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Po[o]p art: St. Louis, Missouri
Birdy: Memphis, Tennessee
Cameo: Memphis, Tennessee
Cinqo: Nashville, Tennessee
Social graces: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Wine (and) country: Knoxville, Tennessee
Pit Stop: Lexington, Kentucky
Identity: Louisville, Kentucky

Po[o]p art
St. Louis, Missouri
Wednesday, April 30 – Friday, May 2

I arrived in St. Louis on Wednesday evening, and it was warm–one of the first real days that it felt like spring, I was told–and talked my way into a black VW Beetle, like my own, minus the convertible.  When you drive from the airport to downtown St. Louis, you pass really, really poor neighborhoods, round a bend, and see the skyline and Arch.  My hotel was across the street from the Arch, the “new” Hyatt on Chestnut.  Hyatt excluded, I’m noticing that the better the hotel’s location in proximity to a tourist attraction, the higher I should expect to pay and the lower my expectations should be.  This could be said of the hotel brand that occupied the property until a month ago.  “New” Hyatt meant new ownership, not new building (or bedspread or furniture or “art”), and Hyatt must have been really embarrassed about the previous tenant because they gave guests $25.00 per day to spend on food and drink, which I spent mostly on the latter.  (I’m sorry, but have you had Hyatt’s wine label Canvas?  So good!)

For my first and only dinner on my own, I decided to go to An American Place.  I was advised against walking the 13 blocks by myself, which made me all the more determined to prove that I would neither be robbed nor even spoken to en route.  I was wrong.  An “urban” (because that is the going PC euphemism, is it not?) couple took a break from a passionate kiss to say hello and tell me to have a good night.  Which I proceeded to do.

An American Place is in the Renaissance hotel, and I felt really badly that I’d almost overlooked it.  I’m so accustomed to seeing popular, Zagat-worthy restaurants with names composed of five or fewer letters that may or may not have a meaning in English or any language, really, that “An American Place” sounded like it would have a nice casserole buffet.  So wrong.  So, so wrong.

The dining room is ornately dressed, with thick draperies neatly hanging from very high ceilings.  Large floral arrangements loom over the white tablecloth seating arrangement, and the lighting is soft, just so that I can appreciate the presentation of the food.  I brought particularly entertaining reading to the table–a New Yorker piece in the Travel issue about elevators [watch video].  I learned that “close door” buttons do not work under normal circumstances, that they are activated under emergency circumstances, but we derive comfort from pressing it needlessly.  And I will forever be self-conscious about the fact that I, like most women, face the door instead of the back of the elevator.

I started my meal with crispy frog legs with garlic flan and mushroom fricassee.  I’m sure I’ve had frog before, but I don’t remember.  Not a good sign for the frog that croaked for that experience.  I hope this frog withstands the test of time; it certainly deserved to.  An amuse bouche of a pickled egg arrived not long after.  I told the server to let the chef choose the order of my second and third courses, and he chose well.  My second course was a plate of steamed clams with homemade chorizo, scallions, potatoes, and saffron foam.  A friend in Charlottesville is incorporating “sea foam” to margaritas at a new modern Mexican restaurant and bar he’s opened, and he got the inspiration from a restaurant in Washington, DC.  In this day and age, airport hand soaps foam, college parties foam, and rabid dogs foam.  Why shouldn’t saffron?  Joking aside, they were as delicious as they were appetizing to look at.  A bit sandy, but I’ve yet to have steamers without sand, even in Marblehead, MA, where clams travel a few miles, as opposed to a few hundred miles, to get to my plate.  (Do they exist?)  I ended on a really high note with rabbit and gnocci dumplings in a white chocolate gravy and pine nut brittle.  It was the kind of dish that made me emit audible “Mmm!” and “Ohhh!” sounds.  (One can do this when one is dating oneself.)  Rabbit has been so disappointing to me, like on my last trip to St. Louis, because it’s usually overcooked and chewy, but this was tender and flavorful.  The chocolate was barely detectable, if at all, but the gravy was a delicious sweet and salty sauce that complemented the texture and flavor of the rabbit and potato pasta.  I often write about nearly practically perfect meals, and this meal was as close to perfect as a meal can be.  I would not change a single thing.  And the total bill for the food?  About $22.00.

I was unsuccessful in scheduling a lot of appointments in St. Louis throughout the day on Thursday, but I did check out two venues for a colleague, for an October event she is planning.  The first was Top of the Met, a dining room on the 42nd floor of the Metropolitan Square Building in downtown St. Louis.  I was so lucky–I enjoyed a perfect east view of the Arch and river and west view of the city.  I then visited St. Louis’ City Museum, a new kid-friendly museum downtown.  When we parked near the building, I couldn’t suppress my outburst, “This is SO COOL!”  Always professional.  Recycled building materials (and even an airplane and bus) were welded together and built against the side of a highrise, and kids could climb through coiled metal tubes to get from one recycled construct to another, three stories above the parking lot.  The inside of the museum was hyperbolic–a life-size plaster whale for a wall, anenome-like light fixtures overhead, and a human-sized version of a pet rodent’s exercise wheel.  It was locked to limit the wheel’s rotation for safety, so each time the kids moved the wheel along its perimeter about 4 feet, the contraption would catch and a loud, high-pitched metal clank would boom across the building.  I’m not a kid anymore, and I’m okay with that.  The kids would accelerate the wheel four feet in one direction then move it 4 feet back over and over and over and over again and find it amusing, and I watched them, worrying about their long-term hearing loss.

