Bandelero

     There comes a time in everyone’s life when no siesta can ease the weariness that saturates the mind and spirit. This day usually occurs when they realize that Ecclesiastes was right and that there is nothing new under the sun, only fading reflections of places once bright and new. Ricardo Valdez has reached such a day, and the weight of all the days now passed seems somehow all the more cumbersome, as if his dreams, once lost, have returned soaked with tears, and it is no longer possible to bare the burden under a sky which once seemed so vibrant and vital, but now is just there.
     As usual he arrives at work before the others, carrying two old steel buckets of ice into the Tres Durangos, dumps the ice behind the bar and walks into the enormous refrigerated room in the back. He carefully fingers through barrels of fruit just soft enough to the touch to signify ripeness and the fact that if not used will soon spoil in the cool condensation. He carries the handfuls of fruit to the bar humming a song from his youth, of which he cannot remember the words. With slow precise cuts he renders the fruit into slices and thin circles, ignoring the juices that seep into the tiny cuts on his hands from endless days of slicing fruit and opening bottles.
     “Some wounds never go away,” he mutters under his breath as he finishes the job and inspects his hands bent by age and scarred with the scaly skin of bar rot. A knock at the door turns Ricardo’s attention away from himself. He crosses the bar and lets in Esmeralda, Tres Durangos’ head cocktail waitress. As is always the case with Esmeralda, her smile is the first thing he sees. Ricardo makes an honest attempt to return her smile but he sees she is not convinced.
     “Is there something wrong, Pappi?”
     “Nothing, mi hija. I feel a bit weary. It shall soon pass. It always does.”
     “Are you sure there is nothing I can do for you?”
     “No. I need only a good rest but that will have to wait until later. Come, there is much to do.”
     Ricardo walks back behind the bar and begins taking stock of the liquor. His focus, however, is not entirely on the levels of alcohol remaining in the bottles. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches her smile as she glides around the room wiping down each table. Esmeralda is a good woman, he tells himself. She is patient and kind, strong and hard working. He took a chance when he hired her, and she has repaid him in more ways than he ever could have expected. If only life had done the same.
     A sigh escapes Ricardo and he walks back into the refrigerator to grab the heavy boxes of Mexican beer most favored by his customers. Once he’s returned to the bar, he begins to line up the bottles in precise rows; keeping the Coronas, Dos Equis, and Carte Blancas separated. This chore, while insistently dull to others, appeals to his meticulous nature. Tres Durangos is one of the few places that he has any control. On the streets, he is just an old man, a slave to the fates, doomed to follow the road that has been laid out before him. But here, Ricardo is king. If he does not like someone, he does not have to serve them. If he likes them, he can buy them a drink. If he loves them, he can offer them a job.
     Across the room, Esmeralda’s smile continues as she walks into the dry storage room for candles. She doesn’t have to look at Ricardo to know that he has been watching her. She quickly counts out one candle for each table and returns to the main room to set them out. She pulls a matchbook from her apron and strikes a match. She reminds herself that she must be more careful. Her love for Ricardo is strong and paternal, and she fears that if she is careless, she will lose him like she has lost every man she has known. These unrequited loves have lingered like ash in Esmeralda’s mouth. Her heart, she imagines, is trapped within a destructive flame and no matter how long and hard she blows, she cannot extinguish it. The sound of someone knocking on the door reminds Esmeralda of the lit match in her fingers just in time to feel the pain of the flame burning down. Quickly, she blows it out and can only smile at the irony of the moment.
     A knock has again interrupted Ricardo from his thoughts, and he goes to the door. Behind the ancient thick glass, he sees the distorted face of Eduardo.
     “What can I do for you, my friend?” he asks through the door.
     “A simple favor,” replies Eduardo.
     “No favors are ever simple,” Ricardo says under his breath as he unlocks the door.
     With the door open Ricardo sees that Eduardo is not alone. Hunched over next to his childhood friend is an old white man, whose withered arms clutch a guitar case close to his chest. The gringo has chalky, white hair that falls down his face in a long, patchy beard. The sporadic nature and the unbearable whiteness of the beard enhance the old man’s age to such a degree that one must call him ancient. The man’s eyes intimidate Ricardo. The eyes are a piercing green, reminiscent of the first blades of grass peaking through the snow in the first thaw of spring.
     “Ricardo, I would like to introduce you to Mr. Tyler. I found him sleeping under my veranda. When I woke him up he asked me if I knew of any place where he might possibly be able to stay for a night or two in exchange for playing his music.”
     “I have no need for another Bandelero.”
     “Sir…I know many songs…and I require no money…just a place to rest my head.”
     As the man speaks Ricardo’s resolve weakens. Each word seems to be a struggle. His thin chest expands and contracts with obvious effort. It does not appear that he is intended for much longer in this world.
     “I don’t know.”
     “Give him a chance, Pappi,” Esmeralda interjects.
     “I value your opinion, mi hija, but I did not ask for it on this matter.” Ricardo stares at the man and is startled by the sorrow that seems to pour from the man’s eyes. “Let me hear you play for a moment and I will decide.”
     “Thank you sir…you are most generous to give me this chance.” “I do not guarantee anything so do not speak of my generosity yet. Let’s hear you play.”
     The old man lays the case on the ground and caresses the leather for a moment before taking out his guitar. He sits and begins to pick the strings with his long fingers. For a man so ancient his fingers are surprisingly dexterous and agile. His voice rings loud and clear, dripping with emotion, and it takes Ricardo a moment to realize that he is listening to the song he has been humming all morning:

“De la Sierrea Morena,
Cielito lindo, vienen bajando,
Un par de ojitos negros, Cielito lindo, de contrabando. Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores, Porque cantando se alegran, Cielito lindo, los corazones.”

“Through dark tresses, heavenly one,A pair of deep brown eyes Lower as they approach, A stolen glance. Ay, ay, ay, ay, Sing and don’t cry, Heavenly one, for singing Gladdens hearts.”

     “That was quite good.” Ricardo tries to mask the enthusiasm that ripples through his body. “If you can play other songs equally as well we will make a spot for you.”
     “Thank you, Senor. You shall not be disappointed.”
     “I hope you are right.”
     “I told you that Ricardo Valdez is a generous man did I not, Senor Tyler?” Eduardo asks as he slaps the gringo on the back. The Bandelero still sits caressing the neck of the guitar oblivious to the smiles.
    “That you did…Will you be returning this evening to hear me play?” the bandelero asks.
     “Of course I will. And so will the rest of the village when they hear of the gringo bandelero who plays with the soul of a true Mexican. But I have still one question for you; what will you do for the next two hours until the bar is opened?”
     “I suppose I will find a quiet spot to rest.”
    “You can rest in my office.” The words surprise Ricardo, as he had no intention of uttering them.
     “Thank you again, Senor. Your friend was right. You are most kind.”
     “Since everything is settled I will be on my way,” Eduardo says as he walks to the door. “Make sure you do a good job and make no trouble. Do not make me look bad with my friend.”
     “I will do my best. Thank you, Senor Eduardo.” The Bandelero places his guitar back on the crushed red velvet on the inside of the case.
     “That is all any of us can do is it not?” Ricardo asks.
     “It is,” replies the Bandelero as he rubs a thin cloth up the strings removing the oily residue and dirt left by his fingers. “But sometimes it is not enough.”
     “I can tell that you have seen much in this world. Later we must talk, as I am sure you have much wisdom. But now, I must work. Follow me and I will show you where to rest.”
     Ricardo leads the man up a staircase to a heavy wooden door with a thin silver latch. He removes a large key ring and opens the door.
     “Senor, I see that you keep many things locked,” says the Bandelero. “Please do what you can to not keep your heart as one of them. Once it is locked it is very hard to open.”
     “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
     “Eyes are the mirrors of the soul. In your eyes I see a heart that is closely guarded. Please believe me when I say that it will do you no good. I tried once and look at me now. The harder you try to protect your heart the more vulnerable it will become. In your eyes I see my own heart as it was many years ago.” “I still don’t understand you, old man and I don’t have any time for your riddles. If you still require rest then you may use this couch. I will be back for you in about two hours. Rest up, old man. Not all of the villagers will be as receptive as I to a gringo playing our traditional songs. You will have a lot to prove.”
     “There is nothing for me to prove. There is nothing for them to take from me that I haven’t already denied myself.”
     “Whatever you say, old man. I will see you soon.”
     The old man lies on the rust colored leather couch, closes his eyes, and listens to the dying footsteps in the stairway. Ricardo returns downstairs to his work, but his focus is on the gringo upstairs asleep on his couch. What is this old man’s game and how is he able to pull such music out of his guitar? He wished he hadn’t been so kind hearted. Esmeralda makes me weak, he thinks. He should have listened to his instincts and turned the ancient gringo away. What benefit will come from this?
     Ricardo returns to stocking the beer and quickly loses himself in the work as the minutes soon become hours. When he eventually looks at the clock he realizes that it is already fifteen minutes to opening and that he should get his new Bandelero ready.
     As Ricardo mounts the steps he wonders what odd words will come from his new guest’s mouth next. Many white men had entered his bar over the years, mostly tourists trying to experience something uniquely Mexican, or college kids looking to get drunk on cheap Mexican tequila, but none of them had ever perplexed Ricardo in this way. What were this white man’s true intentions? Did he truly just long for a place to play his music and for a roof over his head, or was there something else behind those ancient green eyes?
     As Ricardo enters the room he sees the old man curled up on the couch with a weathered Serape of light blue, black, and white stripes wrapped around his shoulders. His head lies on a knitted pillow of the same colors. Ricardo is surprised to see the old man’s cheeks are glistening with tears, so much so that the pillow appears a darker shade of navy blue where the tears mesh with the fabric.  “Teresa,” the Bandelero whispers. “Teresa.”
     Ricardo clears his throat and the old man opens his eyes, immediately wiping the tears away.
     “Is it time?”
     “Yes. Well, no. The bar will be open in five minutes. I will not need you for another hour or so. I thought you might like some time to prepare yourself.”
     “Thank you. It does take a while to get my fingers limber.” As he says the words the Bandelero stares at his long, gnarled fingers, which look incapable of the speed and dexterity he demonstrated earlier.
     “When I was younger I never warmed up before playing and now I pay the price for my impatience. Sometimes ability is wasted upon the young.”
     “I could not agree with you more,” Ricardo replies. “When I was younger I could lift five boxes of beer without even breaking a sweat. It would not surprise me now if five bottles of beer brought me to look like a sweating beast. But enough of the grumblings of two old men. I must get back downstairs to open the door and you must prepare for the night ahead.”
     “Thank you again, Senor Valdez. You will not be disappointed.”
     “My name is Ricardo. See to it that I am not.” At that, Ricardo leaves the Bandelero to prepare his hands.
     The Bandelero begins by stretching his arms high over his head, bringing his hands together, and pointing the index finger of each hand towards the heavens. He takes a slow deliberate breath and lets the oxygen saturate his lungs, before lowering his hands back to his sides, and leaning forward until his face is an inch from his knees. After he straightens back up, he cracks the knuckle on each of his fingers and splays them at forty-five degree increments with increasing frequency. He then reaches into his guitar case and places the old wooden body upon his thighs. A bittersweet melody on one string escapes the guitar, followed by a series of simple chords, and he repeats the melody and chords again more rapidly, and a song emerges. The song’s tone is so despairing that the Flor Silvestre flower sitting alone in a white ceramic vase on the desk begins to wilt, causing its petals to dip into the water.
     “Have no worries, my lovely friend. Your time here is almost up and soon you will be in a far more beautiful place. Remember that Eden was a garden. Surely the Lord will have a place for you in His garden when your time on this world is done.”
     The Bandelero starts a new melody full of rapid chord changes and triplet notes and the Flor Silvestre seems to rise in response.
Ricardo opens a bottle of beer for a homely woman he does not recognize. The tragedy of her visage is that individually all her features are passable. Yet, there is something about the combination of her attributes that produces a chaotic feeling in the
viewer. Her low cut dress reflects the desperation in her eyes, which search aimlessly around the bar as if she is expecting someone.
     “Are you waiting for a friend?” Ricardo asks.
     “No one in particular,” she replies. In that moment, Ricardo realizes that no other answer could bring such melancholy.
     “This cerveza is on me then, my friend. I hope you have a wonderful time here tonight,” Ricardo smiles and hopes his words do not sound as forced as they feel.
     “Thank you, Senor. I hope one day I can repay your kindness.”
     “You being here is repayment enough. Just promise me that you will have a good evening.”
     The woman’s smile continues as she walks onto the dance floor looking for the person who may never come. The Bandelero comes down the steps, clutching his guitar to his body as if it is the only thing keeping him grounded to the Earth. The patrons on the dance floor pause to take in the ancient gringo with more than a few questions in their eyes. News travels fast in small towns, and many have come specifically to see the gringo who Eduardo swears can play the guitar as if the spirit of Santa Ana and Poncho Villa sleep in his blood. The Bandelero ignores their glances and makes his way to the stage that stands a foot higher than the bar floor. Ricardo has already placed a single stool for the Bandelero and he takes his time sitting and placing his guitar on his lap. He leaves the guitar case open in front of him as if to encourage tips. Ricardo feels like he should warn the Bandelero of the frugal nature of his clientele but decides the old man should learn that on his own. In truth, he does not particularly want to speak to him. The Bandelero makes him quite nervous.
     “My first song is the first song I ever learned.” The Bandelero begins to play a song that Ricardo has never heard before. The tempo is quick, the chord voicing bright, and the tone joyous. Ricardo is pleased to see more than a few of his customers getting up to dance. The words of the song are a celebration of life and Ricardo feels a smile growing in spite of himself. Perhaps this was a good idea.
     The door to the bar opens and Ricardo is dismayed to see Francisco saunter up to the bar. Francisco is a regular in two ways; he often comes in for a shot of the cheapest tequila with a beer back, and he often comes in for a quick bought of trouble. Francisco looks up at the Bandelero with a puzzled expression that quickly turns into a stare that pulls his eyes tight into razor like slits. Who is this gringo who thinks he’s a Mexican? The Bandelero continues to play seemingly oblivious of both the dancers and his new misanthropic audience. Francisco slams his shot down, grabs the beer, and leaves his stool. As Francisco approaches the stage, the Bandelero begins to play a traditional children’s tune:

“Señora Santana ¿Por qué llora el niño? Por una manzana Que se le ha perdido Ya no llores niño Aquí tengo dos
Una pa’ la Virgen Y otra para ti.”

“Mrs. Santana Why is the baby crying? Because of an apple That he has lost. Don’t cry baby I have here two, One for the Virgin And the other for you.”

     Ricardo is shocked when Francisco stops in his tracks and breaks into a smile; he even begins to clap along with the beat. Ricardo, who thought he would never see anything new in this town, realizes that every day brings new possibilities, and he resolves to thank the Bandelero later.
     The homely woman from earlier walks up to Francisco, says a few words, and the two begin to dance. On a night of shocks and surprises this is perhaps the most dramatic. Ricardo has never seen Francisco dance, not even when approached by Esmeralda at the last fiesta. To show such discretion with Esmeralda but not with this new woman is yet another mystery for Ricardo to ponder. Ricardo begins to believe that there must be some kind of magic spell on the Bandelero’s guitar. Could there be any other explanation? Here is Francisco, a man who once berated Eduardo for not acting Mexican enough, dancing to the music played by an old gringo. Perhaps, if Ricardo himself could learn the nature of the magic, he too could wield some of the power.
     The night is very profitable for the bar. Usually patrons have a beer or two and then vanish into the Sierras. Tonight, the customers are glued to their seats with their eyes transfixed on the frail man strumming his guitar. After the last of the customers leaves, the bar is cleaned, and the money from the night counted, Ricardo climbs the stairs to the office where the Bandelero rests. Ricardo hopes his guest will still be awake because he has many questions to ask. When Ricardo enters the room he sees the Bandelero slowly caressing the neck of his guitar with a felt cloth.
     “You have impressed me tonight, Bandelero. Where did you learn to play so beautifully with such careful attention to the nuances of Mexican music?”
     “It is a long and sad story my friend. I very much doubt that you would like to hear the tale.”
     “Oh but I do! I’m fascinated by the way you play Mexican music better than any Mexican I have ever known.”
     “I wouldn’t even know how to begin to tell you…with words that is. They leave so much out of the true meaning.”
     “Well then, perhaps you could tell it to me in a song?”
     “Senor Valdez, you are even wiser than I gave you credit for, and that is quite a feat.”
     The Bandelero again lays his guitar on his lap and places his fingers gently on the strings. Ricardo is seated so close that he can see the thick green veins pulsating underneath the waxy skin of the Bandelero’s hands as he begins to play. And in between the words he sings, and the notes he plays which hang still in the air like paintings on the wall, a story forms.

Zeitgeist

“Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo

                                                         in the machinery of night”

                                                                 Allen Ginsburg

 

I think it was a Wednesday night in July when Ray, Tom, and I made our way through the blistering cold of a San Francisco “summer” night and ended up at the Palace of Fine Arts.  The goal was simple: smoking a bowl in an unconventional place.  Smoking on the Haight, at the Sutro baths, or in Golden Gate Park would have sufficed, but we were looking for somewhere fresh and new, and Tom suggested the Palace as a break from the monotony of our hazy lives.

 We climbed up the steps next to the red-painted Keep Off  The Building signs, up to where the enormous concrete arches connect the dome to the foundation.  The lights that illuminated the dome were timed and we ran across the roof like it was a scene from Escape From Alcatraz, dodging into the shadows, finding comfort in the darkness.  We found a sheltered corner between two columns and kicked away the used condoms and cigarette butts.  A blue glass pipe with red fish eyes passed around as we sat in wordless wonder, watching the moon reflect off the pond. 

The lights of the city shimmered and we shook as the bay breeze bit us to the bone.  A muffled song tickled my ears and I was sure that I was smoking some really good reefer.  And then the song grew louder, then ceased to be a song, and became a chant, and I was positive that we were smoking some epic buds.

“You all hear that?” Ray whispered, pulling a navy blue Cal beanie over his shaggy red hair.

“Yeah.  What the hell is it?” asked Tom, rubbing his thin mustache.

“I dunno.  Someone should peek their head around the corner,” I replied as the chanting grew louder.

“Ro-Sham-Bo for it,” Tom said as he put the lighter in his pocket and handed me the pipe.

“One, two, three.”   I was a stoned rock.  Tom and Ray were papers.

“Don’t you know you always pick paper first?” Ray asked.  “People almost always pick rock first so you can win quick and easy by picking paper.”

“Do we have any papers?” I asked standing.

“Yeah we got some Zig-Zags for later,” Tom replied.

I peeked around the corner and almost fell to my knees.  Slender forms in white flowing robes were making their way through the arches toward us, carrying long, thin, white candles that did little more than make the holders look like apparitions.  I couldn’t see any faces, but the voices washed over me and I felt blessed.  The night was particularly quite, each note was a benediction, and stone angels lit with halogen lights sneered down on me from the dome.

“What do you see?” asked Ray as he poked me in the small of my back.

“I don’t know.  But it’s beautiful.”  I closed my eyes to become one with the melody.

“Are those chicks?” asked Tom.

I opened my eyes to see Tom and Ray peering around the corner under me, making us look like some drugged up totem pole.  I looked back at the chanting forms and noticed long hair pulled back in pony tails and curves that men never posses.  The women walked in a two by two procession until they formed a half circle under the crescent moon.

“Sisters!  Tonight is a very important night!  Tonight you become one of us!” one of the women shouted into the breeze.

“You think they might be one of those orgy cults?” Ray asked, hopeful.

“Maybe we should go find out.” Tom replied. He flashed a smile reminiscent of a piano with all the minor keys missing.

“Yeah, we can drop out of the sky like some kinda Godly offer,” Ray said.

“Maybe they’re in one of those witches covens, and they’ll rip off our clothes, screw our brains out, and eat our hearts when we climax,” I said.

“Um, sure Steve,” Tom laughed.  “Better lay off those buds.”

The women waved the candles in slow gradual arcs over their heads chanting, “Sigma Sigma Sigma, Delta Delta Delta, Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon, oh forgotten God’s divine, give us a sign, give us a sign, give us a sign, Sigma Delta Epsilon.”

“I gotta sign right here baby!” Tom said as he grabbed his crotch and we all laughed.

“Sign’s too small to read,” Ray snickered.

“God damn,” I whispered. “They’re a fucking sorority!”

“What should we do?” Ray asked. “I don’t know… This just doesn’t feel right.”

“I think we should just kick it here and see if they have an initiation orgy,” Tom said. “Maybe the initiation will finish with a whole lot of nakedness! I think this is how Sorority Sisters Gang Bang #6 started!”

“No.  We gotta go.  This ain’t right. We should bounce,” Ray said as he rounded the corner.

Tom’s glazed eyes locked with mine.  I saw he wanted to stay and watch as much as I did, but we couldn’t let Ray go off on his own.  Apparently Ray forgot about the timed lights, and his robust silhouette stood twenty feet high against the columns.

