Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bars We'd Gladly Walk Into (if they weren't fictional)

You may have observed there was no new post last week, and (upon careful reading of this post) will notice we didn’t visit a new bar this week. We have a couple of reasons. For one thing, Mindy is visiting her dad in Indiana this week. Also, we’re doing some concentrated work on our book about last year’s trip (we might really get it finished some day). So we decided to do something different this week.

It’s a list!
These are bars we’d like to visit if, like Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, we could jump into the movie screen. And you get a list of ten bars, because that’s a proper number for a list.

10) Bob’s Country Bunker from The Blues Brothers (1980): the owners and patrons of this bar seem less like good ol’ boys and more like surly rednecks, so this is at the bottom of our list. But on the positive side, you might get to see Jake and Elwood and the band perform. And how much fun would it be to throw bottles at that chicken wire barrier?

9) The Winchester from Shaun of the Dead (2004): We went to a zombie shelter bar last year (which we’re sad to learn has since closed). But fortunately, shelter from the zombie storm will live on in this cinematic bar. Shaun and his friend, Ed, rarely leave their house, preferring to sit on their couch playing video games. When they do leave, they go to the Winchester -- so it must have something going for it.

8) Rick's CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain from Casablanca (1942): I would go just to hear Sam play. I wouldn’t want him to play “As Time Goes By” very often, since it seems to make Rick cranky, but even that would be fun. I wouldn’t gamble in the back room because the games are fixed. Rick’s would really be a great place (if it wasn’t for the Nazis and World War and such).

7) Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977): It’s dangerous. You never know when you might slip on some bloody arm left on the floor. If you’re like people watching, you might like the creature watching available at this bar even better. And the band is happening.

6) Club Obi Wan from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): You might notice a connection between the previous bar and this one. That’s right, at both bars, English is not the primary language. Both also have great entertainment. The floorshow at this nightclub is great fun, even if you don’t understand Mandarin. The service staff is excellent, though you need to  watch out for strangers putting something in your drink. (I went with this bar over The Raven from Raiders of the Lost Ark because The Raven -- another notedly multilingual bar -- didn’t pass the health inspection.)

5) The Double Deuce from Road House (1989): I’m not a big country music fan, but there is decent entertainment in the place; on the stage and with the drama among the patrons. And I appreciate the emphasis of the management on Niceness. The staff is urged to “Be Nice,” and I think that’s nice.

4) The Midnight Star from Silverado (1985): There were many bars from Westerns, but I like the management of The Star. Stella (Linda Hunt) and Paden (Kevin Kline) are charming people who both value quality in their bar.
When Paden first meets Stella, he says, “Compliments to you Miss Stella. This is what I call a saloon.”
“Thanks,” she says, “That’s what I call it too.”
Paden replies, “And I know what I’m talking about.”
Stella: “You like a good saloon?”
Paden: “It’s the only place I’m happy.”
Stella: “Me, too! What’s wrong with us?”
Both are concerned about serving a good pour in their drinks. They seek to keep the games honest and the fights to a minimum. And I love the way Stella manages to look customers in the eye.

3) Park Hyatt Piano Bar from Lost in Translation (2003): Sometimes the thing people value in a bar is that people can find people like themselves. For actor Bob (Bill Murray) and wife-left-alone Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), this Tokyo bar is the place to find company and speak English. (Let it be said, if there was a good chance of meeting Bill Murray at a bar, I’d be there.)

2) Martini’s from It’s a Wonderful LIfe (1946): Even though this bar isn’t completely violence free (movie bars seem to have a problem with all the punches thrown), the management of this bar is competent and friendly. When it’s run by Martini (Bill Edmunds) in the regular world, this is the place you want to be. You probably don’t want to be in George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart’s) alternate world bar, Nick’s. As Nick the owner says, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around here to give the joint ‘atmosphere.’” Nick’s is pretty much the the opposite of our top movie bar.

1) Charlie’s from Harvey (1950): An old fashioned neighborhood bar has a special attractiveness. It’s the Cheers appeal, which is a common element in this bar and Martini’s. There’s something wonderful about a place where an eccentric man like Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) who sees six foot tall talking rabbits can be at home. I could sit and listen to Elwood for hours. Maybe, after all, the most telling sign of a great bar is finding Jimmy Stewart there.

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.