Dillon, Reykjavik, Iceland

7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.


Notable Matter:  Books crammed on a makeshift shelf between wall panels. This is common here. Most bars and cafes have loads of paperbacks.

Score for Iceland. Iceland is the first country since Argentina that I would actually live in if…it weren’t so goddamn cold. I hate the cold and it is freaking burr here. Less than 24 hours in and I already own a wool reindeer beanie. Because of the weather Argentina remains at the top of my ex-pat list but Reykjavik is a must visit.

When we arrived, I thought, “shit, why would anyone live in this hellhole and why am I here?” The area around Keflavik International Airport is brown and barren. It looks like Colorado’s Western slope, something Cormac McCarthy might imagine.

After a 45 minute bus trip we got to Reykjavik, which is an awesome city. Structurally German/Dutch, culturally Parisian. The landscape reminds me a bit of Vancouver – mountains, water, city, glaciers – but it’s not as modernistic or structurally intimidating as Vancouver, which I also love.

For those of you who are looking, Iceland is a great place to mate shop. It’s not like some cultures where the women are attractive and the men are small and wimpy looking. Both genders get high marks. Luckily for Icelanders, the Vikings only raped and pillaged the most attractive. Everyone speaks English which is a major plus since I don’t even understand the letters here.

We walk up the steps to Dillon. It’s on the second floor of a building. I love second floor bars, second floor anything. I like watching people without the risk of eye contact. Three attractive Icelanders stand outside, smoking. The woman follows us in, long blonde hair pulled back into a side pony tail. Icelandic pony tails hang low, directly down the back or to the side. Pony tails are a fashion piece. When women want their hair out of their face, they swirl it into a high sitting bun rather than throwing it on top of their heads in a sloppy pony tail like us lazy Americans.

The bartendress is very enthusiastic, eager to help. Most people here are. We sell our souls ($8 a beer) for pints of Viking. We sit, stare at the bookshelf jammed between two wall panels. It seems that everywhere we go we’re surrounded by books. It’s wonderful. Some of the bookshelves are organized by author, genre or color. Others, such as this one, are a complete mess. These books are arranged like British teeth, like someone closed their eyes, threw the books at the shelf and some magical gravitational force interfered, hooking them to it by spine, cover or flap.

Two tables of men gamble. One with cards one with die. Everyone wears wool sweaters. It’s May but cold as hell. The shops have darling clothes but I imagine women wear leggings even in the summer. Females with cankles shouldn’t live in Iceland as the only body part weather allows for exposure are the legs.

A foursome of men sits next to us. They too wear knitted wool sweaters. One looks like he stepped out of a 1980s ski bum movie. His name should be Soren or Sven or something like that but I don’t think those are Icelandic names and I have no interest in talking to him. Instead, my traveling buddy and I talk about attraction; how I may want a kid so I don’t have to worry about staying in shape for nine months; and how we disappoint ourselves by worrying about disappointing other people.

I go to the WC (water closet). I like the bathrooms here. They’re androgynous as all inanimate objects and locations should be. You can learn a lot about a country based on its bathroom culture. I like Iceland.

Ashes to Ashes

May 23, 2011

I’ve tried to keep up with my churches and bars while traveling but it’s been challenging to say the very least.

Yesterday, for example, I spent the time I allocated for God following news updates about the freaking volcanic ash threatening to derail my travel plans to Iceland. Since I’m hopefully headed into the beginning of the rapture, which was supposed to start Saturday, I may have to read the Book of Revelation in Iceland. We’ll see about that. I’m more excited about wearing a Keflavik International Airport issued mask and goggles than reading the end of the Good Book.

I recently spoke at TEDx Lansing. I spoke about the ThumpMe project, what I learned from the Bible (to have faith in myself), etc. To prepare, I read through all of my ThumpMe entries. It’s interesting to see how, even though only five months have passed since the last entry, my thoughts have changed. Evolution.

If you did not read the original ThumpMe entries – the ones following my reading and interpretation of the Bible – you might find these interesting.

If I get into Iceland and ash doesn’t ruin my cheap traveling Toshiba, I’ll have a dive bar post for you Wednesday. Enjoy!

WooHoo! Suck — Despair, Job and Me

I thought about Job all weekend. There is, I’ll admit, a bit of an attraction there. He’s sort of like the diseased, depressed, sackcloth wearing dead guy that got away.

Predictably, I’m drawn to his despair, a unifying isolator that can supersede centuries, nations and ideologies but not the individual. When desolation brings Job to his knees, he says:

“I have no strength left to save myself; there is nowhere I can turn for help.”

Had I been an oppressed B.C. concubine or prophet, Job could have turned to me. I carry other people’s burdens well and identify (monthly) with the absolute collapse of spirit. However, if I had been around would Job have asked me — his new girlfriend — for help? Probably not. His unwillingness to share his feelings may have ended our relationship, but raises a phenomenal question: Why the hell is it so difficult to ask for help?

