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2004-12-15 - 9:10 a.m.

Tucked neatly between my MetroCard, and the Credit Card that will not be used, sit a small stack of restaurant cards, each of them all gussied up with nine stamps. It’s a rookie mistake to cash in immediately when you get that ninth stamp and you’re due your free hoagie, pizza slice, or hooker. When the financial tides of your life wander out, and you’ve already hit Coinstar to cash out the piggy bank; and you’ve backed away crying after selling off a few your children from your DVD collection, (My heart will go on.) at that moment, you will be very happy about that one free cup of coffee.

With a stomach full of generic brand Spegettio’s, I happily hunkered down into a chair with my gigantic goblet of black heroin; my first luxury of weekend. Everything I could spare went towards a little fund for one particular Sunday activity, a few bills tucked and folded into the darker recesses of my pocket, where my impulse buying can’t quite reach them.

One of the nicer attributes of hot beverages is the time it takes to consume them. A glass of water, even a near gallon bottle, that can slide right down without even a second’s notice, but anyone with a survival instinct can sip on a cup of steaming coffee upwards of an hour if it’s made right. Every last drop and every last second I could milk out of this free-bee was mine to savor, sitting serene in the front window, taking in the Christmas lights limping over Grand Street, barely glowing against the grey all around them.

Even with the valiant glow of the droopy decorations, the main drag of Williamsburg looks as it usually does. The gaping road dips and bends to the lights on the horizon, but on the street, boarded up businesses beside those barely struggling through. A few signs and awnings, that, for a day or so, had been bright and bold, but wilted under dirt and weather and Brooklyn. They were lived in. The new bright red canopy over the front the coffee shop seems garish by comparison.

Meanwhile, through horned rims, the barista is borrowing a solid hole into the back of my head. Probably not enthused that someone who hadn’t tossed in a cent that day had taken the greatly sought after window seat, he gave me the stink eye any time I dared look over my shoulder. I left the sugary dregs at the bottom of the mug, and ditched it up at the counter, under cover of the espresso machine’s wailing.

The show for the evening: something jazzy, laid back and sometimes girly. I bear no shame in listening to something without power cords or scratching wailing vocal tears, but just to keep my musical chi in balance, my ride to Manhattan is fed with steady helpings of Tool, Perfect Circle, and just a touch of Metallica.

Once on the subway, we stopped halfway between the boroughs. Right under the river. The lights stayed off for twenty minutes. It was the only time I ever sat down on the floor of a train.

Just west of the ever locked gates of Gramercy Park, I wandered past clean white faced buildings, door-manned, and lobbied. Gothic buildings bear spotted walls of light: who’s up, who’s out, watching the city go to sleep. The streets narrow and twist at right angles alone. Just west is my living room.

No one at the bar doesn’t know everyone else on either side. The pretence of a football game gives reason for the ribbing and conversation that tends to follow from such little gatherings. The one Steelers fan sitting at the bar while we slam green shots for the Jets. From April through October he’s on the other side of this one. Watching tense and quiet, waiting for the moments that allow the exclamation of that churn in your stomach. Bettis eggs the defense into guarding the run, only to lop a spiral into the end zone. Silent during the slings and arrows, he’s out of his chair.

The City is the island. While living in Brooklyn might seem like living in New York City, it isn’t. No where on my address is the word City. I live in Brooklyn. The City is across the water, and everyone with a one-one-something-something-something zip code knows that.

“Going to the City?”

It’s ten minutes on a train, but it’s worlds.

The show is in Queens, just as close as Brooklyn, but the name means distance. The families in comfortable housing, with nicely shorn streets make it a suburb in quite a few eyes. Ten minutes, but it’s worlds. The neighborhood: Long Island City. It isn’t really Long Island, and it’s not really a city. It’s a neighborhood. It’s worlds.

The Steeler’s fan is coming with, fueled with a fourth quarter win.

“You could be diagnosed with Herpes right now, you’d still be smiling.”

The streets are oddly familiar, with little spots of light. Bodegas, restaurants and little pubs shining out from dimly lit blocks of tenement, but here it’s quiet and empty, save for a few people professionally loitering outside.

