Smalls is Dead

by

06/15/2003

183 West 10th Street, 10011

Neighborhood: West Village

Smalls–a tiny, 50-person-capacity club in a West Village basement where for the last ten years you could watch the city’s rising jazz stars grow up before your eyes, where the jam sessions kept going past dawn, where musicians (and sometimes the customers, it seemed) often lived in some of the club’s back rooms–is dead! On June 1, a rent increase forced the owner to close up shop. A chapter in the life of New York City–and in my own biography–had ended.

I was introduced to Smalls by a guy–let’s call him Andersen–with whom I had a very brief bi-city fling in the winter of 1998 and 1999. During my first trip from D.C. (where I was living) to visit him in New York, he took me to Smalls–the perfect place to bring a girl if you wanted her to think you knew all the city’s best, secret, most quintessential places.

When we arrived at Smalls late that baptismal Friday night, a perfectly bald middle-aged man whose wide eyes and crocheted hippie beret knocked a few years off his appearance, was standing outside the entrance at 183 West 10th, flipping through a well-worn poetry collection–Yeats, I think–reading from it occasionally, and talking to a burly, bearded young dude. They were looking out at the street more than at each other, and it seemed like they were waiting for someone. Godot? The Man?

Customers, as it turned out. Andersen and I chatted with the two guys long enough to learn that the older one, Mitch–an eccentric who seemed to plant a riddle, a deeper meaning, in every sentence and never answered questions directly–owned the place. The other one, Jay, a twenty-year-old whose family moved to Manhattan from Israel twelve years earlier, played jazz guitar when he wasn’t helping Mitch collect covers at Smalls’ door.

After Andersen paid up, he and I descended a set of stairs to enter a small smoky room packed with people listening to slew of twenty- and thirty-something musicians–multiple saxophonists and trumpeters, a pianist, a bassist, a drummer and even a man pulling a slide trombone. Crowded on a wooden floor space at the back of the room, they played underneath a large sepia-toned photo of a young black man, outfitted in culottes, argyle socks pulled up to his knees, a jacket and tie, with his arms resting on his folded legs. Like a statue of Jesus in a church, he seemed to be guarding and godding the place. As I later learned, the youth in the picture was Louis Armstrong. And there were other indicators that the place was a shrine to jazz:, like all the other pictures covering the walls–of Sidney Bechet, of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when they were still kids, of Nina Simone, and on and on; the carved wooden statues of men blowing horns; the burning of you-know-which holy weed by a few devotees in a far corner; the congregation in their seats bobbing and swaying like they were swooning or praying.

Everyone with a free hand seemed to be smoking cigarettes, even the jazz cats–sneaking a drag when someone else was soloing or even, as was the case with one trumpeter, holding a cig as he played so that his instrument seemed to be literally smokin’. Since it was BYOB, people were constantly pulling beers out of quietly crinkling paper bags. There was a bar off to the left as you walked in, but, underscoring the idea that everything there was secondary to the jazz, the only working part of it was a single soda gun teetotaling patrons could help themselves to. Both sides of the impotent bar were packed with listeners on stools.

Andersen and I had come prepared, with two six-packs, purchased from the Korean deli around the corner. Snuggling into seats on a couch that ran the entire length of the right-hand side of the club, we let the night take hold of us.

Hours later, near dawn, out of beer and happily full of jazz, Andersen and I were leaving when we found Mitch in a chair at the bottom of the stairwell, talking to Jay, who sat on a step just above him. We joined their conversation–first about poetry, then about jazz–for a few minutes before heading back to Andersen’s apartment, just down the street. The sun was starting to peek out, and I was convinced I was one of the coolest people in all of New York.

A couple months after my Smalls’ initiation, I moved to New York from D.C., remorselessly. I had been a New York resident for only a few weeks when my fling with Andersen ended, ugly-like. We climbed into my loft-bed late one night and, after acting like a dead fish while I tried to make out with him, Andersen told me that though he thought I was beautiful, smart, funny and wonderful, he just wasn’t interested. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, he said. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with him either.

“Maybe you’re gay!” I shouted, though I knew that wasn’t true. Then, shrieking, I kicked a hole in the sheet-rock wall near his head, scaring the hell out of both of us. Without another word, he scrambled down my bed-ladder and out the door.

After he left, forcing myself to stop my lonelyhearts hysterics, I shoved off to Smalls for a cheer-up. By now I had been to the club so many times that Mitch–who was downstairs when I arrived that night, checking to make sure the bathrooms were clean and the sound system was working–wasn’t surprised to see me. We chatted for a second before I took a place at the end of the bar facing the stage.

Unable to stop thinking about the Andersen disaster, I was sobbing again before I could help it. I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I ran into a closet near the back of the bar and slumped into a corner to continue my self-pity session undisturbed.

Almost immediately, an arm landed gently on my back.

“Come on,” I heard Mitch say. “You can’t hide in here.”

“And why not?” I demanded without turning around.

“I can’t let you be miserable all by yourself.”

“Leave me alone, Mitch. I’ll be fine. I just want to cry for a minute.”

While he started tugging me gently to my feet, I tried to thwart him by sagging like a rag-doll.

“Come on, stand up,” he said. “I’ll let you cry, but not it in here.”

He wasn’t going to give in and I didn’t want to be a total pain in the ass, so I stood up but refused to look at him, hiding my face in my hands.

