August 1, 2011; 8:02 p.m.  I’m sitting here at my computer and about 300 miles from here Sir Paul McCartney is getting ready to take the stage for his second night at Wrigley Field.  I should be there.  But in the latest addition to my list of really goddamn poor decisions, I decided to come back.  Twenty-four hours ago I was at Wrigley on a sweltering summer night getting ready to see Sir Paul perform live for the first time.  Tonight I’m trying to make up for my absence by listening to Macca’s Good Evening New York City.  About last night’s show …

Something I’ll never forget:  Paul McCartney taking the stage.  Dressed in a powder blue jacket and black slacks, Macca strolls out, waves to a sell-out crowd going ape-shit, and launches into “Hello, Goodbye.”

Side note No. 1:  For what may be the first time in my life, I’m starstruck.  As a simple midwestern boy, there haven’t been many opportunities for brushes with greatness … or even with mediocrity that happens to be famous.  I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, but standing there listing to Sir Paul tell me I say “goodbye” but he says “hello,” all I’m thinking is that’s a fucking Beatle up on stage. There’s no schoolgirl squealing coming from me, though I might have actually blushed.

McCartney and his excellent band blow through several more songs, including the Beatles’ numbers “All My Loving” and “The Night Before.”  Around this point I start regretting that third pre-concert beer as I become acutely aware of my need to piss.  Then the band launches into “Let Me Roll It”–one of my favorite Wings songs–and I’m determined that I’m just going to have to hold it.  No way I’m missing one minute of this set.  At the end of the song, McCartney & Co. tack on the guitar riff and solo from “Foxy Lady.”  If you think Macca can’t get any cooler, after the song wraps up he talks about hanging out with Jimmy Hendrix when he was just starting out.  Then after rocking through “Paperback Writer,” Sir Paul bounces (yes, bounces) over the piano for “The Long and Winding Road.”

This is shaping up to be a phenomenal show.  And it occurs to me that it’s really not fair to compare other artist’s concerts to a Paul McCartney show.  Not when he’s got the Beatles catalog to pull from and they are his songs!  Seriously — what competes with that?  The Beatles are the first band I can remember listening to–courtesy of parents who were fans and listened to them often.  On 8-track, no less!  (Google that, kids)

Side note No. 2:  People often categorize themselves as either “Beatles” people or “Stones” people.  I don’t have a problem with that, since it makes some sort of statement about your musical preferences.  What I don’t get at all is the occasional comment from “Stones people” about how they don’t like the Beatles.  Sometimes they even say the Beatles are overrated.  If you believe that, even just a bit, then I don’t understand you.  Is sunshine overrated?  Is sex overrated?  Do you think there is anything good in life?  Maybe you think dissing the Beatles makes you sound like and edgy and cool critic.  Sorry–it makes you sound like the village idiot.

We’re about a third of the way through the show, and things are about to go up another notch.  Macca does a couple more Wings songs at the piano, and I’m trying not to get my hopes up because if I hear the opening notes to “Maybe I’m Amazed” I’m going to lose my shit.  Then I hear the opening notes.  Fuck me!  At that moment, if Sir Paul told me to live under the bleachers of Wrigley Field and clean the bathrooms after a double-header with a toothbrush–with my toothbrush–I might do it.  If he told me to become a Cubs fan, I might … okay, that’s not true.  I’m worshiping the guy, but there are limits.

After a couple more songs, we get to something else I’ll never forget:  Paul McCartney, standing alone on stage, an image of a full moon projected behind him, playing an acoustic guitar and singing “Blackbird” while thousands of people sing along with him.  It’s one of those moments where there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right there, right then.  I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it now.

Then things get intense.

Macca, still alone on stage, introduces the next song by talking about how important it is to tell people how you feel about them when you have the chance.  Yes, it’s corny and cliché–until Macca adds that he wrote the song after John Lennon died and the inspiration is a conversation he never got to have with him.  The song is “Here Today,” and it simply slays the entire crowd.  Over forty thousand people and–to break out another cliché–you could hear a fucking pin drop on the infield grass of Wrigley Field.  If you didn’t know the real subject of the song, you might think it’s about a long-lost love and it would still carry a certain amount of emotion.  But when you know it’s one half of the greatest songwriting team in rock history singing to the other half, it’s simply amazing.  For those not familiar with the song:

And if I said I really knew you well what would your answer be
If you were here today
Well knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart
If you were here today
But as for me, I still remember how it was before
And I am holding back the tears no more
No, no, no
I love you
What about the time we met
Well I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get
We didn’t understand a thing, but we could always sing
What about the night we cried
Because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside
Never understood a word, but you were always there with a smile
And if I say, I really loved you and was glad you came along
And you were here today
For you were in my song
Here today

Aaannnd … I’m crying.  As the band comes back on stage, I briefly worry about getting composed.  Then I experience a quick reality check and remember we’re at a Paul McCartney concert and no one give a shit about me and my stupid tears.  That, and I suspect quite a few others were doing the same thing I was doing.

