Ah! well a-day! what evil looks/Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the AlbatrossAbout my neck was hung.Samuel Coleridge
The albatross isn’t a beautiful bird. From some angles it appears neckless, like a middle-aged balding man who’s put on some pounds he can’t get rid of. The downward hook of its beak reminds me of the dodo. A swan it ain’t. In flight it looks assembled from mismatched parts—the amazing wingspan especially looks like it came from a more graceful bird. As if a minivan got souped up with a turbo engine. But whatever it looks like it obviously works. It stays aloft for years at a time, seeming not to need land. So why have we saddled it with representing burdensome weight?
We make other animals carry water for us metaphorically and otherwise. It’s what we do. Impose our traits on creatures who have no knowledge or need of our neuroses. For instance, I keep calling the president a pig but I like pigs and hate the president. So why do I smear them by linking them to a thing like that? I’d apologize to pigs but they don’t care about apologies. They have lives to live.
I started reading up on what the albatross stood for because the fictional bar in my book is named after it.
A few years ago the couple who run my neighborhood coffeeshop planned to open a bar called The Salty Albatross. They asked friends to suggest names. I gave them a few but the one they chose wasn’t one of them. They did say they wanted me to work there. It was to be a casual neighborhood spot with a maritime theme. I was excited to have a gig blocks from where I live. They found a storefront and started rehabbing it but eventually their plans fell through. But that name lingered.
I didn’t care for “Salty” because it suggested a theme-restaurant. I could picture being required to wear an eyepatch. But “The Albatross” was a solid name for a tavern. I knew early on I’d have to change names and timelines in order to tell the bar stories I wanted to tell. One of the places my Albatross is based on also has a bird name. Moreover, having a bar stuck in the past called the name of an animal which represents something one is saddled with was hard to resist.
In Coleridge’s poem the sailor has to wear the bird’s carcass as penance for killing it. It’s the way that many bar patron’s carry their pasts. But it’s not entirely negative, because to many their memories, even if they’re no good, are preferable to the present. They wear their albatrosses voluntarily.
From what I read we’ve given the bird a bad rap but I don’t know enough not to keep piling on. I posted a rough draft of a new chapter from the book for paid subscribers of this newsletter a couple weeks ago. A reader wrote that he googled The Albatross because he’d wanted to go there for a drink. I hated to break the bad news that the place was made up but took it as a compliment.