Lucy: It’s the kind of place that makes you look good on a date. It’s somewhere between creepily sexy and sexily creepy. The room is dim and wooden and most of the light comes from neon beer adds and the illuminated Smirnoff Ice bottles that sit like lava lamps behind the bar.
Monday night is beatnik night — “Hey hipsters!” the program implores. On stage is a man you think you might recognize from the weekly war protests on Park Street. He’s about your father’s age, and when he shouts into the microphone and expletives flood your ears and you begin to realize that he is rapping, you wonder if he reminds you more of Allen Ginsberg or Adolf Hitler in the beer hall. No one seems to be listening and you feel an odd affection for him when he sits back down in front of your booth and you see him scribbling out more apocalyptic hysteria.
Another middle-aged man comes over to say hello. “Are you reading anymore tonight?” he asks. You’re beginning to feel like you’re part of a scene so you look over at the other tables in an attempt to make friends. In the booth by the wall nearest you is a wild-looking man, shifting his weight and muttering hostilities.
A new man is on stage now: a solo guitarist with long hair and a vertical strip of a beard down his chin.
“Thanks for coming out here tonight,” he says. “Though I don’t know why you wouldn’t. What else are you going to do, watch TV?” The crowd titters congenially. Except the hostile muttering man, who seems to be a reaching some kind of climax. You are suddenly really happy you came here. Sodas and juice are only $1 each on Monday. The cranberry juice tastes really good.
Domestic beers are $2 and imported beers and drinks are $4. You can just make out the prices on the cigarette machine: $5.75. Too bad. The machine is retro, but the prices aren’t. It occurs to you that people won’t be able to pick each other up in New York bars anymore, now that asking to bum a cigarette is a thing of the past.
OK. Now all you have to do is find someone to bring along, which shouldn’t be that hard. Then you can walk along the dark quiet of State Street on Monday at 10 until you see the “musician’s living room” sign, just before the highway. You’ll go in and sit down.
“I love this place,” you’ll say. “It just has a sense of reality, you know.” You’ll lean forward so that your face is red beneath the lights. “You know someone got shot here,” you’ll whisper.
T.S.: I yearn for smoky dives — little hole-in-the-walls on the Lower East Side that teeter ever-so-precariously between reality and “the hip.” These places abound with secondhand smoke, an olfactory nostalgia that haunts my clothes for days to come.
Yet I have suffered a double death, seeing that unmistakable nicotine cloud dissolve over nocturnal heads at the hands of Bloomberg, losing the sights and smells I long for. To what point must I now direct my pilgrimages? Is the answer to be found in the means, in those mysterious, unvisited spots along the Metro North line given life only through the raspy drawl of a conductor? Bridgeport, Milford, Stamford. Are these the places you inhabit, my wounded, unadulterated sin?
Little did I expect to find it on State Street amidst a particularly hollow sprawl of urban brush. A brief descent from the tower and this domain can be reached, harboring fellow restless souls — the displaced lovers of the late Tune Inn, desperate to tread on friendly ground with their ragged Converse; the wandering men of the streets who contain hidden, poetic gifts; middle-aged working women who seek a beer and the company of friends after a long day; and of course, the musicians. More musicians than so small a space can contain, musicians bursting forth from the performance space and spilling out into the bar, the secrets of the earth revealed through tectonic collision.
These musicians and poets are the pulse of Cafe Nine, their art the unifying means for the manifold listeners. The music and words extend spatially from their human origin, extend across the narrow rectangular space, scratching the bottle and paraphernalia-covered brick walls, weaving between the iron wall that separates the bar and seating area (and which boasts glamour photos of past artists).
This art pervades the entire space with an insistence only matched by the aroma of cigarettes and the red lighting (how many fizzling relationships must have been saved by such easy symbolism, by that well-chosen color!). Art, smoke and rouge — a synthesis that makes you believe that you can disengage your eyes from the ESPN and start connecting with the crowds around you, that you can take that good-looking lady home with you tonight, that maybe, one day, you can learn the drums and play during the “All Artists’ Welcome Blues Jam” every Sunday night. You, me, and Joe Corduroy. Now that’s art.