Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The strip-mall bar

The ceiling fans whirr furiously, humming, rattling, buzzing, their pull-chains quivering, dancing nervously in the artificial wind. The blades could detach from the ceiling at any moment, decapitating swathes of luckless punters in a beer-soaked bloodbath.
A forest of taps bristles behind the bar. Bartenders dart like bees.
Pastel clumps of polo-shirted men in golf visors cluster around low tables, their smart phones on the table. Lone, puce businessmen loosen their ties, lowering themselves onto bar stools, exhaling. Car keys on the counter. A woman sitting at the bar has lost a flip flop; it slumps, forgotten, on the floor.
A doctor orders a beer. His scrubs are branded with ‘Hermann’ on the back of the neck. There is a barcode on the seat of his pants.
Flat, stucco ceiling, wood paneled walls festooned with vintage drink advertisements. Glenmorangie Single Malt. Guinness Is Good For You. Cabinets full of old beer bottles. A nod to the old country, some old country, any will do.
Outside, shoppers pull up to the strip mall in glinting trucks, air conditioning roaring.
A meaty man, neckless in a black shirt, a silver chain glinting on his swarthy chest, faces two women sitting across the table from him. His hands are big, splayed on the table. They lean towards him.
‘Yeah, I was a boy scout. This one time, we were handed a rabbit and told, this is your dinner.’
Exclamations.  ‘Did you have to kill it?’
‘Sure did.’ Dee-id. ‘They gave us a hammer. Had to look it right in the eye, and boom!’
Gasps from the women.
He nods slowly. ‘Uh-huh. Ate it, too. Skinned it, cooked it, whole nine yards.’ He pushes back from the table, shirt buttons straining. Leans back on his low stool. It squeaks in protest.
He shakes his head, looks out the window.
‘Yeah, my buddy couldn’t do it. We were, what, twelve years old, right? So I says to the scout leader, I says, give me a rifle. Give me a rifle and I’ll shoot it from twenty feet away. You know? Be easier that way.’
Murmurs of assent.
He takes aim with an imaginary gun, squeezes his trigger finger. ‘Easy.’ Shakes his head again.
‘But I guess they didn’t have guns at camp, so I had to do it with the hammer.’
He slaps his meaty paws together. ‘Boom!’ His eyes shine. ‘Boom,’ he says again. ‘Right between the eyes.’
The woman sitting at the bar is wearing a sheer shirt, which veils a tattoo of Chinese symbols in a row all down her right side. They disappear behind a black bra strap, emerge again further down.
Two men arrive together, carrying bicycle helmets. They are both texting furiously as they navigate unseeingly, silently, to the bar.
A pear-shaped man, grey hair sitting lank on his collar, waddles in behind them, sandals slapping on the floor. Pigeon-toed. He wears a check shirt and check shorts, a pair of sunglasses hooked into the open collar. The shirt is the same colour as the shorts, but the pattern is slightly smaller, giving him the air of an optical illusion. He tilts his head back to squint at the beer menu over the counter, wrinkles his nose, open-mouthed.
At the table behind me, the conversation has moved from boy scouts to the military. It would appear that there is a career path from one to the other.

‘Well, I didn’t have the GPA to be in the back room of a ship. Taking care of the engines, you know. I mean, I was like, oh okay’ – arms wide, elbows bent, a booming Messiah – ‘it’s not like I spent my entire career trying to get to this point or anything, man.’ Pulls his chin back into his neck, wouldja believe those guys.
One of the women makes a cluck of sympathy. ‘That sucks.’
‘I know, right? But hey,’ he plants his pint glass down on the table for emphasis, ‘it turns out I do have the GPA to sit in the back of an F14 fighter plane.’
‘Right.’ The women look at each other, eyes wide. ‘Go figure.’

