THERE, ALL IN PINK, curious new eyes, lioness ringlets dropping to the pinkest softest pillows, exuding, channeling, challenging, caressing, possessing, as if by virtue, the softness of all imperfections of perfection, with ballads, haikus, novellas, and miniatures, dropping loose from your waistcoat, like shards of broken sunlight cascading through pink autumn 10 am Old Town confectioners, bakeries, cafes, bistros, putkas, pulling me up, rising like hot bread, out of my mossy granary burial ground grave, up, up, up you pull me, ballooning out into full hurricane blossom, rejuvenated, refreshed, revived, currant purple starlight shooting cosmic moon dust comet love, yes, you, you know the type exactly, the kind of pull that makes you do foolish things, splurge on rash plane tickets, set up money laundering operations in Curaçao and the British Virgin Islands, the kind of pull that makes you promise that which can never be delivered, pledge that which can never be accomplished, commission public works, organize tropicalist festivals, win gold medals, entertain His Holiness the Dalai Lama, all for your love, love, all for your pink, all for your Jupiter moonburst honeycream explosions of the profound, that strawberry geyser pink cream comedown, those buttery dreams of post-aftermath bliss, those sweet runny dreams of wisdom, dreams of rebirth, dreams of palm tree reveries, dreams of kaleidoscopic intergalactic oblivion, dreams of raindrops, spicy teas, and the perfect late morning, the morning I saw you, my fall dream of you, for this is my dream of you, love, sitting there, unaware, all in pink.
Month: October 2021
in search of the paala järve vaala baar
ONE DAY AFTER MANY HOURS of work, I decided to explore Paalalinn. This is not something I usually do on purpose. In fact, the more years pass, the more I try to avoid leaving the Old Town and its environs altogether. I have all I need here, food, shelter, clothing, vinyl records, and the gym at the Grand Hotel where I can work out and watch documentaries about Stalin in peace. Everything that anyone could ever need. Yet I decided to go and seek adventure in Paalalinn. There was something there that people said I should see.
Paalalinn is a district in Viljandi about which I know very little. I don’t even know how it got its name, or if there even ever lived someone named Paala. A few years ago at Vinoteek Mulks, I did meet some old-timers who had grown up in Paalalinn before the building boom of the 1960s. They said that Paalalinn used to be a country place, before all of the housing projects, and children frolicked in the forests and along the streams there. At some point though, they built those large apartment buildings, and the man-made lake alongside them, now called Paala Lake.
This is now a popular summer spot for locals, who come to sun themselves on its sandy beach, play on its playground, and buy ice cream from a small ice cream cafe at lake’s edge. This is also, as I recently learned, the site of an intriguing dive called the Paala Järve Vaala Baar, or the “Paala Lake Whale Bar.” It is built into the side of one of the hills. Apparently, it is such an inspiring place that Puuluup, the eclectic musical duo, had to write about it. In the video for the song, they can be seen swimming fully clothed and singing in the water, as well as wrestling in the beach sand. The song itself is structured like choral music. There is a mysterious, Eastern inflection to this tune that recalls the incantations of holy monks. Puuluup are like monks, I have thought, which makes it strange that they would hang out in bars, especially this bar I had never heard of. Somehow after years of living here, I had never managed to encounter the Whale Bar.
Because of this, I decided to undertake my pilgrimage.
Getting to Paalalinn is not difficult, but not particularly pleasant either. I walked past the two buildings that burned in the summer down Jakobsoni Street, following the road past the earthworks for the hospital that’s being built, and then by Leola, that building that encloses another legendary underground bar, the one that locals call auk or “hole,” presumably because once you go in, you never come out. Also, auk, as I have learned, means “blood” in the Inuit language. Something to keep in mind. At last, I came upon the lake and saw the buildings of Paalalinn towering against a gray horizon. The people of Paalalinn are different from the ones in the Old Town, but how, I cannot say. The few I saw on my walk seemed indifferent to me, neither particularly happy nor sad, and I decided not to trouble them with my search for the Whale Bar. Instead I pressed on toward, eventually discovering it across from the beach. There was a table outside the bar, and the door was open. Smoke curled from a chimney which, because of the way the bar is built, made it seem as if smoke was coming out of the ground. Inside, a client was talking with the bartender, but they stopped their talk as soon as I entered.
“So this is it,” I said, admiring the place.
“This is what?” the bartender said.
“The Paala Järve Vaala Baar, of course.”