Side note No. 3:  Another way people categorize themselves is via Lennon/McCartney.  I’ve been guilty of this in the past, too.  I’ve always been a Lennon-guy.  Lennon was the thoughtful, slightly brooding Beatle.  The smart one to Paul’s cute one.  At some point this notion became kind of ridiculous to me.  Why do I have to like one at the expense of the other?  Maybe Macca’s song catalog is not your favorite stuff, but how can anyone deny that he wrote some pretty goddamned catchy tunes?  It’s time to let such things go.  After all, John has been gone for 30 years.  For the time being, we still have Paul.  Lighten up, sit back, and enjoy him already.

We’re about two-thirds of the way through the show now, and I’m no longer conscious of my need to piss.  Paul McCartney puts on such a great concert that urination is no longer necessary.  I wonder if that idea has been expressed before by anyone writing about one of his concerts.  Do you think he’d be proud to add that to his legacy?  Sure he would, right???  I feel so proud.

A stagehand gives Macca a ukulele, and Macca talks about how great George Harrison was at playing that instrument.  He adds that this particular ukulele was given to him by Harrison.  I have a thought I had earlier in the show when Sir Paul told us that the guitar he was playing during “Paperback Writer” was the one used when that song was recorded.  How much money do you think his traveling guitar/ukulele/whatever-else-is-backstage collection is worth?  And is it really a good idea to lug that kind of stuff around where something could happen to it?  Yes, I actually had that thought during the show–the curse of being trained as a lawyer.  God I suck.

Macca then does a tribute to George by playing “Something,” starting with just the ukulele in a sweet little rendition of the song before the band roars to life and once again we’re in a full-on rock show.  Next is “Band On The Run,” then a string of Beatles tunes:  “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “A Day In The Life” (with “Give Peace A Chance” added at the end).  Goddamn I’m in rock heaven.

The pace slows a bit, as Sir Paul takes up the ivories again with “Let It Be.”  Then we find out why it’s an outdoor show, because what the band does with “Live And Let Die” would’ve blown the roof off of any fucking venue that had one, even without the fireworks an other pyrotechnics.  As rockets shoot into the air and fire blasts from the front of the stage, I start laughing uncontrollably.  Not because of the spectacle of it all, but due to a moment of pure, unadulterated joy that can’t be contained and must be expressed.  Then the song ends and the crowd is in such a frenzy that the cheering is even louder than the last song.  It’s like the crowd at a Cubs game.  Okay, I’m fucking with you.  No way Wrigley Field has even been that loud at a Cubs game.

Paul takes it all in, and then a wildly painted piano is wheeled out to the front of the stage and he closes the show proper with “Hey Jude.”  Then two encores of all Beatles, including a blistering “Helter Skelter.”

Side note No. 5:  Another pretty well know act has toured stadiums for a while now, too.  You might have heard of them.  Years ago U2 put out a record called “Rattle and Hum” that included a live version of “Helter Skelter” where Bono introduced it by saying Charles Manson stole that song from the Beatles and U2 was stealing it back.  Well, I like U2 and all, but the song ain’t theirs to keep.  Macca made that clear as he belted out the chorus with a fervor that would be hard for someone half his age to match.  Macca also gave U2 a little dig during the encore.  After acknowledging his great band, he guaranteed the audience that there weren’t any musicians hidden under the stage.  Most of the crowd didn’t get it.  Macca said it was an inside joke, but I got it.  A little secret of U2’s tour is that there are musicians hidden under their stage that play along with them to fill out the band’s sound on some numbers.  This allows the songs to have their full sound but maintains the illusion that it’s just the four U2 members playing the song (three members, really, since Bono rarely plays an instrument).  It might be a joke, but I think Macca’s subtle little jab was a reminder to U2 that you boys may be big in the music world, but you’re not a Beatle.

Finally, after almost three hours, Macca tells the crowd that the next number would be the last song of the night and it was time to go home.  This elicits the first negative reaction from the crowd, a crowd that would have stayed for another hour or two if Macca kept playing.  Looking around Wrigley, there were no empty seats.  No one leaving to beat the traffic or any bullshit like that–anyone cutting out of this show early just to get home a few minutes early deserved a good bitch-slapping.  Just forty-some thousand people united for three hours by an extraordinary set from a youthful-looking 69-year-old legend singing his heart out like it was the British Invasion all over again.

Wonderfully, even if predictable, the show wraps with Macca reminding us that the love we take is equal to the love we make.  The perfect ending to a perfect show.

To Sir Paul … thank you.

Exercising Judgments

I approach the gym with a sense of dread.  Not because I don’t want to work out, but because I can’t take the woman who works the front counter.  She’s aggressively friendly.  As I approach, she’s coiled to strike, ready to jump up with her perky “Good morning!” as she scans me in.  I can barely bring myself to make eye contact with her.

I dump my sweats in the locker room and head out to exercise area.  As I make my way over to the treadmills, I see a regular stretching over by the aerobics room.  He’s an attention whore.  He stretches next to the high-traffic areas, so no one can avoid seeing him without shutting their eyes.  And when he lifts weights everyone in the place knows it.




