed they served beer cheese. I've tried to explain this stuff recently, and it isn't that easy. It's a spreadable cheese, kind of like pimento, I guess? Except it's spicy and has beer in it. It's popular back in Kentucky, and harder than hell to find up here. As the owners of Union Hall (and Floyd's and the Bell House) are from Kentucky, so they've started making their own. Dear God is it delicious! And amazingly terrible for you, but who gives a shit, right?

Beside the head of the bar is a giant bulletin board where all the upcoming events are advertised. Bands, karaoke, game nights, classes (?), interviews . . .it honestly felt a little disparate and desperate. It's like Union Hall has a multiple personality disorder. Is it a men's lounge? Is it a venue? Is it a bocce joint? I mean, it is big enough to host not only multitudes of people but ideas, so I guess it's all right.

There's something hard to define about Union Hall. I liked it quite a bit, but something makes me slightly uncomfortable if I try to think about it. I guess it's like a Men's Club or a boy's night that way. Yeah, it's great, but if I try to examine why I get squicked out and worry I'm going to ruin the enjoyment I get. It can't be that I am uncomfortable exploring my feelings both about myself and my fellow males, can it?

That's just a stereotype, and those are bullshit.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Drinking Through the Ages

...My ages, that is. Hi it's Leah. Every Wednesday for the next six weeks I'll be posting an illustration based on a memory or an experience of mine whilst or having to do with drinking. Enjoy! We'll start young...

All content Copyright 2011 Leah Perrotta

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Home Stash

One thing I appreciate about being a liquor aficionado is that getting there costs less than being a wine aficionado*. You’re not committed to an entire bottle; you can always try something by the glass; and you don’t need company if you want to try a bunch of different stuff. For most of us, our education comes from trying many different liquors at bars – the bar tender recommends something, a label or name catches the eye, a friend pushes something, or you just work your way through every liquor systematically. On the rare occasion, we may come from families with a great booze culture and exposure to all kinds of deliciousness. But the main thing is the experience comes from, well...experience. There’s really no way around it, you have to taste many different liquors before you find what you like; and then you keep tasting because you never know when you’re going to find something else you’re going to like. But once you’ve found your favourite drinks, you might notice that you have particular preferences for different occasions.

For example, I’m a big whisky drinker – it’s my drink of choice. My bartenders consider my essential trait as a customer to be, whisky, neat; water, back. But I’d be a pretty sad booze lover if that’s all I did. On a nice sunny day, I really enjoy a vodka and soda, with a splash of bitters. If I need to relax when I’ve been travelling, or I’ve had a tough day and I need to feel civilised, a Martini with a nice chunky olive is just the thing. Hot summer days yell out for a cold, cold beer, or a crisp Prosecco. If I’m lounging around or if I’m writing, tequila or mezcal is the way to go. Quiet nights at the bar or parties can call for cocktails. And any time is a good time for saké.

This is all very well if you’re surrounded by a variety of bars and you’ve got some spending money. But eventually there’s going to come a time when you don’t want to go to a bar (or you don’t have an easily accessible one – it happens when you don’t live in NYC), or you’re having folks over, or you just can’t afford to drink out all the time. So what do you do? You keep a stash at home, that’s what you do.

The way I started building my tiny little bar at home was by buying a nice bottle of a really good but not extravagant whisky when I had some money to spare, and slowly building on it. If you’re serious about building your home collection, make sure you get the good stuff – you never want to feel like there isn’t a haven of civilisation in your home. This way when you get home after work or you’re staying in of a weekend, you don’t feel like you’re missing out. I think there’s a sense of relaxation that comes with knowing you don’t actually have to be in a bar to get a top notch buzz going. And having a really good tipple at home also means if you ever have a friend or two over – even for pizza and movies – you always have something meaningful with which to cap the time spent together. And your friends will appreciate it. So when you get your next pay cheque, go buy a bottle of something you enjoy, but you don’t normally drink at the bar because you don’t want to pay too much money. Then, the next time you have some cash to spare, go buy a different liquor. If you already have whisky, go for vodka. If you already have vodka, go for tequila. Every couple of months, buy something new. Unless you’re drinking like a fiend at home, you’ll find that within half a year you have a pretty decent bar.