“What the hell is that?” one of the sorority girls asked.

“It’s like the bat signal gone horribly wrong,” I said to Tom, who wasn’t paying any attention to me anymore, his eyes firmly locked on the lithe forms below.

“It’s your sign baby!” Tom yelled into the brisk wind.  “This is God speaking!  You must take off your clothes and screw the next three guys you see,” he yelled as we fell through the night.

I cracked up, wishing I could be the funny one.  We hopped down the steps and fled through the night, thick and dark as mud.  Flashlights sliced through the darkness seeking to show us as the sinners we knew we were.  That light would have blinded our blood-shot eyes, so we ran around the pond under the sloping trees.  Pounding footsteps followed us like heartbeats along with a chorus of birds chirping, screeching, and squawking.  Sadness swelled in my chest with the realization I would not be a part of something sacred.

Did we take Tom’s pick-up that night?  Did we ride a bus?  Sometimes my memory isn’t so good, but I can usually cut right to the heart of the matter.  How we got to North Beach isn’t important.  What matters is we were still dizzyingly stoned, with hearts hammering, and the boys were off searching for pizza.  I was afraid of the light so I tried to find meaning in the night as I stumbled down Columbus Street.

I wanted to be a part of something pure, something sacred, something blessed. Something as beautiful as the scene we just destroyed.  I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Denis Johnson.  I wanted to be a Beat Poet and mirror the anima that flowed through Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Fehrlinghetti.  I wanted to cut to the root of all the world’s ugliness, wash it away with my words, and fine divine inspiration in that Western Mecca that was North Beach.

Thick fingers of fog reached across the sky threatening to grasp the thin sliver of moon in its cold embrace.  Mark Twain once said that he never felt such a cold winter as summer in San Francisco.   A breath escaped as a puff of smoke into the chilly air, and I realized he was as smart as people had been telling me all these years.

Hordes stumbled down Broadway; wanna-be gang-bangers in baggy Sean Jean jeans looking for trouble; plastic faced yuppies in skinny ties cruising for chicks; college kids in Berkeley hoodies searching for cheap drinks; homeless men begging for change.  But how could I make that change?

In front of “Little Darlins” a pasty faced girl beamed at me from the doorway in a tight leather skirt, black fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels.

“Hey baby! I could wipe that frown right off your face!” She smirked with thick, ruby red lips. 

I wondered if she ever visited the Palace of Fine Arts. I wondered if she ever read On the Road while nestled under a comforter on a cool summer eve. I wondered if she grew up dreaming that she’d be rubbing her ass on hundreds of erections to pay her bills. I spun in a slow circle, dizzier from the stimuli than the motion.

I walked past a trendy bar with a stainless steel door and drunken suits mourning the difficulties of the high life.  Oh, but I was higher, much higher, so high my eyes could dissect the world like laser beams.

North Beach, what happened to you?  Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, I still see your pictures but I don’t feel your spirit.  Instead of dreams of peace I dream of power ties, power lunches, power meetings, power, power, and more power!  Where are the flower children?  Where is the flower power I’ve read so much about?  Where do those hopes, those dreams, those ideals, where do they go when deferred?  Are they on Jack Kerouac Street or Jack Logan Center?  Did the Age of Aquarius asphyxiate on the ashes of their dreams?  Are those dreams of peace, love, and unity still hidden on the dusty upper shelves of City Lights bookstore, safely out of reach except for the truly devoted who can still find them there, a relic from an ideal so promising, a time that drowned in the hedonism of the 70’s. 

I howled, but to no avail.  I couldn’t even hear myself over the roar of Porsche Boxters.  I could taste that dream, like the bitter vinegar of a wine that has turned, but I couldn’t see it.  I could hear the protest song, but somewhere along the line we forgot the words and I found myself mumbling alone.  I could see where the dream was built, but my dreams were of power, war, sex, and greed. 

I found myself sitting in a dark corner of Café Trieste sipping on a latte as I stared at the fading pictures on the walls.  Where did the Beat Generation go I wondered?  Are they buried under mounds of money in the Silicon Valley?  There was a picture of Kerouac and Ginsberg shaking hands at a reading, their smiles glowing from the black and white. So much hope in their eyes. Where did it go? Did it die with Kerouac, drowning on his blood? Did it die kissing a shotgun shell like Thompson? Or was it a more gradual death, like a slow erosion of the soul, so gradual that you don’t even notice it until it’s gone?

Muggle

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
― Roald Dahl

I was surprised to hear that Aaron had a girlfriend. When he left to study abroad for a semester in England, the concept of a girlfriend seemed as foreign to the Central Valley born-pot smoker as Swahili. He never had a chance to be broken by love like I have.

Aaron was an affable bachelor, more concerned with finishing his college classes and finding the access to pure ecstasy and excellent weed than concerning himself with a “relationship.” I was excited to meet the vixen who slew his wild heart in the cold, misty air of Southern England.

“We’re having a Bonfire at Ocean Beach, across the street from the Beach Chalet,” he told me on a typically frigid San Francisco summer evening shortly after he got back from his travels. We were sitting Indian style on his front porch with an empty six pack of beer between us. “You and Natalie should come.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it.” I didn’t know how to tell him that Natalie and I didn’t exist anymore.

“Cool man. Make sure to bring some beer and weed,” he replied. “I’ll have some booze of my own and some pot, but the more the merrier, you know?”

“No problem.”

Aaron exhaled a colossal bong hit into the night.  “Oh, and one more thing. Do you guys like Harry Potter?”

I took a moment to ponder the question. I first discovered Harry Potter during my senior year of college when I was bedridden for a week with a serious flu. While lounging around the apartment I decided to read something new to take my mind off of how terrible I felt. My roommate owned the first four books of the series so I borrowed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and resumed my spot in my warm bed. I didn’t expect to like the book; I just wanted to see what all the hype was about. I finished the first book in one night, only stopping to pee, eat, and take medicine; sometimes even reading the book while performing those acts. I devoured the second book on the second night, the third book on the third night, and then I paced myself with the fourth book and stretched it to two nights. Reading Harry Potter made me feel like a kid again, a kid immersed in a world of magic and wonder, not a world of wedgies and spitballs, and I wished the experience would last forever.

“What do you mean?” I replied. “We’ve each read the books and have seen the movies.” I thought back to our tiny, once shared studio apartment with the large selection of books and movies taking up most of the livable space. As we lived there the collection took on a life of its own, slowly eating away space for magazines and cooking utensils. When we separated, it took a long time to decide who would keep which books, and ultimately Natalie kept the majority of the Harry Potter collection.

“That’s good. Um, I don’t know how to say this but my girl’s really into the Harry Potter thing and there’s a Harry Potter convention in town and some of her friends will probably stop by later.”’

Harry Potter convention?”

“Yeah it’s kinda like a comic book convention, but for Harry Potter.”

“I didn’t know they did those,” I replied.

“Neither did I. In fact, last night I went on a Harry Potter booze cruise.”

I laughed and Aaron flashed a grin. I imagined a floating barge populated with kids in loose flowing robes, floppy hats, and ornately carved wands ordered at HarryPotterShop.com, sipping on Mojitos and Strawberry Daiquiris as the rolling waves of the San Francisco Bay caused them to vomit into the green water.

“A booze cruise? You’re fucking with me!”

“Afraid not, my friend.” Aaron paused, inspecting the heel of his Converse Chuck Taylors. “Sooooo, she’s really into Harry Potter. I just wanted you to know.”

 

The next morning I rolled out of bed with images of young wizards and witches dancing in my head. I smoked some pot and thought about Aaron, Harry Potter, and the idea of new love. I called Natalie and I was surprised that she picked up.

“Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Yeah, I’ve been busy,” I lied. It had been awhile: a period of time dominated by Scotch, blockbuster movies with no ties to love or any real emotions, and copious amounts of time in a pot-induced haze.

“So what can I do for you? You got all the DVD’s right? Is there something you forgot?”

“Oh no. Everything’s accounted for.”  I stared at the phone unsure of what to say next or why I had made the call. “Actually, I just thought you’d be amused if I told you that Aaron has a girlfriend.”

“Aaron?”

“Yeah, and get this, she’s a Harry Potter groupie.”

“Wait. So you’re telling me that Aaron, the poster child for MDMA, is dating a Harry Potter groupie?”

“And whoever said that magic doesn’t exist?” I replied. “I’m actually going to meet up with them at a bonfire on Ocean Beach.”

“Wow. That actually sounds kinda fun.”

I asked as a reflex, “Do you want to go?”

“Umm. Sure. It could be fun, I guess.” I pictured Natalie as I left her:  her once youthful visage hardened by life and her time waiting for me to “grow up”.  I saw her look of disappointment, her lips curled in that familiar scowl as I made yet another excuse to live in the same moment.  

We made plans to meet up the next day and buy our supplies for the bonfire. I couldn’t sleep that night. Each time I closed my eyes an image of Natalie closing the door on our apartment tormented me. I remembered how she looked when I met her, disheveled auburn hair falling lightly around her freckled face. I remembered the first time I told her I loved her as the moon crested behind Mount Diablo and I pulled her into my arms. I remembered the sadness that choked my words as I walked out onto Telegraph Avenue and met a new future without her in it. I tossed, turned, and greeted the dawn with raccoon like circles under my eyes.

On the day of the bonfire Natalie and I stopped by Beverages and More to pick up some beer for the evening. Walking down the aisles, surveying the multitude of different colored bottles of alcohol, reminded me of our previous Sunday ritual of shopping at Costco, buying snacks and supplies for the week, and eating free samples until lunch was a forgotten concept.

We drove across the Bay Bridge, through the cramped streets of San Francisco, and found a spot in the parking lot by the Beach Chalet. We walked across the Great Highway and searched for Aaron and his new girl on the dirty beach swarmed by flies and college kids sipping malt liquor. After five minutes of walking we found Aaron sitting on a blanket close to two giggling girls.

“What’s up brother?” I asked arriving with a smile.

“Dave! Great to see you! Natalie, always a pleasure.” Aaron smiled back, the residue of Cheetos staining his gums orange.  He scratched his dirty, blonde head and pointed. “Um, that’s Mia over there with her friend. They are a little loopy. They just smoked pot for the first time.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

I was a little disappointed as I wanted to meet Mia while she still had her faculties about her, but my curiosity got the best of me. We walked over to the two girls, a distance of only ten feet, but much farther in my mind.

“This is Mia,” Aaron said pointing at a thin brunette with an easy smile. The smile was maniacal, and tears streamed from her eyes as her body convulsed with laughter. “And this is her best friend, and roommate, Amy,” Aaron said pointing to a blonde who looked back at me like a disapproving mother at the playground inspecting a shady man in a long, black raincoat on a sunny, summer day.

