Friday, May 9, 2008

The Bottle Tree (Birmingham, Alabama)

We've been on the road for a little over a week now and I'm starting to get a sense of just how varied this vast country is. After a brief stop in Bloomington, Indiana to visit friends and a couple of days in Nashville (yes, we do go to the Grand Ole Opry and yes, it is bonkers and genius all at once) we find ourselves in Birmingham to take in some history.

Through some careful research, Bobs has hunted down a veggie friendly place called The Bottle Tree and the night we're due to be in town tapes n tapes are playing. We figure this could be a great night out so we plan to find the venue, get some food, find a hotel and head back for the show.

And then my heart sinks. I know I'm not an authority and I'm aware I'm making this judgement based on a 30 minute drive but Birmingham seems to be a city in bits. As we drive through the town to find the venue, the scale of poverty is something I've never witnessed in a European city. And, of course, the people in the most run down areas are exclusively black. The next day we visit the Civil Rights Institute and it's an awe inspiring place filled with stories of dignity, strength and the potential for humans to display sheer guts and fight for freedom in the face of tyranny. But why have the people of Birmingham not been liberated from this crushing poverty?

Eventually, we find the venue and it is a great little place. Nice selection of veggie food, good range of board games to waste time on, a cool indie band sound checking in the next room and a great little patio where the Birmingham hipsters seem to have congregated. Something's not quite right though and it's blindingly obvious what it is. The guy working the bar and taking our order is deeply unpleasant. Nothing manifest, just his attitude and manner. This guy really stinks. His conversation is fouled by constant expletives of the most offensive type and the overall vibe he gives off is that of a jock trapped in a tattooed punker's body.

The veggie burger is really poor also. It's a black bean burger but seems to taste of very little. The salad has seen better days, the bun is inoffensively bland and the presentation is shockingly bad.

Our quest for a nearby hotel fails and we end up in a budget motel a fair bit away. It's depressing as hell. We skip the show and vow to get up and do good stuff the next day. We do. And my faith in humanity is restored.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Flying Saucer (Humboldt Park, Chicago)

I have taken leave of New York and embarked on my very first road trip. First stop is Chicago where, in a couple of days time, I'm renting a car and driving just over 1000 miles South to New Orleans.

Chicago, like DC, is another of those places that I feel I know. Popular culture has filled my mind with images of the city, from its skyline and excesses to its ghettos and social problems, you don't have to cast your gaze too far to catch a glimpse of this city. I also have a feel for the place as I was a long time subscriber to the excellent Punk Planet magazine. What started as a magazine documenting and commenting on the, mainly American, punk rock scene, Punk Planet seemed to grow up with me and its focus moved to include left field political groups and issues. Essentially, it was a space for important, oppositional voices which could not find or maybe did not want, inclusion in mainstream media.

Punk Planet was awesome and I looked forward to it each month. It has now fallen victim of the decline in independent media and I miss it. Not exactly a tragedy but a huge disappointment,

Talking of disappointments, I'm pretty fired up to try my first veggie burger on the road. When we get to Chicago our amazing hosts have a huge pile of Time Outs and it doesn't take too long to find a recommendation for the number 1 veggie burger in Chicago. So, we trot off to Humblodt Park and find the Flying Saucer. It seems to be in a fairly desolate part of town and finding it is no easy task. But find it we do and as we step in we instantly feel at home. This place feels like a very cool East Village diner. The decor is nice, the girl serving has the requisite asymmetrical haircut and the boys have the fashion beards of choice. Foals (seriously, they were playing down the road) are at the table next to us and they don't look out of place.

We get the menu and my heart sinks. It's the weekend. It's brunch. There's no veggie burger. But as the old song says, "you've got to accentuate the positive" and I notice they have a veggie version of something I thought I'd never get to taste... Biscuits and gravy! And it's pretty good. I've nothing to judge it against so I won't pretend it's the greatest meal ever and it does feel like it's doing my dietary system no favours at all. But it was really tasty and well priced for a whole heap of food.

I liked Chicago. We did some obvious tourist stuff but, never having been there before, I felt that was important. And it's good to be out of New York to see how the rest of this vast and varied country gets along. Next stop the airport to hire the car and South to Bloomington, Indiana.