Saturday, December 18, 2004

J'adoube*

I spent the last few days in Nashville.

We zoomed along the Interstate from Memphis. It was another beautiful day.
Refuelling on gas and snacks, I wandered into the gas station. Paying, I spilled a few bits of loose Euro change on the counter and the cashier picked them up as pennies.

"Not those," I said, scooping them back, "They're Euros..."

I paid and got my stuff.
As I turned to leave, he said, "What were those coins again?"
"They're European coins..."

I mention it because it brings home to me what an oddity I can appear at times here, travelling in the South with my English accent and Irish blood and lack of familiarity with life here. It's made me feel like not talking at times, blanking the waiters and waitresses when we eat out, letting Hannah do the work. My confidence is slowly growing, though. I know it sounds kinda wussy, but it's different when you're coming somewhere to live, not just taking a vacation.

Big Food

It's proved impossible to not put weight on.
There are two principle reasons for this, the first and most obvious being that food in the US seems to be exclusively fried, served in huge portions, and chiefly constituted of meat and cheese. The second reason is that there is no spare key to the apartment for me at the moment, so while Hannah has been completing her end of semester exams at law school, I have been confined to my quarters.

Not that these quarters aren't superbly appointed, especially after my humble room in Ireland, where there wasn't room to swing the proverbial cat and my view looked out on some rubbish bins and a rusting bicycle. It's also a sweet relief to have escaped from The Man who made Terrifying Throat Sounds All Night and The Man with the Most Sensitive Ears in the World. They are now just a distant memory, preserved only here in the pages of Extreme Unction.

In Memphis, I am six floors up in an apartment building. The ambient temperature is lush after the landlady-controlled heating regime in Rathmines, a regime that subjected me to merciless bouts of alternately freezing and tropical extremes of hot and cold. Where before I had linoleum floors and a refrigerator and microwave within touching distance from my bed, here there are, ooooh, carpets, and a dedicated kitchen.

Wandering through the glass doors (on which I've already savaged my head), there's a balcony that looks out over a high school, behind it there's a profusion of trees, mostly brown, some are leafless now, and rising up in the distance, a couple of tall buildings, one has a US flag flying, the other has a large "i" in a red circle and the word "bank" underneath. I just cannot understand the purpose of this sign. Is it for the benefits of pilots? Do they fly over and think "Hell, that reminds me, I must go the bank later, let me make myself a note..."

Pretension, Huey and Hugh - A Day in three Sections

Section 1 - Pretension
We went out today. I was suffering being indoors. It may amaze my friends, who struggle to imagine me not sat behind a computer desk or lying on the floor of an Irish bar somewhere, my legs grimly spasming as I once again swear never to touch the demon drink. Yes, previously, they were perhaps what I alternated between, with the odd bit of dating thrown in (you know, rejection keeps me fresh, I enjoy the feeling of my eyes streaming and plumbing the depths of self-loathing as I ponder the mystery of why no-one wants to know me... answers on an e-postcard). Now I am in America, I am looking once more to find some people to interact with. In Dublin I had Leo, my brother-in-arms, the other Leo, who would regale me with all manner of trivia, and who turned me on to Saki and lightened my mood with his silly jokes. Such as...

It was so cold in Dublin yesterday, I saw a lawyer putting his hands in his own pockets.

Even Brian, the annoying American, who played weird music and was endlessly engaging in violent confrontations with the customers (these invariably involved someone telling him he was "a fucking bastard"), even he is missed, sort of.

So today I asked Hannah to take me somewhere, anywhere, and we settled on a coffee shop where the freakazoids hang, Otherlands. Oh, straight off, self and other, defining yourself by opposition, it's all there in the name, Otherlands. Alternative coffee for alternative people. But hey, what the hell, let's go and see...

We parked up and walked in. On the steps outside, two guys were talking about Belle and Sebastian. Now, anyone who knows me, will know how much I dislike Belle and Sebastian, with their "aren't we clever and well-mannered and tasteful and oh so English..." To my mind, they are horrendous middle-class artschool toss (and before anyone moans about jealousy, I went to artschool, I have my good degree). So that was a portent of doom. Inside was a pleasing arrangement of mismatched chairs and D-I-Y art adorning the walls. A tattooed young lesbiab-looking girl was sashaying around (now, I don't often use the word sashaying, but believe me, this girl was sashaying). To what end she sashayed, can anyone say. Perhaps her sashaying was silently ushering in the revolution...

We had hot chocolate. It was almost cold. Can you complain in such a joint I wondered... it would be considered deeply uncool.

"Hey, this man wants his hot chocolate to be hot... like, well, let's use up more of the Earth's valuable resources indulging one person's quest for HOT chocolate... hey, if you're gonna destroy the earth, why not go outside and yank up a few trees while you're at it..." etc

I didn't bother to complain. I just sat there loathing the people sat around me, despite the fact they were doing nothing but draw breath. Somehow I couldn't help myself. I could feel the pressure of the fact that my eyes and nose could start spurting blood and no-one would leave what they were doing and take an interest. They'd just go home later and say to some stoned buddy or other....