“No,” the bartender said. “This is the Järve Baar. The Lake Bar.”
“But I thought there were supposed to be some whales here.”
“No,” said the bartender. “There are no whales here. There is a lake here though. That is why it is called the Lake Bar and not the Whale Bar. I don’t know why people keep coming here and asking about whales, really. It makes no sense to me. There are no whales in Paala Lake.”
“Maybe because it just sounds nice,” I said. “Paala, vaala. See, it’s like poetry.”
“You’re probably right,” said the bartender.
I ordered a drink and took one last look around the bar, whatever its name was, and left. This trip to Paalalinn was over.
Recently while talking with a local writer friend whom I will call Jaak, he remarked on how much he has missed Venice in the pandemic years and, to cheer him up, I suggested that they could replace the streets in Uueveski, where he lives, with canals, and that way he could take a gondola to the cafe in the morning instead of his bike. “And look at all the work they are doing on Uus Street,” I said, referencing the construction that has left this major thoroughfare completely dug up. “They’re already installing the canals! All they have to do is fill Uus Street with water and it will be ready.” Jaak was not amused. He wanted the real Venice, not some fake Venice, but as I walked back from the bar in Paalalinn, I considered how much of our town experience is imaginary and how much of it is real. In some ways, Puuluup’s Paala Järve Vaala Baar really exists, for many even moreso than the actual bar. And my idea of turning Uueveski into the Venice of the North is now unforgettable. Close your eyes and you can see it. So, who knows, maybe in a few years there really will be a Whale Bar in Paalalinn, and gondolas on Uus Street.
All we have to do is dream and dream well, and our dreams will become the new reality.
An Estonian version of this piece appeared this week in Sakala.
impressions of the harvest party
I BARELY ATTENDED this year’s Harvest Party (Lõikuspidu) at the Viljandi Folk Music Center (Pärimusmuusika Ait). I saw two concerts: Johanna-Adele Jüssi and Peko Käppi, a jouhikko musician from Tampere, Finland. Folk music is repetitive music, and from this repetition, one can extract or achieve serenity, provocation, insight, inspiration, or true ponderous burdensome boredom. I appreciated Jüssi’s music because she knew when to begin and end her songs. Each one was a well-crafted knot, perfectly tied up. Käppi’s music was like a tarred old coil of ship’s rope, hastily discarded at the docks. His songs were longer and wilder, but he managed to well conjure the ideal folk musician, a traveling bard who goes from town to town telling stories with a sack of instruments slung across his back. That’s the twist when it comes to institutions like the Folk Music Center or the Viljandi Cultural Academy. How can you institutionalize traditions that always existed outside of institutional caretaking? Of course, much of the Harvest Party is about making an appearance, socializing with old friends, partaking in the long jam sessions upstairs. Estonia’s extended folk family is tightknit and its nice to be a part of it. Yet, maybe I am getting a bit older here, but I preferred to be in bed watching Harry Potter with my youngest. I’ve done my time downing bottles of whatever and shamelessly carousing. A warm blanket sounds far more enticing.
part ii: the chase scene
PART II was the chase scene. I had been renting a small room downtown on Castle Street for conducting interviews, typing up manuscripts, that sort of thing, and I had gone into the building to pay the rent in cash to the proprietor, who sat before one of those old-fashioned concierge desks with the keys all hanging on the wall, like some kind of San Francisco flophouse, you know what I mean? When I was paying her, she pushed her glasses up her nose and handed me a business card. “Two suits came to inquire after you,” she said. The card had a German name on it, something long, terrifying, and Teutonic like Hauptwerke or Buchmalerei. “They said you owed them money.” “That’s impossible,” I said. “I paid off all of my lenders.” “That’s not what they said,” the proprietor responded. Outside I got in the car with my daughter and began to drive back to the hotel where we were staying. But on the road, I noticed we were being followed by an aggressive driver in a yellow bus. He eventually ran us off the road, or rather up onto two wheels, though the car fell back into place. Neither of us were hurt, but we were both shaken. In the hotel, this sort of luxury Miami resort full of guests who looked like they belonged on Fantasy Island, we rushed through the halls until we got to our suite, which fortunately was full of various members of the family, that is not real family members, but soldiers, enforcers, the kinds of cats who drive up and down Howard Beach in Queens looking for some action on a Friday night. That is not to say they were true mafia, or made men, but rather had seen enough Italian-American cinema to know how to behave properly in circumstances like these. This makeshift army came face to face with the Hauptwerke collection agency mercenaries in the hotel corridor and there was a bloodfest. In the end, the Hauptwerke men agreed to forgive all of my debts and called it just a simple misunderstanding. They even pretended to be on friendly terms with the family enforcers and humored their requests to come back sometime and drink. I felt ashamed though. My daughter was not pleased by the car chase and the mercenaries chasing her father. “We were supposed to go see the pandas in Helsinki,” was all she could say through sobs. “You promised! You promised we would go see the panda bears in Helsinki.” I felt bad that she had the misfortune of having being born into such a mess. Yes, I promised her. There would be no change in plans. I would take her to see the pandas in Helsinki at the zoo just as I had promised.
