He walked up to the mic stand gingerly—he didn’t look like someone who did karaoke, and yet here he was. He didn’t belong in the beer-drenched hall, enclosed in an expensive navy blue suit, tie knotted just so under his Adam’s apple. But despite his buttoned-upness, his hair was overgrown and floppy—that of a young boy who refused to sit still in the barbershop chair. And so he climbed up there, pressed suit and wild hair, and picked his song. It took a long time, and an awkward silence filled the crowded room, a specific kind of silence that comes only with the absence of music in a karaoke bar. One where you can hear clearly the shifting of young people in their seats, their attention turning away from the stage and toward their phones.
And then his song started. Twangy, and slightly old-fashioned. Those who frequented this bar, on 2nd Avenue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, were used to synthesized Top 40s hits. But this was not that. A guitar, only, and the sound of a live audience.
The man (the boy?) started tapping his shiny, wing-tipped Oxford to the beat of the music. A little off-tempo. Bobbing his head dis-jointedly, just enough so that his hair flopped, almost comically, this way and that. The colored lights glinted off the disco ball and drifted across his lapel.
It was a Johnny Cash song. Almost all spoken dialogue. A little silly in its blatant Americana—all fist fights and lost fathers and booze. But the man had such an earnest look on his face that it made the song instantly, easily loved. And he did the voice, too, with a barstool-cowboy gruffness. A sheepish bravado.
He slowly started to shed—first the jacket, thrown onto the sticky bar floor, and then the tie was loosened and the top buttons undone and the shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He came out of himself until his hair matched his clothes, like an overgrown altar boy eager to ditch church and get back to the neighborhood baseball game.
And then he was dancing. Holding the mic stand, dipping it like a dance partner that he loved dearly. His long-stiff limbs—you could tell he hadn’t moved like this in while—suddenly, awkwardly, beautifully free.
By the end he was panting, rosy-cheeked. The song ended, and he stood there, so different from when he first stepped onto the stage. The room was quiet for a moment. He nodded once, then moved from the spotlight. And then everyone, slowly, everyone clapped. And he smiled, quietly proud. And satisfied, so satisfied.