Xanadu, Colchis, Avalon ...and Miters

By David Kessler

In this installment: How to Search.  A Title for My Fairy Tale.  The Set Up.  A Rumored Place.  Once, Twice, Thrice.  Success!  Exploring the Magical Land.  Back in the Sunlit World.

"All Travel is a quest"  (Freya Stark)

If you have listened to many folktales, then you know how formulaic they generally are.  And one of the more clichÚd genres of folklore is the search for the far-away and magical city, island, grove, treasure, etc.

You hear rumors about the place and what you'll find there.  You set out to find it based on where reason tells you it is, or following whatever map, charm, prophecy, or madman you are limited to.  You fail once, twice, thrice... but then you try once more and something new happens that keeps you from giving up hope.  Finally, you succeed in a manner that could have been achieved quickly and painlessly if only you had understood the solution back when you where at square one.  Far-off, magical lands are never where we first imagine they are, and may not even be very far-off from where we begin.  The fact that the best way to find them is to go to some incorrect far-off place - that is, that the shortest route between two points in a fairy tale is not a straight line - is something we tolerate only when we can do so knowingly; having actually made it to our rumored haven, and, perhaps, returned to tell about.

And so, with that preamble, I'd like to tell you the story of how, late one night in January, I left home with a VCR remote in my pocket, looking for a bar that doesn't exist... and succeeded!

This past New Year's Eve (2001), I was involved in a performance of Beijing Opera for which an interesting man came to Boston from Beijing.  We planned, we prepared, we worked like mad, we put on a great show, we crashed on Anne's sofa (she helped with the performance) on New Year's morning, and by the end of his visit he had managed to disarrange various, small pieces of our lives: Objects of Anne's ended up at my house; Objects of mine ended up at Eric's; I don't believe that Eric's time or the range-of-motion of his knees turned up at Anne's, but it wouldn't have surprised me one bit to find that they had.

One piece of this jumble was Anne's VCR.  She needed it back immediately and its remote was supposedly at my place.  This news came to me via email from California, and was quickly followed by an email from Anne - local - that she was giving a concert of medieval vocal music that evening at 8pm. Unfortunately, I didn't get home to find this latter message until 10pm.

I would have liked to have heard the concert, but it was probably ending as I read her email.  Now the message also noted that she would go to "miters" after the show - obviously a bar or coffee shop, and one where she was a regular, based on how casually and familiarly she mentioned it - and I imagined a sign with a bishop's hat and the words "Miter's Bar" on it.

Logically, the bar would be in one of two places: Either near the performance, or near her apartment.  I knew both neighborhoods and the area of the performance seemed more likely to have such a place.  Charles Street by Beacon Hill is brimming with little places that have quaint little names - one of them could easily be named for a hat.

I began my research.  The phone book didn't list any business called "Miter's".  Directory Assistance couldn't find a Miter's.  The Internet didn't show a Miter's, and my housemate had never heard of the place.  I had everything that research was going to tell me, so I went to the closet to get my coat.

My housemate looked at me like I was the fool of the world and said, "You're not actually going out now, to find that place?!"  It was almost 10:30 after all, and she was being reasonable.  But the idea had seized me, and that was that.  I found 2 remotes on the TV set - one worked and the other did not.  It's batteries were still good, so I deduced that it must be Anne's missing remote; I guess part of my brain can function properly, even while another part of it limits what I'm willing to consider to a very narrow field.

Starting where I knew she had last been seemed like the best way to go about things, so I took the Red Line to Charles Station and was soon on Brimmer Street, standing on the front stoop of the Church of the Advent - 3 hours too late to buy a ticket.  I looked around, I sniffed the air, and I thought about all the tracking stories I've ever read.  I stepped off the stoop and walked out onto Charles Street.

As I walked along, looking for a sign, I asked the first group of people I came to if they knew of a bar or restaurant called Miter's.  They didn't.  Neither did the second or the third groups I asked.  Then I asked a fourth group... but they didn't know either; so much for a literal reading of questing tales.

I continued along, still holding out hope of success, so I suppose the formula of the quest still required that I search.  I walked up and down Charles Street and along a few connecting streets alternately looking at signs, and at the faces of strangers passing by, but I found nothing.  I decided to get professional help.

