Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Run Over by a Bus

Not to start out too deep, but life is all about timing.

There have been certain instances in my life when I knew that a good thing was happening to me, but it wasn't the right time to accept it. Other times, I feel like my arms were wide open to whatever life handed me, but nothing appropriate came into them.

The biggest lesson of my life happened when I was 28 and it taught me that I have absolutely no control over what awful things could be dropped in my lap.

It was also a gift that convinced me that I'd had my lowest point and nothing could ever destroy me like that again. Of course, I was wrong.

These days, I'm really quite happy with my life, simple as it is. I feel lucky to have the people I do in my life and fortunate to still get so much pleasure out of what I do.

Would I change a few things if I could? No doubt. Am I complaining about where I am? Not a chance.

Tonight's adventure began at Graffiato's early, meaning when I walked in, it was uncrowded enough that I could actually hear the music (Goo Goo Dolls, Tom Petty, Bowie) and there were plenty of bar stools available for dinner. At that point the staff outnumbered the guests three to one and I saw more than one restaurant owner was in attendance.

Taking advantage of happy hour, Montelvini Prosecco on tap was procured, followed by a plate of cheeses- Grayson and Bianco Sardo- and meat -finocchiona, a fennel Tuscan salami, served on slate with all the usual suspects.

Pickled veggies, you are as ubiquitous as tattoos in this town.

Conversation was more focused than usual, defining, designating, qualifying and planning for a project that has its seeds in a decade-old idea.

Finally, it's time to walk the walk.

As customers - the kind who like to sit at tables and not the bar - began to arrive and with plans for a movie, we moved on to entrees: satisfying gnocchi with pork ragu and whipped ricotta followed by rich, meaty monkfish with farro and gremolata.

I'm getting used to the showmanship of the food runners who not only bring the plates but deliver a detailed explanation of what you're getting along with a spoon, whether you need it or not (um, a spoon for a meat and cheese board?).

Easy as it would have been to linger for more Prosecco, we had a movie to catch at the Westhampton, "Love is Strange" with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

Having just last month seen Lithgow in "The World According to Garp," although he was 38 in that and he was 69 (and playing a 79-year old) in tonight's film, it was fascinating to see a more recent representation of his superb acting skills.

The story of two gay men who have been together for 39 years was sweet, romantic and a reminder that marriage can still get a gay person let go from a church-related job. Is this not 2014?

Most of the film revolved around them having to temporarily bunk with relatives after they sell their apartment when one partner loses his job.

The story sails along with family interruptions, comic moments and couple tenderness when the two can be alone and then suddenly there's a huge surprise that I never saw coming. It's sad and surprising/not surprising at the same time.

Is anyone ever truly ready for whatever life hands them? Of course not. We adapt, adjust and regroup, we're mended at the places that broke but we're also changed for good.

Sometimes there's still time to move on changed, but not always. Who doesn't remember what our mothers told us about life being fair?

So after an exquisitely acted film, the only logical thing to do was stop for a nightcap and discuss the film, the bartender's path in life and chat with the woman who, when "Sweet Caroline" came on, told me she's been known to dance in the window of the bar when it plays.

After her jukebox picks ended, I insisted on making some of my own selections, to which she retorted, "I'll tell you if I don't like them." No doubt.

With her in mind, I went old school - Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Jackson Browne, Al Green- and she didn't badmouth a single one. That said, she was also outside smoking cigarettes much of the time.

When "Cracklin' Rosie" came on, she exploded with happiness singing along and when her man finally dragged her out, she again reminded me to come back when she's drunk so I can see her dancing in the front window.

Since it's hard to say when that might be, I stand a good chance of never seeing her dance in the window, much as I might want to. Timing.

Then again, life could surprise me with something so much better I'll forget all about her. Lucky timing.

For better or for worse, always the optimist.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Houseguests and Fish

I've become a cottage groupie.

For the third time since August began, my favorite boyfriend and I headed the car east to visit the happy couple who live in the most charming cottage on the northern neck. Despite warning them that their effusive hospitality was going to result in me saying yes every chance I could, they keep rolling out the welcome mat.

"Who wants to go out in the boat?" our handsome host asked seconds after arriving not long after noon. Pointing at me, he grinned, "I know you do."

I've known the man less than two months and he's already on to me.

Meanwhile, our hostess, my girlfriend, was crackling with enthusiasm; she'd just read an article about oyster gardening and was jazzed to take it up. When I asked her who'd written the piece, she pulled out the magazine, checked and whooped in surprise. "I didn't even notice your name!"

Sometimes in life, you have to point out your own byline. What thrilled me was that my article had done exactly what I'd set out to do - encourage anyone on the northern neck with a dock to take up oyster gardening.

So, sure, I was pretty proud of myself. And hungry, too.

We began with the quintessential river meal: crabs cracked and eaten on a picnic table overlooking the river while the man of the house prepared the boat for takeoff. You see, he's not a fan of cracking crabs (like so many men who find it far too much work for the amount of meat), so his adored wife cracks for him, leaving a pile of backfin meat for him to enjoy.

After gorging, we washed the Old Bay off of our hands and took off in the boat, a bottle of champagne in hand, our skipper abstaining as always.

We moseyed up toward Irvington and gawked at the pricey boats in front of the Tides Inn, bantered about the difference between true cottages and river McMansions and saw sailboats of all sizes breezing along.

Returning to the shore mainly because their dog Jake seemed eager to relieve himself, we took time to snack on the deck, scarfing black bean, corn, onion and avocado salsa our smiling hostess had made. It's a personal favorite, something I could eat almost daily and still look forward to.

Not that she knew that. Is it any wonder I'm such a fan of hers?

When we'd arrived, I'd seen a piece of paper on the dining room table that said "lumbago." Curious, I'd asked about it and our host, as much a language geek as I am, said he'd written it down because it's one of those worlds that has fallen out of use and he wanted to remember it.

He's right, of course, these days people complain of lower back pain but no one (except maybe octogenarians) refers to it as lumbago anymore.

Similarly, he was talking about a trial he'd attended where one of the attorneys had used the word "swale," another underused word that had captured his attention. Later he referred to me as a gadabout. How can I not get a kick out of a man who delights in obscure words?

Soon we left wordsmithing behind and took off again, the menfolk in the back and we girls planted on the bow of the boat, pink polka dot beach towels draped over our legs, laughing and talking the whole way. Most hysterical thing to come out of her mouth (and there were many because she's a funny woman)? "If I recall correctly, I threw up on the dog."

This time, we boated up the eastern branch of the Corrotoman to deep water areas where huge sailboats and yachts were anchored and moored.

One of the most interesting homes we saw was not up on a bluff like most of the houses around, but down near the waterline, so close we worried that the wake from the boat was going to send the river lapping at their front door.

You have to admire those who choose to live dangerously, no?

Heading back, the sun was dropping lower in the sky and everyone had an appetite. My mother has always said that children eat and sleep better near water than anywhere else and apparently it's true for adults, too.

Steak and steelhead trout were expertly grilled outside while the womenfolk made an elaborate salad (spinach, strawberries, glazed nuts, bacon, raspberry vinaigrette, oh, my!) and set the table inside to avoid the mosquitoes that had recently taken up residence on the deck.

Full as ticks, we spent the evening listening to music, talking about Grace Street in the old days, reminiscing about past dogs and wishing our hostess did not have to drive back to Richmond. But duty called.

For the second time, I got to spend the night on the bed that sits on the porch of their guest house, a bedroom with a ceiling fan, three screened walls surrounded by trees and the sounds of nature for a lullabye.

It's about the most perfect place to sleep you could imagine.

Our morning plans to boat to Urbanna and have lunch were canned once we looked at the weather and saw the massive front of rain approaching.

Making lemonade out of lemons, we came up with Plan B, even though it meant leaving the charming, little cottage: a visit to nearby Menokin to see its historical ruins, walk its trails and see Cat Point Creek on which it sits.

It's not as random as it sounds. In 2012, I'd heard a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about Menokin and the efforts to restore it. Just last January, I'd seen an exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture of design plans envisioned by Harvard Graduate School of Design students.

So my curiosity about the real thing had been piqued twice and I'm lucky enough to have an accommodating man to investigate with me.

The heavy gray skies and impending rain were a dramatic backdrop as we pulled up to the 500-acre estate (back in original owner and Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee's day, it had been 1,000 acres) for a look around.

A short film told us additional history, but I was more impressed with the room full of architectural features removed from the house back in the '60s and destined to be returned once the ruins are enclosed with glass walls.

Closet doors, mantel pieces, the front door keystone and many other significant elements of the original house had been presciently stored away in a peanut barn at Bacon's Castle a half century ago and await return to their home.

The ruins are striking because when the roof eventually collapsed, it left standing two corner sections of wall diagonally across from each other and two massive chimneys, in addition to various other bits of walls and cellar, now all somewhat protected under a large shed.

Just so you know, there is nothing cottage-like about this place. It was a big house for an important man.

The once-terraced gardens that sloped gradually down to Cat Point Creek are now overgrown with trees blocking the view, but restoration of the grounds will come in phase two of the project after the house is redone.

Never one to pass up a good water view, we took the trail down through the woods past walnut trees (the ground under them a minefield of green nuts), dogwoods, American beeches, dark cherry trees and tulip poplars until reaching the creek, serene and silver on a day like this.

Old Lightfoot Lee and the wife would have had a marvelous waterfront view back in the 18th century.

Today it was all ours.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Tonight turned out nothing like I expected it to.

I watched one of my moon flowers open.

There was the unexpected invitation to a friend's house where we shared a bottle of Corail Rose and discussed feminism, anacondas and mens (plural intended).

Best of all, she shared with me egg rolls and cheese smuggled in from Bermuda.

I was sprayed with perfume for what was perhaps the first time in decades. Mmm, I smell like a girl.

On the way to our next stop, she observed, "You know, we're not going to meet anyone who knows what Rose is."

Point taken. I drank 1800 and she had Ketel 1 on the rocks. The female bartenders glared at us both.

Of the first two gents who tried to be friendly, from Chester and Hopewell respectively, one was wearing a t-shirt that read, "Don't Bro me 'till you know me."

The other one had the audacity to put his tongue on my friend's hand, causing her to warn him, "Don't lick me like you know me."

It was the first time I ever slow danced with a girl. It's better than you might think.

Best compliment of the evening: a man walked up to me and said, "I had to talk to you because you have the beautiful hair."

Why is it the wrong mens always say the right things?

So that you know, my plan tonight was to watch "Grease" outside at Quirk Gallery.

For the record, I definitely qualify as a beauty school dropout.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Le Petit Mort au Diner

Truth is, I'd planned to stay in tonight.

Sure, sure, whatever, Karen, I can hear the derisive laughter now. As if.

But here's the thing: I have five deadlines this weekend and at the last minute, I was informed that one of my subjects would not be available for me to interview after all.

Not the news I wanted to hear, just when I was down to my next to last piece.

So I (albeit briefly) considered staying home, working so there would be less to do tomorrow.

But then a friend suggested dinner on his dime and I thought, what the heck, a few hours eating isn't going to make much difference.

It's not like staying home would ensure that the publicist puts me in touch with the musician I need.

Looking at it that way, it only made sense to go to dinner.

Friend asked where and I suggested L'Opossum. Although he can be hard to please, I had a feeling it would be right up his alley.

As it turned out, the music wasn't, although I was drawn to its quirkiness.

Liberace, Tom Jones, Bobbi Gentry (twice!) and "Little Green Apples," a corny song I haven't heard in decades.

Arriving first, I took a stool at the end of the bar near an available stool for my tardy friend, where I was offered a taste of their new pink, the well-balanced Domaine Bellevue Touraine Rose.

The genial bartender introduced me to a guy deep into his crabcakes, leading to a little music talk, a little discussion of Buddhism (never refuse free food), and a lot of praise for the dish he'd just inhaled.

A photographer I know spotted me and we caught up on what she'd been up to, including a summer photography retreat at a Mississippi mansion complete with wandering armadillos and plenty of brown liquor drinking.

Frankly, I see both as conducive to the creatively-inspired taking of pictures.

My friend showed up full of apologies for his delayed entrance, no big deal since I can amuse myself.

It was his first visit, so he began by assessing the wine list, impressed with not only the bottle choices but the price points.

Once he made it to the food menu, he was flummoxed, unsure which of several tantalizing options to go for.

We began with Chapel Creek oysters rock over watercress, misted with a green fairy fog (my beloved absinthe) right before our eyes, resulting in some of the most exquisite oysters Rockefeller I've ever tasted.

With a nod to the VMFA, Faberge eggs bedazzled with caviar and vodka-laced accoutrements including pale pink gelatinous "les jiggles de la Champagne Rose."

We got into a discussion with a bar sitter and our barkeep about cars, including the "artist series" of BMWs, something I'd never even heard of.

But my friend had and the other guy had actually seen a Warhol BMW (supposedly took him 27 minutes to do) at a museum , so they got going great guns on this.

It was a fitting tie-in to the Warhol- designed pattern that festoons the bar and table tops in the restaurant.

That led to talk about cop magnets (Porsches, red cars, high end black BMWs), getting pulled over and suspended licenses, again not my forte.

But eating is, so I couldn't have been happier when my whole fried baby chicken on mashed potato waffles showed up with pan gravy, kale and pickled okra.

Crispy golden brown, I went for the drumsticks first before turning my attention to the perfectly cooked kale but the most striking part of the dish looked like two little red balls.

They turned out to be Fireball butter, knobs of spicy butter to slather on my waffle and swoon over.

When I offered my friend some pickled okra, he hesitated, remembering his mother's pickled okra full of red pepper and left to sit for a year until it was unpleasant to eat.

This okra, he had to admit, was a horse of a different color, piquant and still responding with snap when bitten into. Southern perfection.

He'd chosen bunny, as he put it, - "Madame Dot du Powhatan's cider-braised rabbit peppered with gingersnap spaetzle and schadenfreude" - the latter one of many clever word plays ("uninhibited mushroom broth") on a menu where alliteration reigns supreme.

Have I mentioned how much I like literate restaurant owners who use their menus to convey more than just the kitchen's offerings, using language to engage and entertain and not just inform?

Just so you know.

Since it had been ages since my friend and I had gotten together, a goodly part of the meal was spent catching up.

Since he's read all of her books, I knew he'd want to hear about my evening listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin and he did.

That reminded him that he wanted to find a good biography of Woodrow Wilson and then a multi-volume series on WWI, an era he feels he is not well enough informed on.

I, on the other hand, accept that I am ill-informed on plenty of things and read what I choose, which probably makes him a better person than me.

When neither of us was able to finish our entrees, he explained that he wouldn't be able to take his leftovers home because he had no room in his refrigerator.

After cataloging what was in there (including a lot of bread: croissants, bialies, baguettes, sandwich bread, pizza) he reconsidered and got a box for the rest of his rabbit but chose to leave the schadenfreude behind.

Language geek humor there.

Both stuffed, we did the only logical thing and got dessert: caramel-glazed figs in a refreshing elixir of watermelon, plums, sake and lime.

I'm passionate about figs and these had sugar fired on top but just as wonderful was that elixir, which we spooned up greedily and would have happily eaten as a soup if it had been delivered as such.

That only whet our appetites for our second dessert, a chocolate pate seductively named "le petite mort au chocolat" (and yes, I know what that means) set aflame by our bartender.

Who, by the way, caused me to turn pea-green with envy when he told me that he'd been given a free ticket to see Bryan Ferry in Washington next week.

I wanted to put my head down on the bar and weep in jealousy but it would have been unseemly.

What I will do is go back and get a blow by blow report from him on the show, not that it will assuage my loss any, but at least it's something.

By that point, Friend was raving about what an outstanding meal it had been but we were also balancing precariously on the edge of a food coma, so we decided to cede our stools to latecomers and go our separate ways.

After all, I had "work" to do.

But you better believe there's Bryan Ferry playing in the background as I do it.

Keep the Gloves On

You can imagine how well I fit in in a room full of banking types. At the Jefferson, no less.

Not that it mattered because a friend had invited me to be his stand-in date (his beloved was working) for an evening with Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Yes, that Doris, the one who wrote "Team of Rivals" on which "Lincoln" was based.

So many Dorises this week.

My friend suggested we arrive fashionably late to the cocktail reception, making us the exception since the banking revelry was in full swing as we descended the grand staircase to the rotunda.

First came name tags (magnetic, of course, so as not to have to put a pin through anyone's expensive ensemble) and seating cards so we'd know which table would welcome us upstairs.

Everywhere were dark suits with drinks in hand, a sea of navy and black broken up only by their accompanying female guests.

Before we could even order a drink, a functionary informed us that we could stand in line to have our photograph taken with Doris.

We opted out of that nonsense, scored glasses of Barboursville Pinot Grigio and found a place to stand and chat.

I'm 99% positive that Doris has no interest in having her picture taken with me.

Once we roosted, some sort of invisible bat signal went up to the roving waitstaff who immediately zeroed in on us to offer bite-sized hors d'oeuvres.

A fat little crabcake. Tomato bisque with a sliver of grilled cheese. Ham biscuits. Corned beef roll-ups.

The roll ups caused some consternation because they came mounted on little metal stands shaped like an inverted "V" and nobody was quite sure how the food was attached.

No fear here, so I took one, bit the meat off and went to return the stand to her tray.

"Don't you put that there!" the server barked before remembering herself. "Oh, I'm sorry, miss, that was rude," and scuttled away.

I put my metal stand on a nearby table.

A man came over to chat with us, sharing that Doris had been taken in a limo up to St. John's church today to see it and hear some of the Patrick Henry re-enactment. When she climbed out of the car, a cluster of tourists immediately recognized her.

Call me a historical nit-wit, but I wouldn't have recognized Doris from Adam on the street. Okay, from Eve.

Not long afterwards, a man appeared on the grand staircase and began ringing a bell like the town crier. Apparently it was time to withdraw to the grand ballroom for dinner.

"This is the cattle call part," my date whispered, leaning down as the slow-moving crowd began the trip upstairs, not everyone happy to leave the open bar behind.

The first to arrive at our table, we took the best seats facing the stage and subsequently met the remainder of the table's occupants as they arrived.

Up there, our libation choices had been reduced to a couple of Californians, Stag's Leap "Karia" Chardonnay and Belle Glos "Meiomi" Pinot Noir.

Two of the men had dates who looked decades younger than them, but it wasn't our place to judge (although we did discuss the disparities once we left), so instead we left the conversational ball in their court.

You know what everyone wanted to talk about? Richmond restaurants. Even without any prodding, this is a town obsessed with food.

Speaking of, our mesclun greens with pears, Feta, candied walnuts and sesame pomegranate dressing were already waiting for us, so once we had a quorum, I dove in.

Polishing off my greens, I looked around to see that most people had taken only a token bite or two before pushing their plate away.

But the real issues came with the meat course.

At our table we had one gluten-intolerant and one vegetarian, meaning they had to have special plates brought to them while the rest of us just wanted to dig into our beef tenderloin, pumpkin-encrusted salmon, sweet potato dauphinoise and petite squash and asparagus.

The eating world used to be such a simpler place.

Over that course, people started conversing across the table, one guy talking about his move to Vistas on the James after his sons left for college, another about his 18 grandchildren.

I was asked by a man if I was a native (no) and a woman told me I looked familiar. "Are you famous?" she inquired (no).

"You have great dimples," another man said, always one of my favorite compliments.

Dessert was a trio of miniatures: bourbon chocolate pecan pie, red velvet opera torte and Jefferson banana pudding (which apparently meant whipped), my date's favorite because it reminded him of the banana pudding his mother had made for him as a child.

Finally it was time for the woman who needed no introduction, not because she won a Pulitzer prize, not because she wrote the book that got a movie filmed here but because (drum roll)...

She was the first female to enter the locker room at Fenway Park.

So, yes, there was baseball talk (never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn but eventually became a Red Sox fan when she moved to Boston), mainly about how her father had her listen to the game and take notes so she could report it back to him play by play, thus planting the seed for her love of retelling history.

Her talk was focused on lessons learned by three Presidents, coincidentally three that she's written mega-selling books about.

Beginning by saying it was good to be back at the Jefferson after a half dozen previous times, she said, "It's probably the most graceful hotel in the country."

Recalling her time with a White House fellowship under LBJ and the many conversations they had then and later when she helped him write his memoirs, she said he was a great storyteller and she turned out to be  great listener, only later realizing that not all his stories were based in truth.

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Explaining that the best presidents had traits in common, she went on to illustrate those traits using Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR as examples.

Because of his humble beginnings and his mother dying, Abe wanted to do things that would make him live on to future generations.

Teddy's life-threatening asthma motivated him to become a mega-athlete who could ride a horse for 50 miles a day or walk 20 miles.

FDR's polio-induced paralysis made him expand his mind, reaching out to other people and empathizing with the poor and underprivileged.

Talking about how brilliant Abe was to put his top three rivals in his cabinet, she quoted LBJ on the subject.

"Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." Don't know about you, but a man who can turn a phrase like that and has beagles is my kind of man.

There was a terrific story about the first black motorman hired for Philly's mass transit system. When he showed up for work, transit was at a standstill because no (white) drivers had shown up as a way of protesting his hiring.

FDR had letters sent to all the men telling them that if they didn't show up for work, they would be considered non-essential to the city and drafted immediately.

Guess who all returned to work the next day?

She told how on the morning Abe was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his hand was tired and sore from shaking 1,000 hands that day.

Rather than sign the important document in a shaky hand, he waited, aware that posterity would see his shakiness as tentativeness.

For stress relief, FDR instituted nightly cocktail hours where war was not to be discussed.

The soirees became so popular, people moved into the White House ("the most exclusive residential hotel," Doris called it) for weeks, months and years to make it more convenient to attend them.

Teddy just made people go on walks through Rock Creek Park with him, insisting on a point to point walk. Ergo, if they came upon a rock, they had to go over it.

Once when he and a French diplomat came to a stream, the man was sure they'd turn back.

Instead, Teddy insisted they strip down so as not to get their clothes wet crossing.

The Frenchman insisted on keeping on his violet kid gloves, "In case we run into any ladies."

Put that kind of thing in the history books and kids will be a whole lot more interested, I'd wager.

During the Q & A, Doris made the point that partisanship has gotten worse because the members of Congress didn't always leave town every weekend as they do now.

According to her, because they stayed in Washington more, they had more chances to socialize, play poker and drink with fellow House and Senate members week in and week out, making it easier to forge alliances when necessary for voting issues.

While her lecture had the sing-song quality of an oft-repeated one, her stories were compelling and the obscure stuff she dug up in old journals and letters was wonderful to hear about.

Abe was a card. Eleanor liked to argue. Teddy could laugh at himself.

As if food, wine, compliments and the past weren't enough for one night, everyone got a goody bag with an autographed copy of Doris' latest book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism" on the way out.

Moral of the story: Better to have bankers giving you books than pissing in your tent.

Even so, I think they figured out I wasn't one of them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mad About Good Books, Can't Get My Fill

I'd like to make a public service announcement. It's not winter.

Walking around today, I saw people in bulky jackets, scarves and hats. It was 65. Granted, drizzly, but 65 degrees.

When it's 65 in April, folks in these parts are sporting shorts and sundresses. Today suddenly, it's bundle up time.

Perhaps there's a chance it was a reaction, not to the temperature, but to the long-absent rain that fell all afternoon.

I know because I drove to the northern neck to spend the afternoon talking to a couple of award-winning sisters, the rain steady from the moment I left home and all the way to the Rapphannock and back.

While hearing one delicious story after another, one sister said that she didn't have any men in her life because she didn't want anyone telling her what she couldn't do.

Seems the David Letterman show had invited her on and when they called to confirm, she wasn't home and her fiance told them she wouldn't be able to come.

You hold something like that against all mankind, it seems.

So it was I spent a fascinating afternoon with the two of them, hearing 60 years worth of stories, with a whole lot of testifying and "uh-huh-ing" going on all the while.

We had a ball.

Back in the city, I found rushing water so deep in the curb along my street that I needed to shed my shoes before exiting the car.

I showered while it was showering outside, got dressed while it rained on and drove to meet a favorite couple at Pomegranate under a steady drizzle.

Not ashamed to say I like days like this. I can even do a stretch of them, just not daily.

But driving from J-Ward to Carytown, it was hard to miss how empty places were, even for notoriously slow September.

It's only rain, after all, and a mild, soft humid night at that.

Unless you're the Wicked Witch of the West, I think you're okay.

Because the only other occupants were taking up half the bar, we wound up right in front of the screen, so I just swiveled to look out the big front window and watch the rain and car lights make patterns on the shiny streets.

What screen?

This was not a random get-togetherbut a posthumous celebration of my friend's Aunt Doris, who would have been 95. In tribute to Doris, she'd had two martinis by 7.

I believe that's how the Doris tradition is kept alive, a nod to all the great adventures, drinking and otherwise, she'd had with Doris over the years.

Waiting for our food over Jean-Luc Columbo Viognier (with one abstaining for a cocktail), we toasted Doris and allowed our ears to wander with whatever Great American Songbook Pandora station they'd chosen.

Apparently it was just the kind of music Doris loved.

Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gershwin.

I like New York in June, how about you?
I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?
I love a fireside when a storm is due
I like potato chips, moonlight, motor trips, how about you?

A far cry from last night's thrash at 821.Variety, spice of life and all that.

I'd chosen mussels and frites in a tomato basil broth, getting such a plentiful serving of mussels (and a mound of flaccid fries) that I left little room for bread sopping of what was a perfectly delicious broth, hunks of cooked tomato throughout.

My friends told me about having seen violinist Joshua Bell with the symphony Saturday evening followed by a discussion of Bell's performance next week at the Union Station Metro.

It'll be interesting to hear how differently people react to him playing than they did when he first tried it in 2007 and only a handful paid him any mind.

We talked about how much my friend dislikes listening to WCVE's jazz show with Peter Solomon and having the musical vibe broken hourly with jarring news.

In his opinion, they should hold the news until after jazz ends. First world problem.

Sharing notes on each other's full moon-like experiences last Friday, they told me about finding a girl passed out on a neighbor's lawn and I shared how I'd seen a girl go from vertical on a corner to crumpled on the curb in less than five seconds.

Rein it in, kids. Life's a marathon, not a sprint.

They both smacked their lips over their dishes - his enormous and vaguely obscene pig and bacon sausage over spaetzel and apples, her steak frites made with culotte steak, a lean cut I like for its toothsome meatiness and she did, too - and we agreed on Espolon for dessert.

My friend whined that his high school reunion had been scheduled for opening night of the Folk Fest. He's not pleased.

I heard about a new exhibit at UR showing the development of the Westhampton area from amusement park to university, just the geeky kind of thing I'd love to see.

My aunt Faye went to UR back in the '60s and never quite accepted the merging of the men's and women's campuses, despite being extremely liberal and forward-thinking. I think it had more to do with academics than anything.

The male in our midst was left behind when we got off on a tangent about VCU's Grace Street area in its heyday.

I told her how when I first moved here from Washington, I was thrilled to discover Sunny Day, a clothing shop on Grace Street that carried decidedly un-Richmond like clothes for 1987.

Squealing in delight, she said she'd bought two pairs of sky-high platform shoes there in the '70s, one pair black and the other silver, both of which she danced in until destroying the black ones.

The silver ones she still has.

And get this, she paid for them by the shoe, not by the pair. Crazy, man.

I told her I'd danced a half dozen times this summer and had on platform shoes every time. Old habits die hard.

Just for the record, I also like potato chips, moonlight and motor trips.

Motor trips, even in rain like this. Here's to you, Doris.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For Once in Your Life

You learn better when your belly's full.

Since I had plans to attend honors film class, I made plans to meet up first with a fellow film lover at Cafe 821, where it turned out to be "breakfast all day" Tuesday with discounted mimosas.

Fittingly, since when I go to 821 for breakfast I always order black bean nachos, I did the same tonight.

Only hitch? I requested a half order and was told there's no such thing.What, I dreamt it?

The strange thing about that is that I'd ordered those nachos for five years before the day a server asked me if I'd prefer a half order since I was never able to finish a whole.

Why, yes, a half order would be ideal, I'd told her, surprised that no one had ever told me it was a possibility to do so.

Tonight I was informed that it's not a possibility, just something that particular server does. Fortunately, my companion was willing to nibble off my plate in a vain attempt to help me do justice to the mega plate of food in front of me.

I still sent back as much as I ate, thereby proving I should be allowed to get a half order.

My fellow film lover took off to pick up his date while I strolled over to the Grace Street Theater for VCU Cinematheque's screening of "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

It was my first Cinematheque of the fall season and instead of just the usual blase film students, tonight also included an honors class so nearly every seat was taken with earnest artistic types.

Dr. Rob began by listing out the staples of any Stanley Kubrick film: creative cinematography, use of ironic, contrasting music, a melding of genres, realism and innovative visual effects.

