The oddest coincidence happened
last night earlier this week
last month at Drinking Liberally
at Tangiers, 18th and Lombard, Philadelphia.
I was sitting at outside with Susie Madrak the Suburban Guerilla
, Wendy from The All Spin Zone
and a few others when Kenn Kweder
came up in the conversation.
For those of you who don't know, Kenn is a living legend here in Philadelphia, a folk/rock singer songwriter without parallel. Like so many other musicians, his star never rose as high as it should have, but in my book Kenn is a performer and writer on a par with Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen. Songs like "Pandemonium Scare", "What Am I Talking About", "Heroin," "January/February", and "Suicide" are some of the most powerful songs I have ever heard. On balance, the man writes some of the funniest singalongs I have ever heard as well, reflected in the favorites like "Speed Freak" and "The Ballad of Manute Bol," which ESPN used recently in a special presentation about the basketball star.
Who’s that man over there who’s so incredibly tall?
Who’s that man who can block the shots as high as city hall?
Who’s that man when he enters a game the other team goes outta control?
Who’s the greatest basketball player in the game of basketball?
Manute, Manute J. Bol
Oh, Manute! Manute J. Bol
Oh, Manute! Manute J. Bol
Oh, Manute! Manute J. Bol
Seven foot one? No
Seven foot two? No
Seven foot three? No
Seven foot four? No
Seven foot five? No
Seven foot six? Almost
Seven foot seven? Yeah!
Aww, fuck it, I'm just going to post another whole lyric and encourage any of you reading this to go buy the Kwederology 3 cd retrospective
. These are songs going back at least 20 years, probably more. One of the best non-bluegrass or metal albums I've ever bought, and it comes with a 2-volume songbook.
THE PANDEMONIUM AND THE SCARE
The way that he laughed
Made you want to toss his coins
Flip his coins
Hold his coins
The way that he threw
His life at you
Made you want to join
You want to join?
It's for free.
So why don't we ask him,
Yeah why don't we ask him?
Why don't we all do a song,
An old melody that I learned
Off the telephone?
I heard he drives
On cop car courses,
Testing against legitimate
Forcing the good.
Right out of the bad
And collecting all the resources.
Madonnas are standing in line
In the vestibules
Hoping, waiting, cursing
For a little glimpse.
Lieutenants are shackled
To the schools in Brooklyn
But none of it amounts
To that much sense.
The state of affairs
Is really lousy
Can't you tell?
Take a peek at the moon
As we side-step our way
Through this one-way sideshow saloon.
He's shaking the shit
Right off of his face
Your face, that face.
He's taking pandemonium
And slammed her back in her place,
This place, that place.
But she will come a little closer
Closer from her point of view.
And she will scream out
That you are the winner
To the loser, if it's autumn
If it's you
But nobody really understands
Why lovers choose to love
So much more at night.
It must be another way of saying
It's gonna be all right.
But the state of affairs
Is really lousy
Can't you tell?
Take a peek at the moon.
Tonight this place oughta be shaking
As we do our best
Just to remain in tune,
As we break into a brand new pair
Of them old old old rhythm and blues
And the scare
I was introduced to Kenn through my former housemate, Chris Dennstadt, the legendary Ennui Malaise
, who knows him from back in the day. Until recently, Kenn bartended in my neighborhood, and I would drop by Mondays and Wednesdays for a few drinks, some bullshitting, and some good conversation. He's in his early 50s, but looks at least a decade younger. There's a whole crew of people that go down to the bar, most of them about 10 to 15 years older than me, good folks who've been Kweder fans since before they were my age.
This restaurant, by the way, is the same one that I got fired from back in November. The one I described as "a joy to work in"
back in December 2004. Boy oh boy did THAT job turn out to be a a rusty ginsu down the dickhole.
I'll digress for a moment, but I promise I'll get back to Kenn and the coincidence.
As referred to in an earlier post
, I spent a lot of time working in kitchens: 17 years to be precise, 17 years of progressively more boring work, dreading the rigid schedules and anal personalities, and despairing at the consistently low salaries. I hadn't worked in a kitchen since 1998, and going back to work in one was a sign that I had pretty much hit rock. fucking. bottom.
But I needed work, and Kenn got me on the day shift.
