Monday, November 11, 2013

Dinner on the Dance Floor

We made a dinner reservation for the new Carmine’s in Downtown Albany for this past Saturday night. When booking we had no idea the restaurant was on the first floor of the old Big House. But that’s where the GPS took us: 4 Sheridan. To say the least, I was nervous. I couldn’t believe I was about to have Italian cuisine on the spot of floor where I once danced to bad 80s music. The Big House was a weekend staple of my life in my 20s. Now fast forward a few years: The dance floor and DJ booth are gone, and the front windows that face Sheridan are plastered with black-and-white Carmine’s placards. This was going to be interesting.

For the record, the Big House (when it was the Big House and Pearl Street was Pearl Street) was the best bar ever. The three-floor monstrosity teemed with people every weekend, the music blared, and the drinks flowed; girls as far as the eye could see. There was never a “dead night” at the Big House. I remember one Thanksgiving Eve, there had to be 3,000 people packed in there. I loved the Big House. I was alive at the Big House. Magic happened at the Big House. And now I’m left to wonder: How in God’s name did the Big House go out of business? How!? When did hot girls and fun in a bottle stop appealing to the masses? When did Pearl Street fall down and die?

We walked in, said hello to Carmine, and to his credit, he has completely redesigned the room, making every effort (I’m sure) to erase all recognizable nuance that could (and would) make people hear the faint, faraway playing of “Jesse’s Girl” reverberating off the walls. He didn’t just throw up some tables and turn on the lights. The room was meticulously and cleverly redone so I couldn’t “quite” figure out, on first look, where everything had been when it was the Big House. It was kind of an optical illusion. But that didn’t stop me from spending most of our dinner trying to mentally piece the place back together. Sorry, Carm baby, it’s gonna take more than a drop ceiling and some new walls to make me forget where I was. I was eating shrimp parm two feet from where hundreds and hundreds had grinded and groped.

I used to love going to the Lion Heart then walking to the Big House and Bayou, energized on the excitement that was surely to come. I could’ve levitated from Lark all the way Downtown. That’s when Pearl Street was my favorite place to be. In my 20s, I partied in NYC, Virginia Beach, Philadelphia, Montreal, Syracuse, and Bedford Stuyvesant, to name a few. I loved going out in Albany better than all those places combined. I used to be my goal to find NYC’s or Montreal’s or Syracuse’s Big House and Bayou. But all I wanted was my home field.

I remember one night way back thinking how sad it would be when I was too old for going out, when this phase would be forever finished, the door slammed shut. I couldn’t imagine anything better than being at the Big House: The music, the crowd, the whole magilla. Then one day it just ended. That magic row of bars and clubs just went poof, and now Pearl Street is a darkened, rather scary strip of seedy offerings and lacking humanity. Even the Bayou isn’t the Bayou anymore. I died a little bit inside when I saw that. My 21 year old brother will never know a Big House/Bayou night. Tragic.

Carmine's food was top-notch and the vibe was just right. By all accounts we had a fantastic time, even seeing another couple we’ve known for years, and chatting away with them about old Big House stories. This night belonged to the Big House. Even our waiter recounted a few of his Big House Saturday nights. What Carmine’s joint "used" to be was the elephant in the room, for everyone in the room.

When I had finally figured out where everything had once been (the bar, the DJ booth, the bathroom doors), when I could see the room slowly morph back in time (and again, to Carmine’s credit, this was no easy chore), I heard The Outfield sing, “Josie’s on a vacation far away,” and I felt the dance floor fill up, and I saw a group of guys around me at 24 years old, drinks in hand, eyes on all those girls. I saw my friend John, and Justin, and Mike, and Peter Ice Cream, and General Tso’s Chicken, and Gary McGeary, and Rags, and Pinkie, and Lady in Red, and Semi Circles, and we’re laughing and having the time of our lives. And I see my friend Chris Premo. He wears blue jeans and a white button down, and he dances like a damn fool. And I like to think if his ghost was up and walking around anywhere this past Saturday night, he was walking around that restaurant that was once the best bar in the world.

We paid the bill, said goodbye, and stepped out onto Pearl Street. There wasn’t a soul in sight at 10:45PM. But in my mind, if only for a moment, I saw the sidewalks flooded with packs of people, and the cabs pulling up two at a time, and the long lines pouring out of every bar’s front door. I saw it all then it was gone, and the last thing I saw, taped to the window of the old Big House: A real estate sign that sold luxury apartments above Carmine’s. Wait a second! Hold on! Stop the presses! You can live on the third floor of the Big House? The humanity of it all. And with that, we left Pearl Street behind, again.

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Brian Huba

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