Farewell, Blind Eye

I forgot to write anything about what I did on my birthday last Saturday. First, we got a babysitter, which was great… and unchartered territory for us. We’ve had family members look after the little guy from time to time, but this was our first hired mercenary. I’ll tell you, you haven’t truly felt like a grown-up until the first time you pull out your wallet to ‘pay the babysitter’.

Then, after dinner, we went to the closing party for the Blind Eye, the one and only real Mission-style dive bar in Prague. Just about every other bar in this city either involves sullen Czechs sitting at tables being served beer in formulaic fashion… or rampant tourist buffoonery… plus there are a few weird meat-market places for professional types in their 30s that I’ve only gotten a fleeting glimpse of. The Blind Eye was about the only place where people would drunkenly mill around and mix; the bathroom door’s broken; there’s no light in there so you have to leave the door ajar a bit to do your business; but you’re afraid to see what’s on the floor so you don’t want to open it too much, etc– you know the drill. My friend was so enamored of the place that when he wrote a manuscript loosely based on his own debauched experiences in this Zizkov neighborhood, the action partly centered around a  thinly-veiled bar called ‘The Other Cheek.’

The Blind Eye officially closed two weeks earlier with a farewell party that I missed because I was in Berlin. In the annals of ‘Wow, that didn’t take long’, though, they predictably re-opened for  ‘one final night’ to raise funds for some future incarnation of the bar at a new location. You could tell things were really on their last legs when they ran out of beer at 2am. It seems that my Berlin buddy and I got the last two ever served beer in that fine establishment, which is a nice closing note.

(Photo: Kristýna Holubová, stolen from her Facebook album)

Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld

I haven’t been to many places as gloriously stereotype-affirming as the Austrian Alps, where we just spent a week’s vacation. Whether you’re standing on the side of a mountain and picking wild blueberries and reaching behind your head to feed them to your infant son on your back (did this), or being hailed by every single person you pass in the village with a diminutive ‘kruste!’, or watching a lederhosen-clad band pump out polka in a giant tent (more on this in a second), everything feels predictably ‘in character’ a fun, reaffirming way. I like this photo that I took above, as — not unlike Herbert Matter’s famous tourist poster for the Swiss Alps— it seems to capture the essence of the place on three distinct spatial depths, background (Alps), mid-ground (kitschily tricked-out house), and foreground (guy with green hat, feather).

One of the most fun things we did was crash a music festival at a neighboring village– when we heard ‘Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld’, our ears perked up and we had to go. Pulling into the village of Längenfeld, the first thing I spotted was a car parked next to us with a couple of traditional costume elements (perhaps a backup supply?) tossed carelessly in the back:

For some reason, this amused me to no end. We’ve all heard of Soccer Moms… could this signal the presence of a new demographic, the Lederhosen Mom? Sorry for the crummy, glare-riddled photo, but I was worried that the owners of the car might notice me peering in and take offense, possibly leading to me being viciously feather-whipped by a gang of Lederhosers in the mean streets of Längenfeld.

Anyway, we followed the honking sounds of revelry to a giant circus tent that was filled all the things you might expect: beer, bodices, ruddy-faced people having a great time:

The main attraction was the smooth polka stylings of local village ensemble. Here they are in poster format…

… and in the flesh:

Various brave/drunk souls offered their talents as vocalists. At one point, this guy jumped on the table in front of us and began singing into a wireless mic, to my one year-old son’s great delectation:

Back when I was about 12 years old and used to watch pro wrestling on TV sometimes, there was a villainous bald East German character who (if I remember correctly) had ‘Baron’ and ‘Von’ in his name and would goose-step around the stage and put opponents in some sort of three-fingered claw grip. I can’t remember his name, but I swear he’s the spitting image of this guy.

