Monday, November 21, 2005

Keep Max & Erma's Weird
Moments after I regained my faith in America, I shoplifted a cigar. It was all quite exhilarating.

It all started on sprawl's edge, on Friday night. Mary and I had been searching for somewhere to eat but all we could find were chain restaurants, which seem way too sporty for us. They're all cleverly decorated with sports photos and posters of sports teams and actual sporting goods, and they all have TVs blasting sporting events so that it's impossible to shield yourself from high-definition images of sweaty, extra-large humans participating in some kind of contest.

With a hunger normally reserved for non-Americans, we were well past the point of making the effort to find food with flavor, so we stopped at a Max & Erma's. Ever since they passed the law that requires people to eat in chain restaurants while watching sports, it's been impossible to get a table at Max & Erma's, so we took up the 16-year-old, midriff-exposing maître d' on her offer to seat us at the bar.

Mary ordered a beer and I ordered a dirty martini, which is the only drink guaranteed to make football interesting, and we looked over the finger-themed menu for our options while keeping tabs on the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Motherboards, the Topeka Creationists, and the Houston Conspicuous Consumers on the roughly 83 televisions in our peripheral vision. My mom raised me to say only kind things about others, so I'll skip the whole part about Max & Erma's food and get to the point. (OK, I fibbed. My mom is more of an "If you can't say something nice, come sit by me" kinda mom so skipping the description of the food is more of a mental-health, blocking device for me.)

The point is (and I'm not ruling out the power of the dirty martini or the value of extremely low expectations or the human capacity to love the person who feeds him when he's hungry and tired, but) Max & Erma's didn't completely suck.

I should clarify. Pretty much everything about Max & Erma's sucked (the food I'm not going to talk about, the aforementioned decorations, the restaurant's logo, the building itself, etc.) except the people. But the people were OK.

While we waited for our food, we started checking out others around us and were amazed to notice that nobody was watching the 897 TVs. People were enjoying each other's company and they actually seemed kind of (for Americans in a Max & Erma's) non-icky. There were a couple of darling older women doing a crossword puzzle together and drinking cocktails of a color not found in nature (one with salt on the rim, one without). There was a young African American couple so in love they couldn't keep their eyes off each other or keep their hands from gently touching. There was a table of four women – obviously long-time friends – who could all crack each other up with just a glance. At the end of the bar, two restaurant workers just off duty were getting loaded and casually flirting. None of these people were watching what could quite possibly have been the play of the century on the 7932 TVs.

Meanwhile, behind the bar, two friendly bartenders not only kept everybody mildly inebriated, but they actually knew at least half of the patrons by name AND knew their drinks. The whole experience was downright… weird.

Now, I'm a buy-locally zealot. I avoid stores with Depot and Max and Mart and Barn and World in their names unless it's just impossible. And I think the whole big-box concept is creepy and impersonal whether it's a store or a church. Why people go to chain restaurants when there are brilliant, creative independent chefs in their neighborhoods is a mystery to me. Here in Louisville, there's a whole slogan and campaign: Keep Louisville Weird. It means that if you shop and eat at all the chains, everything will be exactly the same everywhere: no weirdness.

I totally support the Weird effort. But what dawned on me in Max & Erma's was this unfamiliar little optimistic insight: People will always overcome corporate single-mindedness, even inside a spine-chilling facade like Max and Erma's. Sure, it's not as groovy as a neighborhood bar. And it's not as funky as a local restaurant. And the food and the décor completely blow. But set all that aside and take a moment to glance (discreetly) at the people and there's a whole lotta weirdness there. Maybe just enough.

It made me wonder: In 25 years, when there is some new vicious corporate trend – perhaps a chain of Wal-Bars or maybe by then America will just be one, giant Disneyland or maybe Clear Channel will choose what we all eat – but after the next nasty, creepy corporate robotic brain-freezing of America, will people wax nostalgic for the days before the sprawl's sprawl's sprawl had a sprawl of its own and will there be a campaign to Keep Max & Erma's Weird?

Clearly, weirdness is where you make it. It was enough to restore my faith in America.

Anyway, the cigar.

