Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Banjo Jim's

At bigger venues they may be happy to let you cool your heels between sets while techies fiddle with amps and one-two microphones, but at a tiny East Village dive like Banjo Jim's you take too long in the bathroom and you're suckered into staying for the next act, even if your wallet and your beer bottle are looking perilously empty. When your table of three is both out in front, and represents a good third of the total audience, quietly slipping out isn't a viable option. And, let's face it, it takes a harder heart than mine to walk out on the first Big City gig of a fresh-faced, one-armed guitarist.

We had headed along early to see ragtime piano being hammered out by a white-haired man with syncopation in his soul, and his wide-eyed, skinny-jeaned protegee. When we missed our chance to leave at nine with the serious musos, we found ourselves up-close and personal with Tony Memmel from Milwaukee. Using a plectrum gaffer-taped to the stump of his left arm he strummed out a collection of gorgeous songs about mosquito bites, and driving all night with his new wife to take their first holiday in Cleveland, Ohio. I didn't ask why they hadn't ever taken a holiday together before that. Perhaps his beard was a gesture of support for our Lord and Savior, rather than a nod to hipster chic.

Tony Memmel had a honey-soaked voice and a beautiful way with a guitar.
"He's playing at least four chords in the bar." Chris muttered. "I can only play one, and I've got two hands."
"Yes, but he's probably had more than two lessons. He also knows more than three chords."
This seemed like a fair point, so we hushed up, drank up, and let the boy play.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buns and Puns

Of the myriad things that one would assume were vegetarian, but aren't (Bloody Marys, Welsh Rarebit, unexpected varieties of Walkers crisps) it was the Jello shots that really got me. And I mean really got me. I mean bantering-back-to-the-headline-act sort of got me. I mean arguing-about-the-equal-rights-implications-of-manscaping-in-front-of-a-room-of-strangers kind of got me.And this is how it happened...

We were at a late night, East Village comedy show which sold itself on three things: video projections of Jane Fonda-style workouts, home-baked buns and free vodka jelly shots. The first was equal parts mesmerising and distracting. I found myself losing the rhythm of the joke in pining for my old LA Gear hi-tops and wondering at how outmoded the chunkily aerobaticised bodies looked. The buns were an unqualified success. When my friend placed her first jello shot in front of me I looked at her askance and she had to give me the old gelatin talk. Manfully I agreed to look after her share from there on in, and proceeded to wriggle and slurp my way through the first five comics, including a mercifully funny funnywoman, who we applauded with added gusto.

It was when the final guy, the hyped-up headliner, was bitching about his girlfriend asking him to wax his back the jello moved me to speak. Aloud. And loudly.
"But you expect her to shave her legs, don't you? What's the difference?"
In fairness, rather than slap me down with a snappy line the guy actually started to defend his position. A few minutes later we moved from stand-up to debate team with the ease with which my tenth jello shot had slipped down my throat.
"...And also girls are trained up to shave their legs aren't they? I didn't even have hair on my back til I was, what, twenty-five."
"So what?" I counter, in what I imagine is an urbane fashion. "Lucky you. You had a period of grace. Am I right ladies?"
The ladies (who happily seem to be fellow gelatin-slurpers) whoop tentatively.
"Do you have a hairy back?" He asks, rather lamely.
"Not so much."
"And where are you from?"
"No, I mean. you have an accent..."
I pause, sorely tempted to give the room my riff on the ridiculous and heartbreakingly earnest way that Americans seem to genuinely believe that they are the only people on the planet without an accent, but my vegetarian friend is looking increasingly alarmed, and I don't have the microphone, and I'm pretty sure the effect of the jellos shots is mostly psychosomatic, so I play nice and say, "Brooklyn via London. Land of the hairy backs," and let him move on to less hirsute comic territory.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Musee Mechanique

"People talk about bad losers, but you're worse. You're a bad winner."
"I'm not gloating. I just think the score speaks for itself." Chris corrected, helpfully.
It was 10:3, and not in my favour.
We were both so busy not-gloating and not-sulking that we left the black and white photo strip lying on the edge of the table football table. This scenario has apparently played itself out so many times - over Foosball, over Pac-man, over the one-armed bandit - that the museum has issued a book of these abandoned photo strips that you can buy for $20 from a vending machine by the door, which only took $5 bills.

Our library-loaned Fodor's guide had pointed out Musee Mechanique as the only must-do attraction amongst the clam chowder stalls and tourist hoards of Fisherman's Wharf. And it was easy to see the appeal... In amongst the retro shoot-em-ups and the Amstrad games were PG-rated peep shows, mechanical batting games and the monstrous Laughing Sal, whose maniacal cries had been drowning out conversations and making babies cry for a hundred years or more. In keeping with the vintage theme, most everything cost 25 cents to play. Clutching in my hot little hand a whole tower of quarters I got to wander the vast warehouse space, looking for where I could get the most bang for my buck, like a kid in a penny shop weighing white mice against space invaders in terms of value, sugar-rush and tongue-feel.

