Neither of us had been to this bar in years, but as soon as we walk through the front door, hazy memories rush back like the swill at the bottom of a pint glass. I sidle up to the cash-only bar and order two beers; the bartender hands me back my change, a fistful of soggy singles that I shove into my wallet.
It takes two hours for the headlining band to take the stage. Before then, we stake out a spot in the crowd, bathing in neon light and the aural accompaniment of drunken banter. We’ve seen this band at least a dozen times before, but their shows make me feel like I never slowed down on all those killer parties. These kinds of nights feel like pure Chicago to me. How many times since I first turned 21 have I danced on this sticky floor, how many cheap PBRs have I crushed, how many times have I used the women’s bathroom where there’s never a functioning lock and I have to hook my foot around the bottom of the stall door so no one walks in on me. How many bands have I seen, and how many of them skyrocketed to fame or disappeared into oblivion.
The opening act is the frontman of another well-known band in town for the weekend, appearing solo, singing covers of 60’s and 70’s AM Gold radio hits. Catering to the local crowd, he launches into the rolling opening chords of “Lakeshore Drive.” I sing along, Friday night trouble bound.
When the headlining band takes the stage, the air is electric in that way that only happens when everyone there is a diehard fan who knows every lyric by heart. We scream in unison, hands punching the air like Mario raining coins from the sky. I can use this reference because everyone in this dive bar is my age. The room vibrates with body heat and joy. I feel the bass reverberate up through the soles of my feet and I wonder if my pulse matches the beat of the drums .
We pour out of the bar at 1 a.m., exhausted and exhilarated. As we walk down Western Ave, I feel the concrete sidewalk beneath my Chucks, rooting me to this city. Driving up Milwaukee Ave, we pass through my old neighborhood and I’m struck again by how much has changed–old laundromats and empty storefronts replaced with hipster bars, yoga studios, and breweries. I’m glad some time capsules still remain.
The line outside the bar was one-in-one-out. My friend and I huddled in the December wind on a street in New York’s West Village, waiting for enough patrons to exit so we could be let inside. The bar was a half level below the sidewalk, and piano music and raucous singing drifted through the window near our feet. It was around 10 p.m. We had spent the day doing other vacation-y things: brunch in Brooklyn, visiting the New Museum where locals took selfies to a whole new level, cocktails in a speakeasy hidden off of a hot dog joint in St. Marks Place. Now, we were here–waiting to get into a packed-to-capacity piano bar that solely played Broadway show tunes. As the line inched forward, we made our way to the front and then inside. The small, packed bar area exploded with sound; a full capacity bar was singing at the tops of their lungs “How we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… LAST YEAR’S RENT?!”
I grew up worshipping MGM musicals with the same fervor my classmates had for hair bands; Gene Kelly was my Brett Michaels. In high school, I found my Happy Place when I was cast in my first real musical (outside of a grade school production called In Quest of Columbus where I played the railing of the Santa Maria). While my all-girls Catholic high school in a north Chicago suburb was hardly the setting of Fame, I had at least found a place among the teenagers whose CD collections were dominated by original cast recordings. When people learned my name was Kim, they typically responded by blurting back Miss Saigon lyrics: “I have a heart like the seeeeaaa…… A million dreams are in meeeeee!”
At Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I was once again among my people. It’s hard to explain the power of music, the way it creates a sense of community and gives a venue full of people a shared–at times transcendent–experience. Hedwig sang it best: “All the misfits and the losers, well you know you’re rock and rollers, spinning to your rock and roll…” In the packed bar, regulars mixed in with tourists; a decent amount of patrons appeared to still be wearing stage makeup from earlier in the night. Most of the crowd recognized a song from the first few chords, and the energetic vocals from the pianist helped the stragglers catch up. There were enough professionals and music buffs present to break out into harmonies, fill in the backup chorus, and interject lines of dialogue. We broke out into goofy grins and joyous laughter each time we recognized a song, then dove right into belting it out along with everyone else. It was impossible to be unhappy in a place like this, where even the most jaded New Yorker wasn’t too cool to sing “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in public. We tore through numbers from Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Oklahoma, Les Miserables, Showboat, and A Chorus Line while throwing back cheap domestic beers in the cramped tavern. We sang until 3 a.m., when we reluctantly called it a night and caught the subway back to our rented apartment. With the piano playing on in my head, I thought back to all those nights on the stage, with pancake makeup on my face and my feet crammed into character shoes, finding my joy through music and performing. A million dreams are in me.