Buy the book on Amazon.com
It seems impossible that we have told our stories (mine about meeting Harvey in the Signpost Forest), eaten our pizza and still have an evening of karaoke ahead of us, but that’s the nature of Northwest Novembers. The darkness stretches, on and on, and it’s your job to fill it up. We’re driving the Narrows Bridge in Ruby’s beat-up Toyota, and we’re not even running late. I’m hoping Ruby isn’t as stoned as I am – but then, I’m such an infrequent toker, it was bound to knock me around a little.
My misty vision makes it easier to marvel at the construction on the New Narrows Bridge. They’ve extended hanging footbridges from tower to tower so the workers can spin the cables, and strung it with white lights. The result is a luminous foreshadow of the bridge to come, lasered against the dark Sound. And you would never, ever get me up there.
It’s awfully nice to have my own roadie – much easier to lug the CD cases and set up the PA. I get the feeling, also, that for Ruby this is good therapy – a tiny vaccine of showbiz to fight off the gloom. I grab an extra chair and set it next to my station, just to make it clear that she doesn’t have to brave the general assembly.
I’m setting out my business card holders, and Ruby’s scouring a songbook, when Shari, Alex and Alex’s latest partner – a tempestuous-looking Russian lady in a leather skirt – walk through the door in a cloud of laughter. When they spot Ruby, they don’t exactly do the cliché stunned silence, but they do seem to make a subtle adjustment. Shari skips the usual huggy greeting for a friendly wave as they head for their usual table, just across the dance floor. Ten minutes later, they’re joined by Harry and Kevin the Cop, who have lately become quite the duo, and, a minute behind, Caroleen, looking unusually chic in a leopard coat.
I can tell that Ruby is taking careful notes (she is, after all, a student of audiences), and I sense something simmering just beneath the surface. Just as I’m about to tell her something reassuring, she’s up, clomping across the dance floor with a determined expression. She stops before my regulars (who are now exhibiting the aforementioned stunned silence), plants a hand on either hip, and turns into Streisand in Funny Girl.
“Boy! Do I have egg on my face!”
With an opener like that, the ice breaks all over the place. I’m having a hard time tracing the exact discourse, but the hills of verbiage have the shape of excessive mutual apology and good-natured jokes (“You should’ve seen the look on your face!”). She returns ten minutes later as if nothing has happened and goes back to her songbook.
I pick out a CD for sound check and give Ruby a stage aside: “You are a magician.”
“No,” she sotto voces. “I’m an actress.”
When I return to adjust the levels, the Choo Choo Ch’Boogie tootles in on its newly revamped track with two eggnog-and-vodkas. And a note.
Don’t think I don’t know what happens when I’m away. You’re grounded! –H
When I look to the bar, Hamster is whittling one index finger with the other, the universal gesture for Naughty, naughty.
The evening is odd in several other ways, as well. People keep arriving in groups of three or four, hanging out for one round and then leaving, disappointed at the lack of a crowd. If they had all stayed, we’d have a crowd.
Two that do stay are a tall Latin beauty and her thin, very gay guyfriend. She looks like Bizet’s Carmen as a supermodel, and sings in Spanish, from a Mexican CD I keep around. But she holds the mic away from her mouth like it’s a live rattlesnake, and we can’t hear a thing. So she’s a shy Carmen supermodel. Her name is Mariposa, which I believe means “butterfly.”
The guy, Jamie, has big black-framed glasses, sort of Buddy Holly as a mad professor. He also has a good upper range, handling some tough Bowie and Prince songs, but then making faces afterward like he really sucked. I’ve never understood that – it’s like some people think it’s uncool to think you might actually be good at something.
Mariposa and Jamie are also resoundingly drunk. Between songs, she sits on his lap, and they conduct full-blown makeout sessions. This little sideshow can not pass by without comment, so I turn off my mic and lean toward Ruby.
“You watchin’ Will and Grace over there?”
“How can I not?” she says.
“Two possibilities,” I say. “Either my gay-dar is way off, or they’re both suffering lengthy dry spells and trying to keep in practice.”
Ruby snorts into her hand. “Perhaps Jamie is… bi-curious?”
