It’s going to take me a few words and sentences of ever-so-pertinent background until I get to the part where I actually read a book in a bar. You’ll probably also notice, if you notice these types of things, that this is the first post since mid-February. There’s been a massive amount of writer’s block –even grocery lists were an exercise in futility. I punched myself in the head a lot. Literally. It’s a lousy coping mechanism, but at least it doesn’t work.
I always forget what reading and feeling on the same wavelength of a book can do to get one writing again. A good and museful friend who works at a major publishing house located in an architecturally significant triangular building sent me an advanced reading copy of an upcoming book from an author whom I’m admire but am not allowed mention because it’s not my place to promote this book. Also, my good and museful fears that the great and powerful editor of this book will hurl him from the roof of this architecturally significant triangular building if I reveal the name of the author.
This book has made me [adverbially] happy and has given me a “Hey let’s turn the barn into a stage and put on a SHOW!” attitude towards writing. Plus the heady scent of the cheap Scholastic Books paper on which they print advanced reading copies has fired up my wordy part of my brain stem.
And the author of the above-not-mentioned book does this kind of preamble stuff, and it works for them. So, consider the previous couple of paragraphs homage.
At the beginning of April I moved back to my hometown of Columbus to live with my sister for a while. The bipolar had been acting up for quite a while my last months in Brooklyn. Nothing made sense; everything made noise. There seemed no escape. Suicides were being planned. In the lead was a very Romantic one to be held in Green-Wood Cemetery that involved finding a tombstone with the right combo of a funny 19th century name like Hortense and an angel decaying in a pleasing manner.
However, I decided that offing myself was not really fair to the cat. Yeah, yeah, and loved ones, too. But, really the cat. Like her owner, she’s kind of obese, middle-aged, and makes a lousy first impression. A death sentence for me would’ve been a death sentence for her. Yet, the status quo could not remain. When your cat is your most definite connection to this mortal coil, maybe it’s time for a change.
My first thought when I moved to Ohio was that I was going to live some sort of monastic lifestyle. I dwelled on the disconnect: How I missed my friends in NYC; how people on a certain location-based “dating” app think phonetically typing out animalistic grunting noises counts as a complete sentence; how pedestrians are invisible to most drivers in Columbus; and how crappy that online writing workshop I signed up for through [insert name of oh-so-creatively named nonfiction magazine here] turned out to be. But when I found myself four thousand words into an essay I had titled “The Ouroboros of Disconnect,” I figured it was time for a change. Stuff was just happening TO me –sometimes even AT me. That’s not the formula for interesting wordsmithing. Besides, I couldn’t figure out a way to end the piece.
Get it? Yeah, it was four thousand words of ouroboros metaphors. And puns. Ouroboring!
So, I made a decision to seek out connection. During all this disconnect, I have come to the conclusion that I am not, in fact, an introvert. I am an extrovert with crippling social anxiety. I draw energy from people, yet I don’t understand how one is expected to deal with them.
I would go to the Bear Happy Hour at Exile Bar featuring all-request 70s and 80s music. I had gone twice before, but at those times I was borrowing my sister’s car. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but there’s something shackling about taking your sister’s car to a gay bar. It’s like the car KNOWS. At least that was the excuse I was giving myself for not talking to anyone other than the DJ. “Shhhh, the BMW will hear us!” It’s not like was going to take some trick to the BMW for the doing of [insert something that would make Leviticus blush here; hopefully plural]. The car’s cupholders are poorly designed and, inconveniently, do not retract any more.
I’ve only been to this function by myself. The first two times just stayed glued to my phone, checking Facebook, checking Instagram, email, Facebook, Instagram, email… Of course, I couldn’t look up because someone might make eye contact with me. I get a little panicky when people make eye contact with me. It’s not because eye contact is some sort of primal threat. I’m a “bear,” not a bear. Also, this isn’t junior high when eye contact usually preceded some sort of wedgie-based beat down. I think I find eye contact unsettling because I’m very picky. I hate the social obligation of having to return the gay’s gaze. One must fit some very narrow parameters before gazing upon this sublime mediocrity lest they turn to stone. I am half bear, half gorgon, all judgmental worry.
But this past Wednesday, I finally purchased my own vehicle, a brand-new 15yr old Volvo wagon. I figured, as the Swedes are a very accepting people, the car wouldn’t mind having its first official destination be Exile Bar for the All-Request Bear Happy Hour.
And to avoid having to look at my phone like a commoner while avoiding eye contact, I decided to bring a book to the bear bar. Yes, the book from the publisher in the triangular building mentioned above. Exile has a really nice back patio with a few picnic tables. I would position myself where people could see me and go, “Hey, that’s one erudite bear!” But not too close to anyone would actually approach me.
The evening started fine. I was able to find a spot at the bar where I could order my drink without actually being next to anyone. Wednesday nights are $3.50 for any drink made with Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, or Jose Cuervo (a very manly drink special). I made the proper socially-mandated bartender patter, and I made it well. In these types of situations where there’s a pre-determined role to play I have absolutely no fear of public speaking. Put a cash register, lectern, or proscenium arch between me and the persons with whom I’m performing this kabuki, stand back, and then marvel at the rehearsed affability.
