Speaking In Tongues
In college, Ernie and I often used to communicate using Talking Heads songs, partly because that's all we listened to besides Cypress Hill and the Smiths, partly because it functioned as a secret code that nobody else could understand. Of course, we didn't really need a secret code that nobody else could understand, because nobody else could figure out the stuff we said half the time anyway, like the time we went to a swim meet (don't ask) and sat down in the bleachers next to The Lip with a bag of Rold Golds to "cheer on the team" (read: ogle young men in Speedos with whom we had love/hate relationships), and when Chin Boy, a grouchy lad I wanted to kill but couldn't seem to stop kissing in dank taprooms at two in the morning, stepped out onto the apron of the pool and dropped his robe, I breathed, "Ew," and Ernie sighed, "Yeah, really," and then we both started giggling hysterically and spraying pretzel crumbs all over the bleachers while The Lip stared at us all befuddled and asked about a hundred times "what?" and "what's funny?" and "'ew' what? WHAT?" and finally Ernie had to explain, at length, that I'd said that it pissed me off that Chin Boy drove me so crazy with wanting to plunge a dining-hall fork into his eye and yet also maybe marry him at the same time, and that she'd said that she could sympathize what with the Gainer situation and the Don Yarnelli situation and why did they have to look like that in those goddamn swimsuits anyway, and The Lip bellowed, "But where — but the 'ew' doesn't make any — but you only said THREE WORDS!" and we just shrugged and drank Diet Pepsi.
So the Talking Heads worked more like a shorthand than a code, I guess. "I Zimbra" stood for a hilariously or obnoxiously weird situation; I can't count the number of times that one of us woke up on a Sunday morning, groggily checked voicemail, and found a scream-whispered "okay, last night — I ZIMBRA, you must call me back eeeee-ME-diately" from the other one. Frequently, we stood in the doorway of a dorm party, and Ernie muttered "I Zimbra, baby" to me, and I grumped "uch, seriously" back to her, and then we both squared our shoulders and plunged towards the keg. Inability to select suitable going-out attire we expressed with a snippy "we dress like students / we dress like housewives / or in a suit and a tie." We greeted generically crappy moments with "we're on the roooooad to nooooowhere" or "if this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower." Various lines from "Psycho Killer" came in handy a bunch of times. And of course the ever-popular paraphrase "there's a party up my butt / and I hope it never stops."
I still do it, in my head. I look out over my desk at the piles of paperwork and lint bunnies all over the floor and the sixteen pairs of shoes I need to put away, and I still sing to myself, "And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention." I sat in the jury duty bullpen and hummed, "Heaven / heaven is a place / where nothing / nothing ever happens." And Saturday night, marooned at the back of an excruciatingly fratty bar on Third Avenue, soaked from the knees down in rainwater, watching a gel monkey in a U2 t-shirt head-bang along to Boston's "More Than A Feeling" at the other end of the bar and willing Mr. Stupidhead and his friends with every cell of my being to show up already and save me from this not-so-fresh hell, I thought, "And you may ask yourself / 'Well…how did I get here?'" Because, generally speaking, a night out falls into one of a handful of well-defined categories — The Crazy Night Out where you zigzag all over the city in various cabs, The Random Night Out where you run into people you haven't seen in ages or get your tarot done by a girl who happened to go out with your ex right after you did, The Oh My God What A Nightmare I Can't Believe She Just Got Up And Walked Out Of The Restaurant And We All Just Had To Sit There And Act Normal For Another Two Hours Never Again With Those People I Don't Need The Drama Night Out (self-explanatory), The Anticlimactic Night Out (shave legs, put glitter on face, wind up playing X-Box on the floor at your friend's apartment and go home drunk on Natty Light with your boots under your arm), The Holy Crap How Did It Get To Be Four In The Damn Morning Night Out, and so on. But I don't know what to call last Saturday night. The If You Drop A Frog Into A Pot Of Boiling Water, The Frog Will Try To Jump Out Right Away, But If You Put The Same Frog In A Pot Of Room-Temperature Water And Slowly Turn The Heat Up To A Boil, The Frog Will Just Sit There, Thinking That It's Not That Bad, Or At Least Not That Much Worse Than Before Night Out?
Because the annoyances kept piling up, and yet, I didn't go home. It all started in the afternoon, when Mr. Stupidhead called with the plan — pick up a friend on the Upper East Side, come downtown to meet another friend at Bull's Head Tavern — and I agreed to the plan even though I felt the way I always feel the day before my period hits, bloated and buzzy and off my feed. But I figured, well, what the hell, it's just a low-key hang with Mr. S, I've never gone to Bull's Head but it's a ten-minute walk away, I should get out of the house a bit, fine, great, see you then.
