Carson’s is not ambitious enough to be a dive. It just lets itself go slowly downhill a little more each day, making the deterioration hardly noticeable. Still, the weekend karaoke packs people in. Some come to sing, most come to watch the spectacle. My group was more watchers than singers, but the numbers could vary with the intoxication levels.
Before I could sit down, the couple at the next table took note of my height and asked if I’d turn the ceiling fan speed down a notch. The fans in Carson’s do no more than push the cigarette smoke down upon you. As I climbed a chair to reach the fan and my head neared the ceiling, I had a sensation of what it must be like to swim underwater in an underground cavern and find a small pocket of air between water and rock where breathing is possible. The lower speed was of little help. Fearing that all the smoke might fuse my contacts to by eyeballs, I attempted to make myself cry.
At the next table over was a black man who I guessed was in late 20’s. He was sitting alone, eating dinner, and drinking nothing but water. He also wasn’t paying attention to anything around him, but was concentrating on his plate, only occasionally looking up at the stage. There was a gym bag at his feet. Before I spent much time trying to guess his story–I’d find out soon enough–my attention was drawn to a woman standing behind him.
She was facing the stage, wearing a short jacket and even shorter skirt, dancing around to the current karaoke performer, a guy who was just destroying a classic rock song. Her very red hair was styled a bit like the oompa loompas from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. At first I thought her legs were completely covered in tattoos. I squinted, trying to focus through the smoke, and realized that I was not seeing tattoos, but loud and lurid tights.
Something seemed odd about her, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was just about to let it go when she turned toward me. Make that when he turned toward me. Even though the haze there was no mistaking that this was a 50-something guy in a wig and make up to go with the mini-skirt and tights. My surprise was interrupted when the current song mercifully ended, the DJ called up the next performer, and the lonely looking black guy jumped to the stage.
He crouched down, dug into his gym bag, and pulled out sunglasses, a sequined jacket and one glove. So this is where we were headed. As the music started he began thrusting his hips to the beat of the music and twirling around in a King of Pop impersonation that was barely competent. Then he began to sing, and the god-awful voice that came from him made me long for an encore by the previous performer. I’m not sure it was a sound heard in the natural world, though it was a little like a cat being squeezed way too tightly. The song that had begun abruptly switched to another song, and I realized this was a medley. A long, horribly sung, painful medley. The man on the stage continued to squeak and spin and grab his crotch in what was quickly becoming the most horrific Michael Jackson impersonation imaginable.
I was so perplexed by what I was seeing and hearing that I barely noticed the waitress lifting her too-tight halter top to show some guys at another table her pierced nipples. Sensing my disorientation, a couple of Carson’s regulars at my table explained the Michael Jackson wanna-but-would-never-be to me. He comes to Carson’s just to perform, and is known to hit other bars on their karaoke nights, too. I tried to process this information while hearing his high-pitched howl. So this guy actually worked the local karaoke circuit to do … this? In public? Sober? As the song in the medley changed again, the man crouched quickly and urgently dug into his bag. As “Thriller” started to play, suddenly he sprung up and twirled toward the crowd with his head covered by a zombie-like Halloween mask. I could only stare, mouth agape.
As I sat there, bewildered, a short, rotund man in a baseball cap approached our table. I recognized him from the few other times I’d been inside Carson’s and thought he might be the owner or manager. He began talking to one of the people at our table, the bottle of liquor and plastic cups he was carrying clearly conveying his intention to offer shots. His lower lip was completely covered by the biggest band-aid I’d ever seen. It extended down across most of his chin. The thought of this guy working behind the bar or in the kitchen with a gaping wound lurking beneath that band-aid bothered me. I declined the shot.
A break from all this strangeness seemed in order. I finished my beer, grabbed another and got up to head toward a back door leading to a small patio. While making my way through the crowd, I looked at the stage and saw one of the biggest people I’ve ever seen hoisting himself up the step. I didn’t know clothes came in such sizes. Fitting with the oddities of the night, the voice that emerged from that mass of flesh was an incredibly sweet-sounding alto singing a somewhat sappy love song.
After a few minutes of breathing smokeless air outside, I ducked into the men’s room. While finishing my business at the urinal, the door to the stall burst open. The guy in the next urinal over exclaimed “What the hell was that?” as the man in the red wig and mini-skirt whisked out of the men’s room and straight to the stage. He followed up the enormous singer’s honey-dripped voice with vocals that were pure gravel.
Watching this man in the 80’s style, low-rent Madonna clothing choke out a truck-stop song, I realized I was at the proverbial fork in the road. One can only fight so much weirdness. It was time to either run screaming from the place or embrace it. When the man with lord knows what under that enormous band-aid came back offering another round of shots, I gladly accepted.