So on the way home, we decided to stop for a six-pack. Neighborhood liquor stores are the latest businesses to succumb to the big-box phenomenon, so now in our part of town there are two choices for beer: a couple dozen gas/cigarettes/jerky/condom/lottery/Mountain Dew stations, each with three varieties of beer whose names all end in "Light," or a Party Barn so vast its beer cave has its own board of aldermen.

We opted for the Party Barn, which has a marketing team guided by Satan and makes you run a gauntlet of greeting cards, tiny sausages, fine china, toys, condiments, pates, cheeses of the world, life size cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Homer Simpson, salmon jerky, 48,000 varieties of pretzels, small-arms ammunition and a wing dedicated to cigars on the way to the beer cave. It's a contest between Party Barn and attention-deficit Americans, and Party Barn never loses.

So what started as a quick stop for a six-pack became a full-blown grocery-cart hunter-gatherer survival game, and I began casually tossing items into the cart like a Tallahassee debutante at a tassel markdown at Dillard's. At the cigar humidor, I paused to sniff. I don't really like to smoke cigars but I love the aroma of the humidor, so I lingered long enough to get caught in Party Barn's tractor beam and before I knew it, I was tossing a cigar into the cart to smell later in the privacy of my own garage.

At the checkout counter, I piled my junk up on the conveyor where a festive fellow ran my credit card and labored to discover whether we shared similar views about the weather (we did). I then wheeled my goodies out to the car, where I unloaded them, only to find the cigar still rolling around in the bottom of the cart. I hadn't paid for it! A thousand thoughts smacked me upside the head: I should go back in and pay. Ach, it was so crowded. Plus I'd have to run the cheese-and-sausage gauntlet again if I went back in. The festive fellow would not know how to handle such a problem and would have to call in the IT department. An overly cosmedicated woman behind me buying a box of wine would get mad and storm off to another aisle, rolling her cart over the foot of a nearby child, who would in turn send the Grand Marnier display plummeting to the floor, stabbing everyone around with orange-flavored chards. Etcetera.

My parents ran a retail store when I was growing up, so the only lower form of life than a shoplifter to my dad was a Republican (and later, a Democrat). So to not pay for the cigar was unthinkable. Or was it? You know that smile the Grinch gets on his face when he's about to do something really mean to the Whos? That's pretty close to the smile I must've had when I saw the opportunity to shoplift for the first time in my life. I smiled and I ran. I bolted out of the parking lot as if one of the merchants of Mayberry was going to come running after me, shaking his fist at the whippersnapper who pilfered a Macanudo. Of course, the speedy getaway was for my own amusement. Nobody within six states of this particular Party Barn franchise could give a rat's ass. If I stood outside smoking the cigar with an "I just stole this cigar" sign, the festive clerk would probably just shrug his shoulders, flip his bangs and go, "Whatever, dude."

I thought about calling up the corporate headquarters and explaining the situation, just so I could take more enjoyment out of what I'd done. But of course, I didn't. And the next day I went back to the Party Barn and paid for the cigar. And a wheel of brie. And a ball cap that says, "Arrogant Bastard." And a helium balloon with Betty Boop on it.

But the point is, never underestimate the irrepressible weirdness of the human spirit. The human capacity for weirdness transcends all corporate creepiness, all Truman-Show sprawl, all icky radio sameness, and all Hootersy, chicken-finger-caesar-salad-quarter-pounder ferntasia.

Like a weed growing in an abandoned Denny's parking lot, human weirdness will always come creeping back through. So, by all means, Keep Louisville Weird. But also keep Party Barn and Max & Erma's Weird. I know you will.

It's not like you have a choice.

------- Special Event! -------

Oh, For God's Sake Live!
Jazz and the Spoken Word
The Jazz Factory
Louisville, Kentucky
December 7, 7:30 p.m.
FREE admission
Jazz accompaniment by saxophonist Jacob Duncan and bassist Brian Vinson

Special drinking game: toss back a shot whenever you hear the words "Reagan," "Wal-Mart," "liberal," "semiautomatic," or "capitalism."

See you there!

------- Special Event! -------