Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rest In Peace

Last week, a good man, and someone whom I particularly admired, lost his fight to cancer. Dr. Tom Amlung, a retired veterinarian and former college professor, passed away on Monday, October 22. As I kept thinking of him over the weekend, I remembered that years ago I had written an essay about Tom and his wife, Carol-- it was dated 2003. Perhaps if you read it, you'll recognize the character of Tom Amlung. Simply put, he was honest and kind, and he'd call it like he saw it.

Rest in Peace

Obituary of Dr. Tom Amlung


It is Thursday night, one of the only times I look forward to going to work. It is not because I have only four more shifts until a day off, though that does occur to me. Rather, it is because of the Amlungs.

When people ask me if I like my job, the answer varies by the day, dependent on how tired I am, how many problems I have recently encountered, and how organized the restaurant is running. But if people ask me why I like my job, the answer is always the same: the customers. Of course, this is also why so many people hate it.

But there are those ones, those regulars whom you think of even years after you have quit. they are the ones who have not only let you into their lives, but made you a part of their lives. And with each, the reason varies.

The first job I ever worked was at a Steak n’ Shake in Bloomington, Illinois. There, it was a man named Ralph. He came in each night at five, sat at table 1-1 by the door and ordered the same thing, what we called a “Ralph Special”: a steakburger with no bun, a plate of tomatoes sliced, and cottage cheese. Ralph was older, his family grown and gone, his wife dead for five years when I met him. He had little money, could not drive, and few hobbies. He was a little grumpy and complained each day of whatever he might be reading about in the newspaper. He tipped somewhat appallingly, but when he liked you, he really liked you. And Ralph learned to like me, something that happened at the exact same time I had to stop asking him what he wanted to eat. He would walk in, and I would order his food, and in the few minutes I saved, I would sit with him and we would talk. It was never much-- how I was doing in school, an atrocity that had befallen him that week, how the university football team was doing. It was never much, but it became important to me.

Being a waitress means being anonymous. It is like when someone commits a crime and everyone present identifies them differently, each description bearing no commonalities. Being a waitress is like that: no one see you, and no one hears you. You mostly move unnoticed, and usually speak with little consequence. If asked, few people would even remember you being there at all.

But sometimes in restaurants, like in life, there are those people who see you. And not only do they see you, but they are hooked; they’re fascinated; they’re in. And you come alive. You become a person when before you were just a job. You are no longer performing or simply reacting, but you are participating. And it’s wonderful.

They need you for different reasons. Some, like Ralph, need you because they have no one else, because they need to speak to someone in order to remember that they are still present, that they still have something to say. Some need you to be their confidante, the people who give them advice, perspective, or hold their secrets. And some need you to be their friend, or their family, and treat you accordingly: baking you cookies occasionally, bringing you their extra tickets for the baseball game, giving you a card at Christmas, asking you how your vacation was, or offering help with your resume.

And you need them to remember that you are more than a fast-moving robot, more than a job description, a complaint or a good tip. You need them to remember that you have thoughts and feelings, and things to say. You need them to remember that you are interesting and passionate and motivated. You need them to remember that you have something to offer, something other than another glass of beer.

And that’s why Thursday nights, I wait for five o’clock. I wait for Mr. and Mrs. Amlung to open the door and walk in. Mr. Amlung, a retired veterinarian who now teaches, ambles in, all of his weight supported by his cane. Mrs. Amlung follows behind, smiling, her new haircut making her look younger, young enough that I can imagine what she might have looked like when they met. They see me and smile, and then wave as they walk to their table. They, like a waitress, are also creatures of habit, and their Thursday night ritual is somewhat routine. They come regardless of weather-- six inches of snow, an ice storm, wind or heat. She has a Harp while he drinks a Bass (two to her one), and then they order. They are not interested in specials and usually pick within the same two or three items, though he always asks for extra raw onion, chopped and put on top of anything he has. When she has her second beer, he has a Beamish, and then they sit and talk. Often, between my visits, they make lists and speak earnestly, planning for different things.

We speak of my parents, and over time, they have come to be like a second set, though in a less intimate manner. And we speak of their children, Mrs. Amlung often smiling and saying she hopes her kids speak of her as I speak of my mother (which I imagine they must). They ask me about my endeavors, and I ask about their conferences, vacations, their politics, their hopes.

And then we say good night at 6:45, and I am left waiting for another week to feel so alive. But when people ask me why I do it, why I keep waiting tables, even though I could do other things, I think of them, and all the others I have gathered throughout the years. I think, in other jobs, I would not know the Amlungs, and even if it’s just for a brief period of one shift, in other jobs, I would not feel this alive.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Down By The River

We should all be so lucky that when we go, we are remembered fondly. What’s more is not to just be remembered fondly, but to have carved a place in our community, our state’s rich history, and the memory of all those whom we have touched. I did not know Bob Dyer, a “songteller” from Boonville, MO who passed away last spring, but as I sat at Duff’s earlier this week, listening to his friends and family sing his songs, read his poems, and tell stories about him—I felt as if he were surely breathing that same air in the room where I sat. Rarely have I ever seen so much life as people remember someone who has passed. It was touching, genuine, and it opened my eyes to what great impact we are all capable of.

