Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Columbus, OH

Gentle readers,

Regret is a funny thing. None of us seem to want it - and yet we all seem to have it. About something. And those of us who deny having it do so at the risk of incurring accusations of denial, of suppressed memory, of the re-writing of history. Regret would seem to be like psychic flatulence - we all fear even the mildest case of our own in a crowded room, yet we only take note at the most egregious infractions of others (and some may be truly egregious). Continuing on down the path of this simile is, doubtless, a doomed affair. And yet the point, I think, is made. Moving on, then, I can only say that, for those regular followers of these minor missives who have even noticed a delay at all in my posting hereto, I must express my apologies, my regret, not for my actions but for my nature. I can get easily distracted. I am distractible. But as we are, thus we must ever be; and so, the inevitable delay was surely that - inevitable.

So - Columbus.

Arriving in Columbus was, yet again, an exercise in cold-weather logistics. Unloading at the hotel was bitter, not helped by the fact of our late evening arrival and the having-already-set-long-ago sun. We've been inordinately lucky, throughout the trip, to have enjoyed clear driving weather on every commute thus far, save for the occasional and passing rainstorm. But safely cocooned in our temperature-controlled, all-wheel-drive, Beverly-Hillbillies-laden Forester, we have often experienced the winter chill en route as the unfortunate arctic blast to be endured while refueling. But when travelling after sunset, the condensation inside the car often results in a frosty buildup on all windows but the windshield, and we have to resort to the periodic interior scraping that reminds me of U-boat sailors 'bailing the hatch' or 'stoking the main' or whatever it was that U-boat sailors would do mid-journey to keep their submersibles operational. (I say U-boat, because - when we're fully loaded up - that's a bit what the interior of the car feels like.)

Nonetheless, once ensconced in the motherly arms of yet another anonymous dwelling, we three hunkered in for the night. Or rather, after Angie and I had sallied forth for some dinner, we three hunkered in. Hunkered down? Somehow it felt more like hunkering IN.

And for dinner, we discovered the first of many fine little gems in this former post-graduate home of my once childhood friend and now graphic designer, Brad Egnor. This is a town which Brad has talked about fondly in the past - not without some sense of having outgrown it, and yet fondly nonethless. He spoke of there being a certain subculture, a certain funky flair that seeps into the town in nooks and crannies. In fact, while we were there, I saw at least a couple references to Columbus as being the "indie art capital of the Midwest." And having been there I can believe it, based on the short, shivering week we spent.

Exhibit A: Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails. Where else in the Midwest would you go to find a spacious and yet cosy feeling pub, fully stocked with local microbrews and domestic & imported favorites, many on tap, with a menu that stretches far beyond the usual pub grub to include quiche, spaghetti & meatballs, meatloaf and sweet potatoes, all manner of delectable salads, a jukebox stocked with great alt rock selections from the 90's (sorry, Beyoncé fans), a knowledgeable bar staff and a very friendly waitstaff, all open - kitchen included - until 2am? 2AM, mind you, being, Midwest-wise, the biggest cause for bragging rights in any downtown eatery.

Yea, and verily did we dine there. And it was good.

Columbus audiences were ... fine. You know, they clapped when they should, that laughed & gasped, for the most part, where they oughtta. Granted, two boys kissing wasn't high on their list, though I imagine the Guilty Ones who were in the audience were all the more appreciative for our kind of theatrical fare. But the kind of folks in Columbus who pony up the pennies for a Broadway Series ticket were, as like as not, just very polite to the point of undue restraint (though they did come alive at the curtain call). Also, in these enormous houses such as we're wont to play, it's often hard to hear the audience response. What would have been booming back at the Atlantic often feels, in these enormous old vaudeville houses, like politesse. However, I think everyone felt like they were turning in good shows and, as I say, the curtain calls were enthusiastic.

Hm - did I actually just talk about the show right there? I must be slipping - back to the REAL part of the tour. Our adventures.

Another fun part of Columbus was German Village. One would - well, THIS one would, at any rate - presume that there was a large German contingent that helped found and settle Columbus. I will leave that possibly mythic interpretation to others to dispel, but should that prove to be the case, the very existence of German Village, if not the preponderance of German street names, German or Yiddish restaurants, and other such Germania would no doubt be the first, biggest clue.

And my own personal favorite discoveries were Katzinger's Deli and the German Village Book Loft. I'll call them Exhibits B and C.

B - Katzinger's Deli: Were you to judge solely on the basis of the available option of cheeses, olives, olive oil, ethnic desserts, knishes and latkes, and such, you would surely think you had stumbled into a very small tasting room for Fairway in New York City. Katzinger's is, to be sure, MUCH, MUCH tinier, and not a grocery but a deli. But the same sense of avocational devotion to their product imbues every answer to your questions about the available foods on display. Fun little chachka-candies, sandwiches with names that sound like songtitles from an Arlo Guthrie album ("Jimmy's Photo Finish", or "Bob says 'Ella Makes My Day'"), Frosttop rootbeer (which I have only ever had elsewhere in Huntington, WV), and an overall vibe that's part Midwest hospitality, part Vermonter stubborn individuality, and part Upper West Side old world import.

C - Book Loft: In a large house, or actually - I think - a series of houses which have been functionally attached, you wander from room to room, stacked floor to ceiling with books all categorized according to the room's designation. The Graphic Novels room. The Science Fiction room. Not to be confused with the Fantasy Literature Room. The Dead, European Classicists' Room. You get the idea. Meanwhile, posters from movies past and present adorn whatever wallspace remains. Ask for directions to the bathroom and they run something like, "Go up to the North East Wing, turn left at Military History, and it's behind the 'Napoleon Dynamite' poster." Angie and I spent over an hour there. We bought nothing. We barely saw every room. As I left, I felt like I had just leafed through every page of a terrific magazine, which is one reason I love to browse through bookshops: dilettante-reading, perusing only book jacket backs and clipped & posted reviews, and feeling amply read for the day...