I KEEP RETURNING to Henry Miller (1891-1980) whenever I feel all hope is lost, or down in the blues. Whatever the proper phrase is. One cannot call the author of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, The Colossus of Maroussi, and many other books, a hero, though certainly he is a literary hero to some. He was once working a rather dull job at a telecommunications company, or precursor thereof, in Brooklyn in the 1920s, and then left that to move to Paris. He was not successful in his enterprise, at least financially, and became renowned for mooching off friends and lovers for sustenance. And yet, even in that bottom-feeding roll, he was still a survivor. Others of his generation poisoned themselves with worry and drink. They wallowed in their own catastrophes. Not Henry. He looked at a terrible spot, a true catastrophe of life, and decided that he would like to make the catastrophe grander, more spectacular, amazingly horrible. If one is going to fail in life, then why not fail brilliantly? I think I first took note of Miller from his interviews in Reds. I thought: who is that guy? He seems so familiar. He talks just like one of us. He really did. There was something in Miller’s attitude that echoed that of my peers. Maybe it is true that the souls of the dying generation inhabit the bodies of the newly born. So that when we were being birthed into this world sometime in that gray Three Mile Island haze of the lost Carter years, the ghosts of the Great War and the Roaring Twenties were finding new hosts. It’s a thought that gives me comfort, that sort of muscular individualism they developed. No, they were not heroes of any sort. They were bootleggers and loafing slacker writers. Drifters. Scoundrels. Yellow journalists. Playboys. Actresses. Observers. Experiencers. Artists. Survivors.
lou reed’s garage
LAST NIGHT I WENT to see Lou Reed in his garage. This is actually a second building on his property out on Long Island that he has also converted into a studio, and which serves as well as a makeshift museum for Velvet Underground memorabilia. I thought he was going to dish on the creative good stuff, but like too many pro musicians, he just wanted to talk business. “And that’s when our new manager came in and we actually started making some money,” and so on. There were also some never-before-seen promotional photos for The Velvet Underground & Nico featuring Nico dressed up in banana yellow, with the rest of the band crowded around her in their vintage 1967 hipster attire, and the Chrysler building in the background. Nico looked quite sexy in the photos. That banana yellow brought out her charm. How did I never notice that Nico was so sexy? How had this fact of the universe avoided me? For whatever reason, I decided not to impart this observation to Lou Reed. Maybe he would get jealous? And wasn’t he bisexual or something? Better not to tell Lou. “But Lou, why do people like this album so much?” I asked. “So many people tell me that this is their favorite album. Why this one? Do you really think it’s that good?” “If you’ve never heard something that sounds like that before, then I think you would be inclined to think that it’s good,” said Lou licking his lips. “If you’ve never had that experience before, you are more inclined to remember it. That is how ‘Venus in Furs’ becomes a seminal event in any person’s life, that very first time they hear it.” Who was I to argue with the man? “Do you remember where you were, the first time you heard it?” he asked. I remembered it quite well. There was a high school girl I knew who spoke admirably of bondage. She became my imaginary “Venus in Furs” plenty of times. “Do something new and they will love you for it, eventually,” said Lou. “Andy taught me that.” “But what about John,” I pressed on. “John who?” “John Cale, your viola and bass player. I always loved his story. He moves to New York from Wales and joins the Dream Syndicate, and then Velvet Underground. The two coolest named bands that ever were.” Lou just shook his head as he rummaged through stacks of shelved demos from circa 1969-70. This is the part of Lou Reed’s garage that he refers to as the Velvet Crypt. Apparently, they cut a whole other album around the same time Loaded came out that no one has ever heard for legal reasons. “You know, the problem with John is that he was never good at making any money in the music business,” said Lou. “I had to take him under my wing for a while, show him the ropes. I hear he’s raking it in now.” He said it with some satisfaction, but also a hint of sadness, as if he had been waiting here in his garage every day for the Welshman Cale to ring him, waiting while thumbing through old tapes and smoothing and and rerolling old Velvet Underground posters, waiting for his old buddy to thank him for his advice. The call, alas, had never come.
