In the spring of 1998, I visited Scotland for a week, staying with my internet friend Ian and his family in Arbroath, on the east coast near Dundee. At the time, I thought I'd be visiting routinely, but I haven't been back since, much to my regret. I really liked Scotland, despite the weather: the people, the lay of the land, just about everything. I remember the odd, floating shade of green you'd see on the hills on a misty day, which was just about every one. I'd love to get back to that place. But in the meantime, here's a story I wrote about my trip at the time which must have got shot down by the NYPress. It's not a bad read at all -- I've done some minor editing of details that ring false 10 years on (mainly instances where I mimicked how Scottish people talk, a bad affectation of my early 30s). But most of it is "as is" -- as are the events described. (I have a "Lisa Swims with Dolphins" photo, but unfortunately no scanner right now to drop a picture into the article -- take my word for it, graffiti looks the same everywhere.)
“Where’s a hyme?”
The old woman had asked me a question I couldn’t quite fathom. I had just gotten off a 7-1/2 hour red-eye flight from JFK, filled with crying babies and assorted asshole American tourists, and rushed to my reserved room at a bed-and-breakfast on Glasgow’s west side. After greeting me at the door of the beautiful old house and discovering I was an American, she asked that odd question.
Hyme? Hymen? I knew where a hymen was, but didn’t think it would make for appropriate conversation.
“Where’s a hyme, laddie?”
“Aye. Where’s a hyme?”
“I don’t know.”
She stared at me as if I was insane.
And so began my week in Scotland, although I was to spend only my first and last days in Glasgow, a city with the best cab drivers in the world (as they’ll humbly inform you) and an insane accent guaranteed to drive Rex Harrison into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy. I can picture him running down Sauchiehall Street -- wild-eyed, beating strangers with his cane and screaming, “What the fuck are you trying to say?”
Most of my week was spent on the rainy, windswept east coast of Scotland -- County Angus, Arbroath, in particular, a small town north of Dundee which was once a fishing village and still has a few lonely boats moored on the docks. I was visiting my friend Ian, a newspaper editor, and his wife and four sons.
On the long drive in from Glasgow, stopping to see Rob Roy's humble grave on the edge of the Highlands (with the ass-kicking inscription: "MacGREGOR DESPITE THEM"), Ian explained to me that having been to the States, he figured I'd find life in general to be much the same, but there would still be plenty to tickle my American sensibilities.
No sooner had he said that then while driving past what was among the worst neighborhoods in Dundee (looked like Forest Hills after the streetsweepers had been through), I glanced at a wall which had this graffiti: LISA SWIMS WITH DOLPHINS.
"What in the hell is that supposed to mean? Lisa swims with dolphins?" I asked.
"I don't know," Ian responded, "there aren't any dolphins to speak of in the North Sea. Richie, is that a new band in town?"
Richie, Ian's 17-year-old who had been sitting quietly in the back seat, mumbled, "I don't think so. If they are, they must be terrible with a naff name like that."
I pictured a girl from those barren-looking council estates, in her cheap Adidas track suit, frolicking in the warm Gulf Sea waters with Flipper, far from a troubled life in her rainy, crime-ridden part of town.
Thankfully, Arbroath wasn't as hard a town. I don't think I started getting a true feeling for Scotland until I went running through the fields around town on my first full day there. Ian laid out a five-mile route for me, and I found myself on country lanes and open fields so much like the rolling hills of my home in Pennsylvania that I expected my brother to drive by in his pick-up and offer me a lift.
It was a strange feeling I never quite shook -- that I had been there before, although it was a foreign land. That first day it was clear, the last time I saw the sun until I came back to America a week later. From then on, it was rain. Sometimes drizzle. Sometimes a downpour. On colder days, mixed with snow. And the worst, falling sideways with that wicked North Sea wind.
After the rain, the next thing I noticed was the faces. It didn't seem to matter whether it was hard-faced, working-class kids in track suits or elderly mums with strollers, but there seemed to be a certain kindness that shone through, or at least an acceptance of life that I don't see much of in New York. I knew it was bullshit, as some of those hard-faced kids would no doubt be just as nasty as their American counterparts. But I often caught myself looking at people a beat too long, feeling like I was looking at childhood pictures, something I felt I had lost, rather than actual people.
