Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bon Appetit

One must follow food porn with actual food, n'est-ce pas?

Showing at UR's International Film Fest tonight was the French bio-pic "Haute Cuisine" based on the memoir of Daniele Delpeuch, who served as private chef to French president Mitterrand.

When I invited my favorite Francophile to join me, she informed me that she'd already seen it on Netflix (not that watching a movie at home in any way compares to seeing it on the big screen, but I digress). She wavered, saying that it had been a charming film, so I sweetened the pot by suggesting that we go out for a bite afterwards and she climbed on board.

As many times as I've been to UR for their weekly screenings, tonight's crowd was by far the largest I'd ever seen. We took seats in front of three women, one of whom I knew, and we were all soon relating about short grandmothers (not one of us five had had one who'd been over 5' tall) and the inevitability of tall men sitting in front of us at theaters.

Mid-conversation, three men clambered over us and sat down to my right, effectively doing exactly what we'd been discussing to the women behind us. When I turned around in empathy, the three burst out laughing.

"Are you in some sort of ladies' club?" the man next to me inquired quite seriously. You mean like the She-Ra Man Hater's Club? No, sir, I'm not.

Usually the film is introduced by a professor who provides a bit of background and suggests elements to watch for, but tonight a different man greeted us, joking, "Tonight's French film didn't arrive, so we're going to show an Italian horror movie."

It wouldn't have mattered since obviously the predominantly female audience had nothing better to do on a Friday night than watch a mature French woman effortlessly cook meals for the President of the Republic. Being French, she couldn't help but do it with perfect make-up, lots of jewelry and impossibly soigne ensembles under her simple (but chic) black apron.

As if we didn't already know French women are different than us, watching the lovely 58-year old actress Catherine Frot with her flawless skin, impeccable posture and cheekbones to die for was a solid reminder that however they do it - all that wine and foie gras, high heels worn everywhere (including the kitchen) - we should be emulating it from birth.

"Haute Cuisine" fits solidly into the food movie trend of the past few years with mouth-watering shots of edibles being prepared, plated and served. Because this one was also French, there were just as many sexy shots of ingredients like truffles, cep mushrooms and Savoy cabbage to titillate the audience.

But the most satisfying part of it all was that she wasn't preparing fancy food for the Prez. He'd hired her because he wanted a woman to cook the rustic dishes of his youth, the kind of dishes his grandmother used to make. The chef even uses vintage cookbooks to seek out era-appropriate inspiration.

The movie's drama arrives courtesy of the large staff of the all-male main kitchen who resent the presence of a woman in their historically male domain, even though she's in a separate, smaller kitchen. Chauvinism and bad behavior are rampant. Still, she perseveres right up until bureaucrats try to control what she cooks for the sake of the president's health.

Lesson #1: never tell a French chef she can't cook with butter and cream or she'll resign and take a job in Antarctica where lonely men on a base appreciate her cream puffs cooking. The end.

When the lights came up, the first words out of my friend's mouth were, "That's a movie that'll make you hungry." Not having eaten since lunch was every bit as effective for me.

My plan was to go to Acacia to check out their late night bar menu but the sleek bar was full up, so the hostess graciously put us at a small nearby table with bar menus. Overhead, middle eastern techno pulsed out the beat of a Friday night.

We debated the appeal of drinking Rose in the winter (not a problem for me), something she resists despite drinking white wine during cold months. Makes no sense to me. After my ruby red glass of Tavel Chateau d'Aqueria Rose arrived, we considered the menu which was heavy on fish.

Leave it to Acacia to do a bar menu that's more Acacia-like than bar-like. I chose fish tacos after hearing that they were made with fresh flounder. Two fat tacos stuffed with fish and jalapeno slaw boasted plate mates of fresh guacamole and recently-fried tortilla chips with a pretty little mesclun salad on the side.

It may have read as a snack but was most certainly more of a meal. After watching a movie about the pleasures of food, it would have been completely unsatisfying to have noshed on average food afterwards. Even she had to admit that her lobster bisque was the perfect decadence to put a period at the end of a story about a French kitchen.

And not just any kitchen, but one where a middle-aged woman stole the show with her unflappable demeanor, peasant cooking and devotion to fresh ingredients.

Much as I enjoyed the movie, I admit I'm not inspired to cook any more often because of it. That's what chefs are for.

On the other hand, I am rethinking how often I put on heels and go shopping at the farmer's market. Ineffable French style has to start somewhere.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hello, Old Friends

When you usher in an historic presidency, it forges bonds.

After waiting in line for over two hours to vote that memorable day, I watched the 2008 presidential election results roll in at the home of a reliably liberal couple I'd known for years. Although we'd both shared Floyd Avenue addresses, I'd moved after 13 years, while they were still there. All of us were rooting for Obama.

With each state that got on board with the progressive agenda, I cheered and noshed on appetizers, keeping one eye on the TV screen. Yes, we can make this change for the better. I, for one, was more than ready for my president to be someone other than a white man.

Flash forward six years.

Despite shared ideologies, tonight was the first time I'd caught up with my Obama-supporting friends in ages. They walked into Sidewalk Cafe where I'd taken up residence near the end of the bar for dinner. Welcome, old friends and Democrats.

Of all the places to finally run into them, that it was at Sidewalk Cafe made perfect sense. A place that's been around since 1990 back when the first Bush was in the White House, it's a reliably easy place to end up for a quick meal, extended drinking or C, all of the above.

While it seems like every year another group of VCU graduates takes ownership of its booths and tables for happy hour and late night bull sessions, the reality is that it's an easy go-to for neighbors and long-time city dwellers on occasion, too. Think Joe's Inn without so many screaming toddlers.

For years, I was never more than an occasional customer mainly because of its devoted smoking clientele and the sepia-toned walls that held the odor and color of nicotine. But post-smoking ban, fond memories of their blackened steak and blue cheese salad were enough to put me back there and in place to randomly run into my former neighbors.

The strange part was, I almost didn't recognize them when they came in. Part of that was how bundled up they were for the weather, but another part was simply that they looked older than they had that historic November night years ago.

Because we all do. Life exacts its toll on our faces and bodies - changes my mother with her glass half full brand of optimism always referred to as "badges of honor" - exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices and lessened a little by good DNA.

Coco Chanel famously said that nature gives you the face you have at 20, but it's up to you to merit the face you have at 50. In my friends' faces, I could see the years of expended energy they'd put into raising three sons, but I could also see the easy companionship of their long-time marriage.

On my way back from the loo, I stopped at their table to hear about what's going on in their lives these days and we fell into easy conversation about many things. Once we got busy talking, I wondered how in the world I hadn't immediately recognized them. Their passion for politics and enjoyment of life was still very much in evidence with every word that came out of their mouths.

That's the thing, really. It's not being a certain age that changes how people look, it's how they live their lives as the years go by. Speaking from my own experience, I'd say passion and enthusiasm go a long way toward keeping your spirit young.

Which is not to say I'm giving up walking, sunscreen and moisturizer any time soon. I like it when someone posts a six-year old photo of me online and a friend in Scotland comments, "Do you have a portrait in the attic by any chance???"

What I've got is excitement for whatever - current events, pudding, dancing - is catching my fancy lately. I'd like to think it's written all over my face.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Welcome to My Life

No one sets out to be the poster girl for middle-aged singlehood.

A succession of life's lemons dropped in my lap led me on the path to that dubious distinction, with nary a clue in advance of where I was headed. But then, I can be pretty oblivious.

The great recession of 2008 claimed me as one of its countless victims when I was laid off as a webcast producer in December that year. Disappointing, but I'd already learned the life lesson that jobs come and go.

While I was wading through the miasma of applying for unemployment and scouring the Web for job listings seeking my limited skill set, I came down with pneumonia. And not the garden variety, but the "so severe we're going to put you in intensive care for five days" kind. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I might die.

With so much negative juju swirling around me, you'd think I wouldn't have been surprised when my boyfriend of six years ended our run, but I was. The fact that we were living together in his house only added another layer to the quagmire that had become my new reality.

Endless Internet searching revealed that in just over two months, I'd faced four of the five major life stressors: job loss, moving, illness and break-up. The only one missing was death and that would come a year later when my beloved 15-year old beagle died. It's a good dog who hangs on until you have the wherewithal to deal with losing him.

I wish I could say that with a winning smile and a good attitude I soon restored my life to its pre-cataclysmic state, but that's not what happened. So many days, all I could think about was how much I hadn't wanted to end up here at this late point in my life. Upheaval was for the young.

Learning to knit together the fabric of a new life happened incrementally, somewhere between uncertainty and loneliness. What I thought I knew for sure was that I didn't want to forge a different path. Or did I?

Months of applying for jobs I really didn't want taught me that job seekers of a certain age are less desirable, no matter how impressive the resume. But those same months of not having to be at an office from 9 to 5 opened up entirely new doors formerly invisible to this morning person.

All of a sudden, it didn't matter how late I stayed up or how late I slept in. Family and friends soon learned not to call me before 10, preferably 11. Better yet, e-mail me and I'll get back to you whenever.

One of my responsibilities as a producer had been blogging and it didn't take long for me to miss that outlet, that audience. I started a blog because I wanted to share what I was doing, going through and feeling, but I had no idea if anyone would read it besides a few close friends.

Delighted when they did, I was downright thrilled when I heard from local editors who wanted me to write for them. I like to think that I willed it to be. When I'd applied for my little apartment, I'd written "freelance writer" as my occupation despite the fact that I was doing nothing more than collecting unemployment and sending out resumes daily.

Perhaps I had been the change I wanted to see.

As a died-in-the-wool extrovert, though, in the early days, the most challenging part of being jobless and living alone was the lack of social interaction. I craved company like I do Milk Duds with buttered popcorn. True, I didn't have much money, but part of the beauty of a town like Richmond is the wealth of free culture.

I set out to own it. Every evening, I went out. Not every night except when I was tired or every night when the weather was good, but every single night of the year. I would find something, anything, occasionally spending a few dollars, but always seeking out something to do and by default, people to talk to.

