Saturday, May 3, 2014

Three Writers and a Mermaid

For a good Jamie Ford.

Last night, the bestselling author (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Songs of Willow Frost) introduced me to a mermaid.  You might say Jamie really likes to make a splash when entertaining out-of-town visitors.


Late in the evening, Jamie and I found ourselves holding a couple of gin-and-tonics while watching a brunette mermaid swim past the aquarium glass behind the bar at the Sip 'N Dip, a Great Falls, Montana landmark and a must-stop for those who like to mix their alcohol with a little fishy fun.  We had just finished reading from our books at the Great Falls Public Library, along with poet Saif Alsaegh, and now the three of us were enjoying a well-deserved throat-lubrication in the hot, crowded bar.

I'd driven north to Great Falls earlier that day from Butte, zipping along the interstate while red-winged blackbirds swooped past the windshield and music rolled off the iPod in random play: Glenn Miller.  Mumford and Son.  Sia.  Air Supply.  Jesus Christ Superstar.  (My music is nothing if not eclectic.)  It all helped get me in a peppy, slightly nostalgic mood for the evening.

Now in its 14th year, the Great Falls Festival of the Book spreads across a couple of weeks, treating each reading as an Event with an capital "E."  This year's line-up included an evening of cowboy poetry, a talk on UFOs sighted in the skies above central Montana, and a reading from mystery writer Gwen Florio (Montana, Dakota).  Last night focused on, as Jamie told the audience, "dark material which has a funny edge"--or maybe it was funny writing full of dark shadows.  Either way, I think we left the crowd of about 40 Great Falls book-lovers disturbed and amused in equal measure.

Moi, Saif, Jamie
I started off the evening by reading a passage from Fobbit which describes the Al-Aaimmah bridge stampede of 2005.
Dust clogged the air, swirled by screams and flailing limbs. The mob funneled onto the bridge, all of them squeezing toward the other end, only to find their way choked by an impenetrable Iraqi Police checkpoint. People were crushed, the breath pushed from their lungs, their ribs cracked, their organs compressed, legs and arms and necks of young children snapped like thin, dry twigs.
It was, admittedly, kind of a bummer way to start the evening.

Saif Alsaegh brought the levity level in the room back up a couple of notches as he took the microphone.  Saif (rhymes with "safe") is a young poet who grew up in Baghdad, leaving the war-tattered city when he was 18.  He came to the U.S. about three years ago, direct to Great Falls, as part of a scholarship program.  "As I was coming in on the plane, all I could think of was how empty it all was," he told me.  It took him a little while to adjust to the open Big Sky spaces and the relative silence of days not punctuated by the cycle of bombs and gunfire.  Out of the stillness, Saif has written some powerful poetry, published this year by the micro-press Nouveau Nostalgia in Great Falls (run by husband-and-wife dynamic duo Tyson and Sara Habein).  Iraqi Headaches, Saif explained, is not out to change the world.  Rather, it serves as one man's impressions of his odyssey from Iraq to America.  He's an equal-opportunity critic of both countries: "America, why do you hate yourself?" and "The sky is vomiting dying infants" (Baghdad) are separated not by oceans, but by mere pages.  And yet, for all the dark matter in his stanzas, Saif is a bright, articulate and witty fellow.

After snapping a photo of the audience, taking a poll of how many of them were Citizens of Twitter, and then riffing on the Captain and Tennille divorce, Jamie Ford closed out our black humor trio by reading a couple of pages from Songs of Willow Frost.  In keeping with the tone of the evening, it was a section  which has one of the most pivotal, emotional (i.e. "sad") scenes of the book.  For those of you who've read the book (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), it's the moment when 12-year-old orphan William goes to a stage show at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle, hoping to make contact with the woman he believes is the mother who abandoned him, the now-famous film actress and singer Willow Frost.  William waits outside the stage door, Willow emerges and is bombarded by news reporters and photographers, she and William make eye contact, but are still separated by the velvet rope.  Jamie ended his reading with the devastating line: "The rope was all that separated their two worlds."

