“McCormick and Schmicks.”
“No…McCormick and Schmicks. No…Schmicks! Huh? No. Geezus! Schmicksssss!”
The old man was practically screaming into his phone, which would’ve seemed out of place if the corner of 5th and Vine wasn’t a mob anyway.
“Hey!” The old lady shot out in protest, too tired to be effective. “Do not talk about your son like that!”
“Well, he needs to get his goddamn hearing checked then!” The old man was half laughing now, probably too inebriated to be mad for longer than ten seconds.
“Come on, let’s get in there and get a table; they’ll find us.”
Oktoberfest. Cincinnati, Ohio.
Standing on said corner of 5th and Vine under the giant banner of McCormick & Schmick’s proves an interesting 15 minutes. The seafood joint is taking the opportunity to advertise their USA Today proclaimed “Best Happy Hour in the Country” via a fold out street sign on said corner; a street sign that at least 90% of people who pass run into. And then they swear at it and call it a piece of shit, only to come back and make amends half an hour later when they decide that some shellfish sounds like a good compliment to a stomach full of Weissbeer.
After the old guy is done yelling into his cell phone and calling his son a dumbass, two twenty-something guys charge up to the corner, halting frantically at the plastic construction barrier. NO ALCOHOL BEYOND THIS POINT. They throw a quick glance at the policeman, directing foot traffic a few feet ahead.
“Time to down this shit, bro.”
“Dude, look how much I’ve got left.” And bro 1 shows bro 2 his full stein of brew.
“Alright, split.” And bro 1 pours half into bro 2’s stein. It’s a plastic stein.
They chug their half beers unimpressively and slow, and bro 2 spits the foam in his mouth all over the side of the orange plastic barricade. Then he laughs one of those laughs – one of those retarded laughs apropos of all things douchebag. And then the bros turn the corner and stride off, set on some kind of bro mission apropos of delusion, chicks, hip hop music and dumbbells.
The bros walk past a guy. They don’t look at him. He’s been standing there for a while now, and is gradually hunching more and more, the fatigue of just standing there taking its sapping toll – kind of like the tiredness that overcomes you when you walk around a museum, bored for an hour. He looks pretty well straight ahead the entire time, tired and glazed – but alert – only every once in a while glancing down to one side or the other or making eye contact. He’s got a cardboard sign which reads in plain black Sharpie, “Homeless Veteran, Anything Helps.”
And maybe he is, or maybe he’s not. Maybe he almost saved a group of guys in Iraq or ‘Nam, but they all got killed before he got there and now he’s so shot to hell in the head that he snapped – just lost it – and gave up on his family and got drunk a few times, and now he just stands on a corner, replaying, replaying, replaying some terrible moment locked in his irreparable mind.
Or maybe he’s just a junkie. No – not JUST a junkie…what a bunch of crap. No one’s just anything. But maybe he’s on drugs and just dreamed up the whole saving-a-bunch-of-war-buddies in his head one night under a bridge.
Maybe he’s got a Mom. He doesn’t look that old. Beard’s still red-ish and full. Hair is greasy, but it’s all there. Face isn’t pock-marked. No scars. Just glasses dropped low on his nose and greasy jeans that haven’t been washed in a hundred days, and a look of a deep, lingering, profound, and very final sadness.
Maybe he’s –
“Young man! Can you help me?”
I almost trip over the old lady on the motorised cart, wheeling around almost on defense after feeling an almost creepy touch on my elbow.
But I snap out of it and smile immediately and say sure I can help her, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. And really, there’s not.
“Well…the thing is…” she trails off, half a thought in and already getting confused.
“The thing is…”
The old lady appears very old – old enough to be a grandma of a grown man – maybe a great grandma. Her little cart is royal blue and looks pretty new, except for the fact that it’s decked out in random party streamers, and there appears to be so much random crap – flyers and beer coasters and maybe a beer can – in the little front basket of the cart, that it’s hard to tell whether the thing’s new or about to break down and I’m going to end up carrying her through the booze-ridden streets of downtown looking for God knows what. She still hasn’t finished her sentence. I look up at the crazy fealt chicken hat she has on. It’s bright red. I have a feeling that back in the day, this old gal liked to party. Heck, looks like she still does.
