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Primate on the Rocks

Monkeys have always made me happy. They can be eating ripe bananas, puckering their lips at zoo visitors, or swinging from trees in a National Geographic documentary. Whatever — total joy. As I kid, I played Monkey in the Middle, Barrel o' Monkeys, and plenty of Donkey Kong. And every time I watch Mighty Joe Young or King Kong, you know who I'm rooting for.

So when New Times' theater critic, Brandon K. Thorp, suggested a visit to a "monkey-themed" bar in Wilton Manors, I knew I couldn't miss the chance to mix my childhood fascination with my adult preoccupation: booze. What better way to pay homage to the coolest evolutionary ancestor that Homo sapiens could ask for?

Brandon suggested Karaoke Tuesdays. He had me at "monkey-themed."

Ambiance: Over the doorway to Monkey Business (2740 N. Andrews Ave.) is a small picture of a cartoon monkey with a smirk on his face and a beer bottle gripped in his long tail. Inside, fake tropical plants sit near the doors, their vinyl branches stretching upward, giving the distinct feeling that the bar is being overgrown by jungle foliage. Stuffed monkeys curl around the plants' stems and hang from the rafters. Wooden primates perch on shelves, and statues of chimps sit above the bottles of booze behind the bar. Pictures of orangutans and baboons hang from the banana-yellow walls. A large painting behind the bar features a pair of wig-wearing anthropomorphic apes lovingly boozing together. Planet of the Apes indeed! Think of an alcohol-soaked version of the Rainforest Café — without the overdone Disney décor and shitty, overpriced food.

My ears were soon filled with what I believed was a screeching mating call, but then I realized it was merely a karaoke rendition of Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" (now, there's a mating call). The singer stood on a small stage near the back of the bar. He had his back to the bead-covered mirrors positioned on the two walls behind the stage.

Between the drunken warbling and legions of unblinking monkeys, I knew I needed a beer in me soon or I was going to go (sorry, can't help myself) apeshit.

Drinks: I'd barely staked out one of the tables and was checking out a stack of sexy gay magazines (bursting with pictures of men bursting out of their pants) when my two companions hustled back from the bar. They brandished bottles of Bud Light aplenty, plus two white, foamy shots.

"What the hell are those?" I asked, snatching up a Bud Light and pointing at the shots.

"Oh those," Brandon said. "Those are called Cowboy Cocksuckers. And you and I are gonna drink them."

I lifted the glass hesitantly, dreading the bitter pinch of that first mouthful of a shot. Despite my apprehension, Brandon and I clinked glasses and threw back our heads. I found the creamy Cocksucker (Southern Comfort, Bailey's, peach schnapps) delicious — one of the better shots I've had in my long career of shot-gagging. Brandon had wiped the white froth from his upper lip long before I slid my empty shot glass across the bar.

Monkeys: With warm liquor nestled deep in my guts, it came time to broach the burning question of the evening.

"So what's with all the monkeys?" I asked Bill, a slender, bespectacled, off-duty bartender who was drinking at the end of the bar. His shift had ended at 8 p.m., and here he was, an hour and a half later, in no particular rush to head home. "Did somebody just discover their spirit animal?"

"Well, the owner — Gus [Sanchez] — really likes monkeys," he told me. "Plus, you'd have to see him — he's double-jointed, with kind of long arms —"

"Monkeyish," I supplied. Sounds like proof of evolution to me.

"Yeah," Bill smiled. "And people have brought him monkey stuff from all over the world, and he decorates the place with it."

Then he looked up at me. "Uh... you know this is a gay bar, right?"

"I research places before I come to them," I said. But if I hadn't, the two dudes in the corner sucking each other's faces off would have been a good tip-off.

Customers: Michael... or rather, Chef Mikey, as he prefers to be called (when not performing karaoke in a room full of monkeys, he says he works as a chef at Palm Grill), was sitting at the table in front of mine, wearing a ball cap and T-shirt and leafing through a massive binder.

On closer inspection, I realized the book belonged to Freddy — the guy who runs the karaoke — and contained 512 pages of songs available for butchering. The variety was staggering. Elvis boasted three entire pages of songs available for your reading-lyrics-off-a-TV-screen pleasure. Chef Mikey's older, grizzled boyfriend had an amazing voice, and he was busy jumping off and on the stage, so I made conversation with the lonely little Chef.

"What can you tell me about this place?" I asked.

"Well, it's a much older crowd," Chef Mikey said. "I'm 29, but it's OK for me — I'm into older guys. My boyfriend is old enough to be my father."

"Well, some maturity in a relationship is never bad," I said. "What song are you going to sing?"

"I think I'm gonna do 'Friends in Low Places' by Garth Brooks," he said, seeming both nervous and quite pleased with his decision.

Karaoke: A short, dark-haired man did a fantastic song in Spanish (after which one of the other patrons remarked, "I didn't know what the hell you were singing, but that was great!"). One of my companions impressively rendered Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back." Shay, