Buy the book on Amazon.com
I interviewed with Hamster the same day I spotted that ad on the bulletin board at Susanne’s. We got past the business part in ten minutes, and then I got his life story. Not as bad as it sounds; Hamster’s storytelling carries a pace than any Hollywood filmmaker would envy.
He grew up on the Texas panhandle and developed a profound fascination with trains. But a black man in a small town had to take any opportunity he got, so he took a job busing tables at his uncle’s saloon. Within a year, he was behind the bar, serving drinks.
“But that is where I got my break,” he said. “Bartending is a gateway job – you can do it almost anywhere, and it’s always in demand. A couple years later, when my cousin Gerald moved to Dallas, I went with him, with one goal in mind: to tend bar on a big cross-country train.”
He worked the southern line for ten years, running to one coast and then the other. The West Coast won out. He transferred to Los Angeles so he could work the Coast Starlight, an Amtrak line from LA to Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The money was excellent,” he said. “But that was the least of it. Being the bartender got me into late-night conversations with white businessmen – conversations that your average black man was not privy to. Place a man in a trainbound isolation, provide a steady flow of liquor, and you’d be surprised how much financial information comes out. Privileged information. So I started sending my tip money to Wall Street.”
Approaching fifty, Hamster had quietly become richer than most of his customers, and began to study alternatives to his ever-mobile occupation. This time, the battle was between north and south – and the north was winning.
“Texas panhandle to Los Angeles,” he said. “I had suffered enough heat for three lifetimes. In winter, I would step off the train in Vancouver, and that cold air would cut right through me. It was thrilling. I wanted more.”
Once he earned his pension, Hamster packed up his things and headed for Seattle. On his way there, however, he was sidetracked by an old curiosity.
“Almost ten miles north of Olympia,” he said, “the track enters into a dramatic squeeze. On the right, you’ve got these forested cliffs – a glacial cut from the Ice Age. On the left, there’s the Puget Sound, so close you could hook a salmon out the window. And just when you feel like you’re on the edge of a vast wilderness, here comes the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It’s a classic two-tower suspension, a cable draped over them like a loopy M. The tracks go directly underneath, crossing at a perpendicular. It’s a dramatic perspective, and I always wondered what was on the other side. It looked so dark and green and lovely.”
On his post-retirement drive, Hamster headed west off I-5 and finally crossed the bridge, spotting a long freight on the tracks below. He turned off as soon as he reached the other side and immediately got lost, following whatever bits of water he could sight through the evergreens. This took him, eventually, to a wide, beautiful harbor, and a sign that said Restaurant For Sale.
At this point in the story, Hamster let out a broad grin. “It was all so perfect. I halfway expected that sign to start talking to me.”
At the far end of a year-long renovation that depleted most of his savings and taught him more about building codes than he ever cared to know, Hamster paid a visit to the local model train society and hired two of their best craftsmen. These were Mack and Heath – both of them retirees from the Army Corps of Engineers – and they spent the next three months building the tracks that loop the interior, delivering drinks via HO-gauge locomotives. The trains exit the bar through a scale model of Mt. Rainier, suspiciously similar to those produced by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Hamster is one of the few owners I’ve seen who insists on tending bar himself. This might be because he’s the only one who can operate the complex track system without causing three-martini pileups. More likely, it’s because his presence is good for business. He exudes a lean, elegant bearing that has fueled more than a few Nat King Cole fantasies among his older female patrons.
Walking me to the door after that first interview, Hamster asked me for a suggestion.
“About what?” I asked.
“About anything. I became a successful man by knowing how to cultivate advice. So any time I meet someone who appears to have a head on their shoulders, I ask them for a thought. So, young lady – what do you have?”
“Well, I don’t…” I began, and immediately interrupted myself. “No. Actually, I do. Do your trains have names?”
“Not really. ‘Santa Fe,’ ‘Union Pacific.’”
“Well, since you are now going to be a karaoke bar, name them after songs. Like ‘Engine Number Nine.’”
Hamster snapped his fingers. “Roger Miller.”
He unleashed that smile again. Definitely Nat King Cole. “And that,” he said, “is why I ask for advice.”
Oh, and the name? Hamster? I have no freakin’ idea.