“Nice to meet you two,” I said and Natalie grabbed my elbow and smiled. Her hand felt so heavy in the crux of my arm, but it was a weight not only had I become accustomed to but missed as well.

The girls kept laughing, Aaron shrugged his shoulders, and I took off my backpack and pulled out a six pack. I popped open a beer each for Natalie, Aaron, and myself, and was about to ask the girls if they wanted one when they covered their heads with a beach towel and rolled around on the sand. Natalie shrugged her shoulders, removed her hand from my arm, sat down on the sand, and watched the girls shudder as a particularly biting breeze swept from the Pacific and over us.

“So, what’s the plan?” I asked Aaron.

“Well, people won’t be here for awhile so I was thinking we could smoke a bowl and then work on the bonfire,” Aaron said sipping on his beer.  “I got a bunch of pallets of wood from the Safeway across the street. This should last a while right?” Aaron pointed at a colossal stack of large, wooden pallets by the fire ring, a few newspapers for kindling, and a box of strike anywhere matches.

“Yup, that will last a while. So, let’s spark one!” I pulled out my pipe and filled it with some tasty Humboldt green. I passed it to Aaron who lit it with a match and then he tried to hand it to Natalie.

“She doesn’t smoke anymore,” I said. When Natalie and I first started dating, we would spend the hours after work throwing on a DVD, taking a few shots, smoking a bowl, screwing furiously, and then repeating the ritual. As the relationship faded from something new and exciting into something comfortable and calm, the smoking stopped first, then the shots dwindled, and then the rest slowed down as well, everything except the DVD.

It was months since she was this close to me. Lately she’d been little more than a ghost haunting my dreams, stray notes in her handwriting falling from books, postcards tucked underneath the clock radio with postage already applied. I missed her, who she was when we met, who she grew to be while we were together, and who I imagined her to be now. As I watched her stare into the setting sun I saw her as the driven, career-orientated woman she had become, and I wished that I could undergo the same metamorphosis into an adult.

I lit a match and the flame blew out before I could light the bowl. I lit another and it blew out as well in the stiff breeze. Aaron laughed, grabbed the matches from my hands and lit the bowl for me. Aaron and I smoked the bowl while Natalie went over to try and translate Mia’s giggles into a coherent conversation. Over the roar of the bay breeze I wasn’t able to decipher what they were saying.  Aaron and I passed the pipe silently as we watched a cruise ship cut through the choppy water under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The sun occasionally peaked out from the mist, and Aaron’s pale skin glowed in those moments of light.

“So how does it feel to be back?” I asked as I handed him the pipe.

Aaron struck another match, cupped his hands around the bowl, breathed in sharply, and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the breeze. 

“It’s weird, but while I was gone I felt like so much would change here.” Aaron paused and looked up and down the beach. “But now that I’m back it’s like nothing’s changed.”

“Nothing but the cute souvenir you brought home,” I said looking over at Mia.

“That’s true,” Aaron said laughing.  “Never saw it coming.”

“That’s how it works man.  Love pops up in a minute, and if you’re not paying attention it can leave as quickly.”

“Something you’re not telling me man?” Aaron asked with his head tilted to the side.  “You and Natalie seem… I don’t know… off.”

“That obvious?” I exhaled and noted that my breath left almost the same trail without the smoke. “Yeah we broke up a couple of months ago. Right after you left.”

Aaron shook his head. “Oh man… that fucking sucks. You guys were like my favorite couple.”

“I hear that a lot lately.” And I had. When I told my parents my mom burst into tears and my dad shook his head. They had always hoped that Natalie would pull me out of my funk and into the world of mortgage payments, fatherhood, and yearly doctor’s check-ups.

“Are you OK?”

“I honestly don’t know.” The days were getting easier, and I hoped that they would continue to do so. I even hoped that I would one day be able to watch our favorite movies and listen to our song again without regret choking my throat. “I built a life with her for five years. Now it’s done.”

“How done is it?” he asked looking in her direction. “She did come today.”

I nodded and pondered what it all meant. I still didn’t know. “I think that was more to see you with a girlfriend. It shocked us both.”

Aaron shrugged. “That may be true, but the fact that she’s here with you must mean something, right?”

I wondered if Aaron was on to something. Perhaps she missed me. Maybe she even missed “us.” But how would I know? Talking about our present circumstance seemed impossible, like it was a language Rosetta Stone hadn’t covered yet.

When the pipe was full of ash, Aaron asked “Want to help me with the bonfire?”

The wind was blowing fierce, and I could see no way that Aaron could possibly get the bonfire started. I fumbled with matches and tinder, but the ocean breeze would not co-operate. Each match would light and flame out in an instant, leaving the piles of wood dry and cold.

“Hey, Natalie and I can run across the street to see if the Safeway has any lighters.” Lighters were only part of my motivation. I also wanted to see about grabbing some Doritos and Ding Dongs for my empty belly and, if I was lucky, I would be able to corner Natalie and sneak some sweet kisses.

Natalie and I walked across the street and into the Safeway. I used Natalie as a guide as I was still reeling from the intense Humboldt bud. The lights of the Safeway were painfully bright, and I squinted as Natalie led me down the aisles to find the lighter, chips, and sweets. The aisles seemed so long, and there were so many options. How could I possibly make a decision when everywhere I looked there were brilliantly colored cellophane wrappers designed to catch my wandering eyes? I lost myself in the moment and the next thing I knew we paid and walked back across the Great Highway.

While we were gone, the sun finished setting, and we stumbled through the gathering darkness to find my friends. We passed a fire surrounding by hipsters in flannel shirts and tight jeans, a roaring fire with frat boys tossing a glow in the dark Nerf football, and then we stumbled upon a massive blaze where we saw Aaron, Mia, Amy, and about a hundred other people huddled.

“Holy shit!” I said as I walked up to Aaron.

He shrugged. “Told you some friends may come by.”

“Some friends? This is more like Dumbledore’s army.”

Natalie and I took a seat on an old Spiderman beach towel, cracked open some new beers, munched on Doritos, and watched the festivities. The fire burned bright, bathing the Potter fans in orange flickering light. A thin girl with a pimple-covered face pulled out a ukulele and tuned up. I expected to hear some bonfire classics like “American Pie”, “Hotel California”, or even “Magalina Hagalina”, but the song that left her lips was far different.

“We’ve got to save Ginny Weasley from the basilisk
We’ve got to save the school from that unseen horror
We’ve got to save Ginny Weasley from the basilisk
We’ve got save the school again
We’ve got to save the school again”

“What… the fuck… is going on?” I asked Natalie and she shrugged.

“Oh, It’s Wizard Rock,” Mia said. I don’t know if I was more shocked by the music or the fact that she was sitting next to me and I didn’t realize it.

“What’s Wizard Rock?” Natalie asked.

“You haven’t heard of it?” Mia replied, a look of disdain on her face. “It’s this cool new genre of music where bands rock out but they do it with Harry Potter lyrics.”

“Really?” I replied.

“Oh yeah. It started with Harry and the Potters, but now there’s a bunch of great bands. There’s Draco and the Malfoys, The Whomping Willows, The Moaning Myrtyles.” Mia looked into the fire and smiled. “And I’m thinking about starting my own band too.”

“Wow. I had no idea,” I responded. “And these bands are making money?”
“Oh yeah. They self-produce most of their stuff and sell it at shows, so it’s almost all profit.”

Natalie and I sat and listened to the chorus of voices singing the un-familiar tune. I fantasized about playing a show at the Filmore, occupying the same stage that Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin where on when they changed music forever, but in the fantasy I strummed a ukulele while hordes of girls showered the stage with training bras, wooden wands, and floppy hats.

When the song was finished I grabbed Natalie and we went on a mission to find some hard liquor to deal with the surreal nature of the moment. We found the stash of bottles guarded by Amy and another woman. As we drew closer they turned on us with arms folded tightly across their chests.

“Hey, mind if I whip up a cocktail or two?” I asked.

“I guess so,” answered Amy. She looked bored, yet irritated that I was interrupting her discourse on J.K. Rowling’s future outside of Harry Potter.  “What are you making?”

I looked through the bottles and took inventory. “How about a Blue Hawaiian?”

“I don’t know. That isn’t very Harry Potter,” Amy responded.

I thought for a moment. “How about a Fizzing Whisbee?”

Amy screeched.  “That sounds awesome!”

 “What the hell is that?” Natalie whispered in my ear.

“A Blue Hawaiian,” I whispered back.

I mixed some Bacardi light rum, Blue Curacoa, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut, in a red plastic cup and handed it to Amy. She chugged the drink in a moment and turned to her friend.

“You should try one of these. They are delicious! They would totally sell this at Honeydukes or The Leaky Cauldron.”

Her brunette friend asked, “Can I have one?” smiling for the first time.

“Sure,” I replied already mixing the ingredients. I made four cocktails, one for each of the girls, one for Natalie, and one for myself. We stood in an awkward silence sipping our Hawaiian Harry Potter cocktails.

“Do you love Harry Potter?” asked the brunette.

“Oh yeah,” I replied. “I’ve read all the books at least twice and seen all the movies.”

“Oh…. So you’re a Muggle,” the brunette said before turning and walking off with Amy.

“What… The … Fuck???” I asked Natalie.

She snickered. “You heard em. You’re a Muggle.”

“What about you?”

“I’m full of magic.” Natalie flashed the smile I had fallen in love with and I felt blessed.

I was in a state of shock. I didn’t need those girls to offer their undying friendship, but to be scorned like an awkward high schooler by someone who I’m pretty sure was not too long ago an awkward high schooler, this was ludicrous.

Natalie and I walked around the bonfire trying to make small talk with the Harry Potter groupies, only to be re-buffed when they found out that we weren’t wizards, only simple Muggles trying to find common ground. We sat on a beach towel, sipped our cocktails, and watched the girl strum another tune on the ukulele.

“My dad’s always there
To open all my doors
You have to call a patronus just to catch a glimpse of yours
My mom says she loves me
When she tucks me into bed
How’s your mommy doing in the Mirror of Erised?
My dad is rich
And your dad is dead
My dad is rich and your dad is dead”

“This is so fucking weird,” I said to Natalie who could only nod her head in agreement.

“Mind if I join you?” a soft voice asked in an English accent.

I turned and saw a short guy with messy, dark hair and thin framed oval glasses. Perhaps I should have known this would happen; he looked just like Harry Potter.

“Sure,” I said. “Take a seat.”

“Thank you so much,” he said as he sat with us on the beach towel. “It’s been a bloody strange night.”

