Statler and Waldorf

Around the corner from the studio where I work is a comfy old man bar called Trafika 67. Often, we’ll head over there after a long day of so-called visual communication. There was one thing missing a few nights ago, though:

See that empty table in the back? 9 out of every 10 times I’ve been there, there are two old regulars holding court there, whom we refer to as ‘The Mayors of Trafika’, or just ‘Statler and Waldorf’. On the rare occasion that they aren’t ensconced there, there’s a ‘Reserved’ sign sitting on the table. Sometimes, they forget to put up the ‘Reserved’ sign– it’s sort of a rite of passage when you first start going to Trafika to grab this nicely-situated empty table, only to be confronted by a displaced Statler or Waldorf a few minutes later bearing an expression of UTMOST DISDAIN.

Statler and Waldorf are on friendly terms with the barmaids there, and with a few other oldster regulars (Fozzie Bear and Bunsen, let’s say), but otherwise keep their own counsel.* What they mainly do is a consume VERY LARGE quantities of alcohol very slowly and methodically, with no visible change to their manner at all. Once, I accidently got a fascinating glimpse into what the rest of their day is like: Trafika, like all good bars, opens shortly after noon… one day I was heading to the office and decided to peek in the window to see what transpires there in the afternoon hours. There were Statler and Waldorf in an otherwise-empty bar, drinking espressos and reading newspapers… but sitting at separate tables. I can only guess that this is a kind of routine for them: hang out at separate tables during the day, then ‘meet up for a drink’ at their primary table in the evening.

The truth is that many bars in Prague have their own version of Statler and Waldorf. There is another oldster place right nearby Trafika where my wife and I used to go for lunch sometimes (‘bar’ and ‘restaurant’ often sort of overlap here, so its not uncommon to have some guys getting totally wasted next to you while you’re eating lunch). In the corner of the lunch place were two Statler and Waldorf-like regulars… once, I noticed that there were actually two framed photos of these guys on the wall right over their seats. Wow! That’s better than having your initials stitched into a bar stool. I can only assume that when those two guys eventually die, they’ll be stuffed and mounted over their customary seats like prize bucks.

Anyway, on the night when that photo was taken, I actually got it from the bartender that Statler and Waldorf would not be coming… and we were cleared to sit at their table! It’s truly a comfortable perch, situated in the corner against the wood-paneled walls and commanding a view of the door and other tables. The chairs seemed conspicuously creakier and more worn in than other chairs. A vague odor of B.O. lingered in the corner… but not too bad. For one night, I could lay claim to being the Mayor (Mayer) of Trafika 67.

* Unfortunately, they don’t act like the real Statler and Waldorf and sit around saying things like ‘That fried cheese was what you call ‘medium’: it wasn’t rare and it certainly wasn’t well done… HA HA HA HA!” That would be great.

How We Laughed

Lately, the wife and I have been batting around the idea of spending a couple of summer months next year in Berlin, just to try it on for size. I’ve written several times in this space about my positive feelings for Berlin, so it’s not like this is a new sentiment on my part. But it does seem to consistently amaze many Germans to find that their capital city has become such a desirable destination. I’m still discussing with my German friend Patrick the idea of co-authoring a coffee table book that will explore this phenomenon under the title Germany: Finally Cool After All These Years*.

Really, the only thing that gives me pause about the whole experiment would be subjecting myself and my small child to the infamously deficient German sense of humor. The English and – particularly – Irish sense of humor seem to exist as a pointy weapon to be used against ones’ social superiors, a manner of leveling the playing field. The Jewish humor tradition that dominated American culture until the 1970s probably serves the purpose of that Freud imagined for humor: allowing us laugh at those things that are not, in fact, funny. Meanwhile, the German sense of humor, from my observation, seems to be a humor of consensus and agreement– ‘we all agree this is funny and will now laugh together.’ Which is not, in fact, very funny.

Digression: I developed my own theory about the origins and/or social function of humor from watching my infant son develop. You know how small babies spend hours upon hours waving their arms and legs around as a instinctual means of building up the muscle strength to later be able to walk? I think humor provides the same role in a social sense: it gives tiny children a means of interacting socially with their parents before they have the ability to speak or formulate many opinions or ideas. Crying is obviously the first learned social behavior– infants do this from this moment they’re born. But laughing and smiling come shortly thereafter, before a child can do much of anything else.

Here are two interactions I had with Germans that defined my impression of the national brand of humor:

1. At a hostel in Dresden, I provided the receptionist with my credit card which, having been issued by Wells Fargo, bears the romantic image of  stagecoach. ‘Oh, this is nice,’ she remarked. ‘Thanks… you can keep it,’ I replied with a facetious lilt, signaling that I was not in fact being serious. ‘YES… AND YOU GIVE ME THE CODE NUMBER… HA HA HA,’ she answered, looking up at me with the intent we-are-now-making-a-joke expression. This seems to me to be the main deficiency in the German humor gene: a desire to take all nuance and uncertainty out of the equation. HA HA HA indeed.

