Monday, January 21, 2013

Florida State of Mind

It’s just like riding a bicycle. In other words, I’ve never learned.

Beginning in 2003, my former company sent me to a different city of its choosing within the contiguous United States every October. Some of the locations of the annual fall conference were fantastic: the bright lights of Las Vegas are always a win; as is San Diego, with its beautiful weather and scenery; even, surprisingly, Minneapolis and Charlotte, which both manage to combine legitimate nightlife and a small-town feel. Other host cities, however, were god awful: I’ve already talked of my distaste for Vancouver, WA; when I was 11 I saw Orlando as a waste of Earth and tourist money, and nothing changed when I was 30; Pittsburgh…because, well, I already lived here. It was behind in the game before the opening kickoff.

Recent business decisions, made by people with yearly salaries bigger than my lifetime earnings, made it likely that the 2012 event will be the organization’s last. So where better to throw your life away send off fond memories with a bang than St. Petersburg, FL?

I last visited the area in 2008, when a different conference brought me to Tampa. And after five days of strippers, Maker’s Mark, sunshine, and gambling, it’s a miracle that anything brought me back. But a lot has changed since then. The economy tanked. TJ moved to Pittsburgh. I discovered my addiction to Hispanic women. …Hell, all of those things happened by the end of 2008.

One swing towards the positive, though, was TK’s southern migration. Our favorite goofball moved to the area in the summer of 2011 in search of a better life amongst beaches and tanned blondes. When I alerted him to my travel plans, he happily agreed to be my tour guide/chaperone/co-defendant for any and every night of the October trip when my schedule would permit some time away from work.

My first day in town, a Monday, was not going to be such a night—especially since I had to be up at 5:30 the next morning. But a day of air travel and annoying coworkers soon changed my attitude towards getting away for a few hours. And when TK texted me around 3 p.m. with designs on getting buzzed like a bored housewife on a Thursday afternoon, I decided to join him that evening for dinner and drinks. By 7 I was hopping into the same old, beat up Alero that had once cruised western PA, and we were setting a course for Treasure Island.

Warm air and a coastal sunset will cure many an ill, including work stress. Alcohol is still the more effective remedy, of course; but Florida’s top two attractions—well, top two family-friendly attractions—come home a respectable second. Thankfully, all of these medications can be taken at the same time, and we hit up Sloppy Joe’s to do just that. We were shown to seats at the outdoor bar of the beachside restaurant, which was populated by a modest dinner crowd enjoying ocean breezes and light beer. As we walked past a long table on the deck, we both spotted a boxed cake, which sat alone on a cart as though it was awaiting further orders. Joking, TK pointed at it and said, “It’s my birthday, can I have that cake?” I quickly responded, “That’s a wedding cake, dumbass.”

Although I said the words, I somehow did it without processing their meaning.

As I took healthy swigs of Corona and discussed the sexy blonde bartender’s physical attributes with TK, I soon noticed a large group of people finding themselves seats at the aforementioned long table. When I spotted the white dress, I almost choked on beer. TK caught wind of it all at the same time, and it was all we could do just to reaffirm each other’s faith in our own eyesight.

TK: “There’s…a wedding reception?”
Me: “…At Sloppy Joe’s?”
TK: “…On a Monday?”

The bride wore the strapless, full-length white gown that you might expect; the groom wore a white dress shirt and khaki shorts. Guests munched on nachos. TK attempted to sneak a picture of the bride from over his shoulder when she wasn’t looking—and then froze with panic when his flash went off. Someone’s uncle randomly yelled excitedly about cheese. And I looked on in amazement, all while washing down an oversized Cuban sandwich and cheese sticks with several more Coronas.

Ahh, Tampa. (…/St. Pete/Treasure Island. Same thing.)

After dinner we decided to head back to St. Pete, and respectfully congratulated the bride and groom as we walked past them on our way to the doors. Once back in St. Pete, we parked amid a string of bars in downtown, and pulled up seats at a sidewalk table at 5 Bucks Drinkery. And on that table we sat two draughts of Bud Light big enough to cure a redneck’s erectile dysfunction. We didn’t set the town on fire that night—I was back in my hotel room by 10:30 p.m.—but I was definitely eased into my groove.

Tuesday saw a predawn-to-sunset workday, which closed with a poolside reception for all of our customers. I began the event drinking Heinekens, and eventually switched to scotch once I had gotten some dinner in me. TK and I had made plans for the next night—dinner and a more thorough night of debauchery with Racktacular in Tampa—so instead of tagging along with coworkers and/or customers headed to various nearby bars and restaurants, I thought it better to play it low key. Heading back to my room to check emails, work on a spreadsheet or two, and get some rest would be the responsible thing to do.

But then I remembered that the hotel bar had bourbon.

