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Karaoke at the South Pole? Why not?

Improving the quality of life for lab rats in Antarctica.

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By Kari Lydersen

Dave Joffe--or "Dave J" or "Eddie Valentine," as the 29-year-old Northwestern University particle-physics doctoral candidate calls himself onstage--prides himself on having done "a lot of kooky things."

As a 15-year-old who'd never been out of Calgary before, he ditched his Jewish youth group on a trip to Queens and headed to Times Square, where he spent much of the night chatting up transients and transvestites. As a grad student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he reported on the alien abductions and anal probings of professional football players for the campus daily. "The Canadian Football League sent me a lovely little letter informing me that I was 'no longer welcome as press at any league game,'" he said. "They were accusing me of 'defaming the name of Canadian football.' As though they needed my help."

Over the years the PhD-to-be has worked as a stand-up comedian, a political organizer (a poster he shows me for a fund-raiser he put together in Vancouver is basically a picture of him sitting naked on the toilet with waist-length hair covering his torso), a bartender, a cantor, a Sunday school teacher, and "every other oddball job you can imagine." And, not surprisingly, he loves a good round of karaoke. Several nights a week, patrons of bars like the Hidden Cove in Ravenswood, the Morseland in Rogers Park, and Zak's in Wicker Park are treated to his rousing renditions of "The Candy Man" and "Just a Gigolo."

In his first year at Northwestern, Joffe was studying radio astronomy. But when he got an offer for an assignment in particle physics that would take him back to his beloved New York, he changed course. From June 1998 through January of this year, he lived in the cinder-block barracks at Brookhaven National Laboratory, on the site of a World War II-era army base on Long Island, spending long hours looking for exotic mesons--newly discovered subatomic particles whose existence, according to Brookhaven's Web site, helps validate the central theory of modern physics.

Joffe spent every spare minute in Manhattan, where he met a comedian named Alan Chan. Chan hosted karaoke nights at various clubs, including Le Figaro Cafe, one of Greenwich Village's most famous coffeehouses. "In the 50s it was a real hangout for the beats, and in the 60s it had Dylan and Baez," Joffe says. And for a brief spell last year, it had Dave Joffe: when Chan found himself overbooked, he asked Joffe to pitch in a couple times a week. "I had this incredible mix of whoever happened to be there--everyone from Chinese undergrads to old Italian guys who'd been in the neighborhood for 50 years to suburban housewives from Jersey. I met people from countries I didn't even know existed," Joffe says. "It was like being a zookeeper or the leader of a lunatic asylum."

Back at Northwestern, Joffe reunited with a friend from his astronomy days, Dave Chuss, who shares his dual love of showmanship and science. Chuss, who plays guitar and sings in a band called Relish, works on a project whose aim is to learn more about the magnetic fields at the center of our galaxy. For the past two years, this quest has taken him on short jaunts to the Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the dry, high South Pole, where conditions for his research are ideal. In winter, when there's no sun and the mercury plunges to 115 below, only a handful of diehards stay at the station, living and working under a huge dome, but in the austral summer, which starts in late September, some 200 scientists and support staff take up residence, expanding the camp into trailerlike tents.

Summer at the pole is hardly a picnic: after several weeks of twilight, the sun doesn't go down for four months, but temperatures still rarely rise above zero. "It's really confusing," says Chuss. "You lose track of time. We have to walk about half a mile from 'summer camp' to the dome where the offices are. You have to have every inch of your skin covered or you'll get frostbite."

Meals are served every six hours, and because of the constant light, 24-hour shifts are not uncommon. Escape is difficult, yet entertainment isn't a priority; there's a pool table, a dart board, videos and video games. About a month ago, Chuss and Joffe decided that what those poor souls really needed was--you guessed it--karaoke. Chuss was leaving on October 25 for a two-week stint at the station, so the Friday before, at a loft in Wicker Park where Joffe once lived, Relish played their first gig and a tuxedo-clad Joffe hosted karaoke for a couple hundred people, who donated about $4 apiece toward a karaoke machine compact enough to fit in Chuss's luggage.

Chuss has never led a karaoke session before, but at Joffe's behest he has performed several times, his personal best being a rendering of "Cat's in the Cradle" at the Morseland. The more experienced Joffe picked out a standard 200-song package for him, including plenty of tracks from what he calls the "big four" of karaoke: Madonna, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. He also armed Chuss with a video camera--the two have decided to make a documentary about the project. "Where we show it will depend on how good it ends up being," Joffe says. His brother, who's in TV back in Calgary, and friends from Northwestern and IIT have volunteered to help edit it.

"It will be like an extra-low-budget Blair Witch Project-type thing," says Chuss. "I want to also get scenic footage of the pole, with penguins and things." Actually, penguins don't live at the pole, but they do live on the Antarctic coast, where Chuss has to stop en route to the research station. He says the penguin footage is to placate the friends who always ask him to "bring me back a penguin."

"With scientists, hopefully it will be extra funny," says Joffe. "Karaoke has a tendency of making people really bold if they're ordinarily really reserved. Once they get a mike in their hands, people will do things you never would've thought they'd do. It's the shiest, quietest people who get up there and just do the weirdest things."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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