Good Morning Baltimore: Please Don't Hurt Me

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

Me and seven other bartenders from Massachusetts drove down to Louisville, KY this past weekend, to learn up, purchase, and taste a bunch of Kentucky's Finest Bourbon.  It was a whirlwind trip.  We left Sunday midday for Baltimore, where we planned to visit a "sister" bar for the night before waking up the next morning for a straight shot through West Virginia to bluegrass country.

After the 8 or 9 hour drive into Baltimore, we quickly dumped our gear at the hotel, and walked the two blocks up the street to Alewife: The Bar.  Here is a quick bartender tip.  After being trapped in a dude flavored van for any lengthy period of time, beer tastes amazing.  I would go so far as to say transcendent. Something about the beer not tasting like a combination of Doritos and boy-fart really wets the palate.   Down four beers and you can drown that palate into a submissive ecstasy.  Still fresh at the beginning of our journey, all of us walked toward that light of ecstasy. 

Things got jovial.  We ended up partying with a few bar owners, the staff, and a hammered beer importer. There were smiles flashing across the bar room and a cavalcade of delicious alcoholic beverages being passed around for tasting.  But, as the hours passed into the AM, the reality of the next morning's drive began to settle in. In order to be some form of human being in the van the next day, my friend Tom and I decided to walk home from the bar together about 45 minutes before the rest of our party.

Now here is where I tell you that I don't know Baltimore worth a damn.  I haven't even seen The Wire.  But from its reputation alone, I have heard many a tale of tough-streets, high crime, and if I were pressed to define the denizens of Baltimore into one stereotypical adjective, I would go with 'gritty'.  

As a rule, I generally believe all of these reputation-based judgements about a city to be completely full of donkey poop.  You can't reliably summarize an entire race, religion, or ethnicity, so it follows that you can't capture the essence of a cosmopolitan community with a compilation of news reports.  So, while I left the bar that night with a friend, I was not initiating any volitional buddy system.  But as we exited the bar and our feet hit the pavement, I was grateful Tom was there.  We were greeted by a flurry of blue and white lights stationed between us and our beds for the night.

I won't say the smattering of police cars and various other emergency vehicles sobered me up . . . but they certainly drew my focus back toward that line.  Tom and I took our first steps toward the hotel as we grappled to make sense of the conflagration in front of us.  There was a stretcher in the street.  That much was obvious.  Whoever was on that stretcher was not in good shape.  We scanned the area around the stretcher and blood spatterings were apparent all over the pavement around the medics.

As we inched closer, a young black couple came out of the building to our left.  While they aren't in a moving vehicle, they were most certainly and unabashedly rubber-necking.  "We heard gun shots!," the young lady proclaims.  They remark that despite Baltimore's tough reputation, this kinda thing doesn't happen that often.

That's what they all say.

Our lighthearted banter regarding the tragedy unfolding around us was interrupted by the yelling of young black man admonishing the police to do their jobs.  He screams, "That guy is shot, man.  Do your jobs.  Do your fucking jobs."  The man was so upset that he threw his cell phone to the pavement with full baseball-like force.  It shattered.  He screamed one last time as the white police men told him "I don't care about that.  I don't care about that."  The screaming man picked up the main piece of his cell phone and spiked it a second time on the pavement.

I definitely can't figure out exactly what's what and whose to blame.  I'm getting fragments of a conversation in the aftermath of a situation I wasn't present for.  While their words could be taken straight out of a bad cops TV show dealing with race relations, I'm far too removed, and terrified, to attempt to place blame in the moment.  

The problem we're having is that this crime scene is so expansive, that there really isn't any way for us to go around it.  I gather up all of my sense of white entitlement and walk toward the cops who are both in the middle of the street, and simultaneous a distance away from both the red pavement and the police interactions with the none to pleased public they are serving.  In what amounts to a 13-year-old Japanese girl version of my own English voice I ask the cop, "Excuse me officer, but which is the best way for my friend and I to proceed across the street."

I'm not sure the cop even looked at me.  That's not true.  The cop didn't look at me.  To him I was a piece of the backdrop, like any other building, parked car, or empty bag of potato chips on the sidewalk; Except I could talk.  "Over there," he quipped out the side of his mouth, pointing to the nearest opposite corner.  In honesty, I knew that was where we were headed, but I wanted to be damn sure I got the verbal go ahead before any sudden movements.

