Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Transformation of Dana

In the darkness of the club, with the Christmas-like rope lighting silhouetting her against the shelves of liquor bottles above the bar, Dana looked a lot like Jaime Lee Curtis—or maybe if Jaime Lee Curtis had a less-famous sister: tall with short spiky fake red hair and a long, oval face with a sharp nose. How exactly she walked around in high heels as high as they were was as big a mystery as why she wore a low-cut tight-fitting shirt on a cold winter night.

She was probably about 47 years old, but maybe the low light made her look older. She said her name was Dana, but the band introduced her as Maria and she kept calling me Brian. She was the only waitress working a room of about 20 tables that eventually filled up as time drew near to the appearance of the headlining band, B.B. Chung King, a creatively interesting Asian man in a cowboy hat who plays the blues. Our first interaction with her was gruff, rather like Flo would treat someone at Mel’s but without the laughtrack or the harmless lighthearted banter. It was a curt abandonment of all niceties normally associated with customer service.

Kara and I had dropped off the kids at my folks’ house for the evening with the idea that we would meet up with long-time friends Scott and Melanie for Scott’s 36th birthday celebration at the Arcadia Blues Club on Huntington. They said meet at 8pm; we got there around 7:30 and parked right in front of the place, which isn’t normally a good sign. I expected it to be crowded, packed to the gills with finger-snapping, head bobbing, beret wearing neerdowells with a penchant for good music all waiting for a break so they can cram out into the alley for a cigarette.

A good movie that I occasionally enjoy is “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and the scene that always gets me delighted is when Stewart and Allyson go to that club where the blues and jazz legends have miraculously assembled to have an impromptu jam session which lasts well into the morning; one part even shows June Allyson falling asleep. The music is ruckus, wild, unpredictable and great, but the scene is partially distracted by the rotating colored lights added afterwards. That’s the blues/jazz club I’ve always envisioned going to, but I doubt one like that even exists.

The Arcadia Blues Club is rather a misnomer. It isn’t really a club, in the sense that it is an esthetically pleasing spot that is open late at night that offers a wide variety of food, drinks and entertainment, including dancing... but it was more of a bar: they did play blues and it was in Arcadia, so I guess two out of three isn’t bad. For starters, the entire room was painted black—floor to ceiling—and not a single light was on anywhere except over and around the bar. There were few things in the club that gave the impression you were going to hear blues. I think there’s a treble clef on the wall and perhaps a poster of a blues festival that has long been forgotten. In a room off to the left of the bar was a few unoccupied pool tables and a variety of doors that I assumed led to a kitchen and/or the bathrooms. When we got there, it was quiet, except for some low background music and the sound of a half-dozen people talking and eating dinner.

The man at the door reminded me of smaller version of Dolph Lundgren, the Russian from Rocky IV, and through a very thick Soviet accent that sounded more like he was going to line us up and shoot us as spies, he welcomed us to the club and asked for the cover charge. I despise paying a cover to get into a bar, as it just means that I’ll spend that much less money on drinks or food, but since I hadn’t paid a cover in about 15 years and it was for a good cause (Scott’s birthday), I forked over the $20 for both Kara and I. He explained something about a drawing, gave us some tickets, and it sounded more like tickets to the breadline. We parted confused. There was another blonde that flitted back and forth from the bar to the front door, but that seemed to be her only purpose, that and she placed these little battery-operated flicker candles at all of the tables, so out of the corner of your eye, it looked like those flashing construction signs by the side of the road: She didn’t look like she worked there but she also didn’t look like she would voluntarily go there, rather that someone was paying her to make sure the guy at the door had a plate of food and a refill on his drink about every 10 minutes.

Picking a table at a bar is a complicated experience. We had a lot to choose from which made it all the more difficult. You first need to evaluate what sort of sound system will be later pummeling your eardrums and convulsing your heart and then you need to discover the access points. Will the space become so densely packed that I’ll have to crawl under the tables and over people’s laps in order to get to the bathroom, or will we be so ensconced in the crowds that even a waitress with the tallest of heels and spikiest of red hair will never be able to reach us? I had never heard of this band and I had no idea to what level a following he had waiting for him to play, but I had no idea how many people were supposed to come…nor who. I didn’t want to sit in front because the possibility of deafness becomes greater the closer you sit to the speakers, and I didn’t want to sit in the back because the darkness would overcome us all and we wouldn’t be able to recognize our own hands in front of our faces. Somewhere in the middle will do.

