"You've never heard of beer pong?" Lauren, a Johns Hopkins behavioral biology major, asked me in disbelief on a Tuesday night at Automatic Slim's. "Didn't you go to college?"
"My fraternity had its own beer pong tables," interjected Kevin, a 26-year-old computer programmer.
To justify my ignorance of the pastime, I explained that I'd worked a 40-hour week to pay my way through college, so I didn't have time for Greek organizations or party games.
"But still...," Lauren insisted. "What about Beirut? That's another name for it."
Nope. But if they'd offered financial scholarships for a "sport" that requires participants to toss Ping-Pong balls across a table and into their opponents' cups of beer, I might have looked into it.
Now was as good a time as any for the education I missed in college. Between the pong (which had become so popular that its enthusiasts had created leagues) and the Jell-O wrestling, I figured it would be a full night of firsts for me at the Las Olas Riverfront joint.
While I was waiting for the fun to start, I nosed around first upstairs in the vacant pool room and then in the back in the cordoned-off tiki bar. No vats of wrasslin' gelatin. Hmm.
When I was satisfied I'd done a thorough scouting, I grabbed a corner seat at the bar not too far from two old ads, one for the movie Easy Rider and the other for a Chrysler Road Runner. They stretched the height of the two-story wall, and a stripper pole between them added that little extra touch of class.
I asked the bouncer where the Jell-O action was taking place.
"We couldn't get anyone to do it," he said, shrugging. "Everyone was just here for the beer pong."
"I know beer is filling," I wanted to object, "but there's always room for Jell-O!"
Disappointed, I soaked in more of the ambience. The DJ was spinning the B-52's "Love Shack" from his booth, which was made from the front end of a vintage silver "Globe Trotter" RV (complete with an awning that stretched out over a folding picnic table) beneath a mural advertising the Grand Canyon.
James, 32, an "expediter" at the Ocean Reef Grill, pulled up a stool next to me and introduced himself. I asked him to clarify his role at the restaurant since I'd never heard of the position. He described the job as "basically anything that needs be done."
"So you're the kitchen bitch," I concluded.
"Yeah, I guess I am," he said, and offered me a drink. "I'm in the biz, so they come to my place, and I take care of them, and when I come here, they take care of me one hand washes the other."
"So both hands are clean?" I asked, just to make sure.
"Not clean but taken care of."
Satisfied that he knew the difference, I switched the topic to beer pong.
"Obviously, the whole point of the game is to " he began.
"Get drunk!" I interrupted, understanding the object of drinking games.
"To get your opponent drunk," he contradicted. "So they don't play as good, so you win the game."
To me, the object of the game seemed counterintuitive. Get other people drunk? Sheesh! I needed to find some pong officials for clarification.
Pong organizer and MC Dan informed me that more was at stake than who got whom drunk: "We do this week to week, and then we'll have finals, and the winning team gets an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas for the national competition in December."
I declined his invitation to try my hand at the game my liver had been in training for just such a sport for years, but my hand-eye coordination had always been for shit (as evidenced by the time my face intercepted a football pass and split my upper lip in two). With self-preservation in mind, I sought out others who had more confidence in their own athletic abilities.
On the other side of the bar's huge triangular Ventura Drive-in sign, which glowed with blue neon, two dudes had their Blackberries and wallets on the bar top. They introduced themselves as Jason and Jeremy, L.A. investors in town long enough for a morning meeting.
"You look awfully young to be investors," I remarked, finding their claims dubious. "The electronics and cash-stuffed wallets on the bar are a nice touch, though."
The department of tourism wasn't gonna be happy that I was harassing the moneyed out-of-towners, but I had just gotten started.
"I think designers should put pockets in the crotch of guys' jeans so they can stuff their wads of cash in there. It would be dual-purpose marketing," I snarked.
"Well, how are girls gonna feel my junk on the dance floor?" Jeremy asked, thrusting his hips to illustrate his meaning.
I think "Why would they want to?" was more to the point.
The beer pong hostess came around to sign people up and take their ten bucks, half of which would provide prize money to the night's winners. Jason and Jeremy signed up as "The Average Joes."
Connecting their team name with the movie they obviously took it from, the pong hostess blurted: "I made out with the pirate from Dodgeball."
Well, good for her.
Over at the competition table, Dan was explaining the rules and getting everyone mobilized to play. Lauren's team, "Boner McNasty," was slated to square off against "The Muggles."
The $3 Miller Lite special would supply the game beer to fill each of the six plastic cups arranged in a triangle at each end of the table.
"It's win-win. If you lose, you're wasted," Kevin told me with a wide grin as he adjusted his trucker hat. "And if you win, the losers pay for your beer."
I was beginning to understand the appeal of the game.
The first two teams were rock-paper-scissoring to see who would start. One of the competitors asked the timeless question documented in Lethal Weapon: "Wait, do we shoot on three, or is it one-two-three and then shoot?"
Once they got that sorted out, the "action" began. I watched for a little while as they launched the little white orbs at each other's cups. When they'd sink one, the opposing team would down the few inches of beer in the cup. It wasn't much of a spectator sport.
Lauren's friends sitting on the stools closest to the game looked a little bored, so I consulted them for their insights.
"Talk to this guy," one of them said of the other. "Stephen is the nightlife king. His dad is South Florida's leading gynecologist."
I thought I was picking up what he was laying down, but I wanted to make sure.
"What do you do?" I asked the coochie caregiver's son.
He shook his head and shrugged me off: "Nothing. I'm a douchebag."
Evidently, an interest in feminine hygiene ran in the family.
Bout two had just begun. And it was as the Average Joes were taking on "The Sharks" that I realized the game's down side: It was downright unhygienic. The only sanitizing of the Ping-Pong balls, which had been handled by many and frequently rolled across the barroom floor, was a brief dunking in a glass of lukewarm water before each toss to remove any clinging schmutz.
And I was pretty sure that beer, even though its nickname "suds" might indicate otherwise, had no sanitizing properties whatsoever.
Oblivious to the health risks, the Average Joes continued to dunk and shoot and drink, and ultimately, they beat their competitors. Then another two teams squared off, and then the winners went to round two.
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Thankfully, the staff began providing some better entertainment. Bartenders Maria and Shannon, both in itty-bitty cropped tank tops and six-inch-long pleated skirts, began spraying each other with water guns. Shannon dropped a piece of ice down the exposed cleavage of her blond co-worker.
As the DJ spun Guns 'N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," the guy in a GNR T-shirt who'd introduced himself earlier as "Nat" began tossing his hair as he stood on the barstool and played air guitar. The DJ spotlighted the performers with his flashlight.
It was mildly amusing, but I was ready to call it a night. I didn't really care who won the beer contest.
As I left, enriched by my inculcation into a subject that no university would ever grant credit for, I reflected on the adage "No education is ever wasted." On that note, I hoped there'd be an opportunity somewhere in my future for a crash course on the finer points of Jell-O wrestling.