A few minutes later, my wife caught this surreptitious exchange between obliging fellow and thirsty lass:

I think those kegs are only intended to be worn by rescue dogs, but never mind. As you can see, a good time was being had by all, and love was in the air:

I’m off to Berlin this weekend, so perhaps I can report on a more jaded, urban, sophisticated, cynical, hipsterish aspect of the German/Austrian character when I get back.


[ed note: this week, I’m back visiting my old haunts in San Francisco]

Whenever I’m back visiting, it strikes me that one way to think about the Mission is: if there’s a platonic ideal of the Person Who Lives In the Mission, that person is 28. Most everyone I see who’s younger than 28 has adopted an air of being a bit older, while my friends (all of whom are now older than 28) go to great measures– sometimes desperate– to manifest a sense of youthfulness. 28 seems to be the spiritual age that everyone’s trying to converge on.

I always remember, too, that the years when I was about 27-29 were the years when I was least conscious of being any particular age, which generally signals that you’re in a good place vis-a-vis your surroundings.

How to apologize in public

During my month-long vacation in the U.S., one of my pleasure reads was Chuck Klosterman’s Eating The Dinosaur. This was the first Klosterman book I’ve read and I found it highly digestible and somewhat addictive, finishing it in three quick sittings over two days. After an excellent essay on Ralph Sampson, my other favorite bit was a short section that felt like an interstitial joke where he prints a series of public apologies from various high-profile celebrities for various inane misdeeds without any contextualization at all. For example, here’s Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants wide receiver who accidentally shot himself in the leg with an unlicensed gun he was carrying in a nightclub:

First of all, you people probably don’t know anyone who’s been shot. I, however, know lots of people who’ve been shot. I know lots of people who claim they want to shoot me, and some of those people are technically my friends. So that’s why I carry a gun. Second, you people probably trust the government, and you probably trust it because your personal experience with law enforcement has been positive. I’ve had the opposite experience all my life. I’m afraid of the government. I’m afraid of the world, and you can’t give me one valid reason why I shouldn’t be. So that’s why I did not apply for a gun license. Third, I shot myself in the leg, which is both painful and humiliating. What else do I need to go through in order to satiate your desire to see me chastised? The penalty for carrying an unlicensed weapon is insane. How can carrying an unlicensed firearm be worse than firing a licensed one? I broke the law, but the law I broke is a bad law. Would you be satisfied if the penalty for unlawful gun possession was getting shot in the leg? Because that already fucking happened!

This is awesomely looney and yet strangely persuasive at the same time, right? The section as a whole is kind of silly, but it also plugs into some larger, recurring themes. Like David Foster Wallace, Klosterman seems to worry a lot about the idea that it’s almost impossible nowadays to relate to other people in an honest and unselfconscious way. Fame and celebrity therefore naturally come up in his writing a lot as nothing involves more examples of people acting in a dishonest, calculating fashion towards one another. Klosterman seems to say that there’s something inherently really screwed up about any dynamic where one person is being observed by either an individual or public that doesn’t actually know the person in question. The asymmetric nature of the observation leads to all sorts of bizarre assumptions, expectations and distortions that eventually result in the convoluted spectacle of one person ‘apologizing’ to a group of people whom he or she doesn’t know from adam.

Eating The Dinosaur is a great read– given the choice, there’s only one thing I would change about the book if I could, and that would be to add the public apology of German artist Jörg Immendorff to this section, as I think it’s the greatest such ‘apology’ I’ve ever heard about.

Immendorff was one of the most successful post-War German painters, an artist who had practically become the patron artist of the city of Dusseldorf by the early 2000s (I only know about this story because I happened to be traveling in Dusseldorf in 2003 right after it happened and was told about it by friends who lived there). He even designed Dusseldorf’s Monkey Island, a kind of tiki beer garden island in the middle of the city that exemplifies the phony exoticism beloved by Germans (the music of Manu Chao being another such instance). Immendorff had also drawn some attention for marrying a model 30 years his younger who looks more or less like Kobe Bryant’s wife.

Then, in 2003, the 57 year old was caught in a hotel with a bunch of cocaine and seven prostitutes. Plus, four more prostitutes on the way. Scandalized, the citizenry of Dusseldorf demanded a public apology. Cantankerous and unrepentant, Immendorff released an awesomely defiant statement where he insisted that the matter was between him and his wife and nobody else’s business:

“My wife knows how much I love her. Sometimes I have to live out an Orientalism that has nothing to do with that.

As my friend likes to tell it, a tidal wave of ‘Orientalism’ naturally swept over the city of Dusseldorf on the heels of this kick-ass justification. It also provided a fine running joke for the rest of my stay there: ‘Who’s up for a little Orientalism?’ someone would ask when it was time to go hit the town in the evening. I only hope I have the presence of mind to invoke it as a cover for whatever debauched misdeed I might commit down the line.

Clichés in action

In addition to the Belmont pit stop described below, we also made it up and down the east coast during our just-completed month of traveling, making stops in upstate New York, Vermont, Vieques (small island off of Puerto Rico) and New York City.

One of the perks of sampling so many disparate places is all the little regional and situational clichés you run into on the way. A clueless-looking dude pulling off his boot in a ski lodge to find acute frostbite covering his foot (we happened to be watching his foot and his facial expression at the exact moment of discovery). A flight to San Juan nearly postponed on account of volcanic ash. Hassidic Jews tromping around mid-town Manhattan. A flight in a tiny 10-seater plane where we taxied by an iguana sunning itself on the runway.

Things came to a head, cliche-wise, at 6am on our first morning in Vieques. Imagine: we’ve gotten up at 5am the previous morning and taken two planes with my mom and 7 month-old baby to get to the island from Boston, so we’re really, really tired and desperate to catch up on sleep. At 6am, we’re woken bolt-upright in bed by blasting, cheesy Latin pop music that seems to be coming out of the heavens. It’s so loud that you can’t even identify a directional source of the sound– it just seems to be emanating out of the air particles around our heads.

Realizing that kiddo is not going to sleep through this onslaught, and that our prospective morning of sleeping in is dashed, I decide to throw on some clothes and at least make a grumpy harrumph of it. Stomping out into the bright Carribean morning sunshine, I make a wrong turn before correctly identifying the direction of the noise and setting off across a small field towards it. At one point, I look back over my shoulder and see that I’ve been joined by an irate comrade-in-arms, a shirtless, insanely-disheveled-and-outraged-looking guy. He looks strangely like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Morton Downey Jr. Finally, I cross the field and near a road where I am presented with the source of The Din and the following sight: about 20 guys neatly lined up on horseback, wearing sort of festive, tricked-out ranch wear. A kind of self-appointed inspector guy is making his way up and down the line, checking out everyone. A truck sits in front of them with a couple heavy-set women bouncing up and down next to giant speakers – the kind you see used for outdoor concerts– that are playing the music.

Of course, it turns out to be impossible to communicate anything in words once you get that close to a loudspeaker truck, much less in Spanish. After lots of irate hand-gestures, I eventually turn around and huff back to our guesthouse, satisfied at least to see that a veritable lynch mob of angry villagers has started to form behind me. At breakfast (served outdoors by the pool), The Din is the hot topic, with one of the guesthouse staff commenting off-handedly that the malefactors were probably just ‘some really drunk guys’. ‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ I find myself saying. ‘They looked really, really organized, actually.” We never were able to figure out what the whole thing was about, although it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with 3 Kings Day, which happened a few days later and apparently is a big deal there.

This is the point where the blog entry veers sharply into insensitive ethnic generalizations… but: I haven’t experienced such an insane, nuisance-y episode of noise-making since, oh… the 10 years that I lived in the Mission District. Once I arrived in Prague, it felt disorienting to actually experience REM sleep, as though I’d been skidding over the surface of it during a decade spent with street noisy and crappy single-ply windows in SF. One morning in particular, shortly before I left SF for Prague, I was woken up at 8am on a blazing hot Saturday by a bunch of drunken guys congregated on the sidewalk outside with a guitar, literally doing the ‘Aye, aye, aye-yi … aye yi, yi aye-yi‘ song. Fuming, I decided to retaliate by filling a garbage pail full of water and dumping it on them from the roof, in much the same way as you train a cat not to jump on a table by flicking water at it.