I went into a friendly looking restaurant/bar and asked the woman at the front if she had heard of Miter's.  She was very helpful, and within 10 minutes had personally determined that no one there that night - waiters, cooks, the manager, even several patrons - had heard of Miter's.  This failure seemed to disturb her and the staff as much as it disappointed me, so I decided to leave before I caused them to question their knowledge of the local competition any more than I already had.  I was beginning to lose my drive, and wanted to clear my head and think.

Out on the sidewalk, I mentally checked off all the places I had gone and decided that there was still one area where I might find this elusive Brigadoon of a bar.  It was just past midnight, so I decided to eliminate that last possibility before catching the last train home.  I turned to the right and started walking, only to see Anne walking toward me, not 20 feet away!

She gave a broad and slightly startled smile when she saw me, said "Hi!" and asked what I was doing there.  I didn't say anything, but reached into my pocket, pulled out her VCR remote, and handed it to her.

She was, to put it mildly, stunned!  Frankly, so was I, and could only answer her dropped jaw with the uncontrollable, ear-to-ear grin that often accompanies wildly undeserved pluckishness.  Apparently, She had gone to a nearby bar after the show for a drink with a friend (who was still with her), and they had been continually delayed by one thing after another.  They were only now heading to her car, and the next thing she said was music to my ears:

"Do you want to come to Miter's with us?"

Off we sped in her little car, and I watched the neighborhoods go by as we moved quickly and efficiently toward our goal - a place called MITERS.  We drove across the river to Cambridge, and found a parking spot on a badly potholed side street off Mass. Ave.  She led us around the back of an old, warehouse-like building, and up a ramp.

Inside the door there was a sign that read "MIT Electronic Research Society."

And that is how I found MITERS.   It's not a bar at all, but a small society, with a small room, and it hosts a monthly open microphone that attracts a range of presenters that you won't find onstage at your average coffeehouse.  An evening might include brightly dressed, giggling students claiming to be faeries (complete with wings), who are followed by a demonstration of a bicycle helmet made into what could be a set piece in a mad scientist's lab.  This might be followed by stories of sailing a folding boat in the Caribbean, followed by a solar-powered, kinetic sculpture made of magnetic filings, a presentation of a family recipe for lasagna, an essay on information security, or a humorous video on how animals sense fear.

On the night in question, we had arrived too late to see any performances or displays, so I wandered curiously about the room while Anne talked to her friends.  Past the robotic arms and bicycle parts crowding the doorway were walls lined with old models and projects in various states of completion, and drawers full of materials for starting new ones.  I stopped to listen to one fellow talk about origami (a few months later, he would show us all how to make a mitre), and was asked if I wanted to hear a song, by another fellow with a guitar.  When he finished and I thanked him, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a CD.  No case, just the CD.  He held it up to the light, casually inspecting it, and announced that it was probably the least scratched one that he had on him.  He insisted that I take it.

I continued to marvel at the density of ideas represented in the strange contraptions all around the room, and the spirit that supported it all, and it made me wonder what sort of things happened at the monthly meetings held among them.   Across the room, Anne was finishing talking to her friends about the same time that I finished convincing the reporter wanting to interview me that, really, I had no idea what went on in this place. The room was starting to clear.

The 3 of us went back to Anne's car and she used the last of her energy to get her friend home to Allston, so for the second time since meeting her less than a month earlier, I crashed on her living room sofa.  I awoke in the morning to the daylight coming in through the windows; Few nighttime folk tales can survive direct sunlight, so I knew that the chapter of this little quest was over and that I had returned from my journey.

Epilogue: I knew from the moment I woke up that morning that the previous night's adventure deserved to be told, but it was only several months later that I figured out how to tell it.  The next Miters meeting was only 2 days after I wrote down a rough first draft of the story - the list of performers was pretty short, and I nervously put my name on it.  There was some poetry, a story, a demonstration of a 1940's precision metal grinding machine able to create pieces with a variance of only one ten-thousandth of an inch, and some songs from the fellow with the guitar who gave me his slightly scratched CD that first night at Miters.

It was near the end of the night and I was the next in line to perform, when in walked Anne!  I happily watched as the realization of what story I was telling spread across her face and she started laughing.  Afterwards, she gave me a ride and joked that I was welcome to crash on her sofa again; thanks again Anne, I'll take a rain check on that offer.

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