Monday, January 30, 2012

Nowhere, man.

So here it is, the thirtieth of January, and Gus has not been any more than twenty miles from home since he left The Cities.  I have gotten a lot of walking in, all of it down in the frozen-over wetlands outside of town.  They've been good hikes, and they help me to feel better about being so isolated.  I think I mentioned before that Gus needs people.  Yes, he does.  But as I said, the hikes have been good.  The dog and I are able to walk across the frozen beaver ponds and the marshes that we would normally sink into.  The beavers have been very busy along the river, and have left behind fields of stumps everywhere.  We haven't had much snow this winter.  In fact, all told, I think there are about six inches of it out there right now.  Nor has it been very cold.  The small ponds have been frozen over, but the river is still open.

We went out one afternoon while the snow was falling heavily.  We crossed two ponds and then reached the river where we stopped and looked around.  There was no wind, and the falling snow was so thick that it muffled the sound of the distant highway.  The snowflakes falling on the dry marsh grass was louder than the faint hiss of cars.

Another afternoon we were hiking along a well-packed track and I noticed a spindly winged insect walking on top of the snow in the sunshine.  Further along was another one, flying, and it was so light and delicate that it was caught up in the wake of my passing by.

Gus did get away for an hour or so to a town about fifteen miles from here.  There were errands to be run, and cat food to be purchased.  Oh, and there was a six-pack of a really nice porter to be purchased.  I have told myself that I can not open one until this posting is complete.  Cruel Gus.  And on the way out of town I decided to stop in for a beer.

And here is where I run into difficulty.  The thing is, I go to certain drinking establishments that I would just as soon keep anonymous, unless I'm going to write a review of them.  And in this instance I am not.  It's a hangout for me.  My friend J and I stop in for a few beers and bar food and to unwind.  ("But Gus," you say.  "What do you have to unwind from?  Your life is idyllic!"  Well, yes, it seems that way on the outside.  But nobody knows Gus's inner turmoils.  Oh, the pain!  The pain of being Gus.)  So yes, we unwind.  Sometimes we mock, sometimes we commiserate.  Sometimes we fall down if we're there too long.  But those times are few and far between.

The place was quiet, except for one guy lecturing another about how to make cheesy cauliflower.  "See, the trick is to not cook the cauliflower all the way through.  You cook it until it's still crunchy, but really hot, and then pour the melted Velveeta over it.  I usually go through a whole brick of it."  "A whole brick?"  "Well, yeah, or it won't be cheesy enough!"  I sat down the bar a ways before any other recipes got burned into my brain.  The guys voice carried though, and his friend seldom had a chance to respond as he jumped from topic to topic, an expert on all of them.  They were both drinking Lite beer.

I had thought the stool beside mine was unoccupied.  There was an empty glass on the bar, and nothing else.  The barmaid came over and muttered something along the lines of maybe I want to sit at a different stool.  Before that had a chance to sink in, the door of the ladies room opened and a slightly drunk woman came out.  She was not bad-looking, but very skinny, with, I'm sure, augmented breasts.  Not that Gus pays attention to those things, except as details in the picture.  Her hair was straight and blonde, and her pants were awfully tight.  The two men turned and watched her.  She seemed more drunk as she got closer and pulled up the stool next to mine.  The barmaid was pulling a mug of beer for me, and gave me grimace of sympathy.  She set the beer in front of me and started to walk away, but the girl stopped her.
"Hey, I'll have another one of those...drinks."
"You sure?  I thought you were done?"
"Nooo!  I'm walking home anyway, okay?"
The barmaid shrugged and mixed a gin and tonic and set it in front of her.

I get along pretty well with this bartender.  We used to compare notes about driving our parents to their appointments.  Oddly, our fathers died within a few weeks of each other.  I remember walking in there a month after and asking her how things were going.  She said, "Well, my father died."  I told her mine too, which seemed like an awfully dumb thing to say, but I didn't know what else to say, and we ended up telling funeral stories.  We both made an effort to keep the stories light, in spite of how we both felt.  It was comforting in an odd sort of way, and I always hoped that it was for her too.

The drunk girl looked at me in the backbar mirror.  "I'm getting a divorce," she slurred.  I saw the barmaid cringe.
"Well," I said.  " that a good thing?"
"Yeah, it's about time.  All the time he thinks I'm off...effing someone, and I'm not."
"No!  I'm not like that!"  The barmaid smiled to herself at this.  She was putting away glasses behind the bar.  She looked across the bar at the back door, then over to the front. Something about her looking seemed furtive.  The girl sitting beside me did the same thing, though not as smoothly.  She had to turn on her stool, focus on one door, then the other.  Without meaning to, we were suddenly eye-to-eye.  Well, one eye.  Her left eye turned in suddenly toward her nose.  "Shit," she said.  With an effort the eye seemed to pull back.  It was disconcerting.  We both turned back to face the back bar.

