Saturday, August 12, 2017

We Walk into a Karaoke Bar

The Captain's Brig, Fresno, California
The Captain’s Brig, Fresno, California
You don’t have to be drunk to sing karaoke badly.  A lot of beers seem to help, and that’s led to frat boys to doing things to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that violate sections of the Geneva Conventions. I’d had just one Angry Orchard hard cider, and yet I went forward to sing “Shut Up and Dance.” I’ve sung in church choirs and even sang solos in musicals a long time ago, so I don’t think it would be too egotistical a statement to say I have a better than average singing voice. I’ve sung "Shut Up and Dance" along with the radio plenty of times, and I thought karaoke would be doable. Instead, I found myself stumbling all over the timing and singing way off key. I feel the need to offer Nicholas Petricca (lead singer of Walk the Moon) an apology for my assault on this song.

We were at The Captain’s Brig in Fresno to meet our new friend Sandra during “Introduce us to your favorite bar” month. Sandra is a volunteer at Project Survival’s Cat Haven. (My brother founded the place, and we volunteer there on occasion.) Sandra has had a rough last few months; her father passed away, and there have been other struggles. She’d offered to introduce us to the Brig shortly after we moved to Fresno, but we were concerned with one thing and another, she wouldn’t be up for the outing. Instead, she was happy to have a reason to return to karaoke night at the Brig.

Sandra was greeted by the bartenders, John the karaoke guy, and various patrons. Some people said, “Where you been?” and other people seemed to know. She told us she didn’t know how people knew about her recent troubles, but some did and expressed sympathy. Even a bar in a big city has some small town to it.

After getting our drinks (cash only), we sat with Sandra at one of the tables. Right away, she asked if we were going to do karaoke. It seemed the thing to do. John had brought notebooks with lists of songs and artists. One notebook listed songs by title and others that listed songs by artist or year of release. You were supposed to list several song titles (along with a number to help John find the song) on little slips of paper, but Sandra didn’t need to fill out a slip.

John already had dozens of slips Sandra had filled out in the past, and he had a feel for the sorts of things she’d like to sing. I asked whether there were times he made picks she refused. She said sometimes she made requests too late in the night after too many beers when her estimation of her abilities was too high.

Since Sanda had last been there, months before, John had purchased new sound equipment, including digital microphones. The microphones were fitted with small plastic devices that kept the mics from falling off tables if they were set down instead of put back into the stand.

I asked Sandra about bad song choices that other people made. She said that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is usually requested by young women who’ve had too much to drink, but her least favorite karaoke song may well be “Picture” (written by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow). If a guy asks a girl to do this song as a duet, he probably wants to do more than just sing.

The television on the wall behind the singers showed the Oakland A’s vs LA Angels of Anaheim (possibly the worst name in professional sports) game. The A’s were winning, so even when a song was sung badly, there was something good to see when I looked in that direction.

Sandra said that crowds for karaoke varied at The Brig. Some nights lots of folks wanted to sing, and other nights the crowd was sparse. “I like it when I can sing more, but sometimes it can be really crowded,” she told us. On a crowded night she might just get to sing a couple of times and on  a slow night , as many as ten times. She went up for her first song and sang, “All That Jazz” from Chicago. (The next song John had for her was “Hey Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity. He seemed to have decided it was Broadway Show Tune Night.)

Sandra is a very good karaoke singer, but some of the other singers were… not so good. It wasn’t just me. One woman went forward to sing “Mr. Roboto,” and before she sang she said, “I need a drink! This is why they call it karaoke!” I can at least say there was nothing mechanical about her presentation.

I asked Sandra the two questions we always ask, though I tweaked the first one a bit, “What makes for a good karaoke bar?”

She said, “They have to have a good selection of songs.” They also need a good sound system, she said. “The technical aspects need to be well done. You want to be heard, and everybody else wants to be heard. You need good microphones.” She talked about another bar in the area that had a great song selection but a lousy sound system.

