A few years back, I pitched a profile of a West Village piano bar to a local events magazine. An former client had told me about the place years before and I’d always wanted an excuse to go. “It’s a singalong place,” my client had said. “A dark bar. A piano. Drunk gay men everywhere. The men sing the men’s parts, the women sing the women’s parts. They do practically any Broadway song you can think of.” He might as well have said, You know. The kind of place you’d live in if you could, because “Broadway Hag” is your middle name.
After my pitch was greenlighted, I haunted the place for weeks; skulking in the corner with a series of vodka tonics, scrawling paragraphs – “Tonight’s pianist whacks his head against the wall to keep time with the music” – and whispering the words to the showtunes. My former client had been right; I adored the place. I wanted so badly to sing like the other patrons, who swarmed the piano underneath the low wooden ceiling, strung with twinkling Christmas lights. There were caterwaulers who couldn’t hold a note to save their lives and then there were real singers who could hush a room with awe. If only I, too, could get up the nerve to sing. Song after song, everyone seemed to know the words. I visited often enough to witness the rotation of pianists and Darin quickly became my favorite. It was his easy charm that finally made me feel comfortable enough to sidle up to the piano, even if I was still too shy to open my mouth. During the day, I put the longing behind me and trolled official records to focus on researching the history of the building – built in the 1700s and home to the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine. The steel mural of ghostly soldiers behind the bar? Created by the WPA, designed to depict the French and American Revolutionary wars. The rafters in the ceiling? Ship’s beams. The panels on the wall? Also rescued from an old ship. The name? A blending of the original bar’s owner’s and a nod to The Crisis.
My love letter article came out at the end of October, 2005. I returned to Marie’s with trepidation – would the staff and clientele like what I had said? Would they have put two and two together and figured out that the chatty girl in the corner with the notebook was the one who had reported the goings on of a recent birthday party held at the bar? Would I still be welcome in what had rapidly become my favorite place? I tiptoed down the steps through the thundering notes and whoops, slinking my way to my usual cove behind the empty fireplace – my guilty footsteps falling in time with the bouncy opening notes of, “All That Jazz.”
Jim was playing that evening, and his sharp eye caught my angsty movements.
“You!” he shouted. “You’re the one!” I hung my head, ready for the men around the piano to hurl the sample packets of Viagra – given to Jim as a tip – at my head.
No Viagra. Just a drink on the house. My favorite place was safe.
I became a regular – ecstatic to trip down the stairs and drink in the atmosphere of liquor, happiness, music and history. I always avoided weekends and favored the middle of the week, when Darin played. One night, I began to sing and since then, I was never afraid again. My last night at the bar was several days before I moved to Japan. I returned – lured as if by a spell – each time I visited for the holidays and each time, Darin was nowhere to be found.
“You’ve missed him,” said the waitresses. “He’s here on Wednesdays/Fridays/Tuesdays now.” Each time I returned to the bar it was as if I was stepping into a time capsule. Same old drunks, Christmas lights, and Cabaret. But never Darin.
When I moved back to New York last month, I celebrated my acceptance to “Christminster” by treating myself to a few drinks at the bar. Once again, no Darin. There was a man I didn’t recognize, who read his music from a Kindle-like device. None of the faces at the bar seemed familiar, but the music always was. My mood was electric; I still couldn’t quite understand that I’d really, truly, been accepted to “Christminster” and was going to get my Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing. In my glee, I gulped vodka tonic after vodka tonic and soon I was giggling into my chest.
“Thank god for you, Catherine,” I yapped to the woman next to me. “You’re a real singer. You keep us all in key. Thank god for you. You keep us honest.”
I had my notebook on my lap and began scrawling in time to the music:
I AM REALLY TRULY GOING TO FREAKING “CHRISTMINSTER” TO GET MY MASTER’S
I WILL NOT SPELL ANYTHING WITH AN EXTRA “U”
In the past, my drunken turns at the bar had been of the angry, heartbroken variety – ending with my stumbling home, muttering to myself. This drunkenness was of the celebratory variety, but I didn’t know how truly drunk I was until I stood to dance. My vodka tonic-a-thon ended with my cabbing it to Diego’s and hunching over his toilet for half an hour.
