Tuesday, January 29, 2008
FLATTERY FOR A WEEKEND IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
from Avenue Magazine June 2006
Joe Van Dyke’s birthday is Cinco de Mayo and every year he celebrates by having a pig roast. This year was the seventh and held once again in Charlottesville, Virginia,. Friends come from all over to celebrate and the party gets bigger every year. Around Charlottesville he hands out flyers and there’s a website, eatapig.com, that basically has the name and a Mapquest link.
Cody, Eric and I leave early Friday morning to attend with plenty of rain to follow for the five hour drive. We stop several times and drive hard through the heavy rain, rain that spirals off eighteen wheels like miniature storms. There are wrecks, blue flashing lights from state troopers and red tail lights, all blending together to appear purple from afar. There numerous wrecks, cars ripped open as if by a giant monster. Their destruction, while repugnant, is terribly beautiful.
Cody decides to play a letter game, in which you look for a word on a sign that starts with A and then you proceed to B and so on. It’s a great way to pass the time but a way to end up on the side of the road mangled. But he and I play competitively, finding letters in words written on vehicles, restaurant and hotel signs, bumper stickers and license plates. The hardest letters are Q (look for Dairy Queen or Quality Inn’s) and of course X. The game goes on quietly for a t least thirty minutes trying to find that elusive X. An eighteen wheeler carrying cars slides past and Cody searches the cars and their license plates. He lucks out because I’m watching the road. He eventually wins finding words for the letters, Y and Z. I am still trying to find my X.
Just inside of Charlottesville, moments before reaching Shamrock Road, the rain stopped. The streets glisten, the weather cool. The strangeness of it sets a tone for the rest of the weekend. Cody drives around, feeling his way to Joe’s house. Cody hasn’t been back to Charlottesville for some time now but remembers much and points out places where he knew people and girls dated. He drives through an area and says here’s the ghetto and two seconds later he says that was it. After a few wrong turns we get to Joe’s house.
Joe’s black hair juts from under the straw hat and he has a clever, cheerful smile. He sits comfortably in a Hawaiian button down shirt and a festive straw hat behind a homemade bar. The bar is located at the base of a hill that is his backyard and his laptop plays music through speakers in the window. Many homes in Charlottesville are built into the side of hills and the streets climb up and down adding a specific quality to an already attractive town where old world sensibilities meet the new.
After Cody catches up with Joe we walk to wait for the free trolley. We walk up a street only to be stuck by a train that is slowing down. It finally stops, taking as long as a ship in the wide ocean, and we climb across it like hobos. We catch the trolley that will take us to Fridays After Five downtown where a band plays every week and the downtown area is blocked off and people arrive after work to hear music, drink and meet people. It’s there we meet Jim, who’ll be cooking for the pig roast, and The Mayor, because he seems to know everyone, and Melanie, who’ll be singing for kids at a Catholic church very early in the morning, and Heather who we’ll find out is waiting on a phone call from her man in Richmond, and Big Jason who is the biggest kid you could ever meet, soft spoken and friendly, and several others that escape memory now. The atmosphere is that of a tiny festival, as if the town is aware that Joe’s throwing the pig roast but actually is the vibe of the town. People we see and meet are individuals, diverse and friendly. It grows dark quickly and the lights cast a purple shade over the locale. Everyone agrees to move on to somewhere else.
South Street Bar makes their own beer and it’s more than good. The bar is loud from conversation, music is played very low if at all. The wooden design accompanied by brick walls seems like a cross between a Tatami room and a fireplace. It’s elegant and comfortable. Cody sees a crooked painting on the brick wall behind the bar and wants to straighten it but the bar is crowded, hard to get a bartender. It’s killing me he says. He shares war stories of bartending with Joe at the Wild Wing Café in Charlottesville several years ago. Everyone knows Joe, likes and respects him. When he leaves in November it seems as though the area will be losing something. He seems the center of something in everyone’s lives. Heather and Melanie show up after visiting friends at another bar. They share a story about silly pick up lines and how to measure up a guy, if you know what I mean. We all exchange some dark humor and remind Heather about her late night rendezvous. Melanie promises to sing at the pig roast for us.
Joe suggests a pub crawl that will unknowingly get aborted. First stop is West Main where Zoe pours four shots of Jager who sits atop the cooler after and talks. The bar is located well below the street floor and people walking in can look straight down to the bar. Zoë talks openly, says she may come to the pig roast but has a wedding to attend. Cody attempts to talk her out of going and she is impressed with his ability to convince her. Finish your beers Joe says. We have eight more bars to go. We talk to Zoë longer and then some people in the bar and then we leave only to not find Joe. In what seems like a few seconds he’s disappeared.