Given the fact that I called him in to see a band he’d never seen, and the neighborhood seemed to be showing the same amount of life as an audience of a Gallagher show in SoHo, I worried. No one really wants to be responsible for a friend’s wasted evening.

Large and heavy metal doors waited for us. The cover was sneezeable, and much easier to swallow than I’d figured. Whiskey on the first round. The room had high lofting ceilings, but the bar and the tables and the chairs and the people shrunk the space in around you. Besides a couple booths, the only seats surrounded the bar and a long ancient thick wooden table seemingly dragged from the basement of a church after one too many nights of bingo. And it was drenched in Twizzlers.

Early for the show, in that little space, in that pre-hour, when only friends and extended family generally arrive, I spent moment after moment, trying not to rest eyes on the ladies of the band I’d come to see, while they traipsed about the bar, befrocked in gig gear and red wine. A part of me recognizes that this local celebrity shouldn’t confound and intimidate, but the back of my mind answers.

“But they have their own website.” And I laugh at that. “They have their own website and it occasionally makes them money.” I nod to that.

Despite my sudden obsession with the melting ice in my Jameson, and my ambivalence to Twizzlers, there is always the one advantage of an early arrival. The seats by the table were open, and waiting. Then, as the opening ensamble set their instruments, my little fascination with the changing phases in my glass had to double, as a solid block of band biddies slinked in across the way.

Tin roofs, hard wood planks, throaty voices and the tapping of a calf length, black leather, high heeled boot...all screamed for a smoky noiry mist to settle, swirling, over the thick notes of secretly sad songs. The bassist in bright white button down, shimmies his blond locks when the beat picks, while the elegant cellist drifts the sheet music. Tucked in a corner, the organist strings along the tune, occasionally flashing the soft grin of someone who just found the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Pinky tapping on the seam of the mic, the singer makes eyes at the room, none more so than the photographer behind me. Her smile matches the dress, dark blue fabric broods while the sequins wink hello.

I hear liquorices tapping on the table between sets. A bit of frustration is stuck in my friend’s canines. There was going to be a lady here beside us. She had to beg off on account of flu. His twisted mouth screamed, ‘This would have been the perfect first date.’ The bit catches my mouth, while I tongue my teeth, in sympathy pains. We clink glasses, the old standby for the ineffable, but I take a shot anyway.

“Would have been aces, man.”

In the trough between, the room ignites into conversation. Behind us, an occupied stroller idles, making me feel a few days older than twenty four. The photographer in flannel is laying bets with his cohort on how long it will take for the bartender to make her way to his side of the bar. The front of house staff, the only ones in all black, smoke outside. The route to the bathroom is mangled, swerving as the little room bends. Everyone seems to know everyone.

Under a string of red bulbs, the second of the night gathers and the crowd is ready for them with lifted Reisling and hands chattering. As the melodies drift over the rapt family, you can watch the smiles bounce from lip to lip, like a giddy game of telephone. Inside jokes pass from the girl leaning on both elbows at the corner of the bar, to the guitarist, and she then spreads the thought in toothy grin and bobbing head to the rest, all without missing a chord. The pianist’s puzzle piece flash meets the bassist’s taut smirk before bubbling over to the singer in an accidentally amplified giggle. Each one is armed with a mic, and when the time comes, twice the harmonies run together. Each voice pulling the next while tumbling with their sisters. So frustrating that musicians do what we try to do every day, without even trying. Pulling together in concert effortlessly.

Their songs are sprinkled with wise wit, rather than the crass and superior type we genrally partake in. Just by that, comes the sadness, hope, and quiet salvation that slips in between syncopations. They close on a long creshendo, singing together. They're out of their seats.

When palms are sore, I look to see if I done good.

“That was awesome.”

On the way home, curling my winter jacket around for the first time this season, I peek over my shoulder to see the bright lights of Manhattan falling like Christmas lights, dipping from Empire to Chrysler, decorating the sky over the little bar where the family is still drinking.

Twenty minutes to home.



Since I've already recieved one request for the bands in question: Should you need a smoky noir, wise wit, or the perfect first date:

Clare Fader and the Vaudveillians

Lascivious Biddies

Todd Londagin

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