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The Tom Waits Run – Searching for the heart of Oslo Skriv ut
mandag 05. mars 2012 17:01


The authorEvery year, when summer nears a start in Oslo, an homage to a beloved drunkard takes the unusual form of a footrace through the streets of the most worn down part of town. The Tom Waits Run gathers fans of the ingenious musician and common drunkards alike. Their mutual goal - to be this year’s loser.

A couple of summers ago some friends and I were sitting in the grass, in the burning summer sunshine, sharing single malt whisky from a metal flask. In addition to enjoying one of life’s greatest perks, scotch whisky, we were waiting for a small bunch of t-shirt salesmen to ask us to step right up and buy this year’s edition of an overpriced black cotton t-shirt.

Most things have a natural explanation. This is also true for the origins of the Tom Waits run. Every year a totally different kind of race was organized in the streets of Oslo. It was a female only race, for recreational runners called The Grete Waitz Run. The woman behind this race was the famous Norwegian marathon runner Grete Waitz. She is a nine times New York Marathon winner and Olympic silver medallist. The annual race was started to encourage women to be more active and  competitive as runners. As most people, women also like to get drunk, and the race quickly turned into an excuse for thirsty ladies from all over Norway to arrange a booze fest in the capitol under the guise of a sporting event. You are probably shaking your head right now and saying «Well, that’s what sporting events are for?» And right you are, but Grete Waitz didn’t agree. She was quite disappointed by the runners increasingly more drunken endeavours. And as it turned out, Missus Waitz was not the only one who was saddened by her organized meet of middle aged out-of-towners with cheap white wine spritzers in their sport bottles.

The day of the Grete Waitz race almost all of down town and central Oslo was closed off for the runners and organizers. Spectators and intoxicated visitors unable to find their way back to the hotel or even their travel mates, made the city congested. The native drunkards where more or less driven away from any regular watering hole. Luckily drunkards know that necessity is the mother of invention. And even if that was not the case, a couple of geniuses came up with the idea for the Tom Waits run.

The honest race
The plan was to move to the part of town where the tourists would never go. To make this interesting they wanted to make it an event. I was not present, but I am quite sure that the name of the new race was conceived after a couple of beers. You have probably already noticed the similarity between the names of the runner and artist which these events are named after. But even though their names are quite similar, Tom and Grete haven’t got that much in common. While Grete advocates the healthy, sporting life style, Tom Waits is one of the patron saints of the drunkard – the name was perfect. The pub crawl was marketed as “the honest race”, as the drunkards would not hide their booze in sport bottles, but rather hold their glass of beer high. This was of course an obvious reference to the bigotry of the Grete Waitz run, and a non-threatening kick in their direction. To make it even more interesting the Tom Waits run was also kept a secret. Of course a secret like this spreads like wild fire.

The race has been about for more than ten years now. Two summers ago was the ten year anniversary. I have entered the race five times, and even though that does not make me a veteran, I have stacked up some experience. First of all you have to be at the starting point quite early to get hold of the map. The map is pretty smart, for a number of reasons, and I will get that in due time. Everyone who wants to join in meet up at the very centre of Old Oslo, in the ruins of The Church of Mary – Mariu kirkiu. The church was built in the year 1000 and burned to the ground by our neighbours the Swedes in the year of 1523. It was considered beyond repair and therefore almost completely torn down. Later the entire area was covered with dirt and used as farmland. By 1963, however the ruins of the church were completely excavated. For drunkards who often experience the sensations of being built up, lit up, torn down and buried, only to rise up and start all over again, this seems as apt a starting point as any.

Clothes make the man
If you manage to get to the aforementioned ruins in time you will be able to buy a map for about twenty bucks. And if you are really lucky you might even get one in the right size. The map of the race changes from year to year, but it is always a black t-shirt with the name of this particular year’s participating pubs. Some of the pubs are at least aware of their participation. Others seem completely taken by surprise year after year. More than once have we waited in line by the hundreds in front of a single barman that knows he’ll run out of beer before midnight while he curses his poor prerpartion.

The number of pubs vary as well, and range from about sixteen to more than twenty. The idea to make the map a t-shirt is of course a stroke of genius by the inventors. The main point probably being that you are not as likely to lose your t-shirt, as you are a piece of paper. But it has been known to happen. The shirt has also got a new logo every year, and a reference to the great man himself – Mister Tom Waits. The ability to only have to look as far as your chest, or one of your drinking chums’ chest, to figure out which pub is the next stop is another blessing of the t-shirt map. You are of course also likely to be wearing your shirts on later occasions of the joyous kind, thus spreading the word. Some people may also wear them to work, I know I do, but this is subject to dress codes and what not. And speaking of dress codes, it has to be said that the t-shirts super powers aside, it can prevent you from getting in to some of the pubs along the route. Naturally the bouncers will assume that you are drunk just because they know they are the fifteenth stop along the way. To deal with this, one often has to switch or cover up the shirts.

