Here again, sitting at the front table, just like every Wednesday night after league, I’m with a group of middle-aged ladies, the Sistahs, and the only representative of my team, ‘Spare THIS!’. Rose, the bartender, makes sure the drinks flow freely as we order yet another round of bowling-pin shaped Budweisers. There’s only a smattering of patrons adding to the ambience of neon beer logos and wood-paneling that could use a good burning away.Hollywood Bob is at the microphone! (How did he get the Hollywood nickname?) He sports slight hair and a brow with wrinkles like a lyric sheet that complements a fleshy scalp, and despite thick glasses that seem to make excessive activity a challenge, rumors abound that he’s the cat’s meow at the Eagles Club, and always ready for a dance with the ladies. This doesn’t explain why he sings “My Way” like Bob Dylan would, and those conditions would include Bob Dylan sounding more, or exactly like, a chainsaw. The few people in the room give him a standing ovation, as he slowly ambles away from the microphone. Bob keeps it real, as only Bob can.
There’s a bit of an uncomfortable silence, broken by the video CD skipping Don McLean. The singer opts to sing another song – Badfinger’s “Come and Get It”. I have to take a break from this.
The vicinity around the bar is showered in Limp Biskit – a frightening metaphor, but nonetheless, true. It’s about 12:30am, and the leagues have finished up, and as this is the only all-ages area for miles, the under-21 demographic is in queue for discount bowling. I walk past the crowds with that partially inebriated self-confidence, and towards the flight of stairs that accommodate a washroom of purely functional standing, at great odds with the surrounding architecture.
I don’t remember exactly when the Nike-capped, Docker-assed crew cut ran into me with his drink. I’m only two sheets to the wind, and lucid enough to know that he zoomed out of the entrance, into me, with a pint full of amber, and there was a moment of silence as we looked at each other, and listened to the wind whistle as the pint raced towards the synthetic floor with an undramatic crash.
I shrug and say, “Whoa,” before proceeding into the lavatory, and he makes his way downstairs after shaking his head, and mumbling words without vowels.
My song is up! My rendition of ‘Holly, Holy’ brings applause, and the good feeling of knowing a fresh pint has been ordered for me, compliments of the Sistahs. I love them. They take a break from their husbands for a night every week, bowl, and then drink until close, interspersing these events with dirty jokes and stories you can’t hear in an office with fluorescent light fixtures that need to be cleansed from that pale yellow asbestos that accumulates in the plastic tray cased around it. I give a small wave to George at the bar before I take my seat.
George doesn’t say much. He’s in his early sixties, very thin, and doesn’t seem like he’d be able to lob a 15-pounder down the alley, yet he bowls a consistent 220. He sits for hours in front of a video trivia terminal, conversing with the cathode ray tube in a manner that transcends verbal. They’ve given him a job working the pulltabs counter. The management has seen him here so often, they probably figured he should be paid…
” Hey, you owe me a drink.”
It’s bathroom guy. George looks up from the video poker machine.
I’m in deep conversation with the Sistahs – deep enough that I’ve ignored/missed his statement.
” You owe me a drink.”
I turn around, answering, “I think you’re mistaken,” wondering if he’s staring at me as his eyes dart around the room lazily. “We ran into each other. It’s nobody’s fault. I don’t owe you a drink.”
Docker-boy is clearly not interested in an introductory logic course, and mumbles something under his breath. Linda, the KJ, is shouting at him, over the howling of a woman who has made the most dreaded of all karaoke faux pas – an attempt at Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. I can’t hear what Linda’s saying, because the singer is doing that hoo-hooing part at the end. Somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood, as a direct result of this hoo-hooing, dogs howl at the moon, buried somewhere underneath Ballard’s cloud cover.
Mary, the waitress, comes by. “Rob, get out of here!” She begins sympathetic counseling in order to coax him to leave before they call the cops – again. He reluctantly shuffles through the Marlboro curtain to the sounds of Ratt’s “Round and Round” in the synthetic pastel-neon lobby.
” I’m so sorry… He’s my boyfriend, and he’s always causing trouble. This is like the second time he’s done this this week. Jerry the manager said he’s going to ban him from here if he does it again. I’m so sorry. Can I get you something from the bar? No charge.”
” No worries… I’d like one of those Budweisers in the shape of a bowling pin, if that’s okay.”
” Sure!” she replies, and heads to the bar. In the distance to the south entrance, I can see Rob talking with a guy about his age, a long-haired mullet with fringe denim jacket, sort of like the look John Cougar Mellencamp had when he was using all three names. I can hear them from here. It’s most definitely a heated exchange.
