One of the most legendary of late night performance venues in New York is a local haunt in Alphabet City called Sidewalk Café. I would do the excruciatingly long open mics here when I first moved to Manhattan, in a borderline deranged string of months (years) of doing 3-4 spots a night around the city to work on new material. I sat for 8 hours one night to get on stage for 4 minutes. At one point Sophie joined me in waiting, but got up earlier (it was a bucket lottery) to play a few songs, before wisely leaving to go to sleep. The first time I did the mic, I performed to 3 people at 4:20am. —and that wasn’t even the worst time.
Every night was a crazy mix of music, comedy, beat poetry, spoken word performances and sketch. Some of the best and worst you’ve ever seen in your life.
I’d originally heard about it when I was in my early 20’s, living in Perth and jumping around every night doing shows. One of the other comedians, Josh Makinda (now a fellow-New Yorker told me about this comedian he saw on Lucky Louie named Rick Shapiro, who would do these legendary stream-of-consciousness sets at places like the Sidewalk Café.
My neighbour, the late John Farris, was a regular at the Sidewalk and Nuyorican cafés, performing his poetry.
Sidewalk opened in the corner spot in 1985 ... eventually expanding to the space next door when Sophie's relocated to its current home on Fifth Street. By the time I’d arrived in New York, it had just been renovated (in 2011), so it wasn’t quite as dingy as it once was, but it wasn’t pretty. I nursed many a hangover there in the late mornings of 2014.
I’m not one to bemoan the closure of an open mic, but I don’t know what hit me in the guts about this particular closure —one among a vast slew of other major closures in Alphabet City over the last 5 years.
Restaurants open and close in New York all the time, of course, but places that welcome performances by amateur musicians as the center of their businesses have become a rarity in Manhattan, and throughout the five boroughs. Sometimes it feels like we’ve entered a place in entertainment where acts arrive on the scene fully formed.
Sidewalk was a quintessential New York City business because it was always there. That might sound like a slight, but think of all the things — and people — that come and go in New York. To live in this city for any real period of time is to feel bereaved at every corner, all of the time. We grieve for the friends that move to L.A., the places that close because the rent is too high or the guests are too few, and for the people we were when we first arrived.