A very U.E.S. (Upper East Side) Night for me was August 5, 2008.
I broke my third power cord for my apple laptop. I managed to post a note on facebook asking if anyone had an extra before draining the reserve battery power playing boggle on facebook (known as Scramble.) Frustrated, I cut in half two old power cords that had broken in different places and tried to join them while everything was plugged in. This created a fizzing sound and crackling sparks. With no internet I napped most of the evening.
I woke up at around 10pm feeling energized. Perhaps tonight I would finally check out karaoke at Dorrian’s Red Hand. For the last few months I had been receiving weekly invites on facebook to Tuesday night karaoke from a barely-known friendly acquaintance. Having previously only heard of Dorrian’s in connection with the Preppy Murder, I was surprised to see that it was still a popular bar attended by people with no ironic intentions whatsoever. I had maintained a strong morbid curiosity about the place from researching Upper East Side crimes and watching the Law and Order episode based on it.
I happened to be home the last few Tuesdays but had been too lazy or intimidated to venture over there. Nights when I stay uptown are meant for cleaning my room and watching TV. If I were to go out I would go downtown where my friends are. But feeling kind of lame and shut in from my nap I was eager to get out of the house. This was the night.
Packing my phone into my purse I saw I had a message. My friend David had replied to my facebook post- not only did he have an extra power cord he was about to throw away but he was once again staying in the 70’s between Madison and Fifth. I called and arranged to pick up the cord in 30 minutes.
I walked down 5th Ave listening to Jawbreaker on my mp3 player. Mostly people walking their dogs, waiting limo drivers, one person sitting alone in the middle of the steps of the Met. I kind of wanted to go sit and talk to him or her – too far to tell. I saw a group of 7 or 8 kids sitting on the steps of some sort of embassy. I had a nostalgic feeling of being on vacation somewhere with my family and seeing the cool local kids hanging out, and wanting to meet them and be included. Or maybe I was just thinking of the Simpsons episode where that happens to Lisa.
There were three girls sitting on a bench on 5th Ave. talking and smoking. They probably all left their parents’ houses nearby to meet up and had to hide their smoking habits. I wanted to photograph the kids on the steps and the girls on the bench but I felt like I had lost my gumption for approaching strangers. I thought I should get a little drunk before the next time I walked around with a camera.
I had a sense that the people one sees on Fifth and Madison on week nights are unique to other areas. The characters are like me- people that decided to stay in, have a mellow night, but then decided to get some air, sit outside and think. No one is in a rush to meet people. Maybe a few are going to stay at someone’s house in the neighborhood and have a backpack with a change of clothes, or they’re getting off work from a fancy restaurant and headed home.
Got to David’s building- one of the few like mine where the doorman is also the elevator man. The door/elevator-man left me on a lobby bench to go up in what I assume was a manually operated elevator to retrieve my friend. The lobby had two mirrors facing each other creating an infinite reflection like in my lobby.
David handed over the power cord saying he’d come out for a cigarette but I easily roped him into walking over to Dorrian’s. What else are you going to do on a Tuesday night when you’re living off Madison Avenue?
Tuesday is big garbage night in the neighborhood. We passed one trash grouping containing an amateur bust.
And another pile with two vacuum cleaners placed in front of a large fan. David noted the juxtaposition of sucking and blowing.
Further along the walk I spotted a license plate, definitely customized but I didn’t know what it meant. I explained to David that I have to photograph all vanity plates I see. I have since started a separate blog just about vanity plates to justify this obsession. David asked if anyone had ever harassed me for photographing their plates. I answered that it never happened since the owners were never standing there.
The car was parked tightly between two others right in front of the entrance to a building. A doorman stood outside talking to another guy. I squeezed between the cars and held my camera close to the plate. As I took the picture the not-doorman guy demanded “Why are you taking a picture of my license plate?” Nervous but laughing I answered, “I photograph license plates for fun, it’s just a personal project. What does it mean?” “It’s Albanian” he said. I had recently photographed a plate that said “Albania 1” so now it’s an official category in my collection.
Continuing our walk, we accidentally missed Dorrian’s because I had thought it was on the West side of 2nd avenue. Second Avenue in this area is also known as Restaurant Row. A waitress in Mustang Grill and Tequila Lounge sent us back South. Turned around, we spotted an anxious crowd standing outside an establishment, caddy corner from us. Is it actually hard to get into this place? We crossed over and stood outside, a little embarrassed. A young man wearing khakis and a navy blazer, gold buttons and all, lingered in conversation with some smokers. Four college-age guys probably home for the summer were trying to go in but were being kept at bay by the bouncer who casually informed us that we would have to wait a few minutes for people to leave.
