Friday, October 25, 2013

Ah Luv Looavul

I visited Louisville (aka Looavul) a few years for a performing arts conference. The conference followed the standard format. There were performer showcases--good, bad, and ugly--and there was an an exhibit hall filled with agents and folks from related businesses. Software vendors, publishers, and talent agencies were there flogging all sorts of products that I didn’t want. Oh, there also were some educational sessions---I was invited to be on a panel at a breakout session. All in all, a worthwhile venture.

However, the trip's highlights weren't really at the convention center. During the time that I wasn’t in a session with a lanyard around my neck, I saw the cops shoot someone on the sidewalk with a taser. Wow! The perp fell to the ground in an instant! I also stumbled into a Smart Car marketing event just after they'd come out. As a result, I got to take a test drive in one. It was no surprise that the taser had more power than the Smart Car.
Last month, I had the chance to go to Louisville again, this time for a big arts festival and a meeting of festival directors. My friend/colleague Pam went along. While I thought it would be hard to top a tasering and a Smart Car, I had a feeling Louisville would be up to the challenge.

I’m not a big weather guy—my favorite weather app is walking outside and looking around—so I was a tad surprised when we landed in Louisville and it was raining cats and dogs. It was sunny when we took off in Baltimore. Imagine that! The rain was coming down in buckets. Pam and I agreed that it would be a dreadful time to be an artist at a festival in this weather.

After a call to our hotel, its black Mercedes van came to pick us up. The driver was an attractive 30-something product-using metrosexual-to-gay guy; closer to gay if I had to guess. We commiserated for a moment or two about the weather, and before too long we were chatting about bourbon, one of Kentucky’s best known products along with thoroughbred race horses, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Hatfields and the McCoys. Our driver said that he didn’t really like bourbon but then gave us the tasting notes on his six favorite kinds including the low down on which distillery tours to take and which tours to skip. I can’t imagine how much he would have known about bourbon if he’d really liked the stuff.  My guess is that he’s using the brain cells where he’d store info on bourbon to keep up on Ryan Gosling, Marc Nelson Cone Mills selvage denim blue jeans, and the career of Kristin Chenoweth.

As soon as we checked into the Seelbach Hilton, Louisville’s grand old hotel, I got a text that the festival for which we’d driven from State College to Baltimore, parked in long term parking, gone through security, flown from Baltimore to Louisville, and taken that black Mercedes van in the rain into the city to see had just closed early due to bad weather. And it was not going to open at all the next day. This was the first time in 47 years that the show closed early. I couldn’t imagine how the festival staff, artists, food vendors, and customers, were feeling at that point. Other than wet, I mean. It truly did suck to be them. And not in a good way.

Fortunately for Pam and me, before we could say “Well this is a fine kettle of fish!” our friends Barbara and Keith pulled up in their Toyota in front of the hotel. They live near Cincinnati and had driven down to hang out with us. We hadn’t seen them in some time, so that made the visit especially nice.

Since B. and K. had done their share of  "bourbon tourism", they had a good idea of what we should do instead of the now-closed festival. Without passing Go or Collecting Two Hundred Dollars, we drove to the nearest distillery—Jim Beam.

We got there too late for a tour but not too late to check out the various incarnations of photo ops and gift shops, and fortunately, not too late for the tasting room.

After the Jim Beam worker bees made sure we were of legal age, we got a card that we could shove into a machine that would give us two drams of bourbon. Bourbon is very fashionable now and accordingly comes in all sorts of price points and horrible flavors for people who aren’t manly enough to drink the real stuff.  So, if you’re lacking even one ounce of Good Ole Boy-ness, you can get bourbon that tastes like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Hershey’s Chocolate, or for the real hair shirt types, Tuscan Kale.

After our drams and some photo ops, we stopped for dinner at a quaint inn next to a supermarket in Bardstown. I had the Hot Brown, which is sort of a croque-monsieur Kentucky style. Tasty; but it’s the kind of dish that helps cardiologists pay for their condos at Hilton Head. After dinner, B. and K. dropped Pam and me off at the Seelbach and headed back to northern Kentucky.

The hotel bar advertised 44 premium bourbons so of course Pam and I had to stop in. It wasn’t nearly as grand as the rest of the hotel, no doubt the victim of an unfortunate remodeling or three. But it did have more bourbons than you could shake a stick at, most of which were aimed at the non-parsimonious tippler. In other words, I wasn’t their target market.

