Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Couldn't Ask for Better

I don't even know how I could pick my favorite moment of the evening.

It might be when I walked into Lunch for the Shoryuken Ramen pop-up at 5:03 (three minutes after they opened) and took a seat at the end of the counter.

The lovely Asian-looking woman behind the counter looked at me and said, "Your hair looks great! Who does it?" When I said it was me, she asked if I was a hairdresser. Ha! I explained that I've been cutting it myself for a year and a half and just learned how to blow dry in 2014. Still, she raved.

To someone who was raised by a mother who preached that "if your hair doesn't look good, it doesn't matter about the rest of how you look because that's all people will remember," this was heady stuff. I thanked her repeatedly.

Then I ordered a bowl of tonight's special, wontononmen, opting for shio (salty) over shoyu (soy sauce) in the fragrant chicken-based broth with scallions, bok choy, noodles and wontons of pork and shrimp. After a liberal sprinkling of Nanami Togarashi, I inhaled every bit, saving the plumpest wonton for my last bite.

While it was my first visit to the pop-up in residence at Lunch until the end of February, I heard several people mention they'd been there before, including two people who'd gone last night. The place, admittedly tiny, was completely full by 5:30 and I could see why the friend who used to live in China had said the small size made it feel like a true noodle bar.

All except the music maybe - that was vintage Cars, Bowie and Police - but as far as I was concerned, it was the ideal thing for noodle-slurping.

One of the servers showed off her new high-waisted jeans to another server and I admired them, too, telling her they looked like a favorite pair of mine circa 1984. "Ooh, I love the '80s," she squealed.

As I'd hoped, I was sated and out of there by 5:45, en route to the Valentine for the first of their 2015 Community Conversations series, this year at the newly renovated museum itself instead of all over town like last year's.

This year's theme is changing neighborhoods and tonight's topic was Highland Park. I arrived just before things got started and spotted the Man About Town, who swept over to say hello.

"Your hair looks fabulous!" he told me. "Very 21st century!" What was going on with my hair tonight?  A girl could get used to all these compliments.

The session began with the little handheld devices used for polling to determine the demographic of the audience. First question? "What do you think of the Cowboys beating the Lions?"

Like 63% of the audience, I clicked "E" for "Really, you're starting a community conversation with a question about football?" I could have just as easily clicked "I hate the Cowboys," but I hate to miss a chance at humor.

After determining that the crowd was overwhelmingly white and that most of us had never lived in Highland Park, we broke into small groups for discussion of our HP memories.

Of the six people in my group (including city councilwoman Ellen Robertson), half had no experience with the neighborhood and that group included me. What I did have was a story my Dad had told me about his youth in HP, so I shared that.

He'd been a teenager, it was after baseball practice and he and a friend had gone to sit on a knoll in HP and drink beers while watching the windows of a nearby house. It was a favorite perch because the woman in the house was known to undress with the lights on. This night she did and so did the man in the room with her.

It was after they got into bed and started getting it on that Dad saw another man - apparently the husband -enter the bedroom, start yelling and shoot the man in bed. When I'd asked Dad what he'd done after that, he said he and his friend had finished their beers and gone home to bed.

When I finished the story (one Dad has told me a dozen times over the years), everyone in my group was agog. "You win!" two of them said and everyone nodded enthusiastically, even the councilwoman. It wasn't even my memory, just an old chestnut I'd been hearing since childhood about my father's Richmond childhood.

Once the small group sessions broke up, facilitator Matt asked if anyone had a story to share and everyone in my group pointed to me. After telling it again to the entire room, a man in the back said, "Was that the 2600 block of Third Avenue?"

Holy cow, small world. The man turned out to be a long-time HP resident who shared tales of a bucolic period in HP's history when people kept chickens and rabbits in their back yard ("We watched people wring their necks. Those were good years.") and streetcars (7 cents a ride) gave way to buses (8 cents per ride) and everyone had to scrape up another penny to ride.

A man who'd moved to HP in the late '60s and raised his family there told of an old-timer in the neighborhood who'd come by when he was painting his house. His advice was never to paint the whole house at once since it would only need repainting. Better to paint two sides this time and two sides in a few years. "To this day, I still do it that way," the man concluded.

Can I just say how much I enjoy these community conversations for stories just such as those?

The Hat got up and filled our heads with fun factoids about HP, how architecturally intact it still was because the highway didn't cut through it (unlike my beloved Jackson Ward). Brian from H.O.M.E. said his would be the most boring part of the program and explained that between 2007 and 2010, HP had the highest foreclosure rate in the city (103 out of 852 houses). Not boring.

From the councilwoman and a representative from the Better Housing Coalition, we learned that the same things that attracted people to HP 100 years ago (proximity to downtown, a feeling of being removed from the bustle of city) still hold true. The problem is that 21st century families no longer need or can afford five-bedroom houses with 5,000 square feet.

