drive to Vermont
Friday, July 11 2003
setting: Hurley, New York
Today I set off for Vermont all by myself to visit my old housemate John. I kept to the turnpikes, driving my pokey old pickup truck. On the way out of town I dropped off a load of trash and cans at the Hurley Transfer Station.
I started my drive listening to the local public radio station. It was featuring a doctor talking about his experience treating patients suffering from Necrotizing Fasciitis or "flesh-eating bacteria." Later I switched to using headphones so I could listen to my MP3 player (someday I'll have to hack an audio input into the truck's stereo). I've been listening to both Jawbreaker and Jawbox for the past few days. Because of the nature of computer file systems, it's easier to listen to MP3s of bands that are close to each other alphabetically, though in this case my renewed interest in Jawbreaker had reminded me of the much better-known Jawbox when I still only had MP3s of the former.
A light rain started falling somewhere over Massachusetts. By now I was stealing sips from a lukewarm Molson Ice. Short interstate road trips are nearly ideal situations for solitary beer enjoyment. My second beer boiled over when I opened it and spilled into my crotch, which wasn't completely dry by the time I entered Vermont.
It took me three and a half hours to drive to the campus of the college where John serves as an associate dean. I've decided to withhold both the name of the college and of the town, though I will say that it isn't terribly far up the Connecticut River from Brattleboro.
I walked into the first building I saw on campus and there he was, my old housemate John, all decked out in a coat and tie, having a genuine meeting with someone in a bona-fide meeting room. Not that this is relevant, but it had been more than two years since we'd last shared a frying pan of beans.
For the next half hour or so I hung out with John in the context of his office, watching him interact with his colleagues and one of his college's few female students (who was trying to sell him some expensive knives). Everybody seemed to be in love with him. This one woman kept popping into and out of his office and then lingering for yet more smalltalk. High on everyone's agenda seemed to be the drinking away of the sorrows of the week, and people were eager to know where our Friday night drinking would be taking place. John mentioned a few bars and his colleagues responded with how "sure" they were that we'd be meeting up later tonight. But I never saw any of these people again.
Eventually Fernando showed up. Fernando, for those who have forgotten, was one of John's friends back in Los Angele. He's the dashingly-upbeat Mexican-Iranian guy with a penchant for dancing, girls of any description, and parties at our house. Now Fernando is not only John's colleague at the college, but the two are roommates as well. Fernando had to spend the weekend helping his girlfriend move out of a place in Quincy, Massachusetts, and so wouldn't be partaking in the weekend's craziness. But he wanted John to be sure to show me a good time so I'd be back again soon.
Fernando dropped John and me off at the Saab/Volvo place where John's car had just received an oil change. These days John drives a 2000 Saab. One weekend a couple months ago he'd wrecked his old VW Golf on a stretch of I-91 coming back from the north with Fernando and his brother Joe. (The Golf hadn't been fully totaled by the accident, so John and the others were sure to beat the hell out of the car before the tow truck arrived.)
We went back to John's place, which is a small suite in a campus dormitory. It's terribly institutional and antiseptic, but it's a rent-free perk of the associate deanship. Fernando, who had been paying exorbitant rent to live off campus, now resides in John's spare room. "Everybody thinks we're gay," John observed. Then he launched into a monologue about his "man-purse" (a small black bag for carrying his Palm CMXVII and cellphone) and how he delights in referring to it as "my purse."
Other new John kicks include his desire to sell his car to an as-yet-undiscovered Boston fratboy and his interest in highly-processed body-builder foods, the kind "used by Olympians in the former Soviet Union." He showed me the shipments of "food" he'd received. They mostly consisted of large plastic jars filled with a greyish-brown crystalline powder. Mixed with water and perhaps milk, they made a broth tasting of chocolate. Supposedly this stuff is the ticket to a bigger beefier you. I saw John without his shirt on and was indeed impressed by the size of his muscles. John then forced me to eat some sort of protein-rich powerbar that ruined my appetite for a couple hours.
We drove south to Brattleboro, a genuine city with old buildings, bars, and a not-entirely-risk-free nightlife. John's girlfriend Julie lives on Elliot, Brattleboro's roughest, most gangsta-plagued street. Her landlord is rumored to steal women's underpants from the laundry room. ("Why else would anyone want to be a landlord?" we agreed.) We fetched Julie from her apartment and went immediately to McNeil's Brewpub just down the street. McNeil's is a proud and scrappy establishment, so scrappy in fact that it refused to sell out to the new parking garage being built in the massive lot behind it. The structure is so close to McNeil's back window that a drunk could jump from one building to the other on his way to committing a DUI (a way to both live free and die - but we'll talk about New Hampshire tomorrow).
