You Can’t Go Home Again

On Nov 30, 2001 I finished my first NaNoWriMo effort sitting at Callahan’s, a brew pub in my neighborhood, with minutes to spare. Callahan’s occupied a spot in a little mall that had previously housed Reno’s Cafe d’Italia, a little family restaurant I worked at for two weeks. Callahan’s was better. I was already fairly regular there (they were close to my workplace) when, soon after they opened, brewing equipment started showing up. At the time, there were no other brew pubs in San Diego.

They got the brewery up and running, and after a shaky start while they refined the recipes and got the quality under control, things started to go well. Bernardo Bitter was my favorite, but in the early days it was awful as often as it was awesome. Apparently that brew used a special yeast that was, in brewing terminology, “a little bitch”. But finally they got the yeast under control, and people found the place buried deep in the mall, and all was well.

By 2001, Callahan’s had annexed the next business over and expanded their dining area. The move frightened me, because many restaurants fail when they try to grow and end up ruining what they have.

By the time I was laying the keel of The Monster Within during a later NaNoWriMo, Callahan’s had moved across the street to a larger, more accessible space that had come into this world as a Tony Roma’s rib joint. There was a large mirror on one wall, emblazoned with the logo of Bass ale. I was looking for a name, and in Monster you will find Master Bass.

But people don’t go to bars for alcohol. Alcohol is much cheaper at the liquor store. (Bad Bobby, a friend from another bar and a teacher at Bartending Academy pointed out this obvious truth to me.) People go to bars to take alcohol with friends. Lacking friends, patrons turn to the staff. I had a lot of friends on the Callahan’s staff.

I won’t try to list them all, but there are two I have to mention.

Travis. A really smart guy, well-read, articulate. We weren’t tight, not at all, but in a lot of ways I wanted to be Travis. He felt things strongly, and could explain why.

Rose. My favorite bartender. I have laughingly told many other bartenders that they are my second-favorite, but there is only one at the top. “Rose, you rock,” I would say each night as I left. If she was busy I would point to her and raise my fist. “Am I in your story?” she would ask. Spiritually, she was in many of my stories, but it wasn’t until Worst Enemy, a later NaNoWriMo effort, that I put her quite directly into a story. I’ve never done that for anyone else.

I also never told her about that one. By then I was a nomad.

Occasionally I would pass back through San Diego, and I would visit my friends at Callahan’s. Fewer and fewer of the staff would recognize me, but the faces I missed the most were still there.

Although it has been a long time, and I knew that it was not realistic, I thought that if I walked into Callahan’s today there would still be connections for me.

But Callahan’s, apparently, is gone. No longer can I entertain the thought that I will meet any of my friends, both the staff and the regulars I used to sit next to, ever again.

Bill, Linda, Darlene, Joe, Debbie, Malcom, and all of you, it was a good time. Travis, I know you’re all right.

Rose, you rock.

3

Why Mazda Should Pay Me To Go On Road Trips

Actually, this episode is here to allow me to play with different gallery plugins for WordPress. There are quite a few and so what happens when you click one of the thumbnails below may change dramatically at any moment.

For test photos I went back through my archives and grabbed a few with a common theme, which turned out to be pictures of the Miata during my epic road trip. Hey, Mazda? If you’re watching, I can sell the Miata lifestyle for you, this time with a redhead in the passenger seat. The open road. The byways of North America. People. Adventure. Wind. Freedom. Marketing gold, baby.

Progress Update: A couple of the lightbox options look pretty sweet, but there are none that I found with an option to fit the images to the user’s browser window. Strange. I looked at the source code for one of them and it even uses the size of the page in some calculations. Still, I like letting people see the full-size versions of the images without leaving and having to click the back button, so some type of lightbox plugin will likely remain.

1

I’ll always remember What’s Her Name.

The guy who runs the little café near home is, by all accounts, a jerk. There’s been some turnover in the staff lately, but when I came back from the mini road trip I found the owner’s girlfriend long gone and in her place there was What’s Her Name. I’ve mentioned her before. I have, in my day, exchanged words with more than a couple of bartenders, and often the connection is an illusion constructed to enhance tips, but around here there are no tips.