He should just be honest and scream “LOOK AT ME!!!”  For all his preening and posing, he doesn’t do much actual conditioning.  If he spends an hour at the gym, about ten minutes of it goes to actual exercise.  The rest is posing and sitting around the weight benches trying to look worn out from the last set he did.

The seniors are already out in full force.  Early morning at the gym is like their happy hour.  They linger among the weight machines, often with one sitting on the machine, chatting away and blocking any others from using it.  If the old guys aren’t chatting up one another, they are trying to flirt with any female that will talk to them, or at least let them talk and pretend to pay attention.

As much as I want to tell them to get the hell off the bench, I can’t bring myself to yell at the seniors.  Not because I’m polite, but because I fear the repercussions.  They think they own the place.  I envision coming back to the gym the next day and every machine in the place being taken up by a senior who just sits there, creepily looking at me.

To be fair, dealing with the seniors is not as bad as the kids who overtake the place in the evening.  The last time I worked out at night I was down to my last weight station, and was patiently waiting for a young guy to finish his sets.  As I waited, he finished a set and then pulled out a cell phone and started talking.  A cellphone.  Seriously.  It’s hard to imagine a bigger jackass move at the gym.

I get on a treadmill, put the headphone on, and start jogging.  After a few minutes I wonder if something is wrong with my iPod.  I’m listening to a podcast of a talk radio show, but for some reason a singing voice is now intruding.  Then I realize the voice is coming from my right.  It’s the person on the elliptical machine next to me.  She’s rocking out on her headphones, but feels the need to sing along with her tunes.  I’d be annoyed by this even if she sang well.  I turn my own headphones up, then up a little more.  I reach for the volume control again, but I realize that I can’t turn them up enough to drown out the singer without causing permanent damage to my ears.  I soldier on, trying to concentrate harder on my podcast.

My gym is not what’s considered chic or hip.  It’s not one of those places where beautiful people come decked out in top flight athletic gear.  Choices in gym attire range from entertaining to downright perplexing.  That said, there are some fashion barriers that shouldn’t be crossed.  A quick scan of the gym reveals the typical fashion offenders.

Jeans.  Working out and denim do not mix.  Yet, there it is, just down the row of treadmills.  I guess you can argue that people go for walks in jeans, so walking on the treadmill really is not different.  But some of the denim-wearers lift weights, too.  It’s just not right.

Bras.  Another fashion crime walks in front of me as I jog.  It’s commonplace for women to wear clothes that do not hide their bra straps, and with sports bras at the gym this is especially true.  What passes before me, however, was not a fashionable sports bra.  This woman is showing the big white straps of her Playtex granny bra.  I’ll say this for her, she’s wearing it proudly.  But it’s awful.

Small clothes, big bodies.  Look, I applaud those who are … on the bigger side … and are trying to get themselves in shape.  But would it kill them to wear clothes that fit?  The oversize guy in front of me on a stationary bike might as well be a plumber, and a large woman a few stations down is wearing a top that would be too tight on a 10-year-old child.  C’mon …

Unitards.  Thankfully, none in sight this morning, but the unitard has made and appearance here before.  Unless you’re wrestling for Olympic gold, unitards are not acceptable.  Ever.

Workout complete, I duck back into the locker room to weigh myself and then gather my things to leave.  The locker room has its own visual assault, but it does not involve clothes.  Guys in their fifties and older have absolutely no self-consciousness when it comes to walking around naked.  The older the guy, the more likely he just doesn’t care anymore about how he looks in the birthday suit.  Did I already mention that my gym is full of people who are not exactly in great shape?  I know, it the men’s locker room, after all, so maybe I’m the one with the problem.  Perhaps I’m just worried I’ll be one of these guys one day.

I leave, trying to time my exit so Miss Perky doesn’t doesn’t see me and can’t order me–with that perky smile–to have a nice day.

Shaving Dangerously

I don’t know if buying the blade rests in the mid-life crisis category.  At least it’s not the first thing that comes to mind.  A sports car is a more obvious idea, but that’s out of my price range.  And I’ve never had much interest in a motorcycle.  A hot girlfriend half my age is a thought, but that falls into the “can’t afford” category, too.

But something finally coaxed me into buying the blade.  More specifically, a straight razor.  Yes, the kind of razor you may have seen in old movies, particularly westerns, when the hard, rugged cowboy makes himself presentable by running the blade across his face.

This was not exactly an impulse buy.  The thought of trying out the straight razor had been a persistent idea for some time.  As I saw it, there were three reasons to try it.

The first was economical:  as any guy knows, disposable blades are pretty goddamned expensive.  By my estimation, I’ve spent about $180 to $200 a year on them.  Admittedly, my economic reason for going to the straight razor might be a rationalization, given that a well-made straight razor will cost at least $150.  But I like rationalizations, and I’m sticking with this one.

The second reason may be a bit more eccentric.  Disposable razor blades are not exactly environmentally friendly.  They can’t be recycled, and though they are small, after five years of shaving–even if not every day–any man would amass quite the pile of dulled, whisker-filled razors.  For those who don’t know me, a bit of clarification is in order.  I’m not the biggest environmentalist around.  Sure, I recycle.  And I try to buy environmentally friendly products, but those are easy things.  I don’t have an in-home compost bin or drive a motor-scooter to work.  But I’m just odd enough to be bothered by the steady rate of discarded disposables just because … well, just because it bothers me.