Partly through my first drink, a friendly brunette of about my age but somewhat higher mileage (the hairstyle was a couple of model years out of date) sat down next to me. She ordered the house special: bourbon and champagne. With a pleasant Kentucky lilt in her voice, she told me that she was in town at some sort of singles event. (She was definitely gonna stay single sitting by me!) She lived on sixteen acres near Bardstown and was an auditor of large insurance claims at Humana, the big hospital chain. Before her bourbon and champagne ran out I learned that she was looking for a man, a farm hand, a new horse, and a dog, too. Holy crap!, I thought to myself. It's practically Loretta Lynn!

The next day, when we would have been going to the now cancelled festival, Pam and I were left with nothing to do, and no car in which to do it in.

We walked over to a great breakfast restaurant that not only had breakfast buffet, but also a “watch him cook” omelet station. I learned all about President Truman’s breakfast—that info is not in the membership packet sent out by the Truman Library. (Yes, I am a member in good standing.) What about that daily rubdown? Was Bess Truman involved in that? Yowza!

After breakfast, the hotel doorman called us a cab and we headed out to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Fortunately, I was wearing my extremely festive Murray’s Toggery belt adorned with racing silks. Without prompting, the ticket woman commented on how appropriate it was.

After paying the entrance fee, we entered the galleries through a Churchill Downs starting gate. (Clever, no?) After passing a giant video screen of horses breaking from the gate—they’re way more colorful on that screen than they are on my 15 year old Sony, visitors are faced with a great variety of exhibits.

The museum covers the owners, the horses, the jockeys, the mint juleps, the hats, and did I mention the mint juleps? that come together to make the Derby the fastest two minutes in sports. In addition to the standard static displays that people my age expect to see in museums, visitors can have fun with video screens too. For example, after a few punches at a touch screen, you can watch a replay of any Derby from the age of film and television. In no time you’ll find yourself waxing nostalgic for the glorious years of the Jimmy Carter presidency as you watch Affirmed coming in at a pretty darned fast time of 2:01.1/5 in the 1978 race.

There are lots of participatory stations too, a strategy they should consider at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. In one of the interactive exhibits, you can go into a booth (not the same sort as in the "History of the Peep Show" exhibition at the E.H.M.) and watch a video of a raced with closed captioning and call the Derby yourself. It’s harder to say “Savoy Cabbage has the lead by a head” than you might think.

Looking remarkably fresh, Q.M. Queen Elizabeth took in the Derby in 2007.
If you like trophies and saddles and all sorts of other equine stuff this is definitely the place to be. The memorabilia includes Secretariat’s elementary school report card; a Hawaiian shirt worn by Nashua when he appeared in an episode of Gilligan's Island; and home movies of 1964 winner Northern Dancer hanging out in his Dupont Circle bachelor pad with his “roommate” Mr. Ed, and so on. All kidding aside, the museum has the best visitors' center movie I’ve seen since Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, the longest running movie in history.

The only part of the museum that’s lame (pun intended) is the gallery about the infield, which is where the hoi polloi hang out and have a helluva lot more fun than the swells in the good seats. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there are no scratch ‘n’ sniff panels that smell like mint julep laced barf, or oats after they’ve been repurposed into thoroughbred tracks. And if you’re looking for a beer bong the size of a Budweiser Clydesdale, you’ll have to look elsewhere. 
The good news is that you still can enjoy a somewhat sanitized infield port-a-john. Fortunately there was a nice young woman there who agreed to pose coming out of the can for me. I’m pretty sure I was the only person who’s ever asked her to pose in a port-a-john. But hey, supermodels have to start someplace, right? Had the role of a patron exiting the port-a-john been played by our shuttle bus driver, the morning line was 7 to 5 that he would have gone completely Norma Desmond, opening the door and proclaiming, with eyes the size of saucers, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

After the Kentucky Derby museum the rain let up for a bit and so Pam and I decided to walk from the hotel over to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. I don't know what you think, but nothing says fun to me like a trip to a baseball bat factory.

On the way we stopped and said hello to Col. Harlan Sanders.

They preserved his body using 11 secret herbs and spices at the Louisville Visitors' Center and you can have your photo taken with him. Seriously.

Our plan was to pop into a Starbucks en route, but it was overrun by hordes, and I do mean hordes, and of girls age fifteen and under in cheerleading uniforms, accompanied by a smattering of non-MILF moms and a few dads who were either pussywhipped or crazy or probably both.

Yes, we were in the midst of an enormous “cheer” competition. I didn’t know that people did this but apparently it’s a big deal. A big wackadoodle deal, actually.  Since I’m not one to shy away from blog material and I sort of knew my way around the convention center, I said “Come on Pam, let’s check this out.”

