A few weeks ago a friend saw that I needed to go out for a drink and invited me for a Saturday night out.
“What sort of place would you like to go to?” he asked in his Facebook message.
“Have you ever been to the Black Dice Cafe?” he said.
I hadn’t, so it was decided: we’d meet there on the upcoming Saturday.
The Black Dice turned out to be the perfect place. It’s on Dundas just a little bit west of Dufferin (1574 Dundas Street West, to be precise), just a little out of range of the gentrification. Like many places in Accordion City’s core, it’s a long, skinny place, with a half-dozen tables in the front and the bar in the back. Across from the bar is an old-school electromechanical pinball machine, and by the tables was an original Seeburg jukebox that actually played 45 RPM singles, mostly tunes from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The Black Dice is part pub, part early Rock and Roll museum. It’s decorated with 1950s and early 1960s memorabilia: old records, photos of Elvis and Buddy Holly, a black-and-white TV above the bar that seemed to only play commercials from the time of Don Draper, old license plates, signs and other knick-knack from the time bookended by Bill Haley at one end and The Animals on the other.
Staffing the place was a woman in a black cocktail waitress dress tending bar, and in the kitchen, an Asian guy in a porkpie hat, suspenders and checkered pants who looked as if he were trying to bring the Japan’s greaser subculture here, in an odd sort of cultural return trip. Both were the sort of charming, quirky hosts that I like.
The only incongruity in the Black Dice’s illusion of a time warp back to the ‘50s is the menu. It has none of the old standbys that you’d expect: no burgers, hot dogs, fries, shakes or malteds. Instead, there’s edamame, a great salami and provolone sandwich with chips and a very cosmopolitan beer menu. I’m not complaining.
I ordered a Sapporo and enjoyed some old-school pinball:
We talked about life, the universe and everything, which was exactly what I needed, in a great little place where I’d never been before. That in itself would’ve made it a fine evening, but it was actually better thanks to what happened before we got into the Black Dice.
Earlier That Evening…
Just before leaving for the Black Dice, I right by the entrance to my apartment and looked at the accordion, which sat on a chair right by the door. Should I take it? I thought. Probably not much call for it tonight; we’ll just be talking and drinking beer.
I’m often asked if carry an accordion with me all the time. It’s not all the time, but it’s fairly often, especially when stepping out for a social event, whether work-related or personal. Having the accordion handy (and having the chutzpah to use it) has opened all sorts of doors for me and brought opportunities that would’ve otherwise been missed. The times I regret not bringing the accordion far outnumber the times I regret bringing it.
I reminded myself of that little fact, slung the little red Silvetta over my shoulders and headed out the door.
I’ll admit that walking around with 15-ish pounds of musical instrument looks like a silly affectation. It looks like the act of a conceited ass (and hey, it might be). I’ll even concede the point that it’s not normal. I’m cool with that — great stuff happens when you break past normal.
A Slight Detour
I arrived first, a couple of minutes after the appointed time of 7:00 p.m. and saw the “CLOSED” sign on the Black Dice Cafe’s entrance. A quick glance at the hours posted on their door revealed that they were open, but not until eight.
At about the same time, my friend sent me a text message saying that he was running about ten minutes late. I was about to fire off a quick “no problem” reply when I heard accordion music coming from next door, accompanied by what sounded like a guitar, a kettle drum, a triangle and raucous voices.
I looked at the place next door. It was a little Portuguese watering hole; its sign read JJ Sports Bar. They were open and I could see a full beer fridge in the back; I figured I might even be able to establish some bona fides with the accordion.
“Black Dice not open until 8,” I texted. “Meet me at the sports bar next door.” About a minute later, he replied with a text along the lines of “Uh, okay.”
I walked into JJ’s, holding up the accordion in front of me, as if it were a passport and I was entering customs. A half dozen men from three different generations were gathered around a table covered in beer bottles, one with an accordion, one with an electric guitar, one with a small drum and one with a triangle, and they turned to face the stranger who’d just entered the room.
“I’m going next door for dinner and they’re not open yet. I heard the accordion and thought I’d see what’s going on.”
They stared at me in disbelief for a moment, and then a number of them threw their arms in the air and yelled “ACCORDION!”
“Come! Join us! Play! Get this man a beer!” Magic phrases, all of them.
Folk Music and Oaths of Fealty
When my friend arrived at the bar ten minutes later, he walked into a scene like this with a very amused look on his face:
We played a selection of Portuguese folk songs, most of which were rousing two- or three-chord ditties that were meant to be sung after many servings of beer or aguardente. Folk music isn’t about precision or virtuosity, but about the heart (and alcohol) you put into it, so it didn’t matter if I’d never heard the songs before. I just asked what key they were playing in – G – and dove right in.
My friend established his own bona fides with them by surprising them with an order for port. He also took some photos and shot some video of the performances. Here’s the fifth and final number I did with them, an extravaganza featuring three accordions (a third bellows-squeezer came in after we did):
“Obrigado, guys,” I said when it was time for us to leave. Thanking them in Portuguese put me over the top.
“Come back any time, Joe!” one of them said.
“And if someone gives you shit,” another guy said, raising his fist, “call us, Joe! We will help you!”
“Did those guys just offer to beat up people for you?” asked my friend.
“I think I have a posse!” I exclaimed as we stepped out of JJ’s and went next door to the Black Dice.