The football grudge match used up the last of our quarters - to the extent that we had to beg the bus driver to let us ride back to our hostel when we found only a couple of sorry singles lining our collective coffers. It was as we were paying our leave to Laughing Sal we remembered the photo strip.
"Glad we didn't forget these."
"They're not bad are they?" I said, "Except this one I mean..."
"Yeah you like like..." Chris trailed off.
"What?" I asked, frowning at my reflection in the square.
"I was going to say, you look like a loser, but that would be acting like a bad winner, wouldn't it?"
I snatched the photo strip back and tucked it away in the Fodor's, letting old Sal have the last laugh.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blazing Saddles

Whatever the man in the cycle shop tells you, the Bay Area, just wide of the Golden Gate Bridge, is not "just like the South of France". It's especially not like the South of France on a dark and blustery Sunday, which feels even more frigid thanks to the warm, sunny-natured days that proceeded it. Not, in any case, unless the South of France has been covered with strip malls since the last time I visited.

"Just to let you know, I'm definitely walking up this last hill." I muttered, as the unnervingly hyper staff of Blazing Saddles cheered on an anguished looking biker as they grunted up the sharp incline to the store. We were being fitted for helmets.
"Then they won't clap for you."
"I don't want them to clap. In fact I'll warn them in advance not to clap."
Chris shrugged. You could tell that if I was going to get off and push, I should plan on doing it alone.

We started off in San Francisco, where a vicious headwind meant the flat, scenic bike path along the Marina felt like it'd been tilted uphill. By the time we were actually pedalling up the steep path to the bridge, my hill-addled legs were ready to mutiny.
"Sorry. We're cheating!" ho-hoed a couple who whizzed past us on electric bikes. Despite the evil glares of more than a dozen panting, unelectrified cyclists they singularly failed to fall off or run out of juice.

Cycling the bridge itself, watching the fog roll over the Marin headland and seeing the tops of pelicans plunge-diving for fish, was worth the climb - mainly because we knew we were taking the ferry back. In the end we had to sprint up the side of a dual carriageway to Tiburon to catch the boat at the last possible moment. Drinking sweet rose up on the top deck we ignored two venture capitalists verbally marauding South America and watched the sealions playing in the ship's wake.
"What is that, a porpoise?" Venture Capitalist 1, asked, jabbing a plump finger, but his friend was busy launching a mental raid on Brazil.

Back in San Francisco I found myself, against better judgement, sweating up Hyde street to Blazing Saddles HQ. Despite all my posturing, they clapped, I smiled, and I didn't even set them right about Sausalito and the South of France.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beer on Bear Mountain

Despite growing up in Germany, the only Oktoberfest I've ever been to was held last weekend in Upstate New York, and featured a felonious long sausage queue and an equally criminal cover band. Their version of La Vida Loca made me long for some Ohm-pa action, and from the look of the dirndled grannies I wasn't the only one.

We'd spent the morning scrambling up rocks and then down quiet wooded paths. My legs had started to stretch out, and my feet were only just starting to stumble over rocks and branches. They always seem to realise they're tired before the rest of me catches on. I was heading up a splinter group who had taken the long route down (worryingly, I'm pronouncing this r-ow-t in my head) and we spent most of the easy downhill stretch speculating about whether or not we'd beat the others to the fest (we did). People were making craving noises about beer, and I tacitly joined in, just like I do when English folk get thirsty for tea, or girls get wistful for wedding dresses - because there's no prizes for raining on the parade. In the end I managed about a quarter of a pint of "German-style beer" before giving in and buying a plastic glass of Riesling, the only other booze on offer.
"Ohhh, it's really good. I'm getting drunk already." This from the only other non-beer drinker in the group. I feared I may not have been in the most sophisticated drinking company.
"Let me try that." Chris manfully pulled my cup away from me.
"Oh my God. That's so sweet, how can you even drink it?"
"It's...ok." Because it's not beer.
"No it's not even like wine," Chris persisted, "more like..."
"Wine cooler?" someone put in helpfully.
"Yeah, it's great isn't it?" the girl cooed.
So there I was, stuck between a stranger's preteen taste in liquor and my boyfriends practised wine smuggery, with the world's worst faux-German band giving it a tuba-heavy version of My Song in the background.
Well, in for a Pfennig, in for a Deutschmark.
Ignoring my toothache I downed the sweet, viscous liquid and slammed the glass down on the table. The gesture would have been more dramatic if I hadn't been drinking from a flimsy plastic container.
"Right. Who's up for another?"

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sponsored by Drambuie...

