Not that the crowd at Lith Hall is stodgy; Michelle – donning go-go boots, a blue-and-white retro-patterned dress, and a ponytail high enough to put the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to shame – guides them through their melodious evening with grace.
I make my way up to the front of the room to talk to her.
“Hey!” she shouts, hugging me. “I’m so glad you’re here. Where’s the photographer?”
I shout back, “She’s sick! I’ll have to do!”
Then Michelle’s mom walks up. She and Michelle are spitting images of each other, with smiling eyes and a knack for buoyantly impatient pleas: “C’mon, c’mon,” Michelle’s mom says, bobbing on her feet, “Find the song.”
“Alright already!” Michelle shakes her head and hands her mother a mic.
As she does this, I look for a less conspicuous area from which I can perform observational research. I find this beneath one of two elevated amplifiers – probably not the safest place for me to be. I shrug to no one in particular, then scroll through my cell phone for the questions I’d emailed Michelle a few days ago.
So what makes your gig at the Lithuanian Hall so unique?
Michelle: The Lithuanian Hall has the feel of an American Legion Post with a kitschy, European twist. There is a mermaid painted on the wall and a glowing aquarium next to an old cigarette machine. You can bring your grandmother and/or meet up with hip kids who you originally only knew from Instagram.
Michelle’s mom has decided to sing Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head!” She goes all out, with defiantly brandished devil horns and self-inflicted whiplash. I snap a photo of her from my spot beneath the amps. Then I head for the bar. On the way, I trip on the dance floor, which is about twenty feet on all sides and elevated a few inches off the ground. Tables and chairs are stationed around it in haphazard fashion.
Many of my friends are sitting at a nearby table littered with cupcakes, farewell cards, and one super-impressive brand-new shrink-wrapped Battlestar Galactica board game. It’s a special karaoke night tonight – three folks who are not just regular attendees but fervid advocates of this monthly fete are moving out of state. To Michelle, the loss of these steadfast companions is heartbreaking.
It’s a bittersweet evening.
There are also several folks I know sitting and standing around the bar, which is a large square that encases the bartender. One thing that seems to please Lith Hall patrons is the genuine Lithuanian beer offered. Many of my friends are drinking some kind of lobster ale, which, like all the other homeland ales available, comes in a 500 ml bottle (roughly 17 oz.). Essentially, for every 100 ml of beer they get, my friends are only being charged a dollar. This is stellar news for the the thrifty poverty-stricken type.
I get a diet soda, sit down with some friends and wonder aloud about whether or not Michelle will be singing anything by her pop music idol, Celine Dion, tonight. “She’s got to,” I say. “She always sings Celine.”
So, how long have you been a Celine Dion fan and… why?
Michelle: I fell in love with Celine Dion when my Nana bought me a cassette of her first American album at Wal-Mart. Before long at school, kids I didn’t even know would point at me in the hallway and murmur, “That’s the girl obsessed with Celine Dion.” It probably got annoying for my teachers when I endlessly did all my book reports on her, but at least I wasn’t the, “scab kid.”
When there’s a lull in the lineup, Michelle puts on music meant to inspire movement from the crowd. Some folks at the table get up to dance, doing so with reckless abandon, having long ago abandoned their inhibitions recklessly. A few are even doing “the robot.”
Michelle joins the group, jumping and flinging her blonde ponytail back and forth.
Her sprightly effervescence makes it somewhat difficult for people to believe that, aside from being a party-rockin’ karaoke emcee, she’s a writer. A talented writer. With nary an ounce of angst or pretention in her, one might assume (as I did) that her 2012 book Junk Drunk was likely just a collection of saccharine-sweet anecdotal essays meant to be read in geriatric wards, outpatient clinics, or the suburbs.
When I finally read Michelle’s book, I was taken aback by her uproarious and plucky narrative style. If Amy Sedaris could somehow mate with and get pregnant by Judy Blume and then give birth to a self-published collection of essays about thrift-store shopping and befriending other neurotic mavericks of the trade, Junk Drunk would most certainly be that love child.
What types of people do or did you meet while thrifting? Was there a favorite or most memorable person?
Michelle: I obviously adore old people. When you go to a thrift store and you see a small, white-haired lady looking at secondhand pet taxis, most people assume she’s just another crazy cat lady. But once you get her talking and start asking her a lot of personal questions, you might get to hear all kinds of dirt about naughty things she did when she was younger. People really like to chit-chat in thrift stores because they are surrounded by “conversation pieces” and things that might remind them of their past. Once the past opens up, you’ve got stories galore!
If there’s one thing Michelle loves just as much as writing and being a karaoke DJ, it’s chit-chatting. All night she’s been walking around Lith Hall, up to various tables, smiling and laughing. There’s a strong likelihood that she knows most of the people here, but there’s just as strong a likelihood that, if she doesn’t know one of them now, she will by the end of the night. Michelle has no qualms approaching strangers to start up a conversation.
What’s a common misconception that people have about you?
Michelle: If you ask anyone who has met me, they will most often describe me as happy-go-lucky and bubbly. I agree that I am these things without being phony at all, but I’m also neurotic and often envisioning the worst-case scenario at all times.
After Michelle’s mother’s rendition of “Bang Your Head!” belting the commanding chorus with such heavy-metal gusto that several of us in the crowd were convinced to comply, two lively charismatic men get up to sing a tune from Hedwig and The Angry Inch. Their shadowy duet waxes dramatic beneath the orange-red lights that are silhouetted by their lead-footed pirouettes. Like proletariat ballerinas, these men don’t require glitter. The little square elevated stage will do.
And after this, songs of all tempos and frequencies are sung – some on-key, some off. The night progresses; the singers gather more courage while the crowd does less observing and more dancing. It’s not so much a show now; it’s a revival. Until the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives: Michelle prepares to sing her final number.
This is it, I think. Now she’s going to sing Celine.
But no, it’s Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.” I edge closer to the stage to take a couple photographs. Michelle’s voice seems practically interchangeable with Cher’s. Maybe this is a better song choice after all, I think. If Michelle could turn back time, would she try to convince her soon-to-be departed friends to stay?
I look around Lith Hall. There are people in every nook and cranny. Over by the Battlestar Galactica board game, people are bidding each other long-term farewells. I worry that the thrill of Karaoke Friday will go with them. But soon realize I’m not giving Michelle the benefit of the doubt. Surely, she’ll keep the gig going. Just look at her up there! She’s giving Cher her all, the Lithuanian Hall her all, Baltimore’s literary and thrifting communities her all.
Now that’s the power of love.
Join Michelle for karaoke at The Lithuanian Hall on the last Friday of every month.