I enjoyed my experiences of local businesses that day.  My lunch was a crepe of homemade German sausage, chevre, and caramelized onions at the Rooster Cafe downtown, which was made to order.  I stopped in a coffee shop and was treated to a British theme, from “Mind the Gap” signage right down to the owner’s accent.  I stopped in City Grocers on Olive and could not believe the wine and hot food selections.  I did not go inside, but I saw a healthy crowd at the lanes of Flamingo Bowl, a downtown alley. I drove through the Hill district of Italian restaurants and paid another visit to the Central West End neighborhood.  And passing a local business with dusty windows downtown, I couldn’t help but grin at the fingerprint graffiti.  I want to meet the guy who saw the four-letter works of amateurs and left a large POOP on the window.

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The Arch.

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Sea foam on clams.

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City art.

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West view from Top of the Met.

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City Museum.

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Washington University–beautiful campus.

Birdy
Memphis, Tennessee
Friday, May 2 – Sunday, May 4

The drive from St. Louis to Memphis was worthy of its own post, and not in a good way.

I last visited Memphis in March 2007 and wrote about it.  I didn’t really “get” the city–not that there’s always something to get, but there is often enough.  I toured deathy Graceland, walked deserted downtown streets, and nearly got kicked out of a hotel lobby (but was saved when I started to cry).  My return visit seemed promising in the way of another adventure–I was coinciding with the Beale Street Music Festival, a 3-day, 5-stage festival in Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River.

I did my job–I worked.  And in the nights, I played.  I meant to go to the festival on Friday night, but I arrived really late (that whole storm thing kind of took a while) and did not want to see musicians I’m lukewarm about in a lukewarm rainshower.  Instead, I had dinner at Circa, a Main Street restaurant that was almost empty when I arrived at 8:30 on a Friday night.  They’d just done away with their bar menu of small plates (which I’d come for), so I ordered a delicious but forgettable meat and cheese plate and a glass (or two) of wine.  Unlike Burning Man or Lollapalooza, festivals with neither burning men nor lollipaloozes, there is actually a Beale Street in Memphis.  It is to the city what Bourbon Street or 6th Street is to New Orleans or Austin, which is to say a street that locals patron only when they want flaming shots or shots at smoking hot tourists.  I could see the neon lights of the bars from the restaurant, and the rain had stopped, so I walked over.

I love the irony.  In the middle of the street, self-proclaimed Christians were channeling Jesus in block lettered signs, with such messages as “God Is Angry With the Wicked Every Day” and projecting the eternality of heaven and hell through megaphones, and on the sidewalks and in bars, self-proclaimed Christians were sipping Jack and Cokes and singing along to Garth Brooks covers, flirting, catching up with old friends.  “Everything in moderation,” you might say.  Naturally, I bought a grain alcohol and Jell-O syringe (cherry!) and started taking pictures from next to a police car.  Minutes later, the rain started up again, and I was standing under a bar awning with my pants legs rolled up to my knees discussing organized religion and science with a perfect stranger.

On Saturday night, I went to the festival.  Because of the previous day’s storms, the park was muddy in areas of high traffic, and my flip-flops launched mud chunks up from the ground to my back and hair within minutes of my arrival in the highest-traffic area of them all: in front of the port-a-potties.  But it would not stop me.  I searched far and wide to find the ONE vendor, also with a high-traffic area in front of him, that sold new Bud Lite Lime bottles.  Amazingly, it tastes like Bud Lite and lime flavor.  I was shocked…

Canadian identical twins Tegan and Sara were adorable, and more needlessly chatty than I could ever hope to be, which made me feel good about myself.  I then went to the far stage to catch Cat Power, my occasional ambient lounge singer for a couple of years.  I no longer keep up to date with indie music and live performances, so I had no idea that she suffers from severe stage fright and allegedly takes muscle relaxers and beta blockers to overcome it.  Her movements and facial expressions were really affected, and it was too distracting for me to enjoy it.  I went back to the hotel and put on warmer clothes, fresh for a new splashing of mud.

–And dinner.  I went to Grill83 at the Madison Hotel, where I’d stayed on my previous trip.  I had a field greens salad with local goat cheese and cranberry vinaigrette, garnished with walnuts, and of all things, it reminded me of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich–a combination of fruit and nut flavors and cream texture.  It’s really an exquisite taste, if you think about it, for a food most often consumed by a demographic whose biggest concern in life is having a cool lunchbox.  I then went against my better judgment, knowing I’d be returning to a setting with muddy port-a-potties, and ordered the “dueling tartare,” a duo of beef and tuna.  Beef won.  No surprise there.

