By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Put another nickel in the nickelodeon… - Teresa Brewer
Arlene’s Grocery (95 Stanton Street, New York) is the type of no-nonsense venue that makes me happy to be both a musician and just a fan of music living in New York City. There’s something very comforting about being able to see bands that are tight enough to get through a set with only a few stumbles, but unrehearsed enough to seem overjoyed at the prospect of playing a song that is still fresh and new. You’re probably not going to catch anyone you know playing there unless you’re friends with them or you’ve met them randomly, but a lot of big names started out playing there (The Strokes, The Bravery and Jeff Buckley). Someday people may say the same of acts like Atomic Tom and Zelazowa.
Older regulars still speak of how the venue used to be in a rough area back when it was founded in the mid-nineties, and that the neighborhood is now essentially an extension of the Village with a sprinkling of SoHo and the nonadjacent Meat Packing District. In other words, it is hip and gritty. However, if the closing of a bar like the Mars Bar down the street is any indication of the future, it is entirely possible that it will soon be just hip, overrun with celebrities, and off-limits to anyone unwilling to throw down eight dollars for a pint of beer. I really don’t want this to happen, but I’ve seen (and, let’s be honest, participated in) the wave of gentrification that has swept through so much of this city over my ten years here, and I’m not particularly hopeful—the dialectics of gentrification demand that the places that make an area unique be eliminated.
My night at Arlene’s was not to be one characterized by what the neighborhood is becoming (even with Beyonce a block or two away celebrating the release of her new album), but what the neighborhood had been. When my band, Pistols 40 Paces, arrived to the venue, we were quick to recognize a rather ominous tension in the air. This was due to the sizeable police force roaming about the area. According to the doorman at Arlene’s, a woman had been brutally murdered in her apartment a few doors down. Moreover, the body had not been removed from the building until around seven in the evening, which was our load-in time. Due to the mandatory hang ups that precede any show, we got there late and luckily didn’t have to deal with the barrier that the police had set up. We were also very grateful that we were not the first band to go on, since the cops would have likely turned away anyone who would have wanted to walk down the block to get into the venue.
The bands that night were eclectic, which is common at Arlene’s, especially with a No Pulp showcase going on (of which we were part). There was a singer-songwriter, a band comprised of record executives who played an entire Allman Brothers album, two rockabilly acts, and us, an all-instrumental progressive rock band. Now, I won’t go into the details of the show, but I will say that there is a common belief among musicians that most people in the audience can’t tell a good show from a bad one. I’ll also say that this belief is more accurate than I would like to admit. Regardless, it’s always a joy to get on a stage and to show people what type of monsters we’ve been creating in our laboratory, even if these monsters sometimes get a little out of control.
Arlene's Grocery, Lower East Side
After we’d pack everything up and moved into the back area of the bar (there are two rooms at Arlene’s: a bar with a small but comfortable back area with a few tables, and the venue), the night progressed in a most ordinary fashion, even if a woman had been murdered a few doors down and an increased police presence was noticeable. The post-show congratulatory period was relatively brief due to the smaller turnout that was more than understandable since it was a Tuesday, and most of our friends by this point were either hanging out by the bar or watching the other bands.
Things began to get weird when I went out for a cigarette sometime after midnight and was approached by an ostensibly normal man who said, “I’ll gladly pay you Thursday for a slice of pizza today.” When I responded that I didn’t have any money on me (which was true; I had a tab open and no cash in my pocket), he told me that this reminded him of a song.
Cue “Music! Music! Music!”
It’s refreshing to see harmless crazy people, especially since the two souls occupying the block that night had been a menacing guy without teeth, who had been berating people in some obscure dialect of dereliction, and a disheveled woman who had given up on formalities and was simply sticking her hand out and demanding alms for either crack or meth. Regardless, he continued with his song through the entire first verse, oblivious in the way that’s only possible for crazy people.
To what was he oblivious? Well, what was going on behind him was a bit like the running of the bulls, only there weren’t any bulls, and the people running were exclusively cops—one came flying down the street, then two or three next to each other running a little slower, then a group of eight a little slower yet, and then the pack. Yes, a pack of cops was running down the street toward a rather large crowd of non-cops at the corner of Stanton and Orchard as old Jazz Hands was soliciting nickels for the nickelodeon. Then squad cars began materializing, then an ambulance, then a paddy wagon. There may have even been a SWAT truck. Yes, within the minute or so it took this guy to sing his little ditty, all hell had broken loose.
Me: This is unbelievable.
Jazz Hands: Welcome to New York. Hey, that reminds me of a song.
Cue Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
Baseless speculation quickly became epidemic. As Jazz Hands continued to croon, I managed to learn that a gang battle was breaking out, that a very famous drug lord, dealing exclusively with pharmaceuticals, had been arrested, that someone had been stabbed, and that shots had been fired. No one knew whether or not any of this was true, of course, but the doorman figured it was probably in the best interest of the bar to get all of the patrons inside as quickly as possible since a nanogram of cop adrenaline can very quickly turn into a liter of civilian blood.
One would think that the inside was tense, but most of the people had no idea there was anything out of the ordinary going on outside. They were either getting loaded in the back or watching the second of the rockabilly bands (and, of course, getting loaded doing so). They did not know that they weren’t allowed to leave, that a small army was occupying the street, and that the phrase “shots fired” had been uttered profusely with different intonations and with several punctuation marks following it (question mark, exclamation mark, interrobang, period).
By one-thirty in the morning, the doorman was once again allowing people outside to smoke. Jazz Hands passed with his slice of pizza, nodded in my direction, and then disappeared into whatever fantasyland from which he had escaped. It was at this point that we discovered what had happened: The police had come to break up a record release party around the corner. Evidently, the club was overcrowded and somewhat rowdy. Now, for reasons both unknown and unjustifiable, the police decided the best way to clear people out was to spray mace into the venue. Chances are that at least one person didn’t really appreciate the mace or the general attitude of at least one particular officer, which in turn led to an altercation and the subsequent unleashing of what seemed like half of the NYPD.
It’s appalling to see such a degree of aggression exhibited by the police, as well as the cell phone videos that show just how viciously they dealt with people who should have simply been restrained; but such horrors have been common for a long time, and such violent imagery doesn’t have the affect upon me that it should. I’m a part of an unapologetically desensitized generation. So as I rode home that night at two in the morning, it was not the brutality that bothered me; what bothered me was the thought that such a thing might not even be deemed newsworthy, and that I could have had no idea that anything had happened, had I not been around the corner. I did not feel any better after flipping through the news cycle the next day.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.