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Hipster Den

The hum of air conditioning and industrial fridges fattens the middle of the frequency spectrum. The chirruping of mouse-clicks and clinking of spoons takes care of the top. Mismatched chairs, G-plan style. Low-slung coffee tables. Bare ventilation pipes on the ceiling. Cracks on the lino floor.
Three Warhol-style prints of Lindsay Lohan stare at me belligerently from the back wall, daring me to form an opinion. Beneath them, an evenly-spaced row of silent punters. Each one is seated behind a softly glowing Apple logo. They gaze expressionlessly at their screens, limbs arranged in various attitudes of distraction. Some legs are crossed, some are planted square on the lino floor. Some flip-flops have been discarded, feet tucked under buttocks. Their faces have an unhealthy, electric pallor. White tentacles snake from plugs in the wall at their feet.
I order a coffee and a banana from a square-faced hipster with an intimidating black beard. I sit down by the window, opening my banana from the wrong end. The American end. It turns out to be the better end to open bananas from, after all.
Ba-nee-ah-nah. A lot of open ‘ah’ sounds have a diminutive ‘ee’ stuck on the front of them, like roadkill on the grille of a truck, screaming past, squealing its last.
The clientele sports an array of full-sleeve tattoos, unkempt and sun-streaked hairstyles, interesting eyewear. With the exception of two men in polo shirts and belted chinos, both of whom have identical wraparound sunglasses perched atop their balding heads. They wait to order, clutching their iPads defensively to their chests. One of them jingles coins in his pocket. They glance around them warily.
All around, the hipsters watch, wait, concealed inside shrubs of facial hair.
Motown classics shimmer on the stereo. Across 110th Street… I am nostalgic for 1970s Harlem, despite being white, being Irish, and not having been born until the 80s.
The square-bearded barista, now revealed to have a tattooed foreleg, comes in from the car park. Parking lot. He clears his throat, glances around.
‘Anyone own the white Camry parked outside?’
A slim Asian girl in high-waisted shorts looks up, puts down her coffee cup. Stands up hesitantly. ‘Uh, yeah.’ She pushes her dark fringe out of her eyes.
‘Yeah…’ he wipes his mouth with his hand, in a downward motion past his chin, makes a rueful moue. ‘It’s being towed.’
She gasps. Hand to mouth, echoing his gesture. She races past him, short steps necessitated by her flip-flops. He steps neatly out of her way, stops the door from slamming shut.
A wave of schadenfreude ripples through the café.
A girl in front of me sits down with a cafetiere of coffee. A French Press. Short butter-blonde hair, the suggestion of dark roots beneath the unkempt curls. Heavy black eyeliner, red lipstick. Plain grey backless dress. A pair of vertiginous, ungainly suede heels invalidates her otherwise-viable hipster credentials.
The Wikipedia page for ‘cerebral blood flow’ is open on her browser. She opens a PowerPoint entitled ‘Central Nervous System Summarized’. Her coffee cup is already ringed with crescents of lipstick.
She opens Spotify. I see Boards of Canada. Conspecific, though the heels gave me pause. I crane to see what else is on her playlist.
New barista on the till now. He regards the waiting customers from behind heavy-rimmed black glasses. A suggestion of stubble on pale skin, delicate features. He has an improbable shock of hair, tight black curls rising in a cliff from his forehead, giving him the vague appearance of a bespectacled Poodle.
Having placed her order, a woman in a short black dress toys with her locket, staring into space. Black biker boots, loosely laced, with black socks pulled up inside them. Short red hair. Lots of lipstick.
Behind her, a man in basketball shorts, grey marl t-shirt, close-cropped hair, with ‘Doc’s kid’ tattooed just under the elbow of his right arm in blue pseudo-Celtic script. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, glances back at the door. Checks his phone, puts it away. He’s chewing gum. Blinking a lot. His eyes are a vivid aqua, his teeth disconcertingly white.
Outside, sunlight bathes the trees across the street. A squirrel runs deftly along a power line. Thunderclouds are gathering, the sky deepening to a dark, velvet grey. The billboard on the laundry next door, black letters on yellow, proclaims that it is TIME TO GET CLEAN.
A saxophone screams a high B, at the apex of the solo. I accidentally kick the metallic leg of my table. It pings. The same B.
All is right with the world.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Societies' Day

