Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A job interview

I'm standing on the platform at the State Street station, waiting to catch an eastbound train to Madison, CT. I've already missed the train I was planning to take and my anxiety isn't much relieved by the total absence of Amtrak ticket kiosks at the station. I ask a few people nearby whether eastbound trains stop here, and just as I'm starting to feel reassured the train pulls in. An Amtrak worker leans out the door: "Train to New Haven, anyone going to New Haven?"

Despite the fact that I was already in New Haven, I approach him and ask whether his train is eastbound.

"Going to New Haven. You going to New Haven?"

"I'm looking for the Shoreline train... I want to go to Madison."

He leans in conspiratorily. "Alright, this is what you're gonna do." He brushes me into the empty train and the doors close behind me. "You're going to get off at the next stop and switch to track number four. You been there before? Know what it looks like?" I nod from my perch on an armrest. He doesn't charge me for a ticket. I watch the completely empty cars rock back and forth, an eerie sight now that all the doors between cars are open. I'm suddenly aware of how close to the churning metal I really am and realize this is the technocratic Wondrous Wonka Boat Ride.

Eventually I step out onto solid ground at the Madison train station. I'm in the middle of nowhere in suburbia and the sun has long since set. Undaunted I make my way to the main road and take out my phone to figure out in which direction I ought be walking.

"Do you need a ride?"

A man in his late 50s has pulled up next to me and is smiling that ingenuous smile of kind paternity. I hesitate, knowing how far I have yet to walk, and how the air's already begun to sting.

"Well... where are you going? Do you know where West Wharf Street is?" By now I'm at his passenger window and he's opening the door for me.

"Oh, sure, sure... where ya headed?"

"73 West Wharf Street... the Dolly Madison."

"Oh God, yeah, I know the place. Food sucks. I'm headed that way anyway."

I tell him I'm going there for a job interview; he gives me his condolences and tells me about his small town; how though it couldn't be safer, "you're wearing heels!", and he just couldn't let a young lady walk all that way in the cold. He tells me I look like a Yale student, "pre-med or somethin'."

We arrive at the Dolly Madison within ten minutes but he insists he drive a bit farther to take me to see the water, and the new monstrosity of a hotel complex some millionaire is building atop the ruins of a historic inn.

"Now this is a very, y'know, a very wealthy area," he says, lowering his voice, "but this thing... this is for the super rich, super super rich."

Before letting me off he asks how long my interview will be-- he's only going to get a haircut and would be willing to meet me to drive me back to the train station; offers to give me his number. Again I hesitate, but this time decline his generosity, thanking him profusely.

The Inn itself is quaint. There are gourds lining the walkway to the front entrance and sloppily strung lights dripping from the roof. I walk in and the bar itself exudes warmth-- lots of dark wood tacky with too much varnish, a cheap but well stocked bar, four older men and two middle aged women clustered at the side around the television set to Fox News (there are four other televisions scattered throughout, at least one set to MSNBC, although no one's watching it).

An older woman in a cozy looking pastel sweater walks up to me.

"Hi, my name is Tristyn, I'm looking for David? I'm here for a job interview."

"Oh, David's my son, he's back there somewhere. That's a picture of him," she laughs, "twenty years ago, the one with the mustache." She walks me over to a candid shot of her and her family, one photo among many hung throughout the bar. She points out David and herself in the frame while calling behind her, "Someone's here for you!"

An obese man with greasy black hair, twice the size of the one in the photo, emerges from the kitchen. He still has the mustache. He glances at me quickly before handing me an application form.

When I finish filling it out I walk over to where he's shooting the shit with the older men by the Fox corner.

"Here ya go, David." He walks me over to the cashier and gives the forms a cursory scan. He asks me what hours I'm available, whether I can work holidays, and whether I own a car. I tell him I took the train from New Haven and was comfortable walking to the bar from the station in Madison.

"Oh, jeez, you came all the way here and I'm sittin' here googling Cat Stevens." He had apparently been in a heated argument with some bar patrons about whether Cat Stevens sang "Another Saturday Night". David begins to sing it himself, in case I'd forgotten the tune. We pause our discussion to look up Cat Stevens's Greatest Hits (after he asks me how to spell "greatest"), and he announces his victory by turning off all the televisions and blaring "Another Saturday Night" from his laptop.

"Just because he recorded it doesn't mean he wrote it!" one of the old men yells, and David and I resume our conversation.

At some point one of the older men leaves, saying there were no women in the bar, and that's what he came for. One of his friends points me out- "there's a woman right there, go talk to her!" Then he addresses me.

"What're you doing here, anyway?"

"Here for a job interview."

"Oh yeah? Hey Dave, whaddya think? I think you should hire her." The other men loudly agree. David laughs, but is silent.

