Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Something vaguely heartbreaking that I’ve learned these recent years is that as you get older, birthdays stop being special and turn into thorny experiences we must survive in order to carry on. Yet, for some reason, we still hope for more.

For Ann’s 27th birthday, we planned an entire day out to celebrate. First we were to hit the mall for Build-A-Bear, some shopping, and a cheap fast-food lunch at the food court. And second, a fun Irish bar nearby for birthday and St. Patrick’s Day drinks.

We drove to the mall together on Sunday afternoon, eager to begin our adventures. The weather was nice, our spirits were up, and we were all expectantly jazzed about what the day held for us.

Each of us was a Build-A-Bear virgin and it took a little of coaxing from the employees to move us along the bear-building process, as we were just standing there holding these limp bear bodies and looking around self-consciously. Marina chose a scruffy dog, Ann chose a fluffy lamb, I chose a black bear cub, and Christi begged out of the experience. Her reasoning was astute. She knew that if she brought home a new stuffed animal that she helped make, she’d pay more attention to it than her other stuffed animals, and in order to keep the others from growing jealous, she’d have to spend equal amounts of time with them, and frankly, she didn’t have enough individual time to spend with all her stuffed animals. We all nodded and accepted this as a reasonable excuse not to participate.

Typical of Ann, she gave her lamb a roar, which is quite funny if you don’t know her well, but fairly classic if you do. Marina had her heart on giving her dog a beefeater uniform, which they didn’t have, and I too was disappointed not to find the RCMP uniform for my bear, so we decided to get naked stuffed animals and order clothes for them online. We left feeling quite proud of our new pets and spent the rest of the afternoon doting on them.

Cheap fast-food isn’t so cheap anymore. A loaded baked potato and a drink cost me $7. What a ripoff.

The mall had little we were interested in other than the bookstore, which we attacked with vigor, all the while scolding ourselves for not ordering books through work at a discount.

There is something magical about a bookstore. Each and every tome, no matter the subject or author, seems to have a stronger gravitational pull than the exact same copy at the library. There’s just something delectable and decadent about buying a book for myself. The heft of it, the feel of the glossy cover, the smell of the ink on paper, and the illusion that this book has not touched a human hand other than my own, and it picked me as surely as every dog in a shelter would. It’s undeniable that bookstores are like whorehouses for book-lovers. I buy books and don’t even read half of them, but the privilege of being able to buy it, to own something so spectacular, so promising, it’s an irresistible draw. Bookstore books call to me like sirens, and I seldom escape without a purchase. But knowing I own that book is a tiny bit of pride. In future conversations, people will discuss this book and I will try not to sound as smug as I feel when I point out that I own this particular book before I go on to share lesser shards of information, such as my opinion of the book. Books, to me, still have regal bearing.

Whereas only 3 out of 4 of us participated in building a bear, each one of us bought a book at the bookstore. And we loved and doted on our books just as much as our bears.

By 5:00, the mall was emptying and we grew restless for our alcoholic beverages. Off to the Irish bar we went.

I was the only one of us who had been to this bar before, and though it had been many years, I had very fond memories. It had been packed with like-aged folks ordering pitchers of beer while playing darts or pool, or singing along merrily with the fellow on guitar, belting out dirty limericks from a small stage. Impossible not to have fun. Or so it seemed.

Fast forward to Sunday, many years later, and the four of us had a much different experience.

Illinois passed a law making it illegal to smoke in a public building. Now, I know many smokers are furious about it, but for non-smokers like myself, bars and restaurants are actually places I can go again, without having to leave after 45 minutes from the pollution. While this does make many places more inviting, this was not the case at our Irish bar.

It reeked of old cigarette smoke and mold. Or was that mildew? Probably both. Without the actual smoke to blame, you could feel the dinginess of the building without touching a thing. There were maybe five other visitors to the bar, all guys, all watching the television at the bar. The stage was empty, the tables were empty, the dart boards barren, and the entire place seemed to be illuminated by the sickly color of neon beer signs. All of the kitschy Irish décor plastered over almost every inch of the walls seemed less of a tribute and more of a lonely and desperate cry for remembrance. The whole bar felt dismal.

We chose a table in the back.

Picture, if you will, four young-ish librarians, fresh off of making their own stuffed animals, carrying loudly-colored gift bags for the birthday girl, excited and happy to be in one another’s company, and contrast that with the dull, dispassionate faces of middle-aged men, hunched over their beers at a sad bar on a Sunday afternoon.

We’re lucky they didn’t kick us out for being too cheery.

Before we could determine if we should go to the bar for drinks or if someone would come to us, we were greeted by the bartender who will go down in history as the most miserable bartender in the history of our bar experiences.

First impression: a 28-year-old woman trying to look like she’s 12. From the bleached blonde hair pulled tightly back in a pony tail, to the blue eye shadow and mascara, she looked like someone whose mother had died before her daughter hit puberty, and everything this girl learned about looking like a woman, she learned from the wrong sources. Her jeans were way too tight, the heels on her boots were way too high, and the fake fur stole broke its promise of lending the wearer some class. When she spoke, her very strong Eastern European accent came through, and it was a struggle to understand her. The irony was not lost, of sitting in an Irish bar, being served by a Slavic immigrant just as down-and-out as some of the folks in the photographs on the walls, who had immigrated to the US 150 years ago. We were submerged in the modern result of a lineage of broken dreams and smiles left behind in a forgotten youth in the motherland, so far away.

Ann ordered an amaretto sour, Marina a white Russian, me a Coke, and Christi asked our hostess if she could recommend something.

The woman, with eyes as cold and unblinking as a dead fish, simply said, “No.”

We all looked away uncomfortably, and Christi said, “Ooooh-kaaaaaay, I’ll just have an amaretto sour, too, then.”

The rest of the evening went on like this, with our perky selves giggling and opening presents, and a dour bartender bringing us drinks. Each visit by her brought the mood down for a bit, as we all felt the cloud of melancholy loom near us before dissipating, though not entirely, like the smoke from the cigarettes long-ago banned.

At one point Christi and Ann noticed that our gloomy bartender was joined at the bar by a woman who had to have been an older relative. Mother? Aunt? Madam? Who knows. She had the same bleached hair, bad make-up, inappropriate dress, and a look that said she had seen better days, perhaps in a past life. Yet, she had a chihuahua in her purse, which seemed almost too pleasant a thing for her to have. It was distracting. The dog did not belong.

The atmosphere of the Irish bar was enough to bring us all down a few pegs, and before we knew it, we were exhausted and ready to go home.

It wasn’t even dark outside.

We drove home and parted ways. Hopefully Ann had a good time, despite the dreariness at the end of our day together.

Perhaps we should stick to stuffed animals and books from now on.

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