July 16, 2007

Oops, a Memory:

The weeks before the Iraq war began were restless ones; everyone in New York City seemed to be shuddering in paroxysms of optimism, outrage, or hopelessness. Up until the very moment that the announcement was made that the war was underway, it still seemed possible for us to wake up, stretch, and chalk our bad dreams up to indigestion.

Megan had booked her flight many weeks in advance, not intending to visit the anthill right as the flood hit, but finding herself nervously here nonetheless. Everywhere we walked, there was shouting. Every corner had its prophet, every park had its encampment of protestors, and every action had its equal and opposite reaction-- the strain of 9/11 had turned many everyday citizens into hair-trigger headcases ready to flip out and hurt someone, anyone, many someones if necessary, if the tone of the political discourse in their immediate surroundings was not to their liking. I don't remember the early spring weather; I remember the hundreds of police officers I saw every day, the constant volley of sirens that made sidewalk phone calls impossible, and the television screens in every store and restaurant showing the same handful of maps and video clips over and over again. Depending on what a person hoped to find here, it was both the best and worst possible time to be a tourist.

By Wednesday, March 19th, the city slipped into a quiet funk, waiting for the announcement that was rumored to be coming that night. I decided to take Megan to Saint Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam, knowing that an open-mic night was practically the only place where people would be talking as hard as they were drinking. Reverend Jen is your basic Lower East Side icon and cultural benefactress; her Anti-Slam and her Troll Museum are just two of the services she provides as a self-styled "sex symbol for the insane" and "patron saint of the downtrodden and tired". Anyone who wanted six minutes of stage time had but to show up, pay three dollars, wait patiently, and BYOB in order to make their sweaty, faded Art Star dreams come true.

It was a gamble as far as entertaining out-of-town guests went; some of the most incendiary acts I've ever seen took place in that dark, beer-drenched room, but sometimes whole evenings' worth of performances tested one's endurance until it seemed impossible how long six minutes lasted. Sketches, songs, burlesque, stand-up, monologues, paranoid rants, often people just reading straight out of their journals. The audience was supportive as a matter of policy; every act, no matter what it was, rated an enthusiastic "10".

The mood was dark that night, with almost everyone using their six minutes to weigh in on the inevitability of war, the nonexistence of weapons of mass-destruction in Iraq, and the exploitation of our city: our long, narrow island had become a lever planted just below the heart of the nation, and from where they stood our leaders could use it to move the world. There were cynical laughs, there were a few tears. Just before ten PM, word from the street drifted in that the announcement had been made, that there were explosions over Baghdad, and all hopes for an emergency enlightenment were in vain. The laughs grew queasier, but no one could bear to leave. We were a captive audience, a vigil, and a bunker that night, waiting to see what would happen next.

The answer blew in from the street right in the middle of someone's six minutes. I turned to see a hulking figure in rags pushing into the crowded foyer, holding an immense boom-box on his shoulder. His face was almost completely obscured beneath greasy hair, dirt, and thick, smeared glasses. I thought he must have wandered in accidentally as people commonly do, curious about the applause that was audible from the sidewalk. However, Reverend Jen brightened visibly at the sight of him, and broke protocol by immediately ushering him to the stage ahead of whoever was still on the list. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm delighted to introduce a surprise guest star and my personal hero, Saint Brad Prowley!"

The awe in her voice was unprecedented, and we stared as the apparently-homeless and confused-looking Mr. Prowley stood there blinking back at us. Then, with a single press of a button, he came to life. Familiar music began to spray out of his stereo, and before we quite knew what was happening, he was belting "Let's Get It On" with a passion that Marvin himself would have admired. The audience went mad for it, screaming like teenagers.

"We're all sensitive people
With so much to give
Understand me, sugar
Since we got to be
Let's live
I love you"

With the ease of a toilet being flushed, the room was washed clean of its rancid depression and refugee-camp atmosphere. Somewhere in another hemisphere there were bombs being detonated "strategically" over civilian targets, and there was nothing we could do about it now, at 11 PM on a weeknight, but scream and sway and laugh our asses off and Get It On. The only time Prowley seemed to acknowledge the audience's presence was when he paused long enough to answer a chorus of screams with a defiant, basso profundo belch straight into the microphone: Let's see Marvin Gaye play that to the Apollo crowd.

After one more quick song, some sweet John Lennon tune, Saint Brad Prowley hurried out the front door as suddenly as he'd arrived, not having spoken a single word. Meg and I intuited that we had reached the closest thing the evening would provide to a climax, so we took a powder, still living comfortably in that moment. It turns out we were about to re-live it: Prowley had set up camp on the curb in front of the Bereket Turkish Kebab House, singing wide and loud into the street with stereo blazing as some stopped to stare and even more to dance. Tomorrow belonged to surges of protest in which cops braved rain to grind college students' faces into asphalt, to the trading of our confidence as a nation of free people for bitterness and paranoia that would last for years to come, though we didn't know either at the time. We joined the dancing crowd for his entire rendition of "Kung Fu Fighting," making the only magic that wins wars.

More Brad Prowley...

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