Sunday in New York: A Different Monstrosity

A reportage on The Monster.

On a late Sunday afternoon, New Yorkers are lazing around their apartment, trying to recover from the weekend’s hangovers. They turn on Netflix, scroll down their Instagram feed, all while mentally preparing for the looming workweek.

Not at The Monster.

Nestled in the lively triangle intersection in the West Village, The Monster is a gay piano bar standing modestly on the corner of Grove Street like a typical, grungy dive bar. Across the street is The Stonewall Inn, a legendary gay bar that’s now a historical landmark, drawing in thousands of visitors each week – straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, unidentified – all are welcomed.  

The Monster, however, remains a local niche since 1981 and attracts a more specific crowd: mostly gay men in their late 40’s to 60’s dressed just like anyone’s father or uncle. Plain-colored polo shirts. Relaxed fit cargo shorts. Sometimes a baseball cap. Not a woman in sight. 

On a summer Sunday, regular patrons gathered in groups of two to four, circling around the bar, chatting and laughing about everything and nothing. Some came alone for a quick drink, waiting around, observing, hoping to strike a conversation before their glass was empty. The happy hour special was buy-one-get-one-free, so they had at least two beers’ time to decide whether to stay or leave. 

Hung on the dark wooden wall, a small sign casually read: “There will be $5 charge for whining.” A mild smell of stale alcohol sometimes traveled around the bar, yet masked by the random giggles and hugs. Accompanied by an eclectic collection of miniature statues, retro posters of cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, and Judy Garland overlooked the blissful crowd.  

Tony, a singer visiting from Las Vegas, sat near the entrance with his friends and complimented everyone who walked by . He raised both arms in the air, inviting strangers for a bear hug while gushing long awws. The singer was particularly attracted to Jack, a tall African American man who was roaming around the bar by himself and befriending whomever came into his sight. 

“I love the way you smell,” Jack said, after embracing Tony.

“Oh? just the way I smell, but not the way I taste, or look, or anything else,” Tony said and cackled.

Jack giggled in slight embarrassment and embraced Tony again. Only this time Jack went on to bite his ear and whispered, “stop it, I like the way you taste too.” 

 Tony’s eyes widened with delight, and he exclaimed, “if I turn around, you’ll bite something else!” 

Everyone nearby burst into laughter. It was a fleeting moment of attraction heightened by their crude humor. The night was young, perhaps made even younger by flirtatious words and lingering glances.

As the clock inched towards 7 pm, the casual conversations and laughter were entwined with melodic piano notes. Dan Daly, the first pianist of the night, had started playing Broadway tunes on the grand piano. A few people gradually gathered around the piano with their cocktails placed on the lid and started singing along. Some were former Broadway singers and others were blessed with good voices. If one’s lucky, the night would turn into a concert medley of classics like ‘Memory’ from Cats, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables, and perhaps a passionate version of ‘This Love of Mine’ by Frank Sinatra.

Amid the mini concert, Alan Lee walked in the bar with a black fedora hat, a dark gray muscle tank top, and a lovely olive skin. Heads started turning from the bar, and someone greeted him warmly as if they were friends.

“I don’t actually know him, but I vaguely remember his face. When you come here enough times, you start making friends with everyone,” Alan said. Then, he lowered his voice. “I don’t remember most of their names, but anyway, I love coming here on Sundays to dance in the basement.” 

The basement was a ‘dirty’ secret that often opened later at night around 9 to 10 pm. It was a ‘bad-boy’ dungeon hidden below the ground level piano bar, dimly lit with blue-purple neon lights. A wall of dance studio mirrors gave the illusion of a bigger space with the reflection of masculine silhouettes. Loud disco music was a replacement of conversations and laughter. People mingled with their body language and flirted with suggestive dance moves. Some danced in small groups, while others stood around as if they were waiting for something to happen.

Jack, who was still chatting with strangers upstairs, did not care for the basement scene. Like many regulars at The Monster, he came here for the communal atmosphere, for a night’s adventure enriched by music and conversations, whether meaningful or trivial. Every night was a tale of its own, a song on repeat. 

“I’m not looking for anything here,” Jack said. “I come here alone, and I go home alone.”

Daphne Lee