As I sat there listening to the folk ballads—the stories of Missouri’s pioneers and native inhabitants, tales of river boatin’ and adventure—my foot tapping along with the music, the catchy chorus of each song getting stuck in my head, I thought “this is life”. It seemed to me that the point of it all is as much about what we do and how we live as it is about what we leave behind. Those were songs to hold onto and poems to sink into, and it felt like a part of Missouri’s rich tapestry that I had never really felt interested in or tapped into, and all of a sudden, it was making my foot move.

I didn’t know Bob Dyer before that night. I had never met him, and to be honest, I didn’t know too much about him. But I left there feeling like I had missed out; I wished I had known him. It seems to me his version of the Renaissance Man is dying out, and it’s a breed that I want to see last. His blending of folklore, history, song, and music—it was fantastical and larger than life. It was exciting and real in a very dimensional way, and it is something that I think we are beginning to lose. As the world changes and places continue to be erased, I wonder if we will still have people like Bob Dyer—champions of the story. We need it. It’s wonderful to hear a version of your state and feel like you are somehow a part of a story that’s bigger than just what you see.

As I sat at Duff’;s during the tribute, a lot of thoughts were running through my head. The one that repeated over and over? When I die, I should be so lucky if this many people care about what I lived for.

To learn more about Bob Dyer, take a look at his short biography posted on the website of his record company, Big Canoe.

Big Canoe Records

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

cinema verite, rain, and the Famous Bar

The rain is still coming down and the wind is alternately whining and screaming through the gangway at my house. I spent the afternoon at home napping, wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, watching the big drops fold sideways into the screen on my windows. And I read a book. It seemed like luxury, and after meetings and work all morning, it was all I wanted to do. As I was lying there, thinking, I was trying to put into words why I like the rain so much.

As people, we fall into two categories: those who like the grey and the rain, and those who only want sunshine. Naturally, I am suspicious of the sunshine variety and wonder mostly why it is that they cannot cope with the ups and downs and spontaneity of life. Of course, perhaps I just like the rain because it begs you to slow down, to turn off the television and be alone and quiet. Maybe I just like it because somehow every time it rains, it seems exactly like the rain somewhere else at some other time, and I am whipped back through a memory, to a place. And then, the obvious-- I spent six years living in Central Illinois and 2 in England with nary a spot of sunshine except in the strictest confines of August heat. For a good quarter of my life, I had to learn to love the weather or completely miss the day. I learned to love the weather.

I’d get all cozied up in warm clothes, a coat, and boots, grab the umbrella (mine has a poem handwritten in the top-- a gift from an old friend), and out I’d go. In Illinois, I’d drive or run; In England, I’d walk through the muck of the fields, in the fog... or swap my boots for heels and window shop in the city centre, the smell of roasting chestnuts permeating the damp air. Sometimes there would be a movie, and usually I’d make a big pot of soup at the end of the day, but always I’d go to the pub.

Here, I have never established much of a rainy routine. The skies open up less often and I am usually content to take the day as a hint that I should slow down, rest, take stock of the world, or maybe just watch it a little more closely than usual. This morning, I was in U. City for a meeting, and I planned on window shopping the grey noon away, strolling up the street to Subterranean Books (my favorite), and then visiting some folks in the Loop. But the rain angrily switched to a downpour, and I found myself in the dimly lit interior of a restaurant eating lunch on the South Side and laughing with friends.

Very rarely these days do I leave the comfort of my warm house when it’s raining and I have an afternoon free--- which is rare unto itself-- but as I sat there reading, I kept thinking of the Famous Bar. The same thought I always have when it rains and I think of slinking into pubs for a quick cuppa or a Guinness in the cold of my younger days, and then the Famous pushes itself right behind my eyes until I cannot ignore it. Perhaps it’s because it’s just there, like a little pocket on Chippewa which everything else continues to happen around. The cars still splash in the water outside, people still walk the street. But there’s more to it. The Famous is anything but a dive. It impresses me as classy without pretention, mature without being matronly, comfortable without being dowdy. It is a place to be seen and to be quiet, one where people are as likely read the paper in the afternoon as they are to play an almost rowdy game of pool. It is not a sad bar, but it is my favorite place to go for an afternoon nip. Just enough of the sky peeks through so you know what time it is, but not enough to make you think you need to be doing something else. The drinks are well priced and range from my beer moods to the tasty Manhattans of my more cosmopolitan days. The bartenders are friendly, and moreover, know when to let you have a rainy day and when you need a bit of sunshine.