“I’ll leave you alone if you take the seat right outside the closet,” he pointed. “Right next to my friend.” Let’s pretend the friend was called Richard. “You can cry all you want out there,” Mitch continued. “Richard’s a good guy. He’ll keep an eye on you.”

Too aggravated to continue crying, I dried up and climbed on the stool like Mitch wanted, without so much as glancing at his friend, staring at the stage as if I could find my composure there. Maybe in between the cymbals of the high-hat. As I was looking for it, I realized how glad I was that Mitch had noticed me and that he cared. It was nice not to have to cry alone.

“Good,” Mitch said after I was mounted in the seat. “Richard, will you look out for Maura?” And then he walked away.

“What made you cry like that?” Richard said.

“It’s silly, really,” I said. And then the damn burst; and the tears flooded down my face again. Richard threw an arm around me and I buried myself in his shoulder and let loose. He stroked my hair and my back and after about ten minutes, I had exhausted myself enough to realize how good this felt.

I pulled my head out of his armpit and took a good look at him. Holy shit! He was drop-dead dreamy! Shoulder-length black hair curled behind his ears, framing a handsome olive-skinned face with huge dark eyes and full rose-petal lips. Thank you, God! Thank you, Mitch!

I started hiccuping and whimpering again a little, overcome by his gorgeousness. He responded by hugging me, and I quickly stopped crying so I could concentrate on hugging back. Realizing there was more than an urge to comfort me in his hug, and that the situation had the potential to fly out of my control–if he tried to make out with me right there at Smalls, I would have been powerless to resist!–I took charge fast.

“Listen,” I piped up, pulling away from him. “I live really close. I want you to sleep over, but all I want you to do is hold me. No sex. No nothing. Just hold me. Then you leave in the morning and we never see each other again.” Where was I getting my schtick from? I felt like I was playing the heroine in some B-grade romantic comedy.

It worked though. “That sounds nice,” he said. “And it’s probably best, considering I want to spend the night with you but I have a girlfriend.” As soon as he said it, I knew I hadn’t meant a thing I had just said. But the girlfriend was away for the summer, as it turned out. So the next morning–despite our agreement–we exchanged numbers and spent the next few months messing around. But I was the other woman, of course, and besides, we didn’t have that much to talk about. So when the summer cooled into fall and his girlfriend returned, Richard and I drifted apart without any hard feelings.

But I stuck with Smalls for a long time after that, and often ended up there in the wee hours, alone, looking for trouble or solace, or both. In March 2001, though, I started cleaning up my act: getting to sleep earlier and cutting back on the booze. Smalls was one of the many victims of my reorganization, and though I missed the people there and the music, I knew foregoing the late nights and drinking was good for me. I assumed Mitch understood; I assumed a lot of people passed in and out of his life; I assumed he knew how important Smalls had been and would always be to me; I assumed he still had a soft spot in his heart for me like I did for him.

But Mitch was less and less friendly when I stopped by now and then to say hello. Maybe he doesn’t feel as comfortable around me as he used to since we don’t talk as often, I thought. But mostly I tried not to think about it and, telling myself I did it because it was faster, I started walking home using a route that didn’t take me by the club.

And then last month, on Tuesday May 27, 2003, about two years since I had last set foot inside Smalls, I got an e-mail from a jazz pianist friend. “SMALLS IS CLOSING! THIS WEEKEND IS ITS LAST!” he wrote.

I went by that Friday around 7:30, when the first set would start, to see what was up. No one was at the door so I went down and grabbed a seat just as the music was starting. My buddy Ari, a Smalls friend I have kept in touch with, was on bass, playing with friends of his I had met before–Mike and Zaid on saxes–and a few other guys. When they finished their first set, Ari came over to chat and confirmed the rumor: Bankruptcy was forcing Smalls to shut its doors after Saturday night.

Mitch appeared, collecting the cover charge from people who were going to stay for the second set. (Jay had long ago stopped working there.)

“She’s my guest tonight, Mitch,” Ari said when he got close to us.

“Hi Mitch,” I said.

“What?” Mitch said. “This girl is your guest? She knows about Smalls and still she never comes.”

Ari just shrugged.

Smalls! I felt myself getting intoxicated again, this time on nothing but the jazz and the history. The first time I looked down at my watch, it was past midnight. Content, and ready for bed after a long week of work, I headed home. Returning the following night, Smalls’ last, I waited in line for an hour while the weather alternated between heavy downpour and a misting rain. But the soaking was worth it, even if the scene wasn’t much different than it had been the night before, because I was glad to be able to say good-bye.

Around 2:30 a.m. that morning, I walked out of the club for the last time. Mitch was on the sidewalk surrounded by a crew of new, young Smalls regulars, all of them unfamiliar to me. I walked over, stopping before the inner circle.

“Good night, Mitch,” I said.

He glanced at me. “I feel like I am watching my funeral,” he said to no one in particular, watching people crowd in and out of the door where he’d stood just about every night for the past decade.

“But you’re not!” I said. After all, he wasn’t dead, and moreover, he was still booking jazz acts at Fat Cat, a billiards club around the corner. But Fat Cat wasn’t his place. And it wasn’t all about jazz. It wasn’t the same. If Mitch had heard me, he didn’t show it.

Farewells are never easy, even when you have the chance to say them.

I turned and walked off into the rainy night.

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