In doing so, I found myself welcomed into practically every scene in which I participated. I went to play readings and met people in the theater. I went to music shows two and three nights a week and soon had musicians coming up to me and asking, "Who are you? You're at every show." I was devoted to poetry readings and met people capable of shaping words into beauty. At history lectures, I met other history nerds, at art openings, gallerists and artists. And I did it alone.

Why? Most middle-aged people are already in relationships and that's how they socialize, as couples. Since I had no intention of dating (it took four years for me to dip my foot in that pond), that was out.

The infrequent availability of friends meant that I could sit at home waiting for them to be free or head out alone and take my chances with strangers. You might be surprised at what people will say to a woman out by herself. I know that writing about these solo adventures in my blog made for some pretty colorful posts. Some of the stuff I left out was even better.

I've also made new friends along the way who occasionally provide company so I'm only alone 90% of the time these days. But it's also a rare place I can go now that I don't run into people I know or at least recognize from past happenings, meaning conversational opportunities arise even when flying solo.

Posting a picture of my legs on my blog didn't hurt, either. More than a few people have come up to me guessing who I was solely because of the tights I was wearing.

One of the editors who contacted me to write mentioned specifically that my pluck in doing so much alone was impressive, role model-like, even. One of the first pieces she contracted me to write was about dining out alone, a subject I knew well but also one I wouldn't have expected anyone to need instructions for.

In the years since, I've heard from countless women, both in online comments and in person, that I'm an inspiration to them. How is that possible, I wonder? Some make it sound like I'm doing something extraordinary in venturing out by myself night after night. Not true.

All I'm doing is putting myself out there in the hopes of having an interesting experience and somehow I manage to do that every single night. Still.

Would I wish the triple whammy of job loss/illness/break-up on my worst enemy? Absolutely not. Do I feel grateful that it happened to me?

With every fiber of my wildly happy middle-aged being.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intimate and Grand

Oops, I did it again. Set out for culture and ran smack into the nexus of sports and cops directing traffic.

Unlike last night when I was on foot, tonight's inconvenience was brought to me by University of Richmond's basketball game, meaning I sat in a backup of cars trying to get somewhere completely different than where I was headed.

My goal: the Modlin Center for the opening lecture of "Garry Winogrand: Family Intimacies" by the photographer's first wife, Adrienne Judith Lubeau-Winogrand, a delightful former dancer who took many tangents to tell us a small part of the story of her marriage to the central figure in American mid-century photography.

How much more fascinating it was to have the woman who was his subject and bedmate talking about a dead artist than a curator.

"I had the honor to be Garry's first wife," was how she launched the lecture. Seriously, how many first wives refer to the honor of their first (failed) time at bat?

Showing photographs as she spoke from an armchair onstage, she told us she'd had no idea he went to burlesque houses at night until she saw the photos. "I feel I really made him happy," she said. "He decided on me and I went along for the ride."

Actually, I see a kind of romance to that.

Displaying a rare shot of him, she said, "He looks terrific, doesn't he? The problem was he smoked three packs a day, drank like a fish and sometimes stayed up for 24 hours." She thought that might explain his early death at 56, although his daughter was convinced it was all the darkroom chemicals he was exposed to regularly over the years.

Referring to his second wife, she said, "She only lasted two years. By then, he'd drained her bank account. Should I say that?'" Seems she's still friends with Wife #3, whose daughter was flower girl at her own daughter's wedding. Very cozy, indeed.

Many of the photographs were of Adrienne herself - sleeping, holding their children - and she wasn't shy about admitting that'd felt like she was married to a lens, not a man because he was always shooting her. "It was a constant presence."

After her talk, we adjourned to the Hartnett Museum to see the exhibit, a window into another era since most of the pictures were from the '60s and '70s.

Some were downright old-fashioned, such as a child on a wooden horse or a baby carriage in a park. I heard several young women marveling over that antique.

Ethan on 93rd Avenue, New York showed the artist's son dressed in a striped romper (something toddlers don't wear anymore), pointing a toy gun at a window. We don't allow that anymore.

Another showed the little boy slightly older running down the street, cowboy hat in hand. Adrienne had said during the talk that that picture usually hangs in her living room and she's already missing it terribly. What I found interesting about it was that the wide sidewalk held not a piece of trash, not so much as a cigarette butt as far as the eye could see.

My favorite in the entire show was 1967's Adrienne After the Bath, a photograph that could have been modeled on a Degas pastel. She sits naked on the closed toilet in a narrow, tiled bathroom, a towel around part of her body with a curved, young hip exposed.

It was one of the most exquisite photographs I've ever seen, all the more meaningful for having just seen the subject herself 58 years later. She's aged well, probably a result of her dancing career.

After mingling at the reception, I went into the other gallery to see Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, another new exhibit but as different as it could be: all the works were post-2000.

I had flashbacks to the '70s with Village Green by Vaughn Bell, a large, house-shaped plastic terrarium set on legs with the steamed up interior walls every former hippie chick recognizes.

What made this one so cool was the opening on the bottom of the "house" that allowed the viewer to stick your head inside to inhale the humid, plant-scented air inside. Groovy to the nth degree and very 21st century. We can't just look, we have to experience.

There was something very compelling about Mono Lake, CA, a huge digital print of the lake that had been soaked in Mono lake water causing water stains through which you could see the actual photo.

Inheritance was a large, wooden black box into which slides of endangered wildlife areas were projected while a humidifier spewed steam out of the opening, sort of an implied scolding for what we have wrought.

The show's strength was the wide-ranging notion of landscape as interpreted by an array of international artists during the new millennium. Even video games were included, not that I knew what to do with them.

As I was coming out of the bathroom afterwards, Adrienne was headed in and I took a moment to thank her for sharing her life stories with us. I said I'd been especially impressed with how she'd said she'd held fast to her own dreams and goals, even when her husband hadn't paid much attention to them.

"Oh, but he came and photographed me at the dance studio, did you see?" she asked eagerly. I had, but I also sensed it must have been challenging to hold fast to her artistic soul (Robert Motherwell was her painting professor!) back in the '50s when motherhood reigned supreme. Despite no longer being young, she still had the body of a dancer.

Leaving UR, I decided that the big game was still being played because cars were parked everywhere but there wasn't a soul in sight. Go, team.

My cold hands and I stopped for the fabulous and very French hot chocolate Amour serves, namely Les Confitures a l'Ancienne, while eavesdropping on a couple discussing their divorces, what Ritalin does to kids and the probability of weed being made legal in Virginia.

We had a joint discussion (ha!) about why firemen are different than policemen (she claimed there was scientific study to explain the different personalities) and why Amour should have scantily-clad firemen at their fire department benefit dinners next month.

After the chocolate, I indulged in a half glass of J. Fritsch Pinot Gris, a rich, semi-sweet sipper to complement what I'd just had and send me on my way after an evening well spent.

Part of that was the mid-century romance! He decided on me and I went along for the ride. That's as quaint as a baby carriage, but I don't even think we allow that anymore.

Although as long as you're sure it makes both people happy, why not? Should I say that?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Catfish Thai Style

For me, it will always be a love/hate relationship.

I love the VCU Cinemtatheque series, but I hate when it coincides with a VCU basketball game, like tonight. Despite only having to go a half a mile to the Grace Street Theater, it's like competition dodge ball to run the gauntlet between focused fans on foot and in vehicles.

Come on, people, I just want to see a free movie.

Twice, I almost got mowed down by people, heads down and charging toward the Siegel Center, oblivious to those of us not caught up in fandom. It's not like I don't want VCU to win, I do, but I don't have to watch it to make it happen.

I made a quick stop at Ipanema to buy a ticket for the upcoming Bijou/Byrd Theater fundraiser (showing "Finding Vivian Maier," up for an Oscar as best documentary), chatted with the man with the magnificent mutton chops and scooted across stopped traffic on Grace Street to the theater.

Not only were students pouring in, several saying they'd heard the movie was good, but grown-ups, too. The king of Video Fan sat down behind me, ideal because I then had someone to talk film with. He's busy working on the upcoming Twin Peaks festival and shared that they'd nailed down showing "Eraserhead" during the event. Can't wait.

I inquired what he knew about tonight's Thai film, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," the 2010 winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or prize and he confirmed that he'd heard it was terrific. In fact, they'd just recently gotten it in at the store, but he'd held off watching it to see it on the big screen. That's a smart man.

Just as the lights were dimming, a Frenchman I know slid into the seat next to me, saying, "There were too many kids on their phones around me. I had to move." There ought to be a law.

The film professor with the booming voice who usually leads off these screenings with an explanation of why the film was being shown and what the director is known for was absent tonight, leaving us in the hands of an assistant professor who mumbled a few words and rolled the film.

"If he'd talked much longer, he'd have put everyone to sleep," the Frenchman observed dryly. He should know since I once heard him snoring at a Russian film screening at UR.

From the opening shots of a buffalo in the woods, which probably lasted close to ten minutes without a single word being spoken, you could tell this was going to be an exquisitely shot movie. It was soon just as clear that belief needed to be suspended.

The tale of a man dying of kidney failure who assembles his loved ones for his last days began to cross into mystical territory when the ghost of his dead wife shows up on the veranda to chat with him and the others. Before long, his long-lost son arrives, only he's become a monkey ghost, complete with black fur and glowing red eyes.

What was most interesting about all this was how matter-of-factly it was presented. No explanations were offered for how dead people could just show up and talk to humans, but it came across plausibly.

What if our dead loved ones do have the ability to reach out to us as we slide toward death and help us make the transition to the other side? I can't say that's not possible.

One of the oddest scenes involved a princess who gives herself up to a catfish who thinks she's beautiful and, yes, there is woman/catfish sex shown as she floats on the water. It no doubt sounds far stranger written out here than it played out in the movie.

As a whole, sitting in the darkened theater, the meandering movie was trance-like as it unfolded, every Thai landscape enthralling, every conversation a consideration of what life and death mean. When the spirit world begins to recede at the end, we know it's because our hero has died and they're no longer needed.

Absent out usual professor, there was unfortunately no post-film discussion like there usually is. Given how enigmatic the movie was, it was particularly missed. I'm always curious what others have to say.

As the credits rolled, a student near me turned to his friends and said, "I liked it. It took you to another place." And as a 19-year old, it's probably a place he wouldn't have gone to on his own. in the lobby, a girl announced, "I'm going to have to go home and Google that movie."

Outside in front of the theater, a cluster of students was deep in discussion when I passed them. "And then she gave birth to a fish...right?" one asked tentatively. "No, I think she just had sex with it," another proclaimed.

Potato, potahto. My takeaway came from the ghost of the ex-wife. "Heaven is over-rated." Well, there's some good news.

Ultimately, it was a film not to be dissected, but one to be enjoyed in the moment. Kind of like life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Getting Warmed Up

For me, the attraction was the weather. For others, it was the night before.

We may end up with no more than a dusting of snow, but baby, it's cold outside.

Monday means Shoryuken Ramen is up and running at the Lunch space, so I made sure I arrived at 5:00 sharp to get a a stool (I had to displace a woman's large, silver bag to do it) and a bowl.

I was remembered from my last visit and the first question was if I'd been at the Elby's last night. Holding up my still-sore feet now encased in flats after last night's platforms, she laughed saying she couldn't hang with the restaurant crowd. "Too hardcore for me. I'm in bed by 9:30."

She was right. No way she could hang with that crowd.

Explaining that the weather had brought me in, she said some people suffering from Elby hangovers had called this morning hoping to get delivery of soul-reviving ramen to their homes mid-day. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Luckily, only my feet were hurting this morning, so my ramen needs didn't arise until an appropriate dinner time.

Even tucked into a corner, every time the front door opened to admit new guests, an icy gust would sweep through the dining room. A woman I had seen talking to a man in a car outside came in to ask for a table for two, despite being alone.

"He's outside, but he's coming in, even though he doesn't want to," the woman explained to a server. When the man did come inside, it was only to sit sulkily across from her while she ate a bowl of ramen. The things we do for love.

The door kept opening. One of last night's Elby award-winning restaurateurs and a friend came in for dinner. A friend of a friend I'd run into just the other night at Dutch & Co. arrived, saying she'd gotten off work at 4:00 so she could ensure making it to the pop-up in time to score a table. Her husband and a friend were joining her and she kindly invited me to be their fourth but I demurred, not wanting to horn in on other people's plans.

Anyway, I soon had company at the bar in the form of a young couple who were making their first visit to Shoryuken after being bitten by the ramen bug eating at noodle shops in San Francisco.

They were the last two people to slide in and find seats in the first wave. After that, newcomers had their names put on a  list and went to wait patiently either in their cars or next door at Supper.  This time of year and in this weather, tiny Lunch barely has room for its legal number of occupants and their accompanying big coats.

Tonight's special - because it's always classic ramen or a vegetarian version plus one special - was Thai peanut ramen, a double soup ramen with pickled papaya, peanuts and Thai basil. The smell coming from the kitchen was beyond enticing and the girl near me said as much as they waited to order. "The smell is killing me," she moaned.

It didn't help when my bowl arrived and I began slurping up noodles while they eyed me hungrily. They were right to covet my bowl because the depth of flavor in the broth spoke to the beauty of combining two types for a complexity that would have been fantastic any day, but on a windy cold night like tonight, was sheer perfection, especially along with assertive but not fiery Thai heat. And the yolk of the soft-boiled egg was that one perfect bite that required eye closing to fully appreciate.

As much as I want to try the classic ramen one of these days, Chef Will keeps offering these killer specials (last time it was wontononmen) I can't resist.

But the couple had gone classic and once their bowls arrived, we chatted while we all ate. They were aghast when I told them about the man who'd eaten nothing while his wife ate and amazed at how small the Lunch space was.

It makes sense, though, as  a friend who lived in China said that noodle shops are tiny places there. Clearly they've nailed the authenticity on that point. Our stools faced directly into the kitchen, causing my dinner companion to observe, "We've got the best view in the house."

It was true. Watching the ebb and flow of movement as the kitchen staff put together bowls of ramen was a study in anticipation as people leaned and ducked to allow others to finish a movement as bowl after bowl got the final touches.

I was the fifth person of the first wave to finish and much as I might have wanted to continue the chat with my fellow bar sitters, seats are at too high a premium for that, so I made my way over to talk to the people who'd invited me to join them and meet their friend.

Like me, all three had ordered the Thai peanut ramen and its tantalizing aroma was wafting up from the table as we talked restaurants and movies. But you can only stand in the aisle and block servers for so long before you know it's time to cede the space to the second wave.

It was only fair. My soul had been fed, my belly warmed and now it was time to address my lingering post-Elby's pain. Time to soak my disco-weary feet and start a new book.

Maybe not the most exciting Monday night, but all in all, not a bad way to spend a frigid evening. Unless, of course, I get a better offer.

You Should Be Dancing

It turns out that I'm not up to the task of dancing in 5" platforms for five hours after all. But I tried.

Tonight was the Elby's, Richmond's annual awards blowout for the restaurant business. How could I miss that?

I haven't since its inception four years ago and with this year's theme, "disco," there was even less chance I wouldn't be there. Come on, the 70s? My era? I not only planned to attend in period-appropriate attire, but critique those who dared to show up in inappropriate togs.

For example: white boots, fitted dresses, sequins and anything that looked like it came straight out of the '80s. Let me assure you, I was there and I know if we were wearing it or not.

I arrived at the VMFA a few minutes early, walking in with a favorite sous chef and nabbing a Prosecco, lemon and bitters cocktail so I could lean against the ticket counter and judge everyone who arrived thereafter. It's not that I was being critical, just looking to authenticate what passed for '70s garb.

Before long, I had plenty of company: the professional eaters, the chef clad in tight pants and no shirt, the restaurant owner with a hot haircut and jumpsuit.

We all mingled until being ushered to the auditorium for the awards. Luckily for me, I found a seat near friends and settled in to see what politics had been in play to determine the winners.

New this year was an onstage band and a group of nubile dancers who launched the show with their gyrations before host Jason Tessauro proceeded to sing and dance, thus dazzling us all.

Sure, we knew he could saber a bottle of bubbly, but sing and dance in a silver lame suit? Impressive.

In his repertoire was a song set to "Copacabana" about Metzger and another set to "Bad Mama Jama" about Julia at Secco. Both were hilarious, as was a tune set to "I Will Survive" about making the drive to Lehja to eat while cheating on Lee Gregory.

I was pleased to see Acacia win as Richmond stalwart while Jackson Ward entry the Rogue Gentlemen won for best cocktail program. All hail the Ward.

When Acacia won for wine program, sommelier Thomas said that, "We all love wine," causing an audience and staff member to shout out, "Yea, we do!" Autumn Olive Farms won for purveyor of the year, thanking Manakintowne Growers for setting the bar high 29 years ago.

When Comfort's Travis Milton won innovator of the year, he took the stage in his usual jeans and plaid attire, saying, "How in the world did I beat Travis freaking Croxton?" Appalachia trumps oysters apparently.

From there, we followed the same dancers upstairs to the marble hall for the big party under the disco ball. I had no worries about my disco worthiness, having planned my ensemble based on a 1977 photo, even using jewelry and a purse from the era.

Maybe it was my '70s-appropriate outfit, but I think it's safe to say that never in my life have I been told a half dozen times how beautiful I looked. You know, it helps to have been around for the '70s the first time.

DJ Marty Key absolutely nailed the soundtrack while playing videos from the era on the marble walls, most of which I'd never seen before (pre-MTV and all that). Who knew they were making videos of those disco songs?

Friends had managed to nab a table, so I joined them with nibbles and Prosecco to discuss the award winners, many of which we thought bad choices. As far as we were concerned, politics should not play into selection.

It seemed to everyone that the party was more crowded than last year, although it may have been the way the room was laid out. I spotted a friend tending bar and we commiserated about the crowd not properly appreciating the music of the time like we did.

All we could do about it was dance, him on one side of the wine table and me on the other. Such a waste.

Making my way around the room, I ran into plenty of friends as well as several people I had met out and about who remembered me. Meanwhile, I picked up small plates from the students at Culinard, tasting through various dishes as I went.

But eventually, I gave into the disco ball, joining the crowd on the dance floor for all the classics of my youth: Chic, ABBA, Earth, Wind and Fire, Commodores. You know, that stuff holds up amazingly well on the dance floor.

All too soon, the lights came up and it was time to vacate the VMFA and head to the after party at Can Can, where DJ Marty had mysteriously transplanted himself. No videos there, but plenty of kick ass disco music - Michael Jackson, Bee Gees, Vicki Sue Robinson - that eventually got me dancing with an award winner, a wine pourer and a front of the house manager, not to mention untold strangers.

Yes, there was bumping going on.

One woman and I discoursed on Richmonders who are slow to dance even when the music is great because of whatever repressed Puritanical breeding they are saddled with. "Just get up there and move," she said of the reluctant as we grinded up against each other.

Over the course of several hours, I had deep chats with one restaurant owner, light conversation with a cheese monger and witty repartee with a butcher. Sometime around midnight, I took off my platform shoes to let my barking dogs relax.

"No, no, there's glass on the floor," a restaurant owner warned, wine bottle in hand. I was past caring. I wasn't going to stop dancing, so I'd have to take my chances with the floor.

As I did, two different people gave me a hard time because I wasn't wearing tights, something we eschewed in the disco era.

"I get the historical accuracy, but you always wear amazing tights," one nominee insisted. Not when simulating 1977, my dear.

In case you can't tell, I had a blast tonight. A camera crew came around and interviewed me (for who knows what) and when asked why I was there, I said simply for the music. To dance.

Sure, people were getting awards, but that doesn't affect me. I'm going to eat where I want to eat. I went for the music to dance. And as instructed back in the day, I didn't stop until I got enough.

Okay, I stopped when Marty stopped playing. Unfortunately, all good boogie wonderlands must end.

Only problem is, it'll be weeks before I get all the glitter out of my apartment. Small price to pay for so much fun.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Winter Night

Truth be told, it was not how I would have wanted to celebrate Robert Burns' birthday.

