Leaning into the Afternoons

Saint Patrick

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Birmingham, 2006

“An interesting detachment…”

My night started later than usual, not really intentional as much as circumstantial (although the circumstances have since escaped me). It didn’t really matter, of course, as I’d be starting this Friday night at the place I spend most every Friday night, The High Note. Regardless of when I showed up there would be welcoming smiles, hugs, mason jars of beer, and above all the sweet warmth (distraction?) of being among those spirits that I’ve held close over the months and years.

Because of the occasion, and my tardiness, I parked my car three blocks from The High Note and began my usual speed-walk for the door. Speed-walking was just something I did when I had somewhere I had to, or wanted to, be. It’s not that I’m ever particularly anxious to get anywhere, but most of the time I am trying to outrun the surprises and reminders that the cosmos has enjoyed throwing in my path for the last 11 years.

You see, the universe has a dirty, little secret. Once you get a glimpse, intentional or not, it will never let you forget. It can leave you standing, watching, listening, waiting for hours at the simplest of things. If it knows you’ve been there before, it can draw your senses at the slightest moment and hold your gaze as it unfolds layers upon layers of complexity, but with no context other than what you can draw yourself – a slight whistle in the face of a raging hurricane. So I walked quickly with my head down. The sound of the last song as I cut the engine to my car playing over and over in my head (Porcupine Tree…”She changes every time you look/It’s over and it’s all gone/now shesmovedon”…indeed).

When I reached the door and stepped inside it took me a while to get my bearings. There were many more people here than I expected. Many more people that I didn’t know and not those usual smiling faces to greet me. I knew the doorman, though, and that’s as good a place to start as any. After a hand shake and the customary “How’s it going?”, I was on my way to the bar. Soon enough I had my hands around a mason jar, I’d tracked down my friends and acquaintances (they seemed as unsettled by this large crowd of strangers as I am, but we all knew it only happens every now and then) and the night settled into that soothing buzz of sounds and faces that makes the hours pass so quickly. There’s always a tangible feeling of relief for me when this moment comes.

As the night crawled by everyone took their turn to disappear back into their realities. Some went home alone, others with that same someone they arrived with, and still others with someone unexpected. It’s a dance we’d done before, and will repeat on many nights to come, and I savored every moment. Tonight the dance had left me with a female friend and two of her acquaintances who I’d never met before. After soaking up the last remaining sounds of a busy night at The High Note (Sade plays on the speakers overhead and the noise of rousing conversation had been replaced by the steady hum coming from the bar as people press in to close their tabs…as if they had somewhere else very important to be), my friend invited me to follow her group over to The Nick (“Hey, come on, there’s no cover after 2. It’ll be fun!”). I made my decision when I reach my car, as I always do, and that night it was a passive, “Sure.”

The Nick is one  step up from bottom on the “urban dive” (“country dive” being entirely different, and much scarier) scale – probably two since it’s been host to some great, if lesser known, bands of the years. It is tucked away on Birmingham’s Southside with a nondescript letterboard of the kind you might find outside a backwoods gas station where other places might have a bright neon marker next to the front door. It’s the kind of place that you wouldn’t brag about being seen at, but that brings you a certain amount of pride that you know where it is and can recognize most of the regulars when you walk in the door.

I pulled up and parked like everyone else does at The Nick, wherever. As I approached the front door, feeling the full effects of my precious mason jars I had enjoyed earlier, I recognized my friend and her cohorts outside. She was excited to see me and I was really glad to be there. We proceeded inside to start the dance again.

The Nick can make you claustrophobic quickly if you are not careful. It is a very narrow place with a stage on one end for the eclectic mix of bands that make their stops here, and a random collection of pool tables and video game machines on the other. In between is the bar which is squeezed on one side of the narrow corridor with the sound board and security station making sure you come in close contact with nearly everyone in the place when approaching the bartenders to select your poison.

Helped along by the alcohol already assaulting my neurons, the buzz settled in quite quickly here. In the narrow confines my senses were soon saturated with what could only be described as a cacophony of music, voices, colors, and accessories everyone had chosen to separate themselves from the crowd, but that only served to make them blend in at a place like this. The bands had long finished their last sets of the evening, but the jukebox was adequately filling the void with what sounded like The Pixies covering “Benny and the Jets” – a verdict I granted my dulled senses regardless of the ridiculousness of the suggestion. The conversation between me and my company weaved itself around porn-star cock, ruminations on what kinds of things could take place in the bathroom of a joint like this, and snide comments on passing others that were meant to be whispered but were certainly uttered more loudly than intended.