“You can say that again,” I replied. “Are you in San Francisco for the convention?”

“Oh yeah. You see I love the books. They really changed my life. I’ve also always wanted to see the States, so when I heard about Azkatraz I just had to go.”

“I’m assuming Azkatraz is the name of the convention?” I asked.

“It is.” He paused. He looked at Natalie, and then at me. I knew what was coming next. “You’re not a wizard are you?” he asked looking sorry for me.

“Apparently I’m just a lowly Muggle,” I replied.

“Oh don’t worry about it mate,” he replied smiling before resting a hand on my shoulder. “We all start somewhere. Have you read the books?”

“Everyone of them at least once,” I replied. “Most of them twice.”

“See, that’s a start,” he said before he squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t let these wizards get you down. We were all Muggles once.”

“Thanks. I think.”

A voice screeched from behind us. “Thomas is that you?” We turned and saw Amy and the brunette from earlier making their way towards us.

“Damnit,” he said under his breath. “Well hello ladies,” he said louder so the girls could hear. “And how are you doing this fine evening?”

“Better now that you’re here,” Amy replied. “Oh, and I see you’ve found some new friends,” she said gesturing towards us with the now empty plastic cup.

“Indeed I have. And some good people they are too,” our new champion said.

“But they’re not wizards,” the brunette said in a hushed voice, confusing me as I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to miss the comment since I was sitting there. Perhaps her magic wasn’t as strong as she believed.

“Well that’s all right,” Thomas replied.  He asked the girls, “Were you born a wizard or did you become one?”

“That is true, I guess,” the brunette relied.

Amy continued to ignore us. “What are you doing after the bonfire?” she asked Thomas. “We’re going back to the Marriot and then we’re going to sing some wizard rock and talk about the books.”

“Sweet Jesus,” I said under my breath.

Amy took a step forward. “What was that Muggle?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” I replied distraught. I didn’t think my ego would ever recover if I was jumped by the president of the Harry Potter fan club.

“And in the morning we’re going to the Quiditch match,” the brunette said smiling.

“You got to be fucking kidding me?” I said without thinking.

“Listen here Muggle,” Amy began.

Thomas rose from the towel. “Relax ladies,” He turned to me and said, “Of course it isn’t real Quiditch since none of us can fly. It’s just a really fun version of the game that we play on soccer fields.”

More of the girls at the bonfire noticed Thomas now, and he was soon surrounded. The light of the bonfire washed over their faces making them look like apparitions in the night, ready to take Harry Potter back to his world.

“Hi Tommy. Want to go get a drink with me tonight?”

“He’s coming with us!” yelled Amy, waving her plastic cup around like a magic wand.

“Who says?” yelled another girl.

“You should come back to my hotel room and I can teach you some Wizard Rock,” the ukulele player said to Thomas.

Thomas looked at me, and in his eyes I saw the fear of the gazelle before being devoured by a pride of lions. I couldn’t imagine the actual Harry Potter would be any more of a celebrity. Amy grabbed Thomas’s left arm while the Ukulele girl grabbed his right and they both pulled in opposite directions. Thomas yanked back and the girls collided. Using the collision as cover, Thomas fled into the darkness with a few girls close behind.

I asked Natalie, “Could this get anymore weird?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I didn’t even smoke but now I’m starting to feel like I’m on something.” 

“Let’s go for a walk.”

Groups of Potter heads were having imaginary duels in the shadows of the bonfire. Their screams of “Expeliarmus” and “Protego” could be heard halfway down the beach. We walked away from the glow of the bonfire and down to where the tide reached the sand. We removed our shoes and socks and rolled up our jeans and ran down into the freezing water. We ran and splashed each other, laughing and freezing all the while. Natalie’s auburn hair whipped around in the breeze, far more untamed and vibrant than any bonfire could ever hope to be, and I felt another type of magic pulling at me. I grabbed her by the waist, picked her up over my shoulder, and walked up the beach to a secluded, dry space, and then laid her carefully down. We kissed in the pale moonlight for a moment and then I laid my head against her chest, counting the rhythm of her heartbeat.

“You’ve got some weird friends,” Natalie murmured.

“What do you expect from a bunch of wizards? Last time I checked they don’t teach inter-personal communications at Hogwarts.”

Natalie laughed and we held each other close against the biting breeze. “When should we go back?” she asked.

“Never?”

“We have to go back sometime; I’ve got work in the morning,” she replied and my heart sank. All I wanted was to hold on to the moment just a little longer, savor the magic that flowed freely between the two of us.

“Just stay with me a little longer? Doesn’t this feel good?”

“It does,” Natalie said staring at the moon, framed by the fog slowly rolling in.

“It’s like we were never apart,” I said nuzzling her shoulder with my lips.

“Yeah. I guess so.” I tried to lock eyes with her but she was somewhere far away.

“So much has happened,” I said.  “And it was hard. But I still love you. Don’t you think we can bring it back? I don’t know, re-light the flame?”

Natalie looked at me for a long moment. “I’m sorry Honey,” she said as she softly kissed my forehead, stood, and walked away into the shadows. “Magic doesn’t exist.”

 

 

Changes Coming for Pennsylvania Liquor Laws?

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On Wednesday, January 30, Gov. Corbett announced a plan to auction off Pennsylvania’s state-owned wine and liquor stores and use the projected $1 billion in proceeds to help public schools.

“The selling of alcohol is not a core responsibility of government,” Gov. Corbett stated at a news conference in Pittsburgh, “but education is.”

The Governor’s plan is to spread out the $1 billion over four years in so-called “block grants.”  Pennsylvania schools receiving these grants will be selected through a formula based on the community’s income level and student population.  Schools receiving these grants would be required to spend the money within one of four categories – individual learning; school safety; early learning; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics course programming.  

Under Corbett’s plan, retail beer distributors, who now may only sell beer by the case or keg, could apply for a license to sell wine and liquor.  For the first time, Pennyslvania supermarkets and big-box stores, like Walmart, would be allowed to sell individual customers up to two six-packs of beer and up to six bottles of wine. Convenience stores would also be allowed to sell six-packs of beer, but no wine or liquor. Restaurants and taverns, which may now sell a customer up to two six-packs of beer, will also be allowed to sell a customer up to six bottles of wine.

“I believe it’s time to give Pennsylvanians what they want: choice and convenience,”  stated Gov. Corbett.

One of the main proponents of the plan is Philadelphia schools chief William R. Hite Jr. “I’m in favor of any mechanism – one-time or sustainable – to fund schools,” Hite said. “We really are that desperate. We’re going to be advocating for any opportunities to improve revenue for schools.” The state’s largest district recently borrowed $300 million just to keep its schools open for the rest of the year, and is facing a $1 billion deficit over five years,

Not everyone is as hopeful that the plan will offer any lasting help. Once the last license is sold, the money is gone and the schools will be right back where they are now.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association calls the plan a way of “holding students hostage to the governor’s political agenda.”

According to “Mike,” a licensing analyst for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), “Fiscally speaking I’m not sure it’s a great idea. The estimated money they’ll get is like 2 billion if they sell but the PLCB makes about 400-500 million a year for the states as it is.  The math isn’t there … If the plan is to use the privatization money for schools that’s great but it seems like you’re just turning on the fire hydrant for a summer water fight and then it dries up.”

Another concern is the ability of small beer distributors to compete with larger corporation. In a statement from the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, which represents more than 450 distributors throughout the state: “The plan . . . could force the closure of hundreds of small, family-owned and -operated businesses, throwing thousands of Pennsylvanians out of work?”

“Mike” agrees with the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Philadelphia, “I think the small beer distributors are going to be hurt the most. They are currently hamstrung in not being able to sell six packs. And you mention big companies well I already see that happening. With the Wegmans and Whole Foods buying up the current bar licenses they’re driving the prices up in a lot of the non-Philly counties.”

How would the plan affect prices? “It’s a free-market system,” Corbett said, “and competition tends to drive costs down.” Asked whether he was sure prices would drop, Corbett turned gruff: “Can you say for certain that the sun is going to come up tomorrow?”

“Mike” does not agree with Corbett. “I’m curious if the PLCB is going to stay in the wholesale end of it. If not then there is a good chance that people who want privatization are going to see prices rising that they didn’t expect … I mean currently the board has the buying power for an entire state so they can demand a lot of lower prices on things and that may not continue.”

One other concern is what happens to all of the state employees currently tied to the liquor industry? According to “Mike”, “Layoffs are going to be heavy in the store portion especially. There are hundreds of people likely to lose their jobs if the union can’t do anything for them. My guess is all that will survive mostly is licensing which is (thanks fully) what I do.”

To assist PLCB employees who may lose their jobs if privatization comes, Corbett has proposed tax credits for businesses that hire them. “This means good private-sector jobs for employees who want to stay in the liquor business,” he said.

Joseph had a Technicolor Dreamcoat

I grew up in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. My parents, both children of immigrants, were not used to having many of the luxuries that were common in Palos Verdes. When it came time to go shopping for school clothes, my mom would throw me into the back seat of her creaky 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra and we would make a bee-line for Ross so I could “dress for less.”

Most of the kids would show up to the first day of school in the newest GAP, Express, or Eddie Bauer styles popular at the time; starched button up shirts, designer jeans, and the newest Air Jordan’s;  while I would arrive in a Georgetown Hoyas t-shirt, brown thin gauged chords that had gone out of style somewhere around 1979, and the newest style of Pro-Wings (a Payless shoe store special, guaranteed to show wear within the first weeks).

When I walked down the hall my pants would swish and woosh with every step, making a quiet entrance impossible, and I’d hear comments from all sides.

“Hey look! It’s Peter Brady!”

“Disco Stu, when’s the dance off?”

“Dude you forgot your platform boots!”

The humiliation would last all day, and sometimes even into the bus ride home. One fine day I finally had enough and I took a pair of plastic scissors to the chords, removing triangles, circles, and trapezoids of cloth and threw them out the window to glide slowly in the bus’s wake like wayward paper airplanes.

When I got home I prepared for the worst. I had no idea of how to describe the new Geometry of my pants and muttered a weak, “I dunno” while under cross examination from my mother. The beating I expected never came to fruition. It was only the next day when I realized how harsh my punishment would be. When I finished breakfast and went into my bedroom to dress for school I saw my Dad’s size 38X34 black slacks waiting for me, along with a belt, and a note: “Good luck at school today!”

I reluctantly put on the pants with shame boiling in my blood, cinched them tight with the belt, pulled on a USC t-shirt, put on my socks and Pro-Wings, and dragged my body to the bus stop. Even though I was quite tall for my age the pants were about 12 sizes too big. Aladdin would have been ashamed seeing me in them and even MC Hammer (a bonified celebrity at the time, famous for enormous “parachute” pants) would have walked quickly the other way if we ever came close to meeting on the streets.