I scanned the room and not surprisingly, we were the first to arrive. There were a couple of tables up front that were reserved for names that seemed unlikely to be part of our party (plus reserving a table isn’t part of Scott’s M.O.), so we pulled together two tables with the combined seating of eight… if more than that show up, we could easily harness in a few more chairs.

Then we met Dana, looming over us like more of a teacher behind the squat rectangular glasses perched on her pointed nose than a waitress. She didn’t say her name right off; she barely said anything but, “What’ll ya have?” Apparently the friendly greeting was the Russian’s job at the door. I was certain she had tattoos, something like a rose on her shoulder with big thorns to symbolize her ex-husband and unrequited loves or a skull on her inner thigh warning all who venture too close. I got a Sam Adams (always start with the best beer on the list and go down), and I probably would have cringed if I had known the price—a single bottle of beer lately seems to be the same price you would pay at the grocery store for the whole six pack, and somehow we’re okay with paying it. Kara wanted wine, and Dana informed us in no certain terms that they offered Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet, essentially white, pink and red. And only because I had fallen for the trick before, I asked to clarify that the “Zinfandel” she spoke of was in fact a white Zinfandel, which it was. Kara ordered the Cab instead.

It is always my policy to be friendly to the staff of a bar. It ensures good service for one and for another, and you might just play your way into some perks. For example, I went to the Wood Ranch restaurant on an especially rainy night a few days before Christmas to pick up a gift certificate for Natalie’s teacher (Gnat said “Ranch Wood” was her favorite restaurant), and while I was there, I took the opportunity to have a glass of wine and enjoy the Christmas camaraderie of strangers. Since I was by myself, I chatted up the bartender, who looked like he could have very easily been a Joel or a Jeff, what with his youthful unshaven face and that glint of enthusiasm he still had left for his job. He poured a jack and soda by mistake and slipped it next to my Ravenswood Zin instead of dumping it out. It’s things like this that earns a 25 percent tip from me. Am I a big fan of bourbon? Not especially, but it was a nice warm drink on a cold rainy night.

So, back at the ABC, I asked Dana if she expected the place to get crowded. It was an innocent question that I hoped would spark a brief conversation, at least putting us and our future table mates in her good graces for the duration. At the very, very least, it would make us familiar to her and not just some group of hobos off the streets. In a brusque voice from over her shoulder as she trekked back to the bar, I got a one-word answer, “No,” as if I asked if we could borrow her car to transport manure. So, that’s how it was going to be? Oh well, so much for good service, but I was starving all the same, which was a mistake not to take care of that earlier. Since we don’t go out to these places very often, I wasn’t entirely in sync with the usual practices of preparation for a night out…at least back in the college days, we’d have a few drinks and dinner somewhere else to not only save money but to get good food. Usually bars are known for two out of three things: good entertainment, good food and good drinks—you can usually pick two but you’ll never ever get all three. We thought I should wait for everyone to get there first because someone else may be eating too and I didn’t want to be rude, but by the time my Sam Adams arrived and I was half-way through it, food became a priority.

I ordered the Club. That was it. That’s all I had to say apparently. “I’ll have the Club.” Dana turned away abruptly, giving me the impression that I’ll get it however they make it and I won’t get a choice in the matter. And I should feel lucky at that.

In unknown situations and new environments, I always order the Club. You can’t screw up a Club sandwich, and the likelihood of getting food poisoning from something so simple as deli meat and bread is much smaller than if I had gotten, say, ravioli and cheese or anything else they offered. However, the choices of food wasn’t that great either. You can get a salad, fish and chips, the club or a hamburger. They did have an array of desserts, which seemed unusual. Who thinks of tiramisu at a bar?

Our two will be good entertainment and good food, it appeared.

Meanwhile, a lanky guy in a bright red shirt who would have looked more at home behind a computer terminal at an IT company than on stage at a blue’s club began adjusting the instruments, paying particular attention to the drum kit, which seemed to be in complete disarray. Who would put it up there and not know that the high-hat goes on the left and the rest of the symbols on the right? It seemed odd that he would have to organize the whole thing merely 10 minutes before he was supposed to play. But I just wrote him off as a roadie, or at the very most, the sound check guy.