In a perfect world, I'd have been eating haggis, neeps and tatties while listening to "Address to a Haggis," followed by a dram of whiskey and the singing of "Old Lange Syne."

But in the true spirit of making the most of a Saturday night, I got myself to Dutch & Co. instead. There, I spied a barkeep hand-bottling eye-catching "adult sodas," for a function tomorrow. The deliberate motions of squeezing the simple device to put orange bottle caps in place was very satisfying to watch.

Our conversation revolved around his backyard gardening with plans for a greenhouse and hoop houses to extend the season for vegetables for the restaurant and herbs for the bar. Honeysuckle for syrups, is already in abundance, as it tends to be all over Richmond.

A major reason for my affection for Dutch & Co. is their $5 menu which reliably offers some of the most creative small plates in the entire city. My first tonight was a dreamy salmon tartar, sunny and orange in color and accompanied by salmon skin blinis and chive yogurt.

While I was savoring every bite, I was busy discussing tomorrow's big Elby's party, which had everyone abuzz with its disco theme. As I explained to the several on the staff, my ensemble for the party is almost exactly a copy of the dress I wore New Year's Eve 1977 when I was headed to a waterfront restaurant and, yes, a disco to ring in 1978.

Don't tell me what disco was because I was there.

My second course was duck liver mousse on grilled bread, two generous slabs that almost certainly shut down my arteries after the first few bites. The tang of pickled carrots and onions, the crunch of nuts and the spice of gremolata made for perfectly balanced flavor in every decadent bite.

Meanwhile, a couple came in and joined me at the bar, then another while behind me, the dining room was filling up quickly.

My final course was venison pastrami atop warm turnip risotto, a glorious combination that the kitchen took over the top with balsamic mushrooms to add a sweet complement to the savory.

As I was declining dessert for lack of room, the woman at the bar nearest me looked over and said she recognized me. One well placed question and we recognized each other as friends of a certain man known for prodigious restaurant-going and spreadsheets devoted to finding the ideal woman.

They live in the Museum District and it was their first visit to Dutch & Co., and she was already proclaiming the duck breast the best she'd ever eaten. I assured her that its liver was every bit as fabulous as the breast.

Before I left, we made plans to have our mutual friend set up an evening so we can all get together and gorge.

On my way to the car, I passed a couple walking two of the liveliest beagles, both adorable. The smaller one had so much personality I couldn't help but squat down and spend some time rubbing its velvety ears. It was almost as satisfying as dessert and far less filling.

Then it was over the river to Crossroads for a little night music. Garden and Gun magazine had recommended Another Roadside Attraction for its vaudeville take on Americana and that was enough to lure me.

I found a seat at a table with a couple who lived one house away and we wiled away the time until the band began chatting. They highly recommended I come sometime for Sunday's Bland Street Jam, where they'd recently seen a bill so diverse it included R & B, opera and Hank Williams covers. "You never know who will take the stage!" she raved.

Another Roadside Attraction - husband and wife Lucy and Jordan- was a colorful duo with a distinctive array of instruments including a guitarron like you see mariachi bands play ("also a flotation device for small children," he joked), three banjos, guitar, washboard, kazoo, harmonica and drums made of plastic buckets and suitcases.

Both had terrific voices, enthusiasm and the ability to trade off instruments all night long. They started with songs with country-like titles, meaning they included parentheses, such as "If My Baby was Made of Strudel (I'd Eat Strudel All the Time).

They did a kids' song called "Johnny Rebek" that had Lucy playing a washboard outfitted with tin cans for drumming, bells and whistles using metal-tipped gloves to strike everything.

Mostly, though, they did original material like "The World Ain't No Oyster," following that line with, "but it's yours to hold." Jordan, in homemade striped pants, gave a short dissertation on loons and then followed with a song about the birds, competing with the milkshake maker as he sang.

One of my favorites was "Breakfast with You," a song listing just about every breakfast food ("The waffle iron's hot") and why he wanted to share them with his honey. I think it had to do with sleepovers and happily ever after.

Wayne the Train's "Juke Joint Jumping" seamlessly segued into "Blue Suede Shoes" and Jordan's hip shimmying, to the delight of the crowd.

Hands down, they got the most laughter from "Roadside Miracle Mustache Wax," partly with lines like "Those stray hairs will be a thing of the past" but probably also because of Jordan's magnificently waxed beard and 'stache. Lucy, in a colorful handmade skirt. more than held her own on xylophone despite the absence of any facial hair.

You know what, Garden and Gun had been right on. With their amalgamation of ragtime, mariachi, vaudeville and Americana, Another Roadside Attraction was one of a kind entertainment. By the end, they had us all singing the refrain "Fancy pants" while doing jazz hands on the chorus.

That was after Jordan insisted we all pick up one of their hand-stamped books of matches. Or a CD. "They're marked $15, but it's donation based. Pay $7 and you win. Pay $20 and we win."

Hell, we'd already won by showing up and letting them go full tilt at us cabaret-style. Jordan, with his Kona coffee-fueled energy and Lucy, with her low-key presence and exquisite voice, were the best thing Roanoke has sent to Richmond in a while.

With apologies to Robert Burns, my heart might have wanted to be in the Highlands tonight, but I couldn't have had a better time than I did.

Longing for haggis was a thing of the past.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Everybody Was Around

My last minute change of mind paid off in spades.

The film sounded depressing, bluegrass wasn't calling to me, so why not spend a rainy, cold evening enjoying dinner in the neighborhood? Maybe I could even dig up some company.

Heading out for a bite. Are you around?

If you don't mind that I haven't showered today, because they haven't turned my hot water on yet!?!

Hell, I didn't care if he hadn't showered all week, I was just happy (and surprised) that I could message him at 7:15 on a Friday night and hear back that he'd meet me in 20 minutes.

Arriving at Lucy's, I found the tables full and the bar with one lone guest, an older gentleman eating dinner. Naturally, I took the bar stool right next to him and he seemed pleased for the company.

Within minutes, we were marveling at the coincidence. He lives in Montross, half an hour from where my parents live on the Northern Neck. Not only that, but in 1954, he and his father had surveyed my parents' small village, a place most people have never heard of.

While he ate (and raved about) his "non-spaghetti and meatballs," we discussed a host of topics: going to Redskins' games, that he'd had a double bourbon at his hotel before coming over (he doesn't like blended whiskeys) and that he was in town for the Episcopal Council, which he explained they are now calling the Episcopal Convention "so it doesn't sound so Civil War-like."

His affinity for bourbon and whiskey was, he said, a direct result of his Scottish heritage and when he learned mine was Irish, he chided me in a thick brogue for not having a drink in front of me. Given my Irish roots, he strongly suggested I try Redbreast 12 Year Single Pot Whiskey.

When I asked him if he knew that tomorrow is Robert Burns' birthday, he stood up and began reciting to me in a loud, clear voice.

My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June
My love is like the melody
That's sweetly played in tune

Since it's not every day that a man recites poetry to me, I thanked him profusely and asked how it was he knew the entire poem. He said he used to recite it to his wife when he was courting her 48 years ago.

You can't help but compliment a man, not only his romanticism but on such a long, successful relationship, but I was also curious about why theirs had worked.

"I told my wife I had loved several women before I met her, but I'd never liked one as much as I liked her." No doubt about it, the man had a way with words.

We had plenty of time for more because my friend had called the restaurant to have the bartender let me know he had misplaced his wallet and was running behind. "Running behind a good-looking woman, probably!" my new friend cracked.

"Smelly and tardy," the bartender, who knew my friend well, joked.

I was surrounded by comedians.

But he did arrived shortly thereafter, in time to meet my Scottish-blooded friend and bid him farewell as his cab back to the hotel arrived. "Get her a drink, will you?" he asked of my friend. "She needs some whiskey!"

What I needed was food, so our first order of business was ordering. We both agree that the meat and cheese plate is the most unique in town (on tonight's was medium-rare skirt steak, toothsome and flavorful) and added to that the 404 pickle-brined chicken wings and the winter salad of kale, fried Brussels sprouts, toasted pine nuts and lemon vinaigrette, a combination so good we agreed it was crave-worthy.

Since it had been months since we'd gotten together, we chewed and caught up at the same time (sorry, Miss Manners). I knew he'd moved into the house he'd bought (hence the lack of hot water) but wanted details of progress.

The kegerator is hooked up and functional, he informed me. He already foresees summer parties with white wine in it and friends like me in attendance.

Maybe it was while he was telling me about his dating life (upcoming) or perhaps when I was hearing about the architectural detour his job may take that I heard two familiar voices behind me and a favorite couple showed up to take the two stools next to me. "Your bangs look perfect!" he joked instead of his usual comment on their length.

I'd wished for company and it was coming out of the woodwork tonight.

They offered me a glass of their Rose (why not?) and took our recommendation on the meat and cheese plate (the sounds of pleasure coming from her were reminiscent of "When Harry Met Sally") while my friend and I went back to our conversation.

He was interrupted and asked to look up and provide the VCU game score (they won) while explaining to me that his generation feels compelled to Facebook stalk someone before they date them. Call me old school, but I consider this tragic.

It was relevant because he was soliciting my advice on which restaurant best suits a first date. He didn't want anyplace near her house because she probably already goes to them regularly. He didn't want a place where he knows most of the staff. And he didn't want to risk certain Ethnic cuisines in case she was a picky eater.

Although, I say go for it. He was telling me that he once took a girl out to a trendy place only to learn she didn't eat beef, most vegetables or anything much besides chicken breasts. "Once she told me that, the date was pretty much over," he said, grimacing. I'm with him on that one.

When we turned our attention back to the newly arrived couple, they gave us their thoughts on what works and doesn't in the Devil's Triangle, how much they want to eat at Perly's and why they didn't go to the Jewish Food Festival (parking issues last year).

Then they graciously shared their apple crisp a la mode with us while Holmes explained about disco-era Rolling Stones songs to all of us and questioned why he never hears his favorite Steve Miller song ("Space Cowboy") played. Some questions have no answers.

