Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cuchulain of Muirthemne at the Doggie Diner

The Patrick J. Dowling Library, out on 45th and Sloat, is open from 1:30 to 4:30 three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. In an exchange of emails late last month with Wendy King, the head librarian, I was told that it was a good idea to call before making any trip out to this local, volunteer-run resource of Irish literature and reference material.

So a couple of Thursdays ago, after a petty business teleconference call, I was sitting at my desk with a scratchy throat irritated by April blooming allergens and nursing a less than enthusiastic attitude toward my Outlook in-box. Easter weekend was two items on a task list away.

And that's when I had a sudden flash of intuition, picked up the phone and called. Wendy answered.

I introduced myself as the person who wrote to the Library with a wish list of reference books for a summer project and that she was the one who kindly researched these for me and found some of them in her collection. Per her suggestion, I asked her if the Library was open at the moment, adding that I guessed it probably wouldn’t be on the following day of Good Friday.

"Oh yes," she agreed. "We're here today. Not tomorrow. But we're here today. We should be open...Oh!...right now."

Was that a guilty glance at a wristwatch on the other end of the line? A hurrying step to unlock cashboxes and swing open the front doors?

"No worries," I said, "It's going to take me a while to get there. But I think I'll stop by today."

Ten minutes later, I was signed out for the afternoon with a ½ day sick day and standing on the Muni underground waiting for the L Taraval train. Playing Bejeweled on the iPhone and calculating the afternoon time I had to find and copy the material I was looking for before I needed to travel back along the same line for the 4:25 ferry home.

I had sent Wendy a list of titles that I was interested in by email. She responded immediately:

Hi Lora Lee,

I've checked out catalogs and see that the library has 6 of the 8 books on your list. I included their call numbers:

• Celtic Heritage - Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales - Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees (Thames & Hudson 1961) - 398.2 REE
• The Celts - The Thomas Davis Lectures - edited by Dr. Joseph Raftery (Mercier Press 1964) – 914.06 RAFT
• Irish Sagas - The Thomas Davis Lectures - Edited by Myles Dillon (Mercier Press 1968) - 398 DIL
• Irish Myths and Legends - Eoin Neeson (Mercier Press 1965) – 398 NEE
• We have both The First Book of Irish Myths and Legends and The Second Book of Irish Myths and Legends
• Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland - Gerard Murphy (Government Publications/Mercier Press 1961) – 398 MUR
• Cuchulain Of Muirthemne - Lady Gregory (Colin Smythe 1970) – Cuchulain of Muirtherne: Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster - 398.22 GREG
• Ancient Legends of Ireland - Lady Wilde (Speranza) (O'Gorman Ltd) – Don’t have
• The Middle Kingdom - The Faerie World of Ireland - Dermot Mac Manus (Colin Smythe 1973) – Don’t have

The library is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday 1:30-4:30. It's a non-circulating library; books are not loaned out. We do have a photocopy machine -- copies are 15 cents each.

And then the part about how I should call before visiting to ensure that the library was open that I mentioned before.

Confession time now: A week before writing Wendy, I managed to bag copies of Irish Sagas and Irish Myths and Legends over at Had received and read them both already on a recent trip back East. I was instantly charmed by the whole franchise, described here in the Irish Sagas intro: "Every autumn, winter, and spring since September 1953, Radio √Čireann has been broadcasting half-hour lectures named in honour of Thomas Davis….to provide in popular form what is best in Irish scholarship and the sciences."

The little books themselves are nothing more than printed transcripts of those lectures. Published by Mercier Press, Cork and Ireland. And they’re classic paperbacks too; perfectly sized for purse or pocket with that spare, modern abstract graphic style that instantly says “coffee house” and “college dorm” circa sometime in the sixties.

More confession time: Earlier in the month, a lunch-hour walk to the main branch of the San Francisco library, an art-techno opulent palace for the homeless that's a block over from my office, almost delivered a chance at the Neeson and Mac Manus. Neeson even showing up on the online catalog as 'on the shelf' at that very branch! But after gliding up the Buck Rogers meets Noel Coward elevators to the third floor and walking along the long row of folklore and fairy tale in the 390s, all I found was a misfiled volume of Native American ghost myths taking Neeson’s place in the stacks. (Mac Manus showed as 'sorting' which means I'll be heading back over sometime this next week.)

Last part of confession time: I also had a remaindered copy of Cuchulain Of Muirthemne already in the house. It's even available as an iPhone app download, so how hard is that? Just pure laziness on my part to send Wendy the whole list, which was just a cut-n-paste of another email. It was only Rees, Raftery, and Neeson that I needed now.

And what am I up to with all this hunting around for set of books on Irish myth; all of which were published before 1973?