The City of New Orleans pulls in as I’m doing my sound check, hauling a Seven-and-Seven. I don’t know how I got on this high school booze-and-soda thing, but it’s thoughtful of Hamster to make them extra weak so I don’t get loopy.
“Harry, are you ready to kick us off?”
Harry is my prize pupil. He’s a high baritone, with a ballsy lower edge that you just can’t teach. (One night when he sang “It’s Not Unusual,” a pair of panties somehow ended up at his feet, though no one ever confessed to the deed.) The only item in his debit column is an absolute lack of adventure. Here we are, three paying customers in the joint, and still he’s doing “Suspicious Minds,” one of his twelve tried-and-trues. I’d bet he sings the same twelve in the shower.
About a year ago, I borrowed a recording system from a friend and we turned Thursday into Studio Night. Slip the KJ a five, walk away with a live cut of yourself on a CD. Harry refused to go anywhere near it. The idea of setting down something permanent just petrified him. One night his girlfriend, a hyper, sexy number named Sheila, slipped me a five and a wink. I thought for sure that Harry would find us out, but I managed to fake some technical difficulty as I lined up the levels, and four minutes later we had a note-perfect cut. When I called him back and handed over the CD, he broke into a flop sweat – after the fact. I’ll never fully understand the effects that singing in public can have on people.
Harry and Sheila didn’t last. Sheila was an attention whore, and dating a guy who gets panties thrown at him wasn’t cutting it. The breakup was ugly, and Harry had a bad reaction, lying in wait for college girls with father issues and snapping them up like a Mars flytrap. There’s a steady supply from across the Narrows (University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran), and Harry is pretty powerful bait. He drives a tow truck, which has the triple effect of keeping him fit, supplying him with interesting stories, and endowing him with a white-knight aura. That and the manly beard, the surprisingly soft blue eyes.
Okay. I’m giving myself away. But I’ve seen too many of Harry’s shenanigans to answer that doorbell. And I’ll give him credit – he hasn’t been ringin’. Karaoke is therapy for many a mid-life crisis, and Harry knows better than to get involved with the psychiatrist. He’s happy to tip me excessively and collect all my books at closing time. A girl could do worse.
I note that Kevin’s not here, which makes me nervous. I don’t want Sunday’s offer and turndown to be an issue. I don’t want anything to be an issue. I got enough issues for a lifetime, bruddah.
Harry hits the big finish, receives a three-person ovation and makes way for Caroleen. She is nearing sixty, pleasantly gray and doughy, the way women used to age before we all got obsessed. When she first took the mic, a year ago, I thought the poor thing would have a heart attack. She had not the least idea of rhythm and tone, just sort of mumbled the words as they changed color on the lyric screen. I thought I’d never see her again, but she returned the next three nights, and each night she sang the same song: “Mama, He’s Crazy” by the Judds. A year later, she’s still singing it.
I know what you want to hear: that Caroleen has learned how to sing that one song beautifully. Sadly, no. She still sounds like a rusty gate – but a rusty gate that no longer mumbles. I think that’s all she really wanted, to tell people that yes, I go to this karaoke bar in Gig Harbor and I stand up in front of people and I sing.
Three months ago, Caroleen ordered up “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, and I nearly fainted. Not just because it wasn’t “Mama, He’s Crazy” or because it was so against type, but because it holds a special place in karaoke phenomenology as the Most Frequently Butchered Female Song. The male equivalent is “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, and in a real bass-ackwards way this is the highest of compliments. What Benatar and Morrison managed to do was to take difficult songs and make them seem easy – leading many a neophyte to think, “Oh, I can sing that!” I get a deeply guilty pleasure from this, and I work hard not to snicker as I call them to the mic.
Perhaps Caroleen understands this, because she insists that I sing along. Sometimes I give her a subtle nudge, backing off from the mic a half inch at a time, but I swear at exactly two-and-a-half inches she gets this look of vertigo panic and I have to dive back in.
It’s looking like a pretty routine Thursday. Shari Blues arrives to rip her way through a Bonnie Raitt tune (Shari is so Janis sometimes it scares me). Alex reels in with Sofia, a long-limbed Italian lady from tango class (the boy does know how to work it). But then, about ten o’clock, we’re interrupted by a bachelorette party, nine twentysomething chickies who ride in on a wave of giggles. This presents a slew of dissatisfactions for the regulars, but some serious monetary benefits for Hamster’s till and Channy’s tip jar.
