Hominy & Hash
NEW YORK AS THEATRE
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
New York, N.Y.
NEW YORK, N. Y. -- Everything in New York is theatre. The curtain goes up and, voila, it's dawn in the city (in this case, I turn on the television set).
Emergency vehicles are in place. Uniformed in riot gear and bomb squad attire, the police and firefighters are walking back and forth across the wet streets. Cellphones to their mouths and weapons at the ready, the officers look up the sides of the tall buildings and down the long, empty streets.
The alert came in at 3:30am. Hours later, newscasters are kept two blocks away but the scene is clear as the cameras zoom in. Directly behind them, ordinary New Yorkers walk to their offices or shops ready to start their day, looking neither left nor right, not even quickening their steps.
The official report is coming through. A plastic, artificial hand grenade was opened and filled with gun powder. The fuse was lit, the projectile tossed and it took out the corner of a huge cement planter in front of the building housing the British Embassy. No injuries, no other damage. Case closed; move along, step back. The ghost of an overture fills the air: New York, New York, what a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down...
There's nothing like a trip to New York to quicken your pulse, heighten your awareness, stimulate your senses and increase your ire all at once; the ire fills the air in the taxicab when the driver huffs at my destination while I rumble and tumble around and across the slippery leather-like back seat.
This visit is not unlike most journeys back home, usually to a wake or wedding. This is to a joyous engagement party in Midtown where the event goes off flawlessly, and the couple is well-matched. (Anytime I'm greeted at the door and offered a chilled glass of champagne, I'm in my comfort zone.)
We leave the party at midnight and when John and I are in New York, that's just the shank of the evening. We consider going to the Village Vanguard for some jazz, but opt instead for a cozy little bar we enjoyed in the late Fifties: "Marie's Crisis."
I'm not sure it's still there, but one morning a few years ago my daughter took a picture of me leaning against its windowsill, where a little metal plaque had been placed but painted over with yellow paint: "Thomas Paine died here." I didn't know if that meant "this spot" in a previous incarnation of this building or street, or, "inside" here. No difference to me then; it's just nice to get a picture for old time's sake.
The taxi makes it's way around the crowded Greenwich Village streets until we see Marie's Crisis, lit up and open, people out front, chatting, smoking. Marie's Crisis is the same and yet somehow different. The small tables are not in the same places, the piano is not mahogany, unless it's mahogany under that federal blue paint. There are stools around it and a piano player pounds the keys with a dynamism not equaled in my time.
We lean against the wall, me sipping a cordial, and listen. A slender Asian man in jeans and jacket, one hand in his pocket, glasses on his nose, mouth moving effortlessly while his deep voice echoes around the old room. He's singing "The Impossible Dream." (Applause) He just smiles. The piano player, Dexter, doesn't skip a note nor does the crowd as he goes into "Lullaby of Broadway."
At Marie's Crisis, everybody sings and there's not a sour note. It is soon obvious the voices were not born in New York City but came at one time or another to pursue their own dreams -- discovering most dreams are impossible dreams unless enhanced with a huge dose of luck. Some of these customers are seasoned professionals.
The singers who randomly start a solo do it with no posturing at all. No center-stage attitude; these are just run-of-the-mill people sporting the casual dress of a lawyer or a shopkeeper, secretary or delivery person, mailman or cook.
The atmosphere is so warm and friendly. The wait staff will also sing solo when the drinks have been poured. Nothing is fancy. They hand you a drink, you hand them your money. There is no cover charge. You don't have to walk far in New York City to find superlative entertainment, yet here and now this piano and these voices are unrivalled, the best this city has to offer.
There is a fishbowl on top of the piano and customers anxiously push forward to drop a dollar or five or ten into it. After a particularly mesmerizing solo, one of the waiters might "pass the bowl" to the darkened corners of the room where old regulars sit. The age range is 20 to 75, and the customers know all the words from Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" to everything on the boards since then.
In 1957, there was just one singer. Her voice was deep as she sang soulful songs that fit right in with our own moods those pre-nuptial days - you know, the days of wine and roses. She played, but didn't entertain with her personality. She was shy, or perhaps heartbroken, and the grateful customers kept her cigarette lit and her jigger of Scotch ready on top of the piano.
I tell Dexter about her. He says: "You must mean Marie Wright. She used to play all the clubs up and down the street in the Fifties." Ah, yes, perhaps it was Marie, not sure of the Wright and no relation to the Marie of Crisis fame. I tell him she sang "Love for Sale."
Dexter nods to a young girl on a stool at the piano and she nods back. He hits a key and she begins. Her voice was the kind you describe as the voice of an angel: soft, high, carrying to all corners of the room but not loud. Love for sale, appetizing young love for sale. If you want to try my wares, follow me and climb the stairs, love for sale.
I don't think I've heard the song since young Marie sang it 47 years ago, and now again this night, when young Francesca sings it. In both cases, "soul" carries the tune.
We all sing as if we're in a chorus. No one misses a beat. The songs are forced out of us, full voice, perfect pitch, every key our own key.
I ask a few of the wait staff if anyone knew who Marie was or the nature of her crisis. No one knew. Someone joked: "Probably the same as it is today, paying the rent."
They know less about Thomas Paine, but as I delve into his death I find that 59 Grove Street was his home, where he wrote his masterpieces before and during the Revolutionary War. One pamphlet, "The Crisis," begins: "These are the times that try men's souls."
Tom Paine was considered a dreamer, but his writings, his "Sixteen Crises," helped shape the course of our history and no doubt inspired Marie of earlier times to name her place "Crisis." It was obvious to customers then, but not so obvious now.
Although these still are "times that try men's souls," it seems we now have to put a spin on everything. We decide that Marie of long ago must have had a personal crisis: What could it have been?