We asked about her favorite karaoke experience, and she mentioned a time when she was in Phoenix for two week job training sessions that kept her group busy during the day but left their nights free. Sandra and some of her coworkers went to a place called Giligin's, home of Tuesday night goldfish racing. She said she performed a Madonna song that everyone seemed to be recording. She’s not sure, but it may still be up on YouTube.

When I asked what makes for a good church, she said a good church “makes me cry.” She continued, “I’ve sometimes felt disconnected in a church, but sometimes it hits me here (indicating her heart) and I cry.”

Mindy and I sang our last song of the night together, Huey Lewis and the News’Stuck With You.” We weren’t really good, [we were terrible -- ed.] but we did have the “Oh, how cute, look at the old couple” factor going for us.

After we sang, a man dedicated his song, “Happy Birthday, Amanda!” Amanda, at the noisy table with her friends, thanked him and said, “I’m 35! I could run for President now!” (A man in the bar was wearing a "Trump/Pence 2020" shirt. Perhaps Amanda will represent the opposition?).

As we were leaving, we asked Sandra if she’d like a ride home. She was going to stay for the duration, she said. She was loving finally getting to sing again, and people seemed enjoy her singing. We certainly did.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

We Walk into a Bar to Find a Friend

Jimbo's, Clovis, California
Jimbo’s, Clovis, California
For the last couple of weeks, temperatures here in Fresno have been regularly hitting above the century mark. It’s been really nasty hot here, and the only thing that can get people to move is the promise of somewhere or something cool. The promise of ice cold beer can be like those pools of water surrounded by palm trees you see in cartoons, but Jimbo’s is an oasis that doesn’t fade away when you actually get there. We were quite happy to find that  at the bar were right in front of the “Port-A-Cool” evaporative cooling unit. Though we aren’t beer fans, a cold cider and a rum & coke with ice were refreshing as well.

Port a cool makes everything better at Jimbo's in Clovis, California
We went to Jimbo’s because we thought we’d be meeting an acquaintance there. For us, this month is all about meeting people we know at bars. After all, that’s the chief function of bars for a lot of people: it’s a meeting place for friends. We’d talked with Kristina, a business acquaintance of ours, about our project of visiting bars every week. She told us she’d love to introduce us to her bar, Jimbo’s. She said she was always there on Thursdays, arriving sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Well, that “always” didn’t happen to include this week, and that’s okay. Kristina, you still directed us to a lively neighborhood bar, and we had a good time.

Most of the folks at the bar were in their twenties and early thirties, and they were happy to be together on this warm Thursday night. The two women next to Mindy were playing a lively dice game. When Mindy asked what it was called, one of them said it was just called “Dice,” but the other woman said, “It’s really called One--Four--Twenty-four.”

There were guys in the back room playing pool, and the bartender brought out a giant version of the table game Connect Four.

As soon as it was out, another couple played a few rounds, but we got a shot at it eventually. It’s good to have a public forum to say that I dominated that first game. Mindy claims she doesn’t do strategy. Still, the second game looked like it was heading for a draw until the barrier at the bottom gave way, and all the pieces spilled out. So we quit. (It looked like it would be a draw, but  I did see a couple of possible paths to victory. Just so you know.)

We looked out the back door at the patio area. It wasn’t exactly a garden spot, but people seemed to be enjoying themselves, and appreciating having a place to smoke. Inside, there were a number of TVs at the bar and around the two rooms.  I’d looked forward to catching some of the A’s/Giants game, but the score was already 8-1 Giants when we walked in, and this Oakland fan was not pleased. (11-2 Giants was the final.)

The music was loud and sporadic, and people were enjoying each other, so we didn’t engage in any conversations with other people after we’d learned about the dice. I guess in this month of walking into bars to meet with friends, the friendship Mindy and I have will be the one we count this week. Good enough for us.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

We Walk into an(other) Old-timey Saloon

“I wish I could have one drink, just one,” Ryan the bartender said as he rushed from one end of the bar at the River City Saloon to the other.

The saloon is heart of Old Sacramento, which feels like the Old West town in an amusement park. Before going in, we’d wandered the neighborhood a bit, and we saw a statue dedicated the Pony Express, with great self restraint we forwent donuts from a little bakery where you could watch the donuts swim the stream of grease, and we watched salsa dancing in the street, hosted by a local radio station.

