Karaoke Fever at Spectrum

by

06/10/2004

802 64th Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

Auggie works in a nightclub called Spectrum, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, made famous in the film Saturday Night Fever. Since the days Tony Manero strode across the lit floor in his white suit, the club converted into a gay club, and changed its original name. It’s been Spectrum ever since.

Saturday nights at Spectrum are go-go boy dance parties. Feverish, tight-shirted gay men, mullet-clad lesbians and some straight couples, pack onto that famous floor. The flashing lights are distorted by their forms. Techno blares from body-sized amps on all sides. The disco ball dangles over the center of the floor. Nothing escapes its smattering of flexible circles of light. The flashing surface of the crowd of heads forms a rhythmic, waving sea.

But Auggie works on Fridays, and things are different on Fridays.

Each Friday, Auggie goes to work at 9am, to a computer job. He is a computer guy. He is also a professional singer. He leaves his day job at 5pm and heads over to Mambo’s, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, where he sings for three hours, from 6pm-9pm. He then rushes from Mambo’s to be at Spectrum by 9:30pm. He has done this every night for the past three years, without missing a day or even being late.

There is no need for Auggie to hurry, because the bar is empty at 9:30pm. The checkered wood bowls are overflowing with pretzels, and the bartender leans forward on his elbows to speak to two men who possess the easy quality of managers, or owners, during an off-peak time. Auggie and these men rarely speak. They call out a joke or two, and Auggie laughs, but mostly he’s consumed with unwinding cords, flipping switches, inserting and ejecting tape cassettes and CDs. He says testing into the microphone.

Auggie’s system cost him five thousand dollars. He refers to it as phenomenal, and he does not appreciate when people do not respect it. His pet peeve is when customers cradle the very top of the microphone with their hands. This produces an echo chamber that results in a phenomenal amount of feedback, disabling the system. He also hates when people scream into the microphone. In his black pants, pointy black dress shoes, button-down shirt and gold chain, Auggie eagerly awaits customers near the opening of the room, where it is brighter. The closer to the back wall of the bar, the darker things get.

Meanwhile, the dance floor is in the other room, popping colors at nobody. The DJ is slumped on a stool behind his equipment, fingering his CDs, eyes cast downward in concentration. Up the narrow hall, next to the door, the bouncer sits on a bench. The cuffs of his bloated, black jacket reveal hands patiently folded. With no crowd clamoring to get in, his largeness is ridiculous; his body overwhelms the room.

Auggie worries about the lack of customers. He used to think karaoke was a dying art form. “But in the past couple months,” he adds, “I’ve seen more places opening up for karaoke than I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Applebee’s is doing karaoke. Can you believe that?” He glances almost imperceptibly at the bar, at the door. “I just don’t know why they’re not coming here.”

By eleven, the crowd has grown, but there are still plenty of empty seats and space. People cluster around the bar, with mostly mixed drinks dotting the surface. The cranberry vodka seems most popular. The customers mainly consist of male couples, in their early thirties and forties, though there are two Hispanic women cuddling in the corner, flipping through one of the black-bound songbooks. Conversations are inaudible, private mumbles speckled with low laughter. A younger man leans against the wall, his expression detached, cool. With hands pressed behind his lower back, his eyes slowly scan the room. His dark hair is sleek and heavy with product; his shirt outlines his biceps and beginning potbelly.

On karaoke nights, Auggie thinks in white paper song slips. Stacks of slips can be found every third seat at the bar, along with a binder. One can also obtain a slip directly from Auggie. Each 2” X 4” square provides blanks for names and song numbers. Auggie uses these to craft the mood of the entire evening. The biggest problem for Auggie arises when customers continue to choose depressing songs. He has to do some quick thinking: “If I have 10 slips, and 5 are happy and 5 are sad, I mix them—happy, sad, happy, sad, or sad, sad, happy, sad, sad, sad.” He also has music video DVDs of cheerful, romantic songs accompanied by cheerful, romantic images, such as couples horseback riding or couples staring at the ocean, to break up the monotony. According to Auggie, this is one of the special services he supplies that other karaoke jockeys (KJs as they are referred to in the business) do not.