So there are one billion girls. And the occasional boy. And all the little girls all have eye makeup that looks as if it were applied by a drag queen in training. A drag queen in training with a twitch, actually. And they’re all wearing uniforms, advertising not their school, but their cheer team, usually a one word name like the Flash or Max or Zip. But the one girl who was not in uniform was wearing a tee shirt that said—no joke! “Glitter is my favorite color”.

The convention hall was sort of dark and there was deafening dance music, so in a way, it was like Tracks, the late and lamented D.C. night club where I once danced on a platform wearing not much more than polka dotted navy J. Crew boxers. Instead of loud dance music and 8 million gay men and a few large women running around, it was loud dance music and 8 million teenage girls and a few large women running around. 

Oh, and unlike Tracks, which smelled of smoke, beer, Polo, and Binaca, the Louisville Convention Center reeked of the cloying smell of German roasted nuts. No doubt they are made with Chancellor Angela Merkel's secret recipe known only to her and the folks at the NSA who have been tapping her phone.

Cheer teams seemed to consist of about 20 screaming girls and the occasional unlucky boy. And they do a routine that involves “dance” and tumbling and gymnastics but as far as I could tell no actual cheering. Each team has a gaggle of parents dressed in the team’s colors that follows the team around the way pilot fish swim swarm around sharks. Unlike the pilot fish, the parents film everything with their cell phone cameras.  Pam and I watched a few of the precisely 2 minute 30 second routines—that’s 7 minutes and 30 seconds that we’ll never get back.  

When we couldn’t take it any longer, we left the Convention Center and finally got our coffee. I think we were the only people in that Starbucks line who didn’t ask for a whipped frozen frothy foamy thingy with extra sugar and heavy on the caffeine.  On exiting the coffee shop, we ran into a guy on the street who was dressed in a bright blue hat that looked as if he bought it at the Queen Mother’s estate sale. It really complemented his blue Spiderman costume. He graciously allowed me to take a photo. Unfortunately when he posed, he put held his cigarette—which made his whole outfit--behind his back.

We finally did make it to the Louisville Slugger Museum. The museum itself seems as if  it’s the holding pen to give you something to look at while you’re “on deck” waiting for the factory tour to start.

But you can hang out with mannequins of Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter, and even swing Derek’s bat if you buy him a couple of drinks, I mean, hang out in a different part of the museum. It’s not super complicated to make a baseball bat—stick a piece of wood in a computer operated lathe, brand it with a hot iron, add some lacquer and you’re good to go. The hard part is using the bat to hit the baseball.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Louisville Slugger’s movie. Well, it was completely unremarkable and wasn’t even in the same league as the movie at Churchill Downs. However, the hallway leading from the theater to the gift shop was decorated with murals that are alone worth the price of admission.

Sure, no one is tasered, or drinking a mint julep, they’re not scratch and sniff. (OK, I didn't actually check.)  But oh my. Of all the one zillion baseball-related mural topics out there, did someone really say "Hey! I've got an idea!! How about a few players cruising each other in the locker room?"

Sooner or later these murals are destined for a new home at the Erotic Heritage Museum. In the meantime, adjust yourself, kick the dirt out of your cleats, and make plans to visit Louisville. And when it's time to order a bourbon, you'd better make it a double.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rick and the Pop-Tart

I haven't been home long from my annual fall trip to Charlottesville, though this year, with no football game or to-do requiring “festive dress” on my dance card, I left my orange trousers at home.  The excuse for my trip was the annual A-School dinner—but more about that in a later post.

When I got to Charlottesville on Friday evening I went to the Downtown Mall to get a bite to eat. Since it’s a foodie kind of town, there are tons of options that don’t exist in Happy Valley, the land of the chain restaurant. I bypassed the place that sold Himalayan bar-b-que, the spot for specialties of the Tierra del Fuego, and even the Seychelles style deli, and instead opted for the consciously non-foodie American diner sort of place. I had the meatloaf, and wow, that was one big platter of meatloaf. It was a serving fit for Fred Flintstone.

The waitress, who sported a pierced eyebrow, joked with me that she had difficulty making change for a twenty even thought she was a UVa student studying to be a math teacher. We discussed division “strategies”, something I'd never ever heard of until a short time ago when a middle schooler tried to teach me math. (Best strategy: use a calculator.) I then sent off to explore the shoppes, listen to street performers, and check out the excellent examples of the whatnot that makes the downtown mall a fun place to be.

Dreads add cred if you're a street performer.
After about 20 minutes of walking about it became apparent that meatloaf had not been a good choice. Actually, it wasn’t just not a good choice; it was an egregiously bad choice. I made a bee line for my hotel where I enjoyed some quality time wishing that I'd gone with the crab cake sandwich and wondering how long you can sit on the toilet before you get that indentation from the seat around your ass.