I tried my best to duck and dodge through the school that day, hiding behind open locker doors, dipping into boy’s room stalls to avoid the worst of the bullying, and I consider myself lucky that only a few people noticed the baggy pants. When I got home I begged my mother to buy me a new pair of pants that fit so I would no longer have to endure the humiliation. After a bit of begging and sobbing she finally relented.

To replace my tattered chords Mom threw me back into the Oldsmobile and we headed down the hill and back to Ross. I’m guessing that she learned a lesson, and this time let me pick out my own pants. The jeans selection was severely lacking so I went to look at the khakis. On the rack I found a pair of charcoal gray Docker’s cargo pants that really grabbed my eye. I asked my mom if I could have them and she agreed.

It was a Saturday and I changed into my new pants when I got home so I could strut around the neighborhood and not feel like a refuge from the early seventies. Next thing I knew I found myself in a pickup game of basketball at Dana Junior High School. I was on that day, and the loose fitting pants didn’t hold me back as I flew around the court, crossing over people like writers cross their T’s, and when I left the court I had visions of dominating the lunch break sessions at Miraleste 7-12 basketball courts.

When I got home my mom noticed the sweat on my brow and scolded me for wearing my new pants in such a capricious manner. She threw the pants into the laundry along with some white sweat socks, red bath towels, (I only learned the concept of sorting laundry once I left for college, whether or not she ever learned I’m not so sure)and copious amounts of a discount detergent that she bought god only knows where.

The next morning I donned my killer new gray pants and a black t-shirt and sauntered to the bus stop with more pep in my step than usually. Jason was waiting, in his usual brown pants and white t shirt.

“What’s the deal with the purple pants?” Jason asked.

“Purple? Are you color-blind? These pants are…” the charcoal died on my tongue with the realization that my pants were now, in fact, a hideous purplish-red. “What the…”

“Fuck man. You look like a clown!” Jason always was a sensitive young man.

I stared at the pants and said a quick prayer to Jesus or any other deity who might be listening to, “please please please change my pants back to gray.”

I’m guessing Jesus and his spiritual buddies must have been on a conference call because my prayers stayed un-answered. No matter how hard I stared or which angle I took to look at the damn pants they stayed that hideous shade of purple. The bus arrived killing any chances of me running back home and changing back into my dad’s oversized slacks. I jogged to the back of the bus and rode up the hill in silence, hoping for an earthquake or some other natural disaster to put me out of my misery.

When the bus got to Miraleste I had no choice but to face the scorn of my classmates. I waited to make sure I would be the last one off the bus, and was surprised to find Jason waiting for me. I figured he would head out quickly so he wouldn’t be seen with Mr. Purple Pants. I was even more surprised by his reaction.

“When did you change your pants?”

I looked down hoping for a charcoal hue but was greeted by Olive green. That I could work with!

“I didn’t change my pants… they changed on their own.”

“Are they Hypercolor?” Jason asked referencing a new style of t-shirt just becoming popular.

“Shit man. I don’t know,” I muttered looking at my pants in dismay. What was next? Would they stay green, shift back to charcoal, or glow in the dark? Who could tell? And what the hell was in that laundry detergent?

I walked into first period and sat quickly, hoping it would be a day where I wouldn’t have to walk across the classroom and answer a history question on the chalkboard. The class was uneventful, as was the next. When I stood up after second period my pants were a rust colored red. The hue was kind of cool so I walked out into the hall with some confidence.

“Pink? Really?” Jason said as he walked by shaking his head.

I looked down and confirmed that the rust had faded into a deep pink. After second period I would usually stop by the soda machine to fuel up on some caffeinated bliss courtesy of Dr. Pepper but that would require walking halfway across campus so I made a bee-line for third period. I sat in my usual seat and prayed again for no well meaning teacher to call on me and pull me from my seat.

Once again my prayers went unanswered as during Pre-Algebra Mr. Koch called on me almost immediately to figure out an equation on the white board. I stood with a groan and looked down. I’m sure there must have been at least one person in class who wondered if it was a boner check but it was simply a check in with my amazing color-changing pants. I was happy to see that in the artificial light they had darkened a bit back into the rust color. I answered the question quickly, not really concerned with accuracy, only brevity. I resumed my seat and watched the clock.

The rest of the day proceeded with hues of red, orange, and occasionally that horrific pink. It was only when walking home from the bus stop that I saw the pants had morphed back into the charcoal that I loved.

When I got home I rushed into the kitchen, grabbed a steak knife, removed my pants as quickly as humanly possible, and did my best Norman Bates impersonation on the pants. After they were properly filleted I tossed the evidence in the garbage, went to the laundry room, and looked at the cheap detergent. It was a bit disappointing that there was no warning on the label about amazing color changing possibilities or hazardous waste. To this day I don’t know if it was the pants themselves or some miracle of chemistry that caused the color changing, and perhaps I’ll never know. All I do know is after my oatmeal breakfast the next morning I went to my bedroom and found the enormous slacks waiting for me.

The Legend of Doctor Bob

By Peter Ott

It was August 7th and a few minutes before last call at R2L restaurant and the bartender said a quick prayer for no more patrons to walk into the bar. The night was slow throughout, and the bartender accepted a short coming on tips as long as he could enjoy a few drinks of his own in Center City. Then, the door to the residence elevator opened signaling another late night; however, the bartender’s irritation fled when he saw the smiling face of Dr. Bob and his Russian model girlfriend Olga. A dry Plymouth martini for the Dr. and a glass of still water for the lady.  After a few moments of small talk concerning the day in particular and their lives in general, Dr. Bob looked into the bartender’s eyes and asked, “What’s wrong? You look kinda down.”

“I’ve been a little lonely. My girlfriend is studying abroad in Italy, and I just booked a trip to fly back to LA to catch a make-up show from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After booking my flight, I discovered that I’m going to miss my parents. I thought they would be in Africa for the entire month but it turns out that they will be flying back the day I’m leaving.”

Instantly, Dr. Bob replied “Well, that’s not right. You should really see your parents.”

“I know. I just can’t afford to change my flight. It’s amazing how much they want to charge me for changing the flight by two days.”

“How much would it cost?” Dr. Bob asked.

“About three hundred dollars.”

Without a word, Dr. Bob reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and laid three, crisp one hundred dollar bills on the bar top.

“That should cover the flight.” Dr. Bob smiled and the bartender felt dizzy.

“And you know what, you probably need a couple of bucks for drinks while you’re there.” Another hundred joined the three already on the bar.

“And money for a cab from the airport.” Now five one-hundred dollar bills lie next to each other on the bar.

“I want you to understand that this is not a tip.  I’m still going to tip you, as I understand that the bartenders here all share their tips. This is a gift from me to you. All I ask for in return is that you take a picture with your parents and text it to me. Oh, and if you could, would you please invent a cocktail and name it after me?”

The bartender was shocked. He had heard many stories of wealthy patrons throwing ridiculous tips at platinum blondes but never before had he seen it happen, and never before had it happened to him. The bartender agreed and the two men talked about flavors for the cocktail. Dr. Bob loved the French 57, but the bartender wanted to make the drink a little more contemporary and classy. After a few minutes of doctoring the recipe, the “Doc Bob” (trademark pending) was born.

  • An ounce and a quarter of Plymouth Dry Gin
  • An ounce of St. Germaine Elderflower liquor (substituted for simple syrup)
  • A splash of Luxardo Maraschino liquor (substituted for the maraschino cherry)
  • Three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice
  • Shake, strain, and then topped with champagne. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
    007

    Dr. Bob with R2L’s “Doc Bob” cocktail and  his girlfriend Olga. Picture by Peter Ott

    In case it is not already obvious to you, I am the bartender in the story, and I’m lucky to consider Bob a friend.

    “Generosity is an expression of internal strength,” Dr. Bob told me in an interview last Sunday. “It is a reflection of a calm confidence inside which can exist regardless of outer markers of being rich. And someone who is outwardly rich can still be weak internally with a soft center of fear and uncertainty, making generosity impossible.”

    Dr. Robert Eugene Willis was born on February 8, 1969, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  His parents met when his father picked up his mother hitchhiking to Alaska. After finishing a career in the military, his father worked in the post office and ended his career as the postmaster. Much of Dr. Bob’s childhood was spent playing in the cornfields, harassing the area’s main cash crop.

    From an early age, school was not for Dr. Bob. With an extremely high IQ, he was stifled by a public education system that lumped him together with children far behind mentally. “Public school really wasn’t too kind for me. There was this notion of trying to bring the ends of the bell curve into the middle. Mainstreaming. Somebody with a 60 IQ and somebody with a 160 IQ, they got paired together… It really didn’t work out that well.”

    As a result, Dr. Bob skipped four grades: first, eighth, and his Junior and Senior years of high school – having finished the academic requirements by the time he was 15.  Dr. Bob does not have a high school diploma. Commenting on this, Dr. Bob stated that “in Pennsylvania in those years you needed four years of gym class in order to have a high school diploma. And you had to have Driver’s Ed.”

    At the age of 12, Dr. Bob was sent to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster after scoring highly on standardized tests and he was asked to take the SAT. Dr. Bob’s score of 1330 on the SAT, a test for college bound seniors, placed him in the 98th percentile in 1981. During this time, Dr. Bob also took math and computer classes at the local colleges through a program offered by John Hopkins University.

    At the age of 15, Dr. Bob was accepted into Northeastern University; however, he only lasted 90 days before dropping out. After dropping out Dr. Bob kept busy. “There was a bunch of guys having trouble getting their work done, so I would trade room and board for writing papers.”

    It was not long after that Dr. Bob started his first business Alpine Computer Systems. “I was really interested in computer networking and engineering. It was a great time to get into that business… This was when it was black magic to be able to have a file server, share a printer, and the idea that you didn’t have to pay IBM a million dollars for a computer that could help you make money, it was pretty new. The PC was new. There was no such thing as Windows. Macintosh was a kind of under powered toy still.”

    Dr. Bob ran the company from 1988 until 1996.  During the last three years of his ownership control, the company registered on the Inc. 500, generated over $35 million in revenue, and grew from 30 employees to well over 300. “We had all the major insurance companies, mutual fund companies based in Boston. We did New England Power which was a 30 something hundred node from scratch which was something we did do with IBM. They decided they were tired of losing to guys like us, and they approached us with IBM business partner love. It was a combination of the right time, and being young enough, and able to starve enough to pull it off.”

