Manhattan – Re: Don’t Tell Mama Piano Bar visited nov 8, 2012. Written at Empire Coffee, Nov 9, 2012.
A Manhattan Piano Bar
“No Dancing Please. It’s against the law.” Posted over an open floor area to the left of the piano, I couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or a bylaw. Perhaps a terse way to point out that the city would not grant them the appropriate permit to allow customers to sway back and forth to the music, as would sometimes be the case at a sing-along. A convivial little piano bar, “Don’t Tell Mama” attracts a mixed crowd of locals and travelers, gays and straights, singles and couples, old and young. Having failed another attempt to quit smoking, I can tell you that it was less than a cigarette away from my apartment rental.
(Post Note: I did successfully quit smoking in February, 2013.)
I had enjoyed some shopping earlier in the day and I feel like a million bucks walking in wearing my new cashmere/wool blazer-style overcoat (chesterfield) and coordinating felted hat. I quickly scan the bar, as one does when deciding where to perch. It’s a quick-as-possible routine, you have come in alone, you don’t really want to be noticed as an outsider (first-timer), yet you’d like to sit strategically beside someone who also seems to be alone who at the same time looks potentially interesting or companionable.
In an instant I have three such appropriate seat-mates in my viewfinder, but all three are blocked. (Those who are clearly solo, but with no open seats beside them.) I don’t scan the entire bar, the table section appears to be full of groups and with a peripheral glance I discount everywhere apart from the bar counter which runs the depth of the space alongside the tables with a walkway between. The piano and microphones are on the far end wall. Sometimes a performer sings self-accompanied, sometimes not, and often the bar staff join in singing harmonies and such. (As do the customers.)
I choose one of three options, this seat because the cute couple next to me (husband and wife) look kindly and there is also one open seat beside me so another solo could possibly join. The handsome bartender, Jon, bounds about within his space making Martinis and Pear Sizzles. His feisty female counterpart runs drinks to customers at tables, breaking in to harmonies and choruses along the way.
My drink arrives and now the couple to my right are already departing. “Have a good night, boss,” he says as he squeezes my shoulder. He’s a big, strong guy in his mid-twenties with a gorgeous wife. I am surprised to see him walk away with much effort using a cane for support.
A new couple arrives to take their place, a very clean, fresh-faced, wholesome-looking early 20’s couple. I overhear an accent but it’s muffled by the music and the bar noise, maybe from Australia? She, sitting closer, sounds mainstream American herself. As I sit here I am writing about buying lunch for a guy in a wheelchair earlier in the day who, “Had my legs blown off in ____”. That place sounds familiar but I cannot think of where it is. I ask my neighbours if they know. “That’s in Northern Iraq,” he indicates, “what has you ask?” “Just wondering,” I reply to kill the conversation and make them wonder what kind of social oddity they are sitting beside who comes up with completely random questions regarding war-torn towns to strangers at a piano bar. Just kidding! A conversation now opened, I now enjoy their company as he and I happen to sing along to “Monday, Monday”, “California Dreaming”, and the like. (His girlfriend, sitting between us, sadly suffers from tone deafness, my words but apt to describe the condition they indicated.) They are holiday-making from Indiana for 3 days. They cannot explain why she doesn’t share his regional accent.
“Monday Monday, so good to me, Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be,” belted Beth into her microphone as we all swayed singing along on the tiers of the music room at lunch time. Mr.Thomas, the music teacher, had created a music group in our high school that went well beyond just practicing music. It was a time when the school choir was changing from a group that sang pretty music to a group that sang fun music. Kids still learn lots about music even when it’s fun, seemed to be the modus operandi. Especially when it’s fun is more like it, we were all fully engaged and we all loved it. Our engagement created dedication and Mr.T’s enthusiasm was contagious.
To be honest, I would have been happy singing anything. I didn’t consider myself one of the cool kids who had to do cool things and be with cool people. I didn’t listen to pop music at all until high school, I mean the kind of popular music one hears on the radio, the top 40 countdowns and the repetitious favourites of the day. I had discovered various forms of Classical music during Junior High (age11-14) and that’s what I spent money on. I thought “Hooked on Classics”, those tacky remixes of music put to drum beats during the era of the cassette, were the bomb. When personal CD players came out in grade 10 (1988) and I brought mine to school, kids would be surprised, when they asked if they could hear what it sounded like, that I was listening to an opera compilation or my favourite at the time, Handel’s Messiah.
I only started hearing “popular” music when my girlfriend in grade 10 (she was my beard) introduced me to the radio, she only listened to the top hits and had the radio on all the time. I never listened to it on my own though. When it came to singing, I preferred the Classical Folk Music that I sang during voice lessons that used Royal Conservatory repertoire. I took lessons for a few years, through grades 9 to 11 until my voice teacher moved away.