There’s a big difference between thinking about doing something like this and actually peeling yourself out of bed to do it, but a few minutes later I actually got to the top of the stairs lugging a several gallons of water behind me. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbor was also there, meditating in a cross-legged position and chanting. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to push by him and nonchalantly hurl a trash bin full of water onto people below while he was trying to tap into his inner center. So, I made my egress, feeling thwarted (common theme in these two stories, I guess). It struck me as a specifically ‘San Francisco’ kind of quandary: trapped between drunken noisemakers on one side and chanted Ohm Shanti Shantis on the other.

(Photo: world’s dinkiest baggage carousel at Vieques airport).

Sinister Minister

My wife, baby kid and I have been on the road for nearly a month now and are flying back to Prague this evening. Currently, we’re holed  up in my hometown of Belmont, MA, a town which – despite its close proximity to Boston – was once declared ‘Region’s Most Boring Town’ in a Boston Globe headline that I gleefully clipped out of the paper’s metro region section as a spiteful teenager. Belmont is so boring that, until recently, there was a law forbidding the sale of any booze within the teeny town confines, but that’s a blog rant for another day…

One of the poignant aspects of being home is all the Beavis-and-Butthead-type memories from junior high years that had nearly vanished from memory but come flooding back once I walk around the old neighborhood. This being my first trip back as a parent, these incidents somehow seem all the more comically juvenile and parochial in juxtaposition with my current ‘mature’ state.

Case in point: a few days ago, I walked by the bus stop where I used to idle away interminable periods waiting for the bus to come take me to more enlightened, boozing neighboring places like Cambridge and Boston. The site of the old bus stop immediately brought back a blazing hot summer day in 1989 or so when I was waiting around and spotted a big fat debauched-looking metalhead guy crossing the street with a brown paper bag under his arm and a weird dazed-yet-exalted expression on his face. ‘Hey, man,’ he cheerfully regaled me from halfway across the street. “What town is this?

Always a good sign, I think as I yell back “Belmont!”

“Belmont,” he says, wincing slightly. “Last thing I remember, I was drinking at the Aku-Aku last night and musta blacked out…”

The Aku-Aku was an incredibly depressing-looking tiki bar located in cement mall in a corner of Cambridge near the Belmont border. It had a spinning plastic sign picturing the Easter Island statues that people had thrown innumerable rocks through. The Aku-Aku figures prominently in Caroline Knapp’s tell-all memoir of her years as a Boston-dwelling alcoholic, Drinking, A Love Story.

“… Next thing I know,” continues the metalhead, “I wake up and some fat bitch is on top of me, going… (mimes coitus)… so I said, (with great vigor:) ‘Get the fuck off me, give me some beer, some money and some sandwiches!'” At this point, he happily flashes open his paper bag to show me some  beer and sandwiches lurking inside.

I spend a few minutes talking to this jolly reveler while we wait for the bus, eventually getting onto the subject of music and the Boston-area punk/metal band Bullet Lavolta in particular. He mentions being a big fan as well, and adds that they’ve had a big influence on his band. “Oh, what are you guys called?” I ask. “Sinister Minister,” he answers with great delectation.

At the time, this little meeting provided a much-appreciated rebuttal to the notion (apparently supported by Globe reportage) that nothing of interest EVER happened in this neighborhood. For a while, I would wait for the bus and look at the houses across the street, wondering where this sandwich-and-beer-dispensing seductress might live.

(Photo: corners of Belmont and Grove streets. Above-described incident happened in the left-hand corner of this scene).