Switching on My Lights
It wasn’t quite Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas, Solstice or any winter celebration yet, but the karaoke crew was singing the songs of the season. There was an Elvis impersonator, all in black, with fuzzy dark L-shaped sideburns, who, appropriately, sang “Blue Christmas” in a very decent deep voice.
My sweetheart’s beloved dad had just died, much too young, and we were in his coastal Florida town where she’d arranged a memorial service. She was holding herself together with baling wire and a piece of pink ribbon that came on a sympathy basket.
The plan was to get together for dinner with family, but preparations took so long we arrived in town late and the family was ready only for slumber. We had a choice between keeping everyone awake while we ate the family’s traditional Christmas Spaghetti, or letting them crash for the night and finding some late night joint on our own.
The cheap motel we were at boasted a little place called Jinnie’s Grille. It looked, through the glass door, dark and closed. That was my mood: dark and closed. Besides my father-in-law’s passing, big changes, albeit good ones, were looming in our lives.
Inside, Jinnie’s was dark, but definitely open. We sat at the bar and ordered from the minimal menu. That didn’t matter, it suited my mood of emotional numbness. I’d planned a day of writing, but hadn’t found the creative spark I needed.
Who wouldn’t be depressed? I hardly knew my sweetheart’s dad but he never expressed a qualm when my sweetheart told him who she’d fallen in love with. He welcomed me to the family like I was Prince Charming come on my white horse to bring his daughter all the happiness he could wish for her. He walked her down the aisle to me.
Each holiday we spent with him, it was the same. He was charming and gracious and embraced me literally and figuratively. Now he wouldn’t be with us anymore. It’s a comfort to know that he was pleased his three daughters were settled, happy and fulfilled. He could enter the afterlife and report to my sweetheart’s mom that he’d stayed until the last of their chicks was safe in her own nest.
So there we were, at Jinnie’s gloomy Grille, my sweetheart devastated but not letting it show, and me glum as a grinch on the barstool beside her, no help at all. When the karaoke music started, loud enough to fill Yankee Stadium, I winced, cringed, was ready to flee.
My sweetheart was nonplussed by this surprise. With a smile, she whispered, “Everyone’s old in Florida.”
I looked around. Certainly, everyone was old at Jinnie’s, including the lone barmaid/waitress, who served dinners and drinks at the pace of a twenty-year old.
“This place is incredible,” my sweetheart said.
Without hope of incredulity on my part, I lifted my eyes to the singer, a woman who looked, under her makeup and fancy silver dress, to be in her sadly shriveled dotage. She sang an oldie – they all did – but with a voice so full-toned and professional, I had to look up again.
As I did, my eye was caught by the web of white lights strung along the walls. They sparkled in the gloom. Then I saw the framed pictures: Frank Sinatra, theater posters from the forties and fifties, quaint old liquor ads. Jinnie, whoever she was, had decorated with pre-boomer nostalgia. The karaoke singers were singing the tunes of that era. A big guy with a gut got up and belted out a lively Santa song. Someone else offered more traditional Christmas music. They were backed by recordings of big bands, swing era style.
“Hey,” I said, “this place reminds me of the basement rec room bars my parents’ friends built.” They were the hits of their times. Dark paneled walls. Short bars that were otherwise exact replicas of the places the veterans frequented during R&R.
“You could write stories about this place,” said my sweetheart.
And suddenly I was. This was what the holidays were like for old Floridians. I realized that the long table over on the side was filled with an informal karaoke club. One by one the singers performed and returned to the tables, or to tables of two or four, or to the bar, for hugs and hurrahs. They did this once a week or once a month, and prepared in between.
At the holidays they gathered and celebrated in song, lonesome strangers in this big gloomy world who found one another at Jillie’s and formed a karaoke family.
My mood turned cheerful and loving. My sweetheart had, once again, switched on my lights. I wanted to write about the one single woman at the bar, the short-haired one who was dressed in professional businesswoman clothes. A black dress, a red jacket, silver hair. Who answered everyone who greeted her with the words, “I’ve been traveling. And,” she added in a quieter voice, “traveling.” Her sigh wasn’t audible, but it was Florida-dive loud in the droop of her shoulders. Even she, older but not retired, separate but known at Jinnie’s, was drawn to the flame of this air-conditioned Florida dive.
It was a strange, unexpected refuge in an unutterably sad time for my sweetheart and me. Holiday lights in a bar. Happy songs of celebration rising with glasses of spirits. People like us refusing darkness, reviving light.