The third reason is where we get into mid-life crisis territory.  Stated simply, shaving with a straight razor is just bad-ass.

Now, the fist time taking blade to face doesn’t guarantee the onset of bad-assness.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  It’s pretty terrifying.  The thing is, that blade is sharp.  Really.  Fucking.  Sharp.  This is learned quickly, since cuts (not just nicks) are a certainty early on.  Less than two weeks into my experiment with the blade I was hit with questions that went something like “What happened to your face?”  Frankly, I was surprised it took that long, since I was feeling more than a little self-conscious about my very visible wounds after only a few shaves.

The guesses of what happened to me ranged from a fight to a car accident to falling into a rose-bush.  Those that didn’t ask about the state of my face were probably afraid I’d tell them I was a cutter.  The gashes were everywhere.  Suffice it to say taking up the straight razor is not a good idea if you’ve got something coming up where you’re supposed to be photogenic, like a family portrait or your wedding.

While we’re on this thought, keep in mind that cuts on the face tend to bleed.  A lot.  A cut on any part of the ear is particularly messy.  Yes, I know, cutting the ear shouldn’t happen while shaving.  I get it.

The oddly positioned cuts did not stop at the ear.  They even spread to the fingers.  How is that possible, you ask?  Let me try to explain.  I’d use my free hand to pull and stretch a part of my face I was shaving, so my fingers would be near that area.  And just one careless move, and … SHIT!!! Like a paper cut on steroids.  Fingers bleed a lot, too, by the way.

Should a sane person stop this madness?  Maybe.  But even early on, regardless of the mistakes–the bloody, scarring mistakes–the is a certain satisfaction in the ceremony of it all.  It begins with the stropping of the blade, which consists of smooth, back and forth strokes of the blade over a piece of leather.  This is a shave that takes preparation and care.  There’s an oddly pleasant sound made by the blade running over the leather.

Then there’s the lather.  No palm full of foam or gel is involved in this process.  A proper shave includes not only a different kind of shaving cream, but a badger-hair brush, as well.  If you’re picturing a brush that somewhat resembles a mushroom being stirred about inside a mug, then you’re on the right track.  Again, it’s the ceremony.

Then it’s time to take the blade and begin, and here’s where it gets a little weird.  Running that blade over the skin does something to a man.  It could be the unnaturalness of the act.  It’s not exactly normal to take something that’s literally razor-sharp and voluntarily put it to your face and neck.  It’s a little unnerving, but also a little exciting.  But as the realization kicks in that it is, indeed, possible to run the blade over the skin without cutting oneself to holy hell, a new feeling starts taking over.  There’s tradition and timelessness to it, and the masculinity of it is undeniable.  The feeling of the blade against the skin becomes a good one.  Dare I say pleasurable?

Perhaps weird isn’t the right word.  Maybe it’s a little perverted.  Regardless, it’s just … bad ass.  The learning curve–regardless of a little slicing and dicing–is worth it.  Trust me.

Besides, aren’t chicks supposed to dig scars, anyway?


Diary of a Half-Marathon

I slowly awaken to the short, stabbing tones coming from my alarm clock.  After a few  typical moments of disorientation, I abruptly sit up in bed, suddenly very awake.  It’s just after  5:30 a.m. on a Sunday.  But it’s the day of my first half-marathon.  I’m kind of surprised at how excited I feel.  I go bounding out of bed, to the kitchen and the coffee maker.  I think twice about coffee, given I’m about to embark on a couple of hours of running.  I decide on a small glass of juice instead.  I change into my “kit,” eat some fruit, and I’m on my way.

Almost downtown, and so many people!  All are walking toward the starting area.  The  starting area is nuts–about 15,000 people are here for either the half-marathon or the marathon.  Everyone is smiling with a bounce in their step.  So this is what these  long runs are like.  Full of happy people looking forward to a challenge.  I weave my way through the crowd to what I think is an appropriate spot in the starting area.  I can’t see the starting line, but I’m sure it’s up there somewhere.

It’s 7:00 a.m., the gun sounds, and we’re off.  Well, sort of.  Given the mass of people, I’m  not going anywhere just yet.  After a minute or so, we start walking forward.  Everyone still seems so excited.  Then we start jogging!  And then we stop.  False alarm, of sorts.  Now we’re just starting any stopping … almost like being in morning commuter traffic.  Finally we’re off.

The first mile or so of a crowded race is always a bit dicey.  So many people packed  together, some wanted to run quickly out of the blocks, some taking their time.  My first mile split wasn’t very good–over 9:00, I think–but considering the crowd and navigation issues, I’m not upset about it.  I start finding nice, open pockets to stretch the legs out and go, which is good.  As we run down toward the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, I’m feeling good.  After getting a couple of miles under foot, my pace is picking up and the legs feel strong.  I’m still surprised at how excited I am about this.