Well. I am so totally stoked you asked! Thanks!

With lunchbreak minutes from my office day and scant hour or two in the weekend free-time, I am currently attempting to write a scholarly paper for presentation this June at the Third Annual International Conference on the Ulster Cycle. The Conference will be held in late June at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Medievalists specializing in Irish literature and history will be gathering from around the world to discuss the many facets of one of the oldest pieces of literature in Irish history which is an epic-length collection of stories that exists primarily through two manuscripts – both almost nothing more than glosses and summaries of older sources – transcribed by Christian monks in the 12th century. Rooted in an older oral tradition of almost unknown origins.

And somehow in the middle of all this: me. With my as-yet unwritten paper with no journal publication offers. Furthermore, I’m listed somewhere in the conference system as an 'independent scholar' because I'm not now, nor likely to be, affiliated with any literary department of any university.

The whole enterprise is a project so out of character for my time and place in life that I rarely mention it to anyone who knows me nine to five. I have requested the needed vacation days and I'm trying to fit the trip in with business commitments in either Berlin or San Diego. To grow a travel fund, I'm giving up morning lattes and sit-down weekday lunches and regularly eye Safeway's $5 Friday night specials and weekend coupon ads in the local paper.

he L Taraval breaches the earth's crust at West Portal Station to become a slow moving streetcar travelling past tidy garden-proud Victorians along Ulloa Street. Then it swerves at 15th over to Taraval to climb up the avenues and down to the oceanfront through a variety of mid-20th century stucco storefronts of the Sunset District.

It's all along Taraval that I'm admiring classic shop signs in Chinese and neon decorating the storefronts. A near perfect mix of neighborhood restaurants, bars, travel agencies, hair salons, dry-cleaners, liquor stores and the occasional Spanish language formalwear store with the bridal dresses and Quince Primavera ball gowns. These are the classic after-work conveniences of a local neighborhood and there’s not a major chain in sight. I love it.

One block up, I see the citrus-hued awning of Rick's and wonder if this is that great restaurant in this neighborhood where I've met up with friends and had dinner at a couple of years back. In online reviews, Rick's stands out from the rest by combining the ambience of an English pub—admittedly: as interpreted by a Californian—with a monthly full-on Hawaiian luau feast. The usual brass rail and wood trim and fern-plant of a mid-eighties urban jungle lounge, if it is indeed the place I remember. You wonder how many women were tempted away from the live music and the crowded bar of Rick's to a nearby waterbed or futon or car backseat by the promise of a chance to listen to the new Donald Fagen album. How many relationships – from one-night stand to lifetime – got their start here on a Saturday night?

But then, as the train passes, I see blank windows under the awning and dead shrubs in the planters. Brown paper across one of the glass plates. "After 29 years" and "closing its doors" are all I can read before I pass on to the next block and the next set of storefronts. And now I'm seriously bummed because this is one more gone. Three decades of small talk and singles mating dances and liquor swimming in and out of fashion papered over with a handwritten sign. Damn.

The L Taraval had been crowded with young professionals when it was underground running along Market. But now thinning out as the streets climbed into the 30s. By the time it swung left on 47th for the last leg of the journey, I'm the last remaining passenger and I can feel the chill, salt air seeping in through the window cracks, turning the promise of an early spring afternoon into a leaden grey landscape. The ocean, two blocks away, visible at every cross-street intersection.

And this isn't a placid bayside wharf of tourist traps and ferry crossings either, but the real, raw deal. The full, unfettered force of the Pacific eating away at shoreline. Wolf Larson country. Magnificent, impervious waves of white foam curl invitingly, but I even know about the rocks underneath that make them off-limits for surfing. And for those few brave souls who might be tempted to paddle out beyond the rocks: sharks – maybe even Pacific Great Whites – is what you get for your efforts.

The whole neighborhood deserted in early afternoon. Anyone who lives in these homes and is still working was finishing up their workday somewhere else down the peninsula. And the local economy was just the classic, faded signs of a beach town out of season. A few older, two-story motor court hotels in oceanliner-deco style stucco and Easter Egg blues and pinks and greens. Midcentury semi-detached houses, stucco again but brave with faintly Spanish flourishes of grillwork and arabesque, offer up their little courtyards and backyards and balconies to the cold, damp weather. Topiary, sculpted into smoothed mounds by endless ocean winds, permanently humping against walls for warmth. Over on Sloat, a bar and grill with outdoor café style seating but no takers. And, finally, the city's Zoo.