Mentally scarred, Tom and I arrived back at the hotel.  I sent a quick text off to the rest of our party to alert them to the fracas outside the bar.  Forty-five minutes later, the rest of our party comes walking down from a parallel street, which is crime scene adjacent.  We all meet in front of the hotel lobby and begin to exchange the details of what we just saw.   As we are convening, a woman from down by the street calls up to us to get our attention.  When we turn she yells, "Did you see that! Did you see that! That was my cousin.  My cousin.  He got shot 7 times! 7 times!"  She doesn't say by who and she doesn't even wait for a formal response.  She just keeps cruising down the street, obviously distressed.

The eight of us all looked at each other, those who were smoking dutifully extinguished their cigarettes, and we all quietly walked inside to the relative safety of our hotel.  And, after just 12 hours in the city, if pressed I'd still have to say that Baltimore was . . . gritty.  
Here is the extremely vague news report about the shooting. They say that one bullet grazed the back of a guy's head.  They don't, however,  mention where the other bullets ended up.

I Finally Get What All That Screaming's About

Monday, January 27, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

I know after the Grammys I'm supposed to write an article that drips in snark. These award shows are all virtual snarknados (though that may be a redundant turn of phrase).  People wore stuff, some of it looked like a child's paper snowflake cutout, and Ozzy definitely forgot who he was honoring and/or what band he most admired and/or where he was.  But there was also music, and that is really what the whole Grammy circle jerk is supposed to be about in the first place, so I figure it shouldn't be too out of line to have a musical revelation.

And when I say I had a 'revelation' I know that we are conditioned to think that I was somehow touched by an angel or magically transformed.  But the truth is that even large revelations come in small packages.  And while Kendrick Lamar blew my mind and I love always seeing Pharrell (and the Hogwart's Sorting Hat) smiling next to the winner, the final rock number is what caught my attention for some reason.

I should take a second to remind you all that I am not a "music person".  If I can't understand the lyrics or the volume is ear-scorchingly loud, the chances of me enjoying the track decrease exponentially.
But I also don't want to paint myself as some fuddy-duddy who only listens to Jack Johnson and calls Michael McDonald the King of Soul.

I listen to a range of genres, but when I feel lost musically, I actually seem to always find my way back through hip hop. Even if you get some bad hip hop, at least you can get down to it, and as a dancer, that's important to me.

Alternately, the musical offerings I tend to turn my dial away from are the screamers.  The, mostly guys, who you think might swallow the microphone whole because it's already jammed so far down their throat.  Sometimes it was hair metal, sometimes it was bad (aka. most) of the grunge movement, I just didn't understand what all the friggin yelling was about.

exhibit A
But tonight, for whatever reason, as the 15 or so rock soloists all lined up across the 100-yard stage to fill that theater with sound, I got it.  I got what all the screaming was about.  I think they are screaming their mortality.  And I realize I could be projecting, but I think that when they rock, the artists feel most attuned to that ineffable 'something greater'.  And in that appreciative moment of living, they are screaming the last words they would want the world to hear.  They are forcing those lyrics out of themselves with such velocity as to maximize the volume of their last rites, as dictated to you, in that moment.  In what could be the last moment.  They shout that loud because they aren't able to unhinge their jaws to swallow their audiences whole so that they might keep them safely stored for eternity inside their oft maligned stomachs.  As long as they can feel the vibration of their vocal chords burning through the thin skin of their throat, they must still be alive.

And sometimes I think they scream because when you're faced with the inevitability of your our impermanence, what the hell else are you supposed to do except wail until the seams on their face try to bust right open.

A Quarter for Your Thoughts

Thursday, January 16, 2014 | 3 Comment(s)

This past weekend, a new bar opened up about ten minutes away from our house.  As if out of one of my pre-pubescent dreams, the theme of this new establishment is a retro arcade.  The owners have hand picked a mixture of pinball machines, 80's classics, and cult hits.

Just some of their offerings
In preparation for my first visit to the bar aptly named Quarters (I am ecstatic to report that the name also applies to the cost of each game play, as many modern arcades have raised prices to between .50 and $1.00 a play), I ransacked my house to find any piles of loose change that I might cherry-pick for future game plays. By the time I pushed through the front door, I had about four dollars in quarters sitting in my pocket and a wallet that looked like I was headed straight to the strip club.

I went through that first four dollars pretty fast.  I tried out a few of the games I was less familiar with, and reacquainted myself with some old favorites.  Regardless, more quarters were needed to continue my trip down nostalgia lane.  As I made my way to the skinny rectangular machine I recognized as a change dispenser, I saw that this once familiar object had a new piece of hardware attached to it: A credit card swiper.

And a small plastic sign on which read one of the greatest short poems of this decade.