Ian's youngest, Ian Jr., had that look. He reminded me of Tiny Tim -- the Dickens character, not the singer. One rainy morning we sat in the TV room and watched Full Metal Jacket on video, with me explaining what I knew about Vietnam and certain Americanisms that came up in speech. He would giggle in delight at the way I could predict lines and state them in an over-bearing American accent ("Is that you John Wayne -- is this me?").
While sitting there, I had remembered a small present in my suitcase, an American flag pin I bought from a deaf person in the airport (with the attached card stating "thank you for supporting the deaf"), so I went to my room and brought it over, explaining how I had purchased it.
Ian's eyes lit up for a moment, and then he looked glum and said, "There's a great bit of sadness in this, isn't there, Bill?" To which I replied, "Yes, Ian, there is. There's a great bit of sadness in New York." He seemed heartbroken for a moment -- hardly what I had expected from a child over-joyed with anything American. His response brought back those vague memories of the hundreds of homeless people I'd stepped over or simply avoided in New York in the 80s. There was no easy way to explain something like this to a boy who'd never seen anything remotely like a subway car late on a winter's night filled with sleeping, tattered forms. I think he saw this in my face and told me how glad he was to have something so "cool."
Earlier he had told me that he thought Courtney Cox was "hot," as I had inquired about her poster in his room, and I could imagine him having tea and biscuits with her in that bullshit café on Friends, over-joyed and excited to be next to a beautiful American girl he only ever saw on TV.
That seemed to be the running theme of the week -- Ian and his sons' fascination with all things American. Simon, his oldest at 23, and Richie, the 17-year-old in Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops, were both in punk bands emulating the sounds of The Ramones and The Beach Boys. (A few years later, I would get Joey Ramone's autograph for them, at a Kinks tribute show in New York, asking Joey to sign it to Simon and Richie in Scotland. He asked me how to spell "Richie" in that thick Queens accent of his. I told him, and he spelled it wrong anyway.)
Ian's wife Alice and his 21-year-old, Andrew, were about the only ones who didn't fawn over American pop culture, despite Ian's fanatic, near-lifelong devotion to Bob Dylan. It was strange to drive through all those remote, Local Hero style fishing villages along the North Sea coast with Dylan whining about Pretty Boy Floyd or Hattie Carroll on the tape deck. (Ian plans on taking the boys to Glasgow in June to see Dylan and Van Morrison play at the SECC, a big day for him as Dylan is one of the few musical reference points he shares with them. When I asked Simon how he felt about the upcoming show, he answered, "Dylan's all roit. But, ach, I cannae fookin' stand tha' fat paddy!")
Simon and I hit it off, as I was one of the few people in the country to point out what goat's urine Budweiser is. Unbelievably, in a land filled with aged malt whisky and fantastic microbrews (my favorite being the perversely-named Bishop's Finger), all the kids swear allegiance to the King of Beers and Miller Lite. I know it's because of the American allure, and I hope for their sake Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schaeffers don't find their rancid ways to their shores.
In the previous paragraph I wrote "aged malt whisky" as opposed to "fine malt whisky." And here's why.
I've never been much of a whisky drinker. Every time I try, it makes me feel like I have hazardous fumes in the back of my throat. Frankly, I can see myself becoming as much a connoisseur of gasoline as whisky.
All week long I'd been sampling Scottish delicacies. Haggis: not bad at all, even if it contains the stomach lining of lambs, I quite enjoyed it. Real fish and chips, with lots of salt and vinegar, wrapped in old newspapers, gruffly served up by some guy who makes Bob Hoskins look and sound feminine: fantastic. Irn-bru, Scotland's premiere soft drink: tasted a bit like Mountain Dew. I missed out on deep-fried Mars Bars (dipped in batter and fried in the chips bin you'll find at any fish-and-chip shop) and Arbroath's famous smokies (simply smoked haddock -- at night, the town smelled faintly of burning hickory from all the smokie shops).
Every night found Ian trying to break me in on whisky, generally after a few glasses of wine with dinner, and before a trip to the pub for a few pints of anything from Guinness, to Tennants 70/80 Schilling, to McKuens. We'd sit at his dining room table with the bottles in front of us, both with our glasses half full, a small kettle of water next to mine to cut the whisky if I found it too strong.