Dana returned frequently, which was nice, but there wasn’t that many people there yet to make it surprising. What else was she to do? Stand there and fume? She got a lot of that in too. On the back of the menu, they had a few specials, one of which was Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for only two dollars, which is probably $1.99 more than necessary. She tried to talk me out of it, claiming that it was nasty, but since I never had one, I insisted. She stomped toward the bar to retrieve it with a disappointed look on her face and returned a lot longer than it should have taken to open a beer can (yes, can!). Along with it, I got the Club. It was plopped down in front of me with little ceremony…and my request for some mustard bounced off of her back as she stomped away.

The tall lanky guy in the red shirt made his rounds around the room asking the few people there what sort of blues they were interested in hearing, and when he got to our table, he introduced himself as just “Bobby.” He was friendly and I liked the attention, so he must be the owner or at least the manager. Since we had never been to a blues club, I told him that any sort of blues would be good blues to us, as I had no favorite tunes that came to mind. I then put my foot in my mouth, by first asking if he owned the place. He said he didn't, which turns out to not be the truth. Doing a little checking, Bob Darhms, a longtime drummer from blues-infested Chicago, is the principle behind Red Entertainment, Inc., which is the company that owns not only this club but also Yesteryears in Pomona.

Modestly, he was just Bobby, the drummer. Oh, in that case, I will further shove my foot in my mouth and ask the origin of the B.B. Chung King band name. Again, making conversation, perhaps learning something new about the act we were about to see, and if I know one thing, it’s that people like to talk about themselves. Well, apparently, this Bobby was the Bobby from The Bobby Blueshouse Band, the Arcadia Blues Club house band that plays every Friday and Saturday night. Who knew? You’re right, probably everyone in the room. Perhaps I hurt his feelings by not recognizing him, but really, he looked like a guy that would fix my computer at work. However, if I squelched his pride, he recovered quickly and explained that B.B. Chung King didn’t come on until 10pm. He even showed me the flyer on our table that made no mention of the time!

Yikes. Ten! That’s Post Meridian, right? That’s a long time after Kara and I usually start making our way towards the bed for the night, especially during the hectic holidays. We were hoping to be pointed toward home by that time, as we ignorantly assumed that the headliner would start playing at 8pm. Again, we’re out of practice. Two hours of blues sounded like, to us, a full night of entertainment, and since we assumed the kids would have trouble falling asleep at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the carnage wouldn’t be that bad by the time we arrived to retrieve them at 10pm.

So, there’s now two full hours of the Bobby Blueshouse Band that we’d have to endure before hearing the headline band that we paid to see, and by his first offering, I wasn’t wholehearted impressed. If I ever start playing in a blues band at a blues club one day, remind me to start the night out with a swinging tune instead of something I’d likely hear at a New Orleans funeral procession. I was bored. I’m not going to say they weren’t talented—the bass player who felt compelled to keep his Bluetooth in his ear the whole night (perhaps his wife couldn’t make it and she wanted to hear him play) was fantastic and I especially enjoyed the trombone player—but it didn’t seem like they had been playing together for very long. The changes were loose and the songs mostly petered out instead of smacking us in the face, earning a half-hearted applause from the sparse and scattered crowd.

Around 8:30, Jeremy Dover and his date came in. I wasn’t expecting him and since it was dark, I let him wander around the room for a while before I made sure it was him. Then Scott, Melanie, Scott’s two cousins and one of their dates showed up as well. With the table full, we were ready for blues. The band improved drastically, and since they had no official warm-up period before they just started to play, I guess they just needed to sync up and feel the vibe, which they most certainly did.

Jeremy called across the table to Kara and I: “Don’t worry, it gets better, much better. B.B. Chung King’s music will tear your face off.” I know why he tried to prop us up, because we were just sitting there listening to the music, unlike everyone else who were offering up cat calls, whistles and ovations of cheers to the solos and the riffs that stood out amongst the rest. Perhaps he thought we didn’t care for the music and weren’t enjoying the sounds, which is far from the truth. What Jeremy didn’t know is that I internalize most public displays of excitement or emotion; for whatever reason—embarrassment, shyness or introverted reservations—I rarely express enthusiasm for anything. That shouldn’t be translated into me not having a good time. I was. The music was great, as good blues music is one of my favorite genres; however, if Jeremy could have seen my foot tapping along or my hands bouncing off the back of Kara’s seat, he would have seen how much a good time I was having. I just don’t show it too often.

