It was my twenty-first birthday, a block or two off Broadway, and I was drunk without the usual temptation to cut my own throat with broken glass. The sun was out, things looked good, something like magic was starting to work, and I had so far stayed out of its way. I walked past a little Japanese noodle place, just about empty in the late afternoon, except for a hard-luck man sitting at a piano singing his karaoke version of The Summer Wind. He had the look and feel of schizophrenia about him, lucid for now, and he sounded a lot like Sinatra to me. I went in, sat down, ordered an Orion beer, and applauded. The singer thanked the absent crowd and me, flipped me his Zippo, and winked.
"Thanks, you're beautiful" he said, and I started to believe him. He seemed to have the run of the place, like maybe Mamasan let him sing when there was no one else around. He continued his Sinatra medley, and I noticed his overstuffed, weather-beaten backpack in the corner.
"When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.."
He looked at me when he sang and, no shit, I got goose bumps.
"It was a very good year, for small town girls, and soft summer nights..."
And now I was crying. My friends were back in one of the buy-me-drinkee-bars probably wondering what the hell happened to me, but I couldn't leave, so I ordered Santori whiskey and stayed.
During his break I awkwardly approached him, thanked him for the music, and gave him back his Zippo. He received it graciously - seemed kind of regal - like he was used to handling the adulation of toungue tied fans. I told him I was about to eat some noodles and asked if he'd allow me to get something for him. He ordered soup and tea. We ate at separate tables and did not speak. His break was measured and professional.
Returning to his microphone he said, "ladies and gentlemen, this beautiful kid is going to join me for a duet".
Singing in public was not something I did, except when running through the dusty hills of Camp Pendelton, but like I said - there was magic at work, and who was I too refuse? I joined the singer on his piano bench and paged through the book he handed me until I found "House of The Rising Sun". The microphone made me shy and my timing was off, but I got through it and wasn't too bothered by the presence of the couple who joined us in the place.
Like any good teacher, the singer wasn't going to let me get off easy.
"Not bad kid, but you've got to let it go. Don't sing from your mouth, sing from your tits!"
We did "King of The Road" next, and it felt pretty good and earned us a little applause.
One of my friends came in toward the end of the song, called me crazy and said he thought I'd run off to Tijuana. We ordered more drinks, another friend came in, and the place started to get busier. The singer, he kept doing his thing, and if you were just walking in and you didn't look too closely, you'd think he was the paid talent. Some time passed, the drinking continued - except for the singer, who never had anything stronger than tea - the lights dimmed into evening, and there was a soft vibe in the place. I still didn't feel like cutting my throat, or anyone else's, and I just let this magic happen like warm oil and sunshine.
The singer addressed the growing crowd with the same command he had over the invisible one.
"I'm going to call my beautiful friend up here for another duet", and the piano opened "My Funny Valentine".
I want you to know what it felt like. It was real still and warm inside, and as we sunk into the softness of the song, I could swear there were beams of light coming out of me. I closed my eyes because I could feel the magic thing looking at me up close, and you never, never want to look it in the eyes.
"...you make me smile with me heart..."
Man, it was so quiet in there and that song felt like a part of me just flowing out... unhindered, unbroken.
"Each day is Valentine's Dayyy..."
Opening my eyes, I found an elderly woman had joined us and with her hand on my shoulder she sang this beautiful "la, la, la" finale into my microphone.
Applause - I saw the tables were almost full and people had come in from the sidewalk, I was disoriented.
The singer squeezed my arm and said "that's the one" with tears in his eyes, and in that moment I loved everything.
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