We walked down the wooden sidewalk, noting the Hot Dog Palace was closed -- along with its promise of $1.99 hot dogs and ice cream. We read plaques with interesting factoids, such as the elevation of the buildings and streets ten feet higher from what they were a century and a half ago when they’d had to deal with flood waters.

Outside the saloon is one of those benches with a plaster Old West figure, always ready to pose with tourists for photos. There is a similar figure sitting at the bar inside and a standing figure that looks rather like Doc Holliday. Also right inside the door of the saloon is a chandelier constructed of Jack Daniels bottles. There is gaudy red flocked wallpaper and decorative tiles on the ceiling. There were also pool tables and video games. The TVs were playing music videos from the eighties and nineties, including Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” featuring George Wendt (NORM!), Macaulay Culkin, and Tess Harper -- along with lions, African tribesmen, babies, Cossacks, cowboys and Indians.

The saloon was hopping; we later learned the bar gets many patrons from the “Underground Sacramento” tours, which finishes up at River City Saloon, and members of the tours receive coupons for drinks at the saloon.  Ryan the bartender was rushing back and forth taking care of people saying, “I’ve got to hand it to me.” He did get help for a little while from another employee who dropped in to say “Hello,” and was corralled into helping.  “It’s nice working in a family type atmosphere,” Ryan said. “Where people are willing to help each other.”

He had been expecting help from another employee that, according to his memory of the schedule, was supposed to come in at 8:00 pm, but hadn’t shown. “Maybe it was 9 o’clock,” he said. Nine o’clock is also the time when children are no longer welcome at River City; they are throughout the day when they can enjoy sarsaparillas locally brewed for the saloon. They sounded so good, we ordered sarsaparillas for ourselves instead of adult beverages, even though we’d arrived too late in the day for $ .25 glasses.

Eventually things calmed enough that we could ask bartender Ryan our two questions:
“Do you want just one thing or a lot of things?” he asked. We assured him any answer was fine.
“The vibe of the place comes from the atmosphere and the staff. And really, the staff makes the atmosphere. If people get along, that’s our peers. If people are getting along and having a good time, nine times out of ten the drinks taste better.”

“Whether you go or not, what do you think makes for a good church?”
“I was raised Mormon. In a good church they would use their money for charity and the community rather than for glorious buildings. I want my mother to see that I said that.”

A tourist bar is different from a neighborhood bar. In a tourist bar, it’s less likely for a community of patrons to grow, but sometimes a community can grow among the staff -- though when we left a bit after nine o’clock, Ryan’s co-worker still was yet to show.

Prospector outside River City Saloon in Old Town Sacramento

Saturday, July 22, 2017

We Walk past a Lot of Bars

California State Exposition, Sacramento, California
Bars of the California State Fair, Sacramento, California
Really, someone must have been a marketing genius. Someone must have been pondering, how can we sell more cold beer, how can we make it an irresistible item?

Then maybe someone said, “Well, if we could get people out in the hot sun of Sacramento on a summer day, if we could somehow get them to spend hours out in the century-plus heat, we’ll be onto something big.”

Maybe some of you doubt we should be count the California State Fair as our bar for the week, but we saw places labelled “Pub” and “Saloon” -- and they surely couldn’t do that legally if they weren’t actual bars, right?

hard lemonade stand next to the Gospel Celebration at the California State Fair
Admittedly, many of the places selling cocktails were just booths, and most had no seating (let alone barstools), so it would be difficult to call these places actual bars. But places like the Wine Garden have plenty of seating. And some of the drinking locations have musical acts playing.

We didn’t chat with anyone at any of the bars because -- well, I’ve been cautious about talking to people at the fair ever since my friend Janet back in high school let a couple of strangers know where she lived and when she’d be at the fair again, and they burgled her home while her parents were out of town. (I’m really just telling this story so I can use the word “burgled,” which you don’t get to use everyday.)

So, yeah, we’re going to call the Fair a bar. Sometimes you need to go some place really hot to appreciate a cold one.