"So you really think that all these people are just here for the open bar?"
"Oh, I don't know. There seems to be a real resurgence in interest in silent film..."
My demurring noises were somewhat undercut by the appearance of Chris clutching four glasses between splayed fingers.
"It's madness up there. There's no way I'm going back."
The man, who introduced himself as a friend of one of the composers raised an eyebrow, and we ended up buying his silence with a Drambuie Fizz.

We were at Cinema 16, a silent short film and live music night, thoughtfully sponsored by Drambuie. If they were trying to generate word-of-mouth amongst the self-consciously cool hipster set who'd queued round the block to get in, it was working... sort of.
"What the hell is it anyway?"
"Yeah, no idea."
"Smells like gin. Brown gin."
"Or like Pimms." (Naturally my ears pricked up at this.)
"But sweet, really sickly sweet."
"You should have got a Rusty Nail. All you taste is the whiskey."

The setting was as improbable as the libations. We were in the Players Club, an establishment determined to old-school the Establishment clubs back in London. Paintings of actors hang from the walls, and every corner seems to support a twinkly-eyed Peter O'Toole body-double.

At the end of the night, after a mind-blowing Busby Berkeley vintage clip, and some varyingly pretentious shorts, we abandoned our lethal Drambuie-and-whiskeys on the piano and headed off in search of pizza. I had a quiet heart-pang as we left the flocked wallpaper, cosy fireplaces, bearded artsy crowd and free, paint-stripper drinks. Unlike Chris, my life wasn't full of invitations to private clubs. What if I never got to see the inside of one again?

Ten minutes later, with a slice of $1 Two Brothers pie in my mouth, I shrugged, officially consoled.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Belly-dancing Virgin

"Think about your line ladies. You wanna be on the diagonal. We gotta see those tattas."
"That's what I'm talkin bout!"
My tattas are unenticingly encased in a sports bra and a sweaty gym t-shirt. My booty, which I'm tilting and tucking and dropping and popping in ways which are going to hurt tomorrow, is not looking its best in gray sweatpants from the charity shop. All around me, strong, beautiful women in floaty skirts, jangling belts and the sort of crop tops I used to wear when my stomach was tween-concave, are shimmying up a storm. I'm the only white girl here, one of the handful under forty, and the only one who looks like they got lost on the way to a cut-price pilates class.

I was warned at the beginning of the session that "we have a lot of fun here", but between and after and during the fun there's a whole lot of stomach isolations and deadly reps. You don't realise how many muscles you use to shimmy until you've shimmied for an hour and a half straight. By the end of class one-armed sit-ups would have been a blessed respite.

"Come on ladies. This is going to give you an hour glass figure. Hour. Glass. What you want? You want cuckoo clock? No? Then five, six, seven, eight..."

As always, the hardest part is the five minute break, which I spend smiling shyly at people and hiding in the toilet. But when I come out for the last session something clicks into place. As long as I don't look in the mirror I too am a strong, beautiful woman doing snake arms and undulating my womb.

When I look in the mirror I am the awkward before-version of a dance makeover film, the white girl who studied ballet for years and takes notes after ballroom class but can't shake her booty for love nor money.

But I figure if I can just get my hands on one of those jangly belts, I'll be ready to start the dance-training montage.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

99 Cents and Up

"Hey Miss..."
"Yo, white girl."
Looking around, this is me. Althusser, eat your heart out.
A bunch of schoolkids are shouting across the crossing at me. I haven't dropped anything. They don't seem to be lost. I give that embarrassed half smile you never want to see captured on camera and head into the 99 Cent store. In my work-from-home uniform - blue knee socks, green t-shirt, orangey-red wrap - I'm not dressed to banter, and, in any case, it's a tiring sport over here, where the accent means you have to say things slowly and twice.

But inside, things are different. The shop planners of this store are geniuses of manipulation. I lose a good five minutes of my life staring at the display of Pedi-Eggs near the doorway, priced at a tempting $2.99 (everything is, as promised, 99 cents and up). It's only when I read the packaging more carefully, about how the egg is cunningly designed to hold your "skin gratings", I regretfully put it back on the shelf.

Likewise, customers standing in line are subjected to a blast of cheap mind-gamery. Below the counter is a wall of sweets more various and enticing than anything I've seen outside of Harrod's food store. There are Scooby-doo lollys, pixie stix and "internationally flavoured" fat-free coffee candy. Along the back wall, as high as a guilty parent can reach, are party favours and knick-knacks, plastic sunglasses and miniature pool tables, streamers and gee-jaws. And all 99 cents and up.

As I leave the shop, clutching my green tea and Tupperware, a middle-aged woman in front of me half-shouts
"Hey you!"
I brace for crazy, but she just pats the startled woman in front of her apologetically.
"Sorry. Thought you were someone I knew. Look just like her."
The woman nods, and the three of us leave the 99 Cent Store, and the ergonomic Pedi-Eggs, behind us.