It was then that the universe caught up with me. In my drunken state I hadn’t even felt it creeping up behind me this time. Suddenly, I sensed an oh-so-subtle shift in the reality of the room. I’ve read that schools of fish can stay packed so tightly together because they can sense the slightest change in water pressure around their body, a sense that connects thousands of individuals into one moving whole. Human beings share this same sense with each other only what we can detect are shifts on an ethereal plane, but it has become so diluted that we are hardly aware that it exists.

Once I felt it I tried to escape. It’s hard to respond to others when they question why you are sitting there “spaced out” or why you didn’t respond to their last question…why you seem to not be paying attention to them anymore. But without knowing it I had stumbled to a place that, looking back, was right where I was supposed to be, and my awareness had been hijacked beyond my ability to control. Now it was only for me to listen, watch, pay close attention to what was in store (how many times have I done this? Hundreds, thousands?).

I didn’t see her enter The Nick as much as I felt her. I was prepared because of my state of mind, but I think anyone would have sensed this person enter any room. It wasn’t that she was that beautiful, although she was certainly objectively attractive by any sense of the word, and she did no better at standing out in this crowd, in this place, than anyone would. But by the time I had located her, she was a stark, surreal Dada-esque silhouette in the middle of an impressionist painting.

She paced a wandering trail to the bar, greeted the bartenders and a few others but didn’t order a thing to drink, and then she was gone. Like dialing an AM station, there was suddenly too much interference…other voices, other senses that were pressing their way into my awareness. Until she was there, sitting on the edge of the pool table not two feet away from where I was standing. She was alone, not that this would make her stand out in a place like The Nick, but she was also in a contrast that those around her didn’t share. Yes, it would be fair to say I was mesmerized, but not in the way you might think.

“Excuse me. Would you mind if I sat here next to you?”

The words were so fucking clumsy, but I quickly judged it better than “Hi, I felt your presence when you walked in the door.” and pressed ahead.

“No, I don’t mind”, she said.

“A college town with a musical sound…”

If there was anything that struck me very quickly about her, aside from her eyes which from afar looked to have a gleam that proved to be different up close…like sunlight on ice, it was her razor-sharp self-awareness. So sharp in fact that many people could be forgiven for reading it as acute shyness, but I only had to watch the waves of everyone’s existence breaking against hers like rocks in the sea to dispel that notion.

Our conversation was meandering and not of much consequence except for the fact that she mentioned she had a band and they were playing here tomorrow night. I quickly accepted this fact and set it aside…this was The Nick and everyone here was in a band. She also made a point to mention her boyfriend in Austin, but it was mentioned as if it was simply prerequisite knowledge. The rest of our words were simply footprints left and just as quickly fading – signs that we were there, but that we had long past as well.

For the balance, our time together was defined by curiosity. I was eager to trace the roots of her being, and she seemed almost amused to watch me make my way. I could not escape the feeling that she was watching me like a parent watches a child who is trying to discern the unfathomable mystery of how a caterpillar moves across his hand.

“[A] shade of what you could not be…”

The next night I made a last-minute decision to return to The Nick and watch her band. The driving force behind my decision being to see if that innate energy she carried so uniquely would come across on the stage. I wanted to make a quick stop at another club beforehand to see a local band and enjoy the company of friends again. I stayed too long and arrived at The Nick just as her band had finished their set.

I found her at the merchandise table and quickly made my way over to say hi. We exchanged pleasantries and she confirmed my contact information – assuring me she would get in touch. After I made my apologies for missing the show, I stopped to look at the table of t-shirts, CDs, and stickers that are ever present at shows. This table was different.

There were wonderfully produced t-shirts and wifebeaters, carry-alls and stickers, and then the CD. It was immediately apparent to me that this was no local production. The CD, along with everything else on the table, bore the trademarks of high quality production and marketing. The CD had her name and the title of the album 11:11. I bought one for $10 and sat down to finish my drink. I pondered approaching her to talk more, but I was quickly getting the feeling that there was a joke somewhere that I wasn’t getting – and, worse, that I was the subject. So I downed the rest of my drink and made my way to my car.

I unwrapped the CD, inserted it into the player, and started on my way home. And somewhere between The Nick and my home came the realization of the meaning of her half-cocked smiles and her bemused stares. Her roots reached down to places it had never even occurred to me to venture. I had stopped to peruse a collection of rare gems with the cavalier glances of someone looking over the prizes at a carnival booth. I had wondered through a rare exhibit in a museum as I would aisle 5 at the local grocery store. And she knew it, and she watched it, and she was amused by it…and I had no clue.