After a question-and-answer session, the three of us hung around for the better part of an hour, signing copies of our books and chatting with the lovely and enthusiastic readers who'd come out to the library on a Friday night--a night when there were plenty of other cultural events in Great Falls which could have pulled them away from three male writers trying to make their way in this world through inky words.

Though the three of us were a little drained after the reading, we still had enough energy to pay the Sip 'N Dip a visit.  I'd been hearing about the bar for years, so how could I resist?

Housed in the O'Haire Motor Inn, the tiki bar opened in 1962....and hasn't changed since.  It's cramped and full of kitsch-pilgrims seeking to recapture those sometimes-best-forgotten years of Cold War America when bars like this "Polynesia on the Plains" kept Montanans warm through long, frigid winters.  The Sip 'N Dip is overwhelmingly popular and is stuffed with elbow-in-the-back crowds on weekends when the mermaids (six local girls who don bikinis and hand-sewn tails) swim behind the glass--which is really one wall of the motel's indoor swimming pool.  The crowds were always pretty constant, but they got out of hand when, in 2003, GQ Magazine ranked the Sip 'N Dip as the #1 bar in America "worth flying for." When I asked Jamie why the bar didn't capitalize on its popularity and expand its space, he shrugged and said, "I guess it's because the Kiwanis meet in the conference room on the other side of the bar every Tuesday."

It's Pat!
The mermaids aren't the only reason to pay a visit to the throwback bar.  People also come to hear "Piano Pat" Sponheim, an octogenarian who started tickling the ivories at the Sip 'N Dip in 1963....and hasn't stopped since.  She's an institution and it's hard to think of Great Falls without this great-grandmother.  When we mentioned to someone at the library that we'd be going to the bar to hear Pat, they said, "Isn't she dead?  I thought I heard she died not too long ago."  Someone else piped up: "No, if she was dead, you'd know it.  It would be on the front page of the Great Falls Tribune."  Pat sings covers of Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Elvis in a voice described variously as "lived-in", "soulful", and "husky."  I think they were being polite.

As Jamie sipped his gin-and-tonic, he waved his hand around at the thatched ceiling, Christmas lights, and carpet patterned with large colored bubbles.  "You should have seen this place before they banned smoking in bars in Montana," he said.  "It was thick in here.  And Pat used to always have a cigarette going while she played.  You could hear it in her voice.  She's actually started to sound a little better since she quit smoking."

As Saif and I chatted a little more about everything from Baghdad to Monty Python, Jamie and his wife obliged a giggling group of girls (who were a questionable-looking 21) by taking their photo as they huddled around the legendary "Fishbowl," a 64-ounce cocktail made with nine different liquors.  In the dim light of the bar, the drink glows like a neon mint mouthwash.  We were hovering by the girls in hopes they would be leaving soon so we could swoop in and have a proper post-reading writerly conversation around a table.  No such luck.  Once you get friendly with the Fishbowl, you're there for a while.  We decided we'd had enough tiki-kitsch and a constant stream of "Excuse me"s as people crowded past.  So we left without waiting to see if the Fishbowl girls got drunk enough to take a dip with the mermaids.

It's probably best.  After all, we were writers and our keyboards were waiting up for us at home.


  1. This bar, or a fictional version thereof, figures prominently in the first story of April Wilder's collection This Is Not an Accident. Man, I wish I could have seen it... Plus it sounds like a good evening all around. You're on a roll!

  2. Lisa,
    Thanks for letting me know. April's collection has been in my To-Be-Read pile, and now I'll need to fish it out (so to speak) and take a look at the story.

  3. David,
    I enjoyed your reading last night. I look forward to reading the whole book.

  4. Thanks for coming, Mark. And for buying "Fobbit."

  5. What a lovely write-up. And thank you again.