Then because it was the ALL-REQUEST Bear Happy Hour, I approached the DJ with my request. Of course, I had planned out what song I would request earlier in the afternoon. The DJ –his name is Mike and he’s really cute –didn’t know it but I was playing a Stump The Band type game with him. I didn’t necessarily want to stump him; instead, I wanted to hit that sweet spot between complete obscurity and “Come On Eileen.” It worked the first week because when I requested “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, Mike smiled and nodded. “I have it, and I love that song.” Did I mention he’s cute, with a cute beard?
I approached the DJ booth. The height differential gave me the necessary courage to speak. I also held the book in such a manner as allow him the chance to comment on the amazing cover –crazy raccoon and gold fleck. I did that little bob and cock with my head that past audiences have found so endearing. “Hey man, you wouldn’t happen to have ‘Sky High’ by Jigsaw?”
He smiles again. “I’ve never had anyone request that! I love that song!”
I do the head bob again, but this time I add smiling with only the right side of my face. “Thanks.” Then silence. I shift the book, hoping that the shiny gold flecks and raccoon will prompt him into at least a couple seconds of non-music patter.
“Well… I’ll get that right on for you.” He doesn’t notice the book.
“Okay, cool,“ and I turn to head outside to the patio. It should be pointed out that nowhere in this turn do I look anything approaching cool. I try to take a nonchalant sip of my Jack and Diet but end up getting the little stir straw lodged between my glasses and eyeball. I never know what to do with the little stir straw in any situation. Do I find a way to casually dispose of it? I can’t just leave it for the bartender to clean up. Do I spend the next half hour or so alternately moving it away from my eye and stirring my drink like I’m a Vanderbilt? Or do I suck through it like a baby straw? That last option is the worst because you end looking coquettish –a bearded coquette. Then sometimes the bartender will put in two little stir straws, and you’re completely fucked.
I make my way to a picnic table in the back. From where I’m seated, I can see the whole patio. I hold the book up a little so I’m not hunched over and so people can see that crazy raccoon. I want to tell everyone about how this book has uncorked my creative juices after three and a half months. I want to talk about the process of writing humor. I want to tell somebody about how writing saved my life, gave me something to strive for.
The opening bars of “Sky High” started, and I find myself automatically moving my free hand to the distinctive beat. Even if someone says they don’t know “Sky High,” as soon as they hear the opening, they go “Oh yeah!” I look around and see a lot of that. I want to scream, “I picked this!” Instead, I make a Facebook post. If I can’t have actual human contact, at least I can have those little red numbers.
I do, however, notice one man pointing at me and bopping along to the Jigsaw. Problem is, he is also swaying. He is drunk. Or, because it’s only 6:45 on a Wednesday, he is A drunk. I quickly look back down at the book. I cannot talk to drunks. Give me someone high on the pot; I know they’ll just sit there and find me amusing. Give me someone coked to the gills; all they’ll do is just ask where they can get more coke. But you don’t know what the hell a drunk’s going to do. I am so glad I have the book to hide behind. Crazy raccoon protect me!
“Sky High” ends. Some painfully obvious Pet Shop Boys song about how sad it is to be gay begins, but thankfully the book raises the question of whether or not it’s a sin to eat dog biscuits. That is an important question. I have no problem being gay; I’ve wrestled that question into the ground. But I almost made spaghetti sauce with some gourmet wet food my sister keeps in the fridge for her bichon frise.
The drunk begins to scream at his mates, “I could shave my dad! I could shave my dad!” I wrestle with whether the conversation was about eldercare or childhood. I’m hoping eldercare, but my brain keeps going to childhood. Then away from shaving a dad’s face. To cleanse the brain, I think about the time we had to shave my ex-fiancée’s mentally handicapped Persian, Miss Thang, because she rolled abound in floor adhesive pucky. I really hope this author gets around to animal-shaving; she seems like the kind of person who would relish the chance to shave a cat.
I continue to read and laugh. No one comes over to say, “Hey, you seem like a jolly, erudite fellow… I would like to go make out with you in your non-judgmental Swedish car.” Last time I brought a book to a bear bar, people were constantly asking me about it. It was 2002, and I was alone in Boston. I took The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective by Arjun Appadurai to the Eagle in Boston. They asked things like “How can you read in a leather bar?” and “Do you have enough light to read?” But the Boston Eagle was much smaller than the expansive back yard of Exile Bar, which used to be called The Eagle in Exile because the original Columbus Eagle got too twink-y, and they took their body hair to another address. Maybe there’s not enough of a crowd to make a book stand out.
