"This reminds me of New Jersey," a friend observes, surveying the scene at the Ivory Room Piano Bar, 116 W. Mifflin St. And when I say "observes," I mean "screams into my ear," because the music is cranked to ear-splitting decibels.
It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, just like the Billy Joel song says, and the room is wall-to-wall with popped collars and Aqua Net. A man old enough to be my father leans into my friend's face and purrs, "Your glasses make you look sexy." And by "purrs," I mean "screams into her ear."
This evening's accompaniment is by Anthony and Leslie Cao, an adorable duo who play the Ivory Room every Saturday from 9 p.m. until close. The crowd is oppressive, demanding and mostly drunk. Someone bellows a request, then bellows it again. "You'll quickly learn," Leslie snaps into the mike, "that's the quickest way to not get your song played."
She's phoning it in anyway, squinting at a laptop screen and scrolling as she absentmindedly belts a Blessid Union of Souls tune from 1995. But even phoning it in, her voice is as clear and strong as you'll find in this city, a versatile croon that switches from Coolio to Alanis Morissette to a jazz version of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," all without missing a note. Anthony's piano work is similarly effortless. Many times he turns to dig something out of his bag while still playing with one hand.
The bar is small and pleasantly dark, lit only by fairy lights and lanterns. The drink of the night is a sickly sweet vodka-lemonade I can't choke down, but my friends fare better with full-price martinis from the menu.
"Friday's more of a 40s crowd," a regular tells me, referring to the age of the patrons. "Saturday starts about there, but as the night goes on, it gets younger."
She isn't kidding. Around 11:30, a pack of kids drunkenly stumble in, the girls in dresses I would have classified as shirts, barely concealing spray-tanned legs, pipe-cleaner thin, like a flock of gulls scuttling across the beach. The boys have loosened ties and enough hair gel to coat the Gulf of Mexico in a thin, oily sheen. "Do you think prom just let out?" someone asks. They get halfway in the room, look around, and leave.
I'm bored and have abandoned my drink. It's too loud, too crowded, and I don't know half the songs. I'm about to give up entirely.
Then something strange happens.
They play Mariah Carey.
The song is "Always Be My Baby," a chart-topper released when I was 12 years old. I remember playing this song over and over on my Sony Walkman, back when repeating a song actually meant something. You couldn't just set it to repeat; you had to actually rewind. I'd forgotten that I knew all the words.
The bar sells T-shirts with funny slogans, and one of them says, "I went to the Ivory Room and didn't request Piano Man." I imagine that request is about as welcome as "Free Bird" at a rock show, and what a shame that it's come to this. "Piano Man" captures that desperate grasp for meaning we so often seek in the bottom of a highball glass, or the fleeting surge of joy when the singer hits that high note on the refrain. Stop. Rewind. Play. "They're sharing a drink they call loneliness," goes "Piano Man," "but it's better than drinking alone."
It's Mariah Carey's show now, and the crowd is on its feet. "Boy, don't you know you can't escape me. Ooh darling, 'cause you'll always be my baby." Sober and sing-screaming, with a fleeting surge of joy, I'm swaying with the crowd, bonding with the blonde bouffant to my left and, for a moment, the faded beauty queen beneath it.