The cook at Amore is a little guy named Bibi from the Guam or someplace like that: I never learned whether that was his first or last name. He has been working for the owners, three gay men named Randall, Steve, and Wayne, for the better part of 20 years according to a friend who still works there. Before opening Amore, the three had operated a restaurant on 47th Street, and eventually opened a long-standing restaurant/ bar on the university campus, which is where I was first introduced to Kenn to begin with. Speaking as a former employee, I would not be surprised if it was Amore's continued relationship with the university that keeps it afloat.
I am almost at a loss to describe what goes on at Amore. Where to begin?
Amore was built from scratch (not by remodeling an existing building), on a vacant lot, way over budget by these three owners (or at least two of them), who also happen to have a long and complicated history of romantic involvement. Randy and Wayne were partners for a long time, but split up at some point, after which Randy and Steve coupled up. The three of them live together in a large Victorian on 48th Street, which has one of the most brilliant displays of Christmas lights I've ever seen. I do not believe Wayne is an investor in Amore.
While business finally seems to be picking up a little after a two years, the fact remains that the restaurant is way too large for the number of clientele it serves. There is a small bar in front: if you look to your left, you see the main dining room, with seats for at least 60. Next to that is the "Fireside Room", which seats another 40. If you look to your right, a hallway leads to the "Family Room", with two booths, and seating for another 30. The sheer size of the rooms makes the restaurant look empty on a slow nights; empty rooms scare away potential diners. The rooms are devoid of intimacy.
And not to stereotype, but who would have thought gay guys would have such bad taste in decor? The outside of the building looks like it's modeled on the Olive Garden; as for the interior, for the first year it was nearly devoid of artwork, just blank walls painted a bright pastel yellow. This was, at the time explained as deliberate, but I can't remember exactly why: something about "airiness" which translates more into "cavernous". The rooms are devoid of intimacy. I remember going there for dinner with my ex-girlfriend and her parents, before I worked there: the atmosphere, like the bolognese
was a joke.
After some criticism, the owners began to showcase some local artists, but the decisions they made were GHASTLY. For instance, in the Fireside Room, they hung a collection of portraits of people from around the world: the Third World
. Imagine eating dinner with the dried apple, wrinkled faces of desperately poor families staring down at you hungrily. You dig into your crate-raised veal medallions, and slurp down overpriced wine, guiltily glancing at underweight children who seem to beg, Feed us, please
. We're hungry too, and you have SO much. Please feed us, please...
The owners themselves are quite a crew of characters.
Randy reminds me of an imitation my old friend Shane, who was as hilarious as he was queer, used to do of The Stepford Wives
. We were prep cooks at Cha Cha Cha, a now-defunct Mexican restaurant, chopping onions and tomatoes as fast as we could in an unheated room, when out of the blue Shane would purse his lips and pipe up with "I really
shouldn't say this... but I DO
love my brownies" in the closest imitation of Nanette Newman he could muster. Randy embodies my old friend's imitation: a twittering little man who putters around the restaurant, making sure the flowers and tableclothes are just so
, all the while driving the cooks and waitstaff crazy with the worst expediting job I have ever witnessed, making promises to customers that the kitchen can't possibly keep. The result is that the customers sat at beautifully arranged tables, some receiving their entrees before their appetizers, while others got either the wrong order or nothing at all.
Steve on the other hand looks like my dad, if my dad was a muppet. His chin disappears under a beard that covers up an enormous wattle, a dewlap that would make a wild turkey blue with envy. Steve talks through his nose, to the point of incoherence when he's really mad. He's the shrieker of the bunch, not so much 50-year old gay male as 15-year old girl having a tantrum; when he gets angry he stamps his feet like a three year old and flaps his hands like a penguin in a pastel polo shirt. Steve's temper is legendary, and he spends a lot of time screaming at Randy for being such a Stepford wife. Rumor has it that he has attacked Randy on more than one occasion.
"You wouldn't believe what I saw," a waitress told me. "Randy was expediting something, and Steve actually grabbed Randy's lower jaw and put his whole fucking hand in his mouth
to wag it around, and started repeating over and over 'You keep talking but you never say anything! Shut up! Shut up!' And just last week," she continued, "He threw a fucking plate at Randy! Just like a Frisbee, he hucked a plate
at Randy's frikkin' head.
"I'll tell you what man, I'm scared of Steve. Randy's an asshole, but Steve's a NUT.
"By the way," she added in a whisper, "they skim from the waitress's tips. ALL the time."