"Ah, life is good, isn't it Bill?" Ian would ask rhetorically while taking a healthy sip from his glass. I'd give a sputtering response that sounded like Lou Costello seeing a ghost.
I wouldn't say it was a futile effort, but by the time Coronation Street came on the TV at 7:30, I was more than glad to beat ass out of that dining room and fret with the rest of the nation over the show's most-beloved character, Dierdre, who had been wrongly imprisoned and ended up front-page news on real newspapers all over Great Britain.
Well, that last night, we had to do it up right. All week long we got tipsy, but I could sense a big one coming on, as we had to somehow mark my time there with a staggering night out. Simon came in from Dundee especially for the event, bringing his girlfriend Dawn along. The plan of action was to walk down to the highly-esteemed Foundry Bar, an Arbroath pub famous for its Friday night celtic jam sessions.
Ian and I had been down to the Foundry two nights earlier. Along with the bartender and two old men, who turned out to be the pianist and one of the fiddlers who would turn up on Friday, we were the only ones there. Some Bob Villa-style BBC show was on the TV over the bar, and that was about all that was happening.
Friday night wasn't much different, except there were a few more locals gathered around the bar.
"I don't understand it, Bill," Ian apologized, "this place used to be so crowded on a Friday that you sometimes had to stand in the street to hear the band play."
It didn't matter to me, as when we entered the back room of the bar, there they were, the award-winning Scottish National Ceiliedgh Band. Either that, or a bunch of senior citizens got lost on their way to a shuffleboard tournament. The average age of the players must have been 65. A pianist, a banjo player, a few accordionists and fiddlers. All gathered in a small circle in the back of the bar, by themselves, chatting and taking the piss out of each other.
I think when any celtic music fan dies and goes to heaven, after his well-earned time in limbo, he will go to a place much like The Foundry Bar in Arbroath on a Friday night. The gaggle of locals all seemed to think it was either a bit of a joke or dull. But for me, it was incredible. No cover charge. Pints galore. After a few moments of idle banter, the main fiddler would strike up a note, the pianist would roll a melody, and everyone fell in behind, like tired old greyhounds chasing a rabbit. They sawed away all night, quite beautifully. Every piece ended with a thud on the piano, and the process would be repeated again and again, with the chat sessions growing slightly longer and more animated with the passing pints and hours.
I told the banjo player that he'd do well in America doing what he was doing there for free. He winked and said, "Don't go telling the owner that, otherwise he'll charge admission, and not even the bartender will show up!"
Ian later told me that the banjo player had been a folk singer in the early 60s, and that Dylan had heard him playing an old Scottish folk song while he was playing a coffee house in Glasgow and "borrowed" the melody to write "Bob Dylan's Dream." He also told me that if I asked him about it, the man would deny it to his grave, as he was a major Dylan fan and didn't want to cast any aspersions on the man's great name.
It hit me afterwards how discussing the song in that setting was incredibly appropriate. "Bob Dylan's Dream" is about a grown man looking back on the camaraderie and friendships of his childhood and yearning for that sense of belonging. In one line, he recalls sitting in a circle with his friends, and that simple feeling being the one that haunted him the most.
Here was a circle of musicians, most well over 50, sitting in the back of a bar, no one paying them any mind, finding immense pleasure in each other's company, and playing together for no profit, surely as they must have been doing so every Friday night for years gone by. A refutation of Bob Dylan's dream, if ever there was one.
At 11:00, we bid the band a good night, a wave of thank yiz for clappin' and raised bows followed, and went off to find Simon and Dawn, who had gone off to another bar to shoot pool. This is where I lost count of my drinks, as I was already going on a few glasses of dinner wine, the after-dinner whisky, some Belgian beer Ian had sitting around in pony bottles, Strongbow Cider, and Tennents 70/80 Schilling. I decided at the pool table that it was time to drop the hammer with my black friend from Ireland, Guinness Stout, which has a funny way of turning me into Lon Chaney, Jr.