While all of this was happening, an interesting thing occurred that perhaps only Kara and I were able to witness; that was the silent transformation of Dana. What was once cold and disinterested, turned to delight and engaging. The stomping to the bar with mono-syllabic grunts and impartial suggestions converted to interesting and enthusiastic activity. Was she now dancing!?! Yes, she was at the bar doing her best Ginger Rogers, all by herself. When I followed a Pabst with a Heineken, she laughed that I was “all over the place.”

Arriving at our table didn’t involve a turned down lower lip and a flittering glare over the top of her glasses with her arms akimbo, but instead she sashayed and cavorted toward us with a swing of her hips and a boogie in her step. Then she took your order. From where did this other Dana come? Did her twin show up for the second shift? Did Jamie Lee Curtis actually clock in and take her place, researching a roll for a movie? The night and day was fantastic, and nobody noticed because the Dana they had met wasn’t the same Dana we had met.

Was it us? Did we look like water-drinking, salad-eating no tippers who take up space at the tables and mooch free music off the band. Or was it the music? At first, she resembled a typical bar maid hocking drinks in a nonchalant mood indifferent to anyone and everyone, perhaps hardened by the world, downtrodden by the unforeseen twists in her life. But after the band got started, after the place eventually filled to semi-capacity—at least most all of the chairs were occupied by maybe 50 or 60 people—only then did she morph into alter-Dana, the cheery upbeat Dana that was dancing in front of the stage with the soul-saving “preacher” who washed away our sins and blew a breath of hope into our lives through the a few covers from The Man in Black. He was about 65, wore a round brimmed felt hat and the only thing that shined on him was his smile, the glint from his round-rimmed glasses against the lights and the cross around his neck. Before he got up on stage, I noticed he was by himself, sitting at a table by the wall, unassuming in the darkness as just another patron in from the cold to hear some music. Then he bound up on the stage, belted out two or three Johnny Cash songs with about a 10 minute sermon sandwiched in between, during which time he did a little soft shoe on the dance floor, soon joined by Dana…our surly waitress Dana turned carefree fairy alighting about the room.

My friend Heidi made a surprise visit, exclaiming that she had never before been inside of a bar, which made for a good laugh. It was through her that I learned Dana’s name, because she asked her what it was, but I was confused when the first band, capping off their final set, gave credit to the various people who made it happen, one of which, Bobby announced, was Maria the waitress. At that point, I wasn’t sure who was wrong.

By the time the second band set up and began to play, Kara and I were tired, plus we had to look forward to picking up the kids and another 45 minutes back to our house. It was almost 11pm by the time we left. I cashed out my tab, to which Dana called us sissies for not being able to stick around for the rest of the show…and by the quality of music B.B. Chung King was cranking out, I wished he had started earlier so we could hear more of it.

We had a good night. We stopped at The Hat to fill that void the Club couldn’t reach and when we got to my folks’ house around 11:30, the kids were still awake and waiting for us with bloodshot eyes and zombie-like motions. It was as late as they had ever stayed up and I’m surprised they made it that long. Oh well, they had a good time with Grandma and Grandpa.

Natalie was snoring by the time we were down the street and Matthew soon followed. We didn’t hear from either of them until about 9am this morning, and needless to say, today became a lazy movie-watching, game-playing day.

In the end, it was very interesting to watch someone’s personality transform from one of malevolent resent and bitterness to one of goodwill and frivolity to all, and what was remarkable was that there was no clear evidence of what made it happen. It reminded me of “When Harry Met Sally.”

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

1 comment:

Grant's Mom said...

I told you I couldn't wait to hear your spin on the evening!!! I agree. When Dana Maria waited on me at first, she was less than friendly. I think you hit it the nail on its head with calling her curt. However, once the music started, she was converted! I'll email you a picture of her. :) So, glad you guys were there and enjoyed it!


web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post