Mary returns with a Bud, and places it in front of me. I tip her generously and note my inventory of alcohol. I have my pint of Hefeweizen AND a bottle of Budweiser. Rob has nothing. Karma has spoken. I reenter the conversation as the punchline of an extraordinarily nasty joke is delivered, and the cackling of the Sistahs ensues.
I excuse myself and head to the payphone, call my brother and ask him if he can drive me home. He agrees, if I buy him a drink. I tell him I already have one waiting for him.
A heavy-metal guy comes up to the microphone and sings a song either called or written by “Creed”. The sound system crackles as he screams faux-agony, and is interrupted by the loudspeaker announcing lane availability.
He’s not very good, but we all clap politely, in a way encouraging him to get up and sing three or four more times. I wonder that if we don’t clap, maybe he’d stop singing, freeing his time to have some sort of epiphany, and have an inner monologue like “Fuck it! I’m going to play tennis or something, and show these bastards what I’m made of!” Maybe it’s not tennis, but maybe he’d become famous someday, and our withholding of applause might have been the catalyst for his promising career in tennis, TV/VCR repair, or whatever.
I’m up. “Vehicle,” by the Ides of March, dedicated to the Sistahs. I change the lyrics slightly and customize the song specifically for them. I don’t think a song like “Vehicle” could be written today – it’s about a guy who entices women into his car with pictures, candy and the promise of taking one to the nearest star, which is obviously code for “paying your dues” in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, it’s one of my favorites and I feel quite alive while I sing it.
Near the end of the song, right where David Clayton Thomas works without accompaniment and chants, “Great God in Heaven, you know I love… you,” my brother, Travis, walks in. We both sort of have some pull here, for what that’s worth, so he squeezes in a request – David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” – and is up next.
This is his song. Nine years of Texas living has perfected a country wail that few can imitate, and he brings it home with a verse in the song, written by Steve Goodman for Coe, entitled “the perfect country song”, and it goes like this: “Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/and I went to pick her up in the rain/But before I could get to the station in my broken-down pick up truck/She got runned over by a damn old train.”
We choose the end of this song as the finale to the evening, as Travis leaves in thunderous applause, and head towards the south entrance, to his waiting 1965 Dodge Dart convertible.
There’s a scuffle outside. It’s Docker-boy and Mullet-Man, in the parking lot behind the Dart, on the sidewalk, yelling at each other and throwing punches. A group of white guys in FUBU gear are watching the melee.
” Whoa. What’s going on?” I ask.
” Fucked if we know,” says Suburban Hip-Hop Boy. “They’ve been doin’ this for awhile.”
Docker-Boy and Mullet-Man separate briefly. Mullet-Man yells, “I fought for you, man! I fucking fought for you! And this is what you fucking do to me.”
I turn my head to Hip-Hop. He looks at me and shrugs. Ten of us watch quizzically as we wonder what might have been fought for. Honestly, we can’t even guess.
Mullet-Man shoves Docker-boy into the intersection and to the pavement, and as he does this, the fringe from his denim jacket creates action lines to dramatize the action. There’s a siren in the distance. The Seattle PD (perhaps formerly the Ballard PD, before the annexation?) is on its way, as the battle continues.
Travis and I figure this is the best opportunity to leave, but that chance is cut short as Docker-Boy gets up, and shuffles towards us, towards the entrance. Mullet-Man stumbles after him, but collapses on the sidewalk and passes out.
” You owe me a fucking beer,” he says as he passes me, but for some reason passes his attention to Hip-Hop and his friends. He throws a swing at the group, and Hip-Hop flattens him. Docker-Boy loses his cap, and his slow-motion world hits the ground at sobering speed. They erupt with a “Yeah!”
We bond in solidarity with Hip-Hop and Friends, but leave just in time to watch the cops arrive.
My love for Ballard grows exponentially tonight. As we drive home, I notice the Denny’s has changed its outdoor signage, altering ‘Cocktail Lounge’ to ‘Sports Lounge’. One block north, a new housing development, The Ballard, boasts loft-style living in the low $200s with picturesque views, without mention of the view of Denny’s and the Goodyear Tire Center. Four blocks to the west, a man vomits in the alleyway behind the Old Pequliar, while Whitesnake’s corporate-sponsored rebellion plays from the jukebox inside. Five-hundred feet above, a bird flies, one of those awful black birds that emits a throaty Janis Joplin squawk, and watches this occurrence, lit by a hazy moon and another bout of rain to wash the toxicity away, and start clean for the next day’s cycle.
At an unspecified distance above the crow, God sighs and changes the channel.