It turned out ot be a wise choice–the food stuck to me and gave me the necessary fuel to run about a mile along the river to get to Lou Reed’s stage.  (If you’ve noticed, I don’t run.  I walk.  To restaurants.  With wine.)  The show was disappointing.  Once upon a time, before the age of hyperlinks, I wrote for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as a paid music columnist [insert giddy “it was so cool!” squeal), and I reviewed Lou Reed in concert.  It was a powerful performance, one where experience trumps exhibitionism, and one that I still cite as one of the best concerts I will ever see.  Such was not the case that Saturday night.  All of the artists were allotted more than an hour for their performances, which is quite long for a festival, so the trend was to “jam” at the end of popular songs to kill time.  It was a bit dull, admittedly.  Most of the people around me were only at that stage to secure a decent enough spot from which to see Santana perform, and they made fun of Lou Reed, my Lou Reed that I love.  It was too dark for them to see, but I gave them very, very dirty looks.

Santana and his music have no personal meaning to me (which might warrant another dirty look, I know), so I left the stage and went to Matisyahu.  I walked against hundreds of Santana-bound drunks to get to him, and it nearly ended my night.  Glad I stuck with it.  I scaled some scaffolding to cross a large mud pit and ended up about ten rows back from left stage.  The man is an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish performer at the intersection of indie rock, rap, reggae, and Israeli folk.  He wore a conservative suit with a hoodie built in, his beard and tendrils long and neatly trimmed.  And–get this–urban sneakers.  Cool-ass urban sneakers.  I bet he got them on Bleecker Street in the Village and was like, whatever, they’re hot, I’m wearing them.  (In my mind, Matisyahu totally talks like Paris Hilton.)  For almost two hours, he used the full range and space of his voice and stage to convey his messages of peace and love, reaching high pitches and climbing atop speakers.  (In his sneakers.)  It would be impossible not to be moved.  Sometimes, I thought, “Wow, I could make some life changes,” and others, “Omigod, I need to shake my ass, like, now.”

Halfway through the concert, a hot guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he’d played “Jerusalem” yet.  “No,” I said.  But, self-conscious about yelling over the concert to talk to hot guy, I typed a message to him on my cell phone and showed it to him, and he was into it. 

Come to find out, he was from Israel, doing an exchange program in Memphis.  “What do you think of Matisyahu?” he asked. 

“I love him!” 

“What about how he looks?” he asked, motioning his hands at his face where Matisyahu’s beard was. 

“It’s sexy,” I replied, honestly.  (I had truth syrum in me.)  “He’s doing what he believes in, he’s really into it.  It’s a beautiful culture. 

“I don’t know,” I continued, to hot-guy’s nonresponse, “it’s just nice to hear lyrics about something other than sex, and drugs, and booze, and–” and at that, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. 

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

I replied, “No, Catholic!  But they’re both ancient!”  And for the rest of the concert, we danced.  And stuff.

Leaving the concert was a pain–Memphis has a lot of one-way streets and narrow streets, and people pulled into lanes against oncoming traffic.  I made the mistake of doing what a police officer directed me to do and pulled onto a street going the correct direction–against a long line of cars going the wrong way in my lane.  I particularly enjoyed this: as I found myself passing a group of teenagers in pick-up truck in my lane, the kid flicked me off!  And as soon as he did it, he had to brake, so we were positioned facing each other out our windows, not going anywhere.  I bet he hugs his mother with that filthy hand.

So I rolled down my window and motioned for him to roll his window down–and I love it–I really just wanted to explain that a cop had made me pull out into him, but the kid looked terrified!  He wouldn’t roll his window down.

Who’s tough now?

Cameo

Husky Rescue’s “City Lights” was playing on my iPod in my car when I pulled into Nashville on a Sunday evening; appropriate.  I had the full intention of staying in Memphis that night to see the Black Crowes and Fergie perform, but it seemed unreasonable to pay $30 to see them perform, in the mud again, sober this time, then drive between the hours of midnight and 2am.  Right?

Time to pull out the Chris Robinson stories.  Again, once upon a time when I was a music columnist, I was sent to an Elvis Costello concert and gave him a horrible review, yes that is a real live hyperlink to my article, which was given the headline “Elvis Costello bored audience.”  True!  Costellonews.com satirized my piece soon after it ran, and I responded with a snide comment.  When Google was invented, I had to disclaimer the finding to potential suitors for about three years.  “I promise I’m not a bitch…” it would start.  If the guy actually cared, I considered it a good sign, you know, that he cared.  Sometimes, the guy had already Googled me, and my disclaimer was really a question answered.  That was weird.  Today, we Google everyone, and I don’t care.

Anyway.

In the review, I mention that Chris Robinson stole the show with his solo performance, and also, unwisely, that I met Chris Robinson.  And that he was charming.  I left out the part about him handing me a beer (Newcastle or Bass), which was smart.

