August 3rd, 2010


American Pie

The Jester sang for the King and Queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

1992 (UAE/USA)
  • The first time I actually listened to "American Pie" was at Pancho Villa's in Dubai.

    Dubai in 1992 could still lay claim, were it so anthropomorphically inclined, to being a lazy backwater, on the global scale. Few outside the region had yet heard of it, save for perhaps as one of the staging ponts for US armed forces participating in the previous years' Desert Storm operation.

    But Dubai in 1992 also boasted Pancho Villa's. Exiting the grinding elevator to the second floor of the Astoria Hotel, potential patrons were greeted by a grinning Filipino midget in a sombrero and mariachi costume, standing in front of a sandwich board displaying a fading article clipped from a mid-80s Newsweek magazine placing Pancho Villa's at the top of a list of the best Tex-Mex restaurants outside of the North American continent.

    I've heard various theories purporting to explain this honour; I am partial to the (likely apocryphal) proposition that the restaurant was once connected to Texan oilmen posted to the area to help develop the UAE's nascent petroleum industry.

    Whatever the cause, by the early 90s, Pancho Villa's had worn a comfortable groove in its laurels, and was settling in for the long haul. It had joined the multitude of americana-filled watering holes scattered around the towns and cities of the globe's dusty corners, providing a home-away-from-home for Americans whiling away a term-limited diaspora.

    The walls were covered in neon Miller Lite signs and license plates from all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia, the US Virgin Islands and Guam). To the false drop-ceiling were tacked hundreds of dollar bills, and flags from every corner of the union (often featuring prominent use of the Stars and Bars). The cheese-oozing chimichangas were filled with grease, grease and, well... more grease.

    It was a great place.

    A beat-up old stage filled the space eight inches above the floor of the ante-Makkah side of the bar. A drum kit, two amps and three microphones had mad a permanent home of the stage.

    During the three years that we lived in Al Ain, we made dozens of shopping trips to Dubai (OMG Safeway!); the highlight always being lunch at Pancho Villa's. In all those trips, I only ever saw the stage used once. Thursday lunch was not the busiest shift in their weekly schedule.

    The one time in question, some lone folk singer had dragged a guitar onto the stage, and was putting a brave face on the act of belting out a menagerie of covers of popular American standards, taking requests from the few patrons punctuating the mostly-empty tables.

    I couldn't tell you for certain if the momentary slump I saw in his shoulders at the words "American Pie" actually occurred, or if it's just my memory editorializing. Either way, it was gone in an instant, the guitar strings quickly responded to the persuasion of his pick, and his face was once again bright and positive as the words floated across the room: "Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..."

  • I fall into love really easily. Well, perhaps the word should be infatuation. I fall into infatuation really easily.

    I saw T for the first time with an addled brain—staggering through a toxic twilight of sleeplessness and DEET. My work-related trip to the mountains this last week was unexpectedly prolonged; the helicopter scheduled to extract us on Thursday had been commandeered to help fight forest fires in the BC interior. It was thus that the appointed hour found my companion and I with everything piled up by the clearing, ready to go, and ... no helicopter.

    Five hours of helicopter-less humming and hawing later, we unpacked the tent, and set up for an unexpected fourth night in Mosquito City. It seems we should have done so earlier, for no sooner had we (re-)struck camp, than the distinctive WhoppaWhoppaWhoppa over the mountain peaks brought news of our imminent escape.

    One helicopter ride, one sleepy-and-annoyed ticket agent, and one overnight Greyhound later, I was back in Calgary on Friday, hastily-showered and ready for my first of ten consecutive volunteer shifts at the Fringe Festival. I locked my bike behind the ticket tent where I was to spend the subsequent hours, walked around front, ducked inside, and there she was.

    Makeup and shades mirrored on a gradient (the "model look") don't normally do it for me. But I'm not one to cower from the admission that I can be wrong. Or, you know, inconsistent. (Come to think of it, the first time I saw Nausheen, she was wearing similarly-mirrored sunglasses, so maybe my self-perception could use the application of a service pack.)

    Either way: Wham! Mouth full of marshmallows.