And a block over from the Zoo: The United Irish Cultural Center of San Francisco. Built in 1973 but designed with the aesthetics in an earlier decade. A mostly windowless structure covered with big, smooth boulder stone masonry on the ground floor and nondescript wood and paint on the second; both capped with a huge too-seventies Miracle Mile mansard roof for the third. This last sporting two lonely dormer windows decorated with Book of Kells style heraldry. The main door to the place covered with that sort of awning you find for the older urban restaurants with the big upholstered booths and stuffed leather covered menus with the silk tassel bookmarks. And I can personally vouch for this: one of the features of the place is a main dining room and restaurant that could do for an episode of Mad Men if the scriptwriters ever decide that Don Draper needs to visit Frisco.

There's a separate entrance on the boulder-strewn ground floor that gets me to my destination. Shivering along past Sloat Nursery (a local chain that apparently takes its name from this very street), I see the door is open and there’s a small rack of books for sale outside. Yes! Open for business!

Inside are three people: two women and one morose man who is hunched over the main desk's computer. Although he'll be there for most of my visit, he never says one word to me or to the other two women the whole time. So this is the last I'll be mentioning him.

One of the women is clearly someone's grandmother, with fluffy white hair and a pastel pearl-button cardigan. She's bent over a P-Touch labeler, working her way through a pile of books next to her, but she looks up at me with polite curiosity as I enter. The other woman, younger, is standing over her. Assisting with the P-Touch process with energetic assurance. I make the guess that she's Wendy King and she is. She's happy to see me.

"Did you bring the printout of the books you're interested in?" she asks. Right down to business!

But I have already discovered, on the L-Taraval, that I have not. I printed it out after my call and then left it on the desk in my cube. I share this.

"But it's okay. I have my iPhone!" I say and hold it up for display.

With a slight hint of disapproval at my slovenly carelessness, Wendy reminds me how she'd gone through some effort to look up the call numbers of my books in her reply email.

"Yes, but that's okay. I'll just use the iPhone to pull up your email." I say.
Wendy moves over to the desk. "I could look up the email here on the computer, if Gerald is finished..."

Whereupon Gerald (okay, so, apparently he will be part of my story) hunches protectively over the keyboard, baring his upper teeth at us. I detect a territorial issue here. Now I'm trying to assure both Wendy and him.

"No really, that's okay. I've got my own laptop too. I'll just set up the laptop and plug in the iPhone and pull up the email and we're good."

Wendy moves from disapproval to concern. Gerald has dropped out again, presumably to go back to the horse-racing stats site he's browsing. Wendy continues, laying the groundwork for my eventual disappointment.

"But we don't have Wi-Fi here," she says.

"Okay, that's fine. I have the iPhone." I hold it up again for the home audience. "It's got its own...3G thing. I just need to run power to it through the laptop."

I'm hoping I won't need to get into the explanation of why the iPhone batteries are dead, but they punked out on me right as I was reaching the West Portal station and Level 9 in Bejeweled Classic. Once again: just carelessness on my part.

"So I'll just set up now." That's me again, looking along the baseboards now for a power outlet. And it's here Wendy plays her final card.

"I'm so sorry. We only have the one working power outlet. We blew the other two out last month at the block party."

She looks back at Gerald. Obviously, that would be the one working power outlet under his feet. The one serving the desk computer he's at and the small home-use copier behind him. He doesn't even look up. The sweet old lady at the P-Touch tucks her head down into her own private Idaho, concentrating on her own concerns.

Standing there at this impasse, I realize that the transition from my office life to here has perhaps been a little too quick. Frenzied corporate energy must be snapping off me in sparks and I'm overloading what should have been a nice, quiet afternoon of compatible solitude for these three people. Maybe I should just go next door to the bar, plug in the laptop somewhere and grab a quick bite. I can even get coinage for the copier from the bar – another thing I forgot to do downtown.

But the bar is closed.

"So what I'll actually do," I explain to Wendy and the gang as I bustle back in to the place. "Is just set up the laptop to run on batteries here and then the rest of it like I said and I should be fine." Whereupon P-Touch slides her own work in close to her, courteously offering me the majority of her table's space for my work.

Waiting for laptop to power up, I look around. I realize I've only been to this place once before. Killing time waiting for another event to start next door. It's roughly the size of the first floor of my 850 square foot condo. So: approximately 420 feet? Mostly square with one little alcove off to the left of the door and another alcove behind our garrulous Gerald. From the front door to the front corner, we have the main desk and a set of file cabinets and the aforementioned alcove. Then shelving along the wall to the back in a length that allows two aisles of freestanding shelves; one of them endcapped with a genuine wooden drawer library card catalog. No power outlet required! Then the long back wall covered in shelves running its length into the alcove where they U-turn back on us and finish off the fourth wall with a periodicals rack and a small reception table. A central space for a round working table with chairs and another longer table, stunningly beautiful, with a representation of the island of Ireland in inlayed wood decorating the surface. There was a card on the table mentioning the artist and donor and I should have made an effort to write that information down. But just trust me that it was a gorgeous table. Settling into it, I thought that the place looked a lot less disorganized than I remembered from before.

