I’d been looking for an opportunity to volunteer for the WriterHouse, but little did I know that it would come in the form of pouring beer at Fridays After Five, a once-a-week-music/drinking festival on the Downtown Mall in the summer time for the work-weary, sweating denizens of Charlottesville. The deal is that if your non-profit organization can field ten volunteers, the beer guys will give your group a percentage of the take. This way they get labor at a fraction of the cost that it would take them to hire ten people to do this and your organization gets a small amount of money, plus some mission exposure to the public. Sort of like free advertising, although it’s not really free because your group has to have ten people willing to stand on the rock-hard pavement for three and a half hours serving beer.
I’ve come to love this non-profit. I’ve taken four writing classes there and have signed up for another one this fall. I’m part of a writing group that meets weekly to critique each other’s work. I’ve participated in readings there and have enjoyed even more hearing others read their stuff. Still I can’t help but wonder if the beer-swilling public is really our target audience.
On the appointed Friday, my husband, Kevin, and I left southern Nelson County for the one-hour drive to Charlottesville. As we drove north, we left behind blue sky mixed with fluffy white clouds and approached a solid wall of gray. The forecast seemed to indicate that the rain in Charlottesville might be over around 5:00 p.m., and Walker Thornton, the WriterHouse volunteer coordinator had sent out an email that said “Rain or Shine,” although I know that the city will sometimes cancel the Fridays After Five events for inclement weather. And that sometimes when they don’t, they wish they had.
I don’t know Walker Thornton, but whoever he is, he instructed us to bring our raincoats and to be punctual. The guy seemed authoritative and no-nonsense, but polite— a combination I respect.
Kevin and I arrived in town and managed to get a remarkably good and free parking place close to the end of the mall where Walker had e-instructed us to meet. I introduced myself to a woman wearing a WriterHouse t-shirt. She introduced herself as Walker Thornton. We circled up with other WriterHouse volunteers, whom we recognized by their t-shirts. Kevin and I don’t have WriterHouse t-shirts and I felt a little guilty that here I was, a volunteer just like the rest of them, and they all had t-shirts, but unlike them, I had been too cheap to purchase one. Then I was informed that as a member, I should have been given one. I felt better. Soon another WriterHouse volunteer made a list of sizes and then departed, presumably to some location where they have WriterHouse t-shirts.
Our group headed over to the beer truck where the two official beer guys were waiting. One was a tall, lanky, muscular fellow with a beard who looked to be in his late thirties. The other was a short, gray-haired man with – I’m just going to go ahead and say it – a beer belly. He was wearing a blue nylon windbreaker, the kind of outerwear that was prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s. He smoked cigarettes and looked to be anywhere from forty five to ninety years of age.
Lanky Man gave us our instructions along with an actual live demonstration. He was stern and exacting about the way the beer was to be poured, the angle at which one must hold the plastic cup in order not to get too much head, how to top it off, when to pull the handle, when to let it go.
“When the keg is running low, the tap will begin to spit foam,” he told us. When that happens we were immediately to call for him or Windbreaker Man. Loudly if necessary. They would enter the truck, change out the keg, then bang on the inside wall of the truck to let us know when the changeover was complete. We would then run the tap into a bucket, conveniently placed on the ground below the tap, until the beer ran clear. Then and only then would we resume pouring. “This whole operation should take seconds, not minutes,” he said. Production mattered.
We must not touch the rim of the cups, must hold them from the bottom, set them down on the table and let the customers pick them up. The customers, he informed us, were allowed to touch the rim, for – and he emphasized this – they were the ones purchasing the beer.
At his instruction, we divided ourselves into ticket takers and pourers. The ticket takers would check for wristbands, which the customers had obtained at another location by showing their ID’s. This was proof that they were at least twenty-one years old, the legal drinking age. Ticket takers would then take the tickets that the customers had purchased at yet another location. The color of this evening’s ticket was beige. Ticket takers were not to accept tickets of another color.
Things would get busy, Lanky Man warned us. “The people manning the taps,” he continued, “must be able to pour the beer properly, under stressful situations.”
I felt as though I’d applied for a high-level job doing something dangerous or extremely anxiety-provoking, say a high-steel worker, or a person whose job it is to tell fifty percent of the employees of a large business that they no longer have a job, effective immediately, just before the Christmas holiday. He further pressurized the situation by announcing, “If you can’t handle the taps, you will be replaced.” My God. Who knew that volunteering to pour beer for a bunch of good time Charlie’s trying to relax after work on Fridays could be so stressful?
And yet, we managed. For three and a half hours, we managed quite well. Kevin, Walker and Bob Putnam were given the three busiest taps to manage¬ – Star Hill Jomo, a local brew, Long Hammer IPA, and Shock Top. John Tansey and I were given the three least busy taps – Land Shark, Bud and Bud Light.
I had lots of moments to talk to John and I soon discovered that he writes science fiction and in fact is part of a Sci-Fi writing group that meets at WriterHouse. “You must have been crushed over the recent death of Ray Bradbury,” I said to him sympathetically. He shrugged it off. “We’re still in contact with him,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye.
He asked me where I was from and I told him Nelson County. “Whereabouts?” he asked. “I have several listings up toward Crab Tree Falls.”
