It seems as though the theme of my life for the past two years has been, “go with the flow, you have no control anyway.” This message has been reinforced repeatedly by reminders from the universe in life-altering and insignificant situations alike. Another humbling smack in the face came this week when I showed up at the Arts Garage for what I thought would be an open-mic event that turned out to be a Wednesday night happy hour.
With my article deadline 24 hours away, I decided to take advantage of the mellow atmosphere and talk to the Arts Garage regulars to learn the scene. As hindsight bias would have it, the universe knows what it’s doing and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to interview certain people — like the bartender — who would have either been inaudible or simply too busy to chat with me on a different night. Here’s how it went down.
Because my bike currently has a broken gear, I didn’t feel comfortable making a nighttime trip to 16th Street and Ridge Avenue, even though it’s a quick ride from Main Campus. Instead, I convinced my roommate to take the subway to Fairmount Avenue with me and walk the two blocks to the venue. The weather was absolutely perfect: a cool, clear, end-of-summer kind of warm that’s somehow more comfortable than any temperature-controlled indoor space. When we turned the corner to the Arts Garage, I immediately smelled fire — presumably from the kitchen — which is always a good omen for me.
The patio had high-top tables set up as I had seen in daylight, but now it was illuminated with white Christmas lights and hip-hop was pulsing out through the open door to the bar. The owner, Ola Solanke, was sitting outside working on his computer and overseeing the festivities, checking up on the crowd and staff almost like an elementary school teacher overseeing sustained silent reading. Only if SSR was a dance party and your elementary school teacher owned a nightclub.
We walked inside and saw about 30 people scattered between the bar, the DJ booth and the dance floor. All were well-dressed young adults, many looked like “artist types,” and most were African-American. One guy caught my attention almost immediately as he danced between groups, greeting newcomers and having what seemed to be a great time. His name was Brandon Fountain, and I came to find out that he walks around like he owns the place because his brother has been the Arts Garage bartender for seven months, and he frequents the venue several times a week. He told me that for the most part, the happy hour scene consists of regulars — hence his familiarity with everyone — who are “really friendly,” but that the real magic happens on the weekends.
“Saturday nights get packed,” he said. “They had a party here that was one of the best nights of my life.”
Francisco B-T, a tattooed artist with crystal gauges and a septum piercing whom I caught up with as he exited the Arts Garage bartending class, reiterated tales of the wild atmosphere.
“It gets crazy fun and sweaty,” he said. “The dance floor upstairs has really great wood.”
Apparently, epic parties are an Arts Garage trademark. Francisco told me about an event where artists had 12 hours to complete paintings for a prize while onlookers drank and socialized, which ended in a dance party. Fountain had similar stories peppered with anecdotes of live music and electrifyingly high energy.
“We were passing the hookah around, drinks were flowing — it’s always a great time,” Fountain said.
Images of dancing crowds coming together for the sole purpose of having a fabulous time flooded my vision as I looked around the thinly populated dance floor and I realized that I was lucky to have this moment of calm before the storm.
I contemplated what makes a party great. What’s different about a good party and a bad party? I realized that it’s all about atmosphere. A friend of mine has said, “Drugs don’t work if the setting isn’t right.” What she means is, alcohol alone isn’t going to make a room full of hostile people magically fun. What makes partying great is when you’re in good company with friends — or strangers — who give you the permission to let loose and have a great time.
That’s a huge part of what the Arts Garage offers. Not only is it a space for individuals to exhibit their artwork, which is vulnerable enough, but it’s a place where others come to support that expression. Mike articulated it perfectly when I asked him what his favorite thing about the venue is.
“Everybody’s welcome, everybody’s family,” he said.
The warmth at the Arts Garage had nothing to do with the perfect weather — it was the openness and clear intention to unwind and have a nice time that was pervasive in the air that night. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to next weekend.
Victoria Marchiony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.