When the leader of our writing group sent the invite around, I responded without thinking twice about my possible conflicts, difficulty finding a babysitter, or my disinterest in bar-hopping in general. Crisis? I'm in.
In fact, if some mega-conglomerate decided to launch a line of "crisis" establishments, they would definitely have my business: The Crisis Market, Crisis Gas 'n' Sip, Crisis Dry Cleaning, Your Nails in Crisis Salon. Etc. The writer specimen is most at home in an environment that announces itself as crisis-friendly, because the writer specimen subsists on a diet of steady rejection letters and doubts about which pens to buy at Staples.
This particular "crisis" establishment, Marie's Crisis Cafe, is a piano bar in the West Village of Manhattan. It opened as a brothel in the 1850s, and was naturally a speakeasy during Prohibition. Now customers jam the place to drink from the narrow beer and cocktail menu and sing Broadway show tunes.
The place was just called "Marie's" for a time, but the word "Crisis" was added in homage to Thomas Paine's Crisis Papers, which were penned during the Revolutionary War on this very spot. Although another history I read said Thomas Paine died on this very spot. Either way, a crisis related to Thomas Paine seems to have occurred on this very spot.
By 11 p.m., Marie's was standing room only. The pianist, a bushy-haired woman named Frank, wasn't shy about jingling her tip jar. It was the size of a dentist office's fish tank. Frank said this is how she pays her rent. I was sympathetic, which is another reason writers end up in crisis, but that would make this post too long. I threaded myself through the crowd of gay men and dropped a five dollar bill in her fish tank (which, sadly, made me feel like a big tipper). I asked her to play anything from A Chorus Line because those were probably the only songs I could keep up with in a sing-along.
The hour passed, and crisis-seekers were lining up down the sidewalk to get in. From the street-level window above our table, I could see the cheap spiked heels and legs a-plenty of the twenty-something girls outside, and the scuffed sneakers of the boys lurking near them. Frank stuck to standards from Les Mis and La Boheme, and then she started her Little Mermaid medley. My younger writer colleagues, two women in their twenties and one in her thirties, perked up noticeably. Oy vey, I thought. When did Broadway turn into a line extension of The Disney Company?
I stuck close to my Stella Artois and admired my young table-mates swooning through the song, hitting every note. The mermaid sang about her forks and fins. I drank more. Sebastian then sang about how down here all the fish is happy. As I was stifling a burp, Frank segued into a riff from Cheers that quickly became the opening bars of Beauty and the Beast.
My table-mates went nuts like the Beatles just walked into the room. Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test...
I was feeling a crisis coming on. More Disney? The whole bar was swaying to Frank's joyous medley about the beast and his pretty girlfriend. Was I getting old and out of touch? Had a shiny-happy Broadway movement set sail and left me spinning my parasol on the shores of Oklahoma? I threaded through the handsome gay crowd again. I gave Frank five more dollars. I smiled in that I'll-be-your-bestie way, but she was pretty distracted hammering away at a few muscular chords of Kill the beast!
But Frank did finally get to her Chorus Line medley. She of course played One first. Most of the crowd liked it, just like they had the Disney stuff, so I was relieved. But when I looked over at my young colleagues, they were tilting their heads politely to the beat and barely mumbling the lyrics. It was as if the Beatles had now left the building.
Frank played At The Ballet, during which I was down to the syllable with the lyrics, standing up, gesticulating theatrically, and enunciating especially well the part when the dancer Bebe sings though I was eight or nine... I hated her.
My young writer friends were appalled. What a wretch, that ungrateful Bebe.
When Frank started playing Dance Ten, Looks Three, I'll admit I didn't mumble the lyrics. I probably knew this song better than most of the others. You can debate the appropriateness of it, but the Chorus Line soundtrack seemed to be on a continuous loop in the cassette deck of my father's Ford Thunderbird from the time I was nine to twelve years old. Formative years, those. But I turned out fine. More or less.
After my young writer friends had probably heard the word 'tits' too many times, one of them asked, "What is this song from again?"
"This is still Chorus Line," I replied between breaths, then hurrying to keep up with this line: Left the theatre and called the doctor for my appointment to buy... tits and ass. Bought myself a fancy pair. Tightened up the derriere...
I was probably in a full-on crisis during the whole medley, my latest rejection emails from agents and editors on my mind, but singing about those chorus dancer's sad lives and dashed dreams felt so cathartic. Much more than a mermaid falling in love with a human or a beauty hooking up with a beast. Romance has never inspired me. There's just no art to a thing unless people are struggling, not to me. But there is art in watching your mom dig earrings out of the car or stuffing your shoes with extra socks. Pure. Art.
That Little Mermaid may have gadgets and gizmos a-plenty, but bingo-bongos she will never have.