Two years later, I brought a guy friend to the Cloak Room, a dive bar next to the Texas Capitol in Austin, on Colorado.  You have to know about the Cloak Room to go to the Cloak Room.  It has no sign that I’m aware of, and it’s in the basement of an unmarked office building.  I think that it’s haunted, which makes me like it more, and drinks are cheap, which make me like it even more.  Anyway, we were sitting there drinking, and I was convinced Chris Robinson was a couple of tables over.  My friend was not convinced.  By the time I had the balls (read: enough $4 vodka soda) to go talk to him, he had just left.  It was him, and he had given two concert tickets to the couple next to him.  Curses!

Back to Memphis.  How could I be in the same city as Chris Robinson and not run into Chris Robinson?  Or talk my way backstage to see him?  Or be in the audience and make pretend I know the words to any of the Black Crowes’ songs except “Hard to Handle”?  Which is too hard to keep up with anyway?  Seriously.  I called my sister, and even though I had a legal parking space and $30 to spend on a ticket, I left.  I went to Nashville.  And good thing I did…

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Protest.

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Refraction.

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Tegan & Sara.

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Tegan.

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Cat Power.

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Festival faces.

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Downtown Memphis.

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Matisyahu.

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Matisyahu, new angle.

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Grand finale–Matisyahu invited anyone on stage who wanted to be on stage!

Cinqo
Nashville, Tennessee
Sunday, May 4 – Tuesday, May 6

I’ll skip a lot.  Don’t look so relieved.  I’ve been to Nashville once, twice, and those entries contain good descriptions of local institutions like Satco, which I love more than ever, and a number of pictures.  I was staying at the Wyndham Union Station with its billowy curtains, under the title Her Highness Kate Malay, because honest to God, the online reservation process gives an extensive list of options for titles.  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a Miss or Ms.  So not me.

I was scheduled to meet with an alumnus on Monday, May 5.  Like my best friend in Charlottesville, he’s a guy who was my year at U.Va. who a lot of my close friends were close friends with, but he and I did not really know each other.  Given the common denominators of cool people, I’m never surprised when I get along well with friends-of-friends–though it’s not always so easy.  On Monday, it was easy.  This particular alumnus and I would have a business dinner and drink, which was really professional and informative, then we shed the professionalism and went out honky-tonking for Cinqo de Mayo.  Good GOD.  We first went to the Stage, where a cover band was doing everything from Mellencamp to Metallica.  Grown men in the audience were playing air guitars in front of the stage, kneeling and arching their backs, closing their eyes and gritting their teeth like the performers they’re not.  It was hard not to get into the music–there was a singer/guitarist, two keyboardists, a bassist, a drummer, and another off/on guitarist, creating a full wall of sound, and they were all really f-ing talented.  My friend-of-friends works in the music industry and could point out to me that the guys who were on stage were musicians, but not performers, which made it more difficult for them to make it big.  I felt badly–would they ever be discovered?  But then, how could they sing “Bennie and the Jets” without doing some ridiculous dance-like thing?  And there I was, tossing my hair and doing the mashed potato in the middle of the dance floor.

Around 1:30, because we could, because bars are open until 3, we went to Lonnie’s.  I’ve been to Lonnie’s, but I’ve never watched the guy I’m with go on stage at Lonnie’s.  A former a capella singer at the University, he knew what he was doing. (!)  He first sang “Say It Ain’t So” from Weezer’s Blue Album, and guys in the peanut gallery were belting it out with him, spilling beer all over the likes of me.  I’ve ever enjoyed that song as much as I did right then.  And then he sang “Peace of Mind” from Boston’s self-titled album.  Crowd went WILD.  Good thing cameras come with video these days.  That was a Cinqo the American way.  Yee.  Haw.

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The Stage.

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Cute ads.

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Kablam!

Social graces
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Tuesday, May 6 – Wednesday, May 7

Chattanooga is a beautiful city.  Really.  Set against the cliffs over the Tennessee River in the southeast corner of the stage, it is a place where, I suspect, few people come, and few people go.  The same can be said of money–little comes in, little goes out.  Family wealth is invested in the city, and Chattanooga has an aquarium, modern art museum, and children’s museum that could rival those of Atlanta, Birmingham, and Nashville, all within driving distance.  The main attraction is Rock City–or at least countless “See Rock City” roadsigns would have you believe it.  Many Chattanoogans actually live in Georgia–Dalton is not far, and Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain are communities that straddle the state border.  When high school students leave the city for college, I suspect there’s an unsaid expectation that they will do their time in New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, or elsewhere and return to raise a family.  It might even be a said thing.

For such a short overnight trip, I packed a lot of embarrassing moments in.  In an effort not to wrinkle or perspire in my dress shirt, I put it on at a gas station outside of town, without a mirror.  I went through an entire business lunch with half my shirt collar tucked into my shirt.  At my evening event, someone made me so upset that I cried.  And the following morning, I got not one but two parking tickets.  And I’d put quarters in!