Once you have a nice little stash at home, think about having friends over. Give them a treat, share your good stuff with them. Learn one or two good cocktail recipes and show off. Let everyone know what you like to drink. This is another way to add to your collection: be vocal about your tastes. That way if you have good taste, your friends can learn something from you, and if you have bad taste your friends can set you straight. And if you have genuinely, implacably horrible taste, your friends never have to spend good money on the classy stuff that you’re never going to drink thereby saving everyone concerned a whole lot of pain.

Throw a party with food, and tell your friends to bring some booze. This may seem odd (Why am I asking other people to bring stuff?), extravagant (You mean I have to pay for food?), or inconvenient (All that cleaning afterward!) to you, but if your friends know you’re having a booze-happy party they’ll contribute. What you’ll probably get is a lot of beer and dubious wine, but there’s always going to be someone who brings a little something else like a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of vodka. It’s rare for whole bottles of liquor to get polished off in a single party. There’ll always be something left. This is good – now you’ve got some filler for the future.

The other thing to remember while building your collection at home is that, like in a bar, you’re allowed to have a top shelf and a bottom shelf selection. Not only is this economical, it’s also nice to have a sense of occasion. So, when you do break out the good shit, not only the others but also you can feel special about it. But don’t be an utterly cheap bastard just to economise. If you’ve really been spending your time thinking about booze and sampling stuff, you might notice that your taste and the bottle’s price point aren’t always in congruence. There are plenty of expensive liquors out there that I wouldn’t use to poison you while there are others that are overlooked because of cheapness**. For example, when it comes to cheap but acceptable bourbon, I’ll take Old Grandad over Jack Daniel’s any day, because I cannot conceive of drinking Jack as anything but a last resort. Another more upscale example is Johnnie Walker – the Blue Label retails from anywhere to $190 to $230 a bottle. But I think the Green Label is a comparable product and retails for only $49 to $58 a bottle. And when you contrast the difference in price, there’s a hugely greater value for money.

Letting people know what and how you drink is one of the better ways to collect gifts of alcohol. This may sound self serving, but come birthday and Christmas time, most folks don’t really have a lot of time or energy trying to figure out just what it is you want. If you’re a boozer, folks know what to get you and it only adds to your general awesomeness because, if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’re only going to end up sharing.

Good Scotch, good bourbon (rye whiskey, if you like spicy), one good gin, a decent neutral alcohol, angostura bitters and a decent orange liqueur is all you’ll ever need for a respectable home bar. And unless you’re mixing flamboyant drinks that need a whole lot of colours and crazy flavours, you’ll be well covered for cocktails with these basic things. And unless you’re a complete idiot you’ll already have some other essentials in your home, like lemons and their peels; sugar; and eggs for the more adventurous cocktails. Now if you do want to go crazy all you’ll need are juices and fizzy drinks which are easily found in your bodega or can be brought to your party by your guests.

* Though the eventual costs are just as insane.

** Somebody remind me that I have to do an entire post about this sometime.

Photographs © A. Das

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Barography: The Calamity Cafe

So last week I sent a copy of the last Barography about Stones to my parents. My mother pointed out a very important factual error. I apologize to the readership; I did not start going there around five or six years old. I went there in a baby chair that would be put in the booth. I have officially been going to bars longer than I have known how to do such things as walk, communicate, or distinguish complex ideas. This is a fact about me that you should probably know.

So Stones may have been my first regular, but that was up to my folks, and my memories are obviously fuzzy at best. The first bar I recall ever really taking a shine to myself was also across the river, though not in dank, industrial Ironton, Ohio. Across the other bridge was Huntington, West Virginia (that's right: Kentucky, Ohio, AND West Virginia . . .three shitty states for the price of one). Huntington is the home of Marshall University, they of the McConaughey-driven sports-film. More importantly for my friends and I growing up, though, was that it was the only "college town" within easy driving distance.

So around the age of 16, as we started exploring around on our own, we found Huntington to be a respite from the bland suburbia or rural backwashes of our homes. Huntington was no longer just the home of Toys r Us (though I truly wish I could now enjoy anything half as much as I'd enjoy going through the GI Joe figures in hopes that a new wave had appeared), no, it was the home to cafes, non-chain bookstores, record stores with bands we'd only heard whispers of . . .this was our first prolonged exposure to the culture of the greater world around us.

