Being a nightlife columnist is kind of like being a sailor: We drink, we drift (from port to port or pub to pub), and our jobs can cause illness (they get seasick or scurvy; I get a hangover). Understandably, then, though I hate seafood with a passion, there's always been something about ships and seas that has enticed me.
Put a bar out there and call it the Wayward Sailor and you'll get my attention, like a distant foghorn or the snap of sails in a crisp breeze. Of course, a place like that may turn out to be, as I discovered on a recent Sunday night, frequented more by toasted Pittsburgh Steelers fans than actual sailors. Yeah, this is Fort Liquordale. Still, the schizoid Wayward Sailor Pub (3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale) can be more fun than a whole ship full of salty sailors. Or at least just as much.
Ambiance: I go to bars on Sunday evenings to avoid the obnoxious, boisterous crowds. As I walked up to the Wayward Sailor just after dark, I anticipated nothing more than a few old geezers smoking pipes and downing straight whiskey before going home to their boats. But as I drew closer, I became acutely aware of screechy, tension-filled warbling and quickly deduced that the bar was either bursting at the seams with rabid coyotes — or, worse, sports fans.
My fears were confirmed: I had just wandered into a mosh pit of Steelers fans, packed shoulder to shoulder around flashing TVs. Their black-and-gold fan jerseys contrasted sharply with the dusty old seafaring junk covering every inch of the pub's walls. Bobbers, fake barracudas and marlins, lanterns, ropes, nets, wooden boats, and black-and-white photographs hung haphazardly from the walls and ceiling, all surrounding the big wooden bar in the center of the room. I squeezed awkwardly through the sea of warm bodies, scouring the dark room for a chair or even just a dusty corner to stand in. I finally found one lone barstool and clung to it as if it were a life raft in a sea full of sharks.
Just had to wonder: Where the hell were the ancient mariners I was expecting, blowing smoke rings and telling their stories of the sea? What did sailing have to do with the Steelers? Already befuddled, I focused on summoning a busy bartender. Somebody had some 'splainin' to do.
Staff: The pretty blond bartender brought me a Bud Light quickly and, understanding my confusion, sent the big, burly bar owner over to talk to me. Mark Winkler wore glasses, and he had a bald head and white beard. Tie a dead albatross around his neck and he might just fit the bill. He had liquor on his breath and a smile on his face, and he was as jolly as they come.
"So, what are these Steelers fans doing in a sailor's bar?" I demanded.
"Well, I'm a Steelers fan, and my partner is from Pittsburgh, so we watch the game here," he said casually. "This place is pretty diverse. We get the sailing crowd, the Steelers crowd — and since we're so close to Culture Room, all the music fans come here after shows. Metal fans, country fans — sometimes the bands will eat dinner here before they play."
Metal fans? Guess you can't judge a bar by its name — or décor, for that matter.
"But why'd you choose the sea theme?"
"When we bought it, it was a Briny Irish Pub," he said. "In one of the hurricanes, our sign blew down, and we took the opportunity to rename the place."
"Why 'The Wayward Sailor'?" I asked.
"Well, my younger brother is a yacht captain," he said. "My parents' house was always full of my brothers' seafaring buddies. We would joke that the Winklers' home was full of wayward sailors. So we used that for the name of the bar — it's like an extension of that idea."
Well, OK. Enough to win me over.
"Sometimes people assume that since the name has sailor in it — and it's so close to Wilton Manors — that it's a gay bar," Mark added with a guttural chuckle.
"What?!" exclaimed Adam, the guy to my left, who had a narrow, fox-like face and was wearing a Roethlisberger jersey. "It isn't?!" He pretended to leave.
Patrons: The not-gay Adam and not-gay Shawn, who was football-player-hefty and wearing a backward white ball cap, were downing beer and enjoying the game — sort of. Shawn confessed he was not a Steelers fan (but hadn't been run out of the bar yet), and despite watching intently, Adam might have been too inebriated to know the score.
"You guys come here often?" I asked.
