Posted on February 1, 2017
At first it seemed like a normal neighborhood restaurant. The Mexican Festival on 102nd and Broadway in Manhattan is colorful, crowded and noisy. It was Friday about 10:45pm and the customers who were finishing up their dinners were talking – even yelling – over the live mariachi band. I took a seat at the bar, which was a little quieter and darker than the main dining room.
At around 11, the mariachi stopped. I wondered why the bar seemed to be getting more crowded instead of less. A man sat down and opened a small upright piano, which I hadn’t even noticed was there. A young woman handed him sheet music, and he began to play. She opened her mouth and began–dramatically, beautifully, caressingly–to sing a German aria (I believe it was a Schubert lied, the last thing I expected to hear in this venue).
Welcome to opera night at Mexican Festival, where in the midst of lively bar chatter which only seems to diminish a little for the performers, classical singers get up to sing their hearts out, one after the other–sometimes alone, other times as a duet or trio. Many seem to be students. Some are dressed up in sparkles, and some are in sweats or jeans and you would never expect what was about to come out of their mouths.
A few of the singers seemed nervous as they walked up to the piano and plopped down their music, but that vanished with their first intake of breath. They knew they were good. Besides Mexican tenor Juan del Bosco, who moves his audience with an amazing combination of verve and sweetness, I was delighted by a powerful tenor named Lindell Carter as well as an artful soprano, Heather Bobeck. When Bobeck sang “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata, all the singers boisterously sang the responses from wherever they happened to be sitting around the room, including the man sitting next to me at the bar. I admit, it startled me at first. Later, one plaid-clad mezzo, deep into her role, flirted her way down the room as she sang “The Habanera.” Hardly anyone seemed to be listening, but of course I was wrong: A dozen people belted out “Prends garde à toi!” exactly on cue–then went back to their drinks.
Being at Mexican Festival on Friday nights is a bit like being on the set of an opera—as if you are one of the extras on stage who happens not to be singing–or like being at an opera cast party. It’s Cheers for opera lovers. Juilliard with a shot of tequila. There is an extraordinary sense of camaraderie. The place oozes good spirit, encouragement, and fun. Naturally, one of the songs that inevitably gets performed is “Toreador” from Carmen. Even the non-singers will join in on that one.
To me what makes this such a unique phenomenon is the combination of casual atmosphere and formally-trained voices. A lot of people seem to be just hanging out, talking to their friends while the singers are performing. Until your senses become adjusted, it seems oxymoronic to be listening to such proficient opera singers in this dark Mexican restaurant on Broadway and 102nd St. at midnight.
It all began one day when the aforementioned Juan del Bosco happened to stop by the restaurant and discovered they had mariachi. In Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century, mariachi was actually sung by operatic tenors. So it was natural for Juan to ask if he might sing occasionally with the band at Mexican Festival. He soon got to know the restaurant’s two owners, Tony Carcamo and Jaime Lucero, and he started inviting friends to come there to hang out – they were mostly singers, dancers and musicians.
Then one night Juan said to Tony, “What if we do opera night here?”
Tony said, “What do you need?”
“Just a piano.”
And so Tony bought a piano. (You know what they say: Build it and they will come.)
In a city that is choking with tourist traps, chain stores and entertainments that most people can’t afford, it feels miraculous to find a pocket of secret musical magic going on in this unexpected corner. I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how many creative people are clustered on this island; indeed three of the best music schools are right here—Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan School of Music. Still it’s amazing to wander off of an almost deserted Broadway into such a treasure trove of talent and musical communing. It’s obvious that many of these singers are friends. Whenever I go I always get the impression that I had somehow gotten into a private party – or some sort of relaxed audition scenario I am able to watch because I knew the secret password.
A couple of weeks ago I took some curious friends there for after-dinner drinks. Juan was there to greet us (when he is not singing, he serves as host), as was the ever-charming co-owner, Tony. Only in a small town does one usually experience that “we’re-closed-but-who-cares-it’s-just-us” feeling. In fact, it struck me that there is no sense of Diva behavior here; everyone supports each other, there is no visible competitiveness. One of the reasons for this might be that no one is paid to perform – except the pianist. (According to Juan there are three or four different pianists, who rotate depending on which one is free that night). And just to make it even more appealing, every once in a while, a opera superstar will perform there, such as the renowned Javier Camarena, who sang there last March, on his birthday.