"So why Russian?" David asks me, after seeing my major. I respond with some nonsense about my family being Russian and loving Russia's literature and history.

"Eh, that Anna Chapman stuff... serious stuff. They have deep moles in the government, espionage. I don't like it." We start talking about Russia and I end up giving him a ten rouble note to tape to the wall, lonely between a lost euro and a sad looking yuan. He was inordinately proud of the yuan and insisted that "nigganigganigga" meant "that one over there" in Chinese; a bar patron who'd taught English in China for a year had told him that. The Fox men were skeptical, noting that you can't trust those types. One of the men had worked in Zaire and promised to bring in a banknote from that strange foreign land.

"Why were you in Africa?" I ask, trying to be sociable.

"Hell if I know," he responded, with an unsettling sincerity.

Eventually all the men leave and it's just David and me. We somehow go from talking about whether I can reliably get transportation to and from the bar to the US deficit, and this is where things get interesting.

He leans forward, his balloon-like forearms framing his swollen face, and tells me how he thinks that actually, the Obama administration is consciously trying to run the country into the ground.

"You're educated," he says. "Have you heard of George Soros?" He tells me about his fears of a New World Order, and how George Soros's Jewish parents sold out their fellow Jews during the Second World War and became atheists.

"It's not a left or right issue," he says for at least the fifth time, "it's a right or wrong issue." He assures me that he's not a conspiracy theorist, but that he can't help "noticing things". He tells me he's a licensed hypnotist and we spend fifteen minutes figuring out how many Yale credits his hypnotism course would've been worth in terms of hours spend in class. Turns out it's two. He was very pleased.

We talk about the liberal bent of Yale, and I try, briefly and politely, to explain how things have changed since Buckley, and what it's like to be a conservative there now (I had long since given up hiding my own political leanings).

We were talking about immigration when suddenly he stops mid- sentence.

"Hey, we just made a big batch of soup. You want some soup?"

Realizing that saying 'yes' when I would have otherwise declined seemed to be working well, I asked what kind.

"Minestrone." He said it like the Italians back home do, with three syllables, not four. A minute later a giant bowl of warm soup with parmesan on top is sitting before me, and I eat while he tells me how he'd rather work with ten Mexicans than a hundred white kids, because Mexicans aren't lazy.

A woman comes in, also to apply for the job. He goes through the motions of having her fill out an application but is distracted by the latest updates on the wikileaks situation being broadcast on all the televisions surrounding us. He again begins to mutter about treason and espionage.

Eventually his mother comes in and distracts him with some business matter. The woman turns to me.

"How long you been workin' here?"

"Applying for a job, actually."

Her tone changes. "Oh. Me too." She pauses. "Did he... did he interview you?"

"Not really."

"Okay, cos I was wonderin'... d'you think he'd mind if I went out to have a smoke?"

By then I'd been sitting in that bar for at least an hour, so I told her I'd join her.

"We're going outside to bond," she says, as we pull on our coats and walk outside. We smoke in her car with the windows rolled down and make fun of David and his conspiracy theories, and she tells me stories about other bars she's worked at.

As we walk back inside David asks me if he can get me a drink-- fuck it, I think to myself, and ask what kinds of beer he has. He explains that they're supposed to have three on tap, but the Sam Adams has been empty for a week and a half while they're waiting for a new shipment. I settle for some bland IPA and as I'm drinking it he passes me a napkin on which he's written: "DON'T WORRY ABOUT GETTING BACK TO NEW HAVEN I FOUND YOU A RIDE."

I finish my beer as David explains that publishing leaked government documents is like copyright infringement and wonders aloud whether death by hanging is still a legal form of execution for traitors. His mother returns and compliments me on my heels: black patent five inch pumps.

"They must hurt like hell, though!"

"Oh, they're not so bad."

"Maybe she likes pain," Dave interjects. "She's Russian, after all. They like that." This is one of many bizarrely passive aggressive comments about Russia he made throughout the evening. I begin to suspect he thinks I'm a spy.

Eventually a small Mexican man emerges from the kitchen, clearly ready to go home, when David pulls him aside. After a moment David tells me that that man will be driving me home and that he'll "definitely be in touch."

I climb into the passenger's side of a beat-to-shit pick-up and the Mexican asks me if I mind whether he smokes. I of course say no, and he repeatedly offers me cigarettes, no matter how many times I say "no thank you". He tells me how he used to live in Sag Harbor where it was quiet, and that he hates the noise of cities.

"So when you start working?"

"Ha, soon, I hope."

"We need a beautiful young girl like you. Maybe we get customers. Maybe I help you get job?" He laughs. "I hope David call you soon."

It was a long drive and he eventually let me off at the New Haven green. I thanked him earnestly and just as I begin to walk back to Old Campus I run into my friend C, who was returning from a Bridgewater Information Session. I begin to tell him about my evening, and he assures me that the Bridgewater people are stranger.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Russians, Banjos, and Cinema Verite, oh my!

