Hello old pal,
I last wrote you from a sofa bed in West LA, and if I’m not much mistaken I write these things weekly, but it feels like a lot more time has transpired since then. Time stretches based on the distances you travel, I guess, and just like a sofa can surprise you by containing an entire bed, a week can sometimes swallow what feels like a miniature lifetime.
The morning after I wrote you last I ate a pair of hotcakes from the inn’s (quite remarkable) automatic hotcake machine then headed north for Monterey. The sky was mostly grey, but the summer sun was still hot on the skin and bright on the eyes. Past Malibu, Oxnard, Ventura, I stopped among the palm trees and adobe walls of Santa Barbara where I ate guacamole and saw a very big dog, and also a very small dog, which was standing next to a very big replica flip-flop. Everyone moved slowly along the boardwalk and through the streets, like they had no place to be. Further north, away from the beach, the world morphed into billowing white-gold hills, occasional green crops, and stark rocky slopes that looked like bubbling water, only frozen solid and copper-coloured, towering all around. Before too long it was Salinas, John Steinbeck’s hometown, and then Monterey, home to Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, the latter sitting in my backpack. I walked along the water, along Cannery Row itself; I ate a sandwich in a local pub, listening to a band grin-and-noodle their way through a kegful of AM radio favourites.
Monterey melts into another journey further north. Some places take you a while to warm up to and for me, San Francisco is not one of those. As soon as I topple down the squiggling highways and into the hilly streets, as soon as I find myself cocooned in Queen Anne/Mission/ Art Deco houses that rub shoulders and teeter on cliffs and sniff the bay, once I hear the rattle of cable cars and smell tacos, turf, ale, flowers, marijuana, saltwater and optimism on the breeze, I’m pretty well taken. I’m taken down along Columbus Street and through Little Italy and North Beach, where a restaurant called The Stinking Rose boasts that “we season our garlic with food.” Clearly this is heaven. I’m taken down towards Chinatown, where, after taking a few wrong turns, I find my unlikely final destination for the day: a very specific chinese restaurant called Utopia, and more specifically, its basement, which I descend into via the main dining room, to the bemusement of some diners.
Down here is where it’s been foretold I’d have dinner with my family – my mother, father, sister – and a man named Bert, who’s an old friend of dad’s. Bert’s partner and friends will also be joining us for a night of music and merriment.
Bert’s 82, and a lifelong musician himself. Bert and dad met on the island of Majorca near Spain when Bert was 41, and my dad was 23 years, 2 months and 16 days old. 41 years later, I spot Bert at a nearby table, reach out and shake his hand: today I’m 23 years, 2 months and 16 days old.
In this cosmically symmetrical moment, I eat fried tofu and noodles and a woman named Kathy Holly begins to sing. Kathy used to travel around the country singing with Bert; she now hosts these Open Mic nights in the Utopia Basement.
Kathy asks who hasn’t attended one of these nights before; I raise my hand, as do about a dozen others, including one man with delicate spectacles, latte-coloured skin and a button nose. His long since vanished hairline points to a blonde-grey ponytail which trails down to the neatly folded collar of a grey coat, which sits atop a black skivvy; from its sleeves emerge two silver-ring-adorned hands, which have probably been around for six decades or so. Kathy sees him and exclaims. “OH, Bill Ramus, don’t be silly! You’ve been here THOUSANDS of times!”
Bill Ramus takes the mic with a suave, velvetine grin, and glides into Errol Garner’s “Misty.” His performance is so smooth it’s easy to believe Kathy’s suggestion of a thousand prior visits: this kind of delivery takes practice. It’s like hot chocolate seeping to your ears.
Bert shares with us a Rosé made by a friend of his in the Napa Valley. A man named Richard attempts a song but forgets the words after the first line, so instead performs Eva Cassidy’s “I Know You By Heart.” Throughout almost every performance, a nonchalant genius named Shota Osabe plays the piano, following each singer perfectly, sight-reading music and injecting tasteful inflections and jazzy scalic turnarounds between vocal lines. Shota has released his own music, too, with considerable success in Japan and the USA. Exactly how this monthly Open Mic scored him as session accompanist I’m not sure, but I’m glad they did.
Since my whole family is in the room we pry ourselves away from noodles and play a song, one of my dad’s songs. Instruments are limited so I fumble through on piano-bass. I play a song with my sister next. We return to noodles. A woman with earrings the size of her face and a purple satin dressing gown emblazoned with a black puma’s face on the back performs a number from “The King and I.” A elderly lady named Maria Diamond, with more length to her earrings than her hair, jumps up an delivers some crooning cheeky business. Many other cheeky crooners jump up, performing Sinatra songs or tunes from musicals, all the while with Shota tinkling away, all in front of a glittery silver curtain. Bert does a charming, winking version of “Scotch and Soda.” I do another song. I receive a fortune cookie which, given the context, I can only suppose is sarcastic: “You have an ambitious nature and may make a name for yourself.” I laugh and ingest some more rosé.
A man named F.L. Fox approaches with his bushy grey moustache, black tucked-in t-shirt and fedora and upon opening his mouth releases one of the most remarkable bass intonations you’ve ever heard. Apparently he used to be in a doo-wop group called the spades. His voice is like a mighty foghorn in the night and it knocks the wind out of me. Towards the end of the open mic session, Bert and Dad perform Procal Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Neither of them have played it for years – maybe decades – but they pull it off. It’s a pretty wild moment. Bert, says dad, helped him realize he could pursue a life in music. I could easily say the same about my parents. And here I am, Singha in hand, not only watching but hearing that lineage of influence, folded in on itself, as it bounces around the basement of Utopia, Chinatown, San Francisco, California, The United States of America.
The rest of San Fran is a joyous blur. Burritos, record hunting, pride parades, climbing towers, riding buses to every corner of town. Leaving this magic city, bound for Canada, proves to be a melancholy feeling. I write you now from a motel in Kamloops, British Columbia, which is not so bad. Last week I promised not to review any more karaoke performers; sucked in, I reviewed an open mic in a restaurant instead. Well, I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did. If not, there’s still some salt and pepper tofu. It’s quite good. I recommend it.