Then my eyes narrow as I see some empty bookshelves.

"You aren't thinning the collection are you?" It's a little more abrupt than I meant it to be, but I have suddenly flashed on the secondhand book sale I attended out here last year. And I make the connection: where did that stock come from? I move pretty quickly from suspicion to conviction. Bastards! And to think I once thought of leaving my own library to this place in my will!

Wendy had returned to assisting P-Touch and conferring quietly with Gerald. But now she looks up at my question and smiles with proprietorial pride.

"Oh no! We're just reorganizing. We've expand our shelving and we're moving things around. For instance, we've moved the Genealogy reference section to over there." She points to the alcove behind me. "And we're actually going through books that haven't had a chance to be displayed for a while and bringing them out into the collection. I've been going through boxes and boxes in storage. I'm amazed at some of the treasures we have here! Books signed by their authors. We have Maud Gonne's autobiography signed by Maud Gonne!"

Yeah fine, whatever, but what about the book sale? That's what I'm thinking. I know the temptation...I'm organizing a yard sale of my own next weekend and the stairway is already lined with volumes on their way out the door. It's the shelf space real estate that always gets you. The husband tripping over one too many piles of books and making a federal case out of it. But Wendy keeps up with the reassurance.

"When we find a duplicate, it will go to the book sale. But no, we're not reducing our collection."

Now it becomes her turn for the questions. She asks me about this project of mine. I explain. In general terms, I describe the Ulster Cycle conference and indicate that I'll be one of the scholars presenting a paper. She enthuses and then “Now are you a teacher yourself then? Will this article be published?”

So I have to confess that I'm not your average scholar. I explain that I work for a major publisher downtown, yes, but that this is all separate from that. I admit that most people who present papers usually have a journal that will publish that paper for them or are professors in that chosen field of study.

This is embarrassing but I'm glad to go there. Because the other direction is explaining that my paper is actually a study of two separate rock bands who both, thirty years apart and independently of each other, did concept albums of this story of Maeve and Cuchulain and Ferdia and that puissant brown bull of Cuailnge and all. Like maybe the only journal that might actually publish my paper is really Classic Rock magazine or Rolling Stone or some dweeb fansite (my own, perhaps), but probably not whatever leading journal of Celtic Studies is out there.

Indeed, the reading list that brought me here is actually the same list of titles that Eamon Carr, lyricist for one of the bands, had studied back in the day when he was writing the songs for his group Horslips. Essentially, these books are the source materials for the album's concept, lyrics, artwork notes and spirit. Colin Meloy, of the Decemberists, was inspired by a book as well: Thomas Kinsella's famed 1970 translation of the Cycle which, I've been told, Carr avoided to some degree. Reading his list has been tremendously exciting because they provide me with a glimpse of the actual tools an artist I admire used to create a work of great power and importance. Within the parameters of seventies glam- and prog-rock and popular culture and rock and roll and all, that is.

Fortunately, despite my lack of university affiliation, this explanation restores my cred with Wendy. She's very interested now and asks where the paper will be presented. I mention the University of Ulster at Coleraine with a pre-emptive wince in Gerald's direction, expecting him to pounce on my mispronunciation of that name. This is a legitimate fear. For instance, I'd only learned a week before, during a phone interview with Horslips bassist Barry Devlin (who has also been extremely helpful on this project) that I'd been stressing the wrong syllable in "Kinsella" all this time. I have been practicing a list of all unfamiliar terms I’ll need to know by June ever since.

The laptop is still running through startup scripts. Waiting for it, I run an eye along the nearest shelf and I spot the Neeson titles. There! How hard was that? Didn't even need the iPhone. A couple of shelves up: the Rees! Alright then!

Wendy had mentioned in the email that there are two Neeson volumes. Flipping through to the table of contents of one and then the other, I quickly realize my target is Volume One and the chapter marked “The Combat at the Ford.” It's about twenty pages, but I quickly calculate that I'll get two-per-coin in the copier. Ten total. Fifteen cents a go. Six for a dollar with change. And I got at least two dollars in quarters. I'm rolling now! Stacking my coins like Vegas chips, I head over to the copier. But it's Wendy again.

"You found something? Great! But let me know if the toner needs replacing. It's been running low." Then she's eyeing my coins. "Oh, just keep count and we'll charge for the final total. It's not a machine that takes coins."

That's even better! I can now rack up a high charge and pay with greenbacks. I skirt around Gerald to the copier and get ready to place the book face down on the glass. Rock and roll!