She looked over my shoulder as I practiced my Czech, something I was awkward with at first, but I quickly got used to. She was practicing her English at the same time, and her advice and expansions were welcome. Somewhere around the time I managed to pronounce Kristina and Kristyna differently, I knew we had become friends. Apparently most people who share What’s Her Name’s name have given up on the distinction. She’s Moravian, though, and they like to get things right. Apparently her speech was a little too formal for the crowd here. That’s the way she tells it, anyway; she never felt welcome.

Under the incandescent light of the bar she was not what you might term a classic beauty. Whatever that means. There is the beauty her boyfriend has captured with his camera, and let me just tell you, hoo-dang somewhere between the eyes and the lips, with a side order of wild hair, I’m sold on the photographs. Wow.

But my What’s-Her-Name is not the beautiful, passionate woman in the photos. Those photos remind me of just how much I’m not an artist. I see them and I know I’m just a hack, some guy spewing words, and I’ll never be able to match that expression in that photograph, the one when she’s looking straight into the camera and there’s only one word (the other 999 unnecessary) and that word is yes.

She is leaving now. She’s worried that her boss is going to rip her off on the way out the door, but overall glad she won’t be working for him anymore. It’s a pity. She had an almost American-style friendliness, and she responded well to my American-style humor. Now, she will join the legion of bartenders I’ve met, connected with, only to have one of us (usually me, given my wandering ways) move on.

Will I see her again? That’s a tricky thing, isn’t it?

Happy Road Trip Day!

I sit now at Cheap Beer Place, sipping not-so-cheap tea, pondering doing something that could be interpreted as productive before the hokej play-off game starts. (Interestingly, Czech for “play-off” is play off. You’d think they would have grown their own word for it in the centuries before the ubitiquization of English.)

It was a good Road Trip Eve celebration last night, going long past the traditional midnight toast. At one point in the festivities I found lined up on the table in front of me beer, whiskey, and slivovice, and I knew that some brain cells weren’t going to live to see another sunrise. Today, as the survivors grow accustomed to having a little extra elbow-room, thoughts are moving slowly and wandering off course, like a sloth with attention deficit disorder.

It’s the kind of day televised sports was invented for. Today the Beers play Slavia. The Beers are down in the series one game to two, so this one’s important for the team to continue their cinderella run for the championship. This is their first trip to the semifinals since 1951. Go Beers!

Road Trip Eve

Yes, tomorrow is Road Trip Day, the day we commemorate the beginning of Jer’s Homeless Tour — the epic journey fabled in legend and song, which began two years ago tomorrow. This year, since Road Trip Eve falls on the weekend, the celebrations promise to be even bigger than usual. Here in Prague, fuego and MaK are taking advantage of the fact that this is the one social occasion of the year that I cannot shirk, and they’re throwing a bash. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by!

For those new to the ranks of the muddled, April 2th, 2004, was the day the sale of my house in San Diego closed. I spent the night before that first day at Callahan’s, sitting at the bar, talking to Rose. I was watching the clock, and when midnight rolled by I said, “Wish me happy birthday.” Purely by coincidence, the first road trip day was also my fortieth birthday.

That afternoon, big chunk of cash confirmed, I packed up all the stuff I could fit into the Miata and drove away to look at the US for “two or three weeks” before moving to Prague.

Late that night found me in a little beach town in central California, hanging with friends, sipping good wine and eating good food, tapping out my first blog entry from the road. In two weeks I had made it as far as San Jose, and week three saw me (if recollection serves – sticklers for the truth can go look it up) at Lake Tahoe. Not really that close to Prague. Weeks passed, miles rolled by. Months snuck through there somehow as I trundled around North America, hanging with old friends, reconnecting with family members, falling in love with pretty bartenders, thinking, and writing. It was me, in my ideal environment: ample solitude, new places, new adventures, old friends.

Hopefully I can get back out there again someday — ideally as a book tour, but you have to publish a book first for that to make sense. It would be fun to have book signings in all the bars I wrote in along the way. Fun but not terribly profitable; I have been forgotten in most of those places by now, and the clientele in many of those places didn’t strike me as particularly bookish.