"Yep, he was always checking on me.  Won't let me do anything.  Always picking fights with anyone I talk to..."  I glanced at the barmaid.  She was nodding in the affirmative.
"Well, that's not good," I said.
"Do you do that to your girlfriend?"
She was suddenly leaning in closer to me, breathing gin in my face.  The barmaid looked a little panicked and looked at the doors again.  The girl next to me glanced as well, then slowly focused back to me.
"You're expecting him, aren't you?" I said.
It took her a long time of thinking before she finally said, "Well, no, I don't think so."  But it didn't matter to me one way or the other.  I told her, "You know, I think I'm gonna go down there and get some popcorn.  I'm waiting for someone anyway."
I got halfway down the bar when the front door opened.  I jumped a little, but took the nearest stool and acted nonchalant.  But the person who came in didn't seem to know the girl, and sat down a few stools away from her.  He had his beer in front of him, and was looking at the bar menu when the blonde girl leaned across toward him, looked quickly at both doors, then said, "I'm getting a divorce!"

Friday, January 13, 2012


Uncle Gus finally made it out to an actual night spot last night.  It was a tough struggle, an internal struggle.  I had promised myself that I'd treat myself if I finished a certain project, a written project.  Well, I did, though I'm not completely happy with it.  It will need rethinking and editing.  But it is finished.  Does that count?

I pondered this while I cooked some dinner (when did I start calling that meal, "dinner"?  It was always "supper" when I was growing up, and "dinner" was synonymous with "lunch."  Only rich folks called it "dinner.") and then took a shower.  Gus hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and was looking homeless, which really I am only a short step away from that condition.  (Why do I keep wanting to refer to myself in the third person?  Is it because of being cooped up with two dogs?  Alone in a city filled with people, and so I've had to become my own companion?  Uncle Gus just ain't certain.  But rest assured, there will be no volleyball with a face scrawled on it in Gus's future!)  So, all the parenthetical comments aside, I got cleaned up, shaved, and found some decent clothes to wear.  It's not a healthy thing to live in solitude, not for Gus anyway.

The dogs were looking at me, knowing full well that something was up.  I told them to behave.  Of course, they weren't going to behave on their own.  I had to put dining room chairs on the couch, close doors to rooms they didn't need to be in, raise the window blinds so that doggy noses didn't wreck the slats, make certain there was no food on the counter, or even a dirty plate, and make certain that dogs could not get to the garbage.  Having done these things, Gus ventured out into the steadily colder and very windy evening.  And walked almost a half a block before he came back for the keys to the minivan.

I parked a block away from Buster's so that nobody could see the minivan.  Not that it's anything to be ashamed of.  Beggars should not be choosers.  But still...

Buster's was busy.  I had thought that on a Wednesday evening things would be fairly quiet.  But this was not the case.  If I had been there to eat, there would have been a wait for a table.  As it was, I was allowed to pull up a stool at the bar.

I should say right now that I've eaten at Buster's before.  I've never had a bad experience there.  Their fries, their burgers, even trout on cedar slab, they're all amazing.  But that's back in the day when Gus wasn't on such a tight budget.  Oh, those were the days, of hanging sheet rock all day and then stopping in hungry and thirsty, and being able to just toss a couple of bills out on the bar and say, "Feed me!"

Anybody who knows me knows that I like to sit at a counter.  I like to be able to watch the action behind the bar, or the counter, to watch the people rushing back and forth, and gracefully keeping out of each others way..  It's a magical thing, this dance they do around one another, keeping orders in their heads.  There seems to be a sort of Zen to it, a certain state of mind.   And that's what was going on tonight.  From where I sat, I could see four people cooking.  There were two who were working the grill and the fryers behind the bar.  And there were two more working in the kitchen.  The bartender was right there with a beer list, which was easier to look at than the twenty-odd taps that lined the back bar.  I ordered a stout from Bell's.  Oh, man, that was a good choice.  It had a nice thick brown head on it, one I could have spooned and eaten.  This beer had a lightly smokey flavor to it that worked pretty well with the chilly wind outside.

There was a guy sitting next to me who seemed to be hitting on a girl, and she didn't seem to mind.  They went back and forth for a while as he tried to convince her that she could even move in to his building, there was a vacant room.  "It even has its own bathroom," he said.  It didn't seem to work.  But the conversation stayed light, and they seemed to part as friends when it was time for her to go.  He wandered out a little later, after she drove away.