And nothing felt moreso than the Calamity Cafe. The Calamity was a bar/restaurant with a southwesternish menu (their cheese soup is still the topic of internet discussion, apparently). Smoking was allowed indoors; in fact, they had an old cigarette vending machine in the dining room. And, best of all, they had music. We'd go up nearly every weekend by the time we were seniors in high school. It didn't matter what was playing in that, in-retrospect-small dining area. It was live, it was different, and we ate it up.

I remember one band, the Vodka Killers. I can't find a lick about them anywhere, and I don't think they lasted too long. Their drummer was a mainstay, though. But the Vodka Killers were, to my teenage eyes, all rock and roll swagger. Gyrations and vamping and bravado backed by loud guitars and hard drums.

They were fucking perfect.

I may have only seen them twice, who the hell knows, but they are mythic in my brain. That is what it should be. Likewise, one Mr. Willie Phoenix. Mr. Phoenix, be-dreaded, compact, blazer without a shirt, sweating sex like most men sweat stink, completely destroyed a set there. He was on the tables, wailing like all our lives depended on it. His website calls his music "psychedelic garage blues." All I knew is that it blew my goddam mind. That night Willie Phoenix entered the permanent pantheon, the archetypal figures that, no matter where I am or what I've done, they still occupy this mythic territory in my psyche.

The Calamity had no shortage of such gigantic characters. I remember the man we knew only as "The Ass-Beater." He'd stand against the wall during a show, pageboy cap loosely draped over his curly hair. His forearms were like tree-trunks, and were always folded. He'd nod appreciatively from time to time, but otherwise stoically allowed himself to be surrounded by the sounds, smells, and sights.

There was the Waitress. Pink hair and big eyes, always a joke on the ready, always the "Oh, I'll flirt but you know you have no chance, right," but not in a cruel way. She'd remember your regular orders and not make fun of you for not drinking that night. We started going there before we started drinking. I remember when we finally realized that we could, in fact, enjoy some beers there, this was like being let into the secret inner monastery of Shaolin. Lo, all the secrets of this world were at our feet.

I even remember my favorite dishes. There was the Route 66 Burger, all full of flavor and onions. The psychedelic nachos were basically heaven on a plate. I know others went for, to-me-then, wilder fair like jalepeno pesto angel hair shrimp pasta. I only wish that I could have tried everything out once my palate expanded beyond my meager roots.

Once we went off to college, spreading out across the land, the Calamity was our touchstone, our meet-up during every trip back to Ashland. The mythic status hadn't worn off; this was still The Bar, the Platonic Ideal of what such things should be. My friends Mark, Ben and I began a tradition of performing at open mic nights whilst visiting. As time went on, our performances got weirder and weirder. Rogers and Clark added "The Free Shit Monkey." The Free Shit Monkey was me in a luchador mask. I would dance the Free Shit Dance while handing out free shit during the Free Shit Song, then join them for the rest of the set.

Another time Ben and I introduced ourselves as Seth Hymes and Bryan Patrick, "The Virtuosos." We spent most of our time poorly warming up for an a capella rendition of "Sounds of Silence." We began, horribly off-key, looked at each other in panic, and ran out of the fire escape. Good times.

When it came time to throw Mark his bachelor party, as his best man, I could think of no better place. Unfortunately, we took too long to get there (we were all very busy eating Doritos and drinking whiskey in our underwear) and the kitchen was closed when we arrived. Once the three of us went to the open-mic stage, though, some guy I didn't recognize called out "All right! We're gonna hear some Weezer!" It was good to be recognized.

As our trips home became less frequent, we lost touch with the Calamity. When Huntington banned smoking in restaurants, they had a choice: lose the food or lose the smokes. They shut down the kitchen pretty much immediately. Though I applaud the ballsiness of such a move, it doesn't seem to have worked out in the long run, as the Calamity has been long gone for a while now. Last I heard, some hippie-dippy coffee joint had taken over the space.

What's funny, is if I think about it objectively, it was always hippie-dippy. It was the mid-to-late nineties; pink hair, goatees, facial piercings and other questionable choices were all over the place. After over a decade of living in Brooklyn, I have been to many, many objectively cooler places; I have had better food; I have seen better shows.

But the Calamity, like first love, left an imprint on me I'll never forget, nor do I want to. It is where myths were born, where stories first took shape. It might be long gone, and I might have found it painfully lame if I encountered it today, but it's still The Bar. It shaped my perception and desire for years to come, and its influence is still with me today.

