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The drunk and brotherly Berlin Christmas

About: Berlin, December 2005

Written: in Gaithersburg, MD

The beginning of the Christmas evening was picture-book perfect, could have printed it on a postcard. We had gathered in an old apartment in East Berlin, a place belonging to one of my brother’s friends. These old buildings are wonderful – spacious rooms, tall ceilings, delightfully creaky floors. Everyone was prim and polite, nice shirts for the parents.

The company had the following composition. Our mother was there, and the host’s mother. They were the adults. Everyone else was my brother’s age, thereabouts, or younger. Also, most of them were artists and musicians of various stripes, most certainly more comfortable sucking cigarettes and beer at a bar. However, Christmas is a family holiday, so here we were – tables covered with an army of plates and polite conversations about jobs and vacation plans.

The dinner table, however, was just the façade. The kitchen housed a growing array of empty vodka bottles, even though only wine was served at the dinner. The younger people were serving dinner, and almost every trip to the kitchen was accompanied by a round of shots. As the evening wore on, the matrons grew content and sleepy. The youngsters grew their grins.

Eventually the dinner wrapped up, and we were dismissed like so many schoolchildren. The adults went to bed, and we practically ran out into the frosty air. The plan was simple – hit an immigrant bar with a live band and continue drinking on the way. Intoxication was our propellant.

Berlin is dotted with tiny stores that seem to be open at all odd hours. They are stocked with the goods you need at the odd hours – cheap liquor, cigarettes, and junk food. The store owner spoke neither Russian nor English, and I only speak a few broken words of German, yet we somehow got conversational. Seasonal greetings. My brother lives in Berlin and I love him. A bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes. It’s a cross-cultural kind of sentiment that anyone can relate to.

When booze enters the brain, it gets behind the emotional steering wheel and steps on the gas. Whichever way you were pointing before, that’s where you’re going. Alcohol does not decide on euphoria or loathing. It amplifies whatever you’ve got in you. Alcohol is not a steady driver, and if your mood swings, it swings all the way. Drinking a bottle of vodka is like climbing into a cannon and lighting a fuse. You really have no idea where you’ll end up. You could find yourself surveying a glorious and proud morning, or sniveling in tears on the floor of a stranger’s kitchen. The best protection is surrounding yourself with a group of happy people. Of course, artists are exactly the kind of people who are happy with a little swerving in their heads. Here, we hit paydirt.

There is no ban on open containers in Berlin. I chugged from my bottle an then waived it at a police cruiser. The officer did not care. He looked bored, and probably wrote me off as another dumb tourist.

The bar was housed underneath a raised highway. It was crammed with people speaking a slew of languages with a heavy Russian accent. The place seemed more like a subverted house or office than a club. One room was the bar. Another room kept a band playing covers of song from Russian movies – upbeat rock-n-roll and pop. A couple more rooms filled with couches, abandoned coats, and people whose minds have wandered off and gotten lost in the soft shadows.

As soon as we had walked in, my brother disappeared. One of his friends took me under his wing, taking responsibility for the little brother. He pulled me toward the bar for a drink. You stick to whatever is working, so it was vodka shots. There was a two-for-one special, and that was alright with us. The shot glasses were doubles. So four shots each to get us started.

Electric alcohol filled our veins. Food, company, music, brisk winter air – all these staved off the most disorienting stages of intoxication. Time, as is its habits in the protracted infinite midnight hours of revelry and drink, curled up on the soft edges of things. Alcohol compresses and intensifies every experience. Lag may accumulate in your mind, perceptions becoming less precise, yet the sense of connected grows. Eventually, however, everything tips over into a vortex.

The vortex bars perception of time and space. Vertigo may occur with disastrous consequences. Yet even in the vortex it is possible to hold. The swirling reality is a fantastic adventure if you can keep your feet. It is like falling down an infinite tunnel. If you can keep clear of the walls, it is an exhilarating trip and the walls rushing by present a fascinating, if senseless picture. Though should you catch a wall, or encounter a particularly mean-spirited gust of wind, the flight turns into a terrifying and painful tumble.

The vortex found me when I took four consecutive shots of whiskey. I set down the shotglass and felt its instant pull. There was no resisting it. The world began to dissolve, and time became disordered. My memory became a chaotic mesh of images and perceptions steeped in a soup of music and smoke. Everything is anchored at a singular point – my forehead touching the cool tiled wall above a urinal. The rest of the club is a spectacular, spinning flourish.