I got ready. It took me twenty minutes to find a pair of pants that didn't make me feel bulgy; then the zipper on the pair I selected got stuck tongue-down at the bottom of the zipper…hutch, or chute, or whatever it's called, so I had to hop around with my thumb jammed down there to try to get it free, and I sproinged past the mirror with both hands down my pants, snarling "nnnnot!!" in the general direction of my crotch, and the sight of my reflection in such a state nearly forced me to kill myself. At last, I got my damn pants fastened, put on a pair of shoes, and prepared to leave, but not before petting the cats wistfully as they napped on the bed. "Animals / Think they're pretty smart," I sighed.
Outside, steady rain. Water rushing into gutters. Cabs hissing by and throwing up curtains of water. Altogether a delightful evening, weather-wise, but I opened my umbrella and thought positively; maybe lots of people would stay home because of the rain, and we'd get cushy seats at the bar. "All wet!" I sang through gritted teeth. "Hey you might need a raincoat!" My umbrella blew inside out twice. I didn't see a pothole in the middle of 27th Street, and stepped in it up to mid-calf. I probably should have bailed out on the whole thing and gone home after spending the better part of a minute trying to figure out how best to broad-jump a puddle at the corner of 24th, but I'd already gotten soaked, so I forged ahead.
Bull's Head Tavern. The rain had not kept people in as I'd hoped. The bar smelled like a boiled dog. I squeezed through the crowd, scanned it for Mr. S, saw no sign of him, and squelched into the smaller bar area in the back, where I found an empty seat. Throwing myself into said seat, I left a message for Mr. S on his cell: "Dude, when you get here, come to the back — there's plenty of room. See you soon." I wiggled out of my coat, ordered an Amstel, and began to take stock of my surroundings, and I only had to sit there for a couple of minutes before it became painfully clear that I'd stumbled into Chipster Central.
Bog Jr., Mr. S's best friend and roommate, coined the term "Chipster," and I mourn the passing of Bog Jr.'s "Chipster of the Month" site, because it explained the Chipster phenomenon far better than I can, but in short, a Chipster wears white baseball hats backwards, and t-shirts with plaid shirts over them; calls his friends "skirts" if they decline an invitation to do a keg stand; frequently makes devil horns with his hand while listening to Dave Matthews Band [see also: "WOOOOOO!"]; can play hacky-sack and watch a porno at the same time; considers chicken parm a food group; and greets homosexuality, feminism, vegetarianism, independent film, imported beer, reading for pleasure, liberalism, and linen clothing all with the same uniformly hostile distrust. The Chipster will often have a nickname like, well, Chipster, and his friends will refer to him not merely as "Chipster" but, in fact, as "the CHIPSTERRRRR!" Chipsters travel in packs, usually under a veritable fog of Drakkar Noir and often accessorized with a pack of female Chipsters, known as Betties; Betties have ironed blonde hair and perfect nails and one-shoulder tops, and turn themselves out so flawlessly and with such effort as to suggest anatomically incorrect injection molding of some kind. I do not dislike Chipsters and Betties in and of themselves, but a roomful of them singing along to "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" tires me in my soul. And where should I discover myself at 11:15 on Saturday but in the company of a hundred Chipsters and Betties, praying my own self for the end of time to hurry up and arrive. Or, at the very least, for my brother to do so. I checked my voicemail. Nothing. I got up to peer over the gelled and behatted heads of the Chipsters again. No Mr. S; just body glitter and co-ed naked lacrosse t-shirts. I returned to my seat to watch the spring-training highlights on Sports Center.
"You like baseball?" the man next to me asked. Oh, no. Nooooo no no no no. Please. "This is not my beautiful house," I thought to myself. "This is not my beautiful wife." I'd already tagged the guy as a possible problem; when I sat down, I'd overheard him boring the young, cute, too-polite bartender with small talk about national parks (…hey, don't ask me). Plus, he looked like my uncle, the one who's a minister, and said uncle is a super guy and I adore him and all, but…yeah. Weird association there. And…the Coors Light. See, I can get behind drinking alone. I don't recommend it on a regular basis, but everyone feels film-noir about life now and then, and if you need to deal with that by slumping over a bar all "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" and slurring along with Sinatra until the bouncer shovels you into a cab, well, do what you have to do. But when you drink alone, you shouldn't drink Coors Light. That's, like, a rule. You drink alone, you drink something darker than lemonade. So the bartender ditched him with me to go talk to her friend at the end of the bar, and Lord knows I didn't blame her, but here's Uncle Spudly, wanting to talk to a purty gal, and here's me, stuck.