I decided, even though I had eaten, that I should at least have a snack.  I ordered some onion rings.  And you know how in most places they just grab a bag of frozen onion rings and dump some into the fryer?  And then they serve them up, and people eat them and say, "Oh, they have good onion rings here!"?  Not at Busters.  This guy opened up a container of sliced onions and another container of batter, and dipped those rings in the batter and then into the fryer.  When they came out a minute later, they were gorgeous, a perfect golden brown.  The coating was crispy, the onions were sweet.  They have good onion rings here!

The grill was busy, with burgers and steaks and sliced beef all sizzling away.  The cook stood there, sliding his stainless steel spatulas across the cook top, scraping the fat into the little trough at the front, turning the meat, and dropping toppings onto the burgers.  At the same time he kept the fryers full of freshly sliced French fries, sweet potato fries, and more onion rings.  His movements were smooth, and unhurried, but he got everything out quickly.  It was a pleasure to watch.

A couple of women took up the stools that the couple beside me had just vacated.  The one closest to me was an older, kind of frail-looking gal.  Her companion was white-haired, but robust.  She sat down and asked me what I was drinking.  I didn't realize that she was talking to me at first.  But then I woke up.  "Ummm..." I said.  "I don't remember."  She laughed heartily.  Her companion seemed a little confused.  I got the feeling that she wasn't accustomed to taverns, as if the other person was kind of attending to her, showing her something new.  I suddenly remembered that I was having the stout, and I told her.  She decided that it sounded good, and went back to helping her friend choose a drink.  Her friend ordered root beer.

And the entire time I was sitting there, watching all of the activity going on around me, I was thinking, "I should ask them if I can hang with them while I have a second beer.  We could just talk about stuff, ask each other questions, etc.  But I didn't.  I should have.  I don't see how it could be a bad thing.  Do other people have that same...well, impulse?  Or is it a yearning, to just say hi, just for the conversation, to find out about a total stranger or to only connect?

I ended up finishing up my beer and my onion rings and heading back out into the cold.  I looked back as I put on my coat and saw that my space had already been cleared, and the two women had picked up their menus to see what looked good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Random Search

As you might remember, Gus is house/dog sitting this week, up in the big city of Minneapolis.  This is a fine thing, a change of scenery is good.  As I may have mentioned, some real work would be cool.  But this will do for now.  I mentioned that there was a full supply of liquor here.  Well, sadly, I've barely touched it.  I had expected to down a few bottles of wine by this time, but so far managed to finish only one since Saturday.  And I haven't opened a single beer.  What is wrong with Gus?  Normally he'd be hungover or something right now.  But no, it's these dogs always keeping me busy.  Or perhaps it's "maturity"?  I don't know.  I'd rather not think about that one.

So yesterday I decided that I was going to go to the canoe builder's supply store in St. Paul. Did I mention that I'd been building a canoe?  Yes, I've got one all stripped out in a relative's workshop.  And that's as far as Uncle Gus got before he ran out of cash.  You know what I tell people about that?  I tell them, "Yah, when I have the money, I don't have the time.  And when I have the time, I don't have the money."  And that's just the way it was with this canoe project, this Labor of Love that I had expected to have finished and floating by this past summer.  But no, the work dried up before I was able to purchase the fiberglass and epoxy.  I worked off and on during the summer, sometimes for a couple of weeks at a stretch.  But it was always just enough to catch back up, never enough to get ahead.  But seriously, that's just the way it goes sometimes.  I've worked in cubicles, I've worked in factories.  I miss the regular paycheck, but still feel bad for those who are trapped in that treadmill lifestyle choice.

I went on the internet and got the location and directions for Northwest Canoe, and wrote it all down.  The store is in a big warehouse building in downtown St. Paul, according to the website.  Then I took off from here.  I took the road that follows the Mississippi to St. Paul.  It was a nice quiet drive, much easier, and probably closer, than if I'd taken the interstate.  I drove along and then got to downtown St. Paul and reached over for my directions and they weren't there!  And in my mind's eye, I could see them, right beside the door where I had set them down while I put my gloves on.  Sheesh!

I picked an exit at random, and drove up through the older part of town, where the warehouses tower huge and blocky over the streets.  These old buildings cover a city block.  They're made of brick and stone.  They cast shadows over the streets.  None of them seem to be warehouses any longer.  They've all been converted into stores, and fancy loft-type apartments with doormen and security.