Like cheesy suburban developments being built in the counties now, HP had all been built relatively quickly, between 1890 and 1920. The neighborhood has the highest concentration of Queen Anne and Victorian houses in the area.

I was getting worried we were going to run out of time for my favorite part of these conversations, the show and tell that Valentine director Bill Martin does using old photos from the collection to talk about the neighborhood, but he slid it in right at the end.

It was amazing to see Victorian families standing in front of these large houses with no close neighbors and a streetcar running down the middle of the street.

When the evening ended, the man who'd guessed the location of my father's story approached me and said, "I'm pretty sure I know your Dad. What's his name?" I told him. "Where'd he live?" I had no idea. We walked out together, confirming my father's age and discovering that they'd both gone to the old John Marshall High School.

I can not wait to tell my father about this man I met because I blabbed about his story. I expect he'll be as tickled as I was.

Still high from that encounter, I headed directly to Black Iris for an evening of music and film which had just begun as I walked in.

As soon as I opened the door, I heard the unmistakable sounds of Nelly Kate's exquisite voice and quickly found a place among the packed crowd.

It was so good to hear her singing after her "year of saying no" when she cut way back on performing. She had new material and the crowd ate it up, not to mention Dave Watkins' ever more sophisticated light projections behind her to add to the total audio/visual experience.

I would never talk while Nelly was singing, but I was thrilled to find that the audience was not only silent but intent on the performance. It's safe to say that anyone who'd never heard her before was rendered speechless, so perhaps that was it.

When she finished, people rushed to the bar and I took the opportunity to socialize with all kinds of friends - the theater couple, the band photographer, the WRIR DJ, the cute couple band mates and, yes, once again the Man About Town.

I spotted four people like me who'd come from the Valentine. Even the actor formerly known as Hedwig was there, providing me with the too-infrequent pleasure of his witty company as we caught up after months.

The guy I always see at shows was there ("Hello, young lady") and detailed his recent ten-day stay in New Orleans for me. He'd stayed in the Marigny, had access to a bike (logging 20 miles in one day) and seen 30 bands in 10 days. Then he'd come home and slept for two weeks.

Coincidentally, another friend also whispered about his recent trip to NOLA when Todd Chandler's film, "Carnival Conquest" began. Beginning with imagery of a Carnival cruise ship in an industrial canal, smaller boats eventually overtook the behemoth while Todd played accompanying music.

Another short film, "Bovina," began with clouds, followed by a night sky, fireworks and ended with a huge bonfire while "Shore Birds" showed just that.

"Salvage Title" showed a giant piece of machinery scooping up cars and buses in a junkyard, sort of a post-industrial Japanese horror creature consuming its victims.

What was cool about all his films (besides how beautifully shot they were) was that he kept the recorded sounds from the filming - the boom of the fireworks, the crash of the surf, the growl of the machinery- but layered appropriate live music over it.

During the break after his films, more friends showed up, including the dance party enthusiast who'd also been to the ramen pop-up tonight but only after they'd sold out of the incredible wontononmen I'd had. They'd still had the vegetarian version, but, like me, he didn't want that.

Even a first-timer like me knew enough to bee there minutes after opening and he's a veteran of several visits, so he should have known better.

Mirah and her guitar were the evening's headliner (Todd accompanied her) and it was soon apparent that she had plenty of die-hard fans in the audience. Not all that surprising since I'd read that she's been making music since the late '90s.

Her voice, an airy soprano that worked the microphone with nuance and longing, could have probably sung the phone book and sounded wonderful, but she was doing a lot of material from her 2014 album, "Changing Light" instead.

Favorite lyric: "You are a season I will not find again."

If the audience had been respectful for the first two acts, they were worshipful for Mirah, calling out song titles and singing the la-la refrain when she asked them to. "You're being very quiet. I couldn't ask for better," she said, flattering us.

Sometimes she took requests and once she responded, "I am playing some old songs. Maybe not all the ones some of you wish I'd play..." Her voice had such a  pure sweetness and finger-picking both her guitars, she created little worlds with every song.

Offering up a consolation prize, as she called, she said she was going to do a cover, one she'd recently done at a house show where no one recognized it. "It made us feel like the cool kids, " she beamed as Todd readied the keyboard.

We're never done killing time
Can I kill it with you
Until the veins run red and blue?

Their version of Lorde's "400 Lux" was absolutely killer, Mirah's supple voice being answered with Todd's responses of "And I like you" and the telling "You buy me orange juice."

When so few people knew what it was, she was delighted. "That makes us the coolest 40-year olds ever!"

Not sure I can choose the coolest part of a very cool evening. Maybe the rest of my group was right. I do win.