Mr.T’s choir was called the “Blue Tones” and I auditioned to join soon after school commenced at Kennebecasis Valley High in New Brunswick. A largish school of more than 1700 students in grades 10 through 12 and 99 teachers at the time, it had a great selection of extra curricular activities. Primarily a jazz choir, it was Mr.T’s fun and creative flair that made this group a very central experience to many of us throughout high school. He had a love for music from the 60s and 70s and one-by-one worked out vocal and instrumental arrangements for many great numbers for us to learn, practice, and perform. He was probably listening to the Mamas and the Papas one day and thought, “Beth’s voice would be perfect for this one. I’m going to figure it out.” To me he gave, “Blue Moon”.
We learned the requisite jazz numbers that this type of choir should, enough to engage in competition and be able to perform as such. But the level of interest that Mr.Thomas inspired and the amount of dedication he gave us, we were able to have an entirely separate concert-length repertoire of fun, playful tunes. The endless noon hours, after schools, and weekends that man dedicated to his students I would not even realize until I became a teacher myself many years later.
Instead of the usual choir concert at the end of the year, or the occasional choir accompaniment to some other performance, Mr.T set up “gigs” which gave us lots of concerts to work towards and the feeling of purpose that came from rehearsing to perform. Mostly these involved entertaining at shopping malls which had the added benefit of earning some funds so we could purchase better equipment and more music materials and such. In grade 12 Mr.T had to move away with his family. A lot of tears were shed. Luckily, his successor, Ms.Woodford, picked-up the ball and kept it rolling, continuing the experience for us and future KVHS students.
During high school I was not the person I appeared to be. On the outside I probably looked like a smart, popular kid with lots of friends. A kid who drove a Cadillac to school one day, a motorhome the next. (Mother needed her car that day. Later she replaced it with a wheelchair van.) On the inside, among other things, I felt friendless and alone. People may have considered me their friend, but I felt unworthy of friends and I did not trust they would want to know me if they knew my “deep, dark secret”, so to me they were just people I knew. I liked people, some people I liked a lot, but there was a distance within me caused by my own invisible protective walls. Shame and guilt for being gay was bound with my own self-loathing and certainty that others would loath me too if they knew. A good Christian upbringing combined with some family trauma to distract my parents sealed my low self-worth. It was a different time and it seemed like I was the only one.
Perhaps my only friend at that time was our full-time cleaning lady, Myrtle. She was a woman near to her 60s who had 9 children (all then grown) and I knew she would accept me. If I didn’t have anything scheduled after school I’d hang out with her in the laundry room while she folded and ironed at the end of each day. My family sure made a lot of laundry. My vocal coach, another woman near to 60, was nearly another friend, in retrospect, the only other person I trusted not to reject me. But I only saw her weekly at most and it was not social, my lessons were at a conservatory and there were lessons before and after mine so there was no chat time. She was from Vancouver and had big-city open-minded artistic ways. She moved away and Myrtle was eventually fired. (Although not fired for this reason, Myrtle could barely get around by that point anyway, she was a large woman and was waiting for a hip replacement.) We kept in touch but she died before I came out to her or anyone.
Ironically, in my grad class of more than 500 students I was voted, “friendliest boy”. Does that mean I was popular? I don’t know. I did appear to fit-in with a lot of different groups. I kept myself really busy so no one could tell that I was a friendless-loser who hated himself. When I wasn’t busy I always went home alone, I never had someone over or went to someones house after school. When I was 15 I wondered what friends did outside of groups, I had no idea that they might just watch tv or play video games. I didn’t know what people meant by, “hang out”. I was an outsider on the inside for all those developmental years. I nearly had friends right at the end of high school, but it was kind of too late and it was too brief for me to conquer my barricades to be able to trust and feel close at the time. Really nice people though, I felt lucky they included me and we had a few fun times, but I still felt like I wasn’t worthy of the inclusion and it was only temporary.
What a shame I couldn’t feel it, being the friendliest boy I mean. I felt friendly towards others, I just could not feel it coming from them. I could not trust anyone and felt very much alone. Although I trust people now, I have nothing to hide anymore, I tend to fly solo still today. I did not grow-up having normal friendships from about age 10 until age 20 and I’m still not great at them now. People like me and I like them, but I tend to feel apart. The feeling I suffered in high school, of not being good enough to have friends, it still sometimes creeps in. What if I’m not fun enough or interesting enough or if I can’t live-up to whatever it is they expect of me. It causes me to pause or not call someone, to procrastinate meeting-up. Now it’s called social anxiety. I’m working on it.
This is a much longer story, but I just want people who knew me then to know that there was probably nothing they could have done to help me in high school. When I was 12 years old my brother shot himself through his head playing with a gun he found. (My father had a collection from his early-deceased parents and Mark had found the key to the gun cabinet.) A bullet through the brain left him a nearly brainless body that was alive but had no purposeful movement or ability to communicate until he died a few years ago. My Mother decided he had to live at home.
Overnight family life changed forever.
Overnight I suddenly could no longer relate to my peers.
