Tonight she would be Janis Joplin. On previous occasions she had been Cher, Pat Benetar, Dolly Parton, all three of the Go-Gos, and Melissa Ethridge, though I never once saw her look through the song book. There was also that uncomfortable summer night when she appeared as that lady from The Divinyls, reminding the entire bar that even seniors touch themselves sometimes.
She came alone every night, except for last week, when she performed as, well, whoever it is that does the duet with Meatloaf on “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” Her partner carried himself well, although, to be honest, the sickly man, had he sought the kind of fame achieved by “Loaf,” (as I’ve heard he sometimes likes to go by) would have probably been forced to perform under the name Celery Stalk, which would almost certainly have guaranteed commercial failure.
I watched her every week, along with the rest of the regulars, to whom she never said a word beyond “thank you” as they rose, clapping and shouting, from their stools. The rowdy hipsters got a kick out of her too, but smugly. In their cardigans and pointy shoes, I knew they though coming to my bar was somehow ironic, like blowing coke while wearing a DARE shirt, but I didn’t care. I found their deadpan renditions of Neil Diamond songs mildly entertaining, and they tipped me surprisingly well.
Tonight was no different than any other Wednesday. Celery Stalk had disappeared just as quickly as he had come, and she once again sat alone with her gin and tonic. Karaeoke never started until 10:00, but the mall closed at 8:00, so, as usual, she rode the number 12 bus, arriving just before 9:00 to build a slow buzz. As the bar filled, she recounted the events of the past week for me, and I listened closely and laughed heartily, putting the hipsters’ drink orders on hold until she finished telling me who she’d irritated that day. Today she had started with the pregnant teenager behind the customer service desk at K-Mart, where she needed to return four bottles of hydrogen peroxide with no receipt. After the frustrated teen finally agreed to let her speak with the manager, she and her $12 cash made their way to the pizza place in the food court, stopping only once to check the payphones for uncollected quarters. She didn’t even have to speak to the man behind the counter. She simply sat in the booth, depositing the 35 cents she had found into one of the tiny black and white TVs that sat, mounted to the wall, on each table. As she sat and half-watched the news, the Italian-American man in the green apron carried out two slices with no cheese and, without a word, picked up the $3.50 she had set on the edge of the table.
It wasn’t that she was a mean lady. In fact, aside from the cigarettes, she kind of reminded me a bit of my own mother, herself a saint with a similar penchant for eccentricity. She just knew what she wanted, and she had spent enough years figuring out how to get it. So tonight, at about 11:30, when the bar was just about full, she took the stage and belted out her song. She had spent this Thursday just like every other Thursday for the past year and a half, and she felt good about that. So did I, by the way, and if feeling good is good enough for her, then feeling good is good enough for me.