Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jungle despite the City

I hate to say it, but sometimes we go to the Hard Rock Café.

They just built the thing about a year ago into the ground floor of the old Hotel Guarani. It’s got all the modern crap you could want like pixie stick-colored lights and a guitar in a glass case that Courtney Love once used. As you get older, it’s true that you find yourself doing more desperate things in the eternal quest for entertainment, perhaps because you’re no longer willing to do anything too outrageous. I have a hard time even convincing myself to have more than a few drinks and I go to bed every night congratulating myself on another day of non-smoking. Still, I’m not ready to just lean back in my easy chair and just wait for death to come and obviate the necessity of finding entertainment, so, I go instead to places like the unbelievably banal Hard Rock Café.

What led me to this rock and roll-themed sports bar initially was that it was the only place open for drinks in Asuncion on Sunday evening, which is my usual night to get restless in the heat of the city and decide to kick up my heels for a bold, enterprising drink. Normally, I’d just go to some bar and complain until I forced myself to leave, but, a few months ago, after wandering all over an empty and dark downtown, I chanced upon the gleam of some bartender’s more than requisite amounts of costume flair and soon found myself in a chintzy lounge watching Michael Jackson music videos on a TV above the bar. Given that I’d never seen anything but soccer on a bar TV in Paraguay, I was soon enthralled with the videos, especially when they began showcasing more obscure artists. Thus distracted, I stopped paying much attention to the number of 6 dollar beers I was drinking and by the time an Elliot Smith video came on the TV, I was practically dancing on the bar.

Now when I go downtown for the weekend, I drift, only semi-consciously, over to the Hard Rock Café, continually thinking that maybe something else will present itself as a viable entertainment option before I get to the doors, but of course nothing ever does.

Owing to a Monday holiday, last Sunday was more lifeless than usual in downtown Asuncion. The streets were devoid of pedestrians and only an occasional bus roared by. In the grey-gold interior lights, you could see even the obstreperous buses were mostly empty. Gina and I had crossed most of downtown when we came to a cluster of popcorn sellers, people waiting for the bus and women from the countryside with jewelry spread out in ropy clusters on white sheets. Just beyond these people was possibly the only illuminated edifice in the entire city and just beyond that the Hard Rock Café.

As we approached the doors, I noticed the unmistakable sound of real symbols crashing that always distinguishes distant live music from distant stereo music turned up really loud. Where else could it be coming from but the Hard Rock Café? Unconsciously, we quickened our paces slightly, but just as we gained the door, a ‘gracias,’ a rapid strumming of a single guitar chord and a drum roll announced the end of the band and the music.

We walked into the gap left by the recently cancelled music. There was that radio popping noise of amps and guitars being unplugged as we walked in and the host eagerly arose from behind his little lectern to meet us. Our friend Everett was already at the bar, so we able to circumvent the host’s excessive formality by mumbling something about ‘amigo’ and ‘esperando’ before running off to the bar.

Everett said his band was playing in something of a battle of the bands that the restaurant was sponsoring. Gina and I sat down, ordered beers and marveled at the lack of a cover charge despite the live music, even if there were only to be three bands playing three songs apiece. Gina argued that the Hard Rock Café chain probably had some policy that disallowed for charging admittance at any of their 100s of locations (from Podgoriča to Phuket). She was right, no doubt, but I argued with her anyway stating that it was probably just that we had managed to get in right before they started charging. At this, she rolled her eyes.

Everett’s band was to play last. In the time that elapsed before they went on, we watched a band that sounded a lot like Blink 182, drank a few more beers, split a shot of whiskey and watched a band that sounded a lot like Soundgarden, or a lot like I remember Soundgarden sounding. When Everett’s band went up, I was cheering before they even played a note or introduced themselves. The Hard Rock Café was beginning to seem like an old and familiar bar and the patrons were all like people I had gone to high school with.

Everett’s band was good. They played a decent set and then all the bands came on stage while they announced the winners. I wasn’t surprised that Everett’s band won, they were clearly the favorite, but I was happy for him and his bandmates. I guess they were going to get to go to play at an international battle of the Hard Rock Café bands in Cancun or someplace. We congratulated Everett, but after the music, there didn’t seem to be any reason to stick around so we left.

