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Open Mic Night Among the Broken

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Cynthia had never been to the Noc Noc before, and had to admit it was a great bar just by sight alone – the strange and darkly cavernous interior inspiring a sense that anything is possible.

“Hey you two!” a complete stranger said, heading out as we were walking in. “Do you want to sit by the fireplace? Two spots just opened up!”

“Sure!” we said, walking over. Of course it’s just a fake fireplace with an artificial flame. Cynthia frowned. “It’s pretty cold in this corner, actually.”

The Noc Noc is a great bar, but it’s a great beer bar – and Cynthia is celiac, so she doesn’t drink beer. Which I’d completely forgotten. So she couldn’t drink what she wanted.

Noc Noc in the Lower Haight. photo: yelp

Noc Noc in the Lower Haight. photo: yelp

And when I ordered my regular beer there – a Gulden Draak – the bartender told me they didn’t carry that anymore, so now I couldn’t drink what I wanted either.

Without warning, one of San Francisco’s great bars had turned into a cave where two people huddled by a fake fireplace drinking things they didn’t really want. “I don’t know what happened,” I said sadly.

“We can go, you know,” she told me. “We don’t have to stick around just because it could have been a good thing.” We finished our drinks – my inferior Belgian beer and her pinot grigio that she suspects was in fact a chardonnay poured by an unduly ambitious sommelier – and walked back out on to Haight Street.

We crossed over to the bus stop, to head toward Deluxe, but as the bus pulled up a horrible wailing falsetto exploded out of Café International. We stopped and stared. Inside, off in the distance, was a woman with a guitar howling into a microphone like a banshee with a sinus problem.

“What the hell is that?” I whispered. The bus pulled away.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but it’s not just bad. It’s that special kind of bad, that you have to practice a lot to achieve.”

It took us a moment to figure out it was an open mic.   “I guess we’ll have to catch the next bus … what?” She realized I was giving her an odd look.

“Cynthia,” I said, hesitating, “I’m going to tell you something that I’m kind of ashamed of, but, I’m just going to put it on the line: it’s been a long time since I’ve gone with a girl to a really bad open mic and just wallowed in it, but, actually, that’s kind of what I want to do tonight.”

She considered. “Is it because everything went haywire at one of your favorite bars?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. I’m not proud …”

She made a decision. “It’s okay. We can do this. I’m not going to judge you.”

So we went inside and ordered more wine and stole some chairs so that we could sit in the back outside patio just behind the performance area, where we were surrounded by performers waiting to take their turn.

Kids just out of college stood on one side of the patio comparing notes about their slam poetry while aging bohemian musicians who have grown moldy in their rent controlled apartments sat together on the other. The wailing woman was replaced at the mic by a young man with a decent voice who insisted on singing, over and over again, “She’s so fine! I hope she’ll be mine!”

Cafe International open mic night (Fridays). Photo yelp

Cafe International open mic night (Fridays). Photo yelp

“Whose do you think she’ll be?” I asked Cynthia after the repetition became unbearable. “I can’t figure it out!”

“What I want to know is: how fine is she really?” she replied. “’So’ is vague – can we quantify that?”

Our attempt to plot a graph comparing “fineness” with “possession by musician” was interrupted by a bass player named Will, who – perhaps assuming we were waiting back here to get on stage – asked if Cynthia sang standards.

“No,” she said, without batting an eye. “Only originals.” By which she meant “I make up crazy songs that I sometimes sing at the top of my lungs for no particular reason except it’s fun.”

“Right on,” he agreed. “Why repeat somebody else’s song? Are you going to play it better than Hendrix? Sing it better than Bowie?”

Suddenly he was telling us about his tragic music career, in which he had managed to outlive all his peers.

Is it really surprising that people who wait hours to go on at an open mic will take any excuse to tell you their story?

“I had a band, we went 30 years back, and they just did a re-issue of some of our songs, and it got very positive reviews,” he said. “The guitar player only lasted two weeks after that but at least he got to read those reviews.”

He gave me the name of his band, told me I could download the album if I just Googled it. Later that night I tried – but could never find them among the search results.

Cynthia was also getting hit on by an aging drum player named Vincent, who told her that he supports Texas’s law permitting students to carry weapons at universities.

“Listen,” she replied, “guns are only good for one thing: getting food.”

“They’re good for three things,” Vincent said argumentatively. “Getting food, winning wars, and getting laid.”

He pointed his fingers like a gun. “Fuck me or …”

Cynthia shook her head. “No,” she said, with the tone of a school teacher. “No. No that is not okay to say.”

“It was just a joke …”

“It was not an okay joke. It was a joke about raping people. I think we need to talk about that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Vincent, but it was too late. He was now locked in a 20 minute conversation about why he needs to treat women as people and not as sex objects.

“But I only talk to women because I’m attracted to them!” he finally sputtered.

“That’s not enough of a reason.”

“Fine! Then I’ll never talk to a woman again!” It was obviously a ploy: he so desperately wanted her to soften, to say ‘no no no, that’s not what I mean,’ and see things from his perspective.

But she didn’t. She got up and drew a line in the sand by talking to Will some more. And stole the rest of my wine, since I was drinking slowly that night.  Can you blame her?

I sat there, barely paying attention to their conversation as I listened to a dreadful singer/songwriter/guitarist vamp in front of the microphone. Then I was distracted by an amazing sound right next to me.

Vincent had picked up a hand drum to warm up with and … he was good. Really good. Musical, rhythmic, drawing ut a deep warm tone – his playing was by far the best thing I’d heard there all night.

“I’ll be damned,” I told myself. “Who would have thought?”

Late that night, on the bus heading home, a stranger with a close-cropped haircut under his red baseball cap shoved his phone in front of my face. There was a picture of a woman’s foot on it.

“Does this look broken to you?” he asked.

I begged off, telling him I’m not the person to ask.

And it’s true.   I have no capacity to judge. That night we all seemed strange and wondrous and broken.

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Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs - Fascinating Stranger

Benjamin Wachs is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City. He tweets as @BenjaminWachs, and displays (some of) his work at FascinatingStranger.com