Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Karaoke Chronicles: "The Best I Ever Had"

Ever since my passion for karaoke began, I've wondered why I can't karaoke during the daytime. Of course, nighttime's cover of darkness lowers inhibitions a bit, particularly since the booze flows more freely when the sun sets, but what about those of us that don't need alcohol or nocturnal subterfuge? What about those of us that just want to squeeze in our fifteen minutes of fame during our lunch hour? I'm aware that many (traditionally Asian) karaoke venues offer rooms for rent, but these places are most exclusively for groups or private parties, so . . . What of the the traveling man? The desperado? The ones that don't want the sun to go down on them?

So, you can imagine my delight when I investigated karaoke venues in San Francisco prior to the Alternative Press Expo last year and discovered The Mint Karaoke Lounge, a bar that opens at noon and starts karaoke as early as 4 p.m., which, though not lunchtime, is the earliest I've ever found karaoke accessible to a general audience. I arrived in San Francisco and found a hotel room too late to enjoy karaoke by sunlight, but my first night at the Mint was memorable nevertheless; as the name of the joint suggests, the Mint is dedicated to karaoke, and the K.J. I've experienced there, Frank, runs a very tight ship. The song selection is diverse enough, and the drinks are reasonably priced. After my interpretation of Wham's "Careless Whisper," a friendly party of lesbians welcomed me into their fold, where I spent the rest of my hazy night until that awkward stumble back to the Travelodge. The hospitality of the Mint was such a breath of fresh air (pun intended), that I vowed to return every time I'm in San Francisco.

Did I mention the comic book store across the street? 'Nuff said.

At the time, I didn't suspect that I'd be back less than a year later; my work hosted a conference in San Francisco, and I won the raffle to go. The Mint instantly came to mind and was immediately on my schedule, and this time, I was determined to sing during the daytime. The last mandatory workshop ended around 4:00 p.m., so I told my supervisor I'd return in a few hours for dinner and began my sojourn on foot. The two mile walk seemed longer than it was, since the Mint rests on the fringe of 'Cisco's Tenderloin, a quarter-square mile notorious for homelessness and prostitution. The Mint quickly became even more of a safe haven, the siren song of karaoke beckoning to me before I even strolled through the door. I was just one of less than ten patrons at 5 o'clock on a Tuesday evening, but the singing rotation was already in full swing, with Frank once again at the helm. In honor of the dusty rays of sunlight streaming in from the front door and cracks in the window blinds, I sang "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," rather well, I might add.

However, the experience achieved a spiritual status when a twentysomething guy sang Vertical Horizon's "The Best I Ever Had." The guy was black, handsome, and presumably gay, and his voice was rich with emotion and betrayed that the song had some personal significance for him. I hadn't thought much of that song since its heyday in the '90s, but suddenly the ballad became the definitive anthem for a broken heart to me -- and the Mint, the perfect place to exorcise these demons before nighttime demands that fun be had by all. In retrospect, I wish I could've thanked that guy for his well intentioned, beautifully rendered performance. Sexual orientation be damned; a broken heart feels the same kind of terrible for everyone.

After dinner, I coerced my boss and two female coworkers to return with me to the Mint. The walk was the same but also frighteningly different between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., what with that cloak of darkness I eluded to earlier; we saw the same riffraff I'd encountered at dusk, but now emboldened by shadow. Thankfully, strength in numbers prevailed and instilled a sense that we'd be laughing about our self-imposed feelings of peril later. The four hour difference also transformed the Mint from a sunset lounge to a virtual night club, especially for a Tuesday night. Now, it is in San Francisco, so we met plenty of folks that indulge in alternative lifestyles, which made my conservative supervisor squirm . . . but karaoke quickly bound everyone in the room, and even my boss sang along as gay or transgendered performers crooned some of his favorite tunes.

Our table was closest to the stage, so we often chatted with the performers before, after, and sometimes even during their songs -- and, in one case, when some drunks were butchering one of my favorite '80s hits, The Outfield's "Your Love," I loudly tried to help them mend it and was pulled onstage. Unfortunately, by then, the damage was done; the song was over and very few of its lyrics were sung correctly, which is a shame, but the performers weren't done with me . . . at least not the drunken third wheel, whose sickeningly sweet perfume filled my nostrils when she leaned in to ask if my red hair was real, or if I was Irish or Scottish, or something. Needless to say, I could've gotten lucky and added another aspect to my experience at the Mint, but as I explained to my boss, my first love there is the karaoke . . . and, as I learned from that guy's Vertical Horizon performance, who really needs another broken heart?

That night, when I'd left the Mint before dinner time, the bartender Tiffany (who I'd met my first time there some months earlier) waved good-bye to me and called me by name, and, bathed in sunlight and knowing I'd drag my coworkers in some hours later, I replied assuredly that I'd be back. That's a perpetual promise. I've been to plenty of karaoke joints before and since, and I have plenty of favorite venues and K.J.'s, but when it comes to the Mint? It's only the best I ever had.

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