Another barely-known friendly acquaintance/recent facebook friend arrived. He gave me a kiss hello and then ignoring our plight of waiting in line, he waltzed passed us and shook the bouncer’s hand as he walked inside. But the bouncer had been truthful – a few minutes later we were all allowed to enter.
Why is it so satisfying when our stereotypes are realized? We had to push through countless young men wearing pastel colored polo shirts, khakis, and white baseball caps and girls with blow-dried died blond hair and short dresses. We made our way to the bar and I saw that Peter, the friendly acquaintance who had invited me was actually tending bar. However, both bartenders would have been indistinguishable from the rest of the guests had they been standing on the other side of the bar. I suppose it makes sense- bartenders on the lower east side have tattoos and wear black but I guess I had assumed that uptown bartenders wore uniforms. The fact that Dorrian’s bartenders were dressed like the clientele and actually seemed to be peers of the clientele, which I knew was true at least in Peter’s case, gave me the impression that it was a friendly, tight-knit, fraternal establishment, outwardly and inwardly.
Once we got our drinks we made our way through the chaotic sea of pastel toward the corner which seemed to be generating the waves of excitement. Lost in the crowd it was easy to regain my friend who stuck out like a sore thumb for being the only man dressed in black. Reunited, he recounted overhearing the following: “You play lacrosse, bro?” “Naw, bro, water polo.”
Karaoke was being performed (I cannot recall which song!) by several blond ladies, each with a microphone and occasionally helped by a karaoke MC off to the side. Several tables had been pushed against the back wall to make a clearing on the floor.
David and I watched, entertained by the spectacle and our own musings. He said it would be interesting to map out the carbon footprint of the combined hair drying spent that day on every girl at Dorrian’s. He also noted that he had never before seen people really dancing to karaoke. It was true- someone chose to sing Twist and Shout and the entire crowd danced along, getting down on the floor during the quiet part even more enthusiastically than the crowd at Beatrice where that song has oddly become a staple.
But they danced to any and every song and occasionally members of the crowd, including myself later on in the night, would grab one of the extra tambourines and accompany the singers.
Songs I saw performed include “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Lovin’ is What I Got” by Sublime, a Bon Jovi ballad (I forget which) and I participated in a group rendition of “Whatta Man” by Salt n Pepa. After a few drinks I felt ready and signed up for “Reminiscing” which I only knew (and loved) because a friend had burned it for me off an Easy Listening compilation. I can’t remember if the Karaoke song book listed songs by title or if I just stumbled across it because I had never before heard of the group who sang it, The Little River Band, until I saw it in the book that night.
When I handed my selection over to the MC he did a double take, asked me if I was the one who chose “Reminiscing” and then gave me some sort of “Niiice” or thumbs up. That greatly reassured me since he could at least help out with the melody if I got lost or take over completely if I froze.
Me and the MC:
There were a few repeat performers who seemed comfortably seasoned at the sport and who acted as good samaritans joining in on one of the many available microphones if a singer was lost. One such person was a large Italian-looking fellow with a friendly face and a pink short-sleeved polo shirt who helped me out on two songs without trying to steal the show. Another regular was a tiny young man in a suit who seemed to know everyone.
Several times toward the end of the night, songs were dedicated to the bartenders or the bartenders were each given microphones and sung between pouring drinks.
In the bathroom I heard one girl plead to her friend, “Just stay a little longer!” and another girl in a slight wine, “You know this isn’t my scene. I don’t belong here.”
The novelty of the place did not wear off and we ended up staying ‘till close. A few guys lingered about the sidelines, looking determined or desperate to accomplish one more thing before ending their night. I had just signed up for “Crazy Train” by Ozzy when the MC called out last song and another melody began. I went up to him and said “No time for ‘Crazy Train?’” He answered no. But when the supposed final song ended he called me up anyway and I performed “Crazy Train” with the large man in pink.
Happily drunk and my curiosity filled yet even more piqued, I walked out with David onto Second Avenue to see scattered stragglers hailing cabs. We walked back to Madison Avenue which was by contrast completely deserted, and parted ways to walk the avenue in opposite directions. Who knew such fun could be had without leaving the neighborhood? I’m not sure what to think about these “preppies” who are called such even in magazine articles hung on the walls inside Dorrian’s. It’s not quite the same world as the one in which I grew up although I did spot one Dalton classmate whom I’ve never spoken to as far as I can remember. Further investigation is needed.