"You're really fortunate to get to see a 35mm print of this," he said of the 50-year old classic. "This is probably the only time in your life you'll see this."

Since I've never seen it before, it seemed only right to get to see it the proper way my first time.

Although I'm not big into war movies, I am a huge fan of satire, period details and '60s movies, so except for the absent girl parts, it turned out to be very much my kind of movie.

There was one female character in the entire film and she wore a bikini and high heels while laying on the bed reading under a sunlamp, waiting for her man to come out of the bathroom.

You see, kids, this was back before we knew that tanning was bad for us.

Since it was 1964, she had a soft, curvy body, so unlike the hard body norm of today. It was lovely.

When we see the soldiers aboard the top secret B-52 Bomber, they're reading a Playboy magazine, with the centerfold sporting a newspaper over her bottom.

You know, for decorum.

When they have to go inside the B-52's safe to get the bombing instructions, more nudie picks are taped to the inside of the safe door.

Ah, for the good old days when men had to cut and paste their porn and not just click a mouse.

Because it was a college-aged crowd, there were the usual tittering at that which with they weren't familiar, such as when one of the three Peter Sellers characters had to use a pay phone and insert coins.

OMG, pay phonz, LOL!!

Spare me.

Watching Sellers play three such different characters - the President, the RAF officer and the demented German Dr. Strangelove- was like watching a master class in comedy.

Sometimes you could even spot another actor cracking up in the background.

But honestly, it was just as fascinating to watch a young-looking George C. Scott go absolutely bananas in his scenes, as only a younger man can do.

Clearly most of my memories of his film roles were older roles when he was more staid.

After the film, half the room cleared out and the remaining film devotees discussed it.

I was thrilled when Dr. Rob asked who'd seen the movie before and pointed out that seeing it on a small screen - TV, computer or god forbid, phone- made it come across more rational whereas seeing it on the big screen made it more visceral, the way Kubrick had intended it to be.

Pshaw. Like he had to tell me that.

Discussing Kubrick's influence on subsequent directors, he appealed to the students. "What big film of your youth had a similar plane interior and flying shots?"

It took two guesses before someone came up with the obvious: "Star Wars." Even I knew that and I haven't seen "Star Wars" since it opened in 1977.

Please note, I did see it, though.

After more discussion of how much of Sellers' dialog was improvised (a lot), how Kubrick would do up to 50 takes on a scene and about the importance of editing for impact, he dismissed class.

Walking out, I saw a friend and we stood outside discussing the film on the sidewalk.

He'd been taken with the race issues raised in the film and I'd been struck by the feminist issues.

You see, at the end, Dr. Strangelove proposes a plan for post-nuclear survival where people live underground breeding to replace all those killed.

To do this, he says, there must be a ratio of ten highly stimulating women for every man.

George C. Scott's general character immediately sees the benefit of this, asking if this means that men would have to give up monogamy. That old male fantasy.

Naturally, all the men now see this as a fabulous idea. Culturally speaking, it's obvious there's been no consciousness raising prior to this film.

After ten minutes of film dissection, he suggested a drink and we headed to the Village Cafe for hot tea with honey (him) and a chocolate shake for me.

You know, the good, old Village, where you can count on some rummy at the bar reaching for his backpack, only to have a half-full 40-ounce roll out of it, clanking on the floor on the way down.

And nobody bats an eye.

A fine place to wile away a couple of hours talking about Hillary's chances, lowering the drinking age, good websites for music shows and historic preservation of the heart of Grace Street corridor.

It's interesting, when you're having your first in-depth conversation with someone you've only known casually socially, you have no idea when you might cross a conversational line or offend with your opinion.

We even trash-talked Smart phones and people who don't like going to movie theaters.

He posited a theory that the older you get, the more comfortable you get striking up conversations with strangers and expressing your opinion to new people.

Hell, by that measure, I was born old.

Tuesday Evening or: How I Never Started Worrying and Love the Conversation. Anywhere, anytime.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You Oughta Know

The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed, or so said a French philosopher.

I began the evening being the observed.

That meant a first stop at Lakeside Tavern where a half dozen seasoned-looking regulars (I'm guessing anyway) turn and gawk on arrival.

Sipping my 1800, ignoring the TVs, I see no one at the pool table, a steady succession of wizened old men going outside for a smoke barely outside the front door and the most magnificent dive bar chandelier I've ever laid eyes on.

Racks intended for wine glasses have instead been intermittently filled with empty beer bottles - Schlitz, Miller Lite, Yuengling - and strung through with tiny, blinking Christmas lights for a one of a kind redneck light fixture.

It alone was worth the visit before moving on to do some observing at the new Southern Season, the specialty grocer on Staples Mill.

Despite the crammed parking lot with the likes of Lexus, BMW and other high end cars, I quickly observe that no amount of tinned foodstuffs and artisan cheese straws is going to make this place a regular stop for me.

Besides the obvious - a far higher employee to customer ratio than seems prudent to stay in the black - I am struck by the array of high-priced items I can't afford.

Jose Andres brand tinned seafood. $149.99 per pound Iberian ham. Esoteric counter appliances I neither need nor want.

What I did like: Sprite in individual green glass bottles (99 cents) and "try me!" sample size pieces of expensive cheese, wrapped up in pieces that cost a couple of bucks. Long-stemmed yellow roses that still have a scent.

Will I be back? Probably for research only. As an observer.

My final point of observation was as one of three attendees at the Criterion Theater to see "My Trip to Italy."

The film used two British TV actors and the premise that the London Observer sent them to Italy to review restaurants, drive the scenic coast and stay at boutique hotels with rooms named after American movie stars.

If only I could figure out how to get that job for myself.

Like several movies I've seen lately - "Chef" and "One Hundred Foot Journey" immediately come to mind- food and food prep are lovingly shot to the point they become characters in the film. Not a complaint, mind you.

Within the first five minutes, I was laughing out loud so hard at the duo's verbal interplay that I was missing the next line, always a good sign.

Setting off in a Mini convertible with only a soundtrack of Alanis Morrisette's 1995 classic, "Jagged Little Pill" provided stunning scenery and hilarious music discussion as they retrace the long-ago journey of Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

While I've done the Naples, the Amalfi Coast and Rome portions of that journey, I've yet to take in the entire swath they did, ranging from the Piedmont to Capri.

Fingers crossed, before I die.

As they cruise from hill town to ancient city, they try to out-do each other with put-downs, film trivia and impersonations of famous actors.

Some are quite good and after a bit, I had to marvel at the ability to do impressions of everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Clint Eastwood to Marlon Brando, complete with pieces of bread stuck in his cheeks.

They even did a bit on how only one actor who played James Bond was actually English (Roger Smith), doing spot-on impressions of each along the way.

And the pithy one-liners!

"Where do you stand on Michael Buble?"
"On his windpipe."

Hysterical, right?

Using "Roman Holiday" and "Notting Hill" as contrasting examples of how love works out in films, it winds down with a poignant discussion of how there is no unrequited love in the world anymore, a point I would argue.

But not tonight. Plenty of requited observation and droll conversation was had.

Here's where the story ends.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Easy Day's Night

With fond memories of a thatched roof, I set off for a wine dinner.

Crossing the Lee bridge, I spot a young guy, guitar slung across his back, walking across the bridge, his back to the sun as it begins to slide down into the James River.

It's a picture postcard reminder of the charm and beauty of this city.

The host for the dinner was Camden's and the winery was First Colony, the source of tonight's wines.

They'd won me over on two successive tastings with well-crafted wines and a thatched roof being put on their tasting room. Truth be told, I'm a sucker for architectural details like that.

I'm walking down the sidewalk, about to enter the restaurant as two women approach me.

Holding the door open for them, they say, "Are you ready to drink too much?" and we proceed inside with that intent.

I find the room is quickly filling up and grab a seat at the bar between two familiar faces.

Our first pour comes courtesy of a five-gallon batch made by First Colony winemaker Brad and it's a doozy.

Available only at this time of year as grapes are harvested, the apperitif Ratafia is a mixture of just harvested chardonnay juice fortified with un-aged brandy, a refreshing combination that clocks in at 18%.

Holy moly, that woman at the door wasn't kidding.

All of a sudden, the room is abuzz with tongues loosened by this 1000 year old Italian apperitif and the night is off to a brilliant conversational start.

Before long, we are poured "Zephyr," a white blend of equal parts Petit Manseng and Vidal, with just enough Riesling and Viognier to matter, paired with swordfish tacos with pickled cabbage and salsa fresca, the wine as bright as the lemon-cilantro flavors of the tacos.

The man next to me tells me about his recent trip to New England  - the radiator that died in Stowe, the DIY farm wedding in Portland with endless friends' readings and a delayed starting time, his detour to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff House in Derby - and I chuckle at the stories.

Our second course is a Cumberland County tomato stack (and may I just say here that the tomatoes in the first three courses were a testament to the beauty of September tomatoes, so ripe and juicy they act as sirens to even non-tomato lovers like the guy next to me) wit house made ham, Mozzarella and micro basil paired with First Colony's Rose.

Everything about this dish sings with flavor and freshness, a pink feast of food and drink.

I might also mention that technically, a stack is a vertical construct and this was more of a fanned array of tomato, cheese and ham, but it wasn't the time to argue semantics.

On my other side, I had a woman who tells me flat out, "I need some alone time with the ocean," as preamble to telling me about her upcoming trip to Virginia Beach (although a another guys assures me, "Virginia Beach is not the ocean") this week.

We discuss how essential periodic ocean face time is for our type and she shudders telling me she was once married to a man who never needed to see the ocean.

What kind of human depravity is this?

With the Meritage, a blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Petit Verdot and Merlot, we dive into lamb carpaccio with fried tomato confit, a dish ideal with the light-bodied wine.

On my way back from the bathroom, I spot a couple I know from Floyd Avenue and we bemoan missing seeing "A Hard Day's Night" at the Byrd Theater tonight.

In honor of the occasion, I am wearing a thrift store find so ideally suited to the time that I could be an extra in the film.

My navy blue shift has bright gold buttons laid out sailor-style for a dress that looks straight out of 1964, a friend informs me.

Sadly, I missed the movie - which I've never seen although my friend originally saw it at the Byrd, no less - but at least I looked the part of a screaming Beatles fan circa the swinging '60s.

It is when the Monrovia Farms braised beef over spaetzel with bleu cheese crumbles arrives with Petit Verdot poured in our glasses that the room goes suddenly quiet.

People are lapping up this rich combo of meat and pasta with cheese and ignoring their dinner companions as they do. Yum.

My nearby seatmate mentions that he's been to talks and tours by my favorite park ranger, Mike Gorman, and we take off on a tangent about historical photographs, enthusiastic historical tours and how we both like to geek out over such things.

The evening closes with Mountain View Swiss cheese from Lexington, laid out with cherry preserves and honeyed walnut paste and paired with fruity and smooth Claret.

The winemaker has spent the evening working the room, explaining his wines and the pairings, and finally settles down to enjoy some food.

I've discussed salsa dancing, vacation photos, the missing UVA student and any number of other topics with people around me throughout the evening.

So far, I've heard zero mention of the thatched roof at First Colony, clearly a much bigger deal to me than the rest of the room.

Clearly they've not had alone time with the thatched roof like I have or they'd have been far more interested.

Or perhaps they'd just had too much to drink. Perhaps.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Never Too Old

After an on-the-go day, Saturday night was alright for...a movie.

I was meeting a friend at the Criterion for "My Old Lady," a dreadfully named film by playwright Israel Horovitz, with whom I'm well familiar.

Having seen more than half a dozen of his plays in Richmond over the past few years at Firehouse Theater, I appreciate his ability to walk the line between woe and tenderness.

We were far from the only ones out for a movie tonight and by the time we got our tickets and popcorn, the theater's only available seats were in the third row, meaning the most erect of posture was  necessary.

But it also put stunning scenes of Paris right in our face as the story of an unhappy American whose father wills him a big apartment in the Marais district unfolded.

On arrival, he finds a 92-year old woman (played by the indomitable Maggie Smith) as the occupant living there with her daughter and that the apartment is a "viager," meaning he has to pay her 2400 Euros a month and she has the right to live there until she dies.

Naturally, he's hoping that's sooner rather than later.

Discussing age, she informs him she likes her breakfast every day exactly at 8 a.m., her dinner at 8 p.m. and no lunch because it holds no appeal to her.

"Precision is the key to a long life," she assures him. "And wine."

Advice I intend to take.

He discovers an old photograph of his father and the woman with the inscription. "If you do not love me, I shall not be loved" - a Samuel Beckett quotation that finishes sublimely with "If I do not love you, I shall not love" - and the past rears its convoluted head.

As they get to know each other, we learn that their pasts are more connected than any of them knew and eventually he starts to be attracted to the old woman's daughter.

After he kisses her for the first time, he tells her she's beautiful.

"I'm not beautiful, I'm old," she responds.

In what is a very romantic exchange, he comes back to her the next day and tells her to repeat what she'd said about being old and not beautiful. He's come up with the perfect reply.

"A perfect flower is nearly old," he says, not sure if she'll appreciate his analogy but of course she does.

Well satisfied with a middle-aged romance that began life as a play, we walked out of the theater next to a couple who asked how we had liked it.

They'd started the evening seeing another film and walked out after ten minutes and into "My Old Lady," enjoying it considerably and satisfied that they'd made the right call.

Taking Dame Smith's advice, I invited company over for wine and music, wiling away the rest of the evening listening to the sunny dance pop of J. Views, the languid vocal stylings of Wye Oak and the timeless harmonies of the Spinners while sipping Monmousseau Cuvee J.M. Rose and Aime Roquesante Rose, so creamy tasting after the bubbles that proceeded it.

As to the precision part of longevity, I'll get to that another day, maybe after I stop basking in the glow of being considered comparable to a perfect flower. Nearly old.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Play It Now

I had a bit of an obsession about seeing the windows.

After hearing a lecture about Sheltering Arms Hospital and its 71-year history on Clay Street, here, I'd been dead curious about seeing those operating room windows that used to be opened during surgery, admitting fresh air and flies.

The notion of such a thing alone got me to the Grant mansion today where the fine folks at Sheltering Arms were offering guided tours of the rooms, complete with costumed interpreters.

As we gathered for the first tour, the crowd was asked if anyone had been born at Sheltering Arms and, lo and behold, two people in the group had.

We were led from room to room where black and white enlargements of of photographs showed the original look and configuration of the spaces and people dressed in old nurses' uniforms (and one man portraying Dr. Hunter McGuire)  told us about the staff they were portraying.

The nursing superintendent told us about how strict she was but also about how she'd broken the law by setting a fire on the roof to stop crows from nesting up there.

We saw the short-term ward, the original columns now mostly covered over with walls and the pharmacy, originally lined with wooden shelves holding bottles of donated drugs.

Best of all, I got to climb the steps to the third floor and see the former operating room and the windows that had once been used for ventilation during surgery.

At the lecture, we'd been told that the view from those windows facing east stretched for miles but today's view as cluttered with nearby buildings.

Still, I got to see what I'd come to see.

We finished out that floor with a trip to the nursery, just off the hallway that led to the nurses' residence, another facet I'd been struck by.

Aren't you always on call when you live where you work?

Leaving the medical past behind and well satisfied at having gotten a glimpse of what had been only hearsay before, I motored west to meet Pru for brunch and music at Cary Street Cafe.

Everyone's favorite Neil Diamond cover band, Diamond Heist, was playing all afternoon, with "Kentucky Woman" being performed when we got there.

It was already a full house with a small bridal party in tiaras, a steady stream of smokers leaving to go out front to puff and lots of fans of the band.

During "Soolaimon," the two women next to me instructed me to guard their stools while they went out to smoke. They were bigger than me, so I did what they told me to.

After ordering black bean nachos, lead singer Will announced, "We're Diamond Heist and thanks for being here because it would be lame without you guys."

I was happy to hear they now have a residency at Cary Street, performing every third Saturday of the month.

"Any first timers?" he asked the noisy group and a few people raised their hands. "These are for you!" and they launched into "I Am, I Said" and "Sweet Caroline," causing a raucous singalong.

When the set ended, he promised some surprises in the second set, including full frontal nudity.

Surprisingly, some people still chose to leave during the break. Not us. If twigs and berries were a possibility, Pru and I were going to hold tight our seats.

In the meantime we ate lunch - my nachos and her French onion soup - and listened to Will explain that they needed to increase their repertoire of Neil Diamond songs, which, he told us, are hard songs.

The second set began with "Hello Again" and took off with "Cherry, Cherry" after he said, "It could be called "Kerry, Kerry" and screams went up from a group of women who began dancing in the aisles.

"Red, Red Wine" elicited the observation, "Red, red wine or yellowish mimosas," a nod to all the pitchers full of mimosas standing on tables around the room.

Lit cupcakes were marched up to the drummer Dean, celebrating his 32nd birthday and the whole room serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."

Someone requested "the "ET" song - "Heartlight" and Will admitted, "That's one on the "need-to-learn" list. This is one that was requested and we know it. That's a nice confluence there."

It was the rabble-rousing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and it had the keyboard player testifying mid-song.

Referencing this week's crowd-sourced Foo Fighters' show, he suggested the next crowd-sourced show should be Neil Diamond at the Diamond. Kind of brilliant.

"So we flipped the coin on the full frontal nudity ting and decided it was a really bad idea. There's not enough mimosas in the building for that."

They had a photographer there snapping pics for their Facebook page, so Pru and I smiled for the camera before she inched behind some big guy who barely moved to let her pass, saying to us and pointing to her breasts, "These puppies need more room. Want some?"

Um, no thanks, I have some of my own.

"I'm a Believer" and "Coming to America" got the crowd singing along on the chorus and for "Holly Holy," Will invited us to sing along or shake our moneymaker.

By then Pru was tired of sitting and wanted to exit, but I insisted we wait for "Cracklin' Rose," with the room screaming "Play it now!" in between sipping beer and talking to friends.

"We're going to close with a song we played earlier but had a request for,"Solitary Man," Will said. "It's related to full frontal nudity."

Only tangentially, I might add.

I'm Going In

Slow September is the worst month for restaurants, at least according to a piece in Eater I read today.

Unless you're a new restaurant on a Friday night, which The Betty on Davis is, and the place is bursting at the seams with loud sippers, suppers and more than a couple children.

Admittedly, it's too soon to discern anything, but sometimes you just want a first bite.

That distinctive, low-ceilinged space has gotten a face lift although I'd have preferred zero screens to the three they had and music over the shrill din.

I don't want to shout unless I'm in a club.

The menu surprised me with sandwiches so I tried fried chicken schnitzel sandwich on top of chayote, cabbage slaw and pickled red onion. Tasty.

A special of pastrami hash with sweet potatoes, corn Brussels leaves, sassafras gastrique under a soft boiled egg less so, with far too many pure fatty to meaty pieces nestled in the overly-large chunks of sweet potato.

They haven't even been open a week but I recalled the Eater article and it seemed clear that for those people who do go out in September, a fair number of them were in the Betty

And the beat goes on...

Next I met a favorite couple for my first foray to St. Benedict's Oktoberfest, obviously not intending to eat after schnitzel and slaw, but playing willing conversational partner for the walk over there and while they chowed down.

Since I'd never been, I have no basis of comparison, but it seemed like a goodly number of people were there after 9:00.

My last Oktoberfest was at the state fair ground in 1990 so I recognized the oompha music immediately, but they felt no compulsion to eat under the plastic canopies on folding chairs.

Instead we walked back to his house, put on Donovan, poured Graham Beck Brut Rose and talked about current events while they had dinner.

After dinner there were "amusements," in the form of my host diving into his music collection to play songs that then remind him of something else he wants to play and musical tangents are followed with no thought for the original starting point.

After he plays John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," I posit that the Bryan Ferry version is better and he pulls out the Roxy Music compilation CD to compare and contrast.

It suddenly occurs to him that he has a rare single of this song in record form and wants to show it off.

Grabbing a flashlight, he holds up one finger and says animatedly, "Give me 30 seconds," determined to prove he knows where everything is in his collection, despite a dubious-looking and widespread filing system.

From the depths of the floor behind the bar, I finally hear, "How about Todd Rundgren?"

My guess is he can't find the single and he's trying to distract me with someone he knows I love.

He's right.

But we don't go there because Todd is in LP form and he has no working turntable. Alas.

He plans to stump me with something unlikely and he does with Joe "King" Carrasco and his Crown from a 1995 anthology of the previous 17 years.

My reaction was immediate. Early '80s?

1982, he tells me. New wave via a Tex-Mex singer. I've no doubt I danced to it somewhere when it came out. So distinctly of that era.

I got to hear some of the songs my friend had written and played guitar and viola on, surprised to hear that most had been written as gifts for Christmas and wedding presents and the like.

"This is the closest to Beethoven I ever wrote," he said of one particularly striking passage.

Looking at his soft pink finger pads, he made fun of his hands for being un-calloused, meaning he'd not been playing much music for a while.

He tried to use the "I lost the briefcase with my music in it" alibi but I only chided him for being fortunate enough to have musical talent (I have zip) and squander it.

And, yes, I used that word specifically to make my point.

He allowed as how he could just get additional copies of the music so he could start back up."I may look dense, but I'm really smart," he said, grinning manically and tapping his forehead.

Then practice your talent, my friend.

To round out the evening's musical diversions, he played what he called "Ryan Adams' most gorgeous ballad," the soul-stirring "When the Stars Go Blue" from the 2001 Gold album, which I don't have and a song I don't know.

It's so tender, so sweet and moving, sung in the voice of a guy who knows he hasn't always gotten it right.

When the song ended, he headed upstairs to say goodnight to his girlfriend who was packing it in after a long day fighting humanity in a service-oriented job.

Me, I grabbed the remote and played the song again. Sigh, such a lovely note on which to end.

Meanwhile, back in J-Ward, I arrive home to roving clutches of VCU party-seekers, talking loudly, laughing self-consciously and, in the case of the females, dressed Friday night cute.

It's after midnight but before 1, so people are shifting allegiances with so much of the night still ahead.

In the time it's taken me to write this, I've heard one bottle broken (a girl who shrieked), a guy ask a giggling girl group, "Do you live in the dorms?" and one car driver threaten a group who wouldn't move out of the street so traffic could pass.

Kids today.

Apparently the September rule doesn't apply to college parties.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Honk If You Know Me

I got hugged repeatedly in the middle of the Lee bridge this morning, thereby proving everyone is right.

And by everyone, I mean all those friends I go out with who are always telling me that no matter where I go, I inevitably run into someone I know.

Given today's cloudy skies, it was an ideal day for taking my daily walk across a bridge, something I've done before and enjoyed immensely.

There are always cars that wave and honk and I smile back, but one of today's honkers was particularly enthusiastic.

A few minutes later, the car pulls up just ahead of where I'm walking mid-bridge and out comes Lily, the puppeteer.

Now, I've known Lily for seven years or so, carried a sign and marched in the annual Halloween parade she organizes, eaten at the spaghetti dinner benefits she holds to raise funds for puppet-making, watched her referee female arm wrestling matches.

But I hadn't seen her since last winter.

She got out of the car and did a happy dance  and I responded in kind in the middle of the bridge. Then the hugging began.

Anyone driving by probably thought we were crazy.

"I woke up thinking about you today so when I drove by and saw you, I knew it was a sign so I had to turn around and say hello," she gushed.

We spent 15 minutes catching up - Lovebomb, Bread and Puppet Theater, the upcoming parade - before resuming hugging. I walked away and she drove on.

I've run into people I know in some of the unlikeliest of places, but I'm going to say the middle of the bridge takes the cake.

At least until something even more random happens. And it probably will.

Trail of Breadcrumbs

Doing dinner progressively results in two things: multiple menus to choose from and a constantly changing array of characters talking to me.

At the first place and despite being nowhere near home, I met a guy who's about to open a business right here in Jackson Ward.

A big, gregarious fellow who'd just bought a cigar and was looking for someone to cut off the tip and light it for him, he explained his plans to open a "close contact martial arts" studio over top of a restaurant that will serve coffee, smoothies and pastries a few blocks from my house.

Eventually, he said, it'll also serve healthy Caribbean food because (I guess) nothing tops off close contact fighting like some jerk chicken.

And because I know so little about martial arts or fighting, I have to wonder: isn't all fighting close contact? You can't very well be across the room and expect to knock someone out, can you?

Clearly I know nothing about sports.

The second restaurant delivered a woman who seemed a bit glum because the transmission had died on her truck today.

"My boyfriend and I used to use it for a tree removal business, so I'm not too surprised," she admitted pragmatically.

When she really lit up was when she got to talking about her kids: one of her own, two step-children and two adopted.

The one she described as "the easy daughter," whatever that means, is getting married soon and she shared all sorts of details about planning that.

First, it was going to be at Maymont ($17,000) but that idea was dropped when her ex opted out of sharing wedding expenses.

Plan B was a cruise for 20 ($3,000) but that limited the guest list too much.

The final plan involved renting an 8-bedroom house oceanfront at Myrtle Beach, where they'll be married on the beach and hold the reception and the couple will stay on to honeymoon.

Apparently the house has two bars, one next to the pool, and she's already put in her bid for that to be her spot.

If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

Only problem with that plan was the bother of getting the South Carolina paperwork done ahead of time so they decided to get married at the registrar's office here quietly and just pretend that the beach wedding is real.

I told her how my best friend from college had done a similar thing, getting married at the courthouse on the sly with just me and my boyfriend for witnesses and then letting her parents throw them a big, splashy wedding the following summer.

Everyone was happy and no on was the wiser.

And on that subject, the woman also proudly shared that she'd recently gotten divorced on the cheap, doing the paperwork herself so all she had to pay was the filing fee.

Now all her friends want her to write a book about how to do it to save them money. I guess they've never heard of the Internet.

I'm sure if her daughter's starter marriage doesn't work out, she'd help her with the divorce just as she's helping her with the wedding.

The third place yielded nothing more interesting than a bartender who insisted on chilling a wine glass (like they do with martini glasses, filling it with water and ice) before pouring in wine.

She explained that because she liked her glass really cold, she figures her customers do, too.

At the last place, I found a colorful guy I'd met at Amuse a few years back, a man who strongly resembled Colonel Sanders minus the bolo tie (bow tie instead).

He explained to me the importance of finding a man who was passionate, who had a big brain, a man who could appreciate my fine mind and quick wit.

I was told he also made a comment about my rear end when I left to go to the bathroom.

Seems like he should have told me to look for a man who appreciates that, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Roger That

It's undoubtedly some kind of Murphy's law.

If I make plans to get away, even for 30 hours, life will start lobbing things at me.

Arriving at the Amtrack station yesterday, I hear my name being paged, never a good sign. It happened years ago as I walked into National Airport and I still recall the sense of dread.

Fortunately, it was nothing major and the Amtrack attendant who spoke to me got a kick out of hearing that I don't have a cell phone.

And by a kick, I mean he looked at me like I had two heads.

The train ride there and back was an excuse to get lost in Nigel Nicolson's "Portrait of a Marriage," the story of Bloomsbury Group member Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, but mainly about the torrid affair she carried on with a woman during that marriage.

Juicy as it was, it didn't even begin to go into her later affair with writer Virginia Woolf.

Dinner was at Vin 909 in Easport, a bungalow turned wine cafe with a serious bent for local sourcing and the owner sitting at a bar stool overseeing the kitchen in full view.

Hanging on to summer with both hands, I enjoyed Bieler Pere et Fils Rose with a Maryland blue crab roll on brioche for two reasons really.

First, when in Rome and all (Maryland, crabs, hello?) and because under the menu entry was a notation, "If you don't know what something is, ask your server, not your Smartphone."

It's almost a philosophy, like stop and smell the roses or you only live once.

That was followed with Groundworks Farm chicken enchiladas with housemade mole sauce and Fontina on a local tortilla. It was a whole lot of local.

I don't know that the chocolate pot de creme could claim the same, although for all I know the fresh whipped cream came from a nearby cow.

Driving home from the train station, I saw a guy cross I-95 on foot, easily the stupidest thing I'd ever seen on that soul-sucking stretch of highway.

Once back in the Commonwealth, I needed to hit the ground running since e-mail informed me I had five new assignments come in since I'd left the day before.

My hired mouth took precedence, meaning I had eating to do.

Parking next to a late '60s red VW bug exactly like the one I learned to drive on (it had been my boyfriend Roger's and I learned to pop the clutch by coasting downhill to avoid the trauma of getting it into first gear), I soon found myself surrounded by eaters and drinkers.

I joined the latter group via the beautifully delicate Austrian Mittelbach Rose, not even listed on the menu yet, but a fine replacement for the Renegade Rose I know so well that was.

Talking to the couple on my right, I made an assumption about him liking corned beef and she turned to me and said, "I've known him 30 years and I had no idea he liked it."

Honey, all men like corned beef, at least in my experience.