The thing about this randy nonet – or for that matter, any sizable group of karaoke turista chicas – is that they’re here strictly for each other. They will sing horribly. They will giggle uncontrollably at the phallic possibilities of the microphone. They will sing four at a time, and no one will be close enough to the mic to be heard. When the girl who did high school musicals crawls her way through “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” they will scream and hoot as if they have just witnessed the second coming of Patti Lupone. Directly after, as Shari Blues is snaking her way through “White Rabbit” like the second coming of Grace Slick, they will chatter amongst themselves like mad raucous chipmunks until they work up to those awful Girls Gone Wild glissandos. Lastly, after they have consumed mass quantities of Hamster’s liquid assets, they will declare eminent domain on the stage and rub their bodily parts along each male performer until they have reduced his singing to mere accompaniment.
Not that the guys seem to mind – like Harry, who finds himself at the center of a five-woman Bob Fosse choreography during “Delilah.” Kevin shows up soon after, and you can just imagine the Carnaval reception afforded his “Suavamente.” (The KJ offers secret thanks, but suffers a surge of irrational jealousy when the bride-to-be flashes her impressive breasts.)
Once the hubbub dies down (the flasher gone to the women’s room to puke her guts out), I’m on to my next song slip, which reads Amber. The song is “Little Girl Blue,” Rodgers and Hart, a tricky arrangement purloined from Nina Simone. Nina would play a spare, flowing “Good King Wenceslas” on the piano, then gather it into chords and reveal the way they matched up to the old jazz tune by singing the words on long, slow lines. I don’t even know what it’s doing on a karaoke disc. Karaoke’s supposed to be easy.
It’s hard to believe I didn’t spot Amber before. She’s a pageboy redhead, like something from the forties, wearing slinky silk pants of mustard yellow. The top is white cashmere, flecked with threads of gold and copper, a neckline just low enough for intrigue. Her name is in her jewelry, a chunky necklace of amber, dangly oval earrings of same. The face is a little hard to catch through all the glitz, but certain features stand out: plump cheeks, cushioned lips in a natural vee over perfect, showy teeth – she could kill you if she smiled. The eyes are round – liquid turquoise – the nose wide, with a playful lift at the tip. She has a stage face, and apparently she’s here to use it.
She slides a stool to the lyric screen and pulls the corded mic from the stand. (I can read these details like a gypsy reads tea leaves: freehand means you’re a performer; corded means you’re old-fashioned, a traditionalist.) She looks my way, expecting the music. I take a step to tell her but she waves me off.
“Wenceslas,” she says, flatly. “I know. Thanks.”
So I press play, and here’s another clue. To the average singer, I would say, You’ve got a long intro with no clear point of entry. Your best bet is to wait till the first lyric turns color, then swing a late entry (hell, Sinatra made a whole career swinging late entries). But Amber’s got her eyes closed, and she comes in perfectly.
The song is about torment, and crushing loneliness. The singer is talking about Little Girl Blue, but really about herself. And then, the neatest trick of all – to reveal searing anguish in quiet, half-whispered lines of music, and to do so in a bar filled with horny, drunk bachelorettes and the middle-aged men who lust after them. It’s a tremendous act of faith, and it’s working. The flashy outfit has the boys’ attentions, anyway, but now the girls are listening, too. A bridesmaid shushes her friend: “Listen! She’s really good.”
By the ending verse, the bar is a wall of anxious silence. Amber is inhabiting the song, eyes still shut, and, you would swear, on the verge of crying. She lets her last note die of its own accord, leaving a fragile void of sound hanging in the air. Harry breaks it with a throaty “Yeah!” and opens the door for everyone else. One of the bachelorettes is weeping.
“That’s Amber!” I say. Amber unleashes half of that smile, and replaces the mic on the stand. The next song is “Drift Away,” so I duck under the soundboard to dig out microphones. When I look up, the front door is clicking shut, a mustard cloud drifting up the stairs.
Harry leans over during the intro, one eye on the parking lot, and says, “What the hell was that?”
Photo by MJV