Miraculously, the vortex deposited everyone gently in street. The feeling of that moment can be described thus – coats carelessly flung open. Everyone carried the heat of the club and the booze. As the large group debated what to do about breakfast, smaller groups separated and went off.  A guy from our group left with a girl who was decided not his girlfriend. The vortex must have tripped him up after all. His actual girlfriend was still with us but too drunk to notice.

This late in the night, there is a point where everyone needs to sit down for a bit, try to slow down and recapture their spinning reality. It’s not just a matter of making the walls stop their dance – the thoughts and emotions are doing the same thing. Yet as everyone who’s been through a trip like this know, there is an opportunity for a moment of spellbinding clarity here.

Soon we settled around someone’s apartment. A dozen people or so arranged themselves into the crooks and nannies of arm chairs and sofas. Conversations turned to arguing about music and movies. Memories of the past few hours formed a tinkling mess, like a heap of Christmas lights, and everyone sunk into the camaraderie afterglow that descends at the far end of an adventure, when you’ve reached the safe harbor.

I was in the kitchen with some bearded hippie. We were making pelmeni (Russian dumplings that are boiled). I was tending the pot while he was wrestling with another frozen package and eyeing me with suspicion – I lived in the States and therefore would not be qualified for this job. I returned his gaze and said my mother is from Siberia and I’ve been making these as long as I remember. He nodded sagely, and all was copacetic again.

Drunks don’t realize they are hungry until they are presented with food, at which point they become positively ravenous. Benders come with deep stomach pits. They devoured everything the hippie and I made. We probably stopped eating when we stopped cooking.

Somewhere in the back of the mind there is an awareness that you must get home. Though you may be in the cozy center of the universe, your own bed has a sweet magnetic raw on you. My brother and I walked out into the light grey morning and headed home.

We were the only ones in the street car, gently rocking along a similarly empty street. There was no more talking. It is the quietest stretch of time of the whole night. We simply shared the silence, the calm scenery quietly drifting by, the soft illumination of a clouded sky. The city was snug under the low cloud covers. My brother and I watched it dream. And that was all there was left. To be carried home by the momentum of the night.

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The Black Keys at Merriweather

Date: May 18, 2012
About: Merriweather Post Pavilion, near Baltimore, MD

From the moment They came on the stage and touched those holy string and drum skins, no one sat down in the whole place. Everyone was up on the feet, their very toes, reaching for the roof and the skies. The music performed a miracle. It made the seats disappear.

They played a few songs where it was just the two of them, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Just two guys set against a huge stage, a wild array of lights, and a mad crowd squeezed into every inch of the place. Yet in this picture of fame and rock glory they still seemed like two guys playing a tiny stage in a no-name bar back in Akron. It must take a mile of humility to maintain such a delicate balance of presence. On the one hand, it is just two dorky guys doing what they do because they love it, come fame or mortal obscurity. On the other hand, it is such fire, such intensity that it blows you right down like a hurricane.

They came up to every single one of us, opened our chests, and politely rifled through our hearts until they found that string, that memory, that feeling that rang true. Then they plucked it and let it sing the whole night. What happened on that stage was the raw sound of love.

A Santa at Mardi Gras

Written: May 16, 2011, in DC

About: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“Time to pick myself out of this mud,” I thought. Mostly, in a metaphoric sense, but a bit in the direct sense, too. I had to walk through a muddy lawn to get on the highway. Yes. Walk. Highway. At about four in the morning, dressed as a jolly Santa Claus, I am crossing the Mississippi over the Route 90 bridge in the emergency lane on foot. In a few moments, flashing lights of a police cruiser will be upon me. I know I’m far from the weirdest that the NOLA cop has probably seen, but I’d like to think I have registered at least a few clicks.

About twenty-four hours ago I was about as happy and exhilarated as I could be. I had arrived in my new love – New Orleans – to spend the weekend before Mardi Gras with someone who had completely blown my mind. I rode in on a Greyhound bus with a crowd high on dreams of jazz. I was blues-dancing on a balcony on St. Charles. Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be completely crushed as my connection to this person is utterly shattered. In an act that is both unintentional and heavy-handed in its symbolism, I will be wandering around a cemetery.

At the moment, I’m just here, at the point where the strange, the miraculous, and the terrible waves all collide and crest. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve lost most of my money. My credit card blew away into the river and no one is answering my calls. Somehow I have the apartment keys, but can’t afford the cab ride there. The buzz of the party and the alcohol is wearing off. Now it’s just me and this cold, cold bridge.

The simultaneous juxtaposition of the two extremes – complete happiness and complete heartbreak – is bewildering. My mind reels, unable to comprehend the scale of what is happening. At times like these, it’s best to simply focus on walking. Breaking down – in a pour of tears or alcohol or both – threatens to destroy me in a way that would be unrecoverable.