Wayne was the only one of the partners I had any real respect for. He's one of the most erudite peoople I know, a man who would sit on an overturned empty pickle bucket between shifts and read novels about economics in German.
My first encounters with Wayne had been when they were operating the university establishment, and had been incredibly negative. Now that I know him, I know that's not so. Rather, Wayne's an incredibly shy person, even among people he knows. His aloof attitude, combined with his 90 degree hunched posture (whether by accident or birth I cannot say), and his intense stare and suspicious eye made Wayne appear to be terrifying in an Ebenezer Scrooge manner, when he was a deeply interesting, clever, and bitterly funny and catty man. He was also the only one of the three who knew how to cook. While Bibi handled most of the catered business for the university, Wayne put out the entrees and appetizers for the small lunch crowd. He had no love for Steve or Randy since the betrayal, and would augment Steve's shrieks of rage with the well-placed snide rapier of a bon mot
A typical afternoon:
Randy runs into the kitchen. "Wayne, I need that chicken parmigiana out right now. Steve, how're the salads coming."
"THEY'LL BE DONE WHEN THEY'RE DONE! OK"?" Steve screams. "Honestly
it's your own fault for saying I could make caesars when you KNOW we're out of dressing."
Adding in a mutter, "Bitch."
"Roger, maybe if you took more time to learn how to expedite instead of acting like a pompous twit," Wayne submits, "we wouldn't waste so much food. How much money did you lose this
And so on...
And then there was Bibi, my immediate supervisor. Not only did I never learn his full name, I had no idea how old the guy was, though I suspect he was a few years older than me. He was about 5'3", and as demanding as one could expect from a chef. He had high standards, which I respected and enjoyed at first. But Bibi's demands were not only high, they were unreasonable: he was like Mr. Miyagi if Mr. Miyagi was both gay and evil, a stone faced guru of the line with a vicious passive-aggressive streak, who could not be bothered to offer one positive comment toward anyone, or even a "good morning" for that matter. When I told him I couldn't work early Friday nights because of a standing Thursday night gig, he began to schedule me for 5:00 AM breakfast catering for Penn every Friday. He asked me if I could work evenings, and when I answered "Sometimes, maybe" he scheduled me for a week of double shifts, on a week he knew I had gigs.
On top of this, his standards of perfection changed from week to week. After spending a week haranguing me to set up a fruit-and-cheese platter one way, he would harangue me to set it up a different way a week, sometimes even a day, later. His obsession with how to properly cut and present pineapple bordered on the psychotic. He made a fetish of calculating the ratio of bagel halves to croissants on our breakfast trays. If it was Monday, the honey dew and prosciutto were to be sliced paper thin; by Tuesday, the exact same order by the exact same people should be hearty slabs of fruit and meat. One week, each sandwich we put out would be required to have 4 slices of meat, while the next week it would be 6 ounces of meat. Of course, he would never actually tell anyone that the standard had changed, opting to criticize and complain that things weren't as they should be, all in the flat tones of a Zen master.
"I told you, it is 6 ounces of salami, 6 ounces of provolone," he would say.
"What? But just Friday, you told me not to use more than 4 slices of anything on a sandwich."
"That does not matter: it is 6 ounces, and you should know that."
"But you never.. you never told
me that. You never told anyone!" I protested. I looked to the end of the kitchen, where Ken the guy who worked with me was cutting pineapple incorrectly. "Hey Ken," I hollered. "What's the deal with meat for the sandwiches?"
"Last I heard it was 4 slices per sandwich," he yelled back.
Bibi sighed. "It does not matter what it was last week. It is 6 ounces. You will have to do all of these over," he said gesturing at a tray of 50 sandwiches. "It is a waste of product." And with that he would stomp off to the other side of the kitchen.
It was sometime in January when I hit the wall. I had been gigging all week, desperately trying to make plan for my girlfriend and son to come visit me, and was getting up every day at 5:00 AM or earlier to prepare and deliver breakfast trays to the university.
Randy and I had set up most of the coffee brewing equipment and pre-wrapped the breakfast trays the night before. All I had to do was come in and flip the switches on the giant urns, allowing them 45 minutes to brew the coffee, and slice melon. The food didn't have to go out until 6:30 AM, but waiting on the coffee always took forever.