Read the entire entry here.

Puff the Magic Prophet – Ezekiel Sucks the Cactus

Mescaline is: “An alkaloid drug, C11H17NO3, obtained from mescal buttons, which produces hallucinations. Also called peyote.” (Definition provided by Urban Dictionary contributor, Adict). (Gist of this is how does one become a prophet)

This hallucinogen is obtained from cacti and special beans. I don’t know if mescaline producing cacti grow in the Middle East, but I assure you beans belonging to the Fabacae family are a prevalent food source in Middle Eastern diets and, based on his extremely bizarre visions, I’m going to guess Prophet Ezekiel fancied this particular food group.

Ezekiel learns he’s a prophet after four creatures with human-ish forms appear before him. Each of these forms has four faces — a human face, lion face, bull face and eagle face — four wings, straight legs, hooves (like a bull) and four human hands under each wing. Wheels with eyes sit next to them and there’s additional detail about subsequent wheels and fire, but it’s too confusing for me to explain. Despite Ezekiel’s descriptive efforts, I cannot imagine how these things moved or what they looked like.

Read the entire entry here.

Fa La La La La, La La La La, Liquor ­­– Holiday with the Jews

Ah, holidays. What could be better?

Holidays were created to celebrate dysfunction. It’s OK. All families are dysfunctional even the “normal” ones — it’s called denial. Don’t stress out about, enjoy it. You’re in good company. Jesus’ family was screwy too.

In the New Testament, four men give a version of the gospel. You can glean anything you want from any of them. I think Matthew is dryMark is dark and Luke is wonderful. His writing is interesting and he details good old family pandemonium.

Read the entire entry here.

Found: An Un-Preachy Preacher – Meet Preacher Mike

To my knowledge, Preacher Mike is the first church authority — sorry Mike, couldn’t think of another descriptor — to pay attention to ThumpMe.

For political reasons, I pretend to read many blogs, but I actually read Preacher Mike’s because it’s interesting and un-preachy (new word).

Preacher Mike (Mike Cope) lives in Abilene, Texas and teaches at Abilene Christian University. He’s also the vice president of the non-profit educational organization Heartbeat. TheHeartbeat What Really Matters project facilitates discussion about the things that matter — friendship, decision-making, social injustice. Cope joined the project after his young daughter, Megan, died in 1994.

Read the entire entry here.

Revelation. – No Time for Endings

Six months ago I played a damaging, ingenious trick on myself. I decided to write fiction. No more articles. No more journalism. Fiction. But fiction isn’t a career. It’s a lifestyle with no immediate returns. It’s founded on failure and takes incredible dedication, which is precisely why my intestines immediately inverted, I stopped sleeping and my heart retreated.

When I started writing, really writing and stripped myself of measurable success, which is single-minded and safe, the identity I created for myself when I was a child — pushing to grow up, get to college, make money, excel at everything — treading a path I thought would lead me to life, but exhausted me into oblivion, I didn’t find anything. 29 and hollow.

I decided not to read Revelation because I no longer want to see what’s coming. I’ll catch it when it comes.

Read the entire entry here.

El Porton, Bogotá, Colombia

3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Notable Matter:  Foreign animal head (oxen?), canteen, horseshoe and bull fighting paraphernalia above bar.

Describing a dive bar to someone living outside of the U.S. is difficult. Not because class division doesn’t exist – it does – but because independent retailers and restaurants are the norm, not the exception. A dive bar in the U.S. is a neighborhood bar everywhere else. Like our dive bars, they tend to be dark, lack windows and fill with interesting characters but they’re not competing with chain restaurants and flashy facades so they don’t slide into the category of slightly sketchy.

It’s no secret that Americans fear Colombia. The only thing we know of it is drugs and violence. Thanks to U.S. intervention, again, in Colombian policy and the acceleration of Mexican cartels, Americans view Colombia more favorably than before but when compared to what we’re comfortable with – large, shiny, safe, new things – it remains a dive country.

I wasn’t afraid to travel to Colombia but I didn’t want to go to a dive bar alone. I could handle the unknown city, but feared the unknown bar. I thought I might get kidnapped, which is not only stupid but extremely egotistical as there’s nothing about me or my life that would be of any value to a kidnapper in Colombia or anywhere else.

I planned to travel to the south side of the city, an expansive mass exiled from all tourist maps, with some natives to check out some dives as described by me and interpreted by them, but those plans fell through. I almost used this, two attempted purse snatchings and a small run in with the police as an excuse to can the Colombian dive bar experience but then I would have lost to fear and we can’t have that.