But when I open the little book to the aforementioned chapter start page, I feel its binding glue snap like a KitKat bar. And I suddenly realize that this pristine paperback has made a remarkable journey from Mercier Press (Dublin or Cork) in 1965 to someone's private shelf wherever to here now where it has sat, whole and cared-for, since possibly 1973 even. Only to finally have its spine carelessly broken in 2009 because I'm too compressed for time to sit down and quietly read it, make notes and return it to the shelves.

Guilt much?

Not for Wendy.

"You'll need to really press down on it if you want a good copy," she advises.

And she's right. On my first page, the type runs down the center of the copied page into illegibility, like water running off a table. I give that spread a second go, applying a little more pressure.

"You'll have to press down harder still," she says, critically surveying my efforts. But that poor book! I can't do this. I push back.

"No, no. It's good. I can read it. Look: 'So, messengers were sent to Ferdia to bring him to Maeve's tent, for she said that she would see him herself to persuade him. But Ferdia denied, declined and refused these messengers, and refused to go with them, for he knew very well what Maeve wanted of him.'" I rattle off the wavering, distorted text from the page. "See? I got it. I'm money."

She backs off at that, but by copy page eight we've got another problem.

"Say, Wendy? Did you say you were about to replace the toner here?"

She comes over. The most recent page is a shadow of the first few.

"Can you still read it?" she asks anxiously.

I admit I can, but then the next page is even fainter still. It's dropping out on the right side of the screen first. Fortunately, Neeson's little volume is orientated toward the left side of the plate so most of the image I'm copying appears over on the side that still comes through. Wendy and I are side by side now watching each impression as it comes out. And somehow on the last page, the toner rallies and I'm done with Neeson. Whew!

Pushing my luck (and taking advantage to check in with the iPhone who has now joined our regularly televised program already in progress) I come back to the copier with the Rees volume on Celtic Heritage. In my opinion, it's only four pages on the Tain that I need here. The copier, rested, gives me a great page one. But then a waffle weave pattern of legibility shows up by page two. I catch Wendy's eye.

"Yeah, I think we need to do that toner thing now." I say.

She comes over and looks at the page. She looks up at me, almost pleading.

"Can you read that one? Can you try one more?"

I admit I can and I do. The third page is even fainter still. I look over expectantly at Wendy. Where's the new toner cartridge, I want to ask. Just give it to me and I'll swap it out. Easy-peasy. Do it all the time at the office. But she stares me down.

"We really run everything we've got to the last possible moment of use around here," she finally admits.

Yeah okay.

I run the numbers through my mind, silently. The UICC was built in 1973 by a prosperous generation abandoning San Francisco's central urban core to BART and the Vietnamese. That particular crowd would now be conserving whatever's left of its energy for its own private needs. And we can guess that their children are paying off mortgages and car payments and building their own children's college funds somewhere down the Peninsula. And then generation after that is going to Daly City High School and downloading Flogging Molly songs off iTunes.

Membership-fund attrition is what I'm talking about at here. And as soon as this recession clears, some sharp-eyed developer (and there's always a sharp-eyed developer in this town) is going to come along and see an oceanfront neighborhood renaissance in the form of luxury condos where this place once stood. The mere fact it didn't become a Medieval Times theme restaurant sometime in the early 90s is already a triumph against the odds.

I close my eyes and add it to my personal litany: newsstands, newspapers, amusement arcades, tiki bars, San Jose psychedelic bands denied their place in rock history, independent record stores, Market Street bookshops, the unique character of longtime urban neighborhoods, honeybees, immigrant-founded community centers and now this: a small, volunteer-run library operating with a single power outlet and a failing printer cartridge and hanging off the edge of America.

Okay you know what, people? Someone's going to have to start meeting me halfway here, because I can't save you all.

I make the last page of Rees (which held only one upper left-handed side paragraph I truly needed because I can study up on the Ossianic cycle some other time) and back away from the copier. I look at Wendy and make my offer.

"If I wanted to help out, you know, with your Library here...I'm thinking it would be better for me to donate something like printer toner, right?" I just say it like that. "You know. Instead of donating books?"

"There are many ways to help out," Wendy responds. "By paying for these copies, you are contributing to our budget. By buying from our booksales, you help. And if you do donate books and they duplicate something in the collection, you help again by adding to the booksale."

So there's nothing for it now but to step outside into the cold to see what's on the secondhand cart that can qualify for a pity-buy. And that's when I spot one of the other icons in the neighborhood: the old Doggie Diner sign that the City of San Francisco has installed on a metal pole on Sloat.