The walkers start to get annoying.  While I have nothing against people electing to walk, I wonder why so many felt they should start near the front.  The thing about walkers is that they walk in packs; rarely is there just one person walking.  And they tend to walk side-by-side so they can talk, which makes them harder to pass.   Fortunately, after passing the two-mile mark I  seem to have left them behind.

As we loop around and head back downtown, we hit the 5-mile mark.  I’m now running farther than ever before in a race.  Feeling a little tired, but think I’ll be okay.  As we get downtown, there are more people packing the sides of the street to watch the runners.  It’s a great pick-me-up.  I find myself lengthening my stride a bit and picking up the pace, not because I feel good but because I want the crowd to think I do this all the time.   There’s a couple of guys snapping official race photos.  I hope I don’t look too fat.

Later, I’m over 8 miles into this thing, and we’re running by St. Louis University.  It’s  interesting … I’ve driven these streets hundreds of times, and I’ve never really thought about the hills.  St. Louis downtown streets don’t have steep hills, but rather long, gradual, punishing inclines.  My legs are starting to send me “just what are you trying to prove” messages.  Then I’m past St. Louis University, running down Forest Park Parkway.  Jesus, what the hell am I doing in the Central West End?  And I’ve still got over 4 miles to go?  Are they sure the distances are right?

Someone goes flying past me, and I wonder how anyone still has that much energy at this  stage of the race.  Then I notice their race number with “Relay” written above.  The full  marathon has a relay division, where a team runs the marathon and each team member only runs a few miles of the race.  Hence the speed and energy level at this stage when those like me are clearly starting to suffer.  Relay participant or not, I really don’t need to see anyone sprinting at this point.  As this guy gets farther and farther away, I decide the “Relay Division” should be renamed the “Asshole Division.”

Now the course has turned around for the half-marathoners, which the marathoners continue on toward Clayton.  I have a fleeting pang of sympathy for the full marathon people.  Clayton hills are pretty harsh.  But the ever-growing pain in my legs pulls me back into full self-absorption.  My quads are on fire and my calves … I’m not sure how to describe my calves.  Remember that scene in “Alien” where that gross little alien pops out of the dude’s chest?  That’s kind of how each of my calves feel.

I’m over 10 miles into the race when I become conscious of the pain on the bottom of my right foot.  Apparently someone managed to slip a cheese grater into my shoe, because I feel like there’s no skin left.  I knew I should have bought new shoes.  Stupid!  I could try to hop on my left leg for a while, but I think it might fall off out of spite.  I keep going.  Ever more slowly.

I’ve passed the 11-mile marker and am almost up the latest hill.  The hill is not  particularly steep, but it might as well be Mount Kiliman-fucking-jaro.  Christ, this  sucks.  There’s an old guy near the top of the hill.  He looks like Santa Claus.  He’s cheering us on, and saying we’re almost up this hill and it’s the last one.  If my right foot wasn’t on fire and my calves weren’t about to explode, it would be nicer to hear.  But I take some measure of relief.

I can see the 12-mile marker.  All I want to do it walk for a while.  Actually, that’s not true.  I want to fall down and not move for a few days.  All of a sudden … what the hell?  Last hill my ass!  Why am I running uphill again?!?  If it didn’t involve running more  distance–which I clearly don’t have the strength to do–I might just turn around and find that fat, white-haired prick who said the previous hill was the last one.  I starting to feel  like I might pass out or puke.  Maybe both.  Not sure in what order.

At some point I have this vague notion that I’ve crossed the finish line.  I can’t feel my legs and my vision is so blurry I can’t see where I’m going.  After a moment I realize my eyes are okay; the kaleidoscope view I’m getting is from the moisture on my sunglasses, though I’m not sure if the source is sweat or tears.  I’m trying to get to the recovery area where there is food and water.  I’ve never wanted a glass of water so badly in my life.  I’m bumping into a lot of people and things.

I finally get through the recovery line, and have gathered food and bottled water.  There’s  one more booth.  And it’s for beer.  I take an 8-ounce cup of beer, feeling quite certain it will get me drunk given my level of fatigue and dehydration.

Once back to my car, I fall into it and somehow manage to get home.  I park in front of my house, turn the car off, open the door, and realize I can’t move my legs.  My legs are so stiff.  Rigor mortis stiff.  Al Gore 2000 election-persona stiff.  I almost have to pick them up with my hands to move them forward to walk.  I think if I do nothing but stretch for  the next three days I might be able to walk by mid-week.

I collapse on the couch.  My early morning enthusiasm has been replaced by just being thankful I’m still alive.  Amazingly, my last thought before passing out is about signing up for a full marathon in the fall.


No Perk, Please – Just Coffee

Starbucks eventually won me over.  I resisted for a long time, thinking of thinking of Starbucks as the Seattle coffee Goliath trying to squash all the little independent coffee shop Davids.  But when one inevitably opened right down the block from the office, it was just too easy to wander in.  And it turned out the coffee was so very good, the lattes were just right, and the espresso had all the kick I could want.

Once I succumbed to the coffee, the rest was easy.  The place became comfortable, almost a  destination, with the bistro-style tables and comfortable chairs and just the right mix of new and old music playing at a volume just loud enough to be enjoyed on its own, but soft enough to never interfere in a conversation.  And that coffee smell always in the air …

I got hooked.  Well played, Starbucks.  Well played.