I didn’t go to the Famous Bar today, but I did think about it all afternoon, as I often do. I don’t know what it is about that place; I am nowhere even close to being a regular, but it pulls and works at me. I think part of it is when it rains, life begins to feel very cinematic. I watch myself as if I am narrating my own close-up. And in my movie, the Famous Bar is always where my character goes when it rains. That’s how the scene opens, a shot of an inauspicious bar on Chippewa, barely recognizable as a watering hole except for a couple of Schlafly neon signs, the cars whizzing by, whipping up water in a fantail, and then the woman at the bar, watching the rain and thinking. She knows, somehow, something new will come next, but even as she waits, you can tell she’s someone who would still jump in a puddle just because it’s there. Even at thirty, sometimes the rain’s there to make you have fun.

The Famous Bar
5213 Chippewa St, St Louis - (314) 832-2211
(opens at 3pm each day; open Sundays now, too-- yay!)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

weekends are for...

There have been changes in my world.

1.) I decided I didn't have much of a life anymore, so...
2.) I am trying to learn to knit (and do origami, but my head works better towards knitting).
3.) I decided I have worked weekends my entire professional life and cannot do it anymore.
4.) I have been running, biking, or rollerblading (more than usual, at least).
5.) and I have been doing a lot of things I always tell others to do, but never have the time myself.
(This list includes going to BBQ's, seeing the stockcar races in Peveley, looking at the balloons a few
weeks ago, going to crafts fairs and art shows, and having drinks in the afternoons. I even clipped
my hedges. Hmmm, the things one can do with a day off.)
6.) Oh, and I took a new PT position working on a really cool arts/culture program the city schools.

In that spirit, I am going to give you a round-up of time-sensitive and great things going down this weekend (most of which I will even be attending).

SAT., Oct. 13

Metropolis STL presents the Art Walks. The East Architecture Walk leaves the Old Courthouse at 10am and returns at Noon. These walks have a great reputation, and they're free. Led by people who know what they're talking about, you can enjoy some sun on a nice autumn day, as well as get some exercise. Then have some crepes or hit the market in Soulard.

Later... Saturday night

From 7-11pm, the PHD Gallery on Cherokee hosts the opening of "Hand to Hand", an exhibition of collage work. Here's the thing, the two artists have been mailing work back and forth to one another for three years, from coast to coast and have never met. Earlier this week, I met the owner of the gallery who invited me and got me all excited about this, so I looked up his place online. Cherokee has long been a really cool area. Lately, more and more artists and arts endeavors are taking root in the neighborhood, which can either be great or signal the end of the area's organic period. My vote, however, is the more diversity and the more different types of businesses, the better the neighborhood. Should be an interesting show for a relatively new gallery. Worth checking out, for sure.

And on SUNDAY, Oct. 14

Join Chef Clara Moore and a bunch of cool foodies for the Southside Iron Chef, to be held at the corner of Lemp and Crittendon, beginning at Noon and going until 6pm. There are three bouts (12:30, 2:30, and 4:30). The first bout pitches young chefs Mary Eden and Mike S. from the Royale (on S. Kingshighway) against one another. Mary and Mike are both known around the Royale for their fresh and inventive specials, so I am really excited to see what they do. Chef Clara Moore herself will be up for a title in the final bout at 4:30. VIP tics are available for closer seats, and the money entitles you to some tasty portions of what the chefs cook up. All proceeds to benefit the STL Food Bank.

So, there you go. All events free and open to the public, and I can almost guarantee how cool each will be. Also, for you craft-ys, the artist deadline for inclusion in the Rock n' Roll Craftshow is Oct. 21. Check their website for more details.

For more info.:

PHD Gallery
2300 Cherokee
regular hours Thursday-Sun. from Noon-4pm


Southside Iron Chef
Sunday, Oct. 14
3000 Lemp
call 497-1661 for more info.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Denial Ain't Just a River in Africa

Let's start with a three-parter:

1.) How many countries are in Africa?
2.) Can you name more than four?
3.) How many languages are spoken there?

Africa is a continent large and diverse, and most of us know absolutely nothing about it. There is, of course, the recent celebrity-driven tendency to go there and support charitable causes (or perhaps have your baby... or adopt a baby). There is Bono and other celebrity-driven charities to highlight the continent's struggle with HIV and AIDS, amongst other diseases. There is famine and war, and diamonds. There is a long river and pyramids and a huge, hot dessert. There are safaris and big waterfalls in Zambia, apartheid, and Oprah. We know only the soundbites of Africa, quick images and headlines. few of us consider it in the ways that we should. Many would settle for us consiering it at all.

Now you can.

This weekend, join UMSL's Center For International Studies at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival at the Tivoli. There are three days of great documentaries about Africa-- about its people and its struggles, its heroes and its triumphs, its wars and its religions, its languages and cultures. Africa is not one place, but this film festival is a great place for us all to start to understand.

Tickets are $10 for a session (most are three hours and include 4 films), or $35 all day.

MY PICK: Friday, Oct. 5, 2:00-5:00pm
Highlights of this session include "As Old As My Tongue", which challenges our expectations and perceptions of stardom, age, and Muslim women. Also included, "The Professor", about the once-President of Liberia who now lives in NYC.

Film Festival Schedule and Info

Oh, and there are 46 countries (more if you count the island nations) and as many as 2000 languages (many rapidly disappearing).