There's a story here too:
The Doggie Diner sign is San Francisco's favorite beleaguered would-be landmark. In March 2000, the Board of Supervisors responded to a rally by members of the Ocean Beach Historical Society and others to save the kitschy sign after owner Sloat Garden Center went public with intentions to remove it from the spot it has occupied since the early '70s. The Board declined to make the fiberglass sign an official City landmark but agreed to assume ownership of it and to keep it in its original location outside the Carousel Restaurant until at least 2005. Barely more than a year under the care of City officials, the sign was knocked over during a gust of wind and fell onto Sloat Boulevard, mangling the pooch's nose. Horrified fans of the sign expressed disappointment that the city did not act sooner to repair the rusty 20-ft. pole on which the sign sat, despite their frequent requests and the availability of volunteer assistance from Painters Union Local 4. The Doggie Diner sign was repaired by the City and returned to its location on Sloat Boulevard on June 30, 2001. The sparkling refurbished sign is said to be very close to its original appearance. The huge head was one of many that once dotted the Bay Area at Doggie Diner fast food hot dog joints more than thirty years ago. For fans of the pup its appeal needs no explanation, rousing a sense of play and harking - or barking - back to carefree days of childhood.

I had so forgotten that Doggie Diner sign! He smirks down at me, like he's trying to catch my eye and tell me something.

Here's what he says.
Well just check out little Miss You with all your gloom and doom in a laptop carrying bag! This is nothing more than a foggy Thursday afternoon in Ocean Beach. Early Spring San Francisco with fog! Damn, maybe we'd better call KTVU with that breaking news story, huh?

And then there's this collapse of the authentic urban community kick you're on. Get over yourself! What do you know about the Cultural Center? You thought the Novato I.D.E.S. Hall was a boarded-up property headed for foreclosure until Chuck Graham invited you to that Festa of the Holy Spirit in 2006 and everyone in the world and their grandmother was there bidding on the auction before the disco dance and muscling in on a second helping of sopa. Yeah let me tell you, Miss Thing, you should see THIS place when the Rose of Tralee dinner happens in May. You think you can find street parking around here? Forget about it!

And finally, what's all this angst about things needing to last forever anyway? They don't! Here's another newsflash for you: forces of oblivion gather around us all. Believe it. But for those things that bring us joy or define our better selves or gather us as a community...when they're worth remembering, there's always someone working on a way to pass them along. You can just bet on that, sister! They write it down or put up a statue or make painting or a song or collect a bunch of it together or find whatever way they need to find to give it some other kind of chance at making it a little further along down the line. And, sure yeah, maybe those forces of oblivion claim more than we can all save, just like ocean waves eating away at a coastline, but it happens and it just makes the things we save all the more valued and loved. So buck up!

It's a lot of wisdom for a fiberglass doghead wearing a chef's hat to impart, but he manages it. I'm cheered.

Coming back inside to pay for my copies and my pick from the secondhand cart, (It's a collection of James Joyce's's not what he's best known for, but you know: another fifty cents for the effort here...) I find that Gerald has now fecked off to parts unknown. Maybe the bar next door has opened for business for the after work crowd. The sweet old lady is still hard at work at the P-Touch; however, and Wendy, now sitting at the main desk, takes my money and counts the change with bustling efficiency.

"I gotta say this has been a great help today," I tell her. "This is a great library. Are there others like this that you know of?"

Wendy tells me that there are at least two she's in contact with. "There's a big one in Chicago. They've bought an old school as their building. And there's one in New York City. The Irish-American Library. I'm not sure about Boston. But there's probably one in Boston. You would think."

I contribute my two cents. "Sure. That makes sense about Chicago. I know there's a huge trad music archive there. The Ward Music Archives. I'm on their fanpage on Facebook."

"Now where are you going to give this paper again?" Wendy is asking as I stuff the last of my things back into the laptop bag. I repeat the part about the University of Ulster at Coleraine. She hands me her business card.

"Will you tell them about us?" she asks. "That's how we can continue. When people know about us and support our efforts. Take as many business cards as you need. Just be sure to mention us to anyone interested if you can."

And I promised her that I would.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Vieux Carre in the Rare Old Times

Yeah, I have a Danny Boy story.

For this, we must journey back to Mardi Gras week, 2004, New Orleans Louisiana. It's an 'on the cheap' trip with us staying at the house of our close friends Steve and Maureen Pisani. My husband Jef and I have been told that, along with good friends Dorene and Steve, we're practically guardians of Brian, their son. In the event of...which hasn’t happened I might add! And won't either!! But on that day Steve and Maureen were downstairs asking my husband to be a part of their son's future, I was upstairs teaching Brian how to sing Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta and we watched skateboard videos on the Internet. So you can tell I'm the right choice for the task.

