Friday, December 16, 2016

The World Spins Madly On

How much activity can I fit into one Wednesday in my hometown? Let me count the ways.

By noon, I can be at the quaint Bistrot du Coin on Dupont Circle - having already waved to my former homes on N Street and on 21st Street - sipping Piper Heidsieck and slurping Mussels Marinieres oozing onions, shallots and garlic in a white wine broth delivered by our dimpled server.

"You have them, too!" she cried when I paid her a compliment about them. Takes one to know one, or else why would my companion have missed them entirely?

After lapping up the last of my chocolate mousse, we walk down the sidewalk, past two neatly-dressed, suburban-looking, high-school age guys. When one stops in front of Bethesda Bagel (a lame name for so many reasons) and points at it hopefully, the others dashes his hopes, saying, "Dude, we have bagels all the time!"

They trudge on, presumably in search of new experiences.

By 1:30, I can be at the Phillips Collection to see "People on the Movie: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series," where we are among a too-small group of gallery-goers, as if it weren't a huge deal that the 60 panels (normally divided equally between MoMA and the Phillips) are all together in one place for a change.

Lawrence's paintings are masterful storyboards depicting history. Each panel displays a different aspect of the mass movement of southern blacks to northern industrial jobs and fresh new forms of discrimination.

At home, a wooden wall extended all the way to the bar to divide a juke joint's black and white patrons, while up north, it was a rope strung through the center of the room that accomplished the same.

Early on, hope radiates from all their faces. Panels of blacks leaving the rural south show masses of smiling, hatted figures next to luggage, while later ones show tenement buildings and manual laborers.

So much for the American dream.

Lawrence's show segued seamlessly into Whitfield Lovell's "The Kin Series," in which the artist had drawn beautiful black faces on worn pieces of wood flooring, doors and walls, and then attached some well-worn object - a knife, a silver canteen, chains, a scarred leather satchel - to the piece.

Lovell, I read, sometimes took months to find exactly the right object to affix to the portrait he'd created.

The vividness of the people depicted, along with the thoughtfully-chosen objects would have been more than enough to draw me into the exhibit, but there was an even bigger surprise awaiting me.

"Restoreth" was a large piece (probably a door originally) depicting a dignified older black woman with a shelf of 33 variously sized bottles - Herbex, an Old Granddad whiskey miniature, a beef, iron and wine tonic - attached at the bottom and forming a separation between her and the viewer.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that it was an attempt by the artist to bridge the abyss between the slavery era and the height of booming black entrepreneurship in Jackson Ward. That's right, Jackson Ward, RVA.

I'd traveled two hours to see a brilliant piece of art that was a tribute to the neighborhood I've called home for the past decade. Mind blown.

In another gallery, one wall featured stacks of three dozen or so small portable radios, the kind from the '40s and '50s, many wood, some plastic in colors of aqua, red or white, with old-timey music emanating from behind them. In another room was a 1941 album entitled, "Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues."

Ouch. There's the understatement of the past 150 years.

Before we left, we meandered through the music room with its cherry-picked selection of exquisite Impressionistic and Cubist paintings, the grand piano covered and closed. And since I consider it a requirement while at the Phillips, I made sure to be one of the eight people allowed in the Rothko Room before heading outside.

By 4:30, we were looking for a place to have a drink in Shaw, only to be defeated at every turn.

Each place we considered trying  - Beau Thai (clever, right?), even Dacha Beer Garden - or hopefully stuck our heads into - wine bar La Jambe, cocktail mecca the Passenger- didn't open until 5 or was closed up tight.

Thank you, Chaplin's, for being the kind of place (a Japanese restaurant set in the 1920s silent film era, hence the Chaplin mural on the wall) that opens after lunch hours as soon as the first customer wants a drink.

I have to say that a hip 'hood like Shaw is the last place I thought it might be tough to find day drinking spots, but there you have it.

By 5:40, we were at Convivial to meet our dinner group, taking in the subdued palette and twinkling lights up front as we were led to our banquette in the back, facing a  horizontal mirror gussied up with Christmas bows of all colors, patterns and sizes.

Among the menus placed on the table was a smaller sheet, a "food lexicon," the better to help navigate the menu with explanations of terms such as "tartiflette" and "poutargue."

Let me be the first to admit that I love eating almost as much as learning.

The beauty of being a party of five was how much of the menu we managed to cover over the next few hours, although I did ask our waiter for a "non-eating period" after the first two courses, just so everyone could make a little room.

Unlikely and to die for, escargots in a blanket were gobbled up toute suite, while latkes with celery root and dry cured lamb easily qualified as the best latkes of my life ("At the end, it's like the best tater tot you ever had," a potato enthusiast noted). Brandade croquettes and tartiflette fritters satisfied fried needs.

One of the finest scores of the evening was French-smoked herring with warm potato salad, a dish satisfying on multiple levels.

The cauliflower hater at the table embraced the hated veggie with a cauliflower panna cotta under tabbouleh, almonds, grapefruit and a salad of fresh herbs that had to have been picked earlier in the day given the brightness of their flavors.

The only reason pickled rockfish with green papaya, avocado, passionfruit and watermelon radishes didn't get more oohs and ahs was because of how fabulous everything so far had been and that the more petite among us were already approaching fullness.

Multiple paper envelopes of herby pretzel-like bread may have also played a role.

During the non-eating period I'd requested, gifts of all variety were opened, from musical toilet seats to three figure pepper grinders to smart-ass t-shirts.

But you can only delay main courses for so long and eventually, we had to take up forks again for braised lamb osso bucco, fried chicken coq au vin, grilled daurade with sauteed squid and, for two of us - one of whom who'd never had it - skate wing over octopus and crab bisque, a decadent dish that made him the skate wing lover I already was.

By 8:00, we were looking at a dessert menu, although I was one of only two who showed any interest. He opted for apple bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel, but I went all the way, ordering the celebration cake with chocolate and hazelnut dacquoise.

"That comes with sparklers, unless you don't want them," our very hip-looking server told me, leaning down to give me fair warning. Ah, that would be the "celebration" part.

No, I want them, I told him.

The multi-layered cake came out with a silver tube embedded in it, which he then lighted as we watched the equivalent of  3 or 4 sparklers burning like a firework centerpiece while the people at the next table looked on.

"Should we be singing happy birthday?" they asked. Nope, just celebrating a Wednesday in December, no need to sing anything, thanks.

When our server came to check on our progress, we inquired about the fireworks (somebody compared it to a bottle rocket) and he explained that it did require a "sturdy" cake to make it fire-safe. As far as I could tell, sturdy meant deep (three layers) and with a thick ganache on top to cement it in place.

Since it wasn't possible to top fireworks for dessert (although gifting a gardener with caulk came close), we said our goodnights and scattered to the winds.

By shortly after 9, we were at the State Theater to see the Weepies doing an all acoustic show, only we'd missed the first half hour, a shame given how gorgeous the married couple's music and harmonies are.

For that matter, so is their devotion to each other, which came through in most of their between-song banter.

We walked in to a full house crowd just as husband Steve was sharing his surprise to have discovered that one of their songs had gotten 3.2 million listens on Spotify's end of the year list.

"My theory is that it's one guy," Steve joked. "Or maybe the entire military. I don't think that are even that many people in Sweden."

The strength of the show was that it was just two people, each with an acoustic guitar and a gorgeous voice, sitting onstage telling stories and singing songs because the devoted crowd required nothing more.

Many sang along to every word on songs like "Be My Thrill." Yes, would you, please?

"I wrote this song and then Deb rewrote it," Steve said about a song originally intended as an angry song until his wife turned it into a love song. "It's way better now."

Having come to the show with only a limited amount of Weepies listening to my credit, I could have listened to anything they'd been willing to sing for as long as they were willing.

Far too quickly for late arrivals, the show ended, but the audience insisted on one last song after their final goodbye and onstage hug, so they returned and the room issued a collective sigh when they started on "Painting by Chagall."

And everybody says, "You can't, you can't, you can't, don't try"
Still, everybody says that if they had the chance, they'd fly 
Like we do
Sometimes rain that's needed falls
We float like two lovers in a painting by Chagall

What self-respecting woman wouldn't swoon over a man writing her lyrics like that? Some of us are grateful just to hear them.

By 10:30, I'd done everything I needed to do in my hometown in one day.

Dude, I don't get to do that all the time.

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