"I come here after working on my boat," Shawn said. "I come to hang out with Donna. I've known her forever." He indicated one of the bartenders, a pretty, petite woman with dark, cropped hair.
"I called Donna 'Debbie' the first time I came in here," Adam said with an earsplitting, alcohol-tastic laugh. "So now she's been calling me a different 'A' name every time she sees me. But not the one you're thinking."
"That's right, Big Al," said Donna, who had dropped in on the conversation.
"No, it should be Big Ben," I said, indicating Adam's jersey.
"What have you heard?" Adam said, giggling.
"Is he talking about his penis?" Donna asked.
Suddenly, they all focused on the TVs, and Donna started chanting these magic words, over and over: "Jell-O shot."
"When the Steelers score, we all get free Jell-O shots," Adam explained, as if letting me into an inner sanctum of wisdom. In a flash of brilliance, I realized the truth: I'd always loved the Pittsburgh Steelers. I just hadn't known it until that moment.
"The shots are Steelers colors," Adam continued. "The black is black cherry; the yellow is lemon. I hate the lemon ones." He made a face.
"If you get a lemon one, give it to me," I said.
Jell-O shots: I guess the Steelers were sucking so hard that Donna figured a touchdown might not ever happen, so she gave me a delicious, lemon Jell-O shot. A few minutes later, the crowd blew the place apart with cheering, and though it hadn't been a touchdown, Donna decided it was as good a time as any to give out shots. So I had another one, becoming increasingly good at downing them with minimal mess. Eventually, the Steelers stopped sucking, and I ended up sucking down two more Jell-O shots. Man, gotta love those Steelers.
Pittsburghese: An older, wiry gentleman — he was wearing two plastic Hawaiian leis around his neck, one yellow and one black — came up to me and said he'd heard I was writing about the place.
"I stole the leis off the tuna," Patrick explained after noticing me eyeing his neck adornments. He pointed to a big fish mounted on the opposite wall. "Anyway, I'm here to answer your questions."
I had four Jell-O shots crawling around my stomach and nothing investigative to ask, so he led me over to his group of friends.
"Do you know what a jag-off is?" Patrick asked me.
Sometimes the currents can take a nightlife columnist into the mental doldrums, no matter how she fights it.
"What?" I asked politely.
"It's Pittsburgh slang. Go ask the owner." Mark said he didn't know. Patrick was outraged and led me across the bar. He commanded dark-haired Robert and pretty, slender Stephanie to define "jag-off" for me. He then promptly wandered off.
"It's like a jack-off," Robert said. "An asshole."
"I kind of figured," I said, taking the opportunity to scribble in my notepad. In the process, my grocery list fell out of my purse, and Robert snatched it up. " 'Dishwasher soap, yogurt, Draino, tampons, condoms, lube, vibrator...' " Only four of those things were actually on the list. Stephanie sighed exasperatedly.
"Yeah, I'm shopping for a vibrator at the grocery store," I said, snatching the list back. It was about time to bolt.
No such luck. I was stopped by Adam's father, Tom, a friendly, older gentleman who had heard about my quest to define the word jag-off. Adam saw me talking to his dad, and, like an adolescent, rolled his eyes in embarrassment.
"I suggest you try Pittsburghese.com," Tom said.
"What are they doing to you?" asked Jill, an off-duty bartender who was short, pretty, and for some reason way too sober for the place.
"Defining jag-off," I said innocently. Now that his father was a few feet away from us, Adam strutted up and put his arm around Jill.
"This is my wife," he said. She rolled her eyes.
"You've just found the definition of the word jag-off," she said with a smirk.
So, the Steelers won, I learned a new word, had three too many Jell-O shots, and drifted wordlessly back into the night. Yeah, I'd had a crazy, drunken time with Steelers fans, but a nightlife columnist doesn't dock her ship at one bar, no matter how much fun it is. I'll be drifting on to a new liquor harbor next week, and I just hope it's got as many fun, Pittsburghese-speakin', hard-drinkin' folks as the Wayward and maybe a few less jag-offs.
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Shawn confessed he was not a Steelers fan, and despite watching intently, Adam might have been too inebriated to know the score.