Greenwich Village , New York City, NY,,,Pandemics be damned, I remain convinced we will not be stonewalled by COVID-19. There should be no better way to broadcast this conviction than venturing to ground zero, New York City, where we continue the pursuit of US National Monuments by dropping in on Stonewall National Monument. At this memorial in Greenwich Village, travel would educate me before, during and after.
The before would consist of learning about an event which I was sadly unaware of. Stonewall was a gay bar in Greenwich Village that was regularly raided by the police during the sixties, when homosexuals were not allowed to be served alcohol – the New York Liquor Authority judged them “disorderly”. But things went awry early on the morning of June 28th, 1969. A squad from the New York City Vice Squad Public Morals Division entered the bar and made arrests, but paddy wagons to remove detainees did not appear promptly. The delay permitted a crowd to gather outside and a series of minor physical contacts eventually exploded, requiring a major contingent of police rushing to the scene and quell an uprising. A series of public protests ensued, with Stonewall triggering organization of the gay rights movement.
One goal of placing a site on the register of National Monuments is to publicize it, and perhaps that is what prompted President Obama to do so in 2016. This is the first and quite possibly the only public recognition of LGBT rights in America. There is no counting the number of times previous references to Stonewall flew over my head and perhaps I should be ashamed, but a goal of pursuing National Monuments was to combat ignorance. I share with satisfaction being able to acknowledge no less than three references to Stonewall since becoming aware of its import!
For the most part, Stonewall National Monument has commandeered Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, a small, but lovely green patch just across the street from Stonewall Inn. Several plaques and statues have been placed here, offering a sober reminder of the struggle for equal rights. We stopped by on a rainy day, though downpours ceased once we landed to permit a leisurely exploration. There is no charge and the park is petite, so a quick visit unless you care to pause and savor the peace here.
The main purpose of this trip to NYC was introducing my adult children to the big city. What stupefies me is that Stonewall is immediately around the corner from an old haunt I wanted to show them…and it is also a gay bar! Marie’s Crisis is far removed from Broadway, but a wonderful destination for devotees of show tunes. Little more than a basement bar with a piano crammed in, folks congregate here to request favorites and sing along with other patrons. The rotating slate of pianists are talented, humorous, and know their stuff. Having attracted enthusiasts for a very long time, the magic ingredient is how many Broadway performers drop in. The piano players generally recognize professionals and will ask them to solo, always a magnificent bonus.
Adding to the allure is the history. The building was raised in the early 1800’s, originally for lodgers and soon thereafter a prostitute den. Next persisting as a warehouse from 1850-90, the building transitioned to a gay bar which thrived throughout Prohibition. An Austrian immigrant came along much later, Marie du Mont, who apparently amassed a small fortune peddling alcohol during Prohibition and bought the building in 1957. Marie, reputed to be a great singer, initiated the ritual of focusing on show tunes here. She also contributed the establishment’s current name.
The first part is obvious, but among the building’s original tenants was none other than Thomas Paine, the political activist who’s ‘Common Sense’ helped foment the American Revolution. Paine, who passed away here, also authored an acclaimed series during the Revolutionary titled the “American Crisis”. Marie coupled her name with Paine to yield Marie’s Crisis and a legend was born.
Before COVID-19, Marie’s Crisis had become a show tune nirvana and should life ever return to the familiar, I recommend a visit. The atmosphere allows you to tap into a pure NYC vibe, but please do not expect frills. Bar service is basic: cash only, just two different beer selections (in bottles) and standard drinks. Nothing more than a handful of seats, all perched around the piano. The décor is a handful of Christmas lights strung about, portraits of divas plastered on the walls, but a masterful collection of battle scenes from the French and American Revolutions hangs behind the bar (apparently rendered during the Great Depression in the 1930’s from a Works Progress Administration initiative to maintain the arts).
It is always a glorious evening here. The fun for me was getting to appreciate how many show tunes my children knew – I was very surprised! Knowing their old man listens to plenty of music, I was challenged to stump the piano player with a request. I am very happy to report that my petition for “Don’t Tamper with my Sister” from ‘On a Clear Day’ is not only a tune I like, but also one which the pianist did not know.
The kids clearly developed an affinity for Greenwich Village: our itinerary for the following day was places off the beaten track in the Lower East Side (please stay tuned), a neighborhood close enough to Greenwich that they begged a return. One of their motivations was to stop at an ice cream parlor we walked past the day before. Big Gay Ice Cream, the appropriately named confectioner near Stonewall, was doing brisk business and though I did not indulge, their sweet treats got thumbs up from the younger generation.
Composing this piece in May, 2020 during COVID-19 lockdown, I am compelled to conclude by sharing the inspiring follow up after the trip was done. Marie’s Crisis is one of untold premises closed, but their creativity cannot be stifled. Even though the bar is empty, the troupe of house pianists keeps show tunes coming by performing live through a Facebook Group. What had been a private group is now open and I encourage you to join the group and sit in on one of these sessions. The performances are great fun, interactive as the pianists respond to constant chat messages from folks requesting favorites and contributing humorous remarks. Performers may be tipped through Venmo or PayPal, a terrific way to keep the arts alive by offering a virtual solution to social distancing.
Although it remains too soon to guess what travel will be like once the COVID-19 beast is conquered, I plan on remaining hopeful we emerge without too many restrictions. What a shame it would be to forfeit opportunities of learning about things like equal rights struggles. What a shame it would be to forfeit opportunities of interacting with our neighbors; regardless of gender, race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. Until the brave new world reveals itself, please continue to learn about our world and interact virtually with others. You be rewarded by richer experiences when we may once again embrace these wonderful opportunities.