I love opera, so I’m in heaven on these Friday nights. But a part of me wishes I could have experienced the karaoke hour that reportedly used to follow the opera, but which has since been (apparently) usurped by the opera crowd. To have been taken on the strange odyssey from mariachi to Madame Butterfly to “Mack the Knife” all in one night would certainly have been one for the books. And then who knows, by 2am I might have taken the stage myself.
Ask Miss Mingle: “The Human Sacrifice”
Posted on December 15, 2015
My friend Joelle recently had a harrowing cocktail party experience. She was cornered by one of life’s most dangerous predators — the Crashing Bore. Obsessed with his family’s genealogy, he just wouldn’t stop pontificating about his great-great-grandmother no matter how many times Joelle tried to change the subject. (Apparently he was descended from a very old family of Boston blue-blooded Bores.) After fifteen minutes, she tried a common-variety escape tactic: She said she needed to go get a drink. This proved ineffective, as the Bore followed her to refill his own glass. After another 20 minutes, she gave up and left the party.
What Joelle really needed was one of the most popular techniques from my book The Art of Mingling, a maneuver called the Human Sacrifice. Miss Mingle wishes to pass on this time-honored technique to her blog readers, so they might avoid suffering a similar fate during holiday parties. The Human Sacrifice is a particularly clever ploy because — when executed well — it poses as a social grace. Here’s how it’s done:
Step One) Surreptitiously look around you and locate someone you either know or have just met. (Don’t worry, if the person you are with is a bona fide Bore, he won’t notice your eyes wandering a bit.) Proximity is important; you are going to have to be able to reach out and shanghai this third person.
Step Two) While nodding enthusiastically to what the Bore is saying, pull this new person into your twosome. Immediately you will feel a shift, a loosening of the Bore’s hold on you.
Step Three) Introduce the sacrificial lamb to the Bore in a way that implies you are just being a good mingler by introducing two people who will probably have a lot in common.
Step Four) As soon as their eyes meet, leave immediately; you must fade out of the conversation within twenty seconds or this substitution will not work. A pleasant “Excuse me” will also serve as an alternative to a silent fade-out.
The Human Sacrifice may sound mean to some people, but I assure you it is perfectly acceptable party protocol. You can’t be considered rude to the Bore since you have procured a new conversational partner for him before leaving. And the person you just used as the sacrifice can just as easily find his own way out, if he wants to. Remember: All’s fair in love and mingling. (Tweet me @Miss_Mingle or email me at Jeanne@Jeannemartinet.com with your social dilemmas.)
NYC: My Own Personal Cocktail Party
Posted on April 19, 2013
Oddly enough, this year Tax Day reminded me of what I love most about New York City.
I always do my taxes at the last minute, partly because I need deadline pressure to get anything done. So on the afternoon of April 15th, I was getting ready to e-file my return. (New York State now mandates that anyone using computer software to prepare their tax returns must file them electronically, which I had never done before).
Even though everything had been double-checked, I sat for over an hour in front of my laptop, stalling, unable to make myself push the “e-file” button. I knew this method was easier, cheaper, and quicker than snail-mail, yet I felt a strong urge to do it the old-fashioned way. I thought to myself: Why am I resisting this so much? Am I really that much of a Luddite?
I found myself picturing the scene I had been a part of for so many years: walking to the post office at 4:45 on Tax Day with that particular feeling of jangled nerves and accomplishment, noticing out of the corners of my eyes my fellow New Yorkers — their own bulky envelopes in hand — all eagerly headed in the same direction.
That’s when it hit me: What was bothering me was that I was going to miss the camaraderie, the excitement of walking up to the post office, communing with other last-minute filers, smiling with them, exchanging jokes about just making the deadline.
I admit this sounds like a relatively insignificant thing, a piece of social minutia. Many of you may be thinking: Jeez, she gets excited about going to the post office? But I swear am not totally people starved or anything. It’s just that to me — a person who always loves talking to strangers, anytime, anywhere — New York City is basically one big cocktail party. Not only that, it’s a cocktail party with interesting, emotionally available people.
At the risk of seeming New York-centric, I believe people here tend to be more culturally-diverse and more engaged in what goes on around them than people in most other places, so our conversations tend to be more interesting — and often more unguarded.