THE VERY FIRST THING that caught my attention when I woke up was the black shirt. It lay draped over the ironing board across from me, a black, long-sleeve shirt that I had been intending to iron for days, maybe even weeks, but somehow couldn’t find the time or even desire to do it. For a moment though the shirt looked like a dress, a black dress, one of those black dresses that she used to wear. There used to be a woman who would come here, I remembered, she would stay here in this room, and iron her black dresses in the mornings. I loved her in those old days. Back then. Or at least I thought I did. Did I still love her? I couldn’t be sure anymore of anything. But I think I loved her then. It all seems quite faint now. The sound of her getting up in the morning. The sound of the coffee boiling. The sound of her ironing her black dresses. She always ironed her clothes. Always. The attention she paid to her appearance was hypnotic. She once was here, right? That happened, didn’t it? Isn’t that the same ironing board she gave me once? The one she wanted to get rid of because she found a new one? I opened my eyes again. The shirt just hung there, limp and morose. She was long gone. She was gone forever from here. Forever gone. She used to be here though. That part of it wasn’t a dream. In the evening, I went to an Italian restaurant to eat. It had by all measures been a good week. Deadlines had been met, articles produced, interviews arranged, others transcribed, and there had even been some free time, time for socializing, time for writing. The money was adding up, which meant that it had been a successful week. There was a hole in it though, a big black hole that somehow was difficult to fill, even with some answer or explanation for why it was there. If the week had been productive and successful, then why did it somehow still feel like a let down? Wasn’t success in work, or financial reward, enough? I had pushed the ghost of the black dress far from my mind. That seemed the safest strategy. In a world built on self control, where the libraries of self-help books could be seen stacked in towers high enough to reach the sun, towers of books on meditation courses, chakras, healers, angels, and tarot card readings, tomes on psychology and psychiatry, in a world built on the very premise of controlling one’s self, controlling one’s heart, controlling one’s emotions, I had done a commendable job of ignoring any nostalgia or sadness I felt. Yet there was a big hole in the middle of it. I didn’t know what to do about it. I ordered myself some spaghetti and tried to read a book but gave up after a while. Then a stranger approached my table. A round woman with curly red hair. A disheveled look. There was a meekness in the way she approached me that bothered me. She seemed afraid. I’ve long since become accustomed to reading people. The signals I was receiving troubled me. “Do you mind if I join you?” the stranger said. I gestured for her to sit down. “What are you writing?” she asked. I shrugged and said nothing much. “Just trying to empty my mind,” I said. I was writing about the shirt, the ironing board, those kinds of things, but then I started to write about the woman across from me. Her chipped fingernail polish. Her rough hands. The thing was, I thought I recognized her. In the summer, I had met a woman like this, except she had platinum hair. She had approached me and followed me home, asking me if wouldn’t I like to go back to her place and have sex. I had walked quickly home ignoring that woman, closing the door to my home, where my children played inside, looking out the window until she was safely gone from the yard. And here she was, back again. Or someone who resembled her. The owner of the restaurant brought the stranger a pastry and an espresso, and she ate it. Then she excused herself for troubling me and left. Relief was what I felt as she put on her jacket and walked away and out that door. Relief. The proprietor of the restaurant came over to me and said she was sorry. Then she told me the woman’s story. “She’s in a complicated relationship,” she told me. “It’s really worrisome. I am afraid that she is going to wind up dead one way or another.” I nodded to the owner. It was an ugly situation, alright. “She has such a hole inside of her and she will do anything to fill it.” That is how she put it. I nodded, ate the rest of my spaghetti, paid my bill, put my things away, and went on my way. Outside, the street was dark already. There was nobody there. I walked home alone in silence. Many nights were like this now. Empty streets. Empty parks. Empty beaches. Emptiness. Isolation. All you had were some memories, some thoughts, and even when confronted with sympathetic strangers you were still alone and they were too. It was so hard to bridge that divide these days. So hard to get through to someone else, to even tell them you still cared about them very much. There were good things in this life though. I was sure of that. There were. There were wonderful mornings with women ironing their dresses. There was the smell of coffee boiling. There was gold sun streaming through the windows. There were pastries and espressos. These were unquestionably good things. Then you blinked and they were gone.