I'll tell you, I was exhausted: I didn't so much have bags under my eyes as I had big purple steamer trunks. My temper got shorter every day, and my head throbbed constantly from stress, worry, and too much work. I was training a new day cook, and he was lousy. Bibi blamed me for every mistake the new guy made, even when I wasn't around to supervise. The restaurant knew I had a tour coming up, and seemed determined ot wring as much work out of me before I left as possible. The atmosphere was oppressive by this point: I would arrive at work at 5:00 AM, and work sometimes until 6:00 PM. They didn't pay me time-and-a-half for my overtime, opting instead to pay my OT under the table, in cash. This is illegal, but I needed the job. I was desperately seeking for new work when I would arrive home after my 13 hour days.
6:00 AM came, and I began loading the breakfast trays into the van, making sure not to drop anything. Then I began loading the coffee urns, which weighed about 10 sloshing pounds each. This is when disaster struck. The cement floor was still wet in spots from the night before, and I slipped on a puddle while hoisting an urn. My feet flew out from under me, and 10 gallons of boiling hot coffee went everywhere, including down the front of my shirt, as I landed hard on my tailbone and twisted my ankle.
I popped. I picked up the now empty urn, and pitched it as hard as I could across the length of the kitchen screaming, "YOU FUCKING FAGGOTS! YOU FUCKING FUCKING FUCKING SHITBAG MOTHERFUCKERS, I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU ALL," while tearing off my burning, coffee-soaked shirt.
Now I was going have to start the coffee over. I was going to be late on the delivery. The people at the university would be upset and would complain. I would hear of their complaints from Randy and Bibi, and then hear of Randy and Bibi's complaints secondhand from the waitstaff. Bibi would threaten to dock my pay for the wasted product.
I rushed as fast as I could to get a new batch of coffee made, and I don't know how i managed to get everything there on time, but I did, just squeaking by.
When I returned, Bibi had arrived. In his quiet monotone, he asked me "Why is there coffee on the floor? Why have the sandwiches for the 10:00 AM delivery not been made? Why are the cold cuts not sliced? Why--"
"I didn't get done with all that because I hurt myself this morning. On the floor that was left wet. BOILING FUCKING COFFEE SPILLED ALL OVER MY FUCKING SHIRT AND I TWISTED MY FUCKIGN ANKLE AND YOU MOTHERFUCKERS DON'T EVEN PAY ME OVERTIME YOU CHEAP SONUVABITCH YOU TREAT ME AND EVERYONE ELSE LIKE FUCKING SLAVES AND YOU CAN'T EVEN BE BOTHERED TO FUCKING SAY GOOD MORNING YOU FUCKING FUCK!"
Or something like that. I was fired a few days later, after Bibi had a long talk with me. "At me" is probably a better way to put it: I wasn't listening to anything he said.
Which brings me to back to Kenn, who left a few months after I did.
There we were, the Drinking Liberally contingent at Tangiers, hammered and and yammering at one of the tables on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Wendy mentioned Kenn in the course of conversation, because she thinks he's cute.
"Kenn Kweder?" Susie said. "I know that guy from back in high school
! We used to play shows at this cafe; I would do my Joni Mitchell material and he would do his.. well, his Kenn stuff. Do you know 'Heroin'?"
"Oh yeah," I said, and Susie and I led the table in a round of one of Kenn's best songs. "I got mixed up, mixed up, mixed up, with all the other babies," beating on the table in rhythm. A glass toppled and rolled off, shattering on the sidewalk
"Hey Brendan, call Kenny on the phone, lemme talk to him," Susie said.
"Sure," I said, dialing his number on the cell. "Hello... hey Kenn, it's Brendan, I have someone who wants to talk to you," and I handed the phone to Susie.
"Kenny! It's Susie Madrak! Yeah, Susie! I didn't know you knew..." After an exchange or two, she handed the phone to me.
"Someone's on the other line for you," she said. I picked up. It was my parents, who were on the first stop of their vacation in the south.
"Hey Mom, what's up?" I said.
"Brendan, you know that guy you're always talking about? Kenn Kweder?"
"Well, tell him he has two new fans. You must have left one of your CDs in our car stereo, and on the drive down to the hotel, this crazy song about a crackhead on the lawn suddenly started playing. Your father almost had an accident he was laughing so hard. And then there was this other song, 'Heroin' which we both thought was fantastic. What a writer! We gotta get on his list! You're friends with him, right?"
Kwederama. It's everywhere you want to be.