One swipe = $10 in Quarters

Have you ever read something as powerful and engaging as that in less syllables than are required in a Haiku? I think not.  And so, by god, I swiped.  And after a short mechanical pause, the drizzling rain of a quarter waterfall began collecting into the metal cup below.  With two hands I submerged my grubby little fists to haul in my full catch of coinage.  Into my sweatshirt pockets I piled metal wafer upon holy metal wafer until I walked away with pockets so laden that my top pockets sagged well below my waist.

I have never had 10 dollars of loose quarters, for spending, in my pockets before.  Never.  I was a three dollar max kinda kid at the arcade growing up (probably more my parents setting limits than any intrinsic motivation to stop).  I swear that when I felt the weight and jingle of those quarters, whatever fold in my brain stores adolescent wishes lit up like the eighth night of Hannukah. As if this change were somehow laced with MDMA, I attacked the machines with a renewed confidence, energy, and enthusiasm.  My pupils dilated as I took on board after board of the falling Centipede segments.

Centipede: NOT to be confused with Millipede!
Until finally, close to my departure, I got to fulfill another childhood fantasy.  Upon completion of a particularly good run against my many-footed arthropod opponent, the game requested the company of my initials.  I got a top score.  Well, sure, the bar has only been open less than a week.   And yes, I did manage to just unseat the lowest of the top scores.  But I'm taking it as a win.  Not only that, but I took this recent opportunity to change my "gaming initials" from the most accurate and traditional  MSZ, to the slightly more adult and self congratulatory DRZ.

As long as my dad or the pimple doctor that advertises in the NYC subway system don't come to town with a deep need to play Street Fighter, I can't imagine those letters will cause much of a hullabaloo.  Though, in my wildest dreams, I get good, like, "the Last Starfighter" good at one of these games, and put up an incredible #1 high score.   Not long after, a new young hotshot rides into town and attempts to unseat my high score on his or her favorite game.  Exasperated after days, nay, years of unsuccessful record attempts, this not-so-hotshot in a fit of helpless rage screams into the ether, "GOD DAMN YOU DR. ZZZZZZZZ!!!!!"

And in that moment, I win for all eternity.

Controlling Your Own Facebook Destiny: And other reasons not to accept that Friend Request

Monday, January 13, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

I spend a good amount of time on Facebook.  Probably too much.  Maybe way too much.

Annnnnd look.  I'm already getting off topic.  Sheesh. Let's get back to the point.  If you, like myself, spend a lot of time on Facebook, your reality gets shaped by what information you choose to let into your news feed.  And these seemingly inconsequential "Likes" of TV shows and various organizations can have a dramatic effect on your internal life.

Facebook is the new Hotel California
Let me give you an example.  A few month ago, a bunch of rare and delicious whiskeys were released into the open market.  Now I like bourbon.  I like it Ahh-lawwwt.  And in an effort to be on the ball about searching for and eventually finding said whiskeys, I joined two or four or six different bourbon groups on Facebook, both to educate myself and to stay abreast of any goings-on.

Almost instantly my feed was awash with beautiful bottles of bourbon; Some that I was looking for, some I will probably never meet in person.  There were also photos and tales of other bourbon hunters, pulling dusty 1940's era bottles from the recesses of some liquor store basement that had recently come under new management.  Salivating stuff. Engaging stuff.

It should come as no surprise to you, then, that for the next few months bourbon hunting became foremost on my mind. I wanted to have pictures of my own awesome finds to share with these groups.  Not to mention that, after perusing bottle after bottle of delicious brown honey, I was begging for a pour of my own by the end of the day.   Usually I'd be more than tempted to try a bunch of the different pours that I had read notes about throughout the course of that day.  In a very concrete way, joining those groups on Facebook informed my actions going forward.  And so, "expense account" emptied, I had to leave the vast majority of those bourbon connoisseur groups.  For my own good.

This Facebook reality is also a solid argument why you shouldn't "Friend" people you don't like.  I realize that you can hide their updates and pretty much ignore them while still technically "being their friend," but that kind of upkeep management takes a great deal of energy and vigilance.  Tiring.  And do any of us really remember to change the privacy settings for each individual 'friend'?  Not to mention the number of times Facebook changes its security and sharing guidelines.  It's almost as ubiquitous as iTunes' changes in its Terms of Service.  The overall point being that, no matter how computer literate you are, if you Friend someone you don't actually like, you will see/hear/be confronted with more of that-person relevant material from that point onward.  And while one nuisance don't really taint the News Feed waters, 20 or so non-Friends probably will.  Then you have the whole bourbon fiasco all over again, except this time the bottles are guys who picked on you growing up.