I glanced at him — glanced carefully; aimed it at his forehead so as to simulate eye contact without actually making it — and chirped a neutral "uh huh." Sometimes, that'll do it. Not this time. "Yankees fan?" Sigh. I trotted out a "yeah…the team doesn't look so good this year, though, lots of turnover," but Uncle Spudly didn't hear me, so I had to repeat myself, and then repeat myself louder, again, and after all that, he smiled beatifically and informed me that he doesn't really follow baseball, actually. Oh, criminy. Come on, Mr. S. Get here. Get here so that we can leave here.
Ten more minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty. My neck, constantly craned towards the door and the hoped-for vision of Mr. S, began to ache. I made several trips into the main room to look for Mr. S, but every time I returned, Spudly fixed me firmly in his sights once again, blithering on about Ellen Burstyn's career arc (…I don't know) and skiing in Banff (uh…yeah). Spudly hails from Idaho. Did you know that? I know that. Now. Now I know that. I went out to the front once more, but by that time I couldn't get far into the crowd without a shillelagh, so I gave up, despairing, and returned to my seat, wishing that anywhere else in the damn bar even had room for me just to stand with my beer and my coat over my arm. Spudly introduced himself by name, and when we shook hands, I nearly had to pry my hand loose with a shoe horn. I could feel him looking at me as I purposefully directed my gaze anywhere else; he studied me, thought me over as I gazed desperately over my shoulder. "Waiting for someone?" "My brother." Spudly nodded in a strangely somber way. The bar had started to fill up in earnest, and Chipsters and Betties surged against us from behind; Spudly leaned chummily towards me to make room for them. I leaned just as chummily against the wall. Third Eye Blind surged out of a speaker above my head. Then Spudly snurfled, "Buy you a beer?" Oh, sweet Jesus on a Shetland pony. "Thanks, but that's okay." Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT. Every time — EVERY TIME. I KNOW they won't get the hint, I KNOW they won't read the body language, I KNOW these things, but I make nice just the same, every. Goddamn. Time. Why? WHY DO I DO THAT? Why couldn't I have absorbed an element of socialization that falls under the rubric of "ladylike" BESIDES THAT ONE? Oh he's just making conversation, oh what's the harm, oh better smile big or he'll get all mad, uh huh, oh really, New Jersey, I'm a writer, Columbia that's great, thanks it's my grandmother's, no not really, yeah Cobble Hill's nice, and I was looking at myself, and things were looking like a movie, and KILL ME NOW. "C'maaahhhn. Buy you a beer?" Just as I started to say, "Thanks, but I've got it, really," fourteen Chipsters behind us decided to bellow unironically along to the chorus of "Soul Man," forcing me in turn to scream, "NO THANK YOU REALLY I'VE GOT TO GO SOON ANYWAY."
One hour. I gave up and started to struggle into my coat, and just then, a blessed voice boomed "NAAAHHHT!" into my ear. Mr. S had finally arrived. "Ohhhh NOT!" I shouted back happily, grabbing up my stuff. Bog Jr. barged up. "Sarah! Not!" "Hey! Not!" I greeted him. "So Sar — not!" Mr. S grumped, waving his cell phone. I rolled my eyes. "Ohhhh, not, dude." "Yeah, not." Little Three materialized with a cheery "not?" "Not," I said, waving. Annie wedged herself in behind Bog Jr.: "Urrgh. Not." "So…not?" I asked, hiking a thumb at the door. "Not," Annie sighed, and Bog Jr. shrugged, "Yeah…well. Not." Spudly watched the entire exchange with a look of utter bafflement on his face. Should I have translated for him, explained that Mr. S said "THERE you are" and I said "thank GOD, I thought you'd never get here" and Bog Jr. said "hi Sarah — damn, this place bites, right?" and then Mr. S told me that he'd just gotten my message and I said "you've gotta be kidding me — you've been here the whole time then?" and then Little Three and Annie both said hello also, and that it's good to see me, and I asked if we had a consensus on going next door to Molly's, but Bog Jr. and Annie had to stay and wait for their friend? That "there's a name for it / and names make all the difference in the world"? Maybe I should have, but I didn't. I just told him I'd enjoyed meeting him, and got up. I looked at Mr. S and grunted, "Chipsters." Mr. S grunted back, "Yep. Out." And we left. We went next door. We had a pint. We talked about movies we liked better than the books that inspired them. Then we paid our bill and went home.
And there's just no Talking Heads lyric for a night like that, no shorthand that conveys the fact that it kind of sucked, then sucked a bit more, then sucked in a slightly different way, then improved briefly, then ended. Maybe "same as it ever was / same as it ever was" covers it. I don't know. I'd like to find a way to express a night like that without having to relive it, in story form or otherwise. Suggestions welcome.
March 4, 2002
Tags: friends music