CJ is about 5 feet 1 or 2. He has a John Waters mustache and a haircut that a regular describes as "a Little Richard Caesar." He is something of an East Atlanta Village institution, having been the karaoke DJ at Mary's for the past 10 years.
It's Tuesday night, and he has no problem getting people to perform. "These people are karaoke junkies," CJ says, shaking his head like a parent talking about boisterous children. A line of people waits to sign up for songs well before he's done setting up. The whole place has the feeling of a party at someone's house – couples flirt in the corners and friends greet with big hugs and kisses. Staff from the surrounding bars and restaurants are sprinkled throughout the crowd, and people don't seem to be trying too hard.
It's comfortably full, and there are hardly any gaps between songs. The set list is mostly ballads, but a brave attempt at Big Boi's "The Way You Move" proves, as CJ says, "We have everything." The only songs he can't stand to hear anymore after a decade are "Suddenly, Seymour" and "I Will Survive." He still has a soft spot for anything from Grease, though, no matter how many times he hears it. After a regular makes a valiant attempt at Macy Gray's "I Try," CJ says, "Aw, baby, if you fall I'll catch you." k.d. lang's "Constant Craving" reminds him of a relationship, and he tells the story of "the one time I was straight." He claims she looked like Lisa Bonet.
CJ appears to have a groupie. He is pale, skinny and wearing a T-shirt that's way too big. He spends the night sitting behind CJ and talking into his ear. Every once in a while he asks someone for a cigarette, but speaks so quietly he can barely be understood. He sings one song and again is so quiet he can't be heard, even with a microphone. CJ takes his own mic and helps out, gently encouraging his odd new acquaintance. Eventually, the bartenders ask him to leave. He hasn't bought any drinks and no one has ever seen him before. A nondescript couple stands out in the street for a minute, looking through the windows and studying the sign. They enter, and leave again quickly. Apparently the rainbow lettering didn't clue them in.
As the night moves on, the performances intensify, and the crowd grows. A guy in a seersucker suit leans against the stairs and looks cool with his cocktail and cigarette, but he jumps in with gusto on the lines he knows. Two girls do a convincing version of "Let's Get It On," and a good-looking guy in a cap and cowboy shirt tears it up on Erykah Badu's "Tyrone," singing into both mics.
As the crowd finally starts to dwindle around 2 a.m., a little family of regulars gathers at one end of the bar. CJ finally gets to prove his devotion to Grease, singing duets on "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want." David, a perfect balance of fun and effort behind the bar, gets a chance to relax and chat. Two young women make out intensely amid the intimate conversation as the final songs play.
It's past 3 a.m., and as David ushers the last few through the already locked doors, CJ's exiled groupie appears like a lonely ghost. "How long till CJ comes out?" he whispers.
Tuesday night karaoke at Mary's. No cover. 1287 Glenwood Ave. 404-624-4411. www.marysatlanta.com.
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