It wasn't long after that all three of my friends began packing up to pack it in after early wake-up calls and full days at work. Hugs all around while I went over to chat with another favorite couple at the end of the bar and the others headed out into the rainy night.

I stood with my coat on as we talked, until finally they insisted I sit down, have more wine and chat for real. Why not? My day had gotten a late start and I had no place to be.

So many unsolved mysteries! Why would a restaurant with a focus on catering not participate in bridal fairs? How important is it for a restaurant to have someone focused on social media? Do people really pay off concierges at hotels? How many flasks are too many?

Next thing I knew, it was almost midnight and the place was closing down.

And to think I began this evening thinking I was going to go sit in a darkened theater by myself. I'd have missed so much: poetry, compliments, sarcasm. Advice on whiskey and a steady stream of friends.

'Twould have been a waste...of bangs and all those conversations I apparently had inside of me.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

Not everyone's taste ranges from vintage funk to retro cartoons like mine does. A fragrant white rose to anyone whose taste does.

Tonight, I began by giving my all to "Back Story with the American History Guys" at the Library of Virginia. The public radio podcast was performing live so we could watch them bring historical perspective to current events.

What a popular event it was, with a sold-out crowd including General Assembly types down in front. The woman next to me explained that her husband was in Atlanta, so she was a lone wolf tonight. Good for you, honey.

First we had to sit through the Lieutenant Governor (who pronounced "ideas" as "ideers") and the recently-hospitalized governor giving us a robust greeting that belied his recuperation.

Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh took on the '60s TV program "The Jetsons" as a cultural reference point for the current happenings that may (or may not) define our future. Clearly, what we had thought was going to the future did not come true and their goal was to provide historical context for that.

Balogh began by sharing that he'd gone to Perly's before the radio broadcast and now had indigestion, as any good Jewish deli reliably provides, he said.

From there, they addressed the relevance of St. John's Church, Broad Street Station, drones and online cirriculum, knitting together the past and the future, making it hilarious every step along the way. Balogh was self-deprecating, Onuf made his share of oldster jokes and Ayers was the glue that held it all together.

It's no wonder their podcast has gotten close to six million views. They may have radio faces, but their banter is terrific.

From there, it was on to the Valentine Museum to see "Made in Church Hill," an exhibit about the people who have lived in and shaped Church Hill. The exhibit was mobbed with people related to the exhibit, although the ones I found most interesting were the people who had actually shaped "the new" Church Hill, people who'd gotten in early before it was the cool place to be. You know, back when houses were $10,000.

Making my way through the very crowded show, I ran into all kinds of familiar faces - the film queen, the bridge visionary, the beekeeper - all, like me, admiring the variety of objects in the Richmond portion of the museum.

There, I admired a Chuckwagon menu from Oregon Hill, a picture of Catherine Street in Carver (where I walk so often) and a mourning dress (so much black fabric!). The bugle, sofa and man's bathing costume were just gravy.

Keeping to the old-timey theme, my last stop was Garnett's for a Cobb salad and some Moldovian Chardonnay while the soundtrack delivered strong woman's voices: Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, Garbage, all the best female sounds.

All around, the restaurant filled up with people, albeit not anyone I had seen at the Library of Virginia or the Valentine. Apparently, not everyone spends their Thursday evening digging into local history.

Which probably makes me the biggest geek of all. If you need more proof, my evening ended with Pandora set to the Curtis Mayfield station, a wonderfully funky mixture of L.T.D., the Dramatics and Donny Hathaway.

As fabulous as the music was, it's also key to have someone to enjoy it with and some things are much harder to find than a good Pandora station.

History is fascinating, but future is key. Any geek knows that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tag This

The bottom line is: you have to do something you think is fun.

It's not like I didn't leave my house - in the pitch black, mind you, since street lights throughout Jackson Ward and Carver were dark - already aware of that fact, but tonight I had plenty of confirmation from my betters.

My destination was Pine Camp Center for a panel of four mural artists: Sir James Thornhill, Ed Trask, Hamilton Glass and Matt Lively talking about the highs and lows of using buildings for a canvas.

Waiting for the panel to start, I wandered over to the gallery where former boxer Everett Mayo's new exhibit "Driftwood Comes to Life" turned out to be a delight. Using pieces of found driftwood, Mayo searches for the eye of the animal trapped within and creates from there.

All kinds of animals had been coaxed from driftwood and painted: a reindeer, a giraffe, an iguana, a duck in flight. The most magnificent was a lion, although unlike the others, it was created from many pieces of driftwood, not just one.

Back in the room for the panel, I heard person after person greet the older gentleman sitting nearest me. Finally, I had to ask why everyone knew him.

A native born in the Navy Hill neighborhood 87 years ago, Mr. Taylor was a photographer (he's in a group show next month), involved with Boy Scouting and active in the local Catholic church. In fact, he informed me that the now-shuttered convent I'd seen so many times on First Street was the site of the first black Catholic church in the entire South. Altogether, a most delightful man.

A woman approached me and while I recognized her, I couldn't place her. She pointed at me and nailed the place (VMFA) and the conversation we'd had. From there, we talked about everything from the Afrikana film festival to shows at Capital Ale House and Balliceaux.

Our only difference of opinion is that she abstains from events where parking is challenging and I suck it up and go anyway.

The panel discussion began with the four artists introducing themselves and a slide show of their murals around town. I'd been especially eager to see and hear from Thornhill since I walk by his Bob Marley mural on Marshall Street almost every day of my life. I was pleased to learn he was a Jackson Ward native.

Lively introduced himself as the first Lamaze baby born in Richmond, insisting he was only an artist because he didn't want a real job, but that was just the introduction to his offbeat sense of humor throughout the evening. Trask, I knew, came up through VCU and the punk rock scene while Glass started out as an architect before jumping ship to mural painting after a job layoff.

While a moderator asked questions to facilitate the discussion, many tangents were taken and it felt more like a conversation between an artistic brotherhood. All four agreed that the first rule of being an artist was to have fun, to truly enjoy what you do so you want to keep doing it.

They discussed the importance of a good work ethic, that it was key not to be afraid to make mistakes and that rejection was part of the process. Lively said his mother had broken his heart when she'd criticized a figure he'd drawn at age five because it had too many fingers.

Saying his mother had remained critical, he said, "Ed knows. He met my Mom. She criticized him." Trask nodded. "She criticized me pretty hard. It hurt."

Thornhill talked about the importance of getting involved in the community, going to civic meetings and talking to people to get some sense of their interests and priorities.

Part of the discussion was about the differences between graffiti, murals and street art. "Graffiti is painting on a building that's not yours. A mural is the same but you get paid," Lively said in his deadpan way. Trask saw graffiti as an identifier of buildings in decay, but an egalitarian one since everyone, not just people who go to galleries, get to see it. "I like that."

"Graffiti is language that says this place is messed up," Glass explained, saying graffiti artists don't get their just due. It was impressive talk for a man who only began mural painting full time two years ago.

The moderator told us the real definitions: a mural is commissioned and with street art, there are no rules for what is to be created. "If people like it, great," Lively said. "If they hate it, great. If they paint over it, long as I've taken a picture of it."

Thornhill shared how the owner of the Jamaican restaurant on Marshall Street wanted him to do a mural but had limited funds. "You can eat here for the rest of your life," the owner had promised but Thornhill said it wasn't long before he was sick of red beans and rice while the mural took several months to complete. He said the satisfaction was in how traffic slowed down and backed up to look at it every day.

That made Trask point out that art needs to be put where people can see it, and not just people who go to galleries; he suggested restaurants, community centers and every unlikely place you could think of.

After the panel spoke, there was a Q & A from the audience, including a woman with an attitude who wanted to know why Happy the Artist wasn't on the panel (probably traveling for yet another big commission). Lively got right back at her, demanding to know why no girls were on the panel.

Another man wanted help understanding a mural so he could explain it to his granddaughter, but Trask said interpretation was up to the viewer. One woman asked how she could help paint a wall on the next Street Art project and Trask told her to leave her name because there are a lot of walls in Manchester and she'd be contacted. Everyone onstage also expressed interest.

That led us to the final point of the evening: recent history has shown that when decaying neighborhoods get shown some love with street art, gentrification soon follows. Such is the power of public art.

As Glass said, a mural is the biggest business card you could ever have. Listening to people who have fun doing what they love is the best reminder that I made the right choice after my job layoff six years ago.

The only difference is that my business card ends up at the bottom of birdcages every week. I guess that's sort of like getting painted over. If it is, great.

Garret Life

The state of tonight's unions were anything but smooth sailing.

An out of town friend called after she finished a work meeting, wanting to meet me for a drink. I had limited time because of plans to see a play, but we settled on Graffiato for a quickie.

Sitting there with a glass of Prosecco, the bartenders began to feel sorry for me after a while, unsure if my friend was going to show up or not. Finally, she walked in, only to inform me there was nowhere to park and would I come help her find a place, making for a delayed union.

A parking space was easily found but by that time, we had barely 45 minutes to chat. We might have had more, but we were too busy stuffing our faces with crack-like ciambellas - mozzarella-stuffed doughnut holes with pepperoni sauce- and a pizzette of broccolini, cherry tomatoes and Provolone to talk as much as we could have.

Promptly at 6:25, I said goodnight and went the three blocks home to meet another friend for the play. She wasn't there, there was no message from her and I was stumped. Should I stay or should I go?

I would up waiting until the last possible minute before heading down to Monumental Church for a reenactment of the plays that had been performed that night in 1811 when the theater caught fire and 72 people perished.

Bad as that tragedy was, just as great was that theater was not produced in Richmond for nearly ten years afterwards. Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare were putting on the two plays tonight in tribute to that evening and as part of their historical play reading series.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my last minute arrival, I snagged two seats in the second row pew, keeping an eye out for my friend. I was surprised to see that some attendees had arrived in period attire, looking very elegant, but also a sober reminder that 19th century female clothing would not have lent itself well to a fast getaway (perhaps the reason 54 women died and only 18 men).