Toe First

I walk past El Porton, a small white building with a large door blocking the crooked hole serving as an entrance, and grab a safe lunch special at an American looking French sounding restaurant. When I leave, I give myself a pep talk. I’m on a side street in the middle of the city. I’m tired of being on guard 24/7 and weighing my commitment to church and alcohol. Is it more important to follow through on the blog or remain sober for the three mile walk home?

El Porton is across the street from an old bull fighting stadium, one I wouldn’t have gotten into if I hadn’t poked my head through a crack in the door and grabbed the attention of a police officer. One I wouldn’t have had to myself if I’d snubbed my curiosity. I remind myself Bogota is a city, that as long as I respect it I’ll be OK. I walk into El Porton.

I fall into the bar because like the rest of the country, the steps are surprising and uneven. The tables are white, plastic, covered with red and white checked table cloths. The table numbers are written on the white wall in black marker or crayon. The room is long. A young woman comes from the back to take my order. I assume it’s a family business. Mom follows the girl and yells to dad when I ask if I can take pictures. For some reason I obtain manners in foreign countries that I don’t have at home.

The walls are sparse, signed bullfighting photographs with curled edges huddle near the door and behind the bar. The family doesn’t understand why I’m here but we don’t talk so it doesn’t matter anyway. I stare at a poster. Looks like a harmonica man is coming to town. I watch the military or the police or some other protective force patrol the street outside the bar. These protectors are everywhere, including the parks where drugs are sold. I wonder what, exactly, makes people feel safe.

Fear is necessary response, but a wasted emotion. I wish more people would challenge fear of the unknown. It would be great if we examined what we fear before moving onto what we know. It’s interesting to think what would happen if church goers and administrators had to talk to atheists, Buddhists, etc. before studying the Bible.

Silver Spur, San Francisco, Calif.

Since I can’t justify traveling all over the country specifically to run in and out of dive bars, I’ve had to pull in some reinforcements. Last week Amber Shinn took us to L Capitan in Holly, Mich. This week, an unnamed San Francisco-based lush (no offense Lady X) who recently called me from a Norwegian cocktail party, opens the door of San Fran’s Sliver Spur.

Thank you ladies — oops, I mean Amber and maybe a man — for shedding some light on some dank U.S. corners.

I’ll be in Columbia, several U.S. airports and England for three-to-four weeks so these from afar posts will continue through mid-April. And now, impressions from Lady X…

For some reason I felt compelled to research the “diviest bar” in San Francisco.  Not like I couldn’t find one on my own.  Having lived in small Colorado towns my whole life, my 20s have been defined by dive bars.  However, the Silver Spur received a four star review on Yelp as a San Fran dive bar, so I thought I’d head over.

Once I got there I realized I had been once before, of course.

A hand written sign out front bar read, “Hot Bartenders, Cold Beers.”  I almost have to compete with a woman?, man?, wo-man named Bonnie with a mustache for the front door handle.

Once in I notice a mirage of motorcycle images moving around behind the bar.  Is that a curtain leading to the back of the bar?  Nope, it’s the bartender’s Harley Davidson moo moo. She slowly moves in my direction. Several red snap barrettes hold her red hair in place.

I order a vodka soda with lots of lime. What a fool. I get a sneer at “lots of lime.”  Limes are precious. Do I think I live on a tropical island?

After she places the drink in front of me I realize my cardinal sin, I have $1 in cash.  I have to run down the block in work high heels to an ATM.  I ask her if she trusts me to come back, she says, “I don’t care, I can give the drink to someone else to drink if you don’t.”

I come back, pay my $3.50 and the bartend decides I’m okay.  She motions to her left to a plastic cake box.  “Help yourself to some tuna sandwiches if you want.”  If I hadn’t inhaled a burger and fries two hours previous I would have seriously loved a homemade tuna sandwich, even if it meant food poisoning. I think I might have fit in a bit more with a white bread delight in my hand.

I can’t help but ignore the blaring TV to my left.  A middle aged Asian gentleman is leaning against the end of the bar, feet propped up on a stool, empty whiskey coffee behind him, watching Westerns at full blast with his sunglasses on.  A second bartender, perhaps the manager or owner, walks out of from behind the bar with fresh bottles of cheap hard alcohol.  He sets them down on the counter and says to the Asian gentleman, “I knew you were here, I could smell your BENGAY.”

He slowly turns around, un-props his feet from the neighboring stool and smiles slowly.  I think he’s been here all afternoon.  “Hey Mr. Wang,” the manager says and walks away.

I turn my gaze to the left of Mr. Wang where there is an electrical box on the wall next to a bowling arcade game.  A handwritten sign on the bow states “300 N Multivolts, Experts Only. “ From this point on people either named themselves experts or were nominated as experts, as the sign now reads, “300 N Multivolts, Experts Only, + Mike + Ed, NO SUE.