I thought, maybe I can find this place.  Maybe if I just take my time and drive around I'll come upon it.  Yes, that's pretty naive, I know.  Sometimes I'm a naive and trusting soul.  So I drove down one-way streets, then up others, winding around and getting lost, then finding my way again.  There were streets being worked on, so there were detours that took me way out of the way, and I'd have to drive and drive until I found a place to turn and double back.  And I'd have to say that the good part of this was that there was nobody with me saying, "Turn here!  Turn there!"  I was able to get lost and then found all on my own with no worries about anyone getting exasperated with me.  Not all who wander are lost.  And I went on like this for about a half an hour, winding my way along the shaded streets and the traffic.

I finally decided to stop and walk around.  I pulled into a short street that ran along a big red brick warehouse that filled a city block.  It was quite tall, and quite old.  I saw an open parking space and pulled in.  Then I put money in the meter and went for a stroll.  I walked quite a few blocks from there, past coffee shops and taverns, fancy restaurants, and dive cafes.  All without any luck.  I finally decided to go back to where I parked and put some more quarters in and go into the coffee shop that was on the first floor of that big red warehouse.  I knew they'd have wi-fi, and I could use my iPod to figure out where I was.  I went in and was about to order some food so they'd let me stay there.  I thought I could order a bowl of soup and chunk of bread and just relax for a bit.  But at the last second I told the gal at the counter that I was lost.  And she was really nice, and asked me where I wanted to be.  And I took a long shot and said, "Well, I heard there was this canoe builder in St. Paul."  I mean, why would some chick in a coffee shop know anything about a small canoe building shop?

But she did!  She said, "Oh, that's downstairs, at the other corner of this building."  What???  You mean I walked around town for almost an hour and it was right here?  And so it was, right around the corner from where I had parked.  A few short steps.  I was there all along.  It just amazes me how that can happen sometimes.

I walked around the building and down a short alley, and there was a big garage door with the name of the business.  I didn't see a regular door, but there was a sign on the garage door that said, "Forget Minnesota Nice.  Don't knock.  Just raise the garage door and come in!"  Okay.  So I did.  And there was dog standing there, pushing his nose into my crotch and wagging his tail happily.  Nice doggy.  I heard someone call him, and he trotted off.  His work was done.  I pulled the door back down behind me.

There were two guys working there, a guy in his mid-to-late fifties, and a guy about thirty.  That was it.  There were two canoes being repaired, from the looks of them, and one canoe just being built.  The forms were set up and there were a few strips resting on it, ready to be placed.  And the older guy dropped everything to help me out and answer all of my questions.  I explained how far I had progressed on my canoe, even to the point of telling him that money was the main reason I had stopped.  And you know what he said?  This guy said the same thing I often say, and just now mentioned at the top of this page;  "When you have the time, you don't have the money.  And when you have the money, you don't have the time.  Yeah, I know how that goes!"

I told him that, money aside, I was really nervous about the fiberglassing part of this project.  He walked me through the fiberglass procedure better than any book I've read about it.  He even drew a diagram of how to apply fiberglass cloth to the canoe.  Then he explained that I could buy enough this week to do the outside, then order the rest in a couple of weeks if that would make it easier financially.  He figured out how much I'd need this week if I did it that way.  I tell you what, it's good to meet people like that. 

So I'm going back there later this week to pick up enough to seal the outside of my canoe.  Unless someone magically dumps a couple hundred into my checking.  And then I'm going back up to that cafe where I was kindly given directions, and I'll have myself a bowl of hot soup, and some coffee, and watch the cars and the people and I'll plan for the day when I can feel the canoe finally sliding over the open water.  I know it will be good.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Angry Catfish

Uncle Gus is in Minneapolis this week, for a whole week!  Why?  Because I got this sweet house/dog sitting gig, that's why.

Okay, I know, that is just so pathetic.  Yes, it is a house sitting gig, but to tell the truth I'd rather be working.  I like to work.  Heck, if you give me a shovel and ask me to dig a ditch, I'm happy.  Well, so long as I'm getting paid.  But I'll tell ya the truth, things are pretty slow right now, and I had the week free.  Well, I actually have the month free.  How sad is that?  So when I was asked if I could stay for a week in a house stocked with food and liquor, I decided to not turn it down.  I also get cash!  And I do have a review of Gus's Trip Up the River to here, but this one couldn't wait.

Today, after I dropped the homeowners off at the train station, I hiked over to the Angry Catfish coffee shop/bicycle shop (4208 28th Ave. S).  The coffee was fine, but the people working behind the counter were just useless hipsters.

