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."