The artistic director let us know that the room had challenging acoustics and difficult sight lines (and reminded us to keep the center pew doors shut), much as the original space had and encouraged people to move around if need be to hear better. The actors projected beautifully, but the domed space had a decided echo.

The first play, "The Father, or Family Feuds," was a melodrama full of dramatic pauses ("Confusion!") and over-wrought sentimentality dealing with class distinctions (poor people lived in 5th floor garrets) and how they have no regard when it comes to matters of the heart.

During the intermission, many attendees used the time to read signage about Monumental Church and photograph it, but since I'd gone on a tour of it a couple years ago, I stayed put until the play resumed, thinking it was a shame tonight's union with my play-loving friend had not come to be.

The second play, "Raymond and Agnes, or The Bleeding Nun" was the opposite of a melodrama, with the comedy very broad (bad guys played by girls using their fingers to simulate mustaches because, as we all know, bad guys always have them) but consistently hilarious.

When two male characters are heading off into the woods, they bob along, the hero galloping as if on his horse and his manservant making the appropriate clopping noises as he does so.

Favorite line: "Converse with the ladies does improve a man." You see, gentlemen, you've known that bit of wisdom since at least 1811.

Shortly after act two began, the actor playing the hero stops short and calls out, "The house is on fire!" and the play is over for tonight's audience at the same juncture it was the night of the disaster, except without the heartache and trauma.

I have to admit, as cool as it was to sit in the space where the plays originally took place (and over top of the crypt that holds many of those bodies), I couldn't quell a little, nagging worry that something bad might happen to the modern audience tonight.

Fortunately, it did not.

Leaving Monumental Church, the temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up as I crossed Broad Street to retrieve my car and make tracks for Balliceaux.

I admit, given the cold and wind, I briefly considered just going home instead, but then I'd have missed this new project by some of the best musicians in town.

Playing tonight was Plush Dagger, which meant nothing to me but the sextet's members' names were all familiar except one, so I at least knew there'd be a lot of talent onstage.

They'd just started when I walked in and the band included drums, upright bass, two trombones, sax and trumpet and they were already locked in a groove. The room was almost exclusively men, including several jazz musicians and a table that appeared to be VCU jazz studies students bobbing their heads and discussing the music earnestly in low voices.

Mixing it up with some original material by drummer Scott Clark ("Stitch," "Purple, Yellow, Green") along with new arrangements of songs such as Fred Henderson's "Little Fox Run," the band kept it tight with lots of extended soloing and seamless transitions back to full band.

"This is our response to the State of the Union," one trombonist said before they did a song called "Plush Dagger" but only after clarifying that it was also the band name. Playing, every one of them looked fully in the moment.

And isn't that how you want everyone in a union to be, fully engaged and committed to being there? Oh, wait, maybe that's just my idea of union bliss. Responses welcome.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Have a Dream

I try never to miss the opportunity to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

That's why I was at the Maggie Walker historic site for a lecture this afternoon from Kitty Snow about the West Clay streetcar line where her great-grandfather was a motorman from 1909-1934.

Hello, I've lived on West Clay for almost six years now. I was that person calling out, "What block is that?" throughout her talk.

Arriving early, I heard a woman address the speaker, acknowledging their bond, having worked together at the telephone company 30 years ago. As they reminisced, a man in the second row, called out. "Where did you go to high school?" Huguenot High, she responded. He told her he'd been a good friend of her brother.

"That's the thing, " she said, laughing. "You can't be unkind to anyone in this town because they'll end up being someone you know's cousin." Just then a woman spoke up, saying she was knew the speaker's daughter, who had just had triplets.

I was sitting there feeling superior, thinking how grateful I was that I hadn't gone to high school or college in this town when a woman behind me began talking about how she knew the women's brother, even lived near him, and had heard about the stories of the triplets. When she mentioned the twins' father, I recognized the name and suddenly I was in the game.

The father is a musician and someone I know well. All of a sudden, I was one degree removed from all these Richmond stories. Funny how that happens, as I admitted as much to the group.

The talk was fabulous: pictures taken by a streetcar motorman who worked the West Clay line (Oakwood Cemetery to Newtowne) and snapped pictures of people and places along the way.

There were pictures of mule teams working on the Broad Street station (yes, now the Science Museum of Virginia). There were lots of pictures of activity on Bowe and Moore Streets in Carver, including one of Norton Street looking north towards what is now Magpie.

Photos of VUU showed a mostly wooded lot where now buildings stand. The stockyards located behind Newtowne West showed up in photos of pigs and cows being led down Leigh Street and Bowe Streets to slaughter.

Other photos showed drugstores with spittoons, streetcar drivers taking much-needed naps and various Jackson Ward neighbors, black and white, posing for portraits.

It was a fitting tribute to the everyday man, the best possible way to salute Martin Luther King.

After that, we went to Evergreen Cemetery, a huge burial ground for blacks and one I'd only read about. Everywhere you looked were tombstones, most buried behind trees and overgrowth, a testament to the sheer numbers of dead and the complete abandonment of the grounds.

The only ones who hadn't forsaken the cemetery were the lovers or at least the fornicators because we unearthed two used condoms as we sought out graves. Headstones ranged from early 19th century to the 1980s, with some trees growing right through the slabs of stone.

It was a powerful reminder that we only get so much say over the dead and gone. Me, I want to be burned to a crisp and scattered to the four winds.

With the east end in our rear view window, we made a bee-line for the Boathouse, hoping to see the sun set. The end result was even better, a twinkling view up the river toward  downtown, crowned by the Libbie Hill monument.

While it was incredibly bright in the bar, our stools put the sunset at our backs, the TV out of view, and glasses of LaMarca discounted by $3. Not a bad place to end up on a Monday night.

The guy next to us was trying to achieve three weeks in January without alcohol (kudos, buddy) while most other people were taking advantage of discounted pizza. For us, a view of the setting sun was sufficient.

On a day dedicated to a man who sought racial equality, we were more than happy to sit at a bar of people of all races, ages and creeds. Equal opportunity drinkers and talkers, so to speak.

Quoting MLK, I have decided to stick with love; hate is too great a burden to bear. Besides, love holds so much more appeal.

Or perhaps I'm just showing myself to be the hopeless romantic I really am. There can be no deep disappointment when there is not deep love. Or walks in the cemetery and bubbles.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Did I Happen to Mention?

You know it's a good day when it ends with listening to a) Julia Fordham's "Porcelain" and b) the Luther Vandross Pandora station.

First stop was the Richmond Jewish Food Festival at the Jewish Community Center, where the line for food spanned the building and into the heated tent. Fortunately, the line moved quickly and there were plenty of volunteers, so before we knew it, there were people asking us what we wanted to eat.

Never mind that they were navigating mud puddles and sloppy patches of trodden lawn, every volunteer had a smile and a good attitude for the hungry masses. Our order, matzo ball soup, brisket, broccoli kugel, potato latkes, stuffed cabbage and Israeli beer made for a laden tray.

We found seating at a table in the cafe with three women who complimented us for our wisdom in only choosing one dinner and four sides. "We were little piggies," the woman in a fur coat and muddy boots said. "You did it the right way."

At the very least, we did it the way that allowed us to have an afternoon once we left the JCC. Others seemed destined for naps.

The next stop was the VMFA to see the Impressionist paintings finally released from the Mellon estate after Paul Mellon's wife Bunny died last year. Although we were only able to locate three of the five pieces recently added to the collection, they were worth seeing.

Come on, when are a new Seraut, Gaugin and Pissaro not worth checking out?

Naturally, we ended up at Amuse for happy hour, where I took in a Double Happiness (lychee liqueur and champagne with coconut jelles) while discussing current events: Charlie Hebdo, Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry.

Once the dining room had emptied out a bit and the soundtrack mellowed to "Chim Chim Cheree," we moved on to Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc, a wine I'd first tasted at the Australian embassy last year. The sky provided a scenic panorama over the Pauley Center as we sipped and talked about mariachi bands, low-tech accounting and women who drink wine.

Leaving the museum after it had closed, we filled the gap until movie time at Secco, noticing a guy who arrived with a beverage in hand. Who in the world has the nerve to show up at a wine bar with a beverage? As our server observed, if the owner had been there, he'd have been thrown out on his ear.

Over glasses of Chinon and bites of pork rilletes with cornichons, we watched as the mostly empty bar became crowded with new arrivals and pleasantly intoxicated couples. At one point, a couple became rowdy, causing the server to observe, "That's okay for Saturday night, but not on Sunday evening." The couple soon left.

As did we because Movie Club was happening tonight at Strange Matter and we wanted to score recliners in the front row. The crowd was small but mighty for the Coen Brothers' second feature, "Raising Arizona."

I don't know about you, but I hadn't seen this movie since it was in theaters, so it was a delight to revisit the story of a couple desperate to have a child of their own. Nicolas Cage looked so young while all the usual suspects - John Goodman, Frances McDormand - were there.

It's impossible not to enjoy an evening of vintage film punctuated with trivia questions and prize giveaways (imagine winning a copy of "Lord of War" for mumbling the correct answer). Be still my heart, next month is the Patrick Swayze classic "Road House."

By the time the day was winding down, it was time for Lallier champagne and some vintage soul. I may not recognize Brian McKnight when I hear his name, but his dulcet tones are unmistakable. And don't get me started on Stevie Wonder's "That Girl." Pure heaven.

It's the kind of thing that's not only okay for Saturday night but also Sunday evening. And then some.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Holy Halo

Because it's Oscar nomination season and because we spent the dinner hour discussing them - what and who were overlooked - and because of nothing more than I can, I hereby submit nominations for my Saturday evening.

Best mistaken cultural reference: Cashier looks at me and says, "You look like a '70s rock star." Which one, I ask? "Um, Cyndi Lauper? You know, with the scarves and the hair?" I do know, but that was the '80s, sweetheart.

Best way to spend the evening with an early bird friend: Wait till her husband goes to a bachelor party in Baltimore and invite her to dinner and an early music show. Only downside: our evening was over before he made it to the, ahem, "gentlemen's club," from which we were very much looking forward to seeing photos.

