I follow the music down Grove Street and wrench open the heavy red door to scattered shouts and a thick clump of people in suits. In dismay, I realize I’ve wandered into yet another birthday party at Marie’s Crisis. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue — birthday rugelach for everyone! — if only it wasn’t the second party here I’ve crashed this week. Feeling somber, I’d hoped to catch the bar on one of its quieter nights. Instead, as I tread the wooden planks to find a seat beneath the twinkling Christmas lights lining the dangerously low ceilings, I can tell that I’ve caught my favorite piano bar in one of its restless moods. The piano music stops and starts in fits; Jim, tonight’s pianist, sings a vibrant note or two, but breaks just as the song becomes recognizable. I remind myself that it is early still — only 8:30. Early for me, rather; Jim’s been sitting for 16 years plus several hours now, and informs us that he has yet to take a bathroom break. I am prepared to wait. I know that when the music shifts, the entire feel of the room shifts with it. As always at Marie’s Crisis, it’s only a matter of time.
It’s not quite drown-my-sorrows-in-Gershwin time but I order a vodka tonic anyway. The bartender pours, his movements shadowed in the metal mural behind him. Illuminated by glass bottles and mostly ignored by the chattering crowd, carved Minutemen grin as they grip cocked muskets; one of the singing waiters points out how, in contrast, the French soldiers “look pissed.” It is an unassuming piece of WPA art, a nod to the farmhouse that stood on the spot where Thomas Paine stirred revolutionary sentiment with his inkwell, later dying, alone and vilified by his peers, in 1809. After a fire razed the farmhouse in the early 19th century, life returned to 59 Grove Street around 1839 as a brick and timber house. Now lined with rafters culled from a ship and garnished with panels, the bar was rescued by its current owners from a restaurant that was closing down. Nestled in the narrow streets of the West Village, Marie’s Crisis is a relic of old America, trapped between the past and the present. I’m standing at the bar, in what was once a Colonial farmhouse’s garden... so who invited all the singing drunks?
Marie’s Crisis has plenty of tales of its own, many of them rumors: the bar was once a speakeasy (it wasn’t); Chita Rivera used to come here (probably); the buzzers on the wall panels shock the pianist at a neighboring bar (if only). The waiter is amused when I tell him I’ve read that Marie Dumont, the Austrian woman who opened a restaurant here in 1929, renamed the property “Marie’s Crisis” when she was diagnosed with cancer. He sets me straight: the bar’s “crisis” refers to The Crisis, which Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 while living in the original building. Other than a plaque in his honor on the front of the building, there seems to be nothing left of Paine himself here save his image in another mural upstairs. But even though nobody mentions them tonight, the opening lines of The Crisis are eerily appropriate: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
As for the soul of Marie’s Crisis, it seemed agitated earlier tonight, but the melodies from the piano have picked up and the bar is suddenly joyful and rowdy; no longer the antsy place it was earlier in the evening. Jim taps his head against the wall behind him to keep time, and to give certain phrases dramatic effect; a party guest ties a discarded ribbon around my head. The birthday crowd has thinned and a wave of professional singers arrive, air kissing and filling the room with perfect harmonies. Bouncing staccato notes announce Chicago time, which finally brings a smile to my face. Though Marie’s Crisis is full of contradictions, according to several long-time regulars, it hasn’t changed much in the three decades it’s been a piano bar, despite the ever-changing line up of pianists. The three men working the ivories these days are wonderful: mellow Dexter, who plays straight-up old school medleys on the weekends; scene-stealing Jim; and effortlessly cool Darrin, who takes advantage of the thinner crowds to nail each request, a little Lloyd Weber and Cole Porter, some Disney, a lot of Carole King. Maggie — waitressing and breaking hearts with drunk-hushing numbers like ‘Fifty Percent’ on and off since 1979 — hits the nail on the head when she says that the bar has no agenda. Despite the obvious differences between real singers and the mere fans, there is no hierarchy here, even among the talents themselves. Perhaps what keeps Marie’s Crisis going is that a love of music never goes out of style — even straight men dare to brave the weekend crowds in hopes of singing a little Sondheim. Here, I am able to caterwaul unnoticed in a dark corner, hardly the only one of my kind. We are the ones whose eyes light up each time a new song begins but only mouth the words. Some nights, some of us can’t contain ourselves and actually get up the nerve to sing. We sing without prejudice; the pianists are always accommodating and the professionals never seem to judge. There is often honest applause, even for those who can’t stay within G.
A giggling couple waltzes to ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and are warned not to hit their heads on the ceiling. Each time somebody sings the word “hard,” Jim brandishes the sample of Viagra he got as a tip. The party guest who gave me the red ribbon is long gone, I’ve been here for hours — again. There is freedom here — though perhaps not as Thomas Paine saw it — freedom to sing even when we shouldn’t, until a real singer throws her head back, opens her mouth and humbles us all.