I slap her on the arm. “You’re bad! Bad I say!” But then I realize we’re distracting from Shari’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” so I try to regain my composure. Anyway, Ruby’s next.
“She’s doing “Mama Look a Boo-Boo” by Harry Belafonte. Last time she did “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega. Our little control freak, who took such care shepherding each note of her first two Gig Harbor sorties, has now decided to try every novelty song she can find. And still, every note out of that mouth is golden. I am pathetically envious.
And then the luau hits. No kidding. In the middle of Ruby’s calypso, a long train of youngsters spills into the bar, adorned in grass skirts, leis and aloha shirts. I scamper over to hijack a hula girl.
“What the hell’s going on?” I ask.
“Hi,” she says, half-crocked. “Luau party! UPS! Neighbors called the cops, so we said screw it! Let’s kay-ray-OH-kay! Whoo!”
UPS is the University of Puget Sound, across the Narrows in Tacoma.
“How’d you get here?” I ask.
She opens her sweet, perfectly betoothed mouth and says, “I have no fucking idea!”
“Okay, honey,” I say. “Sorry to keep you.”
There’s only one way to handle a drunken college party. I turn to Hamster at the bar and flash my middle finger, our little joke signal for Get me a fucking drink! What arrives on the Metro, two singers later, is a big bowl-shaped glass holding a lime-green drink with a stripe of raspberry red syrup. It’s mightily delicious. I take a long draught, then turn to find a dozen singers lined up at my station, song slips in hand. The first is “Tiny Bubbles.”
After that, I can’t tell you. It’s like driving a long ramp into a hurricane, and somewhere along the line you forget where you came in. The world is walled off at the bar windows, a swirling sherbet of color and noise, blurred like a slow-shutter photograph. When the bus rolls into the station I am screaming “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Led Zeppelin as youthful bodies bump their parts around me (so clever how this generation has turned simulated sex into choreography). Just as I reach the tough part, I feel a hand gripping my left nether cheek. I turn to find Shari, wearing a Little Mary Sunshine smile.
“Oh!” she says. “Was that you?”
I pat her on the left (upper) cheek and return to my wailing. Zeppelin crunches to a finish, and the room explodes. I call up Kevin for “Suavamente,” wait till he gathers the inevitable salsa mob, reach into squeeze that firm constabulary butt and scuttle away like a cockroach.
I wake up on the floor. I can’t move my arms, and I feel something smooth and plasticky against my face. When I open my eyes, the ceiling is a maze of color and slowly moving dots. And a large brown blob with a single white stripe. And a shower of green confetti.
“Hamster?” God. I sound like Tom Waits doing a Louis Armstrong impression.
“Good morning, my little cash cow. This is your bonus for last night.”
I’m surrounded by presidents: Washington, Lincoln – Franklin?
“Jesus. What’d I do? Sleep with you?”
He laughs entirely too much. “Now that would be funny!”
I go to give him a playful slap, and discover why it is I can’t move. I’m wrapped up tight in a sleeping bag.
Hamster grins. “I don’t know what major corporations those kids’ parents own, but last night we separated them from large chunks of their trust funds. The biggest night in Karz Bar hiss-tow-ree!”
Hamster kisses me on the cheek – for him, an exceptional gesture. He claps his hands together and gives them a robber-baron rub.
“Now! What does my prize employee wish for breakfast? Sausages? I’ve got kielbasa.”
Just the word “kielbasa” makes my stomach gurgle. “Ooh! Can I start with a glass of Sprite? By the way, what was that evil drink you gave me last night?”
“Hamstah Hooch. Its exact ingredients shall remain a secret.”
“But probably include tequila.”
He hops to his feet like a Ukrainian dancer and heads for the kitchen. “Sprite followed by coffee!” he declaims.
I snake my hand up next to my throat and locate a zipper pull.
“Hey!” I croak. “What happened to Ruby?”
Hamster leans into the room with a salacious expression. “Ruby was last seen leaving the bar with Harry Baritone.”
“Oh,” I say. Ten seconds later, the information arrives at my brain. “Really?!”
Photo: The Alfonzo Special, from Tacoma's Guadalajara Restaurant