One thing that never changes though is the starting and ending point of the race. It starts at the church ruins and ends at a café called Fiasco. The starting point has been cleverly incorporated into the new slogan of the race – from ruin to fiasco. If you are acquainted with the Italian language you will know that a fiasco means an utterly humiliating failure. It can also mean flask, which makes it even more suitable to be the finishing line.

This years losers

Rule me in
But I am jumping ahead. First let us get the rules of this voyage of drunkness straight, so we can break them. The rules are most usualy interpretated as; drink at least one alcohol unit of beer or whisky at each pub. As far as time goes, you have until closing time. Since the t-shirt-maps are usually sold around two in the day, and the bars close at around two at night, this gives you roughly twelve hours to finish. There are of course a lot of people playing by their own rules. More than once people have drunk more than one unit, and most people don’t get all the way through the list of pubs. More often than not you’ll wind up dancing to Blow, the Tom Waits tribute band, or chatting with the nighthawks along the way.

I have however already mentioned some of the obstacles you are likely to meet along the way. The unruly bouncers a side, there are also a lot of people, and you must be prepared for some standing in line. Further, the ATMs often run out of cash in this area on that particular day, so you need to bring, and not lose, a vast amount of money. Also you might need to eat during this time period. And finally drinking in public is prohibited in Norway, and you might get fined by the police if they catch you red handed. All of these obstacles, even if they might get in my way, are enjoyable things. Standing in line for instance can often be a drag. But standing in line with fellow drunkards on a merry occasion like the Tom Waits Run is a riot. People are friendly, well mannered and seldom in a hurry. It is easy to find common topics to discuss like beer, whisky, Tom Waits and other wonders of the world.

Rival gangs
A couple of summers ago when I was standing in line I got to chatting with a man with an interesting neck tie. It depicted several bottles of the Danish dram Gammel Dansk. It is a spicy traditional liqueur that resembles Fernet Branca and Jägermeister. It soon came across  that he was not the only one donning this particular brand of polyester cravat. He was the vice president of a brotherhood working to broaden Gammel Dansk’s audience, and several of his brethren were also participating in the race. Being the current president of Oslo’s Society of Men Enjoying Whisky and Beer, I was soon discussing whisky’s obvious superiority to his medicine of choice. All in good fun of course. Every year since we have met in some line, brought new arguments to the table and competed in which society had the most participating members. Last year we won.

Carrying some cash is not a big problem, but in Norway beer is quite expensive. Even in the drunkard’s part of town. A single draft beer from the local brewery will cost you about ten bucks, and a whisky almost twice as much. Some pubs hike up their prices of course, but most don’t. The budget should be something like 300 bucks for drinks in 20 pubs, and a couple hundred more for food and buffer.

Even a drunk needs some food, and most would like to eat at places that also serves a drink. I know I do. Last year we got a table in the sun at the most fashionable stop along the route - Olympen. We had forgotten to buy the necessary tickets in advance, but luckily the brews had given me the super power of persuasive talk, and not only did we get a table, but we also got our food first. They served a genuine Norwegian speciality for the occasion called flesk og duppe. Translated to English flesk og duppe means fat and dip. They are salty pork ribs grilled and served with a cream and mustard seed sauce. Accompanied by a cold brew this of course tastes something extremely close to pure happiness. Others will grab some fast food in between stops, but that’s their loss.

Outside Cafékontoret

Great minds drink alike
What characterizes the Tom Waits Run is that everything about it, even the obstacles, are extremely pleasant. This of course stems from the fact that everyone participating are drunks. And as you are probably already aware, drunkards are good people. And as you may or might not known, Norwegians are usually quite timid and reluctant to talk to each other. We seldom talk to tourists either, even though we are all fluent in English and the other Scandinacian languages. But there is something about the Tom Waits Run that makes even Oslo show a little more heart. Even the cops change their behaviour during this one full day of collective boozing in the streets of Grønland. Usually the cops would fine people for drinking in public, but this has not happened. After a couple of beers you already start to feel like you are fooling them, and in some way sticking it to the Man.

As for my personal Tom Waits-run escapades, I will also mention the time I laid down flat on the hood of a taxi and pleaded the driver to take me home, but failing to give him my address. He probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyway, since I couldn’t find his door. There was also the time I got all the way to the stairs of the last pub, but couldn’t actually manage to climb them. Another year I got up the stairs and was rightfully denied access because I was to drunk. But I sneakily managed to climb over a small hedge too get inside via the outdoor seating, just to be immediately eighty-sixed by the doorman who had been watching me all along. But these minor incidents are not what spring to mind when I think back to the various edition of this yearly festival of drunkenness. The friendships, new and further developed, the common drive to “have another”, the support of your fellow drunkard and the joy in each and every brew are the memories I take with me. Why don’t you meet me next year at the ruins and join my quest towards fiasco?

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