Monday, October 4, 2010

Guilty Pleasures

It's happened to everyone once.

You hear a song on the radio or in a store or on a commercial and it sticks there. Not immediately of course, but a few days later you find yourself humming it, or repeating a line or phrase from that song.
"Huh," you think, "that's kinda catchy. Where did that come from?"
You go about your business, generally unperturbed. A few days later you hear it again. You are unconscious of the fact that you recognize the song until just before the end.
"Hey!" you think, "that was it! That was that song! Huh, catchy song."
Later that day you hear it again. This time you catch on quickly and try to remember specific lines of the song to look up later, to put an artist to the song. But you have a short attention span and there is a lot going on in your life. So, naturally, you forget.
But then you start hearing it on the radio more.
"Ah! This song!" you say to yourself sagely, "I know this song." and you smile smugly while humming along.
And then you're into it. You're into this song. You flip through the radio stations, hoping to hear it again.
"What?" you reply defensively, "I kinda like this song."
Now it's started running through your head at odd points in your day. In fact it's running through your head quite a lot. You still don't know the whole song, but whenever you hear it, you stop immediately, even just to catch the last verse.
"Oh man!" you say aloud in the car, "I love this song!" You get so excited when it randomly pops up in your day. If you have the opportunity, you'll belt along in a halting, stumbling manner because this song GETS you! You've finally figured out enough of the lyrics to know that this is YOUR song. The artist didn't know it, but they wrote a song about you, about your life. It's perfect for whatever it is you're going through right now.
Then you realize that it is popping up in your day more and more. You've heard it three times on the radio this morning, once in Starbucks (or whichever local coffee shop you prefer to patronize) and once in the supermarket. Perhaps you are not, as you had thought, the ultra-hip music lover on the pulse of your generation. It's growing popularity is an uncomfortable reminder that everyone else believes that THIS song is THEIR song and that you are but a member of the flock.

This, naturally, makes you uncomfortable.

Maybe you're riding in the car with friends and one of them is running through the radio stations. You hear your song. "Stopstopstop!" you shout. (You may even slap his or her hand away.) Then you sheepishly try to save face, "I like this song."
But your secret shame won't get the better of you at home. You listen to it over and over on youtube. You are probably responsible for 23% of the page hits. Now you know this song in it's entirety and it still speaks to you. You lip-synch to it alone in your room, releasing all the emotion you believe is necessary for said song and punctuating it with air-punches and meaningful looks in the mirror. You imagine yourself in the music video, or set it as the soundtrack to an event in your life that will probably never happen, no matter how much you wish it would.
Sometimes, when you aren't around a radio, computer or any other listening device, you play it in your head. Because that's how well you know it.

Finally, you're tired of praying that it will come on the radio, tired of having to access youtube to listen to it.
"I don't care!" you boldly declare. "I don't care that it is so popular! It speaks to me! I must have it at my disposal for whenever I want to listen to it! It must be able to set the tone for my life whenever I need it to! This is MY song! I WILL buy it on iTunes! And I don't care if my friends judge me because it's SO mainstream and, frankly, kinda shitty."
So you do. With a perverse pride you click "buy it" (for $1.29!) and watch the barber-shop bar march along while the magic of the internet takes your money and magically replaces it with a song. Like the tooth fairy, similarly painful. Then you watch the little arrow next to "downloading" spin around and around and around.

Then it's done. The song is yours. Yours to have and to keep. You possess it. You double-click...
...and suddenly, it's not the same. It's like the song has lost it's shine. It's still... good, and everything, you just... don't really have the desire to listen to it anymore. Oh well. At least now you own it in case you ever do need to listen to it at a moment's notice. Hah. Like that will ever happen.

And that is the cruel irony of the buying radio pop songs.

Monday, July 26, 2010

All Growed Up

I have a grown up job. And I love my grown up job.

Bartending is chemistry without the math. It's a creative controlled chaos and an excuse to spend my day chatting with strangers and friends. It's equal parts precision mixing, breezy interaction and cultivated style.
Some mornings I open the bar. Cool San Francisco mornings when the fog hasn't quite rolled back far enough. The streets are busy enough, but inside the bar it's quiet and calm. I like the days that are slow enough to put on the jazz station. Maybe I've been reading too much Dashiell Hammett, but to me that's what a bar should be like in the day time. A little Duke Ellington while I'm polishing the brass beer taps, wiping down the warm lacquered wood, and cutting garnishes for the day. The most steadfast regulars come in the early afternoon, around 3, and that's when I start to put out the bowls of pretzels. I'm almost in tune with their routines. Royal comes in with a magazine, orders an IPA or two and says little. Mary usually comes in with a book for a double of Jameson with a water back and a little conversation. She's easy to talk to and has an easy, infectious laugh. Pat and Mary come in for a bottle of O'Douls non-alcoholic beer and a cosmo (respectively). He looks every inch an Irish fisherman, complete with a round salt-and-pepper beard. Justin comes in for a couple IPAs and, through conversations about travel and world events, reminds me that I majored in economic development to improve the places in the world that most need improvement. Every Friday, like clockwork, old Josef comes in with his two middle-aged sons, Dean and Dev, and I get ready to serve a few rounds of Stella, MGD and Becks. Sometimes they are joined by the rest of the family, a couple of daughters and friends close enough to count as blood, but they always bring the party.