Maybe it’s because we all have a “we’re in this mess together” feeling or it’s because we are in a hurry, but New Yorkers have a way of cutting through the polite nothings. We tend to start talking as if we are already in the middle of a conversation with a friend. We will dispense with the usual pleasantries and go right to the heart of things.
Without any preamble, without any “hello, how are you?” we will just start speaking, as if we already know the person next to us: “God, I wish the train would come, I’ve got someone waiting at the theater for me, and if I keep him waiting one more time, I swear he’s going to break up with me.” Revealing personal details of our lives comes naturally in the Big Apple.
Once when I was in the park with a friend, we came across someone whose parrot had escaped and taken refuge high up in an elm tree. Soon a small crowd gathered, and we were all chatting to one another about pets — about losing them, finding them, and loving them. The man next to me said, “I always wanted a mynah bird when I was little but my father told me, ‘Bad enough you learned to talk.'”
New York life is filled with opportunities for intimate five-minute conversations. I’ve had passing exchanges with strangers 10 years ago I still remember to this day. We are often accused of being rude, and that may sometimes be true, but we are, for the most part, very open and willing to connect with each other.
In the end, of course, I e-filed. But later when I went to the drugstore, don’t think that I did not engage the stranger standing in front of me in line. I heard her talking on the phone about Schedule C (it sounded as though she was talking to her spouse).
“So do you file your taxes electronically?” I asked her after she hung up. “This was my first year doing it.”
She smiled, slightly sheepish. “No, we are mailing ours. I kind of love the tactile feeling of it, and the comfort of seeing other people there who are as late as I am getting it done.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied, laughing. And in my imagination, we clinked glasses, as a waiter passed by with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
Beach Blanket Bingo
Posted on September 16, 2012
Recently my friend Elizabeth told me about a guy she had started seeing. “How did you meet him?” I wanted to know. “From work? Match.com?” When she told me she had met this man while she was on the beach at Far Rockaway I confess I nearly dropped my drink. “I noticed he was burning and so I offered to share my sunscreen,” she said.
“Who are you, Gidget?” I asked in amazement. “Who finds romance at the beach in real life?”
But then I thought about it. The truth is, if you can get past the whole “I look horrible in a bathing suit” feeling—and can bring yourself to unplug from your iPhone for long enough—the beach is a perfect place to mingle. People at the beach are already relaxed and in pleasure-seeking mode. (Not to mention everyone is semi-clothed.)
And so, inspired by my friend Elizabeth (and with a nod to Gidget) here are some of Miss Mingle’s “hottest” tips, for those who want to lend Cupid a helping hand next summer:
Location, location: Choose a beach where there are likely to be other single people. Also, place your towels and chairs in a crowded section of the beach—near the surf line—rather than in a more secluded spot. This is like positioning yourself near the food table at a party, where the action is, rather than against an out-of-the-way wall.
Hunt the Stray: People who are by themselves are easier to approach than a group (especially straight men; something dreadful happens to straight men when they are male-bonding). And if you should notice that great guy before you have committed to a spot, try to arrange your towel or chair so that he is between you and the ocean. That way you can not only check him out thoroughly, but also you can pass him on your way to and from frequent dips. After a while you will seem like old friends; your neighborly smile can extend to comments like “The water is so cold!” and “It’s heaven in there.”
Eavesdropping: This the most common beach pick-up technique, also known as the “Fade-in”: Listen carefully to what’s being said by two or more strangers, and—at an appropriate moment—make a pertinent remark, as if you had been there all along. Often it is the lone man who will insinuate himself into women’s conversation; so girls, if you think he’s listening, be sure to allow him an opening.
The Art of Observation: This is the perfect tactic if you are alone and so is she. Making a non-personal comment is safe and unobtrusive. Dogs, kids, things in the sky and things in the water make perfect subjects for casual conversation. “Excuse me, but does that look like a shark out there?” is always certain to get her attention.
Surf or Turf?: When asked whether they are more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the water or out, most women will choose dry land and men water. Women say they feel they looked better on their towels or in their chairs, with their hair and suits dry. (I find this surprising, since I myself feel much more confident with the lower half of my body submerged. But hey, that’s just me.) I find water conversation preferable because the common activity of swimming creates a sense of camaraderie. After all, you’re in there together. More important, it is much easier to abort the conversation when you are in the water (you just ride a wave or quietly sink).