But as with so many things that seem too good to be true, there is inevitably a chink in the armor.  This discovery came on an early  Saturday morning while dealing with the bad Friday night decision of not closing my bar tab as early as I should have.  I drifted into a Starbucks that morning in dire need of anything venti (that’s a large drink, for anyone who’s  been able to resist that inviting green marquee).

While gingerly raising my eyes to scan the menu choices, I became conscious of someone near me talking in a strange voice.  It sounded  something like an adult talking baby talk.  Not a completely unexpected sound in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning, so I didn’t think much of it until I heard something clearly not meant for a baby.

“Have an awesome day!”

I turned my head in time to realize the source of this ridiculous encouragement was the barista.  She was tall, wiry, and full of energy.  Too full of energy.  It radiated from her.  In my jittery state it almost knocked me back.

At first I thought maybe she knew the customer, maybe he was even a favorite customer who was singled out for such wishes.  But as I looked at the barista it dawned on me that she wasn’t addressing a friend or favorite customer and it wasn’t some random, impromptu comment.  No, it was painfully clear that she wanted everyone to have an awesome day.  And I was next.

The thing was, I did not want to have an awesome day.  I was hung over, with the puffy eyes, throbbing headache, bodily pain and fatigue.  So all I really wanted was to get through the morning and worry about the rest of  the day later.

I’m sure there are people out there who strive to have an awesome day.  Or those who hadn’t thought about it, but when told to have an awesome day thought it seemed like a pretty good idea.  I was not one of those people. I was not hostile, or even impolite, and had no desire to make trouble.  I was just a guy in dire need of a quick jolt of caffeine to keep things  moving.

I had the sudden urge to bolt from the place, but I couldn’t move fast enough before her eyes were upon me.  She gave me a look like she was so happy to see me, though we’d never laid eyes  on one another before.  I started to sweat, which might have been from the hangover, but I don’t  think so.  Of course she can’t just say, “Hi” and ask me what I’d like.

“Hey there, big guy!  I bet you could use a some coffee!  Maybe even a tasty scone or a scrumptious muffin!”

Oh, my God.

I had an almost Pavlovian reaction to not respond–scrumptious?!?–but managed to stammer out an order for a latte.  Rather than simply tell the other barista my order, she seemed to address everyone behind the counter, seemingly all at once.  I was horrified, but fascinated.  As my order was prepared, I found myself wondering how she gets through a shift without her co-workers stabbing her with a thousand coffee stirrers, like a human voodoo doll.

I snapped out of my little trance when I realized she was talking to me again, asking me how my day was going.  My first though was to hiss that it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. and my “day” wasn’t going anywhere yet, which is why I just want my coffee.  But I didn’t have the energy to hit the right hostile tone.  I then wondered if she’d leave me be if I said my day so far is  “awesome.”  But I couldn’t bring myself to say  it.

I finally managed to croak that it was too early to tell, hoping that my response couple with my generally dreary appearance would subtly convey that I wasn’t feeling very conversational.  This was stupid thinking, since  subtly was obviously not her thing.  If I had started banging my head against the counter as hard as I could, I’m not sure she would have gotten the message.  She wrinkled her face up at my reply and smiles.  She was beaming!  I think this was meant to be cute.  I found it extraordinary, and not in a good way.

When my latte was ready, she put it on the counter and spoke again, with her face still scrunched up and her shoulders pulled in tight.  Her body shook just a bit, like it one of the most exciting moments she’d ever experienced.  Then in the baby-talk voice:  “Here’s one deee-liciiiousssss skinny vanilla latte!!!”


I shuffled out as fast as I could, but not fast enough.  I knew what was coming.

“Have an awesome day!” thumped me in the head as I went out the door.

My day was not awesome.  At least the coffee was good.


One Night In Carson’s

Carson’s is not ambitious enough to be a dive.  It just lets itself go slowly downhill a little more each day, making the deterioration hardly noticeable.  Still, the weekend karaoke packs people in.  Some come to sing, most come to watch the spectacle.  My group was more watchers than singers, but the numbers could vary with the intoxication levels.

Before I could sit down, the couple at the next table took note of my height and asked if  I’d turn the ceiling fan speed down a notch.  The fans in Carson’s do no more than push the cigarette smoke down upon you.  As I climbed a chair to reach the fan and my head neared the ceiling, I had a sensation of what it must be like to swim underwater in an underground cavern and find a small pocket of air between water and rock where breathing is possible.  The lower speed was of little help.  Fearing that all the smoke  might fuse my contacts to by eyeballs, I attempted to make myself cry.

At the next table over was a black man who I guessed was in late 20’s.  He was sitting alone, eating dinner, and drinking nothing but water.  He also wasn’t paying attention to anything around him, but was concentrating on his plate, only occasionally looking up at the stage.  There was a gym bag at his feet.  Before I spent much time trying to guess his story–I’d find out soon enough–my attention was drawn to a woman  standing behind him.