“The thing is…I can’t find my car!” And with this her lip immediately starts to quiver and she looks ready to burst into tears.
“Ohhhh, no no no, that’s ok, that’s ok,” I lean down to her and put my hand on her shoulder, trying to reassure her that someone cares about her; but also selfishly to keep her from blubbering and causing everyone else on the corner to turn around and give me a death glare for making an old lady cry. Proximity is always a sign of guilt.
Ok, she’s not crying.
“Now ma’am,” I try to be formal but not sound like a cop. “Do you remember where you parked? Maybe just the general direction?”
“Well, that’s just the thing –” and the lip quivers again. “I don’t!”
“Well, let’s see here, let’s see…” I take my time and speak slowly and try and slow my thoughts down to a trot so hopefully she can track with me. “Let’s see…now, did you come up from the river, or did you maybe come down from Vine street, or uptown. Do you remember?”
“Well…” she looks around. “Ohhhh, I just really don’t remember!” And the way she says it, all whiny and pathetic, but understandably so, tells me that she knows she dang well should remember, but for the life of her she can’t. And I immediately realize she’s not so much frustrated with being lost as she is with her memory and her age and the hellish mind game of getting old and becoming increasingly helpless and baffled and confused and slow just when you felt like you were just getting decent at this whole life thing.
I continue to investigate.
“Well, I bet you either came kind of up the hill from the river, or, well, the other way’s flat, so…do you remember walking up any hills?”
“I –” she shakes her head and bites her lips together. “I just really don’t remember! Well…my husband’s around here somewhere, but we got separated and I guess he just went to the car, but I just don’t know which direction to go.”
“Well maybe I can walk around with you until we get some clues and find it? How about that? Would you like me to walk with you?”
Far from impatient, I simply want to make some kind of progress. She clearly doesn’t have a clue, and we’re not going to find the car by standing under the McCormick & Schmick’s banner and the dumb “Best Happy Hour in the Country” sign. That piece of s––- sign is starting to annoy me.
“I just – I just don’t even know which direction we’d go in young man!” she says. I protest that I’m happy just to walk with her a bit; but then suddenly, as if re-gaining a sudden confidence and/or surrendering to utter memory failure and hopelessness (I can’t tell which), she looks up and me and smiles and says, “No no, that’s ok…you know, I’ll just wander around and find it. I’m sure my husband is around here somewhere anyway.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, I’ve just got to think for a few minutes.”
“Ok…well I’ll be here for a few minutes if you circle around and still can’t remember, ok?”
She says a quick thank you and lingers for a minute in the way that the elderly tend to linger, just until they can warm up the old engine and sync their mind and body up and gather up the energy to move…somewhere.
And with that she’s off, hand on the throttle of the motorized cart, crazy felt chicken hat kind of bobbling side to side and up and down whenever the cart hits cracks in the sidewalk. I watch her disappear around the less populous corner of Vine, away from the crowd and McCormick & Schmicks, down toward the river bank.
A bright green shirt comes drifting through the street. That’s my brother. He was stuck in traffic on Vine Street. Hence my loitering at McCormick & Schmicks.
“Hey son!” he calls, halfway across the street in the mass of pedestrians. We call each other “son” all the time now. He’s son, I’m son. Neither of us knows where it started – probably sometime during our backyard basketball feuds that turned uber-competitive when my little brother turned into my taller brother. It was our way of talking down to each other and being affectionate at the same time I guess. Brothers have to keep each other in line.
“Sorry,” he says as we grab hands and do the classic bro hug. “Traffic is crazy right in here. Hey, did you park up by City Hall, like near Elm?”
“Yeah, I think right on Elm, right on the side of City Hall.”
“Yeah I thought so – I think I parked right behind you.”
My brother and I know where to find the empty, free parking spots on the street downtown, even when the city’s jammed. It’s mostly because we were taught by our dad that it’s better to walk 10 blocks than pay 10 bucks.
“Did you see they’ve got the Reds game up on the screen?”
A new-ish addition to Fountain Square, Cincinnati now has a massive TV atop the Macy’s building, just opposite the square, so you can stand on the square and comfortably watch the Reds game, or whatever else the city feels like putting on to boost urban morale.