Here's to you, Calamity Cafe. May you rest in peace but live forever in the psychogeography of my mind.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mono-Lagering: dba

Given a gift of free beer coupons from 30 different bars from Brokelyn.com, Mr. Rice has decided to visit each one, and record his thoughts.

Note: click play for the soundtrack to this post. Seriously.

Today I write in pain. I have committed war crimes against my own body. It is spring break for me, the traditional time of mindless indulgence and excess. Starting last Friday I have gone on one hell of a bender. Today I sit in my dark, cluttered office and write. I need the break. So let me tell you about last night.

I went to dba, no capital letters, in Williamsburg. I had been there once before for a cask beer tasting, and that was lovely. I had otherwise avoided it because the original dba in Manhattan is a fratty, douchey shithole. I was coerced into going to two birthdays there and never felt an ounce of non-misery.

I'm happy to report that the Brooklyn version far surpasses it. It's got a cozy orange-ish interior and a nice backyard and a beer menu that is absolutely preposterous. Thirteen or so casks and more bottles than is probably necessary. Seriously, one is faced with being totally overwhelmed if you start to really look at it.

I started with a Bier de Mars. a strong French-style ale. I'd had it before at my buddy Alex's local, Sheep Station, and I knew it was good. My body had already begun to object to my behavior yesterday, so I was trying to take it easy and slow. I also picked it because Mars is cool.

Alex came by and we shot the breeze as he waited for an OKcupid date to arrive. We mostly talked about the horrible hit-or-miss online dating can be. He seemed to come out OK last night (PUN NOT INTENDED, NOR CLEVER IN THE SLIGHTEST), but I deleted my accounts in disgust recently.

Mars is Ares, God of War, and he is a dick. Ugly, clever Hephaestus's wife, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty totally cheats on him with Ares. We've known since ancient times that love is a battlefield (OH AY OH). That's really the part of dating I hate: the weird battles that are hidden therein. One must project a certain aspect of one's personality, and the appropriate aspect changes wildly from date to date; AND THERE IS NO WAY TO TELL IN WHAT WAY.

These aren't exactly innovative revelations. Look up in the sky and there are Mars and Venus. Vulcan doesn't even get a planet until Star Trek, but, to be fair, that's a pretty awesome, albeit fictional, planet.

Sometimes friends hear me talk like this, both single and attached, and say, "Well, true, but . . ." and then say something meant to convince me to take an interest in dating again. Why can't I just be a conscientious objector? I love war films (time to re-watch The Thin Red Line), but I don't have what it takes to be a soldier. Nobody questions that. So maybe I just don't like dating, and that's not anyone's fault.

I like spending time with people I like, be they male or female, single or not. I don't particularly enjoy spending my nights meeting people that maybe I'll like (and probably won't). It's not hard to tire of buying drinks for someone you have to trick yourself into finding interesting only to find out they didn't bother to trick themselves into finding you interesting.

The only problem is springtime, and the weird biological impetus it seems to steadfastly throw upon me. Ah, natural selection, how desperately you want me to find a receptacle for my genetic information! (I like how I try to sound like I hate getting laid here. Yeah, right, douchebag.)

So I sit here, stomach completely obliterated, a couple days lost at least, trying to finish a banana so something's in there, and I reflect. dba is a nice place, but nice places can be turned into warzones at the drop of a hat. Memories of exes and bad parties pop up without provocation, and sometimes your body finally screams "KNOCK IT OFF FOR A BIT, ASSHOLE!"

Every man fights his own war, but you're going to lose a few battles, and some aren't worth fighting.


Friday, April 15, 2011


Stranger in a Strange Land

For my inaugural post, I would like to write about two things *: 1) My favourite bar, and 2) About being a ruiner.That made up word means exactly what it sounds like – someone who ruins things. In preparation for this little coeur-à-coeur, it may not be the worst idea to hearken back to this piece of sageness about drinking in bars where you do not belong. And subsequently, should you choose to turn up at my favourite bar you will be well schooled in how not to be an asshole, saving me the trouble of having to be very rude to you.