Add to the list of exhibits, along the way, COSI, the Columbus children's science center. Hands-on doesn't really begin to describe COSI's mandate. Hands-in, hands-full-of, hands-all-over - these may all come closer.

Above you see one Angela Reed astride a participatory demonstration of weight and counter-balance. Tour weight notwithstanding, we could both make it to the end & back, securely strapped in and nudged out onto the wire, peddling over the heads of ninth-graders who doubtless thought us very silly and yet envied us all the same. There's an enormous human skeleton, accurately constructed out of wire mesh, bone-for-bone; a hot-air balloon duo that you can, with the push of a button, heat & deflate up & down a wire; there's an actual car outside that, in the warmth of the summer, can be lifted, with the remarkable help of a complex system of pulleys and cables, by one average-strength human being; there's a rotating optical illusion that, when stared at for thirty seconds, makes all the hallway look like a scene out of "The Matrix", with the very walls wobbling, the people a bit two-dimensional, and the carpet seeming to squirm underneath your feet.

There is also: Rat Basketball!

Ginger and Marianne, two lab rats who each get a single Cheerio when they put the unused & modified ball of a roll-on deodorant through their own assigned basket, met on the field of athletic battle as we cheered them on. We, the audience, were divided into cheering sections. We cheered for Marianne. She lost. My theory is that if she'd been playing for Cap'n Crunch, we would have won.

Meanwhile, although our constant canine companion was underwhelmed by the frigid outdoors, the discovery of snow-covered, riverside Bicentennial Park was a a great joy and much gamboling about was had by one Butley Cerveris-Reed. Apparently, the abundant presence of goose poop just below the snow was intoxicating, although the frozen nature of the hardpack forced a difficult choice: dig or run. After some indecision, he wisely opted for run. (I imagine the experience was much like a cat's atop a mattress filled with catnip.)

My dad and his wife were able to visit, while we were there, Columbus being about three hours from Pittsburgh. It was at that point, after I counted the weeks and months backwards city by city, an idiom which my father considered reminiscent of a Johnny Cash song, that it had been over a year since I'd seen the two of them. As the profound reality of the length of my touring sank in, I wobbled a bit. Can it be? Really? It had felt so much like we'd been in touch quite often, which of course we were, thanks to every modern means of communication, and yet no meeting in realtime. A warning to us all, I suppose. When I was a very little kid, I remember hearing Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle" while with my mother in the Dairy Queen in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, one summer when the family had gone down to accompany my dad's then-annual stint as musical director, and thought I to my six-year-old self that the son in that song would never be me. And actually, throughout my life, I've strived to ensure exactly that. Nonetheless, as I replayed a time-lapsed year in my mind, I felt like I had come dangerously close. And I don't even have sick children to blame it on (a quick test of your lyric recollection, for all you forty-to-fifty-somethings out there)...Anyway, lesson-learned.

It was a backward recount, by the way, for which we had more than ample time as it was a task undertaken while waiting for service at the hotel restaurant. For anyone staying at the Doubletree in Columbus, it's a nice enough place in many respects, but HERE IS FAIR WARNING: don't plan to eat or drink there! Not unless you're a particularly singular fan of cool soup, warm salad, difficult bartenders, and waiting-time of paint-drying duration....

Yet another exhibit of the alternative culture trendiness that one can find in Columbus, in the very trendy "Short North" area, is the evocatively-named used CD & vinyl store, Magnolia Thunderpussy. At said store, I managed to acquire a recording of Stephin Merritt's soundtrack to the 2002 film "Eban and Charley", a cherished and gladly purchased anew CD of Porno For Pyros' self-titled debut CD, a used copy of Mercury Rev's "Deserter's Songs," a disappointing Mission of Burma's "ONoffON," and - because one simply must get one if one can - a Magnolia Thunderpussy t-shirt, dark blue with yellow logo & lettering. [NB: it would appear that the store's name comes from the band, Magnolia Thunderpussy, whose website describes it as "...a source of pride and inspiration for Westside LA’s mid-‘80s underground,... the first high school age band to earn a record contract with legendary indie label SST."]

If only I was a cool, indie musician who could garner yet more alternative cachet by sporting such a t-shirt at his next gig, even more coyly obscured by the Fender Stratocaster across his chest...Instead of a 41-year-old actor who can play the iPod and little else, posing as a cool, indie musician who could garner yet more alternative cachet by sporting such a t-shirt at his next gig, even more coyly obscured by the Fender Stratocaster across his chest.

But we all have our place in this world, no? 'Course, try telling that to this abandoned shopping cart, left smack in the middle of the ice of the frozen solid Scioto River.

The shopping cart seemed to be a remaining relic of a poetry event held literally on the ice of the Scioto, which runs through downtown Columbus, an event demonstrating both the cold of the area and the resiliency of its population. What to many of us would be cause to retreat inside, to Columbusians (?) was merely another performance venue.... And long after the event was left over, the cart there still remained, like a Duchamp sculpture, quizzically and beautifully out of place. Much like the Midwestern subculture we were lucky to discover, much like the "indie art capital of the midwest" itself, nestled amongst the cornfields and combines of Ohio.

Still, I'm tellin' you. It was cold....

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