    After orchestrating a $25 million strategic merger of Alpine to the London based Delphi Group, Dr. Bob took on the role of CIO of the parent company and sat on the board of directors.  Delphi Group was later sold to the Swiss company Adecco. When the panic of Y2K hit the company, Dr. Bob offered to write a personal check for one million dollars to buy back Alpine. “It was like offering ten bucks for Two Liberty.” Adecco agreed and six months later, after Y2K proved to be no real obstacle, Dr. Bob again sold the company for a large profit.  While Alpine in now owned by Cognizent, Dr. Bob still owns the network operations center the company uses in Massachusetts. “The pieces we put into place are still out there, which for a tech company, you know is pretty unusual.”

    Over the next few years, Dr. Bob kept busy.  He started a record label, Galtmine Productions; was the Executive Producer for two Hollywood movies Hacks and Meeting Daddy in partnership with Hall of Fame football star Howie Long, Michael Sayles (Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters’ husband), and Matt Salinger (J.D. Salinger’s son); and was an early investor in Gemini Fund Services, LLC., which encouraged him to buy in early on Buffalo Wild Wings and Arc Technologies INC.   In July 2004,  he started the European online casino Gaming VC.   During the first year as a public company, Gaming VC generated 1.8 billion Euros. Dr. Bob was in negotiations with Caesar’s and Harrah’s for an online World Series of Poker when the United States banned online gaming in 2006.

    After Dr. Bob sold his interest in Gaming VC he moved back to the United States from London, deciding on Miami over Boston as his new home.  In 2004 he started Foxcode, INC., an investment banking and finance company with his long time friend, and partner in Gaming VC, Sean Quinn. “Foxcode is kind of a merchant/investment bank so we find things that interest us and take a piece of the action and try to fix what is broken, make it bigger, buy, sell, take it public, whatever’s necessary to raise money… We’re into cell phones, telecommunications, energy now, a 30 megawatt solar project in Massachusetts. We are doing some deals in China revolving around consumer products: cigarettes, booze, and real estate.”

    Dr. Bob now spends his time in both Miami and he has also signed a two year lease on a condo in The Residences at Two Liberty Place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After years in Boston, London, and Miami, Dr. Bob is happy to run a company in his home state. “The great part about being in Philly downtown is there is a lot of local vendors. There are creative venders and technology venders within five blocks of here. We can actually harvest some really talented and qualified people to help us do these things.”

  • Dr. Bob in the Foxcode offices at two Liberty.Picture by Peter Ott

    Dr. Bob in the Foxcode offices at two Liberty.
    Picture by Peter Ott

    Charity is important to Dr. Bob. One that is close to his heart is the nsoro Educational Foundation, which helps foster kids when they turn 18 by offering internships, mentoring programs, and scholarships. In recognition of his generosity, nsoro will honor Dr. Bob as the King of the annual Starfish Ball in January.  Dr. Bob also contributes to many non-profits such as the Institute for Justice, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the Cato Institute.

    While Dr. Bob has been very fortunate with his business dealings, love has been a bit harder to come by. He has been married three times, the first at the age of 19. His two children, Henry (9) and Victoria (13), from his second marriage live with their mother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Bob met his current flame Olga online while he was living in Miami and the couple moved together to Philadelphia.

    Dr. Bob is a man of many hobbies. He is a licensed pilot who has logged flying hours all over the world. Dr. Bob is also involved with Capital Brands as a hobby, a liquor company with offices in Clearwater, Florida and Pulaski, Tennessee.  He is also an avid reader. “I spend about 30 grand a year on books and I’ve got a bat-cave in Lancaster with 10 to 15 thousand books, so I try to put as much into my watermelon as I can.”

    In the future, Dr. Bob is considering opening his own un-accredited university where he will teach his business philosophy to the next generation of “Dr. Bobs.”  He received his own honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from Newberry College in Boston, Massachusetts. “There is a quality issue everywhere. The gumption required to produce something of quality is so often missing… I don’t believe people understand both the luck and the focused concentration that has to happen in order to make a business like that operate. Any business that survives past three years is statistically unlikely. You almost have to be mad to get into a start-up because the odds are stacked against you. It’s the beauty of the human condition that lets us ignore these almost certain death odds and still do something anyhow.”

No Spectators

 

People are strange when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted. Streets are uneven when you’re down

Jim Morrison

“What the hell is the point of all this fucking insanity?”

The words hang in the air unsure of their genesis.

Along the horizon are black mountains, stone sentinels of the past.  Three camels stand in the foreground eating hay. Their lips smacking thunder I run by with my hands cupped over my ears. The camels must have been brought here by another techno-junkie getting high on just how different he is.  I guess that’s the whole point; showing just how weird you are.  I’ve never felt so normal.  The stench of the camels rises on air currents along the dessert floor for miles. Flies and mosquitoes play tag on the pungent breeze.

To my right are the communal showers.  Clay statues of people, or maybe they’re actually people coated from head to toe with mud and grime, are growling at those too inhibited to walk around naked or bathe in the cooling mud.  “No Spectators,” they yell in between their growls, the ivory enamel of teeth a stark contrast to the dark wet earth.

Cars circle the playa like sharks honing in on the distinct scent of new prey.  Tents stand in rows all around forming pseudo-walls around a city built of scratched steel, chunks of rotting wood, canvas sheets for shade, all held together by polished nuts and bolts.  Hippies dance from tent to tent offering ecstasy and LSD.

Reaching towards the turquoise sky stands the Burning Man, fifty feet high, wooden crosses connected by a magenta florescent light exo-skeleton.  His entire body is peppered with firecrackers of various sizes.  Hands raised towards heaven dare God to come down and curse this modern day Babylon, this Sodom, this Gomorrah, but I don’t see Lot’s chick turning into a pillar of salt.  If she did, would anyone even notice?  The Burning Man’s feet are anchored firmly to the ground, perhaps to remind God of just who currently runs thing down here on the mortal world.

White sand.  Black Rock.  Red Skin.

Sitting on a weathered Bacardi Light Rum beach chair next to my best friend Tom I bask in the many levels of delusion the psychedelic mushrooms bring.  My brother Aaron watches from the beige Winnebago trailer we’ve rented for the occasion.  I wonder what kind of kick he gets in seeing me, his little brother, so belligerent that I’m drooling on my board shorts.

The canvas sheets above, pulled taught between four beams of oak does little more than offer sweating shade, not the cool relief we were promised.

Robbie Krieger from the Doors is playing some eerie bottlenecked guitar on a dusty JVC boom box as a soundtrack to the chaos.  I wish he were here.  He could tell me about Jim, about the Doors, about the trips they took, the shit they saw.  Maybe he could understand the shit I’m seeing.

Midgets ride by on unicycles.

A curly haired woman dressed as a belly dancer gyrates by, steadily clicking her castanets.  She is wearing these lavender silk kerchiefs tied around her waist, and white ones under her breasts pushing the nipples towards the sun, and I can’t help but wonder who she’s trying to impress.  The bald black guy with glasses doing some obscure variation of the funky chicken to “Moonlight Drive”?  The retired housewife who just can’t get over how hot the dessert is?  The thirteen year old prick running around with a super soaker drenching those women not already topless?  The fifty-something year old man who insists on being called Hawkeye even though he exhibits none of Alan Alda’s looks or grace?  The man we affectionately refer to as the space cowboy in his silver painted Stetson and Don’t Mess With Texas belt buckle?

I thought the Burning Man festival would be some kind of modern Woodstock without the rioting, an art festival in the middle of the black rock desert with a plethora of naked people looking for a good time.  But I never knew what I was getting into.  Seeing delusional fuck-up after fuck-up wandering in the sweltering heat just reinforces what a fuck-up I am swimming in this sea of salty sweat.  How did I get talked into this?

Overweight-drug-dealer-man, the amazing specimen that has no shoulders to speak of, is running a pencil thin paintbrush over the curves of another body.  A white towel covers her face.  I wonder if she’s a stripper.  She is so comfortable and confident having indigo latex paint spread over her body in a childish weave of curves and circles.  She’s definitely a welcome change from all the fruits shaving their bodies and painting their penis’s.  There is nothing more disturbing than a purple painted prick pointing at you when you’re tripping balls.  Sometimes I just want to go into the trailer and cry.

A double-seater bike appears: one rider dressed in the loose flowing robes of a desert nomad, the second has red died hair with sharp horns sculpted to a fine edge. “No Spectators”, is written in black gothic letters across devil boy’s shoulders.

The clouds fly by at an impossible rate.  I swear I’m almost a part of the breeze; I feel it blowing through my veins.  A woman dressed in the khaki shirt and short combo of a Burning Man Ranger rides by on an old, pink, Shwinn.  She is screaming, her face the color of a roma tomato.

“Dust storm coming!”

She looks familiar.  Must be something about those chiseled legs, or the way her mahogany hair whips around in the wind.  She looks so familiar.  But right now everything looks familiar.  I can swear I’m a part of everyone, and they are a part of me.

“Dust storm coming!”

She looks so familiar.  Did I love her, hate her, or revile her in a past life?  Am I going to immortalize her one day in a novel?  Will her face be locked up on the shelves in old, musty, poetry texts at City Lights Bookstore?  Was she the woman who shot candy corn out of her pussy last night for free drinks?

“Did you hear that?”

Tom’s eyes are really fucked-up.  Scary fucked up.  The pupils are enormous and they are shinning like two fresh-cut diamonds.

“Well, did you?”

Words are thick molasses on my tongue.  The dragon; green, red, and yellow on Tom’s shoulder… it’s moving.  It’s never done that before.  The flames dance up his shoulder blade and lick his neck.  And the teeth… the teeth…

“You too fucked up to talk?”

“Nah.  I heard. Do we know her?” I reply.  The words sound like they come from the stereo.  Robbie, is that you?

“Who?”

“The chick on the bike?”

Tom is looking at me now like I’m the one who’s scary fucked up.

“What chick?”

“That one!”  I point to where I can just see her long thin legs pounding, the Schwinn hardly advancing in the stiff breeze.

“What’s that?” he replies pointing where I’m pointing.

I look beyond her, past her short lacy white socks painted brown by the dust.  I wish I were wearing socks.  Maybe some clean white cotton sweat socks with Nike tattooed in green letters across the ankle.  Or maybe some of those cushioned-foot black socks Dad used to wear to work.  But socks would be awfully hot. Maybe I’m better off without.

The horizon is gray.  The sky is the color of cold steel.  Tom is looking at me like I might have some kind of answer.  If so, I can’t remember the question.  I’m still wondering where Robbie is and did that mother-fucker steal my socks? I don’t know I say to Tom with my eyes.  Tom shrugs back.

