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.
Please Pass the Paranoia: On the Dangers of Sitting Down
Posted on June 16, 2015
When having a private conversation in a public place–even a crowded New York City restaurant–you can never be too circumspect.
One evening, after a particularly stressful audition, an actress friend of mine named Katie decided to stop into Café Loup in Greenwich Village, to unwind a bit over a martini and some country pâté. After ordering, Katie took out her New Yorker and began to read when suddenly, amidst the ambient sound of the dinner hour bustle, she thought she heard her full name uttered–and in an oddly conversational tone, not as an address. It had come from the table next to her.
She hadn’t been paying attention to these nearby diners. “But when you hear your full name spoken–and as you know, my last name is not a common one–it really gets your attention no matter how engrossing Malcolm Gladwell may be,” she told me. Thinking it was someone she knew who had spotted her and was trying to be funny by casually dropping her name, Katie looked up pointedly and expectantly at the group, preparing to smile in recognition. She made eye contact with the person facing her. It was a woman she’d never seen before. At the table were another woman and a man, neither of whom she recognized. Katie looked back down at her magazine, thinking, Maybe I just imagined that, maybe I’ve got post-audition auditory dysfunction. But she kept listening. While she could not make out every word over the noise of the restaurant, she could tell the man was regaling his two dinner companions with a story about a friend of his who had expressed interest in a woman after seeing her online dating profile.
“Apparently from her photo this Katie ____ (here he used my friend’s full name again!) has really huge bazongas,” she heard the man say. “But Pat says her description made her sound kind of overly ambitious.”
Embarrassed, Katie didn’t know what to do. Should she get up and leave? Confront them and ask them to stop discussing her? In the end she stayed and finished her martini as quickly as possible, feeling confused and uncomfortable. She had no idea what photo the man could possibly be referring to–since the only pictures of herself she could remember posting were from the shoulders up–but she resolved to stay away from any suitor named Pat. To Katie’s immense relief, the diners soon went on to other topics. But her much longed-for relaxing interlude was ruined.
We think because we live in a big city that the odds are slim to none that anyone we might be talking about will be within earshot. While people in a small town assume everyone knows everyone, and behave with corresponding discretion, we city-dwellers have this illusion of anonymity. We talk about the most personal things on a packed subway train, in the midst of crowded stores, buses, theaters, and restaurants. We offer up our intimate thoughts and feelings, and gossip about other people, completely ignoring the strangers present. Funnily enough, the more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have–when, mathematically speaking, a crowd actually increases the odds of someone knowing the person we are talking about. While it’s true that a high level of crowd noise can create some privacy, it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about the illicit affair a colleague is having with her next door neighbor.
Also, in New York City, the connectivity of people exists with about three degrees of separation rather than six. People in the same fields tend to go to the same restaurants, parks and often even travel on the same subway lines.
It is for this reason that one editor I know uses code names for all the professional people in his life whenever he tells me about them over drinks. Super-paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile position in book publishing) he’ll refer to his boss as “Red Balloon,” his departmental nemesis as “Evil Kitty” and the head of the company as “Elephant.” If anyone was actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it would sound more like a children’s book plot than work gossip.
Just recently I was at Gennaro’s restaurant on Amsterdam, talking to my friend Lisa about a mutual friend named Bob who was having a marital problem. It was 8:00pm and the restaurant was crowded. I leaned forward so as to speak directly into Lisa’s ear, but not before craning my head around to the right and to the left to check out who might be at the tables beside and behind us. (Especially to see whether there were any singles. People sitting alone at a restaurant are always listening to conversations around them; they can’t help it.) Lisa started laughing at me and shaking her head.
“Jesus, who do you think you are, Deep Throat? You think out of millions of people, Bob or one of his friends is going to be sitting at the table next to you?”
I refused to be embarrassed. “You just never know,” I said.
And the thing is, you never do.
Of course, my mother would say the answer is to never gossip about anyone, ever. She is fond of quoting the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
My advice? If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in a whisper.
This Restaurant Serves Grouse
Posted on December 19, 2012
Readers may remember how often I have expounded on the social benefits of living in this crowded, vibrant, melting (and mingling) pot of a city—where the possibility of conversations with strangers is always right at the tip of your ears, and even if you are too shy to talk to strangers, you can overhear the most interesting things and later serve them up as conversational tidbits to your friends and acquaintances.
But there is, of course, always the other side of the urban “proximity” coin; there are often interactions you really wish you didn’t have to witness, ones you wish you could block out. Loud, boring conversations between salesmen about numbers or statistics. Ugly relationship arguments. Parents being mean to their toddlers. People spouting racist or sexist opinions.
Or, as I experienced recently: rude customers abusing the people who are waiting on them.
In New York restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to ignore your fellow diners. Tables are often so close together you may as well be eating at the same table. It was for this reason that, one night last month, it became extremely hard to ignore the demanding, absolutely pissy diners sitting immediately to my left. The irony was that, as my friend and I were settling into our seats, we were talking about how wonderful this particular restaurant was, and at almost that exact moment we became aware of a man at the next table berating the waitress.
“Miss, I have to tell you,” said the man, who had a pointy nose and wispy hair that pouffed out on top, “this is not medium-rare, this is medium. Take it away and bring me one that is prepared correctly.” And a little while later: “Waitress, please bring me another set of silverware; these are not clean. Also, I need some more bread, and another drink. And can you tell the bartender to use Tanqueray this time, like I asked? Whatever this was, it wasn’t Tanqueray. Don’t think I can’t tell the difference!”
The other man at this table was also fairly demanding, though at least he was polite. “Sorry, but can I have some more Parmesan?” “Excuse me, I seemed to have dropped my napkin, can I have another?” “May I have some extra dressing?” It was something every few minutes.
The poor waitress was running back and forth to their table as if she were running a relay race and she was the whole team. We tried to ignore the unpleasantness. With all my powers of concentration, I looked over at my dinner companion, trying to block out the petty drama beside us, so we could enjoy our dinner (and each other) instead of focusing on the complainers beside us. But once we had become aware of them, it was hard not to listen. (How about a little negative energy with that roast duck?) Our attempts at tuning them out were to no avail.
Gradually, in order to try to compensate for the rude neighbors, we began to over-compliment our waitress. “Thank you so much,” I found myself gushing to her. “This risotto is the best I’ve ever had.”
“I’m going to come back to this wonderful place all the time,” my friend chirped in.
Of course, we were aware that the rude people next to us could overhear us as easily as we could overhear them. And I believe it made them meaner!
Hence the battle between praise and complaints began, much akin to the proverbial battle of good and evil. We could tell the waitress was grateful to us; we were the heavenly balm to the hellish job she had to endure three feet away from us.
In truth, at a certain point during the meal I really wanted my water glass refilled, but I felt so bad for the waitress that I could not bear to ask for this. Nevertheless we—quietly, subtly—began to get better service than the complainers, only because we were so comparatively nice. And so, this friendly, unspoken relationship with the waitress eventually began to substitute for the communion my friend and I weren’t having with each other. It became a different kind of social night, one where we had adopted a put-upon waitress. We felt that part of the reason we had come to this restaurant was to help her get through the night.
I’ve heard stories about what chefs do in the kitchen to the food of “problem” customers. One thing is for sure: I would not have wanted to eat from the plates of the two persnickety gentlemen sitting beside us.