I like to drink at Keen’s, an old-fashioned English chop house (they changed it to steak house some years ago because the Americans were confused) that’s been in existence since 1885. Their signature dish is the mutton chop and their bar has one of the finest single malt whiskey collections in town. Back in the day, Keen’s was a gentleman’s establishment in what was then the heart of the theatre district. And while women could be present they would not be served. Lillie Langtry sued the fuckers in 1905 for women to be served there and won. To show that there were no hard feelings, they named a room after her. The place is packed with all kinds of American history including the program president Lincoln was holding when he was shot, and paintings by Alexander Pope (no, the other one). Also taking pride of place are the clay churchwarden pipes left over from when it was a pipe club. You will find pipes signed by such diverse fellows as Buffalo Bill, Douglas MacArthur, Stanford White, Rube Goldberg, Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein. Members had their own pipes and on furnishing their card, a nice young man would locate their pipe, clean and pack the bowl and hard working guys sit and have a pint and a smoke and eat charred cow.

This is a very masculine place. Just so you know how manly it is, the presiding feature of the bar is a painting of a naked woman recumbent on a sofa draped by a lion skin (after Goya) called Miss Keen’s. And though there are no urns, it is art. Generations of young males have been shaped into manhood under her impervious gaze as their fathers and bosses have glared at them for ordering mixed drinks in the middle of rush hour, or when bartenders have given them the stink eye for being so crass as to order an Irish Car Bomb. It’s a very Manly Bar. In fact, it’s such a sausage fest, that on occasion even guys feel their weens shrinking when they enter into the testosterone-polished warm glow of the sanctum that is Keens. And though they have many women working there and a tough as nails female general manager who can make grown men cry, the main bar is served only by bow tied, waist coated men. A fact that is somehow strangely re-assuring even to a feminist and super gay girl like me. So, it is definitely a guy’s bar. Not by any particular policy, but out of sheer habit (and also by sheer accident of being so close to Penn Station). The greatest downside to Keens is the after office and LIRR crowd that infests it between 1730 hours and 2030 hours. Also the MSG crowd who come for their damned games and Dave Matthews concerts. But don’t let that put you off the place. That would be like hating your dad for smelling of acrid smokes and Old Spice and being born in 1948.

When I first started going there in 2003, I was sometimes the only female patron, and often definitely in the minority. There was definitely a certain imposing quality to its history and its masculine air. No worries. I was there to drink my way through the entire Scotch list (over 200 single malts!) and people know not fuck with that kind of intensity. I was raised to adulthood there by the knowing and knowledgeable bartenders – steering me towards bottles I might have been a little reticent of and sneaking me a taste of the $100 a shot stuff that a student on a $300 a month budget could definitely not afford. And on occasion setting me right, on my private life, with no more than a look of pained disbelief. Keens is my favouritest bar in the whole world (you can tell I’m serious because I’ve allowed myself an ungrammatical turn of phrase). Except for the occasional sports fans and the passing corporate douchery, this has always been a great place to have a quiet drink, and talk whiskey, and in the more colourful moods have a classic cocktail mixed impeccably and served – without any phony waxed moustaches and poncy gartered sleeves involved. There have been only two places I have had a perfect Martini. One was at Keen’s and the other was at the Harbour Bar at the Taj Palace and Hotel, Bombay (more about this some other time).

Like all bars where the people working actually love their work and love their product and are not self-conscious about their image, the folks at Keen’s are perfectly willing to embrace any serious drinker regardless of age, sex, profession or vocation. This means that despite its guy-ness and its old money-ness Keen’s will love you even if you’re nominally an outsider. And if you’re a regular, bar tenders will know what your usual is and will set you up even while you’re still settling in.

In the last few years, though, Keeen's has suffered a few blows: voted best bar for adults by NY Mag – ironically the crowd that drew was a bunch of just out of college yuppie frats; spotlighted in Esquire magazine as part of their where celebrity chefs eat out feature; no more cigars if you win the trivia contest; and the lowest blow of all, showcased by Anthony Bourdain in Disappearing New York. All of which has meant that a regular at Keens now has to contend with all kinds of bozos wandering in and out of there.

I’m not begrudging Keens its extra success. The folks there work hard and do a great job, and whatever increases their pay is aces in my book. But I can’t help but grumble about the extra noise and stupidity generated by all the tourists and trendsters who come to gawk at what they feel is kitschy outmodedness. And who don’t know how to order a drink at a bar 30 feet long and three deep manned by two.

But the blow it has suffered that actually pains me the most is the increased presence of women.

