A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
I Saw the Mermaids Swimming
Ancient roads mainly served trade and troops, easing the movement of goods and men. Miles from nowhere with the smooth, painted asphalt both receding and stretching out ahead you think about that and how times have changed. America’s highways system is the unforeseen legacy of Henry Ford and the advent of mass production. A vast and radically regionalized country became accessible to nearly every citizen. The highway is a central component of the great, undefined American Myth, imagery ingrained in the canons of Kerouac or Springsteen.
These roads of freedom come with many costs, some hidden, some painfully apparent. The Interstate system makes this very clear. Small, interesting places become bypassed backwaters. In larger centres the pre-fab freeway exit clusters cater to all: comforting fast food outlets, chain hotels and gasoline. Why visit a downtown slowly dying of strangulation by international brands? If you decide to snub Main Street or Central Avenue for polyester you will miss character; you will miss humanity in all of its delightful insanity.
I want to tell you about the O’Haire Motor Inn smack in the middle of Great Falls, Montana. I need to tell you about the Sip n’ Dip Lounge, the Sip-N-Dip Lounge or possibly the Mermaid Lounge – it all depends upon whether you read the awning, O’Haire’s literature or the sign inside beside the one that welcomes you to a grassy, aquatic paradise. The elbow rest tracing the line of the curved Arborite bar is turquoise Naugahyde or some other sort of pleather, padded. The standard altar of hard liquor lines the rear of the bar. Behind the bottles mermaids cavort; mermaids young enough to make you feel middle-aged and slightly creepy. The inn’s swimming pool has a clear side, a direct view into its depths from happy hour. Would-be strippers wearing bikini tops and elaborate fishtails don’t quite do the back-stroke or the crawl, nor do they tread water; they are sunken sirens. They pout and move so languidly that time itself has stopped. This is 60s glitz on the eve of 2015.
We are here because Ann has been here before and she needed to know if the Mermaid Lounge was still a going concern. In 1969 the Judge drove his then 13-year-old daughter and his two sons from Camrose to Drumheller and then kept going all the way to Great Falls. Ann remembers swimming in the O’Haire Motor Inn’s pool with her brothers and making silly faces at their father while he sat in the Mermaid and washed the highway dust from his throat. Relax and keep an eye on your kids? The Sip n’ Dip remains the Platonic ideal.
While the Judge sipped his beer, it’s likely he was seduced by suave and sophisticated sounds of Piano Pat. Her gig at the O’Haire Motor Inn has lasted 50 years to date. The bartender says she’s 79. The desk clerk says she’s 82. They both agree Pat’s been playing the Mermaid Lounge almost forever although she’s recently cut back her schedule to just four nights a week. Pat and the mermaids start at nine.
Pat’s encased in a little Polynesian redoubt. You can have a drink on the perimeter and look down on her triple bank of organ and piano keyboards, a cheesy backbeat machine Charlie Watts could not abide, her red earrings and her dyed perm. While Ann and I are there Piano Pat sort of Leonard Cohen raps Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz.’ ‘Friends In Low Places’ (I’ve always liked this one, good words, so sue me) is slaughtered along with most of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits. Her wretchedness is borderline sublime.