Friday, January 22, 2010

People I meet in bars: the beginning of the end (pt. 1)

I'm sitting in downtown Minneapolis at a newly-opened wine bar, cleverly named Fruit of the Vine. And when I say "wine bar," I don't mean "a bar that serves wine." I mean a wine bar. I haven't gotten a menu yet, but I expect it to be six pages long, half a page denoting a tiny cuisine and five and a half of which detailing the contents of the massive cellar I could hear beneath my feet as I clomp clomp clomped to the dimly-lit booth in the back corner. The one with the "Reserved" placard standing guard.

Tonight, I am a Very Important Person.

As is fitting for an establishment based entirely around wine, the walls are painted a dark maroon. The hardwood floor is a medium-stained cherry, and the low-hanging chandeliers and soft jazz pulsing from every direction makes it feel like a womb. You can't focus your eyes anywhere without them landing on an artistic representation of grapes. I make a mental checklist of the styles: impressionist, check; art deco, check; expressionist, check. There's even a small statue near the restrooms of an anthropomorphic grape drinking from a wine glass. I don't think it counts as cannibalism--technically--but it still seems a little odd a work to have been placed next to the bathrooms.

I'm not used to a crowd like this. I always think of Minneapolis as being populated exclusively by tall blondes of Norweigian descent, eating mayonnaise by the spoonful and toasting the Vikings with glasses of whole milk and choruses of "Oh, ya." But this is different: this is an incredibly cosmopolitan crowd, almost exclusively over 30, that wouldn't be out of place in an Edward Hopper painting. There are women wearing Little Black Dresses, men wearing Gray Flannel Suits with Suspenders, and I look over my shoulder, expecting to see the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg quietly judging my navy overcoat, red plaid shirt, and dark blue jeans hiding black boots. They're all drinking wine like they know what they're doing, and walking through them, the things I hear them say bewilder me.

"Oh, yes, shame that the Japanese export market is down again."
"Did you attend the Bergman revival at the university last week?"
"I enjoy the merlot, but I find its texture to be less structured than the pinot."
"I shored the nocturne, but jasmine comes more quickly."
"Tra la la la, blah blah blah 'blah blah' blah. Blah, blah blah, and the blah met the blah at the durrrrrrrrrr for a glass of teem-ta-teedly-tum-tee-too."

As a creature of habit, I'm often uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations, especially those that so grossly contradict my general routine. And watching these people, none of whom could possibly make less than $200k a year, are dwarfing me with sophistication. My bar interactions are generally relegated to, what--lonely underage girls, grumpy blue-collar champion drinkers, women more afraid of love than of loneliness, assholes and the women they fall in love with across the room, conflicted scotch men, populist lotharios with a permanent grin, ex-girlfriends who re-materialize out of nowhere, grieving sons trying to drown their demons, and happy couples basking in their own self-generated warmth.

But rich people that look like extras on a Mad Men episode? I don't know if I can handle this. I'm considerably out of my admittedly niche element. This is not a place where I can bluff being the most disaffected guy in the room. They all look like they work hard and play harder. These are people who read books about wine and subscribe to wine magazines and denigrate the Philistines who drink anything less than ten years old and who name their children "Irelynd" and drive Audi stationwagons and live in doormanned-penthouses and get invited to gallery openings and I'm the guy who can air guitar the solo for "Wanted Dead or Alive."

I re-focus on my destination: The Booth. Fifty paces, by a quick estimation.

50 paces. This is totally the kind of crowd Alan Rickman would hold hostage until the Swiss bank account transfer went through.

40 paces. Is that a painting of grapes having sex?

30 paces. I bet they don't have hot wings here.

20 paces. The wait staff are all wearing ascots and look like they're trying to solve an Agatha Christie mystery.

10 paces. Does being closer to Canada make people fancier?

I can only see the back of her head. Her hair's darker than I remember, and it's several inches shorter than the just-below-the-shoulders of last September. That red tint is still there and it catches the light like a disco ball. There's a little billow of smoke ascending from her cigarette toward the ceiling. I had assumed smoking indoors was illegal, but I bet that co-owning the place like this gives her a certain set of perks.

In a strangely appropriate reminder from the Gods that they're still paying attention, Elvis Costello's "Veronica" comes on overhead. I stop dead in my tracks with only two or three steps left and see that she's tapping her foot and drumming her half-full glass to the beat. She stops for a reverent sip, like she was taking Communion. After the intake, she tilts her head back, raises her shoulders, eyes closed, and takes a breath deep enough to store a submarine. She swallows softly, her neck loosening, shoulders falling like leaves, and exhales a sigh so gentle it could be a lullaby.

She gently places her glass back on the table and looks over her left shoulder. She sees me. Her eyes go supernova with recognition and she stamps her cigarette out in the table's ashtray before leaping to her feet and kissing me on the cheek so hard that I wonder if she left a hole. She pulls back and smiles, and I can't help but reciprocate it.

"Andy!" she says. "You made it!"

"Hi, Gail!"

"We have a lot to talk about, huh."

"Yeah," I say. "We do."

"Have a seat." She gestures toward our booth. "Tell me all about it."

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more to come.

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