I mention this background business only to show how these people and I are practically family. Also with us are Dorene Giacopini, second generation Sicilian-American, who works for California State Gov’t and, rounding out the party, everyone’s friend Owen, the role play gaming/computer geek who was worth many millions before the crash. (Now only worth *just* a few million. Guess that Oracle stock was a safe bet.)

Other members of the cast include Maureen's extended family of friends and relatives of the greater Metairie suburban area. And the dregs of every frat house in Mississippi in town for the week. And also asst'd prostitutes; freaked-out evangelicals; overweight tourists; and vampire goths. And Uncle Bobby! (We'd spent an earlier vacation with the Pisanis in Key West, where -- rather ironically -- Uncle Bobby had the last of his heterosexual relationships with a couple of waitresses and a snowbird or two. This was the year his son made it to Jesuit college, and Uncle Bobby had just divorced the wife of many years. Less than six months after that, he re-emerged as a 'confirmed bachelor' in classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil style. This year was his debut at one of the more exclusive same-sex balls.)

It was all madness. And things get noticeably more intense as the big day looms. On Monday, we'd spent the day with a morning history walk through the Quarter for propriety's sake, but were drinking pretty steadily by 11:00 a.m. on. I remember people throwing free airline-size bottles of tequila from a balcony and I had pocketed a tidy supply. The goal was to find and maintain a responsibly mellow buzz without toppling into full oblivion.

The main event of the evening was the Orpheus parade, introduced only recently by Harry Connick, Jr. Absolutely beautiful floats and stunning presentations. (I was now a jaded connoisseur of the things after my fourth parade or so). And by then, we'd all managed the art of getting the people on the float to chuck their beads, cups, medallions or whatever they had at us.

Not with the tacky method most assume is expected. It was really more about persistence and some other weird alchemy between you and the masked person on the float. It is marketing at its rawest.

I did also discover that a small child with a winning smile works well too. Get out there in the street and hustle it, Brian!

All of this is to say that by 9:00 p.m., we are quite drunk and dripping with beads from our necks, our arms, our belts, and hauling overloaded, sagging bags of more. Owen, in particular, looked like some kind of hybrid between the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII and a network publicity still of Mr. T.

And that’s about the time Maureen's friend says "Do you want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar now?"

Did I want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar? Of COURSE, I want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar! Not only did it fulfill the requirements of my yearlong strategy of avoiding amateur nights by displacing the holiday theme (as in: spending St Patrick's Day at a Chinese restaurant, Cinco De Mayo at Moylan's, Chinese New Year at Las Guitarras), but also because I'd been hearing about Danny O'Flaherty ever since I'd arrived.

(Now these are all real people in this story. There are probably connections and degrees of separation that I can't begin to fathom. My full and complete apologies for anything inappropriate in what follows. But does that stop me? Not. One. Bit.)

From what I'd been told, Danny O'Flaherty was pretty special. I gathered that he and Maureen's friend had had 'a thing' some time before. I also gathered that, as a local woman, she wasn't alone in this distinction. She offered to be our guide and introduction to the evening.

Also, Maureen's house was about three blocks from the old Channel that made the City possible. It was dug by Irish immigrant labor in the 1830s (because the African-American labor was considered a more expensive commodity) and then filled and paved over in 1950. Sometime along in 1990, I was told, Mr. O'Flaherty paid the big bucks for a very cool memorial to those workers of the previous century. We’d see it out in the middle of the green space of the old channel every day on our morning walks. It took a few days to actually get out to it to read the plaque, because whenever you left the sidewalk, your feet would sink into a soft mass of grass, mud, and rapidly rising lake-fed water.

So yes! By all means. Let's go to O'Flaherty's!

A long, hallway entrance dividing a bar space from a larger room. "Dinner?" said the man taking our door-fee. "It's buffet service only. And you'd be in the Ballad Room. If you are here to 'party' you can just go straight into the bar.* Dining Only in the Ballad Room. Danny's performing tonight."

(*The bar was called the Informer. Danny is very proud of his Literary Connections.)

We looked at our local Virgil for the night. She nodded toward the Ballad Room. "Remember," she whispered, "You are here to listen. Danny doesn't like rowdy behavior in the Ballad Room."

Yeah, okay. I'll remind you: it's Mardi Gras week. All over the City people were pushing themselves into the last 24 hours of riotous, carnal abandon. Whereas we were sheepishly flattening our hair into respectability and looking for the font of Holy Water to bless ourselves with before entering the Ballad Room.

Where there were approximately nine other patrons. And on stage: the one and only Daniel O'Flaherty. Accompanied by a youngish man on keyboards that I -- please remember I'd been drinking tequila for at least eight hours! -- that I cruelly nicknamed Bono Baggins within the first five minutes.

