Saturday, January 21, 2012

Open for Business

A wise man once said that the greatest two-word phrase in the English language is “open bar”. And not only is he wise, but handsome. And modest.

Obviously, this wondrous phrase is most commonly associated with weddings, corporate-sponsored private parties, and other very formal (and typically expensive) engagements. But, on that rare occasion when the stars align, this gift from the gods of liberal libation can be found at your local bar or nightclub.

If you’re ever given a shot at it, I tell you now to make the most of the opportunity—it may be once-in-a-lifetime. Of course, for me it’s been at least thrice-in-a-lifetime. I can’t say for certain that there have not been more than three times when I’ve been able to saunter up to a bar and nod towards the higher shelves with nothing more than destiny in my hand, like I was Hugh Hefner at a Playboy Mansion party; but I know there are three distinct occasions that I will now brag about detail for your reading pleasure.

The Matrix Grand Opening

In April 2002 I was less than a year out of college, and still a rookie in the world of professional boozing. Most of my Fridays and Saturdays were spent at bars and nightclubs around the city, making good use of dollar drink specials (yes, young Padawan, such a thing once existed within Pittsburgh’s city limits), drunk girls who couldn’t spell “virtue”, and bartender hookups. One of my favorite hookups—though it was more for the fact that she actually became a close friend, and not just for her bartending generosity—was Steph. She had been working at a bowling alley bar in Monroeville […I mentioned I was just out of college, right? I wasn’t going to be picky—cheap booze was cheap booze!], but soon announced a new job she had just landed: slinging overpriced plastic Dixie Cups of rum & Coke at the newest nightclub in the city, Matrix.

She urged us all to come to opening night at this new megaclub, which boasted no fewer than four separate barrooms, each with a different theme and atmosphere. Butters and I, the only two adventurous enough to take her up on the offer, showed up to the Station Square locale to find a growing line at the doors. Keep in mind that this is Pittsburgh, not New York or L.A.; here, a line actually means something special is going on. The lengthy wait at the door may have just been due to the club being brand new…or maybe everyone else already knew what my friend and I were about to learn.

You see, there had been one slight glitch in Matrix’s owners’ business plan (well, actually, there were a lot more than just one…): They had failed to secure a liquor license in time for opening night. Thankfully, this didn’t mean that they couldn’t serve alcohol; no, it just meant that they couldn’t sell alcohol. And so, faced with this impediment, they did the only sensible thing—once you were inside the doors, everything was free.

My thoughts, upon learning this from the bouncer: “Oh. My. Fuck.”

Of course, it’s been almost 10 years since then, so I’m really just guessing as to what my exact neurological reaction was. But that can’t be very far off. What Butters and I walked into was very likely the closest either of us will ever come to Shangri-La. The first room (and, until the day Matrix closed, my favorite of the four) was the ultra lounge. It had an adult, upscale, European feel, with carpeting, leather couches and chairs, and mellow music—it was the only one of the four to not have a dance floor. It also featured two beautiful girls in revealing cocktail dresses dancing on top of the bar. In my 23-year-old mind, that fact in no way diminished the classiness of the room.

We walked into the second bar. This room, much bigger than the first, carried an “ancient Greece”/“vintage Hollywood” vibe: The bartenders and waitresses wore togas; white, sculpted architecture was everywhere; and black and white portraits of famous actresses covered the walls. A large dance floor sat in the middle, and top-40 music pulsated from all angles. We found Steph in here, toga’d up and offering up her big trademark smile as she greeted us with full cups of booze. We said a few words to her, but quickly moved on to allow her to tend to the mounting crowd of customers.