Aside from the unfamiliar picobrews, the oddest thing about McNeil's is a form of entertainment called "the Ring." Picture a miniature hangman's gallows, but with a metal ring instead of a noose. A hook is mounted on the support pole along the arc defined by the string. The goal of "the Ring" is to get the ring to hang on the hook. It's not easy to do, but there is apparently a guy called "the Ringman" who periodically strides into McNeil's and successfully catches the hook 300 times consecutively. (According to John, the Ringman's girlfriend stands at the hook and feeds the ring back to him each time.)
After we'd had a couple of beers and talked to a few of the people there, we set off through town to find a place to eat. Though it wasn't the first Friday of the month, it was nonetheless a "Gallery Walk" night in Brattleboro - meaning galleries were displaying art and giving away free food and vino. Back in the day such events supplied an important fraction of my alcohol requirement, and for old time's sake we checked a few of them out. But in our socioeconomic position, these were mere distractions on the way to a satisfying meal.
We went into a sushi place and sat there for something like 20 minutes without anyone bothering to come to our table, and I was so hungry I began chewing my chopsticks into splinters. Eventually we got up and left. The next place was an Italian restaurant that seemed like it had switched to serving Cajun food. It smelled like puke in there too, though that might have just been really good parmesan cheese. We finally ended up at the deli counter in a health food store buying whatever looked good. For some reason John likes having people believe he only eats Communist athlete food, but when dinnertime comes and he's out with just his girlfriend and out-of-town guests, he eats real food just like anybody else.
Our drinking continued at the Mole's Eye, a basement bar featuring a humble dance floor and just enough room for a live rock and roll band to perform. The Mole's Eye is the place where John and Julie first met, though it had been Fernando who had first grabbed Julie's hand and dragged her to the dance floor. She'd been a welcomed sight for eyes accustomed to what John describes as Brattleboro's "hoochie mamas." Now, a year later, the Mole's Eye is John and Julie's bar. Their money is practically no good there. The guy working the door refused John's attempt to pay the cover for any of us, and though the vodka and beer kept flowing, much of it turned out to have been free. John even ordered me a Skyy vodkatea, which the big bartender lady delivered with bemused apologies. Everybody on staff at the Mole's Eye wanted to come and touch the hems of John's garments. He was manifesting the kind of bar popularity one normally only sees exhibited in movies and implausible sitcoms.
When I saw the white guys setting up their instruments, particularly the slap-happy bassist, I found myself dreading an evening of inevitable white boy funk. The music wasn't quite that bad though. This band only played classic rock covers, beginning with Neil Young's "Old Man." Not surprisingly, a few songs later they were hopelessly mired in Bob Marley. It wasn't funk, but I'd just known these guys would feel the need to demonstrate how black they could be. Between songs I shouted out a request just quietly enough for the band not to hear, "Original music!"
I was amazed how early into the music that people got up and started dancing. The pioneers were two women, one a rather fit-looking late-thirty-something who would have looked a lot hotter had she not decided to clothe her booty in a skort. "It's all peacock," John said, observing the sober precision of her dancing style. He was right, there was no evident pleasure in it whatsoever. It was all about bagging a man. We tried to figure out whether or not skorts constituted "easy access." John raised his hand so that its plane continued the one defined by his nose and then banged his head against the partition a few times. It might as well have been a chastity belt.
We headed back to McNeil's, which by now was crowded with people. I tossed the ring a couple times and missed the hook. Some random guy began telling me that I was doing it all wrong, but then I tossed it a third time and caught the hook. That shut him up good. Then John and I played darts against a team of two unknown ladies, one of whom claimed to have received hypnosis therapy to improve her game. I'd be curious to know how bad her dart game used to be; I feared someone would lose an eye whenever she threw.
We all crashed back at Julie's place. That's one of the great advantages of having a girlfriend who lives within walking distance of a downtown's drinking district.
Fast food workers showing up for their shifts at the westernmost rest area on the Massachusetts turnpike.
I'd just read Fast Food Nation
, so this scene seemed poignant.
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