We continue down Main past Starr Hill where Shooter Jennings is playing. His distinctive voice can be heard into the street. The next morning we’ll see the glass store front of Starr Hill has been smashed and held in place by artistically placed duct tape. We keep walking thinking we’ll catch up with Joe. Everyone has drunk enough that staying together was bound to go wrong.
So it starts to gently rain and we make it to Mellow Mushroom. The doorman is adamant about putting wristbands on us and marking hands with Sharpies. He gets Cody and myself but Eric slips through. Hey, where’s that other guy he says. He has to run to us anyway because he’s busy talking with friends on the street. Inside the bar we set about ordering drinks. Looking back I see the doorman grabbing Eric to ink him with a Sharpie.
I gotta mark you the door guy says. No Eric says plainly. But I got to and Eric dryly says no, I don’t think so, as if he’s being asked if he wants an enema or something. I’m allergic to that marker, I broke out before Eric lies. Eric tells him to write on the arm band. So Eric has this little black ring on his armband and the rest of us have black rings on the tops of our hands.
Inside, Cody is still looking for Joe but I look to my right after ordering whatever and see Joe’s straw hat and that he’s talking with a girl. I pull out the HOOK, a local mag, and sporadically turn the pages.
Is ‘V for Vendetta’ playing? a woman’s voice asks me looking down at the mag. I look over, noticing dark hair and tanned olive skin. It’s loud in the bar and I say I don’t know but I’ve seen it, my voice still raw from staying at a friend’s smoky house a few nights before. But I’m not from here I say. Is it good she asks. Not bad I say. I ask her name and she prefaces by saying this is really my name, it’s Alex. She says that people don’t get it. I tell her I’ve heard of girls named Alex. I see my friends are gonna leave and I say goodbye. What are you doing later she asks. Dunno. I walk outside and its raining and they’re waiting on a ride, to another bar. So I go back inside and ask what she’s doing later. Do you wanna go somewhere else she asks. Yeah, let’s go. So we do. Bail on my friends and disappear into a city where I don’t know my way around with what turns out to be a very cool girl.
We go to O’Neil’s where it’s loud and the old wooden floor is moist as though a leaky pipe is going strong. Its two levels and people play pool and others talk or dance closely. We pull two tables together and it seems awkward and both unanimously say let’s go, ending up at an after hours restaurant drinking margaritas and Dos Equis. It’s not loud and it’s a good place to get to know someone, after meeting so randomly. But time quickly passes over good conversation and the lights come up signaling time to leave.
Out on the street people are piling out of bars, it’s sprinkling now. Some guy keeps approaching people and asking do you like Pearl Jam?
We walk through streets heavy with fog and across campus where Jefferson is king and I am reminded of that maze in The Shining. There are endless, almost spiraling, walkways and ornate shrubbery and the image of campus is beautiful even under the dense night. On a vast stretch of grass between two main buildings is six inch wet grass that we walk through. In the distance there are a few people running from one end to the other, the pounding of flat feet on soft earth in the night. There is the faint sound of clapping. We talk but the people running seem odd. It dawns on me that in the distance someone is hitting the runner with a small spotlight and I see something. Are they naked? I ask. Alex says that they are naked, that its tradition, that everyone does it prior to graduating.
I get home later via cab and the pig roast flyer that has Joe’s address and invite the cabbie who’s lived in the city for most of his life. I enter Joe’s basement apartment and turn on the light to see Cody passed out on an ottoman, on his knees, facedown. It’s lurid and funny at the same time. I get my camera and snap one. He won’t believe me otherwise. Eric is asleep, snoring. I make a bed on the floor and try to get Cody to wake up. He mumbles like a little kid. I brush my teeth and then slide what I think is an old bean bag chair next to him (it’s really a dog bed, sorry, man) and sort of roll him onto it.
Sleep doesn’t come, only in short bursts. Ears ringing, the snoring, the dog growling and then a knock at the door. Cody has somehow made his way to a couch to sleep. I get up and turn on a light. Cody, there’s somebody at the door I say. Half awake he says let him in. I lay back down and soon after the knocking comes again. I open the door to find that it’s Jim. He goes to wake Joe, never stumbles over anything in the dark and says, Joe, we gotta get the pig. The sun is breaking in the sky and I try to sleep, burying my face in the dark of a pillow. But it won’t be long.
