This is the second part in a three part series, The Karaoke Files, set in The Westgate Bar and Grill in Tacoma’s West End neighborhood. The events written about took place over ten weeks. Some names have been changed.
Sunday night, and our table of two had become a table of four. Robert, a 67 year old Vietnam veteran and the back-up dancer for Serena from my first night at the Westgate, migrated over to my friend Hillary and me from his neighboring table. The music was loud and it was hard to hear each other. Robert flipped through the song book, trying to find us a duet.
“What about Celine Dion? Mariah Carey? You look like you could sing some Mariah Carey,” he said.
“I definitely can’t sing Celine Dion, Robert. And I’m not too familiar with any Mariah Carey songs.”
“What about that song, ‘Picture’? You know- that duet with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow? I usually sing the Kid Rock parts. How ‘bout it?”
“I don’t think I know that song.” Another singer had taken the stage by then and we were drowned out by “Black Velvet.”
You could find Robert, most nights, with a lager in hand and a smile on his face. He would sing anything that you requested of him—even if he didn’t know the words—but preferred the Country standards like Larry.
Robert’s day job was as a yard professional; he mowed lawns and trimmed hedges. He spent eleven years in the Coast Guard, served in Vietnam, and said that he “circled the world three times.” Between songs, Robert and I discussed subjects like his love of astronomy and the problems that the speed of light poses for time travel. We would also discuss his relation to Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and the author Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I like to write, too,” he said. “Right now I’m interested in our genetic coding, you know—DNA—and its connections with Biblical text. Someday, I would like to write down the life story of my father.” I smiled in appreciation.
More than time travel and DNA, Robert loved to sing. He often brought his own karaoke music with him, in case the perfect song just wasn’t available. He had been singing karaoke for seven years. He has the special ability to inspire people to dance, regardless of whether he is singing in key. Magically, he was able to convince me to get up and sing that song with him I had never heard before- “Picture,” by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. I don’t usually admit to showing favoritism, but Robert was my exception.
Around 10:30, a man I didn’t recognize walked in. He was wearing shorts and a hooded Army sweatshirt. His receding hairline said forties but he said he was only 30. He was shifty and anxious and looked to have already been drinking. We must have seemed like the welcoming committee because when he spotted our table, he made a beeline for us from across the dance floor. I glanced nervously over at Hillary.
“So how do you do this?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You know, how do you sing karaoke? I’ve never done it before.”
“Oh. Well, first you need to choose a song.”
I explained to him the best way to go about picking your first song: it should be one that you love and that you know all of the words to. He plopped down at our table.
His name was Bryant, and like Robert, also a veteran. He was an occupational therapist and said that he liked to help people. He ended up at the Westgate after purchasing a car and wandering aimlessly through Tacoma, lonely and depressed. He told me that he had always wanted to try karaoke and thought it might cheer him up. He chose his favorite song from high school—“Crazy” by Aerosmith.
People like Bryant are part of the “second wave” of karaoke patrons. They show up half-way through the night alone, sing a song or two, and make their exit.
Other members of the “second wave” are part of a larger group, like a birthday party or the Finance department of a local business, which I witnessed the following Tuesday. Ten of them pushed four tables together and they ranged from a man in his fifties with a thick moustache to a twenty-something with a fondness for Oasis songs. Oasis guy liked to change the words to include the names of people from his group and growl random expletives.
By the end of my third week, I no longer felt nervous when taking the stage. My hands ceased to sweat. I didn’t flinch if my voice slightly cracked or I chose a suicide song totally out of my range. I had made friends with the karaoke host and two of the regulars: Larry, Robert and Brittany. I have to admit, I was becoming addicted.