There was supposed to have been a jazz thing a few streets over, but a quick perusal of the area yielded nothing but a few other restaurants that had recently opened their doors for dinner, though with the next day off, it looked like most people were just having drinks in large groups, the women with globes of wine cradled between their manicured nails, the men, freshly shaved, drinking Heineken out of those tall and slender beer glasses that restaurants seem to favor. The outdoor seating was packed and the terrible music was blasting from every available speaker.

Gina and I went to an upstairs bar for another beer and compared notes on growing up in the United States, rhapsodizing about teachers, friends and television shows that had all since receded, somewhat bewilderingly, from our constant thoughts.

We left the bar, stopped at a liquor store and bought a beer for the long walk home. The streets were busier than they had been earlier in the afternoon and the frequent cars honked and impatiently sped through red lights, others drifted around slowly like the drivers were looking for an address.

The darker and more claustrophobic streets of the downtown gradually opened up and sprouted ornamental trees. The ornamental trees grew larger until they scattered the light from the streetlamps all over the sidewalk in sloppy disco ball adumbrations. The cars passed less frequently, but when they did they went twice as fast as they had downtown. The combined colognes and perfumes of their passengers loosed into the humid night like oil and gasoline leaking from a tanker making its way through a warm ocean.

I was half-asleep when we reached our neighborhood, but conscious enough to suggest one last beer to encourage us the last four blocks down the street and up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.

No matter how late I stop by, the old woman who runs the little shop down the street always has the place open. The shop consists of a reticulated shutter, like the ones pulled down on storefronts when the mall is closed and a sort of stall behind the shutter. In order to call the proprietress, one must clap one’s hands as though applauding the empty store.

I applauded before the shutter and we waited a minute before the old woman came shuffling out. As usual, her face lit up with beatific, grandmother-like recognition when she noticed us by the door. Having been a foreigner in many different countries, I can say that children and old people are the most tolerant of your foreign-ness. Both are too concerned with you as a person to pay any attention to how poorly you might speak the language or observe the customs of their country. As she approached the shutter, the old woman’s glasses gleamed under the florescent lights and she smiled and asked us how we were. She seemed more excited than usual, especially as it must’ve been after midnight. We covered the perfunctory topics and I was about to ask her for a beer so we could be on our way, when she told us that her son from Austria was visiting. ‘Austria? How the hell does a guy from Paraguay end up in Austria? I didn’t voice my thought, but I must’ve somehow betrayed significant interest because, in a minute, our little proprietress was hurrying back to get her famous son from Austria.

The man who greeted us through the bars of the shutter was like an illusion. Although he had apparently been doing nothing more than lounging around at home, he was dressed in immaculate white clothes. His appearance was topped off with a wide-brimmed white hat, like something a pimp in the 70s would’ve worn, only now, at this time of night, after a few drinks, in Asuncion, Paraguay, it looked magical. His unique facial-hairstyle only furthered this impression. Everything below the man’s ears looked like it’s been drawn on with a pen. He had a little parenthesis under his nose and another, titled vertically, under his mouth.  Just beneath his earlobes, like little arrows pointing out his cheekbones, were little dashes of hair, so small they looked like they could’ve been rubbed away. I kept waiting for the guy to say abracadabra and disappear in a puff of colored smoke. Instead we talked about our journeys, as traveling people are wont to do.

We stood talking at the shutter for a while. I asked about Austria. Did he like it? How did it compare with Paraguay? Having never been to Austria, I kept imagining the guy in my closest point of comparison: Switzerland. While he talked, I imagined him in his white pimp hat walking under rigid Teutonic architecture, his pointy shoes clacking over the cobblestones and the grates surrounding the innumerable fountains. I imagined him like a white moth fluttering through a night of black-suited bankers on their way to the Zentral Bank. I couldn’t imagine this guy doing anything in Austria, so I had to ask him what his job was. “I play music!” He responded jovially, like he was going to play some for us right there but instead he stepped back, opened the shutter and said “why don’t you come in and have a drink with me?”

How could I say no?