She was facing the stage, wearing a short jacket and even shorter skirt, dancing around to  the current karaoke performer, a guy who was just destroying a classic rock song.  Her very red hair was styled a bit like the oompa loompas from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  At first I thought her legs were completely covered in tattoos.  I squinted, trying to focus through the smoke, and realized that I was not seeing tattoos, but loud and lurid tights.

Something seemed odd about her, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I was just  about to let it go when she turned toward me.  Make that when he turned toward me.  Even though the haze there was no mistaking that this was a 50-something guy in a wig and make up to go with the mini-skirt and tights.  My surprise was interrupted when the current song mercifully ended, the DJ called up the next performer, and the lonely looking black guy jumped to the stage.

He crouched down, dug into his gym bag, and pulled out sunglasses, a sequined jacket and one glove.  So this is where we were headed.  As the music started he began thrusting his hips to the beat of the music and twirling around in a King of Pop impersonation that was barely competent.  Then he began to sing, and the god-awful voice that came from him made me long for an encore by the previous performer.  I’m not sure it was a sound heard in the natural world, though it was a little like a cat being squeezed way too tightly.  The song that had begun abruptly switched to another song, and I realized this was a medley.  A long, horribly sung, painful medley.  The man on the stage continued to squeak and spin and grab his crotch in what was quickly becoming the most horrific Michael Jackson impersonation imaginable.

I was so perplexed by what I was seeing and hearing that I barely noticed the waitress lifting her too-tight halter top to show some guys at another table her pierced nipples.  Sensing my disorientation, a couple of Carson’s regulars at my table explained the Michael Jackson wanna-but-would-never-be to me.  He comes to Carson’s just to perform, and is known to hit other bars on their karaoke nights, too.  I tried to process this information while hearing his high-pitched howl.  So this guy actually worked the  local karaoke circuit to do … this?  In public?  Sober?  As the song in the medley changed  again, the man crouched quickly and urgently dug into his bag.  As “Thriller” started to play, suddenly he sprung up and twirled toward  the crowd with his head covered by a zombie-like Halloween mask.  I could only stare, mouth agape.

As I sat there, bewildered, a short, rotund man in a baseball cap approached our table.  I  recognized him from the few other times I’d been inside Carson’s and thought he might be the owner or manager.  He began talking to one of the people at our table, the bottle of liquor and plastic cups he was carrying clearly conveying his intention to offer shots.  His lower lip was completely covered by the biggest band-aid I’d ever seen.  It extended down across most of his chin.  The thought of this guy working behind the bar or in the kitchen with a gaping wound lurking beneath that band-aid bothered me.  I declined the shot.

A break from all this strangeness seemed in order.  I finished my beer, grabbed another and got up to head toward a back door leading to a small patio.  While making my way through the crowd, I looked at the stage and saw one of the biggest people I’ve ever seen hoisting himself up the step.  I didn’t know clothes came in such sizes.  Fitting with the oddities of the night, the voice that emerged from that mass of flesh was an incredibly sweet-sounding alto singing a somewhat sappy love song.

After a few minutes of breathing smokeless air outside, I ducked into the men’s room.  While finishing my business at the urinal, the door to the stall burst open.  The guy in the next urinal over exclaimed “What the hell was that?” as the man in the red wig and mini-skirt whisked out of the men’s room and straight to the stage.  He followed up the enormous  singer’s honey-dripped voice with vocals that were pure gravel.

Watching this man in the 80’s style, low-rent Madonna clothing choke out a truck-stop song, I realized I was at the proverbial fork in the road.  One can only fight so much weirdness.  It was time to either run screaming from the place or embrace it.  When the man with lord knows what under that enormous band-aid came back offering another round of shots, I gladly accepted.

Strife In The Fast Lane: A Driving Strory

“MOOOOOVE!” screamed Will, his face hovering over the steering while trying to project his voice through both his windshield, the rear window of the car in front of him, and into the ears of its driver.  Will named the driver “Asshole.”

Will had followed this car for several miles.  They were in the fast lane on the interstate where the speed limit was 70 miles an hour.  Their pace, however, was closer to 60.  Part of Will’s frustration–a smaller part with every second he followed Asshole–was the poor decision that had resulted in following Asshole in the first place.  Will had moved into the fast lane to get around the Chevy that had been in front of him.  He’d noticed a car in the fast lane just ahead, but hadn’t been paying enough attention to gauge how fast that car was going.  As he began to pass the Chevy, he was gaining too much ground on the fast lane car–it was a Subaru–and had to slow.  The Chevy zipped away.

Will knew the quickest and smartest action was to get back in the slow lane, get around the Subaru, then deal with the Chevy.  But Will also knew the rules of the road.  Slower traffic should keep right.  It was basic driver’s ed.  He was pretty certain that was in the driver’s handbook.  For those who had forgotten this rule, there were “Slower Traffic Keep Right” roadsigns, for chrissakes!  And it was just goddamn courtesy!

Will also remembered another rule:  drivers weren’t supposed to pass on the right.  Will decided to observe that rule.

Trouble was, Asshole wasn’t getting over in the right lane.  The fast lane was becoming a bizarro-version of Thunderdome:  two men had entered, only one would leave.  The longer Will stayed behind Asshole, the more determined he was to stay.