Best place to meet a picky eater at 4:00 for linner (her word, not mine): 821 Cafe, where the server doesn't ask what I want but whether I want a whole or half order of black bean nachos (half today). M.I.A. was the usual thrash soundtrack, perhaps a nod to the older crowd who'd come from seeing  "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Mosque Landmark Altria Theater. Our loss.

Best/most unexpected response when you walk up to a friend listening to loud music in her car: "Drake is the best!" hardly surprising from the person who introduced me to Miguel.

Best reason to go to Hardywood for the third time in 8 days: To hear Dave Watkins played his Mogwai cover and his own killer song "Marshall Street," to see Gull's one-man band Version 2015 (new mask, better songs, interpretive dance) and to be among the first to get to see Lobo Marino's new video "Holy River," a song so amazing it's likely to catapult them into the big time.

Best reference by the video's filmmaker: "This is the Hobbit of Lobo Marino." As in, the video shoot for "Holy River" resulted in so much footage that he also made videos for two other songs from the upcoming album. And we got to see them all tonight.

Best line about a guy with a beard: "He needs to cut that off and donate it to Locks of Love, pube version."

Best reaction to a song about a snapping turtle: "Did I tell you I bought a glass with turtles f*cking on it while I was thrifting today?" Nope. When she pulls up a picture, I see, yes, two happy green turtles engaged in the act. The caption reads, "Faster, faster."

Best Facebook status update while we're at the show: "My husband is out of naturally I'm watching Gull cover Beyonce with Karen. I should point out that Karen had to ask me what Bey song it was. HALO, Karen, duh."

Best stranger to stand next to at a show: Sketch Girl, the artist who turns a blank page into an ink-wash illustration of one of the musicians onstage while the rest of us are just enjoying the music. Not to mention the heady scent of her markers, a flashback to the only acceptable childhood high.

Best compliment called to me from a passing car: "I love your hair. You look like a rock star!" Yes, I know the shouter, but that makes it no less flattering.

Best crack at Hardywood's expense: When Laney and Jameson are calling for Graham, their guest tabla player for the evening and he's not to be found, Laney muses, "He's not from here so he doesn't know how strong Hardywood's beer is." Fortunately he had not passed out and returned to join them for one more song.

Best use of the most body parts: Jameson of Lobo Marino who managed to drum while playing harmonium with one foot and shaking the bell on his ankle with the other. Truly impressive.

Best possible way to end a four-hour show: With Lobo Marino reprising that killer new song "Holy River," which sounds even more wondrous live. Beautiful, magical and a clear indicator of a whole new level of songwriting for these two, who leave tomorrow for a two-month tour down the east coast to Key West. Their return show is already on my calendar.

And the winner is...Karen, duh.

Comics and Chalk

Today's walk took me to a birthday bash. Poe was turning 206.

I figured as long as I was out on this sunny morning, why not head down to the Poe Museum and partake of the festivities. I went a few years ago and had thoroughly enjoyed a ride in a horse-drawn wagon around spots central to Poe's tenure in Richmond.

Honestly, I was surprised at how many people were already there before noon because this is a 13-hour celebration that goes until midnight tonight with a champagne toast in the Poe shrine. Maybe others like me have plans for later and wanted to get their Poe fix early.

Although, admit it, there's something not quite right about celebrating Poe in the bright light of a sunny day.

I paused for a few minutes to listen to a group of women mystery writers known as the Sisters in Crime talking about the process of mystery writing and publishing in the big tent in the garden before opening the massive door to the exhibition building to see "Re-imagining Poe: The Poe Illustrations of Richard Corben," a retrospective collection of comic illustrations Corben did from 1974 to the present.

Especially compelling was Corben's observation that illustrating the same Poe story at different points in his life resulted in very different interpretations. His 1974 drawings for "The Raven" reflected a young man's take on the story: a guy is sad he lost his girlfriend. But in his later works for "The Raven," he digs deeper into the devastating depths of sorrow that come with age and life experience.

Upstairs in a blood red room was an exhibit of James Carling's 43 sketches for "The Raven," all of which were deemed too odd to be published in his lifetime, a brief 29 years. From today's perspective, they're just suitably shadowy and evocative of the story, but apparently not to 19th century eyes.

What was most interesting about Carling was that he'd gotten his start by drawing on sidewalks for the pocket change of passersby. Today, there's a James Carling International Pavement Competition annually in Liverpool to honor him.

The final exhibit by VCU grad and local artist Nicole Pisamiello was of intricate shadow boxes depicting "Chambers of the Red Death." While another woman and I bent to study them in the darkened room, her partner said, "Yea, they're cute. Can we go?"

So many things I could have said to him, but I refrained.

Outside, I spotted costumed re-enactors, including one handsome gentleman clad in a frock coat and top hat, leaning on a walking stick, checking his cell phone with another. It was a bit of a buzz kill.

Under the tent, I saw the band The Embalmers - each wearing a tassled red fez - warming up. A museum employee scurried by with an enormous birthday cake for later. I hated to miss the walking tour of the neighborhood later this afternoon, but alas.

Who knows, maybe I can make it back over later tonight for one of the performances, maybe "Telltale Heart" and a toast to the man who gave us the mystery story.

We'll see where the day takes me. Like a good story, no way to know how it ends until I get there.

What Will Be, Will Be

Let's spend Friday night looking at life, shall we?

In the case of the Anderson Gallery's new exhibit "Myron Helfgott: An Inventory of My Thoughts," it was a wide-ranging retrospective covering the 45-year artistic career of one of my favorite curmudgeons. I can say that because I've known Myron for 15 years and besides, he'd say it about himself.

Despite the multiple hours and afternoons spent in his studio interviewing him for my profile, here, in Style Weekly, I'd only seen a fraction of the work that made it into the show. So tonight's three-level exhibit was as much a surprise to me as to the rest of the world.

In 1971's "Salute," hands cast in lead were captured in a box with a lead flag on top. Lead, so different a material than the plywood and paper pieces he's been creating the past few years. Pieces such as "Windows" from 2013, a segmented view of the Kroger parking lot from his condo.

I was captivated by "We Share the Same Interests," a mixed media piece from 1981-82, comprised of a metal figure of a woman that Myron had taken all around town - Monument Avenue, MCV, VMFA - and had himself photographed with. The dated photos were part of the piece and provided a glimpse into Myron long before I met him in 2000.

Immediately recognizable was "Waterfall after Duchamp" from 1990 because it had been in the foyer of his condo when I'd first interviewed him. Here the motorized waterfall took its place among the many pieces powered by small motors.

"33 years and 6 months" was another lead piece, this one from 1970, showing a pair of men's underwear. "Don't look at that too long. People will talk!" a man stage-whispered in my ear as I gazed at it.

Listening to reactions from the ever-growing crowd, I overheard, "Phenomenal work" and "This is the shit, man. The shit!" High praise, indeed.

I went through all three floors of Myron's art twice, knowing full well I'll need to come back when the crowds are gone to enjoy it all without the socializing distractions. And they were many tonight, with all that old '70s VCU art crowd in attendance.

When I finally made it back to the tent, there was Myron, wine in hand, holding court. He pinched my cheek, he hugged me and he thanked me profusely for my article, especially thrilled that I hadn't talked about his work.

Who needs to try to describe astonishing art when there's a crabby old man with a lifetime's worth of opinions to share instead? Not that the work doesn't tell an amazing story of a man who never stopped evolving, but anyone with eyes can see that.

People were still pouring in to the gallery when I left to meet my theater date for dinner at Bistro 27, finding him at the bar with a Cosmopolitan in hand. The hostess raved about how cute my tights were and seated us with a great view of Adams Street. I kept my meal simple - Caesar salad with grilled shrimp - to offset a decadent chocolate torte for dessert.

Over dinner, we covered the multiple months' worth of life that had happened since we'd last gone to a play together. We compared notes on "Mame," made plans to see "Sister Act," exchanged Christmas vacation trip stories and restaurant gossip. Then we high-tailed it to Richmond Triangle Players for another kind of look at life.

It was opening night for 5th Wall's production of "The Lyons," a black comedy I'd first seen a sample of at the 5th Wall preview party last August. Even that snippet had been enough to see the potential of the play about nothing more than family relations, which is to say, everything.

But what a family! In a magnificent brown curly wig, Jacqueline Jones chewed up the scenery and spit it out as Rita, the matriarch of the Lyons family. This is an actress I've seen in all kinds of roles and never have I seen her so completely inhabit a character. She will be undoubtedly be honored come awards time next year for this part.

When her dying husband (the always excellent Alan Sader) muses that he may go to hell, she shoots him down succinctly. "What have you ever done to go to Hell? Who are you?" Nobody in this family seems to have a kind word for anyone.

The first act was mesmerizing as the parents had their adult children (a gay writer and recovering alcoholic mother with two kids) come to the hospital room to learn that their father was dying. Despite the seriousness of it, the family immediately devolves into bickering and bringing up old family issues. Meanwhile, Rita peruses decorating magazines, planning to redo their tawdry living room once husband Ben is dead.

No one feels comfortable when they're intimate. 
Your mother used to vomit a lot.

Watching this family argue - the father endlessly cursing because he has nothing to lose, listening to Rita criticize her dying husband and messed-up children - was like eavesdropping on a majorly dysfunctional family. Awkward but utterly compelling.

Significantly, playwright Nicky Silver even weaves in the particular bond of siblings; they may not like each other or respect each other's choices, but they share secrets that Mom and Dad were never privy to. That's real life.

Romance is a treacherous arena.

At intermission, my friend and I discussed how director B.C. Maupin had created a tightly wound production that never ceased to elicit reaction from the audience, whether we were squirming in our seats, anticipating discomfort, embroiled in embarrassment or mortified at how this family treated each other.

Meanwhile, a cadre of black-clad crew miraculously turned the hospital room set into a much, larger studio apartment, as big a set change as I've seen at RTP, a feat only believable if you saw the transformation.

After the first act, my friend had commented on the robust laughter coming from the back of the room and, sure enough, the Man About Town (the source of that laugh) stopped by to discuss Myron's show and our enjoyment of the play we were seeing.