Oh, dear. Wherever could I be going with this line of thought? Well, I’ll tell you: To the moon, Alice. To the moon! I am taking this moment to talk specifically about women in what is traditionally a masculine space, because at Keen’s I am one of few women in a masculine space. I don’t know if it’s because so many women are not enculturated in bar etiquette, or if it’s a class-specific cultural thing where girls are expected to drink only certain things and in certain ways. But I feel like my side (that would be the women) has been letting me down.

Listen, I get it. There’s a 20 foot painting of a naked lady on a lion skin. The bus boys wear leather aprons. Bar snacks include boiled eggs. Most of the customers are dudes in power suits and power ties standing around in exclusionary circles and wondering how to deal with the fact there is no Coors Light at this bar. There are too many guys. There’s too much corporate. It’s a sausage fest. The waiters address you as sir or miss or ma’am. All the Coke comes in bottles. There’s no Stoli Razberi. I get it. It’s a strange and alien environment. But it’s that way for a reason. This is an old school bar. This is where the movers and shakers of old New York used to come to sit in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms and make deals. This is where the reporters and editors of The Herald used to knock back a few. This is where business men would ogle chorus girls and starlets away from the baleful gazes of their respectable wives. This is where companies would hold annual dinners to show their appreciation to their employees by treating them to Grade-A slabs of steak and a great pint. This is where D. W. Griffith secretly rehearsed the cast of his first Paramount Film in. And in more modern times, it’s where guys like Don Draper had a quiet whiskey to get away from work. You’re here on sufferance – just like I would be on sufferance at a Hell’s Kitchen leather daddy bar, or in a working man’s bar in Woodside. So respect the environment **. Don’t point and giggle and make a general fuss. Don’t flag the bartender if you don’t know what you’re drinking. And please for the love of god or whatever it is you believe in, don’t have your friends yell their orders across people’s heads when it’s as noisy as a marketplace, and then complain about getting Coke and Jack when your buddy wanted Diet Coke and Jack. Because the bartenders while efficient do not fucking have super hearing (also, in this situation, please think twice before ordering a Sex on the Beach or whatever heinous thing with “cute” names). Don’t ask what the eggs are for (they’re eggs, they’re for eating). Don’t lean against the bar and leave your coat all draped over the bar stools – some of us are here to drink and part of that involves actually looking the bartender in the eye as we sip our heaven’s brew of distilled sunshine and compare notes.

Oh sure, they’ll mix you anything you want, at any time– the best Sidecar, the best Martini, the best Manhattan. They’ll give you all the beer and Jack and Coke you want. They even have a pretty decent wine list. They’re a bar, that’s what they’re here for. But please pay attention to what’s happening around you first. It is a place of thinking and drinking. Neither of which can be truly enjoyed when you bring the atmosphere of a hen party or sports bar in there with you. I know it can be truly disconcerting to arrive at a place that seems a little out of time – after all, who’s expecting Victoriana in the cultural wilds surrounding Penn Station and Madison Square Garden – and so staunchly the opposite of who you are. But making a spectacle of yourself where you’re already an outsider will not exactly endear you.
Keen’s is a great bar. The bar tenders are professionals who know what they’re serving and enjoy their work. It has history: earned history, not slotted in by a canny designer. It has class. Most of all it has style. The polished wood and the leather banquettes, the wooden refrigerator cabinets, the naked ladies – they’re not kitsch, they’re for real. You wouldn’t like a picnic atmosphere inside St. Patrick's Cathedral even if you were the most annoyingly screechy atheist in the world, because places like that matter in our lives. Places where people know your name and have your glass and place set for you by the time you’re done hanging your coat. Places where a broke-ass foreign student can sit down and learn about Scotches, Bourbons and life, and make friends with federal judges, experimental theatre artists and corporate lawyers alike. Places where the manager always finds a table for a regular despite the raggedy jeans. Old school places the folks serving you will actually take care of you. Not because you’re a flash tipper but because they appreciate your interest in their work. A place like this is a gem. And hard to come by.

So if all you’re seeing is a gentleman’s club (no coy euphemisms) where there’s a painting of a naked lady. For the love of what’s good, stay away. Go to Hooters, or the roof top bar at the Gansevoort or wherever. You’re better off there.

* Okay, maybe three things.

** You know, this advice goes for the guys, as well.

All images in this post © A. Das.