When I heard there was a once-monthly goth night at a pirate bar, I was intrigued. Was someone finally admitting that the goth scene had a touch of the scurvy? The fact that the event was taking place at what was once the Duke Lounge in Lantana made it an irresistible Saturday-night option. Despite the evening's name, Unity, I was sure it would be a collision of cultures rigidly masculine, blue-collar, baby-boomer regulars and dramatic, gender-bending Gen X and Y invaders.
Situated on the corner where U.S. 1 splits into Federal and Dixie highways, the landmark dive has claimed a sort of devil's triangle of real estate for decades. It still serves as an unofficial gateway to a stretch of street-side drug dealing and prostitution (as attested to by the flier left on my car, warning that there was an HIV-infected hooker in the area). But the old Duke gave up the ghost back in August, and the era of its legendary, debauched aristocracy ended. The new owners gave the windowless cinderblock structure (also home to "C" Liquors) the less regal name Scallywags.
It made sense that, as long as management was willing to ride the petering wave of pirate popularity, it would embrace the death throes of a goth night too. Talk about unity: Most goths have more skulls and crossbones in their closets than a fleet of pirate ships has up its masts. But the only thing to suggest piracy, other than the 22-ounce buckets of fruity rum Pirates Punch (a bargain at eight bucks) and the five-foot shark hanging from the ceiling were the salty regulars.
When I claimed a barstool for my own booty, an intense guy with furry forearms took an immediate interest in me. Thirty-one-year Lantana resident and a regular since the Duke days, Johnny T. all but climbed into my lap as he shared a brief history.
"One time at 3 in the morning, it was like the Wild, Wild West out there," he recalled, gesturing toward the parking lot. "I think there was gun smoke and everything."
And how had things changed?
"Well, the AC works, and it doesn't stink as much as it used to," he said flippantly, leaning in so that I had to scoot my chair back to avoid full body contact. "This [the event] sort of freaks everyone out, because it's not the usual crowd."
If the middle-aged white dudes were, indeed, freaked out, they'd dealt with it by finding sanctuary in their own solidarity. A handful of them hunched quietly over their drinks, drinking with manly dignity, as the black-clad crowd, kids by comparison, overran the men's turf and slurped buckets of booze through straws.
The joint actually had a quaint retro charm, beginning with a testament to its origins. Memorialized in the mirrored walls, "Happy Times at The Duke" was etched in the glass so that the words and two martini glasses glimmered beyond the split-level bar. Chair-level on one side, stool-level on the other, the bar was decorated in red and black, including the vinyl booths and chairs (all in good repair), which contributed to the '50s feel. Despite Johnny's flippant remarks, the place was quite clean and, other than the cigarette smoke, odor-free.
The technology including a projection TV and four flat-screen monitors set us clearly in the modern day. The owners had also installed a kicking sound system that was presently using Nine Inch Nails to punch holes in my tympanic membrane. Thus motivated, I moved to the quieter side of the bar, where I'd become a participant rather than an observer of the scene.
I'd been spotted, anyway, by a few people. Randy and his date, Heather, both Gen-Xers and graphic designers, had arrived for the second time tonight.
"We got here at about 10:30 and it was just a bunch of old guys drinking," Randy reported.
Like me, Randy remembered the days when West Palm Beach's Respectable Street was HQ for the Palm Beach County goth scene. Back then, in the '80s, a goth had to intrepidly brave a prerevitalized Clematis Street, a wasteland of potential muggers and suspicious vagabonds, to get to her preferred destination. Randy drew a parallel between that scene and this. Both were sketchy on the outside but welcoming on the inside.
Downing the last of his rum and Coke (served in a genuine glass rather than plastic), Randy nudged me.
"It's really not that much different from old-school Respectables everyone is up at the bar, and only two people are dancing!" He laughed and then gave the place its props. "I'll say this, though: They pour a strong drink. A lot of rum, a little Coke three bucks and I'm drunk."