I am seated near, but not too near, a pair of Port-O-Potties they have in the backyard for those times when the place is more crowded. A gentleman in a blue button down, gray hoodie, and pleated khakis goes in to use one. He was originally seated closer to the inside toilet, but I see his point. The inside bathroom has a urinal trough, which I hate because people think it gives them license to look at your wang. It’s not right that the pee-shy should have to suffer because of other people’s fetishes. But then again, why should other people’s fetishes languish because of my hang-ups. I mean, there are plenty of men’s rooms I can use on a daily basis where no one would dare look at my wang. I let the fetishists have this one. Besides, there’s a space in the trough by the wall where, if I position myself correctly, I send out a definite don’t-look-at-my-wang vibe.
I go back to the book. Finally, we get to some raccoons! I barely notice Pleats leaving the toilet.
“Aren’t you cold?” a voice asks. I look up. Pleats is looming over me.
“Nope. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? It’s freezing out here, and you don’t have a jacket on.” I’m surprised the pages of my book don’t snap from cold like at the children’s museum when they plunge the rose into the thermos full of liquid nitrogen. It’s a whopping 62 degrees out.
“Trust me. I’m fine. I guess I’m just a furnace.” I smile. I can feel a page of the book shake slightly.”
“You must be. I don’t know how you can take it.” It’s everything I can do to keep from asking him why he’s sitting outside, too. His hoodie’s not THAT thick.
“I got my book to keep me warm.” In the hope that he will talk about something else besides the cold, I flash the glittery raccoon at him. [It occurs to me that flash the glittery raccoon sounds kind of dirty and is a phrase I will definitely use in polite company sometime soon.] He doesn’t take the bait and instead declares, “You cannot possibly be from around here.” Here being the sub-tropical beach community of Columbus, Ohio. Then, without pausing, “I’m Bill. What’s your name?”
I don’t do well being peppered with questions in rapid succession. It always sends me to that place where my mom would interrogate me about a broken garden tool. Who said you could use my trowel? What were you digging? Why were you digging? Were you burying something? The book is shaking more. I take a deep breath. “I’m Chris. I was born in Wisconsin.” Whew.
“Well, that explains it! What do you do for a living?” A slight pause. “Chris.” In order to show you’re listening, remember to repeat the client’s name back to them.
“Oh… Well, Bill, I just moved to town from Brooklyn. I’m still looking for work.”
“Hmmm. Why did you leave Brooklyn? Are you single?” The glittery raccoon is really twitching now. Are you single is a better question for the end of a conversation, not the first minute.
I sigh. This is the part where I have to explain to someone about having been sick for a while and looking for a new start. You read the preamble, so you know it’s a fraught discussion at the best of times. Why won’t he ask about the book? But I swallow and say, “I’m just getting over…”
Bill doesn’t let me finish. “Yeah, that’s a tough place to be. We’ve all been there. Well, best of luck!” He turns and goes back to the acceptably warm climes of twenty feet away. Wow, he assumed I had had a normal dating life instead of mental illness. Should I go over and tell him he’s got it wrong? I look to the glittery raccoon for the answer. All he says is “Pleats?!?”
My hands are shaking so much from the encounter –and NOT the cold, Bill! –that I have a hard time taking a drink. I settle down a bit, read more about the raccoon, and, in time, finish my drink. Then I head back into the bar for a refill. I stop by Mike the DJ to request another song. I decide to tempt fate with something more obscure: “Baby, It’s You” by Promises. “Oooo, I’ve never heard of that one,” says Mike.
“It hit #4 in Germany in 1979!” I say like that’s a thing. “Oh well, how about ‘Freedom at Point Zero’ by Jefferson Starship?”
“I’m sure I don’t have that one.” Ooof! Sensing my disappointment and awkwardness that must be crossing my face, Mike adds, “Promises, you said? I’ll have to look that up. I love finding new music.”
I perk up a bit and give him a safety request: “Ah! Leah!” by Donnie Iris. This is Ohio; of course he’s gonna have “Ah! Leah!” by Donnie Iris. I feel so common.
I grab another drink, make affable non-book patter with the bartender despite practically shoving the glitter raccoon in his face [yeah, that phrase is going in my quiver], and head back out to read some more. “Ah! Leah!” starts. I overhear Bill describing the song’s endearingly awful video to his friend. I want to go over and suggest he check out the live version of the song, but I think our relationship is in a good place. Besides, I’m actually cold, and I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.
I read for another half hour or so. The drunk makes a few drunky grunts in my direction. Bill and his friend leave. He waves goodbye. Honestly, he seems like a nice fellow, just a little conversationally awkward. If anyone’s going to be conversationally awkward in a relationship, it’s going to be me.
I drive the nonjudgmental Swedish car home; I am pleasantly surprised by its pickup. I tell my sister about the encounter with Bill. “You do know what he was trying to do, right?” I pause. “Talk to you,” she smiles.
“How’s the book?” Finally someone asks about the book. I exhale and tell her all about the dog biscuits, the raccoon, and how I feel like writing again.
SONGS MENTIONED IN PIECE……..
Baby, It’s You
Freedom at Point Zero