2. Wearing sunglasses, walking along a street in Berlin on a technically overcast but actually very bright and hazy day. A large, florid, long-haired guy passes me with a group of his friends and says mirthfully (in German): ‘Why are you wearing sunglasses when its cloudy outside?’, to an immediate volley of ho-ho-hos from his entourage. I didn’t understand this as it was being said, so I was powerless to respond… once my wife explained what had happened, I whirled around in disbelief to find my antagonists, but they had disappeared into crowded Warschauer Strasse. In any case, I would submit this a classic example of humor-to-establish-consensus-and-social-norm, with the normies ganging up on the apparent outsider.

* That’s a joke, by the way.

(Photo: David Hasselhoff single-handedly ruins one of history’s great moments with his performance atop the remains of the newly-fallen Berlin Wall in 1989.)

Nerdtown, Population: Me

  • My typography article is up at Smashing Magazine. Enjoy a wholehearted delve into font nerdiness.

  • In response to yesterday’s Julius Peppers post, reader MM passes on this compendium of outlandish college basketball names. Sample fun fact: LaceDarius Dunn has a brother named DaVarious. I liked the politically-correct impulse to put a non-black guy in there– hence, the inclusion of Jimmer Fredette, even though it doesn’t hold a candle to… say, Dundrecous Nelson.

The Julius Peppers Challenge

Who’s got the coolest-sounding name in America? Why, NFL standout defensive end Julius Peppers, that’s who. I was having a rare football interlude last night and Peppers was involved, causing my name envy to be suddenly rekindled.

In 2004, Peppers starred for the Carolina Panthers, who were playing my beloved New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXVIII. I let it be known then that if the Panthers somehow prevailed (they didn’t), I would legally change my name to Julius Peppers as an homage. Now I’m willing to revive that offer for Peppers’ 2010 Bears. Who’s with me?

John Meat-John

• Sorry for the extended writing outages lately. On top of general busyness and assorted crapulence, I’m also trying to write a short article for Smashing Magazine these days, so my spare ions of free time and writing inclination have been mostly sucked up in that task. The article concerns typography and is the very epitome of font-nerdishness. I’ll let you know if and when it goes live.

One of the great campaigns of disinformation that I’ve ever personally mounted has been trying to convince friends that the society of typography is actually a seething cesspool of loose morals and sexual adventuring, a la the stereotypes about Renaissance fair enthusiasts. Back in 2003, when I went to a three day typography conference, I had fun lying and persuading people that every conference was a veritable orgy waiting to erupt.

Little could be farther from the truth. With the notable exception of Eric Gill (devout Catholic and brilliant artist who, to everyone’s shock, was discovered decades after his death to have had sexual relations with everyone in his family including the family dog), type designers seem like the restrained bunch that you would expect. The one binding trait between them seems to be a tendency to wear bowties:

• Lately, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad with my wife. A few nights ago, we were watching an episode from season one where the teenage Walter Jr. is briefly shown in the liquor store parking with friends trying to get strangers to buy booze for them. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to pause the video to explain to my wife what was going on here– being Czech, she had no context by which to understand the American teenage rite of passage that is standing around asking random people to buy liquor for you. I even wound up getting into the time in high school that my buddy and I asked two winos to do the deed for us and they tried to run off with the money but weren’t very fast (being beat-up old winos), which set up an awkward confrontation once we ran them down in about two seconds, especially when one of the guys complainingly revealed that he’d somehow peed his pants during the run down (again, surely owing to general unhealthiness, not out of any sense of fear of the two high school kids bearing down on him).

• By a great coincidence, two of the more strangely named friends I’ve ever had have both recently made belated entrances to the Facebook community. First, there’s my colleague Jan Fleischhans, which means – in a munge of German and Czech – ‘John Meat-John’. Then, there are the two Hamburger brothers, Joel and Manny. Joel once told me  that there was even an Abraham Hamburger at some point in the family lineage. Two bad he lived before the era of trendy name-shortenings, or he could be, concisely, AbraHamburger.

Technology thumbs up/thumbs down

Thumbs up: On the plus side, I managed to figure out the adding-a-side-bar-to-the-blog thing that I was alluding to in last post. See? There it is, to the right. That thing with the blog roll in it. That wasn’t there yesterday, and wasn’t built into the blog template we just switched to. I haven’t done any coding in so long that I felt like the bear at the circus who drives the little car around while I was modifying the PHP of the site… but, lo, I have prevailed. I think.

Thumbs down: We woke up for the third time this summer to no running water. Not good. The City of Prague’s response to this? Speeding a little municipal water truck over to the corner:

What is this… Burning Man? Given that Burning Man just ended last weekend, it almost seems like some sort of goofy tribute. I half-expected to see a stiltedly-translated banner proclaiming “Today, we salute the bourgeoise malaise that inspires our cousins from the land of Wilson, Lincoln and Washington to ritualistically head to the desert for reasons that remain mysterious to foreign observers.”

The Horka Cup

Last weekend, I journeyed to a little village, Horka, where a friend of mine has a cottage. For the second year now, the village organized an annual soccer tournament, affectionately called The Horka Cup. On Saturday, I went out to play goal keeper for Team Foreigner, made up of myself and English friends of mine (including the guy who has the cottage).

I arrived in late morning on one of these little Mr. Rogers-like country trains they have in Czech, which was even more ramshackle and filled with smelly fatsos than usual:

Note that Horka is officially called Horka II, to differentiate it from another Horka which is right near by. This is a treacherous aspect of Czech villages– they often tend to repeat the same names over again and over again. At my wedding, my headstrong friend jumped in his car, set his GPS to the name of the village where the wedding was taking place and zoomed off several hours in the wrong direction to a town with the identical name on the other side of the country. With my best man’s suit in the trunk of his car. Anyway, I digress…

Our competition for the event was Team Village Lie-Abouts, composed of random Horka guys, and Team Of Cops From Neighboring Zruč, who dazzled all with their smart striped uniforms:

I have a feeling it was probably a good day to go on a crime spree in Zruč.

From an anthropological point of view, every genus of Czech village male was on display, including Big Mustache Man and Fearsome Mullet Man. The latter was particularly impressive in this instance– a vast, billowing specimen whom we nicknamed The Horka Maradona. Or just The Horkadona, for short:

Despite the blazing heat and a scarcity of players (this is why there are no good pictures of the action– everyone was either pressed into service or slumped over in exhaustion on the sideline), we managed to beat the team of local village guys before falling to the Zruč cops in the de facto final. Here’s our captain accepting a tiny little plastic cup in honor of our second-place finish:

Once it became known that there was an American playing goal, this became a source of great amusement to all of the Czech guys there who referred to me as ‘The American!’ for the rest of the day. I think it was funny to them in a sort of Cool Runnings way, like ‘Look at those silly Jamaicans trying to ride a bobsled.’ I didn’t embarrass myself too much, though, and was asked to join in a casual scrimmage after the official matches, which meant another 90 min or so of standing in the blasting afternoon sun.

Anyway, once the games were over and the awards were handed out, the afternoon ended in the way that all things end in Czech villages:

Fittingly, the Horkadona manned the grill, and produced some excellent sausages:

Drinking with Czechs

Last night, I went for beers with colleagues from my first, bad job in Prague (an agency that spat out an endless supply of banner ads and sitelets for Vodafone– my co-workers were really nice, but the work was shallow and boring). When I started this first job, I was naturally curious about the drinking habits of my Slavic colleagues, and especially about a certain workplace convention– previously unknown to me– called ‘shots in the office’. Back in the US, I worked at a few places that contrivedly attempted to let their hair down on Fridays and have would beers in the office as the weekend approached, but hard liquor was another story altogether. At this first Czech job, in contrast, I’d be intently hunched over my computer attempting to meet an end-of-day deadline for some inane Vodafone thing when I’d feel a discreet tap on my shoulder, turn around and see Jirka or Lenka or Pavel making the international ‘let’s have a shot’ motion. A bunch of us would scurry into the conference room, where somebody would produce a bottle of slivovice (plum schnapps). Everyone would toast and down a small shot, then busily run back to their battle stations to resume working. Lest this sound too primitive and iron-curtain-ish, I should add that these co-workers were distinctly up-and-coming-professional types– hardly anyone in the office smoked cigarettes, and the general office atmosphere was very trendy and hip in manner of ad agencies everywhere.

Last night, we met at a bar called U Zlatého Tygru (‘At the Golden Tiger’) that’s one of the most representative classic old fashioned Czech bars. The moment I walked in, I thought, “I wonder if this is the bar that Václav Havel famously took Bill Clinton to?”. Soon enough, I was informed that it in fact was the very bar. I would tell you more about the place, but it was hard to see with water gushing out of my eyes from the 50 cartons of cigarette smoke floating around in the air. Rest assured that I was having as good a time as Bill is enjoying in the photo above. I wonder who the guy on the left is– trusted Havel advisor, or random barfly? I wonder what kind of Czech bar food they ate (probably something hideous, given the year). I wonder if Bill remembered to order some wiener schnitzel to go for Monica (heh heh).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before here and here, Czechs sure do love their old fashioned bars. There are few places where anyone feels inclined to try to look or act cool– generally, a kind of relaxed slobbery prevails. As evidence, I present this handsome specimen whom I photographed a few years ago at the spot around the corner from my current job (on a Friday evening, no less– one can only assume that this was his special ‘going out’ outfit):


Apologies for the oh-so-crappy image quality. These are actually photos (taken with my iPhone) of photos of a Czech festival called Majáles that my wife’s father showed us while we were visiting him in Karlovy Vary. I guess these are from the late 1950s, although I didn’t ask. That’s him among the ladies, dressed– ahem– in blackface. And again:

Majáles was a student celebration that took on political undertones through the 1960s and directly led to the demise of the Novotný presidency in favor of the liberal reformer Dubček (which, in turn, led to the Big Depressing Thing That Happened In 1968, i.e. the Russian invasion and subsequent smack-down). Basically, it looks to me like a genteel predecessor of the Love Parade, minus the stampedes.

While poking around for more information on Majáles, I came across this excellent footage from the 1965 parade (the one that helped do in Novotný), in which Allen Ginsberg somehow materializes and is crowned king of the event. Ginsberg brags about this in the Dylan documentary No Direction Home, but I’d never known exactly what he was talking about before. Now, normally, I find Allen Ginsberg the second-most annoying person alive after Ray Manzarek, but you have to hand it to him here…

This clip is one of the best pieces of footage I’ve seen from the old days in Prague– in fact, I’m going to link to it again, because I think you’ll enjoy it. Watching it, you just can see the wheels starting to fall off hardline Czech socialism: the parade maintains a fig leaf of kitschy medievalism (this being the mode of public celebration approved of by the government), but underneath there’s a scarcely-concealed roiling undercurrent of hippie liberalism. It’s so nascently hippie, you can practically imagine Os Mutantes suddenly taking the stage. In this sense, its sad to watch, too, as you can sense the coming inevitability: if you were the USSR, you would have invaded this debauched satellite state too.

Columbian Magic and other secrets of the stone house

This weekend, the wife and I drove to a village in the the north of Czech for a confab of friends with small children. Here are some of the highlights from Saturday:

Approx. 1:00pm: Wife driving, me sitting in passenger seat. Wife mentions that our hosts for the weekend (whom we’ve never met before) are a family named Vitek, Lubmila and baby Josefina. Sometimes Czechs have weird names.

Approx 1:15pm: Wife and I discuss a friend of hers who apparently cannot wrap her head around the fact that I do not know how to drive stick and never owned a car prior to 2009. Friend has repeatedly asked if I have some sort of condition or chemical balance that prevents me from getting behind the wheel. We resolve that I will act in a highly erratic manner next time we spend time with her.

Approx 1:30pm: Start to drift off to sleep in passenger seat and enter that phase between sleep and wakefulness where you start to have strange, disconnected thoughts. In this state, I realize that as you pass through the membrane into sleep, your thoughts suddenly extrude into three dimensional shapes, like soap bubbles being blown. The shapes are filled with ideas that look like sparkly glitter, which were actually shapes back in the awake world. So: when you fall asleep, ideas become shapes and shapes become ideas. Got that? Good.

Approx. 2:15: We arrive at our destination, which is an awesomely dilapidated stone house owned by the family with the weird names. The outside looks like this…

The inside, meanwhile, is full of the kind of grandeur-fading-and-crumbing-into-ruin that never fails to excite visiting rootless American bloggers. Check out the photo at the top of the post, for example: that was the ceiling of a room where I helped Vitek set up an ornate Romanian bed that lacked any matching parts and apparently turned out to be murderously uncomfortable for the people who slept in it.

Also included on this floor were Mamby-pamby Baroque Piano, No Face Jesus and Mary, and Giant Picture Frame With Nothing In It:

Right after arriving, we get the grand tour of the place, which took a solid half hour and also included…

Approx: 2:50pm: … on the third floor, a working toilet, finally! Except its not really a toilet, it’s more like an outhouse that’s indoors. And painted an inviting shade of pink:

If you open the hatch and look down, there’s what appears to be a bottomless pit. Sort of like an oubliette. Let’s move on…

Approx 2:52pm: our tour takes us to a quasi-secret room, which contains a super ornante wood burning stove. Inscribed in curiously Haight-Ashbury-type lettering (and in English, no less) is ‘Columbian Magic’:

If I had to guess at gun point what ‘Columbian Magic’ is and had a hundred guesses, I would still never guess ‘wood burning stove’.

In conclusion: when you factor in the crazy surroundings and the fact that our hosts were more than a little Ren Fair-ish, the weekend probably more closely resembled a Scooby Doo episode than anything else I’ve ever experienced.