I spent the rest of the evening growing exponentially drunker and getting my ass kicked all over the pool table. Scottish balls are smaller, in more ways than one, as were the pool tables, and I was out of my element. Much light was made of my excuse of bigger American balls as the impetus behind my shoddy performance. At night's end, I was in a tense game of eight-ball with Dawn, who should have been pounding me into submission, when I made this miraculous shot on the eight ball, banking it off a cushion and running it down the length of the table into a corner pocket.
"Kiss my American ass!" I cried out, brandishing my pool cue like Braveheart his sword.
Everyone laughed at me and had another round, at my expense.
Oh, if the night had ended there, it would have been a fine memory. We somehow made it back to Ian's place, passing a small pond in the middle of town on which two swans were silently gliding, and after a few drunken minutes of trying to watch TV and chat, decided to hit the sack.
Alone in my room, thoughts ran through my head. Of America. It had been a humbling experience to come here, and I found myself thinking of home. I heard Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and imagined pictures of returning POWs kissing the airport tarmac in San Diego. The Beach Boys, Charles Manson, Billy Graham, Bill Clinton, Charlie's Angels, Pee-Wee Herman, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne-- I saw them all in my room. Drive-ins, Jesus bumperstickers, boxing gloves, steel guitars, fuzzy dice, graffiti, baseball hats and thigh masters. New York City, Mount Rushmore, New Jersey Turnpike in the wee-wee hours, Key West at sundown, Vegas at night, Graceland, the Grand Canyon and Route 66. It was getting mighty crowded in that room.
I thought of Martin Luther King and his dream. And Neil Armstrong planting old glory on the surface of the moon.
So I took one giant leap for mankind and vomited all over the bedroom floor. I was on my knees, as if I were in a Baptist revival down South, or giving head at the Chicken Ranch in Reno. I was testifying for all of America, letting these wiley Scotts know exactly where I was coming from, and what to expect from this great nation. It all came out. Red, white, blue -- and a few colors I couldn't quite classify. The original thirteen colonies, and bits of the meatballs I had earlier that night, which weren't quite as appealing going the other way.
I caught a good bit of it in my hands and dumped it into the wastecan by the door, but I certainly didn't get it all and gazed in horror at the mess I had made on my friend's immaculate carpet. Christ, I thought, what kind of sick animal am I? (An American.) Who would do such a thing as this? (An American.) Who's going to clean up this foul mess? (A Scottsma -- no, an American.)
I felt like I should have been stumbling around with a god damn bell around my neck. It was early in the morning, and I must admit, as always, after a good blow like that, I felt fantastic, as if I had a new lease on life. The next morning, I made sure I was the first one up. Luckily, Ian was the second, and rather than dance around it, I confronted him with the ugly truth, to which he laughed and replied, "Ach, it's not the end of the world, I'll get you a bucket from the shed. No need to worry, Bill, happens to the best of us."
And that is why I love Scotland. Had he done the same to me in America, I would have thrown a bale of hay in the backyard and invited him to graze on it, after setting a torch to the pulled-up carpet and bed sheets. Ian and Alice handled it as if I had simply spilled a glass of water on the floor, as opposed to my guts.
"It's all your fault anyway, Ian, for trying to break Bill in on whisky!" Alice chided.
"Ach, I guess I'm responsible for Watergate, too?" he replied.
"No," I said, like a politician who had been caught with his pants down and beat the rap, "it's all my fault My grasp exceeded my reach. Or whatever that's supposed to mean."
We got on the road to Glasgow later in the morning, after bidding goodbye to the boys on that rainy, windy morning, standing in the doorway with Dawn and Alice.
Driving past the North Sea for the last time, I noticed a tree on the horizon. The kind of tree I had seen all week long in that part of Scotland -- bare-branched, from what Ian told me, year round, and bent over at a peculiar angle. He said the wind was so strong and constant by the sea that the tree had simply grown into that shape, hunched over and gnarled, to survive. It looked as if one terrible wind had blown it halfway over, and it simply stuck itself in that position for an eternity.
I think I saw all of Scotland in that tree. A stark, beautiful sight, however cruelly twisted it may have appeared on the horizon.
By the way, the old lady in Glasgow was asking me, "Where's your home," and Lisa Swims with Dolphins is an acronym for LSD.