“So you’re a real estate novelist?” I said to him excitedly. “What?” he asked, confused. “John is a real estate novelist who never had time for a wife,” I told him, repeating the familiar lines. “Like the song!” I hummed a few bars. “Oh, that Billy Joel song,” he said. John- the- real- estate- novelist appeared to be unamused. Later, when I recalled that it’s Paul who is the real estate novelist of song, I felt foolish.
Meanwhile, Kevin was chatting away with Bob. Kevin was excited because he heard Bob read an excerpt of his story at a WriterHouse reading last spring and he talked about it all the way home that night. They were busy at their taps, but I could hear them both speaking in very animated fashion about Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, both of whom Kevin practically worships. He couldn’t believe his good luck.
Soon Bob’s IPA tap started spitting foam and the Official Change-Out Procedure went into effect. Within seconds there was a banging from the inside of the beer truck and Bob dutifully poured the tap into the bucket below to clear the foam. While chatting with my husband, they looked down and noticed that the beer was splattering all over Walker’s shoes. “Sorry,” said Bob.
Later in the evening, beer from Walker’s tap splattered all over his footwear. He looked at Kevin and said matter-of-factly, “Payback.”
The busy times seemed to come in waves, but nothing we couldn’t handle. No cross words were exchanged the entire evening. The ticket takers told us what kind of beer to pour. We passed it along the table as previously instructed by the official beer guys, who watched us like hawks. They occasionally gave us bits of advice, or told us to have a few more beers poured in advance when the lines look like they were getting longer. The beer guys were very seasoned. They possessed a sixth sense about when the waves would build, when they would peak.
After a couple of hours, we earned some of their confidence and they relaxed a bit. Lanky Man wandered down the block a small distance to converse with his wife and hold his three-month old son. The baby had reached the age where he had some control over his facial expressions. Looking at us over his father’s shoulder, he appeared surprised and maybe even a little disturbed that his father was associated with the beer truck and the people operating it. He appeared to ponder how closely his fortunes would be tied to those of his father.
Lanky Man looked off to the west. He quickly stashed the baby back in the carriage and then hurried to the back of the beer truck to get his rain jacket. “We’re about to get hit!” he yelled, then headed back to the stroller.
Windbreaker Man calmly explained the Inclement Weather Procedure. I was disappointed to learn that it involved more than just closing up shop and making a run for it. When there was a lull in the activity (nothing was to interfere with the pouring of the beer), he instructed us – the tap people were to pull our tables back as close to the truck as possible. The ticket takers in front of us would then move their tables back toward us in the hope that we could all somehow squeeze under the awning that extended from the roof of the truck.
We could now see lightning flashing off in the west, but no one appeared to be leaving the mall. The loud music continued to boom from the pavilion, and the sea of humanity continued its Brownian motion. Customers continued to pass us tickets and we continued to pour beer; in fact we appeared to be in another wave of beer buying. Everyone acted as though this was perfectly normal. No one appeared frightened.
The atmosphere became charged, surreal. It was as though we were all trapped on a large ocean-going vessel, perhaps one that had struck a large iceberg and was now listing badly to port. Death was imminent; rescue wasn’t, so might as well drink another beer while the band played on.
The wind picked up. The awning and its metal arms on our truck began to bang up and down loudly and dangerously. People continued stand in line and give us tickets. We continued to pour them beer. The lightning crackled around us, the thunder now audible over the pavilion band. The take-shelter sky seemed to shout, “Forget the women and children – it’s every man for himself!” Still people handed us tickets and we poured beer.
Finally it began to deluge. A gust of wind picked up our awning and attempted to slam it down on us. When we looked up again, the mall had nearly cleared. In three seconds, the sea of humanity had dissipated like a wave upon the shore. There were no more ticket holders. We dashed for our raincoats. Walker, our leader, looked at Windbreaker Man. “Are we done here?” she said. It was a wonder we were still alive.
“You’re done,” he said, then added congenially, “Feel free to pour yourselves a beer!” Kevin said, “Want a beer, Linda?” No thanks, I told him, preparing to run for my life. You?
“I guess not,” he said, reluctance in his voice. I climbed into the truck and passed him his fluorescent yellow rain jacket. He remained at his tap and continued to pour beer for the volunteer ticket takers, the storm lashing around us.
Ever the gentleman, I thought. I could picture him going down on the Titanic, his handsome face with its kind blue eyes, gentle voice, helping some woman onto the last life boat and saying, “No thanks, I’ll be fine. Have a safe trip. Beer for the road?”
He let go of the tap handle for the last pour. We sprinted a short distance down the mall. I held my sandals in my hand, the two of us splashing through puddles a half a foot deep. We made it to Himalayan Fusion as soaked as if we had fallen overboard. Inside it was dry. Colorful. Warm. Welcoming. “Table for two?” the hostess asked as though we not dripping wet. I slipped my wet shoes back on, while she immediately seated us at a table for two where we devoured a delicious supper. As we dined, the rain abated. Forty-five minutes later, we strolled arm in arm to our conveniently parked car and headed home on Highway 29. Safe. Full. Good deed done for the day.