"I don't watch TV" says the lumbersexual pulverizing the smoothie I ordered because it's too hot for coffee. "The ads are the show!" he adds, and shakes his head just subtly enough that his right eye doesn't waver from the iPad tented there near the blender.
In hindsight, I'd be dishonest if I said I'd thought this through before diving in. What were the odds he'd give a shit about my attempt to make conversation? About the question? Any real chance of substantive exchange was delimitated by his beard and horn-rims and my presumption. He a hasty ragu of quick study and cheap signals; me, naive beyond my years. The stars this generation was born under are far other stars.
This one, in particular. This non-dialoguer endlessly dialoging in his shitty-crisp diction bearing that rarefied quality: when he talks, other hipsters listen. Despite the unpleasantness lurking behind his snarl-smirk. I wonder whether he might suddenly snap awake from his tiny fugue, less aware of the specifics of what he's been saying but perfectly confident that he's been casting pearls before swine. Again. The head at a rakish little angle, the eyes shark dead, and the message unmissible: I'm mutitasking - making your smoothie, hurling something bravely original out into the maelstrom, AND wasting my breath.
But this, above all,mystifies: How could this splendid man-child have swerved so far from the default setting of his au courant generation and not noticed that he was speaking with a goddamn ornery greybeard? How could my too-visible, additional thirty years on this earth and my resemblance to some half-forgotten uncle not have registered? And proof-texting me with a Marshall McLuhan quote that he'd likely pulled, blissfully context-free, off a BuzzFeed quiz.
I wanted to tell him that the first time I'd heard the name Marshall McLuhan was when Peter Gabriel first shoved me off to the library to find out. I was 12 - forty-two years ago. I wanted to tell him: I heard it on the radio. Didn't. Just didn't. The legalism in me antidote to the legalism in him. The limitless capacity for moralizing. These fresh young faces so fucking certain and so deeply, terminally graceless in that certainty. A generation of 900 communication apps, yet stripped of the gift of phatic speech. I didn't tell him about Peter Gabriel because I knew - fine, assumed - that he'd snark off some Wiki-fired vapidity and that 30 seconds into that inevitable, tortured delivery of his crisply anhedonic mini-treatise on British Prog Rock and the predictably clueless comparison to Procul Harum that I likely would have tasted blood, and lifted an arthritic hand in harm against this gentle, forestrangerish beverage preparer.
"I have no interest in profiting the purveyors of that corporate junk," he says, and shoves my tarhun-kiwi health sludge at me. The drink froths lustily, nearly overflowing the lip of the glass and obscuring the company logo (2016, 2nd quarter earnings - $1.2B) etched there. Somewhere, perhaps, there is a world in which I have outgrown the deeply ingrained smartass in me, only this isn't that world. I can't help myself: "it's like the media itself is the message, man" I say. We stroke our beards. He holds up his cellphone: "This. If I can't source it here, I don't need it. " So, "source" as a verb.
All I'd asked was "didja see that show, 'Horace and Pete'?"
Set entirely in a dive bar and the proprietors' quarters above it, in present-day Brooklyn, New York, "Horace and Pete" is a 10-part tragicomedy written and produced by American comedian and social commentator, Louis C.K., with the intent of distributing it exlusively on the internet.
The story centers on on two Irish-American brothers, Horace and Pete, whose eponymous establishment has been pouring out Budweiser and misanthropy in equal measure to a crew of regulars since 1916. Now, a century in, the foundations of both bar and family have begun to show serious decay.
The series enlists some impressive talent from the American comic stage and screen, but Jessica Lange, Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi and a particularly visceral performance from Edie Falco stand out in their singular incarnations of broken dreams and bitterness. Louis C.K.'s long experience as a comic writer, a craft in which pith calls all the shots, is on full display here. The writing is spare, evincing a brilliant economy and an uncommon (particularly for television) restraint in exposition that holds the reins on the reveal until the moment when you feel you might burst. Like a selah at the close of an imprecatory Psalm, Louis C.K. uses drawn out periods of silence that mark the cessation of hostilities to particular effect. We wait like infantry in a trench wait for the next onslaught. We watch and listen as a wooden chair scrapes across the floor, as unintelligible muttering snakes its way across the room, and nearly jump out of our skin as the lock on the establishment's disturbingly security-unconscious front door rattles awake.
In this place of unresolved complaint we do well to breathe shallow, because the air in Horace and Pete's is as limited, and toxic, as the hearts there are lithic. And even in those instances where a spirit is fixed on atonement, the atmosphere here is no place for cheap grace. Inside this "Brooklyn dive bar" patrons invariably encounter the iron-clad logic of an indifferent and yet terrifyingly personal universe. Attempts at reconciliation tend to uncover even deeper, more ancient wounds, and a chance at true love unleashes demons that could never have lain undisturbed. The strength in Louis C.K.'s writing lies in his unapologetical view of human nature as deeply corrupted - overcoming it is no work for the superficial. And so we endure this dark place, this den of suppression and addiction, where claustrophobia is sprinkled with odium, if only on the off chance that we might witness a momentary burst of sunlight, when it seems possible that a character - even one - might break free of the shadow that hangs over this family, over us all.
Horace and Pete's is contemporary theater done to perfection: potent, unafraid of ambiguity, and fully equipped to engage the voyeur in us, allowing us to watch human nature unravel while sparing us the moral. It is true that for long stretches, Horace and Pete's is something like lying buried alive in a coffin, waiting for the muffled thump of another shovelful of dirt. But with scripts are better than anything, with rare, rare exception, that you will ever see on contemporary television or the contemporary stage, this is, astoundingly, also great television.
American short story master, Raymond Carver, wrote of lives lived hard, of desperate spaces, intolerable silences, souls split at the seam before disappearing into oblivion. That is what Louis C.K. has, in some imperfect comparison, captured here: this indifferent yet clinging goddamn place where the faces change, but don't, where the heartbreak is ever fresh, and the bourbon is always on the pour.
It is unlikely that Horace and Pete's, built for the internet, will win any prizes for television, but that is not even a conversation worth having. There is little cause to get too upset by the mediocre thinking that marks the business of TV, and little disappointment in knowing that television rarely produces anything this good. We have the shows, the writing, and those astounding performances: Edie Falco breaking bread in bitterness in a scene that HAD TO have had actors apologizing to one another when the cameras were off; Steve Buscemi as "Pete", a role that cuts to the blackest fear in all of our hearts; and Alan Alda, with one of the most original takes on "true love" perhaps yet spoken.
Great works of American art appear, as if on schedule, in a place where you least expect them. Watch.
I hadn't seen my lumberjack for some weeks, then yesterday there he was with a friend on a corner near my house, having a smoke. His face was a mask of bruises, his head a patchwork of hair shaved close and newly formed scab. His beard trimmed down to a respectable 3-day growth. I walked over to shake his hand. "I watched the show" he said. I can't take my eyes off his scars.