‘Are these free for the taking?’
They’d better be, as the t-shirt is already halfway into my bag.
‘Uh, yeah’, says the guy behind the stack of shirts.
‘Great’. I smile, turn away. Quick getaway.
‘So, do you know what this is about?’ He leans into my field of vision, gestures vaguely at other students with lanyards around their necks.
‘No’, I say, smiling brightly. I half-turn back to the table. ‘What do you guys do?’
I make for the hall, skirting past two gawky Asian teenagers grappling apologetically over a large stick. They are presumably affiliated with the nearby Aikido stand. I pass a stand with decks and big speakers, blasting beats. A girl is leaning across the desk towards the DJ, who keeps his headphones pressed against one ear.
I begin to make the rounds, weaving in and out between knots of hesitant freshmen. According to their poster, The Muslim Association is ‘committed to celebrating the Muslim faith, and to offering a supportive and welcoming environment to all Muslim students on campus’. They offer baked goods as an enticement to their stand.
I can’t help but feel that brownies were an unfortunate choice.
I put my name down for the running club, secretly relieved that the hardened athletic types manning the stand are already occupied with enquirers when I do. I imagine the tanned figure on the left looking at me doubtfully, lips pursed.
So you do some running, huh? And you wanna sign up? Okay, well…        
He looks at his wizened companion, who nods, barely perceptibly. Turns back to me.
Yeah, we’re gonna have to see you do a few laps of the quad first. It’s just procedure, don’t worry.
Well… okay. Cold sweat. Why do you have a baseball bat?
Oh, we’re gonna chase after you with this. Ha, ha. All part of the fun, y’know. But you’re a runner, so we probably won’t catch you, right?
The other guy smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
That cool? You ready?
Smacks it on his fist. You get a cookie after.
I’m accosted by a girl handing out shortbread biscuits in the shape of an owl, with a little shrub of feathers drawn on in brown icing, below the owl’s waistline. The effect is striking.
‘Did you make these yourself?’
‘No.’ She laughs. Our leaders made them.
I picture a cabinet of government ministers and generals, concealed in a bunker beneath the White House, clustered around a conference table. A solitary telephone in the middle of the table is illuminated by an overhead light. The edges of the room are in darkness. They all bend over trays of cookies, squeezing piping bags with care, tongues stuck out of the corners of mouths.
A middle-aged man presides, shirt sleeves rolled up. He leans menacingly over the top of the conference table.
We can’t afford to hesitate, sir, advises a bookish underling with a name badge. Our frosting supplies have fallen below the critical level.
He tugs at his collar, shifts his weight to the other loafered foot. Swallows audibly.
Well, don’t just tell me about it, for Chrissakes. Do something!
A fist smash. Glasses jump together, ice cubes rattle. Around the table, bespectacled figures blink in fright. Icing spurts from piping bags.
He starts pacing. Goddammit, those owl butts won’t frost themselves.
‘They’re very impressive’, I tell the girl.
‘Oh, thank you!’ She beams.
The medical student societies have huge professional posters, displaying pictures of anonymous white-toothed professionals along with images of globes and handshakes. Tall young men in polo shirts hover nervously with clipboards, offering free branded pens.
I eye the cereal bars invitingly fanned on the next table. I reach to grab one. The keeper of the plate raises an eloquent eyebrow. His gaze slides towards the sign, head unmoving. Society for Black Engineers at Rice.
I withdraw my hand.
The next few are Christian fellowships of varying stripes. Earnest looking white males smile at me, blinking furiously, proffering Skittles and other indulgences. Their posters are handmade, with pictures of sunrises and handwritten messages of hope and inspiration.
Behind the desk, two of them are hugging. One of them breaks off, sees me, lunges in my direction.

In my panicked retreat, I accidentally join the South Asian choir.