Tom Waits Week: Good Times

Last week, I did the first post of a series called “Regrets.” For anyone who thought that was a one-off, I hate to disappoint you. I have very many more moments in my life that will fall into that category. But, for all of the times music reminds me of the bad times and the mistakes in my life, there are times were music reminds me of good moments and triumphs. So, conveniently, this week I bring to you the first in a series of posts about good times, titled with the rather uninspired “Good Times.”

This post comes due to two Tom Waits albums: Alice and Mule Variations. Funny enough, these are not particularly happy sounding albums. But bear with me, it’s story time again.

As we age, it becomes painfully obvious that we cannot spend all the time with close friends that we want to. We all have lives and jobs and families and responsibilities that pull us in multiple directions. I think this might be one of the reasons people have children, to have someone new that is forced to hang out with them when they see their time with good friends diminishing. But one thing I’ve realized is that time with friends, good friends, is plentiful in quality even if quantity diminishes. My friends Cameron and Julia are such friends. I only get to see them two or three times a year, as opposed to friends that I see almost weekly. But every time we get together is special and good. Maybe that’s because of the huge gaps between visits, but maybe it’s just a sign of the strength of our relationship.

This story happens during a weekend in the summer of 2004. Cameron and Julia, who live a couple of hours away, were coming in to town for a visit. Cameron and my wife Heather had become friends in college. They shared common interests, art majors and band geeks both of them. Cameron had a girlfriend named Becca around that time. There’s a really great story of how that all ended, involving a lost April and a lot of drama. But that is a story for another time. After the “Becca Saga” ended, Cameron did some random dating (we still remember that uninteresting girl with the corn rows), but eventually found Julia. My wife and I liked her instantly. But since they lived a bit of distance away, we didn’t see them very often. So visits were frequently multi-day affairs where Cameron and Julia slept on an air mattress in our guest room.

Now, a big part of any time Cameron and Julia came to visit was to show them how cool our city was. This was not so much an attempt at bragging as it was an attempt to get them to move here. On this weekend, we decided to take them to the newly opened hookah lounge here called Shisha. We had been there a couple of times, and wanted to take them. Part of that was absolutely a “look what kind of cool stuff we have here, you should move here.” Part of it was that it was a pretty cool place just to relax and chill and have a good conversation. And that’s mostly what their visits were about. We didn’t go out clubbing or to some loud bar, mostly we sat around rehashing old stories and telling a couple of new ones. So a quiet, chill atmosphere was a good selection.

Part of the plan worked, Cameron fell in love with the idea of not just smoking from a hookah, but doing it whenever and wherever he wanted. Instead of convincing him to move to our city, we ended up convincing him to buy a hookah for himself. But where does one buy a hookah at 11pm on a Saturday night? Well, just check out your local head shop. So we drove down the street a bit to a place called The Joint. Cameron found the one he wanted, plunked his money down, and bought some charcoals and tobacco for it as well. For my part, I found a unique brand of cigarettes at the shop that I hadn’t seen since college. They were called Honey-Toasted Tobacco, but we referred to them simply as bees, due to the stylized bee on the yellow and black striped box. I bought two packs (all they had). Since we were at the Joint, we decided to also go to our, at the time, favorite record store right across the street. We liked it because, in the days before and a million other e-commerce stores became insanely convenient, this was the place to find a lot of good independent albums.

So, after dropping the hookah and related supplies off at the car (because you don’t exactly want to walk around a record store with it), we went to Magnolia Thunderpussy Records. Cameron and Julia wandered the aisles for a bit, but declined to buy anything, since they had just spent almost $100 on a hookah and tobacco. I found the new Björk album I wanted, and the soundtrack to Garden State. Heather, just starting to explore the Tom Waits catalogue, picked up Alice and Mule Variations.

With all of our impulse shopping done for the evening, we packed into the car and headed back to our apartment. We got back around 1am. However, the combination of a lot of tobacco and coffee already in our systems, plus the fact that we were all in our twenties, and the fact that we wanted to spend as much time together as possible, led us to the decision that we should try out the newly purchased hookah. So, as Heather brewed yet another pot of coffee, Cameron set up the hookah (now named Grace, after Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and lead singer of White Rabbit) on our dining room table. Coffee was served, charcoal was lit and tobacco was ready to smoke.

Author’s note: I’m not trying to obfuscate drug use by continually referring to smoking tobacco from a hookah. We really did smoke tobacco, and nothing more illicit or illegal. I’m not here to make myself look responsible or like I’ve never done anything so criminal. But on this occasion, yes, it really was tobacco. Rose flavored tobacco, to be precise. We also had vanilla.

But now, with coffee and smoking about to commence, and no doubt hours of conversation ahead of us, we also needed music. Now, Julia hated Björk, so that was a non-starter for a choice. The Garden State soundtrack was a possibility, but we ended up going with the two Tom Waits albums. So for the next four hours, we drank a few pots of coffee. We passed the hookah hose around (it was a single hose unit). I alternated between the hookah and my Honey-Toasted Tobacco cigarettes, killing off one of my two packs. And we just talked and talked and talked. Old stories were re-told, embellished, and mis-remembered. New stories were told. Movies were endlessly quoted. Plans were made that never came to fruition. We laughed and laughed, high on caffeine and in a thick, hazy cloud of smoke that became more evident as the sun started to creep over the horizon. And the whole time, Tom Waits belted out and crooned through two albums, played constantly.

To this day, songs off of those albums always make me think back to that night. It was a good night. Nothing monumental or life changing happened. We didn’t solve anything. We didn’t come up with any earth shattering ideas to change the face of society. We didn’t feel any differently about each other at the end of it than we did at the beginning. But it was a good night.


Mr. Tooduloo

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