However, I thoroughly enjoyed my overnight at the Stone Fort Inn, and I would be remiss not to share an anecdote or two, attesting to its unique charm.  It is a large bed and breakfast downtown, and in the B&B tradition, all of the rooms are different.  Mine was quite large and shared a small sitting room with another room.  I had the option of a shower or an old-fashioned bathtub with feet, and my towels smelled like grapefruit with sugar.  In the foyer, there was a bowl of baggies of fresh chocolate chip cookies, two per plastic bag, tied with a small pastel ribbon.  I could also select any of a modest collection of classic films on VHS.  I never did get to watch Rear Window…

I was barely sat before the kitchen closed at St. John’s Meeting Place.  I saw my work colleagues in the downstairs dining room, wrapping up their dinner, so I decided to go upstairs and sit at a bar.  The bartender was really affable–I received a free cheese taste and glass of wine before the night was done.  I started with asparagus and baby vidalia soup–true to its name, and delicious.  I then ordered a meat and cheese sampling of taleggio and gouda cheese, chorizo, and “duck ham,” duck cured as a porker would be.  I also ordered a side of aoli.  The meat, in particular, stood out–the duck pieces were ribbons of meat with piping of white fat, with oil drizzled over them.  Excellent chorizo.

The last meal was breakfast at the inn, and I was treated to, for the first time in my life, farm fresh eggs.  I have only read about what eggs look like without the hormones and whatnots we subject hens to, and I can’t even find an image online.  Supposedly, the yolk is very dark.  (I can’t tell you how sad it is to write about a food I’ve never seen in a truly natural state that has been used in food I’ve eaten probably daily for more than 24 years.)  My scrambled eggs were the color of a dandelion.

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Road signs near Athens, Tennessee.

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Beauty school and accounting, the American way, in Athens, Tennessee.

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More Americana.

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Tennessee River.

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Downtown Chattanooga.

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Downtown Chattanooga.

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Art museum on the cliffs.

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Watching a dad and daughter fly a kite from the pedestrian bridge to north Chattanooga.

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Charm in north Chattanooga.

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Typical sight in Tennessee, which I think is a good thing.

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My room at the Stone Fort Inn.

Wine country
Knoxville, Tennessee
Wednesday, May 7 – Thursday, May 8

There is so little to speak of on the drive between Chattanooga and Knoxville, but I have to give a paragraph to the Tennessee Valley Winery.  I badly needed to use the bathroom, and lo and behold, there was an “Attractions” sign for the next exit with a winery on it.  Often, these signs are misleading–the winery will be 11 miles away, then another 2 miles down another road… I’ve tried.  But this winery was right off the highway, calling, “Kate, come to me!”  So I went.  It was like wine tasting in Texas’ Hill Country–some dry wines, and more than a few wines with high residual sugar that didn’t have undertones of blackberry or strawberry but were actually made from them.  These are fun to taste, but taking a bottle home is like buying Boone’s Farm.  I can’t do it.

For the record, the bathroom was lovely, and there was a wreath made with corks, one of the many charming hand-crafted wine accessories you can purchase there.  So I wasn’t making it up that I really had to go.

Wine, like airports, Target stores, and Barack Obama, can be a great unifier.  I was enjoying chatting with the winery staff woman, and I was the only one there.  We talked about how unhealthy Panera food is for you, as she manages a store and told me how many sodium and calories are in pretty much everything (some I was aware of, but dear GOD), and about their Oktoberfest party in November, which sounds like it’d be worth a drive to east Tennessee this year if I can, because there ain’t no fun like country fun, with a wine buzz.  As I was sipping one of my last wines, a woman came bursting through the door, tossed her keys on the table, and started talking.  This woman was as Tennessee as whiskey–cigarette breath on her raspy accented voice, big bangs, and a scrunchie to hold it all together.  Without missing a beat, she began to tell us about her ne’er do well daughter who has probably spent six years in high school and is finally graduating.  Mom won’t ask her to do chores even though daughter’s living under her roof because she’ll be damned if her daughter doesn’t get that diploma and move out.  I got to hear about her room (“I just found out there’s still carpet in it, in one spot, but I can’t see under her shit to know if there’s carpet under the whole thing”), her boyfriend (“he’s not that much older, he’s enlisting, you know, and when they get married I think the community will be good for her–I was in the Air Force, you know, and my dad was in the Air Force, and my brother was in the Air Force”), and her graduation dress (“damn thing is white and has pink and green polka dots and pink and green plaid trim, and she’s cute as hell in it, and she doesn’t seem to think it’s too busy”).  And suddenly, she was gone to pick up her son, who’s got his sights set on MIT.

It was my first time to Knoxville, and it did not leave a big impression.  I met nice people, but honestly, even Knoxville locals described Chattanooga as the city Knoxville wants to be.  The folks I met didn’t seem to know much else besides Tennessee, and sometimes I envy that–that blind happiness with one’s situation.  Here’s the big picture: the city is on the water, but the shores are, for the most part, lined with industrial compounds; the University of Tennessee Volunteers stadium is huge, and a lot of the campus is under construction; Old Town is charming but it was pretty dead on a beautiful Wednesday evening, and I didn’t stick around for Sunset in the City, a party that attracts up to 20,000 people on summer Thursdays (but would be rained out).  I was supposed to stay Thursday night, but I ran out of work and changed hotel reservations so I could go to Louisville a night early.