The third barroom, which had dimmer lighting and wooden décor, was more of an all-out dance party, with house music rumbling through the air. The fourth and final room was dark and trippy, with techno music, black lights, and an oxygen bar (…yes, these existed too). We decided it best to stick to the first two rooms, repeatedly hitting up Steph and her fellow besieged bartenders for cups of Belvedere, Grey Goose, Jack Daniels, etc. In those days, almost any drinking I did at a bar or club was nameless: rum & Cokes, bourbon & Cokes, gin & tonics, etc.—well drinks, in other words. Being able to add a brand name to your drink order was for lawyers, CEOs, doctors… You know, people who had jobs. But now, for just a $5 cover charge, I was big-timing it. The meek had inherited the Earth.

The one clear memory that remains from the latter hours of that night is a telling one. Butters and I found ourselves in the ultra lounge, standing at the bar as one of the formally-attired go-go dancers worked it to a Spanish rhythm a few feet away from our Dixie Cups. I suddenly realized that the various TV screens in the wall behind the bar were showing what appeared to be very old softcore porn. In one scene in particular, a nude young nymph frolicked through a meadow in black and white, basking next to a pond from which a moose was drinking. I pointed out this odd ambience to my friend, who then began shouting, “Moooooosssssssse! Mooooooossssssssssse!

Me: “You do realize that there’s a naked woman on the screen too, right?”
Butters: “I don’t care! Mooooossssssssse!

The Buckhead Drinkers’ Delight Night

[Note: I use “Drinkers’ Delight” as a placeholder here. As you would expect of any promoted event at a nightclub, there was an official name for this night…I just haven’t the foggiest idea anymore what it was. That’s what they get for giving me “free” booze (I’ll explain those quotation marks in a moment).]

This is where we hit a gray area; the setup of this Saturday night of bacchanalia in the summer of 2007 can be described as either “open bar” or “all-you-can-drink”, the point of contention being that you had to pay one inflated, upfront fee before enjoying the “free” drinks. I would argue that this fits under the former of the two options for one simple reason: A $25 cover charge pales in comparison to the kind of damage I—or any single one of my friends—will inflict upon a bar if freed of financial restraints for the night (…and it allows me to fit the story neatly into my theme, so…two simple reasons).

And so, on that balmy night, I caught up with Hurley and others at Buckhead, laughingly handing the doorman the measly $25 that I was about to get returned to me twofold. And that probably would have been fourfold if not for each of the bartenders being outnumbered approximately 3290-to-1. Whereas Matrix had four barrooms, six or seven bars, and several beer tubs at which orders could be placed, Buckhead—which, at half the floor space, was packing in nearly as many people that night as Matrix had on its opening night—had only two bars and two beer tubs. Their bartenders and beer girls were the 300 Spartans fighting for blood and country against us, the invading Persians.

With the bar counter looking like the floor of the NYSE, and the bartender only able to take your order about once every 30 minutes, the seven or eight of us in our group quickly fell upon a strategy for survival and intoxication’s victory. Very early on, someone was able to snag a seat at the main bar in the front of the club. With the rest of us crowded around this location, we set up a rotation—one man would order a round for everyone (and usually multiple drinks per person, as well), pass them out, and then quickly hand off the barstool to the man to his left. The new Seat Keeper would then pull out money (for tips, but really more of a bribe at that point) to wave, in a renewed bid to draw a bartender over. This may have been the most efficient and productive bit of process engineering I have ever been a part of while completely blotto.

I think I started the night drinking either Goose or Belve; but I know for certain that, over the course of the night, my orders covered a wide spectrum. Vodka, beer, gin, whiskey…repeat. At one point in the night I was even double-fisting glasses of Dewars. “Looking good Billy Ray!” “Feeling good, Louis!” As last call drew near, it occurred to me that I would need a ride home. I had driven myself down to Station Square that night, but nothing good could possibly come from me trying to make the return trip behind the wheel.

