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United We Stand
I finally came out of the closet—the show-tunes closet, that is. I hadn’t set out to expose myself in this way. I was merely looking for cheap drinks and a little entertainment. But there I was, at Marie’s Crisis Café, in the heart of the West Village. Just me and a room full of serenading strangers, belting out one Broadway melody after the next.
Marie’s sits in the basement of an ancient brick building just around the corner from Christopher Street. When I first passed the bar, I thought it was closed. The windows were dark, the doorway hidden in shadow. Even so, I stepped inside and felt my way down the narrow stairs. But what I found wasn’t what I expected from a New York club. It was more like the basements I saw as a kid, with their low ceilings, exposed rafters, small windows, and dank musty smells that never let us forget we were in cellars.
But Marie’s is more than a hole-in-the-ground basement. According to local legend, the place opened as a prostitute’s den in the 1850s. By the end of that century, it turned into a boy bar that lasted through Prohibition. And now it has an upright piano sitting in the middle of the room and rainbow-colored lights hanging from the rafters. (This is the Village, after all.)
When I arrived, the room was already stuffed full of customers who ranged in age, gender, size, race, and sexual orientation. They stood shoulder to shoulder circled around the piano, all focused on these evening’s entertainer, a flamboyant piano player who was leading the crowd in a boisterous rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”
I worked my way through the throng to the plain wooden bar shoved up near the back wall. Glowing with a diffused yellowish light, a WPA mirror hung above the bar, filled with scenes from the French and American revolutions.
I ordered a vodka and soda, then found an unobtrusive corner, where I sipped my cocktail and settled in to listen to excerpts from some of Broadway’s finest, everything from Oklahoma to Chicago, Evita to Les Miserables, Wicked to Little Shop of Horrors.
I’m not sure when the event occurred—not until after my third or fourth cocktail, I’m sure—but suddenly I found myself stepping out from the shadows and into the rainbow lights, where everyone was singing “Tonight” from West Side Story. Without realizing what I was doing, I opened my mouth and the words flowed out and I found myself singing along, and not one of my comrades flinched or pulled back or looked at me askance, and before I knew it, my shyness and reserve had fled into the street—along with my diminishing sobriety.
So here I am, moving through one Broadway hit after the next, as though I’ve been singing show tunes with this crowd forever. And not only am I familiar with most of the songs, I seem to know most of the words. To think, all this time I’ve been a Broadway closet case and never realized what lay inside.
Not that I think there’s anything wrong with show tunes. I like them plenty, along with all sorts of music, from classical to blues to jazz to folk to a variety of other sounds (though, admittedly, I’m not big on most of the stuff that hits the pop charts). It’s just that standing there, with cocktail in hand, singing out one tune after the next, I feel like another queer stereotype, one of the boys who’s found his Village voice, his New York nirvana, his bright lights and lollipops.
But then I think, Who gives a shit? No one around me seems to care. And I’m having too much fun with these people to worry about my latent musical preferences and sudden Broadway tendencies and the risk of Mama Mia playing on my iPod.
And what strikes me the most is that for the first time since I left Seattle, no one is talking politics or religion or morality. No one is making misogynistic or xenophobic or homophobic slurs. No one is criticizing the obese woman next to the piano or the queer male couple holding hands or the straight bi-racial couple sitting at the table or the drag queen with her crooked wig and pumped up tits and running mascara. We’re all here to sing together, enjoy each other’s company, have a good time. Nothing more.
And this venue is a hell of a lot lighter that what I found earlier today, when I walked around Lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center. Although there’s little there to see now—a construction site hidden behind fences and a lot of tourists trying to see through those fences—the memory of what took place nine years ago still echoed in the faces of everyone there, including me.
Yet part of that memory wasn’t just the falling buildings, but what happened after those buildings fell. For a brief time, there’d been a sense of goodwill and unity that could be felt throughout this country, when people came together to mourn the loss of those killed and those who sacrificed their lives. A moment when we realized that we are indeed all in this together. And regardless of our politics and what we thought brought these attacks about, we still shared in the realization that such violence was a useless and senseless wrong.
Even so, in the years to follow, a determined administration, cowardly congress, ambitious press, and indifferent populace allowed the opportunities that such goodwill and unity afforded to slip through their fingers, and what we have now, nine years later, is a country so angered and frustrated and divided that we seem incapable of agreeing to any actions other than those that serve our immediate self-interests, prop up our illusions of entitlement, and placate our propensity for greed.
Maybe that’s nothing new. Maybe we’ve simply returned to our old ways. Even so, we can’t deny what’s happening around us, the way lines have been drawn and the consequences that those lines bring.
Hate crimes have now reached nearly 10,000 a year, probably more, though exact figures are difficult to come by, and it appears that about half of those crimes are racially motivated. As for the rest, approximately 18% occur as a result of religious biases, 17% because of sexual orientation, and 12% as a result of ethnicity or national origin. The rest are based on such factors as disability or homelessness.
That’s especially disconcerting for the homeless, given that, on any given night, 750,000 people are living in the streets. At the same time, communities are passing laws that prohibit sleeping in parks, sitting for too long on benches, urinating on public property, panhandling, and eating out of trash bins—all the things it takes to survive on the streets.
But homelessness is not going away anytime soon. Nearly 36 million people in the US live in poverty, and of those, 13 million are children. And then there are those without adequate health care, such as the 50 million who have no health insurance or the 75 million with insufficient coverage.
Even the schools are not immune from our fragmentation. Almost 30% of students are victims of bullying. Every day, they face being hit, threatened, intimidated, teased, sexually harassed, or robbed. And the symptoms that result, such as tension and anxiety and depression, can last for years after the bullying has stopped.
For women, it’s even worse. One in six will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. That’s 17.7 million victims of attempted or successful rape.
After 9/11, we claimed to stand united. But all of us can see what has happened. And as the gaps grow wider, our politicians push for further division. Our wealth falls into fewer hands. The media profit by instilling fear and hate. And where do we direct that hate as we’re pulled further apart?
I finish my drink at Marie’s Crisis. It’s time I get back to my hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, though I’m not all that anxious to leave the camaraderie, the singing, the spirit of the music.
I climb the steps out of the bar. The streets are even busier than when I entered. I cross Seventh Avenue and stumble down Washington Place (or Fourth Street or wherever the hell I am) in search of the subway station. But the station is not where I left it.
I circle the area a couple of times and finally ask for directions. Several people help point the way. Such is the kindness of strangers.
As I descend into the subway, I’m humming “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. In a place like New York, there’s nothing like a song to lift one’s spirits.
5 Responses to “United We Stand”
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