As quickly as I had sat down with a glass of Maker's & Coke, a group of coworkers and customers were inviting me to join them at their table. I convened with their assemblage for a half hour or so; then, as I was again about to head back to my room, I ran into three of my managers, who—along with my team manager’s husband—were sitting at the bar downing drinks. As I sat down and my program manager ordered me another Maker's & Coke, my team manager introduced me to her hubby. “Have you met Bart?” He and I reminded her that we had met previously, and she returned to her glass of wine. After another 10 minutes of conversation, she turned to me and said, “Hey, have you met Bart?”

My program manager was a fellow lover of American whiskey. I ordered another Maker's & Coke, but he stopped the bartender and told her to change it to what he was drinking: Basil Hayden’s, neat. The smooth bourbon rubbed my shoulders and whispered sweet nothings to my consciousness. Fantastic stuff, that. I added one last Maker's & Coke to my body count, and then slipped off to my room. Two relatively quiet St. Pete nights in a row; I felt like such a cocktail tease.

I knew, though, that Wednesday would certainly bring a return to normalcy. By the end of the business day, I was ready to drink away anything work-related; “sloppy-drunk” was my affirmed goal. And before long, TK and that black Alero were there to whisk me off to a place made for just that objective: Ybor City.


We found Rackt at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company, and quickly got caught up while ordering dinner. Conversation steered towards work; I explained my woes, but TK’s professional life was a much different world. The young man, you see, is a certified massage therapist. And, while I’m sure you can envision the benefits that might come from having such a job in Florida, it also leaves him vulnerable to an unlimited amount of jokes involving sexual innuendo. And that is something squarely in Rackt's and my respective wheelhouses.

Me: “Do you ever have to massage hot chicks?”
TK: “Yeah, I massage hot chicks.”
Rackt: “Do you get a boner?”
TK: *flustered* “They can’t SEE it!”

After dinner and a few delicious draughts, we strolled through the streets of Ybor, eventually finding our way to Gaspar’s Grotto. We grabbed seats at the bar on the patio, and drained more draughts while I caught Rackt up on the happenings in Pittsburgh over the seven months since she had last visited. She eventually had to call it an early night, but TK and I were in it for the long haul.

An Ybor bar crowd on a random weeknight doesn’t disappoint. It’s the single malt of people-watching; you just sit back and savor it. And, as we were about to learn, things only get better when the bar is having an open-mic night. There was soon a middle-aged white man—wearing a jean jacket that seemed to have been relieved of its sleeves by a pair of gardening sheers—singing a blues song while a barefoot guy in a tie-dye t-shirt emphatically strummed a guitar. Later, women in burlesque-style heels, garters, and bustiers walked through the crowd handing out fliers to their show while a garage band—and a guy playing bongos—banged out a set. TK and I clinked our draught glasses.

After some time we moved down the street to Doppel Decker. Here we found a much sparser, but younger and more attractive crowd. That included the bartender, a beautiful, petite blonde who looked all of 17. We decided to do shots, and as TK went to order, she walked off towards another customer. Matter-of-factly, TK looked at me and said, “I’m not aggressive at bars.”

When she was back within earshot, I called her over and ordered two shots of whiskey. The bartender informed me, though, that Jager Bombs were buy-two-get-one-free. Hell of a saleswoman, that gal—and the thong peeking out from the back of her low-rise jeans was quite the capable wingman. I ordered up the $20 “bargain”, and gave the third shot to our lovely personal shopper. As she tossed it back, the thought that I had probably just bought and handed alcohol to a 17-year-old briefly crossed my mind.

After finishing our beers, TK and I moved on down 7th Ave., and wandered into The Dog's Bollocks. Count this as the first—but hopefully not the last—time I’ve ever set foot in a soccer bar. Such a thing doesn’t exist in Pittsburgh, to the best of my knowledge; but I wish it did. There were no soccer games that night, and as such no hooliganism. But the atmosphere within that bar was positively engrossing. The bar is dark but inviting; looming but non-threatening. Sitting at a barstool, you don’t feel like you’re sitting in a place of Tampa nightlife so much as you feel like you’re sitting in a child’s treehouse. A treehouse that serves lots and lots of tasty beers.

I marveled at graffiti in the bathroom, and then found a spot at the bar in the backroom with TK, where we ordered 24 oz draughts—a serving size the folks at 5 Bucks Drinkery would probably consider quite adequate. Dog's Bollocks serves these draughts in giant plastic mugs; there may or may not have been such a mug tucked into a thigh pocket of my cargo shorts when I stumbled back into my hotel room that night. I can only imagine a bartender chuckled at me straight-legging it out the door, while he muttered “tourist” and reached into a box of 200 more mugs just like it.

The airport the next afternoon…yeah. Hangovers that take place during air travel are far from new to me, but experience doesn’t stop the room from spinning. Having arrived at the airport about three hours before my flight, I got some lunch into me, followed by some Starbucks, and then set up camp at the gate. Fantasy football on my laptop, Joe Budden on my iPod, and an abundance of Florida’s top export walking past helped me to somehow keep it together. I watched a MILF in a sundress glide through the terminal, past the college girls’ volleyball team that was huddled around an iPad at the next gate, and suddenly remembered: The Ex is from Florida, too.

Nope, I've never learned.

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