As far as evenings in Charlottesville go, it wasn’t one the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau would be proud of.  I don't know about you, but I'd sooner stay home than go to a place whose CVB's slogan is "You can catch up on your New Yorkers while sitting on the can!"

When I awoke the next day I was mighty hungry since my dinner and the rest of the food I’d eaten that week made their exit significantly earlier than planned. Rather than a reheated pastry at the hotel, I opted for street food at the Charlottesville City Market. It’s foodie heaven for victuals free-range, heritage, heirloom, and gently slaughtered.  

After looking at freshly made tacos (yum), Philippine stuff (too foodie), omelets (not really street food), and meat pies (weirdly British) I opted for a hot sausage sandwich. I know, just the thing on an empty digestive tract. Except it was free-range, woods-raised, distant cousin of Arnold Ziffel sausage.

Before I could place my order, I had to wait in line behind a somewhat clueless hipster couple. They were looking over the menu board of pork products that they could purchase to cook at home.

What’s the difference between regular bacon and jowl bacon?” they asked the vendor, a sturdy and unshaved (but not fashionably unshaved) fellow, not given to flights of oratory.

Jowl bacon is made from jowls.

The hipsters looked at each other and scratched their heads, perhaps discovering new locations for tattoos in the process.

Not surprisingly, they passed on the jowl bacon.

My non-jowl sausage on an Albemarle Baking Co. bun sandwich was mighty tasty. With a dent made in my hunger, I decided to check out the other stands. 

One of my favorite exhibitors was the crown lady. She made crowns from felt, so in this case, easy lies the head that wears the crown. Her price points weren’t exactly the same as at Tiffany, but my friend Bruce would never ever have shelled out for one. An added bonus to the cute crown was watching the crown lady (not her real name) set up Square on her iPhone so she could process my credit card payment. If you haven’t seen someone use it, Square is quite a miracle of modern technology.

While she was struggling with her technology I asked if she had a crown air freshener for her car. She didn’t know what I was talking about. I tried to explain that they were popular in the African-American community—at least in Cleveland—a few years ago. They came in fragrances like purple and red. I bought one for my nephew for his Geo Metro. I’m sure he had the coolest and most odorific Geo Metro in the Shaker Heights High School parking lot.

For a moment I thought about asking her if she knew of that gay porn actor who has the crown tattoo on his stomach. But at 8:30 a.m., I wasn’t sure that she was ready for the full Rick.

Crown in hand, I made my way past the remote for public radio—unfortunately their big foam headed American Kabuki mascot—I’m guessing it’s Virginia Woolf— was doing her own remote at the Volvo dealership that day. The dealership was running a special on converting your car to run on Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte instead of gas.

On the other side of the radio station, past some vegetable and poultry sellers, was a charming young woman sampling some sort of baked goods. 

Please try one, she said.

What is it?

It’s like a Pop-Tart

I’ve never had a Pop-Tart.

Oh really, well now’s your chance! It’s really just a shortbread cookie.

It was a tasty shortbread cookie at that.

Say is there a game today? she said, looking at my UVA baseball hat.

This reminded me of the days when you’d only wear fan gear at a sporting event. As in, when I was in college.

Well, not here. They’re playing in Pittsburgh.  I doffed my hat and continued, It’s gay 201. You wear a hat when you can't be bothered to put product in your hair.

She seemed satisfied with my explanation. 

In real life, she’s a baker in Crozet, and an accomplished one, judging by my artisanal Pop-Tart sample.

Since I was fairly certain that I’d never have the chance to say that I bought an artisanal Pop-Tart, I said I’d be delighted to buy a cinnamon one. The baker posed for a photo, and with my industrial food made artisanal in hand, I was on my way. 

Just a few stands a way, they were selling one of my favorite foods of all time. Chinese dumplings. Now, you might not think that dumplings would not be good as a third course after a free-range conscientious objector hot sausage sandwich and an artisanal Pop-Tart sample. But you would be wrong.

As soon as I placed my order, the dumpling maker pulled some out of her cooler and threw them into the hot frying pan where they turned brown and delicious right before my very eyes. She explained that they’re already steamed so this is just the end of the cooking process, just to make them pretty.

Holy smokes were they good. And, washed down with a hot cup of Shenandoah Joe Coffee, well, it was the best meal I had that day.

After some antique shopping and attending a lecture, I went to the bookstore to buy some UVA regalia, which, since it's no longer the 1970s, I can wear all the time, even when I have product in my hair. Though they had more blue and orange than you could shake a stick at, nothing really scratched my itch. Fortunately, I had an artisanal Pop-Tart to show for my trip. What more did I need?