The following cryptic conversation between my wife, Liz, and me took place around 9:30pm on a chilly Friday night a couple of Decembers ago in front of a seedy but vaguely familiar bar and restaurant whose sign read simply, “Heuriger.” We had just arrived in town and were trolling for restaurants in the streets near our hotel.
"Isn't this the neighborhood...?"
"I think so." She doesn't have to mention names or places, we both know what she's referring to.
"Isn't this the...???"
Fifteen years before, a search for Gypsy music had taken us to a Hungarian restaurant in this same sketchy Vienna neighborhood. As it turned out there was no music, we had been misinformed. But the night being warm, we headed back to the old town on foot. Music floated through the open door of a decrepit little bar on Rennweg. Venturing within, we found a clientèle one might charitably describe as "working class" (later in the evening a fight broke out). But at the Stammtisch, strapped to an accordion, a pudgy little man's sweet tenor voice filled this small cave of a restaurant. Grabbing a couple of seats, we ordered a beer and settled in for the duration as Walter Meda sang Wienermusik —Strauss, Lehar, Lanner, et al—the songs of old Vienna that, even if you don't know the words, may have you blinking away a tear or two; especially along about the second or third beer. (I became hooked on this music via a pair of weekend San Francisco radio shows hosted by the longtime Bay Area broadcast personality, Doug Pledger: Pledger Plays the Classics and Pledger at the Opera.)
After a while, we were invited to join Walter and the rest of the Stammtisch regulars. Nobody spoke English except one grizzled denizen of the streets who had been a prisoner of war in Georgia. Fried to a crisp on tumblers of white wine, the old guy's total repertoire consisted of eight or 10 American slang phrases from the '40s, which he used on us as conversation starters. Language, though, was unnecessary; everyone at the table understood we were all there for the music. Who knows what direction the evening might have taken had we been able to communicate beyond gestures and sing-alongs. But this way was pure, just Walter's songs, no chance to discuss politics or religion. Liz and I stood the table to a couple of rounds—my recollection is that the price of drinks was measured in pennies, not dollars—and stayed until closing. An extraordinary evening. We left with hugs and handshakes from the table and with the best intentions to return. But Walter only sang one day a week, and we never seemed to be in Vienna on that day. Over the year we wondered about the little beisl and especially about Walter Meda.
We now fast forward to that recent December evening when, by pure chance, we found ourselves in front of the place of our amazing night with Walter Meda. A chalkboard at the entry said, "Musik Donnerstag" (Music Thursday). Inside, the little Heuriger on Rennweg was shabbier, darker, and smaller than we remembered, and this time the old Wienermusik came from speakers. It was clear nothing had changed in the 15 years; not even a new chair or table, no paint, nothing. Behind the bar a tall, distinguished 60-ish man wearing a sleeveless sweater over a clean, white dress shirt offered a friendly "Grüss Gott." There was only one patron, a tiny, toothless, old woman at the Stammtisch who noisily cackled at us. She was very, very loud, and apparently very, very drunk. We politely ignored her. Sweater-behind-the-bar glanced at the old lady then back to us and rolled his eyes.
We were looking for something to eat but this wasn't going to work. We did, however, order a beer. Maybe if we hung around for a while, some of the old magic might happen. Except for the woman, Sweater was obviously alone. From where we chose to sit we could see him and the bar but only part of the Stammtisch and nothing of its loud occupant. Did I say loud? She was just getting started. As Sweater brought our beer, the woman let loose, at thunderous volume, a combination of shouting and singing, "Jawohl, die besten lokale, die besten lokale, jawohl." The strength of the voice coming from such a tiny woman, five-feet tall or perhaps a bit less, was amazing. Despite numerous entreaties from Sweater, whom we soon realized from looking at pictures on the walls, was the owner, she launched one of her arias about every two minutes—at ear-splitting volume. "Jawohl, die besten local" and a couple of other words we didn't get. Sometimes she gave the "Jawhol" a melodic, multi-syllabic treatment, trilling up and down the scale to demonstrate that indeed she once had a singing voice to be reckoned with. All this at excruciating decibels. She was also a bit ornery. Once, when Sweater ducked into the back room for a couple of minutes, she pitched the entire contents of her beer (or wine) mug onto the floor. Finally, three or four new customers straggled in. They stood drinking by the low bar, exchanging pleasantries with Sweater. Every few minutes, Little Voice would cut loose. Each time Sweater motioned her to tone it down and then apologized to his customers. After about 30 minutes, in preparation for departure as it turns out, the old lady rose from the table and gave Sweater a few euros. We saw that the seat of her dress was wet, she had either been sitting in spilled drink or...? Sweater kissed her on both cheeks and she swept out the door after one final "besten locale" rendition. He had shown remarkable restraint.
When it came our turn to go I told Sweater I liked his music selection (referring to the canned stuff we're hearing). He gave a ghost of a smile and shrugged, "Wienermusik.” In my limited, crude German, accompanied by gestures miming an accordion, I inquired about Walter Meda. At first he said, "Donnerstag, musik ist Donnerstag." But suddenly he realized what I asked and put both hands to one cheek, closed his eyes, and tilted his head to one side. "Todt?," (dead) I asked. "Yeah, todt," he said. But I could see Sweater didn't care that we cared. He was playing out the string, “Heuriger” was on its last legs. Maybe, though, he wished as we did that Walter could come back just one more time and bring some light and cheer — and Wienernusik— to his crummy little joint.