Saturday, February 16, 2008

Taking a trip and never leaving the town

Worlds within worlds. Even within our daily world. If we'll just travel there. As we learned right here in Downtown Durango on a Friday night.

See, the story goes, my friend Matt won an appearance by a local band at a silent auction recently -- a band we all love, Durango's own Lawn Chair Kings. So he reserved the auditorium at the local VFW -- the largest dance floor in town -- for a night in February, and planned a gathering for friends and friends of friends as a novel way to wile away a mid-winter night, rocking to some live music.

While navigating the arctic weeks beforehand, we locked onto that date like a ship homing on a lighthouse. But winter struck first. On the day of the show, the lead singer regretfully bagged the gig, in the choke hold of laryngitis and flogged by the flu.

Word went out about the cancellation, but with such short notice, Matt and his wife, Janet, thought it best to personally intercept any eager party-seekers whom the news hadn't reached. Sarah and I, being the devoted friends we are (and being all revved up with no place to go) joined them on their vigil at the VFW.

Off the big party room in the VFW hall is a little bar with four little veneer-topped tables fronting a window, still draped in holiday garland, that looks out over the iceberged Main Avenue. Softball trophies line one wall and a lonely spider plant hangs in the far corner of the room. Sillouetted battlefield diaoramas line the back of the bar, manned that night by a woman in a tucked-in long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans sporting a Harley Davidson belt buckle.

When we arrived, about 6 p.m., a half dozen or so well-worn patrons were already anchored at the bar. Our entrance was just like in an old movie -- like, say, Easy Rider-- all present paused visibly and in unison, silently shifting their attention our way. We paused right back, until Matt stepped forward and explained to the bartender that it was his event that had been canceled that night, and we'd like to have a few drinks while we wait to rope any strays.

This seemed to fit protocol. We signed in, ordered some drinks, then circled the wagons around one of the round bar tables. The natives perched at the bar went back to their own drinks. And that seemed to be that. I felt prepared to check off "friday night at the VFW" from my life to-do list, dismissing it as meeting my pre-packaged image. One time, when my friend Matt was here for another event, he used the men's restroom, where he found himself pissing on a Hilary Clinton sticker stuck to the target zone of the urinal. I looked around. No Obama people here, either, I bet.

None of the other dozen-or-so late-arrivers who slipped in in the next hour dispelled my stereotypes, either. And none of them had to sign in -- all were greeted warmly and loudly by their bar buddies. And just when my impressions couldn't get any more chiseled into my mind, a guy shuffled through the bar with a laptop and a couple of boxes, unloaded his equipment at the table next to us, clipped some cables into the big silent TV overhead, and -- I probably audibly gasped -- launched karaoke night at the VFW.

But here's where things took a twist. (Yes, true, I'm sure another gin and tonic helped turn the screw). For the next hour we were treated to the sounds of various wannabe Gand Ol' Opry stars taking their turns turning the microphone over in their hands and turning in passable, sometimes downright plausible, renditions of old-time country-and-western classics.

The night began with two women offering solos of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Young. Then others rose for their chance to share versions of other twangy classics, like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Sweet Caroline" and others. And they, well, weren't horrific. And, the funny thing is, everyone was into it, and rallying heartily behind their bar buddies' turns at the mic. I guess my stereotype didn't have room for this kind of, well, zany public exhibition -- and, to be honest , of such quality -- and, for sure , such warm barroom camaraderie for ... karaoke? At the VFW??

Even the highest flying of the bar flys got his 1.5 minutes of VFW fame. The drunkest guy at the bar had been claiming to be leaving since we had arrived, but had only managed to swerve around the room while he swirled the bar's eddyline, saying good by to each pal along his route. Until even he got hooked by the mic, and slurred his way through a sloppy-happy version of "On the Road Again." And even he was met after with cheers and backslaps and hugs.

As we sat there, four foreigners -- even if we're from the same country, even the same town -- watching in bemused fascination, as these veterans of foreign wars, and mostly wars we ourselves had been only kids during, both men and women, stood to grasp the microphone and sing sincerely, heart-felt country-and-western standards, while lyrics rolled across the TV in HD and steel guitar filled the bar.

I was surprised.

Then a guy named Bob with a silver mustache and in a corduroy jacket belted out a booming version of "Sixteen Tons," which he then followed up with, displaying his range, an emotional take on Eddie Arnold's "Make the World Go Away." Now I'm impressed. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, was served another gin and tonic.) Bob was the turning point: we were no longer able to remain just dumbfrounded bystanders, and joined in shaking his hand, congratulating him. The bar was so enthused at this point, that Bob and another woman were inspired to croon together through Johnny Mathis' "Chances Are."

The high point, as far as I'm concerned, though, was the guy with long hair and grey beard and leather vest and truckers cap who offered a moving version of "Live like You were Dying," Tim McGraw's song about his father's, baseball player Tug McGraw, getting cancer.

The bar by that point exuded a warmth and spirit that we (or I, at least -- I shan't speak for my comrades) felt a surprising and comforting kinship with, like, hey, we (or I) could hang here, I think. Something like the sentimentally the traveler feels when in he finally grasps some insight into the spirit of some fascinating foreign land.

That bar-community feeling I was feeling then asserted itself, when the whole bar joined together and sang in a festive, festival-like unision, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy."

Okay, at that point we decided it was time to leave. As a traveler, sometimes it's best to leave the natives alone to their most intimate rituals. But, still, I could only think to myself, as I made a point to offer personal "thanks" and "good t'meet cha"s to Bob and the drunk guy and the bartender -- who had taken exceptional care of us -- that as bizarre as it is on the surface, karaoke at the VFW is a whole hell of a lot more fun and helathy and social and worldly than "better" bars with a TV (or TVs) babbling off in the corner over the tops of withdrawn faces buried in their beers. And it takes nerve. More nerve than I have.

But I get it. And like all traveling , I'm better for having gone there. And, hell, maybe I'll be back.

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