The hallway that was visible from the shutter led back to a typical living room with a couch, a coffee table and a TV. Our host ordered a beer from his mother and she came in carrying one with an opener as if she were used to her son entertaining in this manner. She seemed happy to see that he’d invited us in and smiled as if to say “you’re in for a good time now!”

We talked about life in foreign parts in general. The man lamented that he’d left his home country so far behind. He had a family in Austria now and his kids, he told me, didn’t even speak Spanish, let alone Guarani. Our entire conversation was in Spanish and although I kept expecting it, this man never tried to say anything in German. All over the CIS (former USSR) countries, I had met men who were back home visiting from Russia where they worked. These men were consistently thrilled to meet a foreigner they could speak Russian with. Even after I explained to the prodigal fathers that I didn’t know any Russian, they would persist, perhaps wanting to show their families their foreign language skills, perhaps already missing their adopted language. My conversation with the magic musician was so devoid of any German vocabulary that I began to wonder how well he knew the language. He was either very stoic or happy to be away from his adopted country. It was hard to tell which.

After a few beers and a discussion about how his kids should learn Spanish while they were still young so they could talk to their grandmother. The magician told me that his brothers and sisters had also joined him in Austria and I suddenly understood why the little old woman always seemed so happy to see us, even at 1 am, when we came by the store. We probably reminded her of her kids who all live in Austria. I thought about my own mom, back in Michigan, and wondered if there were any people my age that she greeted with enthusiastic attention in the years that I’ve been gone. I found myself imagining my mom inviting the mailman or someone else in for cookies, all the while shamelessly bragging about her international son to the completely unconcerned guest. The thought combined with the beer was making me feel melancholic and I was on the point of making an excuse to go when a terrible sound erupted from the next room, like the sudden whooshing, crumpling sound of cars crashing and what I imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex mating call must’ve sounded like, all mixed together.

What was that? I asked. The old proprietress, who had been sitting quietly throughout our conversation, stood up and announced that it was her parrot. She invited us to come and see the bird in the next room.

I guess the parrot must’ve had its wings clipped or it was merely too lazy to try to do anything about its predicament. There was no cage or little chain around its scaly, black chicken claws. The parrot, about 10 inches tall, stood on a little wooden perch and looked content to stay there. As we approached, he shifted back and forth, sidestepping in the interesting way parrots do, without making any movement to fly away. “Be careful,” the old woman warned, “he’s mean.” Normally, I would’ve heeded this sage advice, but the combination of the beers and the lateness of the hour addled my judgment to the point where the best course of action seemed to be to immediately prove to these people that I was some kind of parrot whisperer.

To demonstrate the meanness of the bird, our musician host stretched a hand out, which the bird promptly attacked with its talon-shaped beak. As he didn’t seem too injured by the bird’s efforts, I stuck my own hand out to the bird, which accepting the challenge, it immediately tried to tear apart. I was too busy imaging how the bird was going to get tired of biting my finger, accept me and then climb up on my shoulder to notice that none of these things were happening. The biting didn’t hurt much, but eventually I had to concede that the parrot was never going to accept me. I pulled my hand away. Now it was Gina’s turn. I thought she would be sure to win the parrot’s affections, but again, the bird immediately began to gnaw at her fingers.

Before we went back into the house, I made some comment about how the biting hadn’t hurt. In doing so, I held up my hands, as if to show off the lack of pain in them and found that I was, in fact, bleeding all over the place. I tried to act casual, but everyone had noticed. I pretended that it wasn’t a big deal, but I was also perplexed by how the bird was able to lacerate my fingers in such a way without me noticing. It occurred to me that I’d probably had even more to drink that I realized. We went back to the living room and continued our conversation about living abroad and while discussing the pros and cons of moving away from what is familiar to one, the old proprietress gently cleaned the blood off my hands and applied antiseptic and bandages. I protested, telling her that I could do it, but she just shook her head at me and went back to her work, like I was a five year-old boy who’d skinned his knee rather than a slightly drunken 32 year-old foreigner.

When we left the shop and said good bye to the old woman and her son, I walked back home, looking at my bandaged hand and thinking about the great potential for kindness in people and my renewed respect for parrots.      

(If you happen to be in Austria and need a Latin-themed band, be sure to check out )        

No comments:

Post a Comment