You walk into your local bar, a place where there’s always a nail to hang your gun belt – “don’t worry, there’s no gun.” It’s all ironic. We’ve sensed for some time now that something’s going amiss, awry; somebody’s tinkering with our gears. When did good beer [not-quite obscene prices], good music [tending toward cliché – Dave Brubeck, Hank Williams, Pixies, Tom Waits], and good conversation, heat in winter and airco in summer suddenly seem like not enough?
How did the bar owner [absentee: lives in Grande Cojones, Florida] suddenly get it into his head to install blinking, clinking attractions? Some say people demanded more diversion from the conversations they were no longer having: TVs, retro chic Donkey Kong, singing beer signs, talking toilet seats, poker machines, trivia challenges, darts, billiards, a Juke-8, a retro-modern Scopitone machine – but this trend beat them all. Officially called “branding” by mags like New York and New York Press and “dotting the i” by adherents, it so sounds like stealth marketing that wants to be ritual or rite of passage. Randy Travis even wrote the song “Doter, Daughter & Dotter” about losing your paycheck and family playing dotting the i.
Some say it was brainchilded by a scrum of barroom denizens in Chumley’s or the Olde Towne or Rudy’s or Downtown Beirut or Nell’s – or the Hipsy Yipsy in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Willy Nilly in Austin or the Old One Eye in Prague. In any case, it had become insanely popular in bars across America. In some neighborhoods branding was almost impossible to avoid. You simply got sucked in or went home and sulked. And if you were hovering in over at Sally’s bar at just the right angle, dotting the i may remind some of the Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter.
So what is it? “Dotting the i” requires contestants [celebrants, acolytes, dotters] to answer weird trivia questions: What’s the melting point of skin? How many truck tires does Pooh have to pile on top of one another to reach the honey in the tree? How many Yankee baseball caps are sold worldwide annually? Name two famous assassins who shot presidents and then were shot themselves. How many glasses of milk does it take to give you a .02% blood alcohol concentration on a Breathalyzer test, enough to suspend your driver’s license in many states? Did Magic Johnson invent the high-five hand gesture while at Michigan State? What was the name of the prostitute who fled Sam Cooke’s hotel room, taking his clothes with her? Why are yawns infectious? How long can someone survive on water and toe nail clippings? There were a million more where these came from.
The ritual usually involves mass consumption of whatever beer and whatever harder stuff goes well with beer because if you answer 3 questions in a row incorrectly, you either cough up 50 bucks to the pot or one of the other contestants can take a bottle cap from the bar and press it to the loser’s forehead and then smash it into the forehead with a fierce blow of the fist or it’s hammered into the loser’s forehead with a beer bottle – clinkclink – embedding it in what little meat there is to be found there. But, strangely, people have started to convert perceptions so that losing is now actually winning and the resulting wound has become a badge of courage. After a loser has been dotted he or she may, with the bottle cap still embedded in bloody forehead, do a mock “Hottentot” dance or something they imagined “their man” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might do before someone removed it, revealing a bleeding, branded “O” in the middle of the forehead.
To some dotters, this created a near-perfect and meaningful triangle between the “O” and the victor’s two eyes. And so for months, people wandered around the East Village, whooping it up with this “O” branded into their foreheads. The “O” eventually scabs over, leaving an indelible scar that may come in handy later in an unadventurous life as one’s fount of personally inscribed mythic tales slips down out of the main text into an illusory footnote to a not-so-exciting running narrative. Dotter days would fluff up many an unexciting bio.
The disinclined writer, Hose Padada, may grumble under his breath from his barstool perch: “What’re these idjits gonna do when the style switches to an X-marks-the-spot. I’m thinkin’ less than zero; I’m thinkin’ Charles Manson, Swastika carved into forehead, creep too.”
“I’m thinkin’ like walkin’, talkin’ Tic-Tac-Toe…”
“Or tik tak DOH; press the cookiecutter into the dough…” He snickers at his own unconscious poetic ejaculation. Whether it’s poetry or sellable is pretty much left up to you as far as he’s concerned.
You may try to chum up to him by asking: “Is it still a poem if no one writes it down?” And he may just turn to give you a look like you’ve got a piece of dog turd between your teeth.
I eventually got tired of going to Sally’s, Bar Nickel Bill, or the Drained Kidney because you had hear rehashes of the significance of the equilateral triangle, the number 3, the deity, the implications of 33 over and over… It was like hanging out with new Baptist church congregants or college football fans going on about legendary fullbacks. Oh no, here comes somebody who knows he’s figured out the mysterious Rolling Rock “33”.
The dotters all had their ideas about how the “O” “mapped” the mind’s eye and could go on and on about New Age Traveler [post-industrial-hippie] festivals of dotters, especially in the area outside Sedona, Arizona where they “learned” that triangles represented vigilant-third-eye angels. Some saw dotting as a corollary to the devil-Masonic, all-seeing eye on top of an Egyptian pyramid [the Great Seal of America] portrayed on the back of a dollar bill. Others pilgrimaged to Sedona’s Dotter Fest [SDF] to experience mass dottings. Dotters brought potato sacks full of SDF-approved bottle caps to sell from makeshift teepees. There were bands that sounded like the Swans, the Cocteau Twins and Merzbow and there were dotter workshops. The more enterprising dotters sold their own hygienic, do-it-yourself, dotter bottle cap and hammer kits from the back of a VW bus – perfect gift for the pagan who has everything. And someone – no, not Robert Anton Wilson – lectured on the significance of SDF as an acronym for “Sans Domicile Fixe” [homeless]. Some were already predicting that branding would eventually surpass tattooing in popularity. In New York, dotters were regularly being interviewed on local public access TV shows; some bled with beer bottle caps clinging to forehead flesh on air. There was a dotter convention in the Armory on Lexington Avenue where the band the Dodgy Dotters were performing until cops under order from NY’s Health Department, concerned with on-site HIV, tetanus, and hepatitis infections, busted the event.
Some dotters began to openly claim they were being unjustly barred from clubs and restaurants; others described situations involving discrimination or intimidation in the workplace. Still others provided lists of “dotter-friendly establishments.” Some just wanted a return to simply drinking beer from the bottle and discussing the Yankees misfortunes.
I am now precariously walking between two very different ‘hoods: One to the West, with the Cedar Tavern at its center, had named Lenny Bruce its patron saint. Meanwhile, If I head a block east they are still discussing rumors that the Archies were indeed once a touring band. Those who believe this also believe that two members of the Archies were actually the co-founders of the Velvet Underground.
At Bowery and Delancey I’m just barreling forward when I see a bespectacled man writing something down in a notepad under a streetlight.
“What’re you writing?”
“Well, ideas about ideas disappearing.”
“For a book?”
“You could say so. If the soles of my shoes were rubber stamps.”
And with that, having been consumed by the perfect amount of beer, the light under which we stood, the light that reflected off his broad forehead marked by a cauterized halo, the meaning of which now escaped us, suddenly departed – Black-eyed. Poof – there we stood, hidden to each other, in a kind of makeshift darkness, both of us wondering if we could take credit for the outage individually – or would we have to somehow share credit?
bart plantenga is the author of novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi lus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam.