Big Mike has a protruding beer belly and a matted beard and is yelling about orgies. When people begin murmuring as he walks to the stage, I know this is going to get worse before it gets better. He moves the microphone aside—his booming voice doesn’t need it—and proceeds to spend his seven allotted minutes in the blue spotlight making uncouth jokes about midgets and what my mother would call “bathroom humor.” This is the first open mic night I’ve been to in New York City, and I’m not in the mood for midget jokes. I wrap my scarf around my neck, preparing to leave. As I stand up, the man next to me introduces himself and asks if he can buy me a beer.
On Monday nights, The Inspired Word open mic series unfolds in the back room of the Parkside Lounge on East Houston Street. By 8:00 p.m. on a recent Monday, there are 17 of us—I’m one of two women—huddled around small tables, gathered for a night of spoken word, poetry, comedy, and music. Founded and produced by journalist and former Village Voice columnist Mike Geffner, The Inspired Word began as a poetry series at a sleepy vegan restaurant in Forest Hills during a blizzard in March 2009. I’m told the first night was a catastrophe but that now almost all of the kinks have been worked out.
“I hear this place is called ‘the champagne of dive bars,’” the young man says. He’s wearing a red beanie, dark curls escaping around the sides. The waitress sets down my beer and Red Beanie and I clink glasses, turning toward the stage. Big Mike has been replaced—finally—by Serene, the other woman in the lounge tonight. Serene is middle-aged, with long, streaky blonde hair and a jewel on her forehead. She is whispering to us about the last time she snorted cocaine.
I moved to New York City six months ago. The first few weeks were not unlike the beginning of tonight’s entertainment: surprising, uncomfortable, and often sending me into a state in which I constantly felt under assault. Lugging all of my belongings up five flights of stairs while double-parked on a criminally hot August day was, I’d later discover, a typical move-in day for hoards of twenty-somethings arriving in the city. In New York, few experiences are unique. Everyone has seen or heard or done it before; I am nothing special.
And yet, when, on a cold November night at Terminal 5, one of my favorite singers yells into the microphone to the hundreds of us standing beneath her that we’re her favorite crowd in the entire country, I believe her. There is a sense, I think, that New York City is a place revered more than most. There is a reason why those of us here put up with the daily barrage of frustrations and annoyances—and that reason, beautifully, is different for each one of us. “New York is one of those cities that welcomes you, takes you in, lends you its name,” Lauren Elkin wrote. Even though it’s only been six months, there are mornings I wake up and without knowing exactly how or why, feel slightly changed.
On the Parkside Lounge stage, Raj Mahal, a spoken word artist, asks us to repeat after him: “It’s all about engagement.” Comedian Justin Peel tells a bad joke comparing Native Americans creating casinos to African Americans creating the NBA and it continues to go downhill from there. I look around the room. Red Beanie is half-reclined next to me, mesmerized (somehow) by every act. Two young women strut in and heads turn. An older gentleman, who will later perform some of the best improv I’ve ever seen, is staring at the flickering candle on his table. Hot toddies replace beers as the snow piles up outside and the room gets colder.
This morning, my 15-minute walk to the subway took me half an hour. I have never walked so far out of my way to avoid knee-deep puddles of slush. I have never seen so many knee-deep puddles of slush. My backpack got stuck in the train doors and I got lost in the madness that is the Times Square subway station at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. There were angry email exchanges during my commute with my apartment building’s ridiculously incompetent management company. There was the wind almost knocking me over when I left the New York Times building for lunch. There was tearing the fingertips in both of my gloves as I tried to open my umbrella in the sleet.
As the evening unwinds, the performers get older; the most seasoned, it seems, have been saved for last. At 9:30, a slight man wearing jeans and a black button-up shirt walks on stage holding an old guitar. His white hair is pulled back in a bun. Without introducing himself, he says into the microphone, “Last week, y’all complained I didn’t sing this original tune. So here’s ‘Paris in the Rain.’” He smiles and starts to strum and suddenly we’re in Paris in the 1920s, walking on wet sidewalks and laughing in the rain, indulging in too many cigarettes, a glass of flat champagne. The man, who must be pushing 70, is shaking his hips and whistling the chorus until the crowd begins whistling, too. I can’t whistle, but everyone else can’t help themselves. It is snowing steadily outside, but I am in rainy Paris. This old man is swinging his hips and playing the same three chords over and over like it is what he was born to do, and the young hipsters in the crowd have forgotten their drinks and are whistling along to a tune that will stay in their heads for days.
“In New York, there is everything,” a performer says near the end of the night. I am not yet convinced it is possible to have a good relationship with one’s post office branch in this city, but there are sunsets from the steps of fire escapes and every kind of ethnic supermarket and without fail, when I desperately need one, a Russian seamstress around the corner who can sew a button back on my dress after it pops off when I’m walking down the street. There are spontaneous Sunday walks on Brighton Beach in the middle of a cold, cold winter. There is the boy in my apartment building who is embracing his entrepreneurial spirit, charging $3 a task for his services as a concierge, errand-runner, jack-of-all-trades. There are people of all ages playing air guitar on the subway and billboards for everything from cruise ships to cutlery to condoms. There is putting it all together just to take it all apart. And here, at least, in the champagne of dive bars, there is the probability of an evening getting slowly better instead of slowly worse.
A college student named Justin is the last act of the night. He lets us down easy, reciting trite, comforting poetry about the heart’s hopes and tribulations before concluding, ever so decisively: “Love is not margarine. Love is butter.” No one is sure what to make of this—that there is just no substitute for the real thing, perhaps—but we all silently concur that it is nice to end the night on love instead of bathroom humor.