The highlight of the trip was my haircut.  Go on three dates with me and you’ll hear about how cool I think hair is.  I’ve been coloring mine for more than 10 years, covering my natural ashy brown roots every 6 weeks with anything from blond highlights to nearly black dye with thick platinum chunks.  I worked in a hair salon for about two years as a receptionist at newspaper readers’ favorite salon in Fredericksburg when I was in high school.  My hair is so damaged from the years of chemical abuse that it really doesn’t grow; my ends are broken and uneven.  I was about to leave the city, grabbing a quick lunch in Market Square, and I saw a cute Aveda salon.  They had a walk-in appointment available.  Thank you, adorable Ben from Orlando, for the best haircut ever, and a perfect way to leave Knoxville.

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Tennessee Valley Winery sign, a wonderful roadside sight to see.  (For its bathroom.)

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Knoxville’s Old Town.

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Vols stadium.

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A lot of construction on UT’s campus.

Pit stop
Lexington, Kentucky
Thursday, May 8

Unlike the drive between Chattanooga and Knoxville, when I had a non-wine-related reason to stop at a winery, the same cannot be said of the drive from Knoxville to Louisville.  I drove in the rain for 3 hours listening to Bill Bryson’s seriously not even remotely short history of nearly everything–again.  The drive was stressful–again–overtaking semis as they sprayed water and grit on the Beetle’s windshield in an already heavy downpour.  When I saw a winery sign a couple of miles from Lexington, ten minutes to 5, I went for it.

Lexington, by the way, is beautiful.  The downtown is what one would expect of an old Kentucky town, but its environs–for which it receives its reputation as the horse capital of the world–are plots of lush green farmland, with gasp-inducing estates and grazing thoroughbreds on each.  I once got lost for about 2 hours there (on a May 2007 trip, not documented here) and I didn’t mind.

Jean Farris Winery and Bistro is not the one I was heading toward, but I am so glad its sign came first.  They grow an impressive selection of grapes on its premise and also claim a number of vines at Elk Creek, Kentucky’s largest winery.  For $6.00, I had a full tasting of mostly French-style wines and a plate with two slices of brie, strawberry slices, pistachios, and craisins.  (I suspect Ocean Spray’s “Craisin” is becoming the Xerox of dried fruit.)  The staff and couples that came in were pleasant, simply pleasant, and I could ask for nothing more.  I just flipped pages of my New Yorker and smiled and nodded when I was ready for my next taste.  It was the kind of experience that reminds me that I am, in fact, very lucky.

When I left, the rain had stopped, and fog was lifting from the hills.

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My driving conditions, again!  Not uncommon to see large crosses like this on highways.

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Good road food–I love the Oreo Cakesters! The Burger King fries, like TGIFriday’s potato skin chips and mozzerella cheese sticks, taste true to the real thing, which is just gross.

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At Jean Farris, and happy about it.

Identity
Louisville, Kentucky
Thursday, May 8 – Sunday, May 11

LEO, or the Louisville Eccentric Observer, ran a cover story that hit free newsstands when I arrived about the city’s identity.  It opens:

The hokey, mule-brained yarns about Louisville’s identity are rarely in short supply.

  • We’re a big city with a small-town feel.
  • We’re Southern but we’d rather not talk about the sordid history of that because, you know, we were neutral in the Civil War, right? Right?
  • We’re a polite Midwestern city, but who wants to be Midwestern? Seriously.
  • A few lines further in the list, “We’re Possibility City. Uh-huh.”

    That is, if you’re open to it.

    When I arrived at 8 on Thursday night, I literally squealed when I saw the city skyline, turning a bend on 64 west, and I was surprised that this was my involuntary reaction.  It could be the relief of being in city 6 of 6, but I think it had to do with 21C.  I’ve written about the city once, twice, and both times I stayed at 21C Museum Hotel and ate at Proof on Main.  The hotel is an exhibition space for contemporary installation art, sculpture, video, and photography, and I’ve always been intrigued by the red penguin tattoos in various places on staff members’ bodies, wrists and necks in particular, that could only be inspired by red plastic penguin statues that line the building exterior and guard corners within.  This was already my favorite hotel in the world for a thousand reasons.  It’s so me.

    “She smokes?” I commented to the concierge when I checked in.  A real-time video installation of a sleeping couple is projected on the floor in real-size in front of the concierge, and I think it’s several hours before the loop resets–after all, they are sleeping.  The woman in the video was lighting a cigarette when I arrived, and I think it’s interesting that I felt like I’ve known the couple for a year and was surprised I didn’t know she smoked.  She’s slender, with long hair, sleeping in a white tank top and he in a white tee, with white sheets.

    As much as I wanted to revel in my arrival, I had to put two solid hours of work in before I could think about dinner.  It was frustrating–but it’s what I’m paid to do, no question.  When I came down to Proof for dinner, it was 10 after 10, and they had stopped seating the dining room.  I was a bit crabby and took a table in the bar.  It was beginning to get crowded, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t go 5 minutes without someone (from one group in particular) coming up to my table to ask me who I am, what I do, and why I wasn’t socializing.  It was interesting–their interruptions were somewhat rude, and yet because I was unresponsive, I was the bitch.  Sadly, because I never lie about my work, I don’t have the privilege of getting to act like a bitch, ever.  The same is not true for all.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone just plucked a leg off my perfect softshell and started crunching.  Turns out they really wanted my table.  (For the record: I also had a bowl of perfect cauliflower soup and a glass of perfect shiraz.)