Will accelerated slightly, inching closer until he was tailgating Asshole at 60 miles an hour.  It occurred to Will that the driver’s manual frowned on tailgating, but principle has to count for something, right?  He could live with his indiscretion.

What the hell is he thinking? Will thought.  He has to know I’m back here.  He’s got a goddamn rear-view mirror!

Will’s eyes darted between Asshole’s rear-view and driver’s side mirrors, trying to see whether Asshole glanced to either to see Will’s car following so close behind.

Suddenly, Will noticed a car behind him.  There was another car just behind him over in the right lane, but it was coming up even with Will.  Though Will hadn’t been paying attention to those cars, he figured the cars had both been in the right lane.  The guy who was now right behind Will probably did the same thing that landed Will behind Asshole.  The car had moved over into the fast lane to pass the other car.  Now the slow-lane car was passing Will on the right and moving right along to pass Asshole.

See what you’re doing! thought Will, his attention now back on Asshole.  You’re fucking it up for everyone!

The car behind Will whipped back over to the slow lane and began to pass.  As it went by, Will glanced over at the driver, briefly lifting his hands from the wheel as he shrugged and tilted his head toward Asshole in what he thought was an “I know–what an asshole this guy is” gesture.  The other driver looked at Will and shook his head, his face sour.

The look from the driver bothered Will, and his gaze followed the driver to see whether Nissan’s driver gave Asshole his disapproving look, too.  It was hard to tell.

Was that guy pissed at me?  Like this is my fault? Will felt incredulous.  How could anyone conclude that the slow pace in the fast lane was his doing?  He shook it off and re-directed his attention back to Asshole.

After another mile was down with no sign of possible movement by Asshole into the slow lane, Will decided he needed to do something proactive in addition to just tailgating.  He flashed his lights three times in succession, hoping Asshole might recognize the signal to move.  When there was still no change, Will slowed just a bit, just in case he was following so closely that Asshole wasn’t able to see Will’s lights in his mirror.  Another succession of flashes and … nothing.

“Jesus!  Get over!”  Will’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel, his shoulders tense, as he hunched so far over his steering wheel that his face was almost touching the windshield.  The slow lane was open again, but Will was way past the point of no return.  He would not be the first to blink.

Soon a few other cars were behind and to the side of Will.  Will had seen these coming.  As before, two cars were approaching in the slow lane, and the rear car moved over to pass only to be blocked when reaching Will’s car.  This time, the car still in the slow lane was just barely going faster than Will and Asshole.  The car even seemed to slow to the same speed as Asshole when he pulled even with Will.  As will continued to check the action behind him in the mirror, he saw yet another car join the group.  The two new cars both moved into the fast lane, undoubtably assuming the fast-lane cars were actually moving faster.

Poor bastards, Will thought.

Will checked the rear-view mirror again and saw that he was being tailgated.  The car was right on his bumper, and Will started feeling increasingly uncomfortable.  He felt like his car was wedged into a parking spot on the street that was just big enough to fit his car, but in this case all the cars were doing 60 on the interstate.  Will slowed just a little, putting a little distance between himself and Asshole.  Then the lights off the car behind him flashed.

“Fuck you!”  Will  yelled to his rear-view mirror.  “I’m not the problem here!”  Will quickly turned to the right, wondering if the driver of that car had seen him talking–or, rather, shouting–when he was alone in the car.  The slow-lane car was almost completely past him.  Will briefly considered getting over.  Let this prick behind me see that Asshole here is the one holding things up. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Then the driver behind Will whipped into the slow lane, and the car behind that driver followed suit.  As Will’s tailgater passed, he looked over at Will and shook his head.  Will had no doubt that this look was intended for him.  Whatever this guy may think about Asshole, he thought the same of Will.  Thankfully, the next car that went by didn’t seem to pay Will any mind.

Then it was just Will and Asshole in the fast lane, linked together by Asshole’s horribly driving and Will’s stubbornness.  The disapproving driver left an impact.  Though Will still felt he was superior in every way to Asshole, he now had the realization that to others he might not only be no better, but no different.  Disheartened, Will eased off the gas pedal and reached for the turn signal.  His commitment broken, he resigned himself to leaving the fast lane.

Will hit the signal and had barely begun veering right when, without warning or signal, Asshole’s car moved to the right and kept moving until he settled into the slow lane.  Will was shocked.  He tensed again, stifling the urge to scream.  He quickly hit the turn signal to the “off” position and began accelerating past Asshole.  As he drew even with him, he knew he wanted to let Asshole know just how pissed off he was, possibly by a shaking fist or maybe just the good old middle finger.  He looked to his right, finally getting a better look at the guy who’d been tormenting him.

The man he saw was maybe in his 30’s.  Will thought he could make out a mousey mustache, the kind that will never fill in completely.  Thick glasses covered his eyes.  The man had both hands on the wheel, one at ten and one at two, and was intently staring forward.  Will knew that this guy would never look over at him, and not because he was trying to avoid him, but because he was just a nervous man scared shitless about driving on the interstate.

Will went past.  He felt like an asshole.