On my right, I had a couple who claimed they were cheating on their spouses together.

Hers was out of town on business and his was "singing for Jesus" so they'd decided to wile away the time with some beverages and chatter.

When she asked the bartender for a bold red wine, an Italian blend was offered. "I don't do Italian reds, so I'm not going to like it," she said, taking a sip. "Oooh, this is wonderful. Now you're going to make me admit I do like Italian reds."

She insisted I take a sip to validate that it was a lovely blend of Merlot and Corvina (it was) and once my lipstick marks were on her glass we were fast friends.

And in the "isn't it a small world?" category, it turns out I had met someone they both knew and when I shared what this man had said to me the first time he met me, they both apologized for him.

"That's just the way he is!" they explained. "Don't pay him any attention next time."

Don't worry. I didn't last time.

I met a woman close to my age and with our young bartender, Chelsea, discussed how names go in and out of vogue and how neither of us had known a single Jordan or Jessica when we were in elementary school.

Likewise, no one names their babies Denise or Debbie anymore.

She was drinking an iridescent green cocktail called "Consensual Sex on the Beach" and tried to convince me to do the same, but I just couldn't go there.

At least in drink form.

I'd had consensual sex on the beach with Roger way back when and I'd learned one very important lesson: use a beach towel.

But that's a story for another day when I don't have all this work Murphy's Law delivered staring me in the face.

That sand gets everywhere.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Coming Ashore

It may be time to bring out the hook.

I've been going to Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story at Balliceaux for nearly four years now and I have heard some stories that have blown my mind.

There have been some duds, sure, but all and all, it's been fascinating to hear people unload snippets from their pasts.

But where storytellers once respected the warning bell, they frequently ignore it now. And when the final bell rings, meaning they are through, they continue to talk.

Some even needed a third bell and that still didn't shut them up.

As if all that rule-breaking wasn't enough to warrant the hook, tonight for the first time, a guy got up to tell a story, admitting it had nothing to do with tonight's theme.

Alright, kids, you've finally gone too far.

Tonight's theme was "the river" and the door proceeds were going to benefit the James River Association, the worthiest of causes and we heard some good tales in its honor.

Toting a paddle, David's was called "Buzzards Watching" and involved a canoe trip in which the canoe wound up wrapped around a rock, a problem only until they stood on it and popped it back into shape like a Tupperware bowl.

"Island Refuge" told Kyle's story of falling in love with the water, making it his life's work and then having an awful experience that scared him off it before his eventual return to it. He'd brought a broken paddle, part of the story.

Before introducing the next storyteller, co-host Colin quipped, "Apparently it's a prerequisite to bring your paddle tonight."

The most life-affirming story came from Mike with "The Romance of a Broken Compass," the saga of him and his wife taking a 30-year old canoe down the inter-coastal waterway over 81 days.

He said they did it because it was "absurd fun," despite her grandmother worrying that they'd have to poop in a Cool Whip container along the way.

Wanna hear the most romantic part? They talked non-stop the entire way.

For sheer emotion, Amanda's "Mushy Sand" took the heartfelt prize and was the same story she'd used for her personal essay when she applied to the University of Richmond.

P.S. - It got her a full scholarship.

It was about being at the river with her Mom, brother, his friend and his mother when she was in third grade and realizing that her mother was in love with the woman and the journey she took to work through that.

Daniel from southside got the most laughs with "Destiny Comes When She Pleases" about being at the 42nd Street island and seeing a woman straddling a log between two rocks, presumably to ride it down the river, something they apparently do on southside.

At least that's what he thought until her boyfriend started calling Destiny back. She finished grinding into the tree, convulsed and returned to her boyfriend.

"Let's all stay on the north side of the river," host Colin instructed.

The first day of Fall and a tubing trip as the sun set were the setting for Fieval's story, "Between the Nickel Bridge and Belle Isle," about her ex trying to shore her up as she got tired and scared on the river and why this was a really bad idea.

For the sheer visuals, Charles" "Inappropriate Raft Guide" story, which involved a 500-pound woman,her young son and a raft that flipped as they went over a break in the dam, took the cake.

When they surfaced, Charles saw the kid moving downstream in the raft and the guide straddling the woman, paddling her as if she were a raft.

If you saw that in a movie, you wouldn't believe it could happen.

During intermission, a friend asked if I was going to share a story and I responded with an adamant no.

"You wouldn't?" he asked incredulously. "But you tell stories all the time."

Like this, sure, out into the blogosphere,  but certainly not in front of 110 people.

During the second half, names of eager storytellers were put in the hat and drawn for a chance to share their river tale.

A regular at almost every event with a story for any theme ("I almost didn't put my name in the hat because I feel like I'm an addict for this"), Wendy's involved the role of the river in childhood and contemplation.

Nurse Lilly was the first to invoke the Amazon River and her trips coordinating Patch Adams clown trips there, one of which involved a 70-year old woman who went swimming in the Amazon, got swept away and wound up with splinters in her legs when men dragged her into their canoe to save her.

"I'm really a great swimmer," the 70-year old insisted. "It was the current."

It's always something, isn't it?

The next story was called, "The First Time I Went to a Strip Club" and was being told by a Secretly Y'all virgin who claimed not to know that the stories after intermission had to follow the evening's theme.

His didn't and we had to listen to the saga of his stint with VCU's security detail and a planned trip to a strip club, which he didn't attend because he split his pants at the seam "wide enough to birth a  baby."

You can imagine how awkward this segment of the evening was. And no hook in sight.

Fortunately, redemption came courtesy of Andrew,  a recent addition to the James River Park System's staff who began by commenting on how much Richmond drinks when we're at the river

The park saw 600,000 visitors this season and the staff goes through and sorts recycling from every one of those trash and recycling cans, not a pleasant job.

"Don't bring glass," he said in his sternest voice. "Don't do that!"

He readily admitted his story ended up less what he intended to share and more of a public service announcement to be mindful about taking out whatever you bring to the river.

I thought the same thing when I was at Texas Beach yesterday and saw four glass Mickey beer bottles and a 40-ounce bottle sitting in the sand.

Some people were apparently raised by wolves.

The evening's storytelling closed with Chris, as perennial a storyteller as anyone, with the cautionary tale of an ex-friend he referred to as "Professor Gross" and "Mr. Know It All."

The ex tried to repay Chris' generosity in letting him stay over by making a meal out of seafood from the manager's special section of Community Pride ("the worst grocery store ever"). Because nothing says thanks like two-day old seafood.

By the story's end, the ex friend was serenely swimming away after leaving Chris and a friend trying to recover from an overturned canoe in the river.

He even told us the friend's real name so we could all avoid him, too.

So as usual, we heard some great stories, poignant and funny, cautionary and romantic.

We also heard the bell ring repeatedly on far too many of the storytellers. Time to start playing by the rules, guys.

Don't make me turn this car around.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Never Enough Sun and Sea

Fall is making its imminent arrival known and I'm not at all happy about it.

You see, I'm a summer person, never happier than when it's warm enough that I need a minimum of clothes. Unlike so many people I know, I'm not into scarves, layers and jackets.

So while parts of my walk this morning on the North Bank trail were delightfully sunny and warm, the shaded parts were feeling cooler than they have all summer.

When I got to Texas Beach to wade in, the river was not the bathwater temperature it's been for months now.

That leaves me hoping for many weeks of Indian summer but acknowledging that Fall is just around the corner. Sadly.

The only thing I like about the approaching season is that the cultural calendar is back in swing, meaning things such as UR's international film series, which kicked off tonight.

Before taking on an Italian film on a serious subject, though, I scooted over to Saison for fried chicken night, sliding into the one remaining bar stool between two guys watching football.

The one to the left was gracious, making sure I had enough room and welcoming me while the other was deep in his crossword puzzle.

When he asked if he could have a vodka and pineapple juice, the bartender paused noticeably and then said okay.

Both his friend and I noticed the pause, assuming that the bartender wanted him to consider the cocktail menu and perhaps order something more interesting.

His friend insisted he try something different, but the guy held fast even after tasting the other's drink ("too spicy!").

You have to respect a guy who knows what he wants.

Their half chicken arrived shortly before my quarter chicken did and it was as I was carving into my thigh that the vodka drinker said, "Look at you using a fork and knife."

Putting them down, I explained that I was only cutting into it to release some heat so I'd be able to eat it sooner with my fingers.

"Look, don't mess with her," his friend said cutting into his own. "She's been to fried chicken night here before and knows the deal."

I was pleased to see that tonight's sides were different: a cucumber and red onion marinated salad and cornbread, but not that sticky sweet variety that passes for cornbread so many places these days.

No, this was a much drier crumb and not nearly as sweet, much closer to my Richmond grandmother's classic cornbread.

You know how I do, smearing honey butter all over it, but Mr. Vodka couldn't get behind the honey butter. Too weird, he claimed, although he loved the cuke salad.

When I abruptly got up to leave for my movie, he turned to me smiling and said, "Thanks for our first dinner date."

Went pretty well for strangers, don't you think?

Then it was on to University of Richmond where I joined a decidedly mixed audience, half students and half middle-aged and up.

Tonight's offering was "Miele," which means honey and was the title character's nickname, interesting because her occupation was assisting people with suicide due to terminal illness.

The directorial debut of Valeria Golino, it was a beautifully shot, gorgeously lit character study highlighting the beauty of life and the importance of music.

What struck me was that the film didn't take a position on assisted suicide, just showed suffering people who had made the decision to check out, so Honey felt she was helping them with their request.

That is, until a man asks for her to provide the drugs to do it himself (a first since she always attends the ritual, providing the drug and often the music), which she reluctantly does.

Only afterwards does she learn that he has no terminal illness, he's just depressed and tired of life.

The rest of the film follows their relationship as she tries to talk him out of it and he holds fast to his plans.