"I saw something pretty wild in Otherlands today, this guy with his eyes and nose spurting blood. Pretty wild..."

I resolved to return with my novelty Fake Blood Spurting Eyes and Nose Kit and put my theory to the test.

We looked through The Scene, a Memphis free paper, and found a gig by a band called Dead Irish Blues at a place called Huey's. It was just getting underway.

"Shall we go?" said Hannah.
"Yep, let's do it."

Section 2 - Hueys
Huey's is a cool spot. We whizzed over the way to Shangri-La Records. Thousands of records, a place to return to. I turned up a Rocket from the Tomb album of "the album that never was". I couldn't justify the 25 dollar price tag, particularly when my record player is sat in a bedroom 4000 miles away.

We entered Hueys. Dead Irish Blues were playing. They didn't seem very Irish. But then again, they didn't seem Dead or to be very Blue, either. In truth, they sounded pretty damn bad. I don't like to stray away from positivity after all my hard work to feel good about life, myself, the universe, etc, but yup, they were bad. Not to worry. They played a song that lasted six years and featured the singer repeatedly inviting over a "fat momma from Louisiana" for some fun and games in the bedroom. He then walked off stage and returned with a kazoo.

My spirits sank even further.

A kazoo has never enriched a single great work of art.

We had food. I had a reuben, Hannah went with the Philly chicken sandwich. We had fries, too. It was a great meal choice for two people concerned for their weight.

I was feeling strangely sad. The coffee shop had been like falling down a well. Now I was at the bottom, soaking wet, sat in the dark. I thought of the glittering lights of a night-time taxi ride through Dublin city, of the dome of Rathmines church, of walking along to the Net cafe with my laptop, racing out to O'Briens for sandwiches and coffee while Patrick or J.D. kept an eye on my computer. Now I was here in this massive country, spending most of my time in the apartment, staring out over the trees and wondering how to meet people.

I asked Hannah how I was going to meet anyone.

That made us both sad. We left.

Section 3 - Hugh
We tried to pull out of the car park. A couple were stood behind the car, stopping us reverse. They were reading Hannah's provocative Liberal bumper stickers. They walked off into Hueys, strange smiles on their faces.

"... and you don't need to be a genius to guess their political persuasion," said Hannah.
"Nope. Just the amount of time it took them to read the stickers confirms they are Bush supporters."
Hannah laughed.

On the way home, I yelped.

"Books!"
"No, that's just wizards, a head shop."
"Nope, there are rows and rows of books."
"No, anyway, they're probably closed."
"Ah, right, that's why the lights are on and someone is looking through the shelves of stuff..."

We swung around and came back.

There was 15 minutes till closing time, apparently.
Hannah tried the door and it wouldn't open.

"See, they're closed."

A big guy came walking across the store. He opened the door and gave a strange look to Hannah. "Oh, the door, was it just stuck?"
"Yup, it swells up with the cold, come on in, we've another 15 minutes..."

I went round and picked out some items, a book of tales by Saki (Leo, Mr Trivia, turned me on to him), and a pulp paperback of Philip K. Dick's Time out of Joint.

We fell to talking. The guy bellyached about some stuff. He had read Saki himself. He asked me my angle on the PKD and I confirmed I was a fan.

Hannah chimed in that I was a big Bukowski fan and Hugh pointed out they had two of his books on a table. I took a book of poems, What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

The guy confirmed that the shop had free wireless internet access and served bagels and coffee, sausage and biscuits. I looked at the little 60s looking black-and-white tables, imagining myself here with my laptop, tap-tapping.

We wrapped it up. The guy introduced himself as Hugh, said he was the owner, and we all shook hands. He was a real nice guy. I am sure we'll be back.

Outside in the car, I felt much happier. Here was a place where I could come along to, once I'd learned to drive the American cars and navigate American roads, where I could do a little work and chat away and feel a part of a tiny corner of American life. That's what I'm looking for, really, a public place where random stuff may happen to me, where I can listen to people talk and warm a seat and while away the day. It's not hugely ambitious, but it's fine for now.

I held Hannah's hand as we drove. I told her there was no reason to worry, that I wasn't miserable. I looked down at the few books I'd bought, thought about Hugh's, and then looked out the window at the cars passing by and the strip malls and stores of Memphis. I was happy again.

* J'adoube - Commonly taken to mean "I adjust", it's a phrase used in chess.

However, this comment is fun.

"An expression denoting unwillingness to move the piece touched. The derivation comes from an old English phrase, 'Shut up', formerly the conventional response to: 'You've touched that piece, you've got to move it.' Later the introductory phrase was omitted by the aggrieved player, and the piece toucher would automatically say 'Shut up' without the need for prompting. This was taken into middle High Flemish where it appeared as Schodop and later came into old Northern French as J'odeupe or J'adoube."

Hartston, William, Soft Pawn, Macmillan Publishing, 1995 (ISBN: 185744145-1)

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