Nightlife - Field Notes From Ann

by Ann M. colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & really do have friends. Witnesses will vouch for my ability to form relationships. But somehow, when the time comes for my excursion out on the town, no one seems to be available. One friend who'd expressed enthusiasm earlier decides she's too tired that day; another says she'd love to come, but she has plans to celebrate her son's birthday. (He's 35.) And on it goes: Friends are busy with work, school, kids' activities, quality time with a good book, cleaning the refrigerator, napping. Even the magic words, "I'm buying!" can't budge anyone.

Such are the challenges of engaging with nightlife after age 40. But I'm determined. I will relax and have spontaneous fun, and I will do it today!


I begin at the Empyrean, where at least somebody knows my name. It's only late afternoon, but I know I have to get an early start on my itinerary. (Another truism of post-40 nightlife is a distinct lack of stamina.) While owner Alex Caruso fixes my usual -- 16-ounce double nonfat latte -- we talk baseball. As native Bostonians, we talk baseball with a fervor normally associated with religion.

"Did you hear the Sox signed Arroyo?" he says. "Three years, I think? Maybe four."

"That's good. I thought they were looking to trade him."

"Well, he said he wanted to stay."

"So did Damon." I can't keep the note of bitterness out of my voice. Talk turns to turncoat centerfielder Johnny Damon and his $12 million New York Yankees' haircut. I quote Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy: "We always knew Johnny had the depth of your average kiddie pool...."

"Oooh, that's harsh," says Alex's wife, Shae.

"Hey, Boston sportswriters are a tough crowd."

Alex tells me the Sox have brought former general manager Theo Epstein back in some undesignated yet official capacity in the front office. He says it sounds like something out of The Godfather. (Three days later, Epstein is reinstated in his old job. Maybe they made him an offer he couldn't refuse.)

Alex and Shae tell me they've just hired their first employee for the shop. We talk about coffee and coffee snobbery and the joys of Dunkin' Donuts coffee back in New England, a homegrown blue-collar brand that's holding its own in a market saturated with Starbucks and Seattle's Best Coffee -- kind of a reverse coffee snobbery.

I'm having a great time, but I can't linger for the poetry reading scheduled later in the evening. "Places to go, people to be," as a friend in Maine used to say. (See, some of my friends are 3,000 miles away. Yet another excuse.) I drive north to Garland, where Tinman Artworks now stays open till 9 pm every Friday night.

Things are pretty quiet at the Tinman -- it's three staff people and me. (Let no one say good customer service is dead.) I take time to view the screen prints of Carl Richardson and paintings by Ric Gendron before climbing the few stairs to browse the book section. The vibrant cover illustrations of the children's books catch my eye and I wander over to have a look. One is bright yellow and green with a cheerful gray dog and some wilting flowers. I study the title: Walter Canis Inflatus. "Canis?" I think. "Isn't that Latin for dog?" I look more closely at the picture: yes, there's a little cloud poofing out from the dog's hindquarters. Inflatus. I giggle. It's Walter the Farting Dog! In Latin! Ecclesiastical language meets the theater of the absurd. (Of course, that's happening a lot lately.) "I have to have this book," I say, making my way to the register.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ack downtown I go, still chuckling over my purchase. The early set at ella's is underway with pianist Don Goodwin. The place is about half full when I arrive. I snag one of the throne-like chairs in the corner between the stage and the windows, so I can see the silent movies on the back wall of the Fox across the street. The woodwork of the room glows with warmth in the dim golden light.

If you're going out alone, ella's isn't a bad place to do it. The servers are attentive to a solo patron. I order a glass of wine -- Thurston Wolfe Syrah -- and study the extensive menu from small appetizer plates to soups and salads to full entrees. And dessert. I hope to make small talk with the server so I won't feel too much like a spare cog.

I kill time by sketching out a few notes about my wine. "Assertive yet mellow, redolent with plum, blackberry and just a hint of pretension." Although my eyes focus on the notepad in my lap, I see someone approaching my corner. A guy, peeking out the window, looking out at the movie -- I glance up and realize it's an acquaintance from church. I say hello, we chat briefly, and he invites me over to join him and his friends -- four women. (Nice going!) I move to their table and sit down amid a flurry of introductions. They are a casual group on an e-mail distribution list who get together about once a month for some kind of social activity. No strings, but lots of fun and conversation.

With the excitement of joining a bunch of strangers, the wine seems to have gone to my head. I'm thoroughly "on," a witty and vibrant companion. (At least that's my perception through the haze of wine.) I can tell I'm going to be very tired when I'm done.

I order a bowl of rosemary-chicken soup. Somehow, fresh bread appears in front of me and I hungrily chow down on one slice, then another. I will myself to stop. The soup, when it comes, is exquisite -- a rich, smooth creamy broth infused with garlic and rosemary, with big chunks of tender chicken, carrots and onions floating in it. It's divine.

The conversation covers jobs -- school nurse, mental health counselor, English professor, minister -- and how we came to Spokane; aging parents; and the joys of over-40 eyes (subtitle: How I Stopped Bitching and Learned to Love Progressive Lenses). OK, maybe I wasn't as witty as I thought.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & oon, I'm feeling grounded again and it's time to leave my impromptu friends -- I've got a play to attend. I zip out to the SFCC campus for a performance of ARt's The Dazzle. I spend some time driving around the deserted parking lots of SFCC before finally finding a gaggle of cars in a side parking lot. No one else is around. Then I spot the ARt sign and I know I'm in the right place.