The Reds are playing the Pirates tonight and we need this one. It’s almost October and we’re two-and-a-half games out of first, and lingering. Screw Pittsburgh. All Cincinnatians take it as sworn oath now to hate anything and every sport that comes from the evil Pennsylvania city. It all goes back to an NFL playoff game years ago when a Steeler defensive lineman came charging in low and took out Cincinnati star quarterback Carson Palmer, thus ending immediately what was shaping up to be a potential deep run into the playoffs – something Cincinnati rarely sees. Hence the blind anger.
“Well…wanna take a lap around and then hit the square and watch the game?” Neither of us are in a hurry, and it’s Oktoberfest. Like everyone else, we’re here to hang out.
The four square blocks around Fountain Square are lined with the blue and white-striped vendor tents. It seems like every other tent belongs to Sam Adams brewery. They’ve got to be making an absolute killing this weekend. The other stands are all things German. Mmmmm, the smell of Bratwurst and beer. Nothing like it. There’s also Goetta and funnel cakes and all manner of usual street food, more beer tents (why the heck does Bud Light have to be here killing the mood?) and vendors selling jewelry and stuff “from Germany” and “authentic beers steins.”
The line for the Erdinger tent is heinously long. It’s so long that it’s cutting into and intersecting the other long lines from the funnel cake tents. But it’s Erdinger. And it’s Oktoberfest. And I’m not settling for anything less than Germany’s finest.
The Erdinger line is long because it’s an amazing wheat beer and it’s authentically Bavarian and – perhaps most importantly of all – it’s rare. Sam Adams is almost legendary in the mind of the craft beer community, but we can have that any day on tap. Erdinger is in town for the show, for three nights only; and no one who knows anything is missing out.
We decide to maneuver the line. We’re not cutting, because that would be preposterous. We’re doing the good–natured mingle. And the guys behind us all have Green Bay Packers jerseys on, and they’re all chanting something dumb and huddling together like they’re drawing some collective group energy from the guy in the center’s cheesehead hat. They deserve to be cut. Green Bay is in town to play the Bengals tomorrow, and, like any irrational loyalists (i.e. Notre Dame, Chicago Cubs, and Green Bay fans), they come out of the woodwork by droves when their boys are in town. I’m told it’s actually so hard to get tickets to Lambeau Field that it’s not unlikely many of these cheeseheads have driven down twelve hours from Green Bay just to see the game.
So we kind of slide halfway up into the line next to a guy who looks about in his late twenties and is wearing an authentic bright red Bayern Munich jersey, complete with Bayern Munich scarf draped around his shoulders to finish the Euro look. From all appearances, this guy just might be a real futbol fan.
After a couple shuffles in the line we all start talking; I don’t remember how it started or what we started talking about – do you ever know how those random line conversations start? But pretty soon we’re chatting with the Bayern Munich guy. His name’s Jimmy.
Jimmy doesn’t stop talking once we got him going. He’s just excited enough to reveal that’s he’s probably a few down already, and when I comment on his jersey, revealing a liminal but substantial knowledge of the sport of soccer, he immediately latches onto a kindred spirit. (Actually, now that I think about it, that’s how the conversation started – I told him I liked his jersey and commented knowledgably about the season last year. And when he saw that I actually knew more about the team than just reading their jersey name, we were immediate friends.)
“Dude,” Jimmy was raising his eyebrows, halfway through his diatribe on the glory of European football.
“That’s what I tell everybody! I’m like, ‘You guys don’t even get it! The atmosphere at a European soccer game…’ Oh my god dude, it’s unreal! Nothing like it in America…fuckin’ nothing.”
My brother and I both heartily agree.
“I mean, people tell me that the NFL is better and we’ve got the best fans and all this shit – and I’m like, please dude, you don’t even know! You know what I mean?”
“Like the way they sing at the games in Europe! I mean –” he tilts his head back in amazement, and we’re both laughing. “ – fifty thousand people all screaming the same song at the top of their lungs, word for word…and these songs have like ten verses! And they know them all, down to the last kid! Unreal man, unreal. Nothing like it.”
We couldn’t agree more.