If you are feeling adventuresome (Remember, Gidget wasn’t above a few tricks, and she always got her man), try:
—The Exhibitionist: Build a large sand castle or a sand sculpture and see who comes to watch. Don’t worry if you attract the children; there are plenty of divorcees out there.
—Old-fashioned Girl: Ask him to help you with your beach umbrella or a bottle that won’t open.
—The Flatterer: Approach her with “Okay, I know I’ve seen you on TV.” Or tap him gently on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, would you mind keeping half an eye on me while I am in the water? You look like a strong swimmer.”
—Risqué Business: Ask him or her to apply sunscreen to your back.
—The Accidental Tourist: If you should be lucky enough to be knocked by a boogie board into an attractive person’s waiting arms, or tumbled together in a crashing wave, quip: “We’ve simply got to stop meeting like this!” or “I think I just fell for you.” Or even, “In some countries we’d have to get married now.”
Okay I’ll see you out there next year. (I’ll be the one packing the extra Coppertone.)
Beware the Chair
Posted on July 22, 2012
I had already been out to dinner and a play that evening, so by the time I got to the party, it was past 11 and I was tired. After greeting the host, I wandered out to a small terrace. I spotted an inviting empty chair and, without thinking, I sat down in it. It was one of those super slouchy chairs that seem to envelop you. I’ll just sit for a few minutes, I thought.
Almost instantly, I realized my mistake. The only other chair on the terrace was occupied by a blowsy woman who immediately began talking nonstop about her Lhasa apso puppies. Where she got them, where she walked them, what she fed them, how much she loved them. Even how she dressed them. All attempts at subject changing—or at a back-and-forth conversation—failed. With a sinking heart, I realized I had fallen right into the clutches of a human Venus flytrap. I was stuck. Now that I was already seated and the woman was talking to me so intently, it was going to be nearly impossible to get back up.
There are several good reasons for sitting down at a party where most people are standing up. You may simply be physically too tired to stand; you may be having trouble managing a plate of food while standing; or you and a friend may be eager to have a tête-à-tête without being interrupted. But be aware there is always a danger to sitting. Even if it’s next to someone you feel you’d love to talk to, once you are sitting down, you may lose your mingling momentum. You may find yourself thinking, “This is such a comfortable chair; maybe I’ll just observe from here for the rest of the night. What’s so great about talking to a lot of people I don’t know anyway?” Don’t give in to this feeling! You can sit when you get home.
Mainly, sitting is to be avoided because it’s extremely hard to get free of someone who is really talking at you and not to you. At most cocktail parties, it’s fairly easy to move away from someone you don’t want to talk to—and toward someone you do—without being rude. You simply say you need to get a drink or use the restroom or you just fade away into the general melee. But when you are sitting down, escape becomes much more problematic; you are committed. You have, in fact, made a statement of non-movement by the very act of sitting.
There are a couple techniques that I have found work pretty well in this situation. The first is Follow the Leader. Ask Ms. Flytrap if she would like to come inside with you to get a drink or something to eat. If she says no thank you, you’re scot-free; if she says yes, then once you have her on her feet and amidst a crowd of people, you can use any number of other cocktail party escape tactics to gently extricate yourself.
One of my most popular and controversial mingling maneuvers is something I call the Human Sacrifice, wherein you basically palm the person off on someone else. (This sounds cruel, but is an extremely common ploy.) This is easier if you are on your feet but it can also be done from a sitting down position, in the following way: Locate someone nearby and get his attention. (Wave him over if you must.) Lure him into the conversation by tossing a comments up at him—for example, you can ask him if he has any preconceptions about Lhasa apsos, as if you are playfully taking a poll.
The minute the new person even smiles at you or at the flytrap, get up, indicating your place, and say, “Would you care for a seat?” Or even, more aggressively, “Would you save my seat for a second?” This latter gambit is a bit wicked, because it’s almost impossible for the new person to refuse. But after all, all’s fair in love and mingling. (Of course, you won’t come back. You will be unavoidably waylaid.)
So what did I do to escape from being totally Lhasa apsoed? I employed the blunt but effective “note from my doctor” excuse. I interrupted the woman right in the middle of her recitation of possible names for her puppies with: “I’m so sorry, but this chair is terrible for my back, I realize. I’m going find some other place to sit inside. But it’s been so lovely meeting you.”