Delia Sherman certainly has a way with sensory description. After a few lines of “At Conney’s” I felt like I had been whisked away to the dingy bar of her imagination:
Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair.
Enter Ali, the story’s narrator, who is sitting in Cooneys with her friends Grace and Michael. Grace & Ali argue with Michael about how ‘his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.’ and discuss the history of black musical protest. It’s 1968, and Ali is in love with Grace. Grace is black, Ali we’re left to assume is white. Ali doesn’t know how Grace will react if a girl professes their love to her. So, from its opening moments, “At Cooney’s” is a smart, politically focused story.
During an emotional breakdown, Ali stumbles into the bathroom only to find herself transported back in time. Sherman creates real jeopardy with this device. The past is not a safe space for Ali. She arrives without money, or I.D. And her 60’s fashion choices get her branded as a girl dressing as a man.
Even returning to her present doesn’t guarantee Ali safety. It’s 1968, a time when Michael can ask, without much censure, whether the young girls on stage are ‘lezzies’. This choice to transport a narrator from the reader’s past into their own past, and then return them to a historical present, sets “At Cooney’s” apart. Sherman’s story challenges the idea that the present is always a safe space; a space where underrepresented characters are required to “be grateful”.
In fact, despite the problems of the past, her trip provides Ali with many examples of strength. It turns out, Cooney’s used to be a club where the clientele dressed to express their true gender identities without fear of censure. When the club is raided, she sees people for who ‘being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy.’ And yet, these people continue to come to Cooney’s and dress the way that makes them feel their best. There she meets Ronnie, an incredibly seductive character. It’s worth reading “At Cooney’s” just to watch Ronnie’s moves:
Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick.
Ali returns to 1968 with new drive to get over her fear, and to tell Grace she loves her. And while the reader never knows how Grace reacts we’re left with hope hanging in the air.