Writing short stories is like selling Victrolas.

If the first act had set some people's teeth on edge, the second began with a scene uncomfortable in about a dozen more ways. As it unfolded with missed signals, over-reactions and brutality, little of the dark humor remained.

The set was again changed back to the hospital room, this time without an intermission, but it was accomplished briskly and efficiently while the audience listened to "Que Sera, Sera." It was so impressively done that the crowd broke out in spontaneous applause for the crew.

Since when do you talk like a character from "Cagney and Lacey"?

The final scene begins with the father dead, but the remaining members no less unhappy or rude to each other. Hello, real life.

Watching the widow tell her son and daughter that she's decided to go on with her life in a manner that appalls them becomes one of the most satisfying moments in the play. Changing from power pumps to pink slides before a flight to Aruba, Jones makes a compelling case for delayed happiness after a loveless marriage that's almost worth standing up to cheer for.

Some people are happy, some people are lonely, some people are mean and sad. That's the way of the world.

As 5th Wall's production so ably demonstrates, it's every person's choice to decide which of those people they want to be. As if I weren't already in the first category, a superbly-executed production such as this one makes me even happier because Carol Piersol is back at the helm of a cutting edge theater company in Richmond.

Here's to long, artistic lives. Fortunately, they seem to thrive in this town.

Friday, January 16, 2015

First White, Then Black

Much as I like my history, I can only take so many lectures about battle strategies and ammunition.

Happily, today's brown bag lunch lecture offering at the Museum of the Confederacy was "One Bright Moment: The Wedding of Hetty Cary and John Pegram," part of their Civil War Sesquicentennial series. And, yes, for those counting, the commemoration is lasting even longer than the war, we found out today, since Lee surrendered in April but the series goes until December.

But while I had been expecting a sweet, southern wedding tale, it turned out to be far darker. "Ill omens attended the marriage," a friend wrote at the time. Yikes.

According to reports, Hetty was considered the most beautiful woman Maryland had ever produced. And while she and her family lived in Baltimore, their sympathies were with the Confederate cause. She even participated in a sewing circle to make Confederate flags and uniforms.

In fact, a confederate flag Hetty had made stood framed in the back of the room. After the talk, they were unveiling another Confederate flag recently restored that had been made by one of her sisters.

Needless to say, those kinds of loyalties made it tough to stay in Baltimore, so in 1861 they went to Richmond where Hetty met John, after he'd secured a letter of introduction from her parents. Slick move, dude.

Next thing you know, he's asking for four days' leave so he can marry her at St. Paul's in the  society wedding of the season. This is where the ill omens come in.

When Hetty tried on her bridal veil for friends before the wedding, she looked in the mirror at her reflection and the mirror promptly fell off the wall and broke. On the big day, Varina Davis sent the president's horse and carriage to take her to the church but the horses reared, balked and refused to move. The bridal couple had to take a hack and were late for their own ceremony.

As Hetty made her way into St. Paul's for the 8:00 ceremony, she dropped her handkerchief on the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tore her veil. That's a lot of bad vibes for one bride.

Three weeks later, her new husband was dead, shot through the heart on the battlefield near where he'd been born in Petersburg. The new bride didn't make it a month before becoming a widow.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Hetty and John's wedding wasn't really much of a bright spot.

Still, the story was an interesting one and far more compelling than another battlefield saga. When the Q & A began, a man in the back surprised everyone, including Kelly Hancock (who'd done the research and delivered the talk) with more details.

A descendant of the Cary family, he'd assembled a scrapbook of letters between Cary family members, family photographs and lots of other minutiae about the broader context of the very story we'd just heard. You could see the history buffs - Kelly included - in the room salivating to get a look at it.

I left them to their research. I'd gotten more than what I'd come for: a little slice of local cultural history with just enough feminine details to balance out the military stuff.

What a terrible time to be in love. Come on, Museum of the Confederacy, let's have a lecture about that.

City Fixes, Women's Stories

The evening promised several things, but I never saw the urban brilliance or oral sex coming.

I'd begun at the Virginia Center for Architecture's opening of "Reprogramming the City," the latest exhibit. All I knew was that it involved re-imagining city systems and structures, which didn't sound like it had a lot of razzle-dazzle to it.

Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. This wide-ranging overview of global brilliance sucked me in with clever, thought-provoking ways to make city living better.

First off, I learned something. You know why there's always so much scaffolding in NYC? Because they have an ordinance requiring every building have a facade inspection every five years. What that means is that scaffolding will always be a fact of life in the city.

Along comes someone with the idea to make the most of this necessity. Added to the scaffolding are counters for eating, pull-down seats and planters, making something formerly purely utilitarian now pleasant and inviting, a reason to linger, even.

In Sweden, where sunlight is at a premium during winter, many people experience seasonal affective disorder. So what do those smart Swedes do but install sunlight-simulating lamps in the bus shelters to allow people to grab rays while waiting for the bus. P.S. Bus ridership is way up.

Or how about the brilliance in St. Petersburg, Russia where they've installed "lampbrellas," light poles with umbrellas built in that sense rain and open automatically. People caught outside without an umbrella have a dry place to wait it out.

You know how seriously Parisians take their food, so they came up with tables that can be grafted onto plaza steps of buildings to create tables where people can eat sitting across from each other. The tables are easily put up and taken down. So civilized.

Even those airheads in Los Angeles showed off by converting former billboard frames into air-cleaning bamboo gardens. Do you know how much more attractive a billboard structure looks with bamboo growing out of it instead of some smarmy marketing message? Gardens in the air, beautiful!

In Vienna, Austria, phone booth usage was down but more people were buying electric cars, so what do they do? Add charging stations for cars to the phone booths.

As I walked around the exhibit, I was repeatedly blown away by how cities are re-purposing existing objects for 21st century lives.

It was the kind of show where complete strangers would be looking at something with you and then turn and begin discussing some aspect of it. It happened to me several times.

Best of all, they had a big glass bowl for suggestions for ideas to improve our own fair city. I say we start by copying L.A., Russia or Paris and move on from there. No sense reinventing the wheel right off the bat.

When I left there, my intellect was fully stimulated as I let my mind consider the marvelously creative ideas I'd just witnessed.

My next stop (yet again) was Balliceaux and this month's edition of the Noir Cinema series, one of my new favorite events. This month, they'd brought in director/actor Ka'ramuu Kush to screen his short, "And Then..."

After finding a seat in the third row, I looked around for someone I recognized besides the woman who runs the event. Not a soul. A few minutes later, a guy I see at shows took the chair next to me, immediately asking what I thought of last night's New Orleans band, The Naughty Professor, and, just like that, I had company.

But woman can not live by conversation alone, so I also enjoyed a Scotch egg, something new from the kitchen. The soft-boiled duck egg was covered in sage and thyme sausage, rolled in cornbread and deep fried before finding a home on a bed of shiitake mushrooms and beef demi-glace. Oh, yes, and there was a bit of shaved truffle on top.

It was obscene and I mean that in the most complimentary way. A couple of those at brunch and you wouldn't want to do anything but spend the day napping. I shared part of it with the guy next door lest I fall asleep during the film.

I needn't have worried. Even with an hour delay in starting due to technical difficulties and plenty of spirited conversation with strangers (about the history of the Moors, "Selma" and British actors doing American southern accents), enthusiasm for the film stayed high.

In fact, it probably grew when L.A. filmmaker Kush (originally from Detroit) introduced the coming of womanhood film, saying he was glad there were no kids present because, "This is a film for grown folks."

It begins with a close-up of feet dancing and moves up to where we can see two very attractive people dancing together (he was one of them). From there, we go to the bedroom where she's screwing up her nerve to tell him she didn't like something he'd done in bed while they were having sex.

When she tells him, it leads to a wonderfully honest scene between them as they discuss what they do and don't like - about sex and relationships. His key point is, "Hurting you can never make me feel good." You could almost hear the women in the room swoon when he said it.

But it was the denouement that caught everyone by surprise and not just because it involved obvious oral sex, although that part had some in the audience reacting very vocally.

Given a title of "And Then..." you can probably guess that no answers were provided at the end of the film. Each viewer was left to decide what may have happened next. For a lot of women watching, there was some serious fanning going on after that final scene.

If the DJ had begun playing at that point, there would have been no telling what might have happened on the dance floor. Instead, Kush took  the director's chair in front of the screen and the audience unleashed a torrent of thoughtful questions on him.

Mostly it was women, curious about his take on relationships, communication and ego. Many times, he commented on what good questions were being asked, but I think it was mainly a case of women (because 98% of the questions came from women) wanting to discuss the points his film raised.

Namely that certain conversations need to be shared in a relationship, even if the man's ego is on the line. Even if they're difficult conversations he doesn't want to have. He almost got cheered when he said that because men have the privilege in a relationship (like whites over blacks or rich over poor), it's up to them to try harder to talk about the things that matter to a woman.

Before long, we were discussing deep stuff brought up in the film. At what point in a relationship does having sex become making love and when do you talk about which you're doing? How valid is marriage realistically? How far should you go to accommodate someone you love?

Because Kush chooses to make films that tell women's stories, he took a lot of questions about how he gets in the head of the other sex. In the case of this one, he and a female friend traded off, each writing one page of script and then turning it over to the other for another page. "These are conversations that need to happen between couples in real life," he said.

In this case, it meant that he got to write some women's parts and she some men's, making for a distinctive viewpoint that resonated with the audience. Women just kept asking him questions, not just about the film but about men and relationships.

When one asked how old he was (41), he laughed and asked why she wanted to know that. "Because you seem really thoughtful and intuitive so I figure you must not be too young since you've figured out so much already." One woman asked if he got handed panties and phone numbers after he screens the film (head shots and bios mostly).

The Q & A went on for well over an hour, an obvious indicator of how many women in the room related to the issues raised. He's shooting his first full-length feature this summer and it'll also deal with sex and gender issues. We even got his word that he'll screen it here for us.

And then...we'll probably have another fascinating discussion about coupling. Why? Bamboo on billboards: easy. Men and women: still a work in progress.

Just ask any grown folk in the room tonight.