But we settled down with our very excellent plates of jambalaya. Which goes quite nicely with Jameson. (Whether Jameson goes with Tequila is another question...but there’s Ash Wednesday to find that one out, isn’t there?) And Danny graced us all with his musical presence. Maureen's friend casting submissive, doe-eyed glances at the stage whenever his gaze raked past our table.

So it was maybe four songs and most of the first shot of Jameson, into the set that he then gave us "In the Rare Old Times," a song by Pete St. John that I knew, yes, but only through the ramped-up punk and unintelligible version from LA band Flogging Molly. (2002)

But here it was slowed down and the keywords I recognized "Dublin... cooper... house... Peggy... child of Mary... black as coal... in the rare old times..." were now unfolding themselves into a fully developed narrative. One that was cutting through my tequila buzz like an extremely bright sunrise on a severe hangover.

"My God," I remember saying to my husband. "When you slow it down and can hear the lyrics, this song is really f*ck*ng depressing!"

And God forgive me but for some reason the only thing I could do with that epiphany was to start giggling. Which immediately brought our table to the attention of Mr O'Flaherty, who broke off mid-verse:

"This is the LAST year I'm going to work this town during Mardi Gras," he snapped. "All these out-of-towners. They don't know how to listen to good music. They have no respect for our City."

Everyone at the table (and the two or three other people in the room) gave me a look of pure disdain. The uncouth Yank in their midst. I was sobering up fast and ducked my head in some semblance of apology.

The set resumes and we order another round. By now, the place is starting to fill up a little bit with other patrons -- all of them clearly making the last stop of the night from some other event. An hour after his initial chastisement of me, Danny is back in a mellow mood. A couple across the room in formal dress (he in a tux; she in a full ballroom dancer chiffon evening gown) are now digging the vibe. They're clearly establishing a cozy rapport with Danny by the time the lady orders another round.

By now, Danny is the genial, expansive host. (Only slightly making a point of ignoring my table as the pit of unshaved Yahoos it clearly is...) "Any requests from the audience?" he asks, spreading arms to encompass all sixteen of us. Chiffon Evening Gown takes the floor with a whiskey and cigarette accent that tells me she's been by that free-air Tequila balcony too.

"You know what I want to hear?" she slurs. "There's a song you can sing for me. There's a song. A special song. Back in Chicago, this was the song..."

Now I'm not normally psychic by nature, but something warned me in those last moments. That mention of Chicago, maybe. I should have started some distraction right then and there. Evening Gown gestures to her husband for confirmation:

"You know the song I want, don't you, honey? C'me-on, you know the song. I know everyone asks for it, but I just want to hear it tonight."

And that's when she requests "Danny Boy."

At that point, the title of 'Worst. Patron. Ever.' passed from me to her. You could feel the electric charge as it flew across the room. And O'Flaherty went ballistic. A full ten-minute lecture on anything and everything followed. A complete history of all of it. At one point Dorene (second-generation SICILIAN, I remind you!) leaned over and said "You people really hold on to stuff, don't you?"

Meanwhile I was beginning to match the dress of this hapless couple with the dignitaries I'd seen on the main float of the evening's parade. "Jesus, Dorene!" I whispered. "They were on the main Orpheus float! They're total New Orleans aristocracy. O'Flaherty better not need a building permit from City Hall anytime soon!"

The flustered lady, by now fully humiliated, exits to the restroom. I go into group conciliation mode. "Nancy Spain!" I start yelling, trying to get to my feet and attract O'Flaherty's attention. "Let's hear Nancy Spain!"

Bono Baggins (whom I've kinda bonded with by this point by realizing he's a decent musician trying to hold on to a difficult gig) smiles over at that. "That's good. He likes Christy Moore," says Bono. "Imagine my surprise at this news," I want to tell him back. Instead: a brainstorm "Lakes of Pontchartrain! PLEASE play Lakes of Pontchartrain."

Danny, probably coming to his senses on when and where it's appropriate to lecture patrons [hint: maybe not during Mardi Gras week], inquires somewhat kindly of the missing lady. When she returns to collect her accessories, he hastily goes into the "Land of Joy" variant of the song she requested. The couple stays for that one and then make their dignified exit. After that we get Lakes of Pontchartrain.

Maureen's friend never speaks directly to me for the rest of the visit.

But we all went back the next two nights and had a great time with Beth Patterson, who did a viciously humorous imitation of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a song about the Titanic, in the cozier and more informal nook of the Informer. Bought some of her CDs and eventually flew home.

It was a great trip. Give it up, y'all. For New Orleans.

The Irish Channel Bar did not survive Katrina.