There are no neon lights and the red door tucked in a corner is nondescript. “If you reach a place with Italian lights overhead, you’ve gone too far,” are a stranger’s vague directions.
With a handful of steps down from the sidewalk, I bend down to peer in, make sure it’s the right spot, that they’re open on a Sunday at 5:30. In the dim interior I see a few Christmas lights and then the old upright piano.
Behind the bar, Joseph O’Neill is on his eighth sticky note, scrawling out “must go” places in the Village for two women from Wales who are enjoying ‘Tea Time,’ in other words, a couple of beers, no glasses, please. O’Neill knows this neighborhood like he knows all the lyrics to “Don’t Rain on my Parade.” He’s giving them City Gold which you won’t find online. As I step up to the bar, he’s on pizza joints (only three worth mentioning) giving arcane details like, “Look for an old guy with a scruffy beard. If he isn’t there, don’t order”.
There are no 60” monitors over the bar at Marie’s Crisis. A deceased TV that must have witnessed the moon landing is tucked under the rafters. When I tell Joseph I called the phone number to get a schedule he waves his hand. “That was disconnected ten years ago.”
“They don’t exist anymore,” people tell me when hunting for a cozy neighborhood piano bar. “Most of them are gone,” O’Neill shrugs, almost agreeing. “This is the best one in the city and we’re able to stay because the bar owner also owns the building.” This gem’s hidden in plain sight at 59 Grove Street. Sure it’s given high stars for the late night crowd, but we’re enjoying an early evening weekend very happy hour.
Pianist Kenney Green, who’s also Artistic Director for the Depot Theater, arrives. He sits down and pulls out an iPad and tells me he doesn’t miss the three suitcases of sheet music he used to lug around. People start to straggle in, order drinks, and you can tell they have their own stool, their spot around the piano.
This crowd knows one another but pull me into their circle, into the magic. Taking a seat on a cracked red vinyl stool, I toss a dollar into the fish bowl. Another woman reaches over me and drops in two fivers. “My husband’s working next door,” she says. “He’s a trumpeter.” Turns out she plays piano and sings as well. A few others belly up to the piano, and I realize this is where musicians come to sing.
Rubbing elbows with real musicians, trying out my rusty voice is a throat constricting, eye-misting treat. We work our way through “I Believe In You” (To see the cool clear, eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth), “Embraceable You” (Just one look at you, my heart grew tipsy in me. You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me), “American in Paris,” “‘S Wonderful,” Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (You say potato ...) and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to warm up.
“People meet here, fall in love, and some get married,” O’Neill says. With songs like these, in a place like this, I can see why.
There are other places to sing with strangers. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan has four weekly “Move and Groove” sing alongs. For seniors, the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side holds a free sing along every fourth Friday of the month. Symphony Space, also on the UWS, offers movie sing-alongs, and a calendar of Karaoke events at their Bar Thalia around the corner.
My neighborhood forum offered their favorites; Iris G. likes the sing along of oldies at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue; Diane K. enjoys the Flying Ivories who play Manhattan-wide; Paul M. and others suggests Sid’s Gold, where Shelly Watson offers sing-alongs on the second Tuesday of every month. There are choruses and choirs all over town, and I enjoyed one semester of singing with the Riverside Church’s Inspiration Choir, whose director, Nedra Olds-Neal, the best director I’ve ever sung under, has produced with SONY and Arista Records.
As for romance and Marie’s Crisis, I learn Kenney Green is filling in for Adam Tilford, his husband, who he met here. Kenney plays Wednesday and Friday nights from 9:30 p.m. to 4 a.m,, so getting to hear him in the early hours is a treat for me. I know I’ll return to sing with Adam.
If you aren’t a late night person and you’re looking for that place you thought didn’t exist anymore in Manhattan, go to Marie’s Crisis. You don’t have to go at midnight, although they have a rollicking good time then. You may start singing with strangers, who become acquaintances, and then? On this day at this time this is a secret gem for New Yorkers.