I sit there sipping my drink, order another and watch the dog movie on the center television in the bar.  Probably a Disney flick. People have taken a group of dogs, made them talk, and put them into a birthday party scene where they are shooting silly string at each other.  No wonder Mr. Wang is at the end of the bar with his own personal TV.

The corner of the Spur holds a small shelf against the wall where about 25 ragged paperbacks sit.  Novel idea, a bar library.  Everything from Westerns — of course — to steamy romances to dictionaries lean on that narrow shelf.

Finally another gentleman joins us. In his Hispanic accent, he orders a Bud, greets Mr. Wang.  Another regular walks in, takes a seat and pulls out a crossword while the bartender pours his usual red wine from a jug of Gallo.

Mr. Wang becomes inpatient with the Western and flips through the channels from Westerns to Chinese TV to SPIKE TV for men to models learning how to pose on the beach.  He settles back on another Western.  This one has an amazing heavy metal soundtrack.  I think about how awesome it would be if the “Native Americans” jumped off their horses and started wailing solos on their handmade guitars, when the bartender comments on the music and starts quoting lines from the film.

I am finishing my second drink, but look up in time to see a Jesus statue and a Tiger Woods bobble head on a small shelf looking over, maybe blessing the bar.  Below is a sign inviting me to the St. Patty’s Day feast in a couple of weeks.  Free corned beef hash.  I think I’ll be back.

L Capitan, Walden’s Lounge, Holly, Mich.

Guest blogger and dive bar lover Amber Shinn takes us on a hatch ride through the seedy spots of Holly, Mich. Though El Capitan was a disappointment, when it comes to dive bars, the Midwest always delivers. When one dive bar closes, another opens.

Turning to the oracle Google with loose bar search terms, the divine inspiration that bubbled up in the http tea leaves was a definition of dive bars from Playboy:

“A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows — bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Sufficient a nudge to barhop in my old hometown, the “historic” Village of Holly.

Growing up, Holly was bipolar on booze: In the early 1900s, Holly was graced with a visit from Carry A. Nation, a pre-prohibitionist who traveled around the country with a hatchet to chop up bars and rescue folks from their sinful boozy ways. After the bang-up bar tour from Nation, Holly toasted the visit with a historic marker and an annual festival. Eventually, participants dressed up as barmaid harlots, activists and gangsters to reenact the smashing spectacle. The festival’s most popular attraction: A beer tent.

I’ve got a soft spot for dive bars. They’re a sanctuary where people go to shut the cabin door on the wolves in the heart’s wilderness. I imagine a safe watering hole in the savannah for animals with bumps and bruises, a quiet home where the buffa-low roam to sip silently and reflect, without being asked to smile so everyone else feels comfortable.

Be it oppressive boredom of factory work, the instability of a changing economy, loss, fear, shame, the need for connection, a quest to find the grace of human kindness amid strangers—to me, the inevitable tough cards everyone is dealt at some point in life feel easier to hold in a dive.

Oh Captain, My Captain

I braced myself for the roughest Holly bar I knew: L Capitan. ElleCappeyTan.

Known as the “El Cap,” stories of long coke rails snorted off the bartop and Harleys snarling in the back door and roaring out the front made it a perfect dive bar. Wearing boots I hoped made me look taller and tougher, I practiced my cold-fish pout-sneer in the rearview mirror. Parking by the railroad tracks on a Friday afternoon while it was still light out, I came early to reduce the likelihood that I’d get beaten up, robbed or shot.

I kinda hoped I’d get just a little bit beaten up, robbed or shot.

Deep breath. Around the corner, out of the icy alley, squint in the bright snowlight at the bar window. I found the sign and my heart sunk. There was no toasting surly sea captain. The fearsome El Cap had become Broadstreet Station. I was looking at a railroad-themed café bar with tidy awnings and board touting some mayo-slick white bread nightmare.

Feeling jilted, I stomped back to my car, but realized in eyeshot of my bumper that I still wanted a drink. Besides, me and my danger blueballs wanted a salve and an explanation on the castration of El Capitan.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, But it Takes a Train to Cry

Dark tunnel, deep fryer, snowy stomp on damp musty carpet to Walk Like An Egyptian. The perky whistle of the Bangles high-hoed me along the brass bar to my seat. TVs cycled bouncing Keno numbers as my eyes adjusted to the dark and found trains and station memorabilia on every wall.

No patrons, just a ponytailed bartender.

Slumping into a barstool, I ordered a draft PBR as the prospect of meeting a big bearded biker or wise grey-haired bikeress with a vest full of stories from the road faded.

I leaned in: “Didn’t this used to be the El Cap?”

He leaned in as well, too close: “It was.”