“Have you guys ever been to Australia?”
“Nah,” we both sadly concur. I sigh that deep longing sigh. Oz has been on my to do list for a while.
“Man, I’d love to go,” I say. “It’s always money and life getting in the way though…you know how it is.”
“Hell yeah man, hell yeah, I hear you,” Jimmy says. And I can tell he’s cooking up more story.
“Well I was there for a while…yeah, back in college studying abroad. What a place. Man, if you ever get the chance to go –”
“Oh I know,” I say. “I’ve got a bunch of friends down there and no one ever stops raving about it.”
“Oh yeah, no doubt. I mean, it’s Australia!” (As if I needed any more convincing on how cool Australia is.)
“But dude what I was gonna say about Australia is…the rugby.” And his eyes get wide and he smiles that big you-won’t-believe-this smile.
“Yeah the rugby man. It might be better fans than soccer even. I mean they’re nuts down there…they are just absolutely fucking nuts about rugby dude! Like…say you’re in a town where the home team colors are red or something and there’s a big game that day…and you’re walking down the street with something else on…like a blue shirt maybe…I kid you not dude, someone will probably start pointing at you and yelling at you across the street like, ‘hey, FUCK YOU!’ and they’ll be pissed…like PISSED. And you’ll be like, ‘dude, what the heck, I’m just going to work; this is my blue work shirt dude!’ And he’ll still be like ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’ …Absolutely insane dude, absolutely insane. Haha! It’s awesome.”
My brother and I are laughing, more at Jimmy’s antics than the crazy Aussies. He told the Australian story about as enthused as anyone I’ve ever seen be about anything. Hilarious. Jimmy’s a great storyteller.
By now we’re at the front of the line. Jimmy orders two pints of Erdinger. I am not thinking and only get one. We both get our beers at the same time and take that long awaited grateful sip. And we murmur gratefully.
“Hey, good to meet you man!” We both say to Jimmy as we get ready to part ways and respectively disappear back into the crowd.
“Yeah, you guys too! Be safe out there!”
“You too brother! Cheers, take it easy!” And with that we’re on own separate paths, and my brother and I immediately look at each other and start laughing over how hilarious Jimmy was.
Vine street is packed – it has been all day; and it’s that shoulder-to-shoulder packed, more apropos of an Asian megacity than Cincinnati, Ohio. Jumping into the river of bodies is surrendering your fate to the shuffle and flow, but it’s also kind of nice, because you’re moving so slow and unconsciously that you can actually have a decent conversation even in the middle of foot traffic. And it’s great people watching.
But we decide to skip the mass for now and head back up to Fountain Square via the sidewalk behind the blue vendor tents on Fifth Street.
The Reds are down 4-2 to the damnable Pirates now. It’s the bottom of the 6th and things aren’t looking good. Cincinnati is tied with Pitt. for second place in the division, and we’re both exactly 2.5 games back of the also damnable St. Louis Cardinals – so the final 7 games of the year are a pennant and playoff race. The Reds will probably make the postseason at least in the wild card, but no Cincinnatian wants a one-game playoff round with Pitt or Stl. to have to advance to a playoff series. We typically have totally miserable luck with that.
Cincinnati loses the game. But far from diminishing the joy of Oktoberfest, the lingering handful of folks actually paying attention to the game just maneuver the loss into an excuse (as if they needed one) to head back to get in line for another beer. The Erdinger line is twice as long as it was before and there are even more Green Bay Packers fans in the middle now, raising drunken hell and being harmlessly idiotic.
My brother decides to call it a night.
“Be careful going home!” I call out the customary warning as we split ways on Fountain Square and he heads back north on Vine.
I linger for a little bit, then run into a few friends. It’s about ten o’clock at night and everyone’s just colliding on the square at this point. If you’ve lived in Cincinnati longer than five minutes, you’re bound to run into someone you at least recognize. We exchange some chit chat as I finish the last of my Erdinger – and then decide to call it a night myself.
I head off the square, north on Vine, but can’t resist a quick turnoff to one of my favorite pubs. There’s a band playing Pearl Jam at Nicholson’s Pub patio, and I wander down the alley between 5th and 7th, pulled by the music to another sub crowd.