    My day Friday was very full–meetings starting at 8 and ending close to 8.  The next two stories didn’t happen on this trip.  They’re just worth being told, and now’s the time to do it.

    In September, I flew to Austin with a friend from Charlottesville for Austin City Limits Music Festival, and during a Houston layover, we decided to have a beer.  Shocker.  Regardless, two guys sitting near us struck up a conversation, and it turned out that they were from Louisville.  We quickly figured out that we knew someone in common, and they are members of the Pendennis Club with him.  A U.Va. alumni event was proposed to be held there, and upon visiting the Club site, I thought almost nothing of it–just enough to check and see if it had an entry on Wikipedia.  It did.  I called it off.  It’s southern, mostly male, mostly white, with traditions like a black-tie boxing affair and a ball in honor of the old-fashioned drink, which was invented there (and my grandmother’s weapon of choice; I can attest to its potency).  That said, with no endorsement of its membership criteria, whatever they may be, I would love to have the experience of seeing the place–especially Boxing Night.  When I told the two gentlemen this, they started to debate whether or not women attend the event.  It went back and forth for several rounds, and finally, one forced a loud whisper to the dissenter, “I swear they do.  The prostitutes!

    When my meetings were all said and done, not considering the Pendennis Club an option, I visited L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, converted from an old home near the intersection of highways 64 and 65.  The dimly lit bar showcases a wine refrigerator that must store more than 40 wines, all vacuum sealed and connected to a pump, so that each wine can be dispensed from its own spigot.  Wines can be ordered in 2 ounce tastes or 6 ounce glasses, and I enjoyed trying wines I might not have considered before.  I made most of my way through the Friday NY Times and decided to return to Proof for dinner.  I was starving, and I ate everything–but I especially loved my first course.

    Second story.  For the past five or six years, if my family is together for Christmas, we’ve done a “Malay Family Challenge,” wherein we choose a set of materials or ingredients to compete in an engineering or cooking challenge.  This past year, we were fortunate to be together.  The theme ingredient to the cooking challenge was lemon, and I made two hors d’oeuvres.  One was a ceviche-like layering of a crab and corn mixture and avocado on tortilla rounds I fried (a labor of love, given the burn of oil splatter), inspired by Zaza in Houston, a really interesting overnight mostly undocumented here.  The other, taken from a recipe on Proof’s website, was a minted pea puree relish.  Once I prepared it, I was so put off by the soupy, fibrous texture and unfamiliar taste that I drew “Mr. Yuck” faces on the tops of each dish with sour cream in a pastry bag.  If not for taste, I’m always recognized for creativity.  And I have no need to “win” in my family.  There are technically no winners, but as my new sister-in-law found out with this being her first Malay Christmas, there are definitely winners.  If success can’t be quantified, then the winner is the person with a respectable finish who most needs to think they’ve won.  I genuinely want to lose–everyone’s happy with me and feels good about themselves, which makes me happy!

    I finally got to eat Proof’s minted pea relish, and here’s the trick: go really easy on the lemon, reincorporate whole peas and lardons or pancetta to the mixture after it’s pureed, and garnish with peccorino cheese.  My second course was a forgettable salad, third course a very nice tuna tartare dish with Thai basil and goat cheese, and my fourth a petite chocolate tasting of a homemade truffle, a fudge brownie sliver, and a chocolate-chip cookie with a marble-size scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream.

    I’ll be honest–Louisville’s list of “sweet 16” tourist attractions is a bit bleak.  I didn’t want to spend $35 to go to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom because it’s dinky-looking from the highway, and I’d rather invest the $35 in a theme park with four times more coasters, especially a zero-G drop, with more time in the day to do it.  I didn’t want to go to any of the museums, either, and, while tempting, I just wasn’t in the cemetery mood.  (I’m serious, look at the list.)  So on Saturday, after I got my work out of the way, I drove to Huber’s Orchard and Winery in southern Indiana (about 25 minutes).  The winery is the only one that they’re aware of that does a specific tasting flight where one tastes pairs of wines to identify differences in barrel, aroma, harvest, grape skin contact, and port grape.  Depending on how you want to do it, it can be a blind taste test or a lesson.  I opted to do half-and-half.  I knew which of the categories we were in, but I was on my own to figure out what I was tasting.  I was so proud of myself–I did really well!  I fed swans and carp in the farm pond and bought a couple of sticks of homemade cheese and snacks on my way out, gnawing on smoked cheddar with bacon in it as I rattled down the country road.