I leaned way back for effect, silently blaming him for the empty bar: “Huh. This place isn’t as…rough.”

Ponytail then shared vague rumors of the rowdy Neverland I’d missed. Nothing I hadn’t heard. When a new owner bought it a few years ago, the old crowd moved on. It was safer and tidier now. Benign.

Over his shoulder was a hand-painted mural on the back wall. In it, I saw the face of the reformed Capitan, who swapped the sea to be a train conductor. Neutered and chained to a life of peddling O-bombs and lotto, he was leaning with his head in his hands, waiting, watching. Dying a slow bored death.

Two bucks on the never-been-snorted-or-danced-on bar top, I left with the same dread that bustled me out of town when I left for college. Fearing I’d have nothing to write about, I called my brother for a recommendation.

Girl Scout Cookies

I peeked into Walden’s Lounge, a squat cinder-block bar. Exploits of Charlie Sheen hummed over a waft of Windex, and up at the bar sat the cast of characters I’d been looking for: Bearded bikers, wheezy old men and even my lanky, pierced brother. The bar was tended by a goth-ish woman in pigtails, selling beer and Girl Scout cookies for her kid. Success.

I sat in the middle, watching the grey hairs nudge each other whenever the bartendress bent over. Which was often. Maybe intentional.

Moving in a slow indoor-outdoor orbit, the bikers brought back a comet tail of cigarette vapor, grousing over the smoking ban. When the grumbling arc of the conversation swung past sin taxes, the bikers campaigned loud on the equality platform of “shit taxes:” taxing toilet paper. We seven at the bar chimed in with toasts, votes and poo-puns before simmering back into silence.

Hard to tell the age of the woman behind bar. As we talked about jobs, I guessed she was younger than me, but looked older. After receiving emancipation at 16, turns out she was forced to leave her spot as a server (“not a dancer,” she clarified) at Déjà Vu Showgirls — per the request of an uncle who spent time there. The exasperation in her voice came from her 16-year-old self, I heard her go back in time. In an unexpected twist, that uncle was an undercover FBI agent, investigating illegal gun-running in Flint strip clubs on prostitute-heavy Dort Highway, and feared his cover would be blown.

With a one-armed hug, my brother headed back to work. I stayed behind, and signed on for a box of Thin Mints.

Scotty O’Brian’s, Loveland, Colo.

12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Notable Matter: Sponsored bar seats, each with an embroidered logo/namesake representing the donor.

I’m in la-di-da land and am therefore losing patience with Colorado dive bars. Dive bars should not include microbrews on tap. They should lack decor, serve characters and stick to bottles and cans like the Long Branch Bar in Laporte, Colo. But most of the Colorado dives have microbrews. I need to go back to the Midwest where there’s an abundance of good old fashioned dive bars, places where people go to get drunk off of $1 canned PBR beer. I yearn for blue-collar America.

I don’t believe the middle class is disappearing, it’s just become invisible. I’ve thought of this well before the whole national union uprising. I have my own opinions about that but I’ll keep them to myself.

America’s Struggling Middle Class

I love the middle class — blue-collar workers — which is why I love neighborhood bars, dive bars. But do I have to go to the Rustbelt, a region continually blamed for the nation’s economic meltdown, to find it? Until I head back to Michigan in May, I’ll keep trudging along to these Colorado “dives.” Colorado natives can’t even point me to dives because they don’t know what they are.

That being said, Scotty O’Brian’s is as divey as I’ve seen in a few weeks. Wooden façade, one window, long bar, narrow structure. It’s dark, six people watching basketball on two TVs. I’m relieved to see a race car event on one of the TVs, very middle America.

I walk in pissed off by my experience with the money mongering Redeemer Lutheran Church. (I invited Redeemer to respond to my scalding review of the church, but haven’t received a response.)

I’m a little testy with the young bartender. I’m not offended by his request for ID, but his delivery is off putting.

“You got your little thingy on you?” He makes a motion with his wrist indicating that by “thingy,” he means the little plastic card in my wallet. He justifies himself. “I have to ask. Otherwise my boss will get me in trouble.”

Me: “Or you could just say I look young.” My four second tutorial on women.

“You do look young.” He’s nervous.

I loosen up. Smile in the mirror at an older man in a blue work jacket and mesh hat. He’s drinking a beer and a shot, orders them together. He sees me and looks away.

The experience is dull until a younger man and woman walk in. They sit next to me. They’re new to the area and interesting, which is a fabulous find. I enjoy our conversation, it’s refreshing to speak with people that have imagination, passion, interesting things to say.

As much as I enjoy their company and hope to see them again, they are not blue collar workers, Middle America. Where do I find this in northern Colorado? What am I missing?

What am I Missing?

February 16, 2011

T-Bar Lounge, Wellington, Colo.

