I went to see my first exhibit of Cuban photographs last night and then Fidel Castro died.
The show by Joe Ring at Artworks, "Cuban Chrome," focused on the colorful old cars from the pre-Revolution era (and now used as cabs), set against backdrops of the island's magnificent architecture, stormy skies and crashing surf.
For me, the appeal of the photographs was color, namely the serendipitous way a yellow car parked in front of a yellow building, or the scattered touches of aqua in an alley scene that popped between buildings, people and cars.
But for the guy with me, an appealing palette was insufficient and he was curious yellow. As he leaned in close for examination, he wanted to know how much post-production work had been done to the photographs to achieve what we were ogling.
Fortunately, the photographer overheard him and was gracious enough to point out specific areas he'd enhanced as well as those that were untouched, despite their hyper-colorful nature and brilliant reflection of light. His strongest point was how similar what he does digitally to photos now is to what he used to do to them in the darkroom during the finessing process.
The good news was my companion was more than satisfied once his curiosity had been satisfied by the artist. As we left, he was already declaring that the mustard-colored T-bird close-up was his hands-down favorite, which only proves that you can lead a man to art and, with any luck, he'll not only drink it in but thank you for steering him there.
I had more new experiences in store for him because he'd never been to Laura Lee's just down the road, and although I had, there was a new (yet very familiar) chef in place since my last visit, making it feel somewhat new for me as well.
Installed at the corner of the bar, I knew I'd chosen the right place when the first song we heard was "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" from 1972's "Honky Chateau" and a bottle of Mont Grave Rose soon followed.
Before long, a favorite chef and his date came in for dinner and the bartender got busy right away concocting a drink named for the chef's habit of singing loudly in the kitchen, and always replacing the word "girl" in songs with "squirrel."
Hence the cocktail that was forming in front of us: the Uptown Squirrel.
I'm gonna try for an uptown squirrel
She's been living in her white bread world...
On the other side of me at the bar was one of my favorite actors from the Comedy Coalition, notable because she inadvertently changed the trajectory of our meal when her heaping plate of fried shrimp arrived. The lightly-battered shrimp, a special, smelled divine and looked even better, so we pulled a Meg Ryan.
We'll have what she's having.
For my companion, it was a stroll down Memory Lane, reminding him of the fabulous fried shrimp he used to get at a seafood place in Lynnhaven called Steinhilber's and never seen successfully replicated anywhere else.
I'd managed to stir up fond memories for him without even intending to do so.
For good measure, we also got an equally large mound of fried oysters and a charcuterie plate, notable for the unlikely inclusion of southern staple hushpuppies (score!) alongside three kinds of meats including speck, prosciutto and a fabulous orange fennel ham, with a schmear of grainy mustard and everything from pickled okra and carrots to thickly-sliced housemade bread and butter pickles on the side.
By then, the music had changed to the Zombies (with several Colin Blunstone solo cuts thrown in for good measure) and, like the Elton John, we were hearing multiple songs. Turns out it's Laura Lee's standard operating procedure to play whole albums and not just songs, a practice preferable for those of us weaned on entire records and not singles.
There was no way I was passing up salted German chocolate cake while he was seduced by the Key lime tart with vanilla bean gelato, and you could've stuck a fork in us because we were so done by then, at least with eating.
Yet the night was still young.
Eager to show off some of the record finds I'd lifted from my Dad's collection, we made a bee line for the turntable to investigate the comedic talents of Brother Dave Gardner, a "beat" comedian in the vein of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, except a Southern boy, one-time seminary student, but also a jazz drummer and occasional lounge singer.
Let's just say that on every album cover, he's got a cigarette in his hand, Rat Pack-style and there was a fair amount of cigarette humor. His southern accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Apparently he'd been big on college campuses in the late '50s and early '60s and Dad had given me four of his albums for consideration. Our goal was trying to listen to them in the context of the time for maximum effect.
Brother Dave delivered in spades on the 1961 album, "Ain't That Weird," saying, "We don't care if Kennedy's spending all our money because Johnson'll get it all back!"
The nightclub crowd howled.
He did a dated bit on politics - "I was from the South, so I was a Democrat. Then I learned how to read..." - and mocked JFK's pronunciation of Cuba as "Cu-ber" before referring to "this cat, Kruschev" as casually as if they were drinking buds.
But beneath his hep cat lingo was a sharp-eyed, quick-witted Southern boy who made observations like, "The Beats are seeking poverty to learn from it," a pretty profound statement if you think about it. And we did.
Because you can lead a man to your records, but you have to reach a certain point in the evening before thinking turns into deep discussion.
Meanwhile, I'm seeking to learn from it all.