April 18, 2015.
Bryan Stephens, leader of the Cafe Wha? House Band with vocalist Mike Davis (left) and guitarist Amadou Gaye (right). Photo courtesy of Cafe Wha?
The Cafe Wha? House Band bills itself as “The Best Damn Band in New York City.” I wouldn't know. I’m just a tourist. From what I heard last night, for a band to be better, they’d have to be the second coming of the Asbury Jukes. They'd have to be the Asbury Jukes. The music ranged across eras and styles, mixing rock, funk, blues, soul, salsa, and pop standards with recent hits, band members taking turns fronting mostly covers but covers that to me often sounded better than the originals. It'd be blasphemy to suggest band leader Bryan Stephens' rendition of “Solsbury Hill” was at least as good as Peter Gabriel's original so let's pretend I'm not suggesting it. But after hearing his “Take Me to Church” I'm thinking who needs Hozier and his and Kim Summerson's duet on “Need You Now” killed me deader than any other version has killed me and I'm routinely killed by Adele's own duet with Darius Rucker.
Like all good bar bands, they want the crowd up and dancing. A good third a third of the crowd was happy to oblige. More might have joined in but there wasn't room. There's no dance floor. You want to dance you do it in the one aisle between the booths against the wall and the tables in front of the stage. That means you do it in a long double file line with other customers coming and going and the waiters and waitresses trying to get by with trays of drinks and food. Last night's crowd was mostly twenty and thirty-somethings with more than a few people in their forties and just enough geezers scattered here and there---including a boothful celebrating the birthday of the most geezerish member of their party---that the forty-somethings could relievedly observe to each other they weren't the oldest people in the joint. But it looked like only twenty-somethings got up to dance and all of them were women. They included a contingent of six tall blondes and one short brunette we'd had to wait to be seated before we could make our way to our own booth, a fact I mention to emphasize the narrowness of the aisle as much as for the lovely imagery. The blondes and the brunette danced right in front of us, singing along with songs that were hits when their parents were in grade school. Two of the blondes were wearing 70s vintage outfits they must have scavenged from the closets of their mother's old bedrooms at their grandparents' houses. One wore a flowered peasant mini dress over mustard orange tights, the other a white peasant blouse and a filmy pair of paisley bells.
Like I said, the waiters and waitresses had to work their way through the dancers, dodging and weaving, moving as quickly as they could while being careful with their trays. Most of them went about with a mixture of amusement, resignation, and detachment, treating getting around the dancers without spilling drinks or colliding with the paying customers or each other as just part of doing their jobs. A few seemed to think it was a fun and interesting challenge and a couple moved in time to the music with their heads bobbing as if they saw themselves as part of the dance. But one appeared to be taking it personally.
The dancers were to her what traffic is to a cabbie trying to get a pregnant passenger to the hospital before she gives birth in the back seat.
While the rest of the staff went about either expressionless, as if trying to pretend the dancers weren’t there, or with weak, apologetic smiles, silently signaling how sorry they were to have to do their jobs and get in the way of the dancers’ fun, she wore a no-nonsense frown that had such seriousness of purpose and concentrated force behind that if any of the dancers had taken their eyes off the band and met her gaze it would have thrown them out of the aisles in all directions to land in heaps on the tabletops and in seated customers’ laps. She was short and shapely, not heavy but solid, very pretty despite her frown, even because of it, with lots of soft, springy black curls that had probably been neatly in place when she started her shift but were now coming loose from their clips at all points. The wait staff wears the requisite New York City black, the men in t-shirts but the women in camisole tops so there’s plenty of smooth skin and hints of cleavage on display, but on this waitress the effect was more athletic than sexy, due, I think, to the way she carried herself as she charged back and forth through the crowd. The other waiters and waitresses clearly saw it as their duty to avoid bumping into the dancers. She clearly thought it was the dancers’ job to get out of her way if they knew what was good for them and on several of her fastbreak trips by us she looked like she was ready to start throwing elbows. That was when I could actually see her as she went past. Because of how short she was she was often lost from view in the crowd and the only way I knew where she was was to follow her tray when it floated by over the heads of the dancers as she carried it straight-armed and perfectly level high above her.
One other thing to note about her.
The staff and the band at Cafe Wha? are a fairly diverse bunch, the crowd somewhat less so, but besides being all women and all very young, the dancers were all white. She was black. Which doesn’t signify in Greenwich Village the way it might in other parts of Manhattan and the boroughs. What it did was call attention to the class differences generally inherent in all interactions between people with money to spend and the people paid to serve them while they’re spending it. That is between people who are there to play and people who are there because they have to work for their living. And within this dynamic as it played out on Cafe Wha?’s dance floor, this waitress did not see it as her role to be servile. It was her job to do her job and do it right and the dancers were getting in the way of her doing it. And as far as she was concerned, since they were old enough to know better, they were doing it either because they were careless and thoughtless or because they were frivolous and oblivious. Either way, they were butterflies and she was a honeybee who wasn’t about to put up with their flightiness if it meant she couldn’t get to the flowers to do her job.
I could almost hear her saying what I’m sure she wanted to say as she bore down on yet another oblivious butterfly, “Out of my way, girl. I’ve got tips to earn.”