3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Notable Matter:  Favorite signs: If you drink to forget — please pay in advance; Get me drunk and enjoy the show.

Good ‘Ol Boys

I love Colorado. Despite being white, it’s fairly diverse — cowboys, hippies, yuppies, mountain people, potheads, granolas (hippie/yuppie combo), etc.

I love Colorado. Despite being white, it’s fairly diverse — cowboys, hippies, yuppies, mountain people, potheads, granolas (hippie/yuppie combo), etc.

Wellington is part cowboy, part cookie cutter. My drive to Wellington a short jaunt down memory lane. I recognize fields and barns where high school compatriots with little self control partied; a particular curve in the road was reputed as landing spot for blown chunks in the 1990s; and a fence post broke records for destroying first car fenders.

I drive a car. Everyone else drives a truck. Cowboy stands outside smoking. I like the black cowboy hat, green Carhartt jacket and creased Wranglers.

The bar is clean, smells like vinegar. Various types of barbed wire and rusty tools hang on the wall, cigarettes for sale behind the bar, someone hacking out a lung in another room.

Six people sitting in upholstered chairs — think 1980s pastel dining room — a thin old man and an older woman at the bar. They are not together. The woman wears looped, electric blue earrings. They look like scissored glow sticks. I doubt she raves.

They watch Ellen, talk about lottery tickets, the Grammys and the newscaster who had a stroke or something while covering the Grammys. They know more about pop culture than I do.

Man talks about the weather, tells me the steers love the unnaturally warm weather (60 degrees).

“But,” he says. “the mountains are at about 130 to 140 so imagine what’s going to happen if we have a dry spring? All the water will go east anyway.”

For you out-of-staters, this means the mountains have a 130-to-140 inch base, which is normal however, if we have a dry spring, floods will follow and regardless of how much water we have, surrounding states and communities will steal it. Good to be back in the land of water wars.

Someone Else’s Skin

I’m writing on a bar napkin. The bartender asks if I want paper. This has never happened. Ever. He says he’s a southern gentleman. He loves booze, women and cigarettes and, “if you take one of those three out of my equation I may as well cease to exist.” Touché.

Old Woman: “I’m leaving but I’ve got some Avon in the car. I’ll just leave it here so Deana can get it when she starts her shift.”

The old man buys me a beer. I can’t remember the last time a man other than a friend or family member bought me a beer. I remind myself to rethink the ranch lifestyle and 70-year-old body parts.

They all know each other and by the time I leave, they know me too — my name and my hand that is. I end up talking to a man who looks like a politician but is a former newspaperman and publisher.  After he buys me a beer — everyone else drinks liquor — he says, “I’m sorry. I just don’t say much.”

“That’s OK. People who talk the least tend to say the most. My brother is like that.”

I tell him things I haven’t shared with you. I will. Someday soon. Perhaps.

Driving home through a fairy tale land of the old west and urban sprawl. I think about the dichotomy between what I think I want and what I thought I wanted.

Separated by less than half a mile, this is Colorado.


This is also life.

I feel more comfortable in places I don’t belong than those I do. People sense comfort. When I travel, tourists ask me for directions even in countries where I clearly standout. I rarely get this in the states.

This is why I have to keep moving. That, and superficial relationships are more palatable than those that are not.

Down and Out in Arkansas

January 26, 2011

Ohio Club, Hot Springs, Ark.

5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Notable Matter: Prominent photo of Al Capone, to bathroom says “Grandpa’s Workshop”

I fell in love with Arkansas the moment I crossed the state line and saw a man with a Jason mask four wheeling along the shoulder of the highway against the flow of traffic.

I drove from Tennessee to Hot Springs, Ark. to salve my wounded soul and aching body, which had, more or less, been in a car for two weeks.

Hot Springs, Ark. is known for its eight bathhouses however, the women at the tourism office and the guy at the hotel had no idea when the city’s major attractions closed. Arkansas.

The Ohio Club

I go to the Ohio Club after soaking in the baths. I’m wrong. It isn’t a dive. I ask for directions to a dive bar. They are withheld. Strangers are more concerned with my safety than I am. I stay.

I love this bar. It was gangster hangout and I love gangsters. Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Owney Madden loved the springs and gambled, drank and philandered at the Ohio Club during prohibition.

Despite the great atmosphere — 1920s décor, mahogany bar, mezzanine level perfect for stripping — and the club’s sordid history, I can’t talk to anyone. I’m depressed, have to think about some stuff. Mind goes back to the bathhouse.

Bill, Boob, B…

Every state lays claim to something — world’s largest prairie dog, largest ball of twine, etc. Hot Springs, Ark. is the hometown of Bill Clinton, the country’s most publically excitable president. It is also home to the world’s largest natural breast. I know. I saw it.

