Sunday, 27 July 2008
Country and Crab Night with Tom Waits and Frank Sinatra
So here is the first of my letters from America I wrote home a couple of years ago, back by popular demand, well three people really, who didn't get them by email the first time around (I think three constitutes popular when I count).
So I have arrived in my small bijoux apartment in a small town on the Massachusetts coast. I am in the cellar below a beautiful this little New England cottage shown above. I am surrounded by granite walls, even a granite wet room. I have two tiny windows that open out onto the front lawn at ground level. I am eye-ball to eye-ball with the ants and this morning two bonking squirrels. However if I climb up six granite steps I get to see across the harbour to the small town from the tiny garden. I have a bed that folds into the wall and in the day I put it away, set up a little table at the foot of the steps and can, when I look up from the lap top, see the roof tops and city hall of the town.
I am feeling somewhat like a troll emerging from my hole underground but it does have everything I need as my needs are few; bed, cooker, table, chair, chest of drawers, little cupboard to hang clothes in. There is a big refrigeration plant next door which hums away all the time but I have now become, even after a few days, used to it. It is a perfect place to write, down in my troll hole, as I have no distractions, although I am starting to see interesting patterns in the granite and no doubt at the end of three weeks alone here I shall be seeing small visions of the Virgin Mary or staged show tunes from the Broadway musicals in the contours of the rock. I have yet to do the wall speech from Educating Rita but it may yet be performed.
I hit Philadelphia in a heat wave that rather took the stuffing out of me, or rather sweated it out (98 degrees for two days running and the other days nearly that). I think I am calibrated for the English climate and found it difficult to function in anything but air-conditioned places. I have to say it was a body shock to walk through central Philadelphia in what felt like 100 degrees and then open a door into some store or museum that was air-conditioned to what felt like Arctic conditions such that you needed to carry a jacket or a cardigan to keep warm…rather a mad climatic body shock. I wondered how much energy Americans use up cooling things down in summer and heating things up in the winter. No wonder the Kyoto agreement is a bridge too far for them to cross if they need to maintain such extremes of artificial temperatures.
I went to a poetry open mike at a venue called Elsie’s in Philadelphia. It was a coffee shop on a railway platform. It was rather disconcerting to find the railway announcements were tannoyed into the venue at intervals, your delicate poem about life, love and the universe, interrupted by an announcement about the delay to the downtown train to Glenside. It was a strange tribe of regulars, some from a local facility for the blind who read their poems expertly from Braille machines. The MC a woman was very funny, and talked in between poets about her job for a hospital encouraging middle aged men to have colonoscopies to prevent bowel cancer. The scope for jokes surrounding this work was copious! They were somewhat suspicious about the stranger in their midst who was not only from a different area of Philly but from across the Atlantic. The MC after I read a couple of short poems said something along the lines of ‘Well, that’s shown our crap up.’ I wasn’t sure, looking round the room as the 8.42 to Carpenter Lane and all points south was announced, whether the locals wanted to hang me or drive me out of town tied backwards onto my horse at that point. However after listening to some good poems and some very very bad ones, including a list of what one man would do if he was President ( I think Point 37 was… Send every rapist and paedophile to the electric chair and have it televised for the benefit of the nation’s potential offenders ) my friend and I managed to escape with our lives and pondered on how such venues were a place people in a big, sometimes scary city like Philadelphia, can find acceptance and a kind of family.
Train journey up from Philadelphia to Boston was interesting, going through Concorde, Providence etc (all those names bequeathed by early settlers so fond of hopeful town naming). Manchester is even represented, a tiny white clapperboard town we went through, clinging to the Atlantic coast. The train went within a stones throw of the coast on one side and freshwater lakes on the other (don’t ask me what happens to the tracks when there is rain or the tides are very high!). The lakes are, apparently, a huge source of mosquitoes and have to be sprayed in the breeding season as they are afraid malaria could become endemic in Boston ( God forbid it should reach the hallowed ground of the countries Ivy league intelligentsia in Princeton and Harvard on the outskirts ). The local bugs seem fond of pale English flesh and I have regretted telling myself I would not need Jungle Insect Repellent when I packed for this trip. The mosquitoes, even by the sea keep up the American tradition of bigger and better. Some are built like Harrier Jump jets with the latest navigational equipment to locate and bite English flesh. Short of walking around in a bug proof jump suit or hopping along in a mosquito net as if I was in a parent’s sack race at a primary school fete, I have decided just to grin and bear it and carry anti-itch cream. The local pharmacist (who seemed to be about eighty and presumably the son in the Ruddenbach and Son Family Pharmacy…Serving the drug needs of the town for over a hundred years ) disappeared into the back of his little emporium and appeared with a tube of cream suitable for jock strap itch which he said was better than the after bug bite cream and a small bottle of white distilled vinegar…’Trust me they hate the smell’ So am now smelling like a pickled gherkin and a cricketers crutch which might get me a seat to myself on the bus I fancy.
