THIS IS ONE OF 20 RANDOM LITTLE STORIES I’M POSTING IN ADVANCE OF MY 20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY IN NEW YORK CITY, WHICH WILL HIT IN THE FALL OF 2013. CLICK HERE FOR MORE BACKGROUND, AND FEEL FREE TO SHARE YOUR OWN STORIES IN THE COMMENTS – RANDOMER THE BETTER!
The dusty black drapes were there to block the light spill from the windows, but also to hide the unpainted, patchy walls and random stacks of furniture. Surf Reality was one of a constellation of tiny theaters on the Lower East Side in the 90s, and my favorite of them all. It was comfortable and the owners were shockingly friendly. More importantly though, every Sunday Surf Reality hosted Faceboyz Open Mic: a perfectly random lineup of live acts that was picked out of a hat two minutes before curtain. I only went a few times, but I saw standups, poets, musicians, schizophrenic monologists, and – once – a middle-aged guy who told us about a failed romance and then improvised a dance to Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine. It was the first time I heard the song, and his dance was beautiful.
Faceboyz Open Mic wasn’t a ‘scene’. The house was reliably packed every week but there was never a line to get in. Each act got 8 minutes on stage, and the performances were sincere, sometimes painfully earnest or just painful. The whole point – the joy – was not knowing what to expect. No one was looking to get famous; there was little chance of that anyway. People came to listen, to watch, and the watchword was respect. Faceboy was a generous host, with something positive to say about every act.
This is not a “New York ain’t what it used to be” story. I know there are still pockets of the city where people shed cynicism and artifice in favor of connection and generosity. But Faceboyz Open Mic was undoubtedly a product of its time – I don’t think it would survive today. A forum with so few rules would never attract consistent enough talent to build a following; Faceboy wasn’t interested in cultivating consistency, and he would probably reject the standard definition of ‘talent’ anyway. The open mic existed because performance space on the Lower East Side was (relatively) inexpensive, and because the community it gave rise to welcomed a full spectrum of creative expression to the stage. It was a safe place to be raw and honest and unexpected – that was its brilliance. Faceboyz Open Mic ran for an unbelievable 13 years, from 1994 until 2007. Though it’s probably better for a show like that to close rather than risk irrelevance or death by overexposure, I miss it, and I’ve been looking for its equal ever since.