So wherever you are tonight, at a quiet little private celebration or the giant beerfest in Times Square, the tribal dances on the plains of the Serengeti or the wild street parties of Rio de Janeiro, mark moment with a toast and make your first words of the new year “elevator ocelot rutabaga.” It’s good luck.

The soul-sucking power of Stuff

I have met many people who are owned by their possessions. I married one. (Before you get too carried away figuring names, you should know I’ve been married twice.) I watched the spirit be enslaved by atoms and I vowed not to fall under the same spell.

If you saw how much crap I have in storage, you’d know just how well I have done. In my defense, I gave away furniture, books, bags and bags of clothes, and anything else I could bear to unload. On an American scale, I chucked it in. I consider what is left the seed for the next home I own. Yeah, I know I’m rationalizing.

But there’s one thing, one physical object that I really should shed. Atoms. A machine. A car.

I sit here in Prague and extol the virtues of public transportation while clinging to a two-seater sports car. You have to cut me some slack; I crossed continents in that car, saw things, met folks, almost slid off the road and off a cliff in a Canadian hailstorm. And this is how things come to own you. They become containers of memories. Symbols.

Some are symbols of wealth or power; the Rolex doesn’t do much for me. The beautiful sports car that is too valuable to drive, I can do without. Some things are symbols of accomplishments of other sorts – having the largest collection of bobblehead dolls on the Eastern Seaboard requires a great deal of dedication, but in the end, I’ll pass.

There is the One Treasured Thing. Here is a sort of material possession (possession is a verb there) that I can appreciate. I envy people the One Treasured Thing. It is an item of such deep personal significance that it passes beyond symbolism and becomes identity. It is part of who you are. The One Treasured Thing is much more than a simple thing.

The test: I could always buy another car. Therefore it is not a One Treasured Thing. But still I am reluctant to let go. Someday, I conceitedly imagine, that road trip I took in that car will inform the next great American road story, and that particular car will become an American icon. I am perfectly aware how ridiculous that conceit is, but to deny it would be to devalue my one work under way that might actually qualify as literature.

In Prince George, British Columbia, I was waiting at a traffic light, top down to the Canadian summer, car packed to the gills. The guy in the next lane towered over me, and looked down into my packed-full little car. “You need a truck,” he said.

“No, I need less crap,” I wish I answered.

I don’t need a car, I need to believe. And so a thing has become symbolic, unreasonably so, and it has trapped me.

End of the Road

Location: 37,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean
Miles: That particular bit of information is currently buried in the baggage compartment

There are different kinds of road stories, I suppose. The good ones have some kind of transformation take place in the course of the narrative – perhaps the driver has gained some insight into his nature or the nature of the world around him. Occasionally they even get where they’re going. I imagine, compared to actual literature, that this narrative is one of those where you’re getting close to the end but there’s no real end in sight. As you read along you start to realize that there aren’t many pages left, and barring a jarring deus ex machina or a mighty epiphany (“Flossing is the answer!”) you’re going to be pretty pissed off when you get to the end of the book.

On the penultimate page our hero is hurtling across the heartland, thinking deep thoughts. You turn the page, and it just says, “And then he stopped.” You blink at the sentence, feeling gypped. “That’s it?” you ask the book, but the book just sits there, ignoring your ire. “And then he stopped.”

You think back over the stories within the narrative, looking for something you might have missed the first time. Sure, the individual bits are occasionally interesting, but what do they add up to? Is there a motion, a progression of any sort? Is there a grander metaphor? What if the road is life, the car is the soul, and the destination is death? That sounds poetic enough, but then what does “And then he stopped” mean in that context?

And then I stopped.

Not that I ever expected to find anything out on the road beyond a few stories to tell, which will probably make me insufferable in conversations for a while. (“That reminds me of when I was Calgary during the Stanley cup…” Oh, yeah. It’s not going to be pretty.)

The only thing more annoying about getting to the end of a book only to find it doesn’t end is discovering that there’s a sequel and nobody told you. You have to buy a whole nother stinkin book to see what happens next. But what if it doesn’t end there? How many volumes will you buy before you just throw your hands up in disgust?

And then I stopped, and got on a plane to Prague.

To be continued…