Not long after the SunFest stages had gone dark on a Saturday night, the 500 block of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach began rocking. My longtime favorite nightlife destinations, O'Shea's Irish Pub and Respectable Street, were hosting a lineup of local bands to attract the post-SunFest crowds.
As usual, I first headed to O'Shea's to get my traditional pint of draft ale before moving a few doors down to Respectables, where the beer selection is both limited and bottled. Respecs, however, has always had the musical edge both live shows and danceable progressive/alternative DJ'ed selections which made it my ultimate destination and a cultural asset to the Palm Beach County scene. But before I crossed Rosemary Avenue to get to the pub, it was clear that things were not the norm.
For starters, in all the years I'd been hanging out there, I'd never seen anyone simulate sex with a cement bollard at the crosswalk. Granted, I'd seen some crazy stuff a tough guy kicking through a plate-glass window and a bicyclist waving a gun as he rode down the street stand out in my memory but this night was the first time I'd ever witnessed the sexual harassment of a traffic safety apparatus.
At the pub, with a band on the indoor and the outdoor stages, the bead-wearing hordes of SunFest drunks mixed with the local music scenesters. The mix wasn't necessarily a match.
I felt like I'd been sucked into a drunken subtropical Twilight Zone episode. I sidestepped two dudes squaring off at each other and nearly tripped over a wrestling match for a just-vacated plastic chair, one whose rear leg snapped when the victorious woman plunked down in it.
"We gotta find someplace else to go," a neatly dressed guy said to his date as they were jostled by the mob. Agreeing with his assessment, I recalled the days of yore before I was a Night Rider when I was still just a day-tripper.
Back then, I spent many of my nights hanging on Clematis with my street-savvy compatriots. O'Shea's was where we chilled, and Respectable Street was where we revved things up. Attracting gender-benders, punks, and goths long before Hot Topic was even a gleam in an entrepreneur's eye, Respecs was the mental ward where many gathered after getting their "meds" at the parking lot across the street.
I always wax nostalgic when I return, especially since so much has changed.
For instance, earlier in the week, I'd inadvertently stumbled into a rock show at RSC (it keeps the C though it no longer has its daytime café) that exemplified one of the differences. A musician pal of mine had invited me to the show, and trusting his taste in music, I didn't investigate the bands. I was halfway through the night when I realized that all the bands were Christian or, as I like to call it, "the other white music" and far from the club's usual freaky iconoclasts and irreverent indie rockers.
"I feel like a Black Jew at a KKK rally," I told the music promoter.
"With that attitude, you're no better than they are," he admonished.
I was still chewing on that idea on Saturday when most of the regulars were displaced by the SunFest crowd. There was not a goth to be found (perhaps they were disguised, rendering them invisigoths?) Even many of the usual suspects were there in daywear rather than the usual retro gear and hipster apparel.
The jittery vibe of the street gave way to a strange calm inside the club, especially notable since Truckstop Coffee, a rockin' alt-country band, was kickin' it with lots of down-home energy. The audience, however, was unmoved with one exception.
On the black-and-white checkered dance floor below the stage, Dennis, lead singer and guitar player for the evening's final act, Fantastic Amazing, was riding a spring-mounted, playground donkey like it was a mechanical bull. His hand whipped around his head; his back arched and bowed as if he were hanging on for the ride of his life.
"This guy is a performance-art genius," my friend Keith declared.
When his band took the stage, Dennis' antics including playing his guitar by sliding it against the mic stand bred more insanity. As the band rocked it out with surf-punk abandon, one chick tossed her hair while playing air guitar. Another woman started grinding against the donkey's head.
Strangest of all was a dance done in earnest by a beachy, longhaired guy in T-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops. Wildly, his lanky arms and legs flailed in different directions to his credit, right with the beat. He looked like a marionette whose invisible strings were being pulled from above by a whiskey-sotted deity with a warped sense of humor.
The dance was not diverted by the arrival of his beach volleyball buddies, immediately identifiable by their blond hair, tanned skin, and beach apparel. Later, Puppet Man introduced himself as Scott and cajoled me into joining him on the dance floor. The good thing about a dance partner like him: No one would notice if I looked awkward.
As we danced, there was something in the air. No, not love.
It smelled like citrus and babies, like Kleenex, something innocuous. I couldn't place it.
At the bar, I smelled it again. Perplexed, I leaned over and sniffed Scott's buddy Louis.
"You guys smell the same."
After revealing they'd used Dolce & Gabana to cover up the stench of their SunFest sweat, he looked at me quizzically, "What are you, a bloodhound?"
I guess it was better than being called a drug dog.
When I asked Louis about his line of work, he replied, "I'm a half-assed contractor."
"So you build cheap buildings and get your ass chewed out?" I quipped.
He laughed and gave my booty no half-ass, to be sure a playful whack. I chalked it up to harmless drunkenness (some things never change) and shrugged it off.
Soon, the beach boys left to go check out a live radio broadcast a few blocks east, so I slid into the booth where the guys from Fantastic Amazing were stationed. Edo, the bass player, had just finished drawing a face on a piece of cardboard packaging, then became the Man in the Cardboard Mask as he pulled it over his head and bobbled it side to side.
Once liberated from his headgear, he challenged me to a game of ticktacktoe.
Then he grabbed an old issue of New Times from the stand. After reading my column about a fetish party, he had a weird look on his face. Not by cardboard mask standards, but weird nonetheless.
"You know, I've never even been to a strip club," he confessed.
A rocker who's never been to a strip club?
"You're not a Christian rocker, are you?"
"I'm from Israel."
I took that as a no.
Out on the back patio, a tall mocha-skinned dude was leaning against the DJ booth. He was so attractive, charming, and enthusiastic that I thought I heard a blip on my gaydar.
He introduced himself as Garth, a 29-year-old DJ who moved from Jamaica and now lives in Sunrise.
"You fit the stereotype," I said trying to get him to give up his orientation.
"What stereotype is that?"
"Are you saying I'm gay?" he gasped. His tone and expression told me he was not.
"No," I answered innocently, "I meant as a DJ."
I was interrupted by the return of the beach volleyball players who were among the bodies bobbing to "Jump Around" by House of Pain. They'd returned from their expedition, but not unscathed one of them had found his own house of pain down the street. Louis' still-smiling face was battered.
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"He got in a fight," Scott reported, though he was hazy about the details. Maybe this time, his friend had picked the wrong ass to whack.
It reminded me of back in the day, as we say, particularly a night on the same back patio when I fell in love with my first tattooed hoodlum.
"What's the worst that'll happen?" he asked when I warned him about another guy who would be pissed that he was hitting on me, "I'll get my ass beat? You're worth an ass-beating."
How could one not be nostalgic?