    I showered and changed for dinner, and I really meant to stop by the bar at Proof to ask for a restaurant recommendation, as I did not want to drive out to Bardstown Road, a pleasant residential and small-business street where, if I were to live in Louisville, I would definitely live.  Something happened, though, and I really don’t know if it was me or if it was the bartender, or the guy next to me, but instead of taking the rec and leaving, I sat at the bar and ordered a drink, a jalapina, my drink, tequila and jalapeno-infused pineapple juice.  I definitely noticed the guy next to me.  He was just noticeable, in a black fedora and glasses with thick blams rims, with a classically hunky face and thick head of spiky black hair under it.  We started talking, and we’re both the kind of people who just talk to people, so I don’t even know who started it.  He is a director based in Austin, and he lives less than a mile from where I lived, a 78704.  He loves my laugh, and thinks it’s cool that I read Wired.  (It works every time–but you have to actually read it or it doesn’t work.)  Suddenly, I had a wild teenage crush, one of my favorite feelings I so rarely get to have.

    He didn’t hold out to see what might happen before our conversation changed course.  Behind “You’ve got time” and “travel while you’re young,” my next least-favorite things I am told are, “I’m married,” and “It’s amazing to me that you’re single.”  And he said them both.

    To address the latter, I started, “Aside from all the times I’ve messed up doing something really embarrassing or ridiculous that makes it impossible for a guy to take me seriously,” at which point he laughed, “my dad seems to think that I give off this thing, like I don’t need anyone, and it’s off-putting to men.” 

    “I can see that,” he said.

    I think I tried to avoid being serious, as I do, and said something alluding to the fact that in the way of T&A, I have to rule out T-men.  Saying that to a guy is like saying I don’t date guys with birthdays in even-numbered months, or asking a man if puppies or kittens are cuter.  I might not have said it.  (I hope not.)

    But he lingered the subject, stayed serious.  “It just sucks because that makes you my kind of woman, you do your own thing, you’re happy, you have a life.”

    “Sucks for me, too,” I said.  I have yet to meet someone available who shares his taste.

    He straightened up.  “But I love my wife.”

    I straightened up, too.  “She must be awesome.  And I’ve fallen for the married thing–”

    “Really?” he interrupted.

    “Twice.”

    He grimaced at me the way one might eye a bad public restroom.

    “It’s not good,” I said.  “There’s an instability issue, we’ll take it too far and one will think the other’s a horrible kisser, and then the excitement of not-knowing is gone, then you’ll resent me, and I’ll resent you, and we’ll never talk again.”

    “We won’t go there.”

    And we didn’t.  Not long after, and not without leaving me with a list of his homes on the internet, he left to pick his wife up from the airport, and after I finished a complimentary jalapina from my server the previous night (See?  I do well!), I teetered off to a sushi restaurant about six blocks away.

     By the time I arrived at Raw Sushi Lounge, it was 11:00pm, and I was so hungry that I gave up on chopsticks and ate it like the finger-food it’s meant to be.  (True.)  As I was finishing up, a businessman sat next to me–more than a little skeezy-looking–wanting to talk.  And I let him.  He was clearly trying to convey to me that he could take me or leave me, the sad little dance men do when they want to get laid.  He’s in real estate and owns a few downtown buildings, including the one next door, and after I paid my bill, he offered to take me over there to show me some nice “views.”

    “I have to fly out first thing in the morning,” I lied, hoping my slurriness wouldn’t betray something resembling vulnerability.

    He suddenly turned indignant and replied with a snide, “It’s not like I’m trying to sleep with you.”

    I think I said either, “I’m not saying you are,” or, “It’s not really an option.”  Zing!

    “Okay, fine,” he conceded, laughing.  “I was trying to sleep with you.  Of course I was.”

    (Of course he was.)  I apologized that it would not work out and went back to the hotel.  Another business traveler was in the lobby of the hotel when I came through, and he had bought a pricy bottle of tequila and was sharing it with the staff over at Proof.  He invited me to join them, and my crush was at the bar, with his (huge sigh) wife.  It was hard to ignore them even though our backs were to each other–in spite of the business traveler’s good looks, there was no chemistry, and at some point he mentioned his girlfriend.  I announced I would retire to my chambers.  I’d noticed that my wild teenage crush had left the bar some time before, but I’d assumed he was back.  I finished my sipper of tequila (tongue-burning stuff), and as I passed through the lobby, he was coming toward me.  We stopped and talked, and I have no idea what about because I was fantasizing about sneaking him off to some corner of the art exhibition space, and then his wife came out looking for him.  She’s beautiful.  And she had that sad, questioning look in her face when she met me, that I’ve seen before and will one day know for myself.

    I woke up to a tequila hangover and a crush hangover, and a tattoo of a red penguin on my neck…

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    It got me this far…

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    At home with elevator installation art at 21C.

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    Dessert at Proof.

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    Beautiful graffiti–the Highlands, on Bardstown Road.

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    Louisville flavor, taken near the Highlands on Cherokee.

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    One of many beautiful homes on Cherokee in east Louisville.

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    Ear X-Tasy, a great music store in the Highlands.

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    Nuns eating at KFC on Bardstown Road.

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    Waldo?

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    Wine service at L&N Bistro.

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    Southern Indiana.

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    Same.

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    Huber exterior.

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    Huber interior.

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    My taste test at Huber.

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    Ducks on the farm.

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    Bouncing off the walls.

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    The penguin left its mark.

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