I walk into the bathhouse. Four pools, varying temperatures. Pass on the middle pool, which is behind a full length, glass display wall. Pass on the left pool, too cold. Three fat, hairy old men in the right pool, a couple sucking face in the upper pool. I choose the old guys. Don’t need love in my face.

Notice a group of large women sitting in chairs, watch them, listen to their accents. Watch in horror as one woman’s swimming suit gradually succumbs to the weight of her left breast. She notices when the suit hits mid-nipple. I tell myself I’ll be OK. I’ve been to nude beaches, seen other breasts. I will recover.

But then…a middle-aged woman who is au natural walks into my bath. Until she sits, her curls and my eyes parallel. I want to flee. Don’t want to be rude. She talks. I think of germs.

I relax. She’s cool. Traveling to Arizona with her partner for an RV festival. Partner’s  Each has a daughter. One on each coast. I want to join them. Don’t ask. Have to tend to a minor task called figuring out my life.

The Ohio

Thinking about the bathhouse pulls me out of my funk. Put away pad, pull hair back. Ask owner to recommend a Baptist church. She looks at me funny. Asks man at the end of the bar, request passes every mouth.

Woman: “Honey what are you writing?”

I tell her about the project, make it known I’m not a Baptist.

“Honey, I’m Pentecostal you can go to church with me.”

Man laughs.

“I was thinking Baptist would be good since I’m in the south.”

“Oh you’re in Baptist country. They’re crazy you know.”

Man: “Don’t tell them you don’t believe.”

Woman: “Oh God no.”

“Why?”

“They’ll make you go to the front of the church so they can convert you and you’ll probably have to stay up there and sing.”

“Seriously?”

Woman: “Don’t listen to him.”

They say 90 percent of the community “goes to church,” which means they think they’ll be saved if they show up a few times a year. The woman yells down the bar that I don’t believe. The only atheist in town comes over. We talk about science, his experience with the Church of Christ, the reason he stopped believing.

Lesbians and atheists in Arkansas. Interesting.

Thou Shalt Not Judge

January 12, 2011

Long Branch Bar, Laporte, Colo.

3:40 p.m. to 4:52 p.m.

Notable Matter: Plastic shot glasses, “I swerve for Shem” bumper sticker

I lose faith in humanity and then I fall in love with it.

The Long Branch Bar. No windows. Few cars. Sign on the door says, “Wet Floor.” I walked in. I hate to admit it, but I was reticent. Not because my dad said, “I know a guy who got shot there, be careful,” but because I didn’t know where to go.

U.S. citizens can’t move without signs. They’re everywhere. Step here. Don’t smoke here. Wipe your feet here. Unload here. Sign here. To the left of the entrance was a long hall similar to one I walked down in college that led to a drug den, a place I didn’t expect to be and feared I would never leave. To the right, the back of the bar.

Gray hair, no teeth, a Poudre High School sweatshirt (my alma matter) flanking acid wash jeans, the bartender smiles, motions me to the back of the bar and around the counter. I walk down the bar, drag the only free stool close to a man with a handlebar mustache, thick hands, Carhartts and teeth blackened by tobacco.

“Don’t sit there,” he says.

“Why? Is it broken?”

“No. No. I’m just giving you shit. You have to be able to take some shit.”

“I can take shit.” I  sit.

The bartender asks for my ID, probably thinks I’m an undercover cop prepping for a sting. The man with the mustache me helps her find my birthday. “Girl, there’s no way you’re that tall.”

“I am. Promise.”

The ID comes back. The man says, “Michigan. Well, I know where to find you when I stalk you!”

“If you want to drive that far in the winter to stalk me, go for it.”

This is why I love dive bars. No one takes themselves seriously and no one ever reads me their resume.

First 15 Minutes

The man’s wife sits next to me. Sweet lady, kind eyes. They have four kids. Their youngest daughter, 24, is in Kandahar, Afghanistan serving her first tour. She has two more to go. She puts packages together for men in the field, wrapping food, water, clothing and ammunition in “puffy stuff that looks like honeycombs” so when they drop the packages at night — always at night — the ammunition doesn’t explode.

The woman hasn’t heard from her daughter in weeks, says the U.S. pays the Taliban to protect the communications towers, that one must be down. Even though guard dogs sit in the mess hall, her daughter eats outside. The mess hall was bombed. She’s afraid.

“How did your daughter seem the last time you talked to her? Was she OK?”

“She was OK the first three months. But that was the first three.”

“So how do you distract yourself from thinking about her every minute of every day?”

I drink.”

Love

I don’t want to give the impression that this couple is depressed, forlorn. They’re kind and funny and real. They want what everyone wants — safety, a happy family, a job, shelter, love.

