I sat down in a local watering hole Wednesday night, just killing time. I had cabin fever (which is much different than the boogie woogie flu), so it was a good idea to get up, get out, and find out what was happening. As it turned out, plenty did. A near-empty bar, a Christmas classic, Lionel Richie, and Miami Vice? I think I took a ride with the ghost of Christmas Strange.
8:30 Wednesday evening has never been known as prime bar time. Even so, The Blue Line Club Car was limping into the station. Seasonal lights that seemed to wink apologetically lined the entrance. Inside, it was Nighthawks. At the far end of the counter sat a convention refugee, fooling no one in his Dad jeans and ill-fitting sport coat. He stabbed at his cobb salad with misplaced precision. A few of the lounge’s deep-set booths were occupied – hipster couples in articulated eyewear and complicated shoes. But for the most part, the Blue Line’s staff outnumbered its patrons. I ordered a Maker’s and ginger ale and turned to the muted television perched over the bar. A sit-com. Towheaded kid with enormous glasses talking to his schoolteacher. The Wonder Years? No, this is a movie. Cut to an exterior shot. A beat-up fence in wintertime. Suddenly three kids bolt by the camera, with two more in hot pursuit, followed at last by another kid, hopelessly bundled up by a sadistic mother. Yes, it was that yuletide classic A Christmas Story. Just as it hit me, Sportjacket Convention Refugee asked Our Fair Bartender what it was on the TV. “A Christmas Story,” she said simply. Then, without a trace of emotion, “It’s the funniest Christmas movie ever.” Sportjacket snorted, tried to look like he knew the film, failed. The whole scene reminded me of Ed Rooney asking the pizza guy what the score is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Which in turn reminded me that Jeffrey Jones probably isn’t having a very merry Christmas in 2002.
The funniest Christmas movie ever? I wasn’t going to take issue with that; she poured a stiff drink. But I wondered why she wasn’t laughing, and wondered even more why the sound was muted in favor of…Lionel Richie? It dawned on me that, since I’d arrived on the scene, I’d heard nothing but sweetness and light from the erstwhile Commodore. “Three Times a Lady”, “Say You, Say Me”, and, currently blowing up the room, Richie’s soulful burn on the classic “Easy”. My mind conjured an image of Roddy Bottum in drag. What was going on here? Why so much Lionel? Perhaps a tie-in to the train manufacturer? After all, the lounge is fashioned after the dining club cars of old, in the days when an Old Fashioned was the drink of choice. (Which begs the question – was an Old Fashioned called an Old Fashioned in the old days?) I thought I might be reading too much into it. I climbed off my stool to check out the wall-mounted juke. Not a creature was stirring, not a Dancing On The Ceiling or even a Nightshift. What the…? As I sat down again, Lionel and Diana Ross were harmonizing on “Endless Love.” Over the bar, Ralphie was incredulous. “Make sure to drink your Ovaltine?!”
The bartender slid over my way. “Need another Maker’s?”
“Sure. So you guys really like Lionel Richie, huh.”
A dull glance my way. What’s this guy talking about? “Oh, well, there’s 8 CDs in the changer. I think the CD player must be digging it.”
“Right. Thanks for the drink.”
“Sure.” She took it out of my $20 and returned to a conversation about herons at the server bar. It’s not that Lionel Richie is terrible. Indeed, I used to root for him in the video for “Hello”, hoping the blind ballerina would finally realize the pain his heart was in. What bothered me was the detached creepiness of the bar’s inhabitants. By now the cobb salad was killed, and Convention Refugee fretted around uncomfortably inside his sportjacket. In the warmth of the Blue Line, he was sweating more than his bottle of Bud Light. A blonde and her Adam Ant-esque boyfriend had left, to be replaced by a couple who both spoke on cell phones, leaving their elaborate martinis untouched before them. Ralphie angrily trudged up the stairway to don the World’s Most Horrible Christmas Gift as his pudgy brother played happily with a blimp on wheels (?). I sipped the Maker’s, deciding that I’d wait and see what my pal the CD changer would throw next – a louie, ralpher or another Richie?
A pause. No one in the bar speaks. Outside, a guy gets off the EL wearing a ski mask. I remark to no one that, since childhood, it’s the first time I’ve seen someone wearing a ski mask who wasn’t robbing a White Hen Pantry.
And then, “Brothers In Arms”.
1985. Miami Vice‘s second season. By now, the series was as well-known for sockless suits and stubble as it was for Michael Mann’s uncanny knack for marrying the perfect music to a scene. In the season’s second episode, entitled “Out Where The Buses Don’t Run,” Crockett and Tubbs become embroiled in the affairs of a slightly hinckey ex-vice cop named Hank Weldon, who has resurfaced with information about an infamous case against a mysterious drug lord named Tony Arcaro who disappeared years before. The episode drives to a climax when Weldon calls Lt. Castillo to say he’s got Arcaro. In a classic Mann* sequence, Crockett and Tubbs drive through rain-slicked streets to an abandoned bulding to meet Weldon as Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” broods in the background. Weldon stands in an empty room, facing the frantic Crockett and Tubbs. “Here he is,” Weldon says, and drives an ax into the wall, revealing the corpse of Arcaro, placed there by Weldon the day the kingpin was let out of jail. Vigilante justice is served. And the final, creepy notes of “Brothers In Arms” fade into the darkness.
So here I am, thoroughly freaked out by all strange Christmastime happenings all around me, wondering why so much Lionel, when I’m greeted with what I consider to be one of the creepiest (non 70s) songs ever. It was a spooky ending to a screwy evening, and needless to say, I drank up and Hopper’d a cab home. At least Ralphie’s Dad gave in and got him the Red Ryder.
* Note: “Out Where The Buses Don’t Run” was directed by Jim Johnston, not Michael Mann. But it was Mann’s style shot through the episode, and in fact the entire series.