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 jalapeƱo 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.