After two autumn weeks shivering in dark, soggy Finland for the sake of romance (my most expensive booty call ever), I have renewed appreciation for South Florida. And I'm not just talking about the weather. I didn't think that what I'd miss most was the (gasp!) culture here on our nation's peninsular tip.
Overseas, the Night Rider was having trouble getting it in gear. Despite the long Finnish nights, the Finns' weekend-only nightlife is no match for our commitment to 24/7 partying. The neighborhood bars are few, and those that exist are depressing smoky holes (often without any music whatsoever) only for "deadbeat dads and hardcore alcoholics," as my Scandinavian stud (who'd spent some time with me and my Bohemian friends in my favorite Florida dives) put it.
Of course, this alone wouldn't have hampered the Night Rider. But even when they do go out, Finns aren't big on mingling; they're an insular bunch unlike Floridians, who are used to transience and make (and drop) friends quickly.
At Hevimesta, a heavy-metal bar in Helsinki, I attempted to make friends with a group of guys who were celebrating someone's 30th birthday. There in one of the little "crypts" where I shared a table with my friends beneath skull and wrought-iron decor, the metal dudes got irritated at my attempts to make conversation with them in English.
"Can't you speak Finnish?" one antagonized in fairly good English.
"Sure," I said, recalling a phrase my Nordic hunk had taught me. "Makkara on minun ystävä."
Whether it was how I said it or what I said ("Sausage is my friend"), it got a laugh. But there the socializing ended.
So my first day back on my home turf, I was ready for some nightlife American style. Even though it was the Lord's day, I knew I'd still be able to find some dedicated American carousers of various classes and watering holes open to cater to them. It was no coincidence that I hit the all-American city of Delray Beach and called my friend Chris to join me at Bull Bar.
Beginning with its name, the joint was doing its bit to live up to truth, justice, and the American way. Where besides the courtroom do you hear more bull than in a bar? When asked how he got the shiner, the bartender's explanation began with the afterhours Delray version of "Once upon a time...": "I was at the Ugly Mug..."
"All the best stories start that way," I laughed. If Bull Bar is (as its website claims) "the gateway" to Delray nightlife, then the Mug is the brick wall you slam into at the end.
Bull Bar was nothing but beautiful couples, including the guy with the strapping shoulders who ordered "a water for the princess" with the size 0 hips. I had mixed feelings when my friend showed up looking like a lumberjack, and I told him so.
"At least I'm wearing shoes," Chris shot back. "I need a vodka that's rougher than my life," he griped, referring to his present unemployed condition.
Meanwhile Mr. Shoulders was opining on the good life: "You need to own your own home, have lots of insurance, and work for someone else."
I guess he forgot to mention the other part of his American dream the rail-thin woman who uttered not a single word while he and the bartender chatted.
Feeling a little out of place, I suggested that Chris and I try the Sail Inn Tavern a neighborhood bar about a mile away. Both his lumberjack look and my own outfit would fit in there I had on a stylish gaucho ensemble that highlighted my new Finnish accessories, an Aarikka necklace and Marimekko purse (on clean-lined design, I can give the Finns their props). And the people were friendlier. After 53 years in the location, the neighborhood bar is "superlocal and superhistorical," as one third-generation townie put it shortly after we arrived.
We claimed seats in the far corner next to the old biker dude with the long, white goatee and ordered a couple of domestics (in honor of my new national pride). Across the bar, a group of business-casual guys distinguished themselves by being the only ones in the place who'd ironed. Three heavily tattooed, good-looking dudes claimed the high top in the corner.
I'd been at the landmark bar once before as part of an early afterparty (the place closes at 2 a.m.). The few memories that remained were in photos. I said as much to the bartender, John, as I ordered.
He confirmed that my experience was not extraordinary: "We've got a saying: Sail in, stumble out!"
I refamiliarized myself with the digs, which were unpretentiously kitschy and homey. The nautical theme the portholes, boat ropes, etc. snuggled next to memorabilia of the owner, staff, and regulars, including a photo of President Clinton and a bar patron wearing a Sail Inn T-shirt.
Since the biker and my buddy Chris were both busy watching Sunday-night football on flat-screen TV, I ventured around the bar to talk to the business-casual guys, one of whom was swirling cognac in a snifter.
"I don't think they've had to buy a snifter since I started coming here. I 'migrate' them from other bars," he told me, admitting he himself had "migrated" here from Pittsburgh annually. "It's been interesting over the past 15 years watching the ebb and flow of the popularity of this place. It's doing pretty good right now. People are starting to migrate back to neighborhood bars and forget the fluff."
In an effort to relate, I migrated too over to his buddies, all of whom were golf pros also down for the season.
"Yeah, there's no golf in the winter up north," said Mike from Chicago.
I decided to work with his underestimation of my sports knowledge: "Really? I thought that's where the term 'blue balls' came from you know, painting them for visibility in snow."
He looked startled and then laughed uncomfortably. I shifted the conversation to his favorite part of his job, which he said was "the people." I couldn't imagine a life catering to the wealthy.
"Not everyone's rich," he countered. "Debt looks rich too."
Ah, yes, the ugly side of American consumer culture. After a couple of weeks away, it was almost beautiful.
Over by the videogame on the bar top, a young woman was drinking alone.
"Hey, I know you," she said, recognizing me from the biker bar where she works. Gretchen told me she preferred to drink here because the people were like family. So much so that bartending hopefuls (who are always regulars) wait years for a job. And the owner, Rick, was also once a bartender himself. The result is a real family atmosphere even for newcomers.
"Let me put it this way: It's so local that even outsiders are generally welcomed," Gretchen explained.
A group of women stumbled in and began playing songs on the juke, which had been previously quiet. "YMCA" sounded from the speakers, but the first lyrics hadn't sounded yet when the bartender used his remote to nix the song. The women raised their voices in objection.
"You got two choices. You can play something good or I'll shut it off and turn the game back on," John said matter-of-factly before, like the father of the family, suggesting an alternative that also spelled things out. "You can play 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T. '"
Impressed by the bartender's juke veto (something you'd never see in a martini bar), Chris stopped watching the game to tell me so: "That was the coolest thing ever!"
It wasn't long until some metalheads hijacked the music machine and were playing Slayer, and John had lightened up and began moshing behind the bar. Meanwhile, Gretchen was assuring me that Sail Inn had the best Jäger bombs ever, so I offered to buy a round.
"You're in my bar," she said with militant Southern hospitality that was equal parts intimidating and endearing.
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I let her have her way.
"I love you, I love you, I love you," she sang across the bar to get John to make us the shots pronto while she explained why the Sail's bombs were, well, the bomb.
Once I guzzled mine, I realized that it wasn't just what Gretchen claimed, that all the ingredients, including the glasses, were chilled. The two-ounce shot glass of Jäger also nestled perfectly in the mug so that the ratios were perfect till the last drop and I didn't have to worry about the shot glass knocking out a tooth as I drank.
Ah, the boozing ingenuity! That combined with down-home hospitality gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that made me doubly happy to be home.