One of the cofounders of the event, who introduced himself only as Alan, a 38-year-old financier from Boca, was just a few chairs over. I talked to him long enough to discover that he and his co-conspirator Aaron (AKA DJ Sentry, who was now spinning) had driven all over Palm Beach County looking for this, "the perfect venue," for what started out as a heavy industrial night called Rapture. Now solely in the hands of DJ Sentry, the event was dubbed Unity, offering a mélange of music that includes new wave, synth pop, industrial, goth, electroclash, and EBM (electronic body music).
"You have to dance to this!" a woman in a red plaid miniskirt interjected, pointing commandingly toward the dance floor.
Alan obeyed, explaining as he left, "I promised I'd dance if he [DJ Sentry] played this song."
The commando was his wife, Christine, who had proven she could be direct.
"Goths and pirates? How's that working out?" I asked, wondering if there'd been any conflict between the two crowds.
"Actually, quite well. The owners are really supportive. The regulars dip out around 11," she explained, though a half-dozen stragglers still claimed the stools at the north end of the bar.
The new owners, Doc Morrow and Sean Lee, whose day jobs are in real estate and computers, respectively, opened the bar "to try something new," as Sean put it. What was old was new, I guess, for them. Far from edgy, the scene had a sort of homey feel. It was a crowd brought together by music, and it was a community that cohered through the resulting friendships. As a result, no one was trying too hard. Only one of the clan continued the tradition of openly contorting the gender norms.
With Orgy's glam pretty boy Jay Gordon as his role model, Greg boasted that his goal was to be "disgustingly pretty." He was achieving his goal. With expertly applied makeup, including black-rimmed eyes and silvery eyelids, he was perhaps the prettiest person in the bar. His blond-highlighted hair stood up in more than a dozen little meringue-inspired spikes. I asked about his other ambitions.
"I'm a senior this year, but next year, I'll be a super-senior," he laughed, explaining that he'd moved down from Connecticut on a whim, knowing nothing about the university he'd applied to. He'd simply filled out some forms a roommate had lying around the apartment. "I'm the only one of my type at my university. I usually wear makeup even if I'm just going to regular clubs."
Unwilling to be pigeonholed as one-dimensional, Greg shared a lot about himself his sun sign (Sagittarius), his religious pursuits (Urantia, which he admitted is a cult but "not a bad cult"), and his interest in string theory, cheerleading, and cyber-fetish.
"That's my fetish. If I see a girl with those neon extensions in her hair and those big boots..." He shook his head, as if the mere image had evacuated the vocabulary from his head. "Hopefully, I'll bridge the gap between man and machine."
Well, it's good to have goals.
Dominique, a regular fixture on the goth scene, could speak firsthand to the importance of both human/machine and human/human relationships.
"I'm alive," she said in raspy voice. "I flatlined during surgery, and they had to give me a tracheotomy." When I asked how she was doing now, she showed me the silvery line across her neck, almost a fashion statement in this crowd.
Introducing me to the two guys with her Arthur and Ian Dom had a big smile on her face and was slurring her words a little, which I initially attributed to the throat surgery.
"This is my third one," she said after several raspy sentences had escaped her lips, holding up her plastic pail, making it clear that alcohol rather than surgery was responsible for the speech impediment. "Sorry, I'm a little drunk. This is my last night as a single woman."
Her true love was returning to South Florida after ten years in Michigan with his parents, who were "escaping the Krishna cult they were in." In just a few hours, they'd be reunited.
By 2 a.m., when the crowd finally got around to discovering the purpose of the dance floor, I got to talk to the man behind the music as his wife, Monica, took over and began to play some Morrissey. To show how cohesive the Palm Beach scene can be, DJ Sentry (known by day as Aaron Powery, an environmentalist for an aquatic vegetation company) got his start guest-DJ'ing during Respectables' Wednesday industrial night, Kollectiv.
"Respectables will always be home, but I'm trying to do something a little different than what they are doing now," he explained as people poured in from the mothership to take advantage of Scallywag's 4 a.m. closing time. "Respectables plays a lot of indie and electroclash, but my soul is really in what I used to hear Depeche Mode, Flock of Seagulls, the Cure. My goal is to provide a merger of what is and what was. That's why I call it 'Unity,' because it unites all these different genres of music."
And a whole lot more.
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