In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on June 16, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Bloomsday 008

I realized, halfway through the morning, that June 16 is Bloomsday — the day-long reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses that migrates through Pittsburgh, from cemetery to library, from pub to bookstore. I miss the reading every year, but this one would be different: I dashed out the door and biked to Regents Square, arriving at Murphy’s Tap Room at noon, just in-time for the midday recitatal.

Of course I’ve never finished Ulysses, and I’ve read the same 200 pages eight different times. With each pass at Joyce’s dense prose, I have a slightly better understanding of what the hell it’s about. But I’m still a little foggy. Its only lingering effect is that, when celebrities die, I like to refer to them as “beastly dead.” (Also: “There’s nothing between his head and Heaven,” which is a fun way of saying that somebody is bald).

Murphy’s is just the type of dim, smokey pub that could sneak unnoticed into a Dublin street corner; the Steelers posters adorning the walls are the only hint of Pittsburgh. The bar is horseshoe-shaped, allowing the 20 Joyce fans to crowd in a rough circle, and within minutes the bartender had furnished us with frothy pints of Guinness. Most of the audience was gray and wrinkled, but they were lively, too; once the silvery man in the beige sports-jacket had finished his full glass of red wine, he promptly ordered a second. Dog-eared books lay open around the bar, their bindings broken and the pages scribbled with notes. Reading glasses were adjusted and cigarettes were lit.

The reader hailed from Ireland, and we were reminded that, “In the old days, the only readers allowed on Bloomsday came from Dublin.” He was a youngish man, handsome and well quaffed, and he began reading the noonday section, where Bloom is hungry and preparing for lunch.

“If you can’t understand me,” he prologued, “go to Dublin andd it’ll be even worse. Nowadays they call me ‘The Yank.'”

Since I’ve never attended a full Bloomsday before, I didn’t realize that the readers skip around — mostly for logistics, since the book is over 700 pages long. This posed problems, though, since not everybody had the same edition.

“We’re going to skip to line 202,” the reader said, “which begins, ‘Oh, Mr. Bloom, how do you do?’ Can everybody find that?”

Not everybody could, and I had to help the elder woman next to me find the paragraph, since she was holding the Vintage International edition. Overall, I have never seen faces so buried in books — certainly not at a Regents Square dive bar. When the reader jumped to line 650, he lost another half-dozen readers, but everyone remained attentive, guffawing at the jocular Yom Kippur references, the “gobfuls of sloppy food,” the playful papal puns.

And when he reached the food sequence, where Bloom is chewing and yearning for olives, the bartender slapped down baskets of finger-sandwiches — floppy bologna in white bread, all wrapped in a flower of deli paper. They tasted sand-dry but sweet, and I caught a hint of crumbled cheese (Bleu? Goat?). Joyce’s prose always makes me notice the slightest details of a day: the damp, sweet tang of cheese; the wash of sunlight behind the reader’s head. The reader’s microphone stood on a craned neck and was electrified by a black cord, which hung from the ceiling and shared hooks with a row of dangling plastic pitchers.

“‘Heads I win…'” the reader read.

“TAILS YOU LOSE!’ the audience responded, laughing giddily. A bearded man lifted a pennywhistle to his lips and played five quick notes, eliciting more giggles. He smiled mischievously behind the beer-tap.

When the reader finished his requisite section, the audience clapped and begged for an encore. “Now you’re showing the hare to the fox!” he chuckled, and continued for a few more pages, rounding out the chapter. One of the Bloomsday hosts stood up and sang a song about Johnny McGory, a famed Dubliner wounded in the Great War (“Hey, Johnny McGory/tell me where’s your glory/gone”).

“Bloody brilliant,” he proclaimed to the microphone, and patted the reader on the back.


Halfway through the recital, I scooted to the bathroom, which is basically a steel-backed closet with a toilet and tiny sink. There’s no lock, and I nearly walked in on an elderly man leaning against the wall. He was good-humored about it, and we both called, “Sorry!” at the same time.

As I waited, rocking on my heels, I looked into Murphy’s backroom, which is a step lower than the rest of the Taproom, and noticed six young men crowded around a table. They were dressed in summery clothes, and their young faces seemed, at oldest, late-teenaged. At first I thought they were here by accident — just some neighborhood kids killing time in the local bar — but then I saw that each one of them was leaning over his own copy of Ulysses. The microphone was connected to a rear speaker, which boomed down upon them like a mega-church surmon. They were clearly as engrossed in the reading as the older folks. Where the upper-level listeners were exactly the demographic I expected (wearing suit-jackets and golfer’s caps, bulbous spectacles and beards), the youths were casual, all different heights and builds, ethnically mixed. As the bathroom door opened, I wanted to stall another second and ask these fledgling literati what drew them to the Greatest Novel of the English Language.

But as soon as the reader finished, they shuffled out the door. No time to waste. They were headed to the Carnegie Library for the next chapter. And I, heady with beer, was headed back to work.


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