"Hi, I'll have a 12 oz coffee for here please," I said to the guy behind the counter.  He was a young guy, trying to grow a beard.  But so far it just looked like patches of dirt on his face.  And really, that ain't a nice thing to say.  I might even be exaggerating, I'll admit it.  So what?  It was a bad experience.  Okay, forget I said anything about his beard.  My dad used to say, the first time I tried to grow a beard, "Huh.  Put some cream on that and I bet the cat could lick those whiskers off."  Pretty funny guy, my dad was.

Where was I?  Oh, the barista guy.

"What kind of coffee?" he asked.
"Whatever's darkest." 
"They're all light roasts."
What-ever!  What's the point in having a choice if they're all the same roast.  I mean, sure one might have come from Kenya, one from Ethiopia, another from your ass!  So why don't you have roast choices?  I didn't say this, though I really wanted to.  Instead I told him to "Give me the Ethiopian."
Then he took my money, I put a buck in the jar, and he wandered off.  At least that's how it looked to my untrained and uncivilized and un-hip eye.  I stood and waited, and waited while they did some stuff back there around the sink area, and I finally said, "Hey!" to this one chick who was walking around back there.  She looked at me.  "Hey, I don't want to sound ignorant or anything," I said.  And I stuck with Uncle Gusford's Rule of Politeness ("Always be polite.") "But do you have any mugs for my coffee?  Where do I get it?"
"Oh, we're brewing it back here, we brew it fresh and then we'll call you."

And that was fine, but it took her a long time for her to get the words out, as if she was hoping I'd stop her in mid-sentence so she wouldn't have to continue with the painful Sisyphean task of "speaking."  Maybe texting her reply would have been easier.  A smile would have been nice too.

But ya know what's funny?  Every coffee shop, like every tavern, has its own personality.  Some coffee shops are so warm and inviting, and the people are so nice that you want to take them home.  And it's genuine.  But others are cold.  And it's not just one person in the shop, but all of them, cut from the same cloth of cold indifference.  Here's your coffee, please leave me alone, I can't believe you didn't tip.  And really, that's how I felt about this place.

But, like I said, the coffee was good, very good, and very strong.  I like that in a coffee.

What else did I see?  Well, I was sitting at a counter in the window, and there was a lot of foot traffic in that neighborhood.  There's a bar next door to the coffee shop.  Buster's.  It's a freakin' nice place with really good food and lots of good beer choices.  There is also a row of booths that are nice and private, where you can sit and have some beers and not be seen by anyone.  I like that too.  There is nothing bad in that bar, except for too many teevees.  And it's a Saturday, so it's really busy there.  I didn't bother going, probably won't tonight.  It'll be elbow to elbow.  Anyway, there were lots of folks coming and going from there.  I saw a working-class guy and what looked like his pre-teen aged son coming out to his truck, an older Chevy half-ton pickup, in which a puppy waited.  The guy took forever to get out of his parking space, as if he couldn't judge any distances ahead of behind him.  He'd move an inch, turn the wheel, back up an inch, turn the wheel, over and over until he got out.  It was awful to watch.  I thought guys who wore Carhartt clothing knew how to drive.  And then after he left, an expensive-looking car pulled up with two women in it, younger women.  And that gal tried and failed miserably to park there.  She finally saw a triple-car space open up further down the street and drove as quickly as she could to that.  She did manage to park there, but it was still crooked.  And the whole thing is, this is the 21st century, isn't it?  I mean, the human race has been driving cars for a hundred years!  And there are people out there who still don't know how to drive!!  What's up with that?  What happened to "evolution?"  I guess you don't die from not knowing how to parallel park, so they keep reproducing.  Darwin is only relevant in the wild.

I also saw, as I walked along the residential neighborhood streets to the coffee shop, a big tree branch that had been mounted on a steep-banked yard as a landscaping ornament.  I had helped to carry it up there over a year ago when I just happened to be walking by and saw two guys trying to get this big awkward four-legged branch off of a trailer.  The one guy had seen it broken from a tree and picked it up to surprise his wife because she likes landscaping.  Anyway, it was last year that I was walking by and offered to help, and the branch is still there, so his wife must have liked it.  It looks like some sort of creature, but it's really cool.  I'm glad my work wasn't for nothing.  The more I think about it, the more I like the idea that something creative that I helped with is still there.  And perhaps that guy thinks from time to time about the stranger who came walking by one drizzling day and helped him and his friend carry a branch, and then moved on.  I know, that's hopelessly romantic (just as "hopelessly romantic" is hopelessly cliche) but there ya go.