I have discovered a little bar/roadhouse to eat in at night and people watch which is lively to say the least, being a few minutes walk down by the docks and the big plant where the truckers pick up the fish to haul them all over the States. Good homey food, especially sea-food though and a bar-tender built like a brick shit house who doesn’t seem to take any nonsense from customers. Kept thinking I am on the set of some old fashioned iconic American film. You can hear the cook perpetually arguing with someone in the kitchen and he emerged a couple of nights ago, yelling and cursing chewing on a stub of a cigar.
‘Whoever ordered the f**king lobster, it’s off, the f**ker climbed out the bucket and Kyle’s stepped on it by mistake, the f**king klutz!’
The bar tender and one of the waitresses who turns out to be his baby sister (her words) trying to work her way through college and is majoring in Creative Writing, seem to have taken a shine to me. I have been back a few nights running and as I don’t cause any trouble and the way I talk makes them ask me to say tomatoes again, I seem to have been granted permission to stay without the locals staring at me! The waitress told me she just loves watching Inspector Morse on the PBS channel and I spoke just like them! I seem to have learnt their life stories as I have the sort of face people tell things to. They actually don’t get a lot of English tourists round this neck of the woods, Joe the bar-tender says (yes I know it gets even more stereo typed, how could a man with a name like Joe become a bar-tender without a sense of irony, expect to find Frank Sinatra playing the piano in the corner one night with his hat tipped back singing ‘One for my baby and one more for the road’. The town is often full of rich Boston types with summer houses, Joe says in the sort of tone which you expect him to spit accurately into some brass spittoon behind the bar at that point.
The food is cheap, actually very good and the portions would sink a battleship.The fishermen and truckers who prop up the bar and watch the sports on the overhead TV don’t take kindly to being short changed on portions. They don’t seem to mind a lone English woman creeping into one of the booths and just listening, watching, eating and pretending to read her book whilst a slice of Americana life unfolds. The bar-tender told one man to mind his language in front of the English lady, last night. I told him I’d heard worse and he says, ‘Well ma’am these bums ought to have cause now and then to know how to behave in front of a lady, God knows no-one gets a polite word out of them the year round!’
I have chatted to the young waitress about Carver, Elizabeth Bishop and lent her my Ali Smith book the Accidental, although heaven know what she will make of that as she is a very ‘English’ read I feel. It’s Crab and Country Night down the bar tomorrow night, a Country and Western band is coming in from the next town to do a gig there apparently, so will keep the journal handy and make notes. There’s always at least one fight the waitress tells me, usually between a fisherman and a trucker from out of town ‘but my brother sort of mashes their heads together and they stop’. I think I should tell that girl she has a lifetime of material just waiting for her to write growing up round this bar.
On Thursday I am off on a whale watching trip and to a tiny theatre in the evening to see the premiere of an IH’s play about the painter Bonnard.
Next day Saturday.
The Crab and Country night proved to be an interesting experience to say the least. The whole history of Detroit Motors was written in chrome in the car park outsidethe roadhouse and the smell of leather hit you before you rounded the bend. Lots of fish have to be caught in sub-zero temperatures and hauled along snow bound roads to keep these pride and joys on the road so they could be brought out and cruised ona Saturday night. It did seem like the Tom Waits song 'Heart of Saturday Night'
I thought it was only in the old Westerns that a man can get thrown out of a saloon door! Had a window seat in my quiet little booth which afforded a ringside seat for the action in the car-park after a couple of people were hurled off the premise by Joe. When I went up to pay the bill an old man at the bar, with a face like crumpled Shar-pei dog with a cigarette sticking out of it, told me Joe used to be a good college footballer but busted his knee up so never got to play pro, but he’s still got a great throwing arm! Think I am falling in love with a stereo-type, cardboard cut out American bar that’s a cross between Deadwood and Cheers. The lady that is renting me the cellar when she heard where I was going to eat at night was appalled; she is very sweet but rather posh. ‘No-one goes there, it’s got a terrible reputation! There’s a nice little Bistro a bit further into town.’
I’ve seen that, three times the price for a plate half the size and immaculate women with Gucci handbags and men in white deck shoes that have never seen a deck. I know which I prefer.