“Looks like it’s getting closer.”

I nod in agreement.  It looks like the world has been flooded by gray.

“That’s definitely getting closer.”

I nod again.  Or maybe I don’t.  Maybe I never stopped nodding.  The Burning Man is swallowed by the gray.  One moment he was standing so proud, tall, majestic, a neon Jesus, now he is gone.  I can swear he is smiling at me from the gray, with sharp aluminum teeth.

“Maybe we should go into the trailer.”

I keep nodding.  Tom duplicates my action.  We sit.

“Damn that looks pretty fucking close.”

I nod.  I feel like a goddamn chicken clucking away.  But what else could I possibly do?

“Oh shiiiii”

My mouth is filled with sand.  My eyes shut but not before tiny coarse grains reach the fragile flesh, making my sandy smile a grimace.  The force pushes at me and I can swear it’s Jesus and the Burning Man fighting over me, ripping at my skin.  I pull the thin cotton of my tank top around my face.  There is a roar, a whisper, a snap.  I feel a shadow fly by.  I hear the smack as one of the thick poles holding up the shade structure lands on Tom’s back.

“Get in here stupid!”

A hand reaches from the gray.  The hand is gray.  I expect to see a scar in the palm, maybe a little blood, maybe even a nail, but my savior isn’t Jesus; he’d never risk coming anywhere near this whacked out bunch of lunatics.  My savior is only my brother Aaron.  The hand rips me into the Winnebago.  I stumble through the hallway blind in search of the elusive kitchen sink.  The coolness of the water soothes the burning of my eyes for a moment.

“Oh my God!  Aaron!  The the the shade structure… it it.”

“Don’t worry.  Tom’s o.k.  He’s in the bathroom washing up.  You should really see this.”

I walk to the window.  People are leaning into the force of the incredible gray.  Overweight-drug-dealer-man rips off his shirt to wrap it around his already dusty mouth.  I feel so sorry for him, but not because he’s caught in the storm; he’s kind of an asshole so he deserves a little sand in his face.  But his girl is gone.  He never had a chance to finish his masterpiece on that firm little body.  What if that Mona Lisa chick had gone to take a shit and never came back to let that guy finish his painting?  Where would we be then?

One guy has ski goggles and a doctor’s mask on.  I wonder if he’s a doctor.  Maybe he just plays one on TV, General Hospital or something.

A tiny form, I think it’s the Chinese girl who can’t speak Chinese is leaning against the skiing doctor.

One of the naked fruits is hunched over against the force of the wind with his hands cupped over his banana.  I guess he had to make a rather tough decision on whether to save his eyes or his penis; to see or to fuck? What a dilemma!

Lawn chairs, portable barbeques, flowers, and other assorted debris that have no right to be in the desert hurtle by, smacking into the tents and the hunched forms.

“What a bunch of fucking idiots!”

All eyes on the trailer are now on me.  Aaron laughs. Tom shrugs and lights a joint with hands coated with a second skin of dust.  I look at my hands and I can hardly recognize the gnarled gray forms.

The Battle for Philadelphia Gaming

The Battle for Philadelphia Gaming

Peter Ott

On Thursday the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will review at least six different proposals for the one remaining casino license in Philadelphia. Public hearings will be scheduled and the Gaming Board will announce a period of public comment. A winner will be selected sometime next year.  The Gaming Board estimates that a license for slots and table games will cost roughly $75 million.

In 2004, Pennsylvania gambling law made it legal for two casinos to operate in Philadelphia. In September 2010, SugarHouse Casino, located immediately northeast of Center City, was the first to open its doors. Today, the Philadelphia region is home to four casinos: SugarHouse Casino, Harrah’s Philadelphia in the city of Chester,  Parx Casino in Bensalem, and Valley Forge Casino Resort to the west.

Some familiar faces and some new ones are included among the proposals. One proposal comes from Las Vegas casino icon Steve Wynn, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. In 2006, Wynn Resorts was awarded a gaming license to open Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia.  Due to funding issues, Wynn dropped out and the license was revoked by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.  Now Wynn desires to build Wynn Philadelphia, a 150,000-square-foot-casino  on the Delaware River in Fishtown, not far from SugarHouse Casino. According to Wynn’s press release: Our proposed resort begins with a hotel, retail esplanade, restaurants and entertainment, and can grow as the market progresses and we build a clientele.”

Another new proposal comes from Bart Blatstein, whose Tower Investments Inc. successfully revitalized Northern Liberties with the Piazza at Schmidt’s.  Blatstein plans to open Provence, a $700 million casino and resort-hotel, at Broad and Callowhill.

Artist rendition of the Provence casino

Blatstein’s site was home to the Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com. The newspapers’ iconic tower would become a 125 room hotel, with table games in the former newsroom of The Inquirer, while the parking lot between 15th and 16th streets on Callowhill would become the casino. At over 120,000 square feet, the casino would feature a rooftop with two blocks of restaurants and shops fashioned to look like a French street-scape. The complex also would include a jazz club, a comedy club, a French Garden, a theater, a spa and swim club, and two parking garages. The Provence would be managed by Hard Rock International which operates 16 hotels and casinos in the United States and abroad.

A third proposal comes from Stadium Casino LLC for a 200,000-square-foot casino on the site of the existing Stadium Holiday Inn at 900 Packer Ave. The casino would include 2,000 slot machines and 125 table games. Members of the LLC already own Parx Casino in Bensalem and Xfinity Live!  at the Stadium Complex.

In a surprising turn of events, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady has proposed a city-owned casino, GamePoint, which would be built at the foot the Walt Whitman Bridge in South Philly. The city would develop the 30-acre lot, building a 300-room hotel, a parking garage, a concert venue, a nightclub, and a tailgating area for nearby Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park , and the Wells Fargo Center. The city would then hire a company to run the casino with the profits funding the Philadelphia School District and the city’s municipal pension plan.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Brady said of the proposal. “There’s absolutely no downside to this thing that I can think of.”

The group Casino-Free Philadelphia is opposed to all of the plans. “Casinos profit from gambling addiction,” board member Dan Hajdo said in a news release. “Casinos are never the road to economic development. Never have been, never will be.”

Councilman Darrell Clarke believes differently. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said at the Provence’s launch party. “This is what it’s all about.” A second casino, he added, “is the most significant economic opportunity for the city of Philadelphia.”

Bringing The Devine Back To Philadelphia

         Bringing The Divine Back To Philadelphia

                      Peter Ott                            

This week, Eric Blumenfeld, a developer known for his rejuvenating work along North Broad Street, purchased the Divine Lorraine Hotel at the corner of N. Broad St. and Fairmont Ave. with the goal of restoring the iconic building into 126 condos.  Keeping with the history of the building, he also plans to include in that number 25 units that would lease for affordable rates to Philadelphia’s lower-income tenants.  Additionally, Blumenfeld hopes to open two fine dining restaurants in the building and is reportedly in negotiations with notable Philadelphia chefs Mark Vetri and Iron Chef Jose Garces.

“I think with all the new development moving North up Broad street, the Divine Lorraine project is definitely going to have the largest impact on the Fairmont/North Broad area.  The building is a Philadelphia icon and I’m excited to see it not sit empty anymore,” said Brittney Hough, a resident of the Fairmont area.

The Divine Lorraine stands as a remnant of a past full of prosperity and hope that has fallen into a dilapidated state mirroring the nation’s, and particularly Philadelphia’s, economic woes.   Designed by architect Willis G. Hale, construction on the Lorraine began in 1892 and ended in 1894. The building attracted some of Philadelphia’s richest residents, who came into their wealth during the Industrial Revolution, by providing apartments with such new amenities as electricity.  The Lorraine was one of the first residential buildings to hire its own staff, which meant that residents did not need to hire their own.  Additionally, a central kitchen cooked meals, which were delivered to residents.

At 10 stories tall, the Lorraine was the first high rise apartment building built in Philadelphia. Prior to its construction, most buildings were only three to four stories tall as elevators did not exist and walking up 10 flights of stairs was not an attractive option.  With its asymmetrical floor planning and elaborate exterior features, the Lorraine stood as an example of the Victorian architecture style, which broke free from box-like shapes.   This style fell out of favor as sleek modern skyscrapers became the preference around Philadelphia.

In 1948, the building was sold for $485,000 to Father Divine, a leader of a group known as the Universal Peace Mission Movement.  Renamed the Divine Lorraine Hotel, the building became the first non-segregated hotel in the United States.  However, while Caucasians and African Americans were able to inhabit the hotel together, gender segregation was expected and required that males and females inhabited the building’s different floors.  Women were expected to dress in long skirts, and pants and short skirts were strictly prohibited.  Father Devine also prohibited smoking, drinking, and profanity.  All religions were accepted as long as these rules were followed. Tips and gratuities were also prohibited and the hotel offered rooms at a significant discount compared to similar establishments in Philadelphia. Father Devine offered meals from the kitchens to the public for as low as 25 cents. The Divine Lorraine Hotel also had a sister hotel in West Philadelphia known as the Devine Tracy.  The Divine Lorraine Hotel continued to operate until 1999.

The Divine Lorraine Hotel remained vacant until it was sold in May 2006 to Lorraine Hotel LP.  Due to economic downfall and owing more than $800,000 in taxes, the company was forced to gut the building and sell much of the usable parts from the copper wiring to the numbers on the apartment doors.  Since then, the once proud curves and contours of the Divine Lorraine have been covered in graffiti and its arched windows boarded up, turning it into another one of North Philadelphia’s visible symbols of what once was and could be again.

“Without the Divine Lorraine being redeveloped, everything around it looks blighted even if it isn’t,” said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development in an interview with Phill.com.

But now there is hope that the Lorraine can reclaim its spot amongst the Philly elite.  Eric Blumenfeld  is already known as a developer whose work includes the demolition of the former Wilkie Buick dealership as he joined with PMC Property Group to redevelop 600 N. Broad. That project entailed demolishing a car dealership and the garage behind it, and replacing it with two restaurants – Stephen Starr’s seafood restaurant Route 6 and Marc Vetri’s Italian pub Alla Spina, an upscale event space – Joe Volpe’s Vie, and 97 rental apartments with parking.

Blumenfeld is also known for the conversion of 640 N. Broad St. into loft apartments. The Mulford Building is a historic light manufacturing loft building that he turned into high end apartment lofts with roof top pool, Jacuzzi, and is also home of the highly regarded restaurant Osteria from culinary mind Marc Vetri.

Blumenfeld reports that he has secured most of the funds needed for the project and expects the work to start early next year. By all accounts this acquisition will breathe life back into North Philadelphia.