    "Um, hi." (nervous shuffle) (awkward foot-shifting)
    "First time here at the Fringe?" "Ah. Me too." (staring at sky)

    I don't recall a precise moment when my mouth remembered that it was capable of forming a sentence not composed entirely of monosyllabic inanity, but certainly before the first hour was up, we were getting along like a bushfire. The conversation slalomed around such topics as bike styles, dessert recipes, fire ants in Singapore (she once lived there too) and shisha flavours. The Fringe Name on her nametag may read "M..." (mine is "Hey, You!") but her real name is T...

    "That's an awesome jacket, by the way. Were you actually born in Russia, then? Whereabouts? Oh, try me; I know a bit more about Russian geography than you might expect. North of Владивосток? You mean like around Хабаровск? Oh? No shit!"

    T hails from Благовещенск, across the Амур river from China. Right on the Амур highway: the last missing link in the completion of a trans-Siberian highway from Europe to the Pacific coast: the area of the country on which I've been keeping my most intent eye for the last decade in anticipation of my future bike trip across Russia. Much of her family still lives in Благовещенск, and it wasn't long before I had an invitation to stay whenever it is that I end up passing through.

    We talked of (among other things) my attempts to learn Russian, and my frustration trying to learn proper pronounciation from LiveJournal blogs, and she deigned to bring some DVDs of her favourite Russian movies for me to borrow, so as to help with my studies.

    So of course, I was overjoyed when I showed up for my following shift on Saturday, and discovered that we were posted together again. Six hours later, following our shift, we went to catch one of the shows playing at the festival. And after that, another. And then to the after-hours Fringe club for drinks.

    And that's when I learned that T is only 21.



    She was but two years old that time when I heard "American Pie" at Pancho Villa's and actually paid attention to the lyrics for once.

    xkcd may be just a comic strip, but there is nevertheless some validity to Randall's observation that (x/2)+7 is a pretty good rule-of-thumb formula for determining whether a person is old enough to be getting involved with. And my x is sufficiently high that 21 isn't going to cut it.

    I'll admit I struggled a bit. I spent a day mulling it over, stretching and pulling at the formula in my mind. All through our double shift on Sunday I pondered the question of whether or not the formula was sufficiently flexible to allow (x/2)+... 5?

    But finally, reluctantly, I had to admit that this is one of those situations where: if you have to ask...

    Once done on Sunday evening, we went back again to the Fringe club for drinks. I doubt I was very talkative. I remember sitting there, distractedly trying to figure out how to approach the topic. Whether to approach the topic. Should I say anything at all? Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I was trying to be all dramatic where no drama was called for. I probably should just sit back, enjoy the company while it lasted, be Fringe friends with M (as opposed to T) and not muddy things up with any grand and noble proclamations!

    Jesus, Sean, what the hell's wrong with you? Why you gotta build up all these fantasy worlds in your brain, anyway?

    Great! Indecision resolved! Angst averted!

    And the band that had been playing finished their set and left the stage. In the suddenly-quieter atmosphere, T turned to me, saying she wanted to take off, paused for a minute, then: "you want to come?"

    Given my mix of Russian and Irish ancestry, one might think I could drink half the world under the table. One would be very wrong. Being so much smaller than I used to be hasn't helped much. The very loud buzzing in my ears made me suddenly wish I had at least two or three fewer beers in me. Strange: I didn't remember my tunnel vision being that bad a few seconds earlier. I was only dimly aware of people shuffling around the surrounding tables, of a new act clambering up onto the stage. I might have managed a wavering smile, or might have only imagined it.

    "You know what?" I proffered. "I'm fine here. You go off and have a great night. I'll see you around!"

    T waved and headed for the door. I stood up, turned, and started making my way to the bar for God DAMN another beer.

    The singer for the new act on stage grabbed the microphone. "We're going to warm up by doing a few covers for you all. Did you know that when Rolling Stone compiled a list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, this one was nowhere on it? That's just criminal! 'Cause boy, isn't this a great song? So here we go with the greatest rock song of all time: American Pie!"

I met a girl who sang the blues
So I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away.