Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Seeing Me, Seeing You

Les bon temps are rolling over here.

As is our tradition, Mac and I walked over to 821 Cafe for a heaping plate of pancakes, the better to celebrate Fat Tuesday with. This year, we even wore beads for good measure.

Now don't get me wrong, we're both heathens of the highest order, but a holiday that features pancakes for dinner is our kind of holiday.

Unlike past years, though, this year's Fat Tuesday falls during VCU's spring break, so my part of the city is deserted. You could throw a bowling ball down Clay Street without worry of hitting a thing. Walking down Laurel Street was like walking through a ghost town.

The scant crowd at 821 wasn't especially festive, although the father sitting behind us falsely narrating a Godzilla movie to his young son was pretty hilarious. Meanwhile, I did what I always do with a plate of pancakes: ate half with syrup and half with strawberry jam and finished them all.

Mac felt obligated to do the same once my plate was licked clean.

Walking back through Monroe Park, we detoured to check out Portals, the public art piece that looks like a shipping container in the middle of the park, never expecting it to be open. A man came out the door and invited us in. Walking into the portal meant facing a screen filled with the images of two families - a Dad, son and daughter and a Mom and daughter -  at a school in Ipswich, Massachusetts and looking right into their eyes.

Hello, strangers, whatcha knowin?

Yes, of course I'd read about the year-long art installation, even heard that Richmonders had spoken with folks in Afghanistan and Sweden since it began. It turned out we were happening into a portal with people as near as New England, so the Portal didn't even have to translate for us.

It didn't feel terribly exotic - I mean, Massachusetts - but it was still a brilliant concept.

The portal really is an immersive experience as you look at the life-size people beaming in from the other end and have a conversation with them. It's a lot like real life, except from different zip codes.

After we explained that we'd just come from having Fat Tuesday pancakes and pulled out our beads as proof, the Dad shared that they'd just celebrated with red beans and rice with, wait for it, duck.

Seems he'd won half a cooked duck in some office pool (the questions I could have asked about that, but I was still figuring out the civilities here), so he thought it would be a fine addition to the traditional Mardi Gras beans and rice.

And as heathens who carb up and wear beads for no good reason, who were we to judge their choice of how to celebrate?

At the point that we walked in, the families, okay, mainly the kids, were waiting for the King cake to arrive, so they were having an even grander Fat Tuesday celebration than we'd had. But maybe they weren't heathens and I didn't ask.

But once the Dad started talking about how old a town Ipswich is and about all its maritime history, he had the audacity to brag about their 1632 roots. That was enough to get me going, as I pointed out that in our neck of the woods, we backdate to 1607.

His face fell. "Oh, yea, I guess that's right."

He pointed to the Mom and daughter, informing us that they lived in a 100-year old house. I didn't bother rubbing his face in it by pointing out that mine's 143 years old. I've long opined that Massachusetts has always had a better PR department than Virginia.

They told us the saga of Mr. Crane, the wealthy man whose company made porcelain for toilets, and his waterfront summer house in Ipswich which had 8 1/2 miles of private waterfront. Once a year, on Mr. Crane's birthday, he opened up his beach to school children and it was their only chance to go to the beach all year. Now he's dead but the kids, teachers and families still celebrate, even though that stretch of waterfront is now public so it's nowhere near the big deal it once was.

They also mentioned that there are exactly two weeks a year when the water is warm enough for humans to go in it and it's tough to get them out when it's like that. "We just stay down there and order pizza to be delivered at the beach," Dad says.

Mac's eyes widened and her mind immediately went to the possibilities of Outer Banks beachside pizza delivery. Hold your horses, girl and think of how badly that could go.

When we asked for more dish on Ipswich, the little boy pulled his chair forward and said very seriously, despite his missing teeth, "We're known for our clams here." Then his Dad tried to convince us that Ipswich invented fried clams but I wasn't convinced.

As the guy who'd invited us in marveled to the screen, "That's kind of a big claim, don't you think?" I do.

It was kind of fascinating to have this kind of conversation with complete strangers, although none of us had any trouble coming up with things to share. When they wanted to know what we were doing next, we explained that Spring break meant that a local restaurant did all tiki drinks, so we were toasting the start of Lent with rum drinks.

Even the kids looked impressed with our brilliance.

After saying farewell to the Ipswichians, we meandered over to Saison through deserted streets and sat down at a bar with only one other occupant and one long table of loud millennials talking about fear of scuba diving ("I'll do my own breathing, thanks"), house decorating ("Come over anytime and I'll show you what I've done") and not dating (by choice, natch).

My libation of choice came directly from the "strong and boozy" section of the menu. It was a spring break old fashioned made with Jamaican and Martinican rums, pineapple-hop syrup and tiki bitters, while Mac gravitated straight to the Hurricane, which arrived in a 10' glass, complete with enormous green straw and some kind of leaves speared together.

The bartender wanted to know what we'd been up to, so we explained how two heathens never failed to eat pancakes in celebration of a season they have nothing to do with. This required explaining Lent and Ash Wednesday to her, as if I'm some expert.

But she was even more taken with the Portal experience we'd had, asking for specifics so she could go do it, too. We made sure to tell her to get there in the next month or so before they move the Portal to another part of town.

When we declined a second round, she responded with great disappointment. "You're not much of heathens, are you, to have only one drink each?" This from the woman we'd had to explain Shrove Tuesday to when we walked in. How quickly they jump on board.

Besides, we'd worn our beads, devoured our pancakes, chatted with long distance celebrants and washed it all down with fancy rums. We didn't need to drink the entire tiki menu to prove ourselves.

Don't forget, missy, Richmond's been Mardi Gras ready since 1607.

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