The theater fills quickly; this is a popular show.

A play is another good place to go alone, I think. After all, you spend the time sitting quietly in the dark with your attention focused onstage.

Another truism about Spokane nightlife, regardless of age: If you go someplace where like-minded people gather, you'll bump into someone you know. In the lobby, I chat briefly with a former co-worker and see at least two other familiar faces.

My seat is in the back row, in the center. I have to crawl over six people to get there; I apologize and thank them profusely as they stand to let me pass. The next-to-last guy mutters, "Oh, my God," as he stands to let me by. I think he's joking. But maybe not. I don't make eye contact.

I look at the cluttered stage set and decide that it looks disturbingly like my home. There's a piling system: piles of papers, piles of books, piles of clothing.

At intermission most people wander out to the lobby, but not the folks between me and the aisle. I decide to not risk their wrath, so I stay put except to stand and stretch. I watch the transformation of the set for the second act: more piles of junk, old newspapers, fabrics, draperies, broken furniture. Finally, it looks worse than home.

The play raises plenty of issues for me besides the clutter, and I wish I could talk about it with someone when it's over. But the familiar faces have moved on. I get out to my car, defog the windows and test the pavement for black ice. It's after 10:30. I've planned to continue on up the hill to Luna for a late-night drink and snack in the bar, but my long evening of fun is catching up with me. I drive toward the South Hill but find myself making the turns that will take me home.

Although I never was a party animal, I closed my share of bars back in the day -- some of them in New York, where drinking establishments stay open until 4 am. But no longer. Now, if I'm out till 11, it's a late night. Not that I'm one of those in-bed-by-nine kind of people: I just need some downtime at home before attempting sleep. Maybe it's more a want than an actual need, but that's another fact of life after 40 -- I pay more attention to those wants than to external expectations.

Yes, I want to go to Luna's bar -- sometime soon -- but right now, all I want is a cup of tea and some quiet time with my journal and my cats.

Consider it a temporary deferral of my plans, a way to build anticipation.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & couple of nights later, after an evening meeting, I visit Luna. I sit at a two-person marble bistro table in the bar, right in front of the windows overlooking the garden. The lighting is warm and comfortable yet not overly bright. Apricot walls, pale and understated, soar to an oak ceiling with a big center support beam; the tables and the entire bar are marble, and there's a huge crystal chandelier hanging above the entrance of the bar. And then there's that great window in the floor, with the view into the wine cellar.

To my left sit three women at the corner table; they are deeply involved in conversation and barely notice me. One has short dark hair, another is blond with a pink sweater that matches her martini; I can't see the third well because she's in the corner. All of them are fit, stylish and pretty in that kind of casually manicured and coifed South Hill way. I guess that they're all about a young-looking 40; later, their conversation reveals that I'm right.

Water and bread appear magically as I chat with my server. I say I want to peruse the menu before deciding on a wine. He tells me about some recent menu changes -- it all sounds appealing. So many good choices! But I settle on the calamari, which I later learn is one of the new additions.

I ask the server -- Dan -- for a recommendation on a wine to accompany the calamari. He says he's still learning about the wine pairings, but would I mind if he consulted his manager. Heck, no, I reply. He returns shortly with a white wine that he says is the house white -- a McManis Family Vineyards 2004 Voignier, a California wine. Interestingly crisp with some unusual undertones on its own, it is spectacular with the calamari and greens. It cuts through the mayo-like richness of the aioli sauce and the lightly deep-fried coating of the calamari, yet doesn't clash with the vinegary bite of the dressing on the greens. Yum. A fine choice. And even better -- it's only six bucks a glass, one of the cheaper wines on the menu.

Next door, the conversation is getting interesting. One of the women has a voice that bounces and shimmers amid all the hard surfaces in the room. And she's not being discreet -- none of them are. They're naming names, talking about people, places, dates. Without a lot of effort, I could build quite a dossier. I know their high school and class (yes, it's local), names of old boyfriends, co-workers, employers; who's married, who's not and who's aiming in that direction; the actors in a torrid one-night stand and its unfortunate result; whose father came on to which friend in college. I have my notepad and pen in plain sight on the table and freely take notes.

After the calamari, I crave a touch of sweetness. And an excuse to keep listening. A cappuccino-flavored pot de cr & egrave;me and a cup of decaf fill the bill nicely.

A fun development: Two guys at the end of the bar buy a round of drinks for the three women. Then they all begin to chat. The guys introduce themselves; they own a local business. (Yes, I know the name of the business; no, I'm not telling.) I take more notes. I figure the notes will come in handy if I ever take up screenwriting, because these people clearly have way more interesting lives than I do.

The older of the two guys gets up to leave and the younger asks if he can join the women at their table. The conversation gets even more animated. By this time, I'm getting ready to leave, but they pay absolutely no attention to me, even when I start to take photos of the bar.

Remember that last truism about Spokane nightlife? It bears repeating: When you go out, you will bump into people you know -- or people who know you. In Spokane's minimal-degrees-of-separation world, you never know who might be sitting at the next table.

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