Strangers in the Night

James O'Brien

Two summers ago, I was standing at one of my favorite spots at First Avenue--in front of stage left, on the top steps by the PA speakers. I was waiting for the Hives to come on. It was a sold-out all-ages show, and the mainroom floor was swarming with post-pop kids who were amped up on the prospect of the umpteenth revival of raw rock 'n' roll. I'd heard it before, but I was still all ears.

A girl next to me was wearing a crisp new Clash T-shirt. "Nice shirt," I said. "Thanks," she said, and asked me if I'd ever seen them. I almost balked, so as not to take away from the band at hand or answer the Roseanne Cash lyric "Who does your past belong to tonight?," but I said that I had, twice, and that, yes, they were amazing. Her eyes got big, she looked at me like I was a museum guard, then scanned the room for her friends or hotties her own age. We were standing a few feet from the spot where my wife and I danced for the first time, the year the Hives' lead singer was born. I was feeling a little old, alone in the crowd, and then I saw her.

She was talking to a teenage boy I presumed to be her son. She reminded me of so many people I used to see at the bar years ago, but I couldn't place her. I liked her right away, because she had that thing I've loved in so many people--loners who have to get Herculean in the act of peeling themselves out of their own hibernation to be with others, to push themselves out the door for a shot at a chorus of "let's not belong together" and the off chance that something might happen. Which usually does--though in my experience you never know what, exactly, when you head out the door.

She was beautiful. It was easy to see that she'd been around the block, met a lot of assholes with lots of pretty words, seen younger women dethrone her and her sisters from the clubland hierarchy, and now she was more interested in peace of mind than soap operas of the heart. Her hair was Joan Jett-black, her eyes were rimmed with thick black mascara--chances are she'd lit candles at the altar of Siouxie Sioux, Exene, and Chrissie Hynde--and as her son left her side and hit the floor, she crossed her arms and leaned up against the speaker stack with body language that said, "Don't fuck with me."

I tried to catch her eye. I was 20 feet and a couple of dozen beautiful young bodies away from her, but her eyes were frozen on the throng, simultaneously ignoring me and keeping tabs on her son. I didn't want to hit on her, or even talk to her; I just wanted to somehow acknowledge that we were the only ones our age on the floor, that I knew something about what she was going through, that a thousand years after the Longhorn or whatever, here we were, still looking for the unique thrill that comes with chasing new music and the rush of bodies surfing the same current.

Women always know when men are looking at them, but men don't always know when women know men are looking at them, so men often look like fools. Like me: For 10 minutes or so, as I head-nodded to the DJ's punk classics, I glanced her way. It got pretty pathetic and pointless after a while, so I stopped. Finally, just before the band came on, I looked at her one more time. She gave in. She turned her head, looked straight into my eyes and, very deliberately, did one of the coolest things I've ever seen at that storied bar. Her eyes stayed shark-dead but her eyebrows darted up twice, more Groucho Marx than come-hither, as if to say, only, "Yeah, I know. We're alive."

She turned back to the throng, and I to the stage. The screen came up, the Hives came on, and as they galloped through their first song, I turned to look at her one more time. She was gone, and I never saw her again.

A couple of months ago, I was at First Avenue again. I can't remember what show it was, but I was feeling pretty good. I'd seen a few old and new friends, and on my way out the door, I ran into a guy I'd exchanged e-mails with but never met. He introduced himself as Bryce, and in less than two minutes I knew that he'd been a seminary student, a basketball player and fan, a music and beer lover, and that he works with underprivileged kids.

"You wouldn't believe this shit," he told me. "Those kids give me so much. Every day. I gotta tell you about this one game."

So he did, and I forgot about getting to bed early and leaned in. He was one of those guys you'd like to hang with all night and be more like--gregarious, in the moment, passionate, all without really trying. We were talking some serious barfly philosophy when the sight of two women stopped him in mid-sentence. His head bobbled and he said, "God, I'm so horny tonight. Sorry. I'm pretty drunk."

A few minutes later, I was about to split, but Bryce told me to hang on. "I want to tell you something," he said. "I know you go through stuff, and so do I. I know you struggle with stuff, and I go through a lot of the same stuff, and I know that you want to do a lot of stuff, and so do I and I just...I've just always wanted to tell you something."

"Yeah?" I said. "Sure. What?"

"I hope you won't think this is weird," he said.

"No, go ahead," I said. "What?"

"Listen, this is important," he said. He took a breath. He was drunk, but sure of himself and his message. "It doesn't matter what you do, or how well you do it. It doesn't matter what you've done. How good or bad you've been. You know why?"

I had no idea.

"Because God loves you," he said.

The band and bar chatter swirled. Conrad had just pinched my ass. Mean Larry was standing a few feet away from us, with some stripper types who were giving out free shots of rum and glow-in-the-dark buttons. My priest, a salty-tongued flake who pulls pastor duty at HCMC and has more street cred than anyone reading this, was nowhere to be seen. On my bookshelf at home were books about Zen Buddhism and self-as-God, and titles such as What Really Matters, Man's Search for Meaning, Sensual Orthodoxy, The Outsider, and Music of Silence. On my CD racks were songs by and about skeptics, saints, and sinners of all stripes.

"What do you mean?" I said, and Bryce told me, matter-of-factly, without a shred of judging or preaching, like he was turning me on to his favorite CD.

"Look, life's a bitch. But no matter what, God loves you, so no matter how hard you are on yourself, no matter what anyone says, you're..."

"...Golden," I finished.

"Golden," he said, nodding.

I thanked him, walked out of the bar, and I haven't seen him since. But whenever I've had a heartache that feels too big to handle alone, or a case of cabin fever that torpedoes my spirit, or whenever I get sick of the sound of my own self, I've tried to remember not only what he said, but how he said it, where we were standing when he said it, and how it made me feel like Bill Murray in Caddyshack when he received "total consciousness" from the Dalai Lama.

So I got that going for me. Which is good.


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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