They’ve been married for 33 years. Not only do they enjoy each other, they love each other. He kisses her, talks about the cute blonde he met at the army base. It’s amazing to watch.

Of course it wasn’t always that way. They lived in Kentucky for several years. He worked nights, she worked days. Life was hard. Four kids. Backwards community. Few neighbors had septic tanks. One of the neighbors did his business over a 5-gallon bucket. When the bag under the bucket filled, he threw it on top of a hill.

It was rough on the kids. Their peers would only play with them if they went to the same church. They didn’t go to church. They lived in a dry county, drove two hours for booze. The Baptists didn’t approve but somehow made peace with the bootleggers who sold alcohol and drugs to the kids.

The man and woman left. Then their kids left.

“All of a sudden you don’t know your husband. You just have to learn to fall in love again.”

Religion

She grew up Catholic. He wishes she’d kept her faith. She has…sort of. Went to church on Christmas, usually prays at home.

They agree we won’t win the war. It’s religious, no hope. He searched for spirituality years ago, settled on the Mormons.

“You know, that whole have-a-bunch-of-wives stuff is a bunch of crap. That’s like five percent, less than five percent. Do you know what they do? They give 10 percent of their income to the church so when you’re in trouble — no job, financial problems — they take care of you. It’s about family.”

We talk about aliens, things greater than ourselves, reincarnation. He suggests we could be one large ant farm someone’s watching, occasionally releasing us, sometimes killing us.  I’ve never though of it that way.

“Who is anyone to say we’re the smartest beings?”

He has a point.

I tell him I’m not looking for religion, just humanity.

“Girl, as long as you follow the basic rulesthe 10 — you’ll be fine. You don’t have to be a great person. You’re not a bad person. You’re just a person.”

I am. So are they. The woman hugs me when I stand. She smells like soap. I don’t want to leave.

Wednesday I drove up a canon to find my inaugural church/dive bar. I picked the cutest church I could find — white, capacity of 30-40 parishioners — perfect. Right down the street, a dive bar. Lovely.

Sunday I woke up hours before the 10 a.m. church service however, I didn’t quite make it to a pew. It wasn’t the night before Tullamore, it was my living quarters and the weather. Bright white room illuminated by fresh snowfall. Basically I woke up feeling like an angel and since God wanted me to revel in my angel self, I decided to relax and think good thoughts about humanity.

That lasted for about two minutes and then I did the last thing any humanitarian angel should ever do. I read the Ft. Collins Coloradoan and the Wall Street Journal. First the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D-Arizona) and then this stupid story about two old women sharing mom’s mink by cutting it up and turning it into two teddy bears. Weird? Definitely. News? Uh, no.

Trying to go back to God, I held my own service in bed, reflecting on one of my last religious experiences. Five years ago. Summer in Michigan. Hot, humid. Body thirsty. Sobering agent dissolving in stomach. No sleep for 24 hours.

I didn’t want to go to a church service in a graveyard, but I couldn’t weasel or beg my way out of it so I womaned up and pouted during the 45 minute drive. I was wholly unprepared for the event mentally and physically. Strapless sundress. Heels sinking in mud.

We were late. The place was packed. I tiptoed between headstones to avoid losing a shoe in the mud. People stared. In-laws offered us their chairs, I looked for a headstone large enough to support my rear. Couldn’t find one, opted to stand, knees bent, weight shifting to avoid cramping and fainting, which happens a lot. (Low blood pressure resulting from running, according to the dr.)

I tried to concentrate on the pastor’s message, which I managed until my hearing dimmed. I kicked off my shoes (I’m smarter than scary movie chicks), grabbed my husband’s hand and said, “we have to go.”

He said just a minute. I said no, right this second, death grip on his hand. He asked why, I couldn’t talk. I get lockjaw before and after I pass out.

Four steps into the crowd, hearing gone. Step five, vision collapsing from the periphery. Step six, down on my knees. Gone. Wake up surrounded by people, pouring sweat, dress soaked, fat man in a short sleeved yellow shirt and bad tie running at me with water and a cookie. Someone put me in a chair, told me I was pale, did I need something? Could they help? Husband —  back off, I’ve got it.

It was about 10 minutes before I could talk, drink or eat but all I wanted to do was get the hell out of the cemetery because, even though we were at the back of the crowd, we were the center of attention. But I didn’t have the use of my legs so I couldn’t escape. Thanks God.

I don’t have a video of my personal blackout, but this is exactly what happens. Generally I fall backward, but I knew I was going to faint in a dress so I fell to my knees. Modesty first.

Best Man Faints and Falls Backward

This is one of my few church memories and it occurred in the best possible environment for me — the outdoors. So, hopefully you can see my hesitation going into this whole church hopping experiment.

Now I’m all worked up. I’m off to snowboard and find a dive bar. Until Wednesday…

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