We pulled into downtown not long after that.
Okay, in case you are thinking the words “downtown” and “New Jersey suburbs” don’t go together, let me assure you, they do. Most people have the image of the Jersey ‘burbs being all these half and one-acre plots with ticky-tacky houses all over them. That’s true, but most of the towns still have (or had) a “downtown” commercial street, a “main street,” that was NOT the strip malls on the highway. There was usually a jewelry store, video rental place, pizza shop, card store, shoe store… usually mom and pop places unless there was a Dairy Queen or something. The retail chains were in the malls. The towns that were a little bit bigger might have a record store and a bookstore or two. Some of the small downtowns had only single-story buildings. The slightly older ones usually had at least one block, though, where the buildings were two stories. Maybe near the train station if they had one.
Madison’s was in one of those old blocks, with the stone storefronts built before 1900. Downstairs had been a red-checked tablecloth Italian place, while Madison’s had been upstairs. That had worked out pretty well since around the time the restaurant was closing down, Maddie’s would start to pick up. Everything else on the street would be closed by the time the music would start so there were never noise complaints. They had live music five nights a week.
Driving to Madison’s, though, meant driving past the block where the shoe store had been. I can’t say I was surprised to see it had been turned into a sporting goods store. Baskin Robbins ice cream was still there. The one-hour photo was gone, replaced with a hair salon. The hole in the wall Chinese take-out place had changed names, but otherwise looked unchanged. I hadn’t even noticed no one was saying anything. I was just staring out the window.
Ziggy nudged me on the shoulder and then I told them everything that was different. J. pulled the car into the municipal parking lot and we got out to walk the last block, since there were only a few spaces in the service alley in the back. I remember load in and load out being a real bitch with the stairs there.
Before we got to Maddie’s though, we paused in front of the musical instrument shop. The display window looked like it probably had the same dusty instruments, a trumpet, trombone, and classical guitar, along with a couple of music stands and some sheet music, as it had ten years ago. When was the last time I was here? I’d left in 1985. But I hadn’t set foot in this place for years before that.
“I used to work here,” I said.
“No kidding.” Ziggy peered into the window. “Wait, this is the place where you worked to pay off the guitar?”
“Where the guitar teacher was a jealous old fuck?”
“I told you about him?”
“Yeah. Not in so many words, but, you know.” Ziggy shrugged.
I touched the glass with my fingertips. “Yeah, anyway.” I turned up the street.
Another half block, and there we were. The sign was new, aluminum letters with the lights behind them so “MADISON’S” glowed all around the edges. The Italian place was gone and it looked like Maddie’s had taken over the first floor, too. At first I thought that was good. Then I realized upstairs was dark.
We pushed open the door and a smiley, scrubbed-looking sort of hostess girl asked if we wanted a table or to sit at the bar. There looked to be about twenty people scattered around the place.
“When did it change?” I asked her, which probably sounded like nonsense.
“Excuse me?” She picked up three laminated drink menus eagerly. “The last set of karaoke starts in a few minutes, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Karaoke. Holy shit.
J. to the rescue. He was the professional question-asker, after all. “You used to have live music here. Do you still?”
“Oh, since the renovation we’ve only got that tiny stage. We have a comedy open mic night, karaoke twice a week…”
I tuned out for a moment, looking at the so-called stage, which was about eight inches off the floor and triangular, wedged into the front corner opposite us.
“…upstairs is for private party rentals,” she was saying, the next time I tuned in.
“Could we go up and take a look?” J asked.
“Oh, sure, come on, I’ll give you the grand tour,” she said.
We followed her to the back and up a flight of stairs. Was this the same stairs? I wasn’t sure.
Upstairs was one fairly large room, currently set with long rectangular tables.
“The local First Parish has been using this for their Bingo Night ever since their basement flooded,” she explained. “They’ll be moving back in there in a couple of weeks.”
I walked to the windows, which were now all clean and functional. “Half of these, all the ones closest to the stage, used to be blocked up with insulation,” I said, pointing. “The stage was there. It was a weird height, not as tall as a regular stage. I think Maddie built it himself based on the clearance to the ceiling, not the distance from the floor.”
They followed me as I did a circuit of the room. “And the bar was all along here, with a crappy TV up in that corner. The TV was so old it had no remote, so you had to climb up on a ladder to turn it on and off, which no one ever bothered to do, so it stayed on all night, every night, after closing.”
J. turned to her. “Is Maddie still around?”
“The previous owner, you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only been working here since summer started. Jake the bartender probably knows, though?”
There wasn’t anything else up there I needed to see. I led the group back down the stairs, and the hostess left us at the bar. The guy running the karaoke night was making some kind of announcements and he had no idea how to hold a microphone so he was both overly loud and unintelligible.
I did make out over the din, though, what Jake said about Maddie. Sold the place and retired to Florida. Okay. Good for him. I was afraid they were going to say he’d keeled over from liver failure or something.
I said as much. Later. Right then, I wanted to get out of there.
Ziggy took hold of my sleeve. “Let’s do a song.”
“You’re nuts. Do you hear what it sounds like in here?”
“Come on, Daron. It’ll be fun. Okay fine, I’ll do a song. One song, and then we’ll leave.”
Jake was trying to get our attention at that point. J. explained. “There’s apparently a one-drink minimum.”
“Okay, one song, one drink?” Ziggy pleaded.
“Great! Get me a Shirley Temple.”
Before I could say anything else, he was on his way to the “stage.” I turned to the bartender, ordered the Shirley Temple for Ziggy, a root beer for myself, and whatever J. wanted.
“We don’t have root beer,” Jake said.
“What do you mean?” I shook my head. Of course the menu had changed. “Fine. Bourbon, a shot.” He put it on the bar and I knocked it back, while J. took something on draught. The Shirley Temple sat there looking pink.
J. nudged me to turn around.
Ziggy had commandeered the microphone and the stage. There were two cans blinding him right in the eyes, one white, one covered with a blue gel. Ziggy had his usual post-show face on, which was to say his lipstick was gone and he had those sort of arty raccoon eyes only he could pull off. “Maestro please,” he said to the guy running the karaoke machine from the table next to the window.
Later, reports would surface that he sang “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker. They’re wrong. He sang “Real Love” by Jody Watley. He didn’t sound remotely like Jody Watley though. And you know what? It doesn’t matter what song he did. He set that fucking place on fire and that’s all that matters.