The next morning, Diego found me sprawled out on his bed and surrounded by plastic bags.
“Just tell me where you threw up,” he said, grim faced. “Tell me all of those bags aren’t full.”
None of them were. I had dragged them into bed with me in case I was too tired to get up again but left them untouched out of drunken paranoia that I’d suffocate while holding them around my mouth.
I visited the bar again last night. After 2 and a half years of searching for Darin to no avail, I didn’t have high hopes for actually finding him. But yet, last night? There he was – cameoed in the red-paned windows.
My happiness making me instantly shy, I slipped past the piano and crept to my old hiding spot near the fireplace. There was a group of screeching college-aged tourists sprawled on the piano; woo-ing and dancing with each other. I watched them – first, with interest and then with disdain. They were exceedingly loud and, to be honest, quite annoying. They blocked my view and overrode Darin’s playing with their drunken warbles. I tried to remember that they had every right to have as much fun as they wanted; after all, I’d certainly had my share here. I asked the waitress for a glass of white wine and listened to Darin play.
He noticed me during one of the last choruses of “Cabaret” and his face lit up the same way mine had when I saw him.
“You!” he said. “You stayed away longer than you said you were going to!”
“What can I say?” I asked. “I fell in love.”
He played Fame. He played Little Shop. The girls at the piano screamed and hollered. I sipped my wine blissfully. And next to me, a Japanese woman glowed on her bar stool. My face instantly began to burn, so strong was the desire to speak to her.
As luck would have it, she spoke to me first.
“This is like karaoke,” she said. She was speaking to me because everyone speaks to everyone at the piano bar. “But this is better than karaoke.”
“How do we ask him to play Sinatra?” asked her friend, sneaking up behind me. “By the way, I’m Ted. I’m from Kansas. This is Mio – she’s from Japan.”
“矢っ張り,” I said – the Japanese rushing forth in a relieved gush like a yoga breath before I had time to wonder if it was rude to say, “I thought so.”
“ええ ええ!” cried the woman – probably before she had time to wonder if it was rude to display shock that a non-Japanese person might speak some Japanese. “日本語を喋るの?”
” はい . 喋るよ,” I lied, spurred by drunken happiness. I had seen Darin again for the first time in 2 and a half years, he was happy to see me, he was playing “Grease” and if I wasn’t mistaken, I was feeling the dawn of a Good Japanese Night so why not? Maybe tonight I did really speak Japanese.
“本当?” she asked happily. Really?
“本真 や.” I replied. Really, y’all!
“ええ ええ!” she cried. “大阪に住んでいました, ね?”
Cat was out of the bag – she guessed I’d lived in Osaka. Could it have been something I said?!
… a word about my now-compulsive use of Osaka dialect. Like almost all people who study Japanese, I learned standard Tokyo-ben and was introduced to tenengo verb endings, not plain forms. Two years of dealing with schoolchildren in Osaka have hammered plain forms and Osaka-ben into my brain so now, even when I meet someone new, my brain reaches for the casual comedians’ speech as opposed to the polite speech. My cheeks burned again – this time in embarrassment.
But, you know, the embarrassment melts, somehow, when singing is involved.
Darin played. We sang. Mio asked me if I knew any Japanese songs and when I mentioned that I love Iruka, her “ええ ええ!” threatened to knock me off of my bar stool. Then we sang a few bars of なごり雪, clasping hands like old friends. And it wasn’t strange, this singing and speaking of Japanese in my beloved Marie’s Crisis, listening to my favorite pianist play. It was different, yet all the same. I’m different – obviously, if I’m chatting to random strangers in Japanese – but still the same. You can come home again … even if you’ve changed a little.
Someone toasted us. The Christmas lights twinkled and illuminated the WPA mural behind the bar. The college girls were gone and in their place, a group of men itching to sing Hernando’s Hideaway. I pressed my feet against the back of the old wooden piano, remembering how many times I’d done so to feel the notes vibrating against my feet when I was an angry, lost 25 year-old – so sure that, somehow, literally feeling the music in my body would lead me to an epiphany as beautiful as the songs I sang until 4 in the morning.