Spotting the stud in her tongue he asks about it and she explains it has Aztec roots but he's unimpressed.

"Contemporary idiocy knows no limits," he observes. Amen to that.

When he finally comes to visit her at her tiny and spare oceanfront house, he comments, "Too much sun, too much sea, too much wind," summarily dismissing her choice of habitation.

Oh, and P.S., there's no such thing, in my humble opinion.

Not one but two older couples got up and walked out after seeing the second assisted suicide, not at all a violent thing to watch but most definitely a sad one to see the reaction of the loved one who remains.

Their loss. They missed a visually stunning film, honest to its core, with the kind of complex characters superbly acted rarely seen in American films. A film that never came to Richmond.

My summer days are waning and Fall is beginning to seem like an inevitability but at least the culture quotient is seeing an uptick.

And no matter the season, there's always the beauty of life and the importance of music..honey.

Lessons in Time

I spent the afternoon with a Civil War legacy and a young buck.

A nerdy friend had reminded me that this was the weekend that so many historical attractions were open free of charge, a fact I promptly forgot until mid-afternoon.

Luckily, two of the destinations I wanted to visit were within spitting distance.

Arriving at the White House of the Confederacy, I lucked into a house tour starting momentarily with a guide who couldn't have been more perfect or appropriate.

The great-grandson of Confederate second lieutenant Moncure, he spoke with a southern accent so thick the crowd of two dozen or so had to strain to understand the words.

"War" came out as "woh-a," for instance.

But he was a font of information as he led us room to room through the house occupied by Jefferson Davis and his family during the war, making sure we understood the difference between the gentlemen's parlor (whiskey, smoking, political talk) and the withdrawing room (music, cultured talk).

Leading us through the grand dining room, he said it was wife Varina's favorite room with its 14' ceilings.

Scratched on the mirror over the fireplace, some young belle had used her diamond ring to scratch "John is my boy" into the surface.

The library, he said, was referred to by the family as the "snuggery" for its small size and warmth.

Perhaps most interestingly, our guide made it clear that the history books had left out a lot of pertinent information about Mr. Davis.

About what a fine Secretary of War he was under President Franklin Pierce, how he was assigned to take Black Hawk to prison, the success he had as a colonel during the Mexican-American War.

I'm not sure he convinced anyone, but he tried his best. He was inordinately proud of both Davis and the house and wanted to share his beliefs.

From there I went down the street to the Valentine for a tour of the Wickham House and this time I had a 15-minute wait.

The woman suggested I pass time at the Valentine studio, instructing me to, "Go under the flowering arch and through the breezeway."

How could there not be something wonderful at the end of that path?

Despite having been in the Valentine garden and eating at Sally Bell's there, I'd never been in the studio, a treasure trove of sculptor Edward Valentine's works.

It reminded me very much of a sculpture studio I'd seen in Italy except for all the familiar faces of Confederates.

Since I had such a short time to check it out, I resolved to go back for lunch at Sally Bell's and a longer visit with the studio.

Our tour guide for the Wickham House appeared to be about a third the age of the last one and with no discernible accent.

I'd last been in the 1812 Wickham House back in the late '80s or early '90s and they were in the process of restoring the house, so seeing so much of the restoration was pretty satisfying for me.

It was obvious that Wickham, a mere lawyer of modest means, had forged quite an economic alliance by marrying a woman who came from a family with big bucks.

Let's just say the Wickhams had a walk-in closet with a window in it.

Forget that houses back then usually had no closets, this one was as big as my kitchen (admittedly small) and had a view.

Naturally, we weren't allowed on the magnificent elliptical stairway (had to use the servants' staircase, narrow and steep), but we did see the impressive Gilbert Sullivan portrait of wife Elizabeth, the poor woman who bore him 17 children.

Even non-art geeks know artist Gilbert Sullivan; he's the one who painted the iconic portrait of George Washington so for him to have painted Elizabeth speaks to her family connections.

1%, that's all I'm saying.

Coming from a house circa the 1860s to a house from 1812 meant that even a modern day visitor was struck by the differences. No gas chandeliers in the Wickham house.

And the similarities.

Rich and powerful people have never lived like you and me.

For crying out loud, they used diamonds to leave postbellum graffiti.

Fiddle-dee-dee, indeed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Better Than Your Dreams

It was an absolutely lovely date with myself, full of new this and new that, and right in the neighborhood, too.

With the humidity hovering at 80% but no chance of rain in the forecast, I dolled up and strolled over to the latest reason to eat four blocks from home: Graffiato.

Aware that it had just opened Wednesday, I knew enough to arrive early, sailing to the bar past disappointed people being told that the soonest a table would be available would be 10:00.

That said, any of those people could have followed my lead and sat at the bar (or even one of the rapidly filling up communal tables) rather than putting on a sad face and leaving.

Renovation on the former Popkin's space was well executed if you ignore the two screens over the bar (I can't, especially with sports on) and I easily found a seat next to a couple from Bon Air tucking into the Shire pizza with gusto.

In no time at all, we were chatting about their enthusiasm for the upcoming Southbound restaurant coming to their neck of the woods and how they hope to move into the city so they, too, can walk places.

My first choice, "Love Drunk" Rose (tag line: "When reality is better than your dreams") from Oregon had not yet arrived I was told, so I went classic with a Provence Rose, Domaine Jacourette, a pale pink delight.

The place was humming and the staff seemed enormous, black-shirted employees everywhere I looked, and within minutes, another couple took the seats to my left.

They were from the edge of the Museum District and proclaimed themselves foodies who ate out all the time, although they had to be shown where the purse hooks under the bar were.

Not a judgement, just an observation.

I took my time ordering my first course, watching one of the many bartenders make an array of complicated drinks right in front of me.

When I settled on smoked burrata with heirloom grape tomatoes, corn and arugula pesto over Billy bread, it was delivered to me by a very young looking food runner who said it was one of his two favorite dishes on the menu.

The museum couple looked over drooling, asking what I'd ordered. Turns out they'd never heard of burrata.

They were enjoying the broccolini with red pepper relish, walnuts and feta, a savory dish I'd already had at the D.C. Graffiato's last year.

A favorite local chef was having dinner at the pizza bar in the back with his family and came over to say hello and compare what we were eating.

Bon Air couple said goodnight after a discussion of Europe and empty nests and were replaced with a another couple, this one curious about the play I was going to see tonight.

Seems she'd designed an ad for Richmond Triangle Players' playbill and wanted to know if I'd seen it (not yet).

I was having no shortage of conversational partners tonight, even if everyone else was in Saturday night date mode.

From there, I ordered the Amish chicken thighs with sauteed escarole and pepperoni sauce, tasty enough although I prefer my thighs with bones.

As I was chatting to my right, couple to my left prepared to leave, tapping me on the shoulder to say goodnight and thank me for the conversation.

They'd barely left when a woman approached, asking to order a drink over me while she waited for her date to arrive.

"He's my boyfriend, but I'm 41, so it feels funny to call him that," she said, explaining that he'd been delayed.

I ask you, is man friend any better?

He soon arrived, having dropped off his 15-year old daughter at a party at a hotel (such parties didn't exist when I was 15), saying he needed a drink after all the rigmarole of getting her off to the event.

A DC Mule seemed to do the trick.

Like the other couples I'd talked to, they were impressed that it was a mere four block walk for me to Graffiato, so I asked about their home bases.

He lived on Porter Street in Manchester and she lived in the West End, but refused to call it that, stating for the record that she lived on Three Chopt ("That's the West End," he insisted).

We got to talking about how they met and she said friends had introduced them, they'd had one date but she'd realized she wasn't yet ready to date.

Eighteen months later, he asked again and they've been an item ever since.

He tried to convince me he was a bad boy, but she denied it, saying he was the nicest guy in the world.

"You have a motorcycle and race cars, but you are definitely not a bad boy," she told him with finality.

"Couldn't you at least pretend I am for my ego's sake?" he asked. They were pretty cute, but were soon called to their table and I lost them (although they asked me to come join them if I had time).

Which was fine because I had just under 15 minutes until I had to leave and my salted caramel gelato had arrived to cap off my meal.

Hopeful people were still arriving as I took my leave, secure in the knowledge that I now have one more solid choice in the 'hood for sipping and supping.

Across the street at the November Theater, people were arriving for 5th Wall Theater's production of "H2O" in the little TheaterGym space.

I chatted with one of the ticket guys, a transplanted New Yorker who'd arrived in 1995 and, like me when I got here in 1986, had a long period of adjustment to being in the south.

"I was in sales," he explained in his obvious New York accent, "and no one wanted to buy from me because I came across as not from here. Then I found out if you went to Ukrops, if they saw you there, that meant you were okay."

The Ukrops test so to speak.

Inside, my seat was primo, last row but with no chairs in front of it for a straight shot view to the stage to see what this new theater company born out of the ashes of the old Firehouse Theater could show me.

Before the play had begun, I'd heard someone say that it had no intermission and it didn't take long to see why.

The intense two-person drama focused on a self-important, successful Hollywood actor and an uptight religious fanatic who aspires to make it as an actress and it never let up.

The question was, who needed whom?

Beginning with a thwarted suicide attempt and moving through a vanity production of "Hamlet," the story was riveting because of the strength and talent of the actors, Landon Nagel and Liz Earnest, alternately tearing at each other and falling for each other.

Add in a top-notch script and some magnificently inspired direction and you get the kind of theater that first bowls you over and then gives you plenty to chew on as you leave the theater.

This was some powerful theater executed superbly.

When the play ended, the audience sat stunned, not even clapping until the lights came back up and the actors took their bows.

As for that question of who needs whom, Richmond needs 5th Wall Theater.

This from a woman who dates herself on a Saturday night and enjoys every moment of it.