I amble into Nicholson’s. It’s packed. A nice smooth Guinness sounds like a good way to finish the night, and the band is killing it on Pearl Jam and Pink Floyd covers. But the bar’s jammed. I walk around to the back. Still hardly space to squeeze a shoulder. Totally not worth the hassle. I’m in that malaise – the kind that hits you when you’re in a crowd and having more fun watching the rowe than actually being a part of it. I’m people watching tonight. And I’m too relaxed to fight for ten minutes for an eyeball from a bartender and then wait another ten for a pint. So I decide to make full circle and mozy out the front.
I’m almost at the door when a hand slaps the back of my shoulder. I half jump, and turn around expecting to see some random friend.
The old guy with glasses yells, elated, in my face. I have no idea who this is.
“Oh, sorry man!” he says. “I thought you were somebody else!” And immediately bursts into drunken laughter.
I decide to play along.
“No worries! Hey, it’s not my team, but who am I kidding – it’s not like I’m a Bengals fan! And I will say this – I love that you guys are a publicly traded team.”
I’m yelling through the crowd and the music at this point, and we’re standing right in front of the band, so it’s even more raucous. But this last bit of information has won me a friend.
“Hell yes! Hell yes we are!” the old guy with glasses slaps me on the shoulder again in approval. He turns to two other guys with their backs to him.
“Hey! This guy knows a thing or two about the Pack! He’s the enemy this weekend but he’s alright!” The other two guys, both probably in mid to late 40’s turn around, smiling.
“I’m Walter!” he leans over and hollers in my ear. “And this is Dave…and Dave! Hahahaha!”
I reach out and shake the Daves’ hands and exchange a few “hey good to see ya’s.”
Walter, Dave, and Dave are obviously all Green Bay fans, and it’s evident they’re bored and are looking for a good football argument or some other bar banter. So I oblige. We talk – well, yell – back and forth for a minute and then I ask them if they’re real cheeseheads or just Cincinnatians acting like they’ve been with Green Bay since “the good ol’ days.”
“Oh hell no! I’m a shareholder baby!” Walter screams. “And so are Dave and Dave.” The Daves just smile. Walter’s the oldest, tallest, and drunkest of the lot.
“I’m the real deal! Been cheering the Pack since I could talk, you better believe it! Here –”
And with this Walter yanks down the collar of his shirt below his shoulder. And there, on his right deltoid, sits a bold “G” Green Bay logo, tattooed and emblazoned and set into the skin for what must be at least 20 years now. I admire it briefly and don’t know whether to applaud or feel a little sorry for him.
“No bullshit in my part of the woods!” And Walter lifts his shirt back up as if he has proved something definitive and manly.
And with that it’s time to go. I’ve had enough of “The Pack” for the night.
“Hey – have a good time at the game tomorrow!” I grab Walter’s hand and we exchange that deep, long, manly handshake as if we’re long time friends saying goodbye. Walter smiles at me – one of those winking, long, knowing smiles. Or maybe it’s just the booze grinning.
Walter and the Daves all wish me a goodnight and re-iterate once again that the Bengals will receive an unequivocal beat down in approximately twelve hours. I couldn’t give less of a damn.
I turn left on 7th and make my way back up Vine toward 9th and Elm. The noise fades almost abruptly, and within two city blocks of the madness, there’s not a soul in sight. One of my buddies who lives in Egypt told me a while ago that it’s weird being in Cairo right now because you can hear fighting and riots two blocks away, but just sit on your deck and have a tea and watch some kids play ping pong on your own quiet street. For some reason, in this instant, I understand how that’s possible.
I stand by my car for just a second – just to stand there and soak in the cool night. I think about all the Packers fans in town and all the Bengals fans getting themselves all psyched for the big game tomorrow. I think about how vastly disappointed they’ll all be when it’s over; when – win or lose – they’ll have to wait another week, or month, or whatever, for the next big game and the next big media hooplah and the next potential road trip, and face painting, and arguing with the wife about having the boys over to watch football and retarded Bud Light commercials.
I wonder if the old lady ever found her car. I think she probably did. I hope she didn’t lose her crazy chicken hat. She probably did. Oh well, just so long as she found her car.