I was in grade 7 and I found myself suddenly an outsider not sharing the experiences of anyone I knew.
By grade 8 home life entirely revolved around my invalid brother as it did for many years after.
I had an unrecognised depression and I struggled to get through the days. From having to pretend all was well when it wasn’t, by high school I was really good at playing the role I was expected to play even though I suffered so much. No one should feel guilty about my experience, by high school with the added issues of sexuality estranging me further, I really was beyond being able to be helped. It was a pain that had to be lived out. But this is another story. Actually, this is a book. But not right now.
Choir and drama made a lot of difference to improving my everyday during high school by keeping me busy with things I enjoyed. I will long be thankful to Mr.Thomas and also to Mrs.Doyle-Yerxa, the English teacher who changed lives through her dedication to students through the Drama Department. But that’s another story. As is Myrtle.
May I remind readers that these events from my past, although they have lingering influence on my life years on, they were then. I refer to high school as the worst time in my life because as a suicidal teenager, it was. However, life became and is much, much better. In fact, now I’m making up for it with some pretty great years and the best is yet to come.
Try not to pity someone who can follow his passions of traveling and writing with the freedom that I have. I don’t want pity, I’m just relating my history. The person I was in high school, definitely, pity him. No one should hate themselves like I did, I really thought I deserved to die. I thought I was evil, and the church at that time, it told me so. We still lose a lot of young people to suicide due to them being gay,lesbian,bi, etc, even with all the characters on tv and celebrities who are out now.
If you are a teacher or you know young people, make sure they believe, that they know, that there should be no guilt and no shame about accepting who they are. No one should think they are evil and discount all that is good about themselves the way I did. Ever.
The bar is not very busy at the moment so I place myself at a small round table against the wall, midway between the piano on the back wall and the entry at the front. My third visit, I am now more comfortable coming in alone and finding whatever seat. Against the wall has a nice vantage point of seeing the entire bar. There’s couple to my right and another to my left, easier to socialize with than the larger groups who are having birthday nights or hen nights, or just a group from the office getting together. I pull out my notebook. I sip one of my 2 drink minimum, a Bellini, as I set pen to paper and remember events of recent days. A flash pulls my attention to the crowded sit-at bar counter that runs the length of the room opposite the tables.
Two smiling middle-aged women dressed to the nines for a night out in Manhattan have captured me on their iphones and continue to look on. They don’t look like locals, but also not tourists, I figure they probably came from across the river in New Jersey. I smile as they turn back around in their seats and I return to my task at hand. I forget a reference and chat with the male couple to my left who friendlily help me to think of a film’s name.
Another flash in my direction catches my eye and pulls my attention to the next party sat at the bar. This time, further up the bar, I watch covertly without lifting my head. Another photo, another camera. I discretely look behind me to see nondescript wall. The people around me seem ordinary enough, anyway, I’m fairly sure that I was the one on their screens.
After some time on completion of my 2nd drink I put away my writing materials, dawn my coat and scarf, and head towards the door. Friendly greetings from the bar as I pass, “Have a nice evening!”, “Nice to meet you!”, “Nice seeing you!”. I smile and say goodnight each time but without pausing. After crossing the threshold I stop and turn around, amazed.
Who did they think I was?
The chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” seems ever-so-true sometimes in NYC, as it certainly does in London. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from . . . ” Although generally adept at making my own way, tonight I am not. It’s Friday night and I’m feeling intimidated by the crowds at all the fun-looking places along 9th Avenue. I venture into the restaurant section of “Don’t Tell Mama” as I happen upon it and I want to check the menu. Instead I stand there waiting for attention a few moments too long looking foolish, no just feeling foolish. It is crowded and noisy and jovial and I feel like I should not be coming in alone because it seems like no one else is. I leave with my tail between my legs before I’ve even been noticed by the busy waitstaff.
I make a circle towards home and eventually I pass my corner having failed at attending to dinner. I had set out and walked the periphery of Restaurant Row, past dozens and dozens of restaurants and now I continue in another direction, towards the water on 9th. I come to a very mediocre diner, it’s quiet and seems to be at about a third capacity. Over-lit, it has an uncomfortable, impersonal feel. There are a few couples eating in silence, some young, some old, oddly none in-between. I have low expectations as I start my french onion soup. Poor service, my burger arrives just after my soup, both are items I’d prefer to eat while hot. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like it’s been open a long time, a bit disgusting; it gives me acid reflux. I won’t drink it, but I also won’t send it back. A decent restaurant might enquire as to why I didn’t drink it, here they won’t care. The burger is lacking in condiments, ketchup only. I don’t put ketchup on my burgers, I prefer steak sauce and some mayonnaise, and maybe a dollop of sharp mustard for punch. The mustard should not be spread all over though, I like the surprising kick it gives to a few bites.
My New York experience would not be fully authentic without some lonely days and nights. Do I retreat now, or should I wander some more looking for another story? No, I’m too vulnerable this evening, I’ll call it a night.
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