One of Auggie’s regulars refuses to complete slips—disrupting Auggie’s sense of order. This customer sits next to Auggie, and produces a chorus of “When am I up? When am I up?” Auggie forgets him, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not, and the man gets angry. Auggie says he knows this man well enough now that he can command him to complete a slip. The man storms off, but minutes later, he obeys Auggie, and slinks back to his spot on the slouching burgundy couch up front.

The singers’ choices are diverse; they include everything from Dean Martin to Christina Aguilera. But there is an undeniable predilection for showtunes and Streisand that even Auggie will admit to. When he has visited other karaoke clubs in Brooklyn, particularly within the notoriously working-class Bay Ridge, he always felt limited, as a male singer, to Johnny Cash or Led Zeppelin. He would even dress differently at these places, switching to jeans and a tee shirt. He was not himself. Because Spectrum is a gay club, he says, men can sing women’s songs and women can sing men’s songs and nobody cares. Auggie feels free here. He dresses the way he wants to and sings what he pleases.

Though Auggie will not reveal who it is that annoys him, one might guess that it is Howie, a tiny man in his thirties, who wears a red flannel shirt and jeans. Howie remains up front with Auggie. He does not complete slips. He is by himself. He says hello to the man at the bar, and to Auggie and to a few others who are clearly regulars. As others sing, he smiles serenely, watching.

When Auggie introduces Howie, his voice assumes the deep, professional quality of a television weatherman. He overpronounces his words. Upon hearing his name, Howie puts his hand to his mouth, feigns disbelief, then laughs good-naturedly. The people in the room clearly recognize him, and return his chuckle. The stage is a square of carpet illuminated in white light. Suspended above the bar, roughly fifteen feet from the stage, is the monitor, a television anchored t Saturday 1:16:48 PM 6/12/2004o the wall with thick bolts. “’Half-breed’ by Cher” appears on the screen, in yellow block letters that disrupt the simple blue background. Howie closes his eyes and sways his head as he sings. He pushes invisible, Cher-length hair to the side, away from his face, in a natural way, as if he’s carried hair that long his entire life. His imitation is subtle, sincere. He does not sound like Cher, but he is trying very hard; he sings with authority, imitating every fluctuation of the original. When his song is over, he lingers on the stage and waits for the scattered clapping to cease before resuming his position next to Auggie.

There happens to be a drag queen show tonight, in the dance room, and at midnight, usually the peak time for Auggie, the room clears, and Auggie resorts to one of his cheerful DVDs. The dance floor is only moderately congested, and the karaoke crowd is a negligible addition. Auggie sits on his couch in the other room, with Howie. He waits for his people to return. Thirty minutes pass. An hour. Most of them never do.

When Auggie first introduced karaoke to Spectrum, he says that there were only two people in the bar. Within the first sixth months, he had the place packed. But then they dwindled away. Auggie thinks it is picking up again now, mostly because of his tremendous amount of energy. Aside from his system, his DVDs and his music (the best around, in his experience), Auggie will sometimes host free raffles, for tee shirts and CDs. He also keeps ten blank tapes close at hand, and will occasionally record a singer, and surprise them with the cassette when they are finished. Auggie doesn’t profit; he mostly just breaks even. But he doesn’t mind. His hobby gives him a chance to share his voice, to help others share theirs.

Auggie occasionally allows Howie to perform in special Cher-only karaoke nights. There is a photograph of Howie on Auggie’s website. Howie does not look like the man he once was—his skin has been smoothed into porcelain. His eyes are made heavy with thick, dark lashes. His lipstick is rose-colored and perfectly applied. On Cher night, Howie will not need to wave invisible hair; he has a wig, black, shiny and ample.

Though Auggie worries about the future popularity of his karaoke show, he is satisfied for right now. He believes in the release of karaoke, that it is an art form in itself. “There are artists out there who didn’t do the right thing, meet the right people, who weren’t in the right place at the right time.” Auggie believes he is one of these artists. “Myself, I get it all the time. When I work at the restaurant, I hear the same thing every night. You could be on Broadway. What are you doing here?” Auggie pauses and leans forward slightly, as if he’s telling a secret. “Well, I’ve found my own little corner of success. I have a day job, I’m enjoying myself. I’m better off.”

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