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.


  1. It is now a pretty cool coffee shop. What used to be the Java Joint on 10th Street (I think) is now the Java Joint at the old Calamity Cafe. Still has the same vibes and open mic night on Tuesdays. -Viv

  2. I still dream of the angel hair pasta with jalapeno cream sauce.


    Let's not forget the album that was recorded upstairs. The best part? Waiting downstairs for your session.

  3. Don't forget the hip hop vs country karaoke night. One of my earliest memories about the Calamity was while Ben & I were out raising money for a school trip sophomore year. We lasted an hour & then drove the half hour to have quesodillas and strong coffee. The Calamity Cafe... God rest her soul.

  4. Mark: Holy crap. I forgot about that. I think that album is lost to the ages. Oh, Thermos 55. The world was not ready for you.

  5. And Viv, we'll have to meet there next time I'm in town. This piece got me really nostalgiac. (Obviously.)

  6. I shed a tear reading this because it hit so close to home for me as well. Miss that old place. Once the evening started to slow down, we would walk to 1896 and finish up the night there.

    Route66 burger and cheese soup for me please!

  7. Glad you could share in the memory!

  8. Always a warm and friendly place to hang! I sang and played guitar in the Electric Strawberry Society Band and Calamity was one of our favorite places to play. Good times!
    Amy Watkins

  9. In case you're curious. It is now a burrito joint called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It has live music again and, I think, an open mic night.

    It's a pretty cool joint again. For me it is fitting that they serve burritos because my favorite dish at Calamity was their big chicken burrito.

  10. I have actually been there the past two times I visited the area. Those are some tasty foods.