If you told me there was a documentary about young Russians with a passion for bluegrass trying to make their way in mid 90s Nashville available for free on hulu, I'd knock back whatever cocktail I'd been nursing and run home to watch it.

Unfortunately, there is such a documentary, and it doesn't quite merit that reaction.

The Ballad of Bering Strait is at its best when treating the absurdity of its subject head on, which, perhaps out of respect for the rotating cast of musicians, it rarely does. The following clip, in which Ilya Toshinsky performs before his music professors on the banjo, is one of the few times the documentary even comes close to acknowledging just how bizarre its subject is:

The rest of the film, unfortunately, feels more like a classed-up reality show that could be about any country act at all. It doesn't help that for whatever reason, the band (Bering Strait) tends toward unbearably bland country pop. Another clip that embodies the let down this film truly was is the final concert, recorded at the Grand Ole Opry itself. Here's their first song, typical of the rest of the stuff on their album:

Not a damn thing distinctive about that, anywhere. See the lead singer, the blonde one? At the beginning of the documentary she had waist length black hair. She shaved her head on a lark and only dyes it in preparation for this concert. Her father was a nuclear scientist who died prematurely because he was among the first to investigate the Chernobyl disaster. Absolutely nothing in her music bespeaks how interesting a person she must be. Maybe aping American top 40 style is marked enough for these people-- in which case the documentary would have done far better to focus more on them in the Russian environment, not the American. But wait, what's this?

(For the uninitiated, that was Porushka-poranya, a fairly traditional, well-known song.) Damn, how much more engaging was that?! The freeness in the vocals, the creativity of the instrumentation, the overall energy present on the stage-- blows that crap they were singing before out of the water, and I don't think I'm saying that just because I'm a fan of Russian folk music. People who make music like that might be interesting subjects for a documentary-- those Shania Twain wannabes earlier? Not so much.

Not to say that the film is entirely without merit- these are Russians, after all, and watching them wax philosophical from time to time proves amusing, and if you're at all interested in the inner workings of the country music biz this wouldn't be a waste of your time. The musicians themselves all speak scarily good English, but much of the Russian that is spoken goes untranslated, which might be frustrating for you non-Russophone viewers.

Overall, not the worst way to spend an hour and a half, but not nearly as quirky or entertaining or culturally thoughtful as it could've been.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ode to B&H

Reblogged from The Cigarette Book:
"In the 2001 film Mike Bassett: England Manager, Ricky Tomlinson play the clueless manager drafted in at the last minute to run the national team. He announces his squad list, which he had earlier scribbled down on a gold cigarette packet. He’s puzzled by the inclusion by his secretary, Margaret, of a forty-three-year-old Third Division player and another nonentity.
MARGARET: Here’s the squad list, and I’ve given copies to the press, like you asked.

MIKE: Ah, well done, Margaret, thank you … hey, hang on a minute! There’s 28 names here, I only picked 26.

MARGARET: Well, that was the list you gave me.

MIKE: Tony Hedges, York City? I didn’t pick him, love.

MARGARET: You must have done, Mike. I wouldn’t have put him down, otherwise.

MIKE: Never heard of him, have I? And who’s this clown? Ron Benson, Plymouth Argyle?

MARGARET: Look, Mike, they were on the list of players that you gave me!

MIKE: (holding up the cigarette box he wrote the squad list on) Oh, come on, love! Show me where it says ‘Benson and Hedges’ on that."
The first cigarette I ever smoked was a Benson & Hedges DeLuxe Ultra Light. I was young and tired and angry and had stalked to the 24-hour Walgreens in the middle of a cold February night, only to realize once I got to the counter that I didn't know a damned thing about cigarettes-only that, whatever they were, I wanted them, needed them (my relationship with tobacco hasn't changed much). I concentrated on maintaining my poker face, worried that I'd be found out as a non-smoker, and gruffly pointed to the most lavish looking pack I could see, grabbed some ornate "designer" lighter that broke within a week of purchase (like they all do), and stole back into the night.

By the time I bought my next pack I'd decided to move onto the full strength variety, but taxes soon caught up with me and I've been a Marlboro girl for a few good years now. I still look for full strength B&H whenever I pop into a drug store, but for about six or seven months now I've noticed the full strength variety is never in stock. I imagine there simply isn't the demand for it anymore, given that the CT excise tax is $3 per pack. Damn shame.

The Cigarette Book itself, by the way, looks wonderful, and can be yours for the price of two cheap packs in CT/four cheap packs in VA. Unfortunately, given that I already have many unread books and need what little money I have to purchase more tobacco, I won't be owning it for quite some time, which is why it's lovely that its authors have been posting excerpts (RSS feed here).