…Enter “Old Friend”. At the time, she was a bit newer of a friend, though it had still been some time since our last session of Bed Sheet Muay Thai. I bumped into her and her homegirls midway through the night,
but didn’t dare stray away from my group’s drink ordering rotation when the girls roamed elsewhere. Now, miraculously, they had reappeared at the end of the night. And, like a guardian angel, Old Friend swooped in like a vulture to take advantage of my weakened mental faculties for the purposes of her own sexual gratification rescued me in my time of need. Thankfully, as twisted as I was, I was still capable of “earning” my lodging for the night.

[*looking around* I put in work, son. *cough*]

The Cain’s New Year’s Eve

When our crew of young thirsty bastards was looking for a place to hang our party hats for New Year’s Eve in 2002, a friend of ours from college kindly offered refuge. The father of one of her close friends (“Sinful”, just because…) owned Cain’s in Dormont at the time. Sinful, as it happened, was hosting a closed-door NYE party at the bar: All-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, all-night-long. It’s almost like they were daring us to get recklessly shitfaced. It cost $25 to attend, since this was a private party; but again that’s nothing, as any one of us was more than capable of drinking down $100 worth of alcohol in a night (and that’s not even factoring in the food we were capable of consuming). And, unlike with the Buckhead event four and a half years later, our blackouts weren’t going to get cockblocked by the bartender-to-booze-fiend ratio getting out of hand.

Genoa and two other friends of ours (Theresa and Gina) were renting a house about a mile away from Cain’s. Once she and Finn said they were down to hit Sinful’s party, the rest of the planning wrote itself: 1. Drive to the party. 2. Crawl home to Genoa’s. 3. Figure out in the morning how to get back to our cars. Boom. Easy. We were a lock to achieve a fourfold return on our investment.

There’s not a lot of in-depth tales that I can still recall at will about that night. Some of that’s true now because it took place almost ten years ago, and some of it was true the very next day. I know one thing for certain: The six of us (BlahBlahBlah, Finn, Genoa, Triple A, our boy “Firewater”, and me) did the damn thing. Cain’s is a low-key, neighborhood bar, and has always been one of our favorite places to drink the booze. That NYE simply solidified its place in our hearts. Sinful made sure plenty of food was on hand (Cain’s kitchen has long been one of the best in the business, as far as greasy bar food goes), and the flow of beer and liquor—from taps and bottles to glasses to patrons to throats—was nonstop.

Here’s the most specific anecdote I can remember from the night: Late in the proceedings, I entered the barroom in the front of the building (the back half was the dining room and the location of the pool tables and dart boards) on my way to the bathroom, only to find BBB and Firewater engaged in conversation with two good-looking women. One of these ladies appeared to be older—which, at the time, meant she was between 27 and 34—and was wearing a tight top (that wasn’t at all shy about displaying her ample cleavage for her) and a novelty cowgirl hat. Basically, she was a “woo girl”. In those days, though, “woo girls” had yet to be identified as a social subgroup; so to me she was a cougar (…well, a cougar like you would find in porn, since they’re almost always played by 27-to-34-year-olds and not true “cougars”). I slowed down as I approached them, only long enough to bring a pause to their conversation when their heads turned towards me. Looking directly at Porn Woo Cougar, I exclaimed, “NICE!” Then, never breaking stride, I turned and headed straight into the men’s room.

How we made the mile long hike back to Genoa’s, I may never know. I vaguely remember stumbling through darkness and suburbia with my five friends, hoping each step was the last one necessary before I could fall asleep. Triple A and I crashed in Theresa’s room (both she and Gina were elsewhere for the night), fighting over covers and each of us almost pushing the other completely off the bed at different points in the night and morning. Firewater slept in Gina’s room, where he vomited all over the floor (ironically, she was the neat freak of the house; Genoa may never have had to clean a room as feverishly as she did the morning of 1/1/03).

As for BBB…well, I’m not sure where he slept. But I’m guessing it was on a couch in the living room; there had been no capture of the Porn Woo Cougar that night. The species remains as elusive as the Sexual Gratification Vulture, the Softcore Oasis Moose, and the open bar. The reward of bagging one, though, will always make the hunt worth it.

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