It isn't always a horrible thing to manipulate your News Feed.  Often, I think Facebook's current utilitarian function is more societally beneficial than its social networking side.  With a little arranging, you can turn Facebook into your "menu drawer", your "AAA/map drawer", and your  social calendar.  All of these things can exist independently of the friend-watching, fear-of-missing-out feeling, middle school lunchroom side of the same website.

Look.  I don't really care how you use Facebook.  And there is no penalty for having no interest in the site at all.  All I want to point out is that these seemingly benign clicks have direct and immediate real world implications.  If you want to control your reality, you gotta start with your New's Feed.

Learning to Breathe Overwater

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

What is the easiest thing in the world?

One could argue it's breathing.  A reaction so easy that if you forget about it, you body goes ahead and does it anyway.  Oh sure, you can control it.  In out in out in out in out.  A master of your breathtany.  Worse case scenario, you hyperventilate and get the buzz other people are abusing whipped cream bottles to partake in. 

And yet, for those of us with anxiety, sometimes breathing comes so damn hard.  

It's like a mini-insomnia.  Minsomnia.  Cause sleeping's so darn easy too.   But the second you start thinking about it, perseverating about about.  All of a sudden that cuddly house pet of a nightly routine is off and running like a feral cat.  Never to be caught again.  

It's like that, except with breathing.  

And I realize that this example is a vast oversimplification of a prolonged agony consisting of multiple independent realizations that I, lo and behold, am not breathing.  As in, not talking breaths.  So, naturally, I quickly resolve this respiratory clog by exhaling, but simultaneously the idea of "breathing" is brought to the forefront of my mind.  This rumination causes a series of purposeful, controlled breaths.   Following that, there are a few touch and go minutes of trying to forget about the mechanics of breathing, only to once again realize that I'm not breathing.  

Not talking breaths. 

In those pauses between cycles, of course, I additionally get to rest on the laurels of failing at an autonomic response.  So I try to distract myself.  Distractdistractdistractdistract . . . 

But eventually it always come back to my eyes on the page, and the clacking of happy finger-pads doesn't come without the clicking backbeat of my breath.  

I'm holding it again.  Crap.  Purposeful breath in.  Purposeful breath out.  

Eventually, when breathing begins to become a metaphor for breathing, I start to worry that maybe i am hyperventilating.  Maybe the buzz in my head is from a lack of oxygen but it tastes just like my tenuous mortality.  Breath in.  Breath in god damn it.  Keep breathing in.  

And now I'm inhaling the entirety of my existence.  I'm holding in all the hope and love and dreams for my future.  They're all mingling around in my lungs with this morning' s eye appointment and the touch football games we played during middle school recess.  I'm gulping in more air. The world's contents sucked between my teeth like a 49er panning for gold -- except in this case, everything is gold and my mouth is parched with the poverty of my inevitable mortality.  And my belly is growing from all this holding and taking, and gathering, and consuming and keeping safe. Keeping safe inside me.

But then I realize that I'm not breathing.  Not taking breaths.  

And in my waking dreams this is as far as I can go.   But when I'm asleep, I can exhale . . . 

My jaw has to unhinge for an exhalation as massive as throwing up your world.  The release is a one-way tornado of air and wind and feelings.  A concussive current carrying memories past my field of focus faster than I can recall them.  My childhood house dislodges from my esophagus and my belly's distention begins to relent.  Any moment I'm sure I'll feel the release.  

Release. Release. Release me. 

Any moment of release is interrupted by the recognition that while my body is empty, I am still exhaling.  Now, unfortunately, the projectiles I'm passing are green and black and worrisome.  Now it's cancer and loneliness and old age coating the objects that force my jaws open to make their exit over and over again.  Masses of panic, confusion, and fear seem to stick to the surface of my tongue.  And it continues like this until I'm past hollow and almost inside-out. 

Empty.  Like a bottle that has lost its ship, on display for everyone to gaze through.  

I thought it'd feel better.  The release. The release. The release.  

I thought it'd feel better than this.  I thought letting go was key.  Was the key.  But now, it seems, it is merely another repetitious stage in this ongoing cycle of breath.

It isn't about the out or the in, but rather the balance between them.  

I hate balance.  Like perspective, it's unreliable and amorphic and it is always manages to slip through my fingers just as I've got it nailed. It's the Magic Eye 3-D Art of the emotional world.  So you can imagine how pissed i am to realize that breathing, at its core, is the mastery of the fluid yin and yang of air's motion through my body, much more so than it is about statically keeping air inside or out of my body.

For most people, everyday breathing is like shooting fish in a barrel. For me, it is like stuffing that feral cat a mentioned earlier into the ship's now-vacated glass bottle.

Like this, but much less adorable.