It’s best to just focus on the immediate reality, and the tighter the focus the better. There is nothing to be done about lost loves and money when you are wandering the dangerous streets alone. The cop picks me up and puts me in the back of the cruiser to drop me off on the other side of the bridge. I try to chat him up but barely make any sense. He points me toward Bourbon Street and peels out of the gas station.

Of course – of course – this is where the most interesting part of the evening actually begins. The city is still full of people – as it should be in New Orleans – and even away from Bourbon Street I come across groups of people in the mood to celebrate. In my giant Santa suit I’m the thing to celebrate. People rush up to me, give me hugs and ask for presents. Everyone takes pictures and videos. Lascivious posing with a gay couple. Gang signs with a crowd of street thugs. A group of college students some of whom turn out to speak pretty good Russian. Family people (yes, in New Orleans even family people can be out until five in the morning drinking). I don’t have a single picture from that night, but a myriad of stranger have stacks of them.

Interesting note. When asking for presents, most people asked for world peace. Maybe it’s because when one is bathed in the drunken and cozy glow of New Orleans, it is hard to ask for anything else. Maybe we are not entirely doomed as a species.

In this manner I walked the length of Bourbon Street. Hung around on a corner with three flirtatious black guys in nice suits and then got into a cab and made the final (and affordable) ride to the empty apartment. I opted to walk the last few blocks, greeted by the sun and the neighborhood rooster.

And I just stood for a moment on an empty street corner.

With the rising sun, the sweet afterglow in my heart, and the presence of New Orleans thick and saturated all around me, this moment was simply right. It was joy, terror, exhaustion, hope, dream, soul… Naked, honest, utterly vulnerable. Everything rolled up, pressed together, distilled and purified like the finest spirits and the dirtiest sweats, the moment was flowing into every nerve ending. This is why I had come here, this weird, twisted, right moment.

Are you into fun stuff?

Written: February 26, 2011, in Tucson

About: mid-January, in San Francisco

I was walking through the cool air of San Francisco winter, a few feet along the sloped sidewalk, smiling bright. The music was still in my ears, and the beat was in my step. My friend had just dropped me off near my hotel after a wonderful evening of swing, late-night pizza, and conversation. Always a late-night conversation, like a cherry at the bottom of a shake. It is that comforting light, the safe harbor at the end of the night that I always look forward to, that point where we are sitting somewhere, exhausted, and just talking. The splendor of the evening was still clinging to me; it made me warm and pleasant all over.

A crowd of drunks filled the sidewalk right in front of my hotel. The crowd was a bit older than me, and well-dressed. The sort of drunken crowd you encounter with zero apprehension. No one here is belligerent and in the mood for a fight. No one is drunk enough to spray you with vomit. Safe, but still obnoxious. I quickly glide past them and duck into the hotel.

As I am jogging up the stairs, I hear it. The late-night mating call. The drunken swipe at my serenity.

“Hey there handsome!”

I quicken my step, hop multiple stairs, and circle toward the elevators, pretending, hoping the call was not addressed to me. It was. I knew it was. A refined and beautiful evening is about to be invaded.

The hotel is quite old, and the elevators are slow. As I wait, the drunk stumbles onto the scene completely obliterated. Her sentences are short and slurred. Her gaze is unfocused. In fact, she has trouble looking at me directly, instead focusing on a spot that misses me by a few inches. A licentious smile floats on her lips. The ruin of my peace is upon me.

She introduces herself, “Shannon.” (Removed in time, I do not recall her actual name.) I politely shake her hand, and reply with my own name. My smile is conservative and strictly friendly, the hand contact brief and formal, but the subtlety is lost on her. In the alcoholic haze, she recognizes that my name is Russian, and produces a few words in my native tongue. An impressive feat, especially given her state, and I curtly compliment her knowledge. Again, my brevity and lack of enthusiasm are ignored.

The elevator arrives, but provides no relief. The lady follows me in, albeit with some difficulty. In the close confines, physical proximity cannot be avoided. Fifteen floors is suddenly a very long ride.

The ride is tense. I am keeping a polite distance, and it is finally beginning to dawn on Shannon that whatever she had imagined is not coming to pass. The realization is slowly coming to her foggy mind. She grasps something has gone wrong here. Reality and her intentions have diverged in a terrible way. Her eyes still fail to focus on me.

“So are you into fun stuff?” This is the desperate last stand. The last cards are tossed ungracefully onto the table.

“Not tonight,” I say. The universe gives the scene a screen-perfect beat of silence, then the elevator doors slide open on my floor and I step out. Shannon is left behind, confused  and regrettably disappointed.