There’s Bloody Mary’s upstairs Steph says. It’s after eight and the day of the pig roast has begun. We pick up supplies from the ABC store and have breakfast in a packed restaurant where Cody keeps singing out loud to the girl sitting next to him, that she can’t have his potatoes. An older waitress comes up to me, she’s short, and is wearing a brown shirt with glittered lettering and a foxy cat on it. My eyes are mesmerized by the glitter but looks like I’m staring at her breasts. Yes, I’d like some water, thanks I say. Not your fault, Cody says. There’s a brief pause, the girl next to him watches Cody from the corner of her eye and smiles at her friend. You can’t have my Po-Ta-Toes! he sings out loud. The girl next to him breaks out laughing.
Cody and I drive to South Street to pick up a keg. There’s no place to park because the lots are used for selling art or something, a tiny gathering of something creative. We drive around and Cody points to a place to park close to South Street. There’s a fire hydrant I say. We won’t be long he replies. I say okay, thinking it’s a bad idea, but I park and out in a cd.
A few minutes later I hear this faint metallic voice, like someone talking really low with a bullhorn. Looking up and then to my left I see a police car. I turn down the At Budokan cd. You will be towed he says through the little speaker. I get out and walk over to him. As I do Cody is wheeling the keg to my truck and loading it. The officer has the handset in his right hand when I approach. Sorry, man, I couldn’t hear you I say. He is immediately rough, You are in front of a fire hydrant. I will tow you. I’ve been there only through the first verse of ‘Surrender’ and I figure he’ll see the keg being loaded and be reasonable. We’re loading the keg now I say. I don’t care, I will tow you if you don’t move he says firmly. I assume that there must be an overabundance of spontaneous flash fires in the lower downtown area and walk away to move my vehicle. As I cross the street I think to hand him a pig roast flyer and deem that he’d take it the wrong way.
The pig roast lasts all day and late into the night. Joe has frequent wardrobe changes. He changes his shirt after his parents leave to put on his signature shell bra. Cody changes his shirt too, sporting more edgy slogans, this one from Boondock Saints. It gets chilly and people make s’mores from the fire logs and Kate keeps everyone set up with drinks. Everyone who came to the party brought beer and bottles of liquor. Instant bar, plenty to go around.
You look like a man of adventure a guy says across the home bar three deep. He hands me a red Solo cup of something orange. Is this a Bar Mat I ask. No, I just made it he says. It looks like murky Tang and tastes like Cholulah and vodka. Insanely salty. I hand it back with a murky thank you. He smiles, walks away to find another victim. Leave the drinks to Kate.
There’s plenty of food to go around. There are brief tournaments of beer pong and flip cup. The guys beat the girls 6-2 but Tana insists that we were cheating or something.
Sam calls from NC asking how the roast is going. He says he can’t get Cody or Joe to answer their phones. He says he’s hung over a little, maybe a cold, asks if we like C-ville. I tell him I saw pictures of him on the wall of Joe’s apartment, from a wedding maybe. It’s high on the wall with many other pictures at the hallway to the bathroom where there’s been a line most of the night.
Late in the night it gets chilly and the smoke from the fire in the yard gets strong. Joe announces loudly to crowd from the bar that he isn’t drunk yet. Eric and I go upstairs to talk with Tana. She’s finishing up school this week with a degree in Environmental studies and philosophy. She’s not sure where she’s going afterwards and I look through her dissertation, thick as a phone book and loaded with stuff that I’ll never understand but she does. She goes to bed and Lindsay comes in. Eric heads out to the party again.
My phone rings and its Alex asking, where are you? I say I’m upstairs, come on up. She tells me that she’s back at the dorm, that she came by and that no one knew where I was. She must have come by just after we came upstairs. You just wanted to avoid me she says. No, I say, I wanted to see you, annoyed at the bad timing. I had fun last night she says. If you have time before you leave tomorrow maybe we could hang out. I say absolutely and that I’ll call after lunch.
I go downstairs and pour a few shots of Jager and call it a night passing some idiot hitting himself in the head, claiming that he’s Ultimate Fighting Championship material. The pig roast goes on for a few more hours.
Sunday morning means clean up and about fifteen bags of trash get hauled out to the street. All the beer is gone, the kegs are empty but there’s plenty of alcohol to play with. About ten of us go to St. Maarten to have brunch. Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas get made and conversation lends itself to the night before.
The mood is tired and light. Outside there’s the certainty that it will rain soon, the morning still damp into the afternoon. The orange glow inside St. Maarten’s echoes everyone’s early morning temperament.
It is a makeshift family that we were welcomed into for the weekend. The pig roast wasn’t just a birthday celebration but a celebration of life. It also may be the end of an era. Joe plans to sail away to the Caribbean in November, having saved up and bought a boat to leave on with his dog Leah. One gets the sense that there will be a hole left behind, hard to fill. In some ways, like Jefferson, Charlottesville has garnered and committed to history another fine individual. Something tells me that Joe will spread his spirit wherever he travels.