Of course after a few deliciously slow afternoons, I've developed a hankering for a busy night. I can't wait to get into the zone of rush, on a night when everything is going right. Ducking in and out of the bar, slipping through the crowds of people to deliver drinks, or grab clean glassware, spinning glasses and bottles and pouring out a rainbow of colors in to shakers. We ARE the movers and the shakers behind the bar on nights like that, dancing from one end of the bar to the other, working together based on intuition more than communication. And can I help YOU, sir? The blender whirs in the background, seemingly constantly, over the low dim, occasionally relieved by the humming of the refrigerators and the blended margarita machine. Three margaritas, an IPA and an Amber, coming right up! On nights like that, it feels like there are almost as many people lining up around the bar and there are bottles lined up in front of the mirrors and I'm presiding over them expertly, grinning and laughing like a fool, completely high on the pandemonium. Nothing beats the feeling of presenting two perfectly poured pints and a newly shaken jewel of a martini with the crystals dancing on the top of the liquid to an eagerly expectant audience.

And at the end of all that bedlam, at the end of the rush and the running and the occasional stress panics, when the very last regular has staggered out into the night, comes the most peaceful time of the night. If I time it right, I can get most of the bar closed up quickly, everything wiped down, screwed on, and covered up. I turn off the "open" sign and lock the bar doors. Everything is pristine and perfect in a way it can never be when the bar is open. I drag the mats and the trash cans out back into the refreshingly cold night. The chairs go stacked on the tables, their legs sticking boldly up in the air. The music is low and most of the lights are out. Even though mopping and vacuuming lengthens the distance between my weary bones and my warm bed at 2am, I kind of like this part. Wiping away the insanity of a long day. Then I turn out the lights and leave. I love the sound of my footsteps echoing in the foggy streets, disturbing the sounds of night in a city - a shower or the buzz of the blue glow of a tv, the flickering of a street lamp or a confused bird twittering the coming of the sun, yet two hours away, and of course the dim moan of far-off cars, pounding through the night.

And that's why I love bartending.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Best accompanied by an acoustic guitar and harmonica tinted with the blues

Sometimes I get lost in the poetry of living. I get carried away by the bittersweet melancholy of cliche moments or images.
There are always those scenes in movies and books where the characters do something utterly impractical but wonderfully romantic, like driving down to the river to just sit on the roof of the car and stare at the moonlight on the water, or releasing a silk scarf with sentimental value into the wind just to watch it dance away or tying hundreds or ribbons to a tree, just to sit in it and look at the sky. Sometimes moments like these seem contrived, but they're absolutely essential to the emotional fabric of the piece.
And, I think, to life.

A week and a half ago I moved out of one phase of life.
I've been living with the same group of friends, in the same house, for three years. And a week and a half ago, after graduating, we all moved out. I was the last one to leave. Literally, the last person to lock and close the door, coming full circle. (I had, after all, been the first one to get the keys and enter the house on the first day of our lease three years ago.) Pretty much everyone had emptied out the day before, and so I spent the last night sitting alone in an empty room, in an empty house.

And that was just how I wanted to say goodbye.

I know I'm sentimental and a hopeless romantic. And I love to live the cliches. So I wandered around the empty rooms for a while, flipping on lights and staring at the stark white walls and remembering them filled with laughter. Remembering the time we all jumped on the bed in this room, or the time we tried to fit 12 people on the bed in that room, remembering all the nights we crammed into this room and moaned about studying, all the times I'd drag my guitar into this room for a jam session and all the nights I stayed up until all hours in late-night convo in these rooms. When I was abroad for a year, they sent me a video of the giant spider they found in this bathroom. And I loved falling a sleep in the afternoon sun that came through that window...
I'd stare into a room for five minutes or so and ramble on, sniffling a little.
Then, at some point, I remembered that my life is not really a movie nor does it have an audience and all my theatrics were for naught. So I returned to my room.

I sat in the middle of my room, the with the only light on in the house, on the mattress of my dismantled bed with a half eaten box of take-out food and a half-finished rum and coke and played my guitar over the tinny folk-rock coming from my computer.
It was corny and overly nostalgic, but unlike my earlier mooning around the house, it was spontaneous and genuine and perfect.
I'll always remember that night removed from my body. I see it from the upper corner of the room, above the door, looking down on my own back draped in an over-sized t-shirt and dwarfed by the emptiness of the room, with my head tilted back and belting emotion out to fill my little lighted room engulfed by the thick, cool night and the scattered lights of Berkeley and stars like so many diamonds.

The next day I packed up my mattress and guitar and whatever else was left, closed the door, and moved myself into San Francisco.

And here I am.
I realized two things today: first, life is a series of short stories. Even if I'm not traveling, my life is a series of absurd, screwball and occasionally interesting vignettes. Second, if I don't have an outlet for my need to tell stories, I spend far too much time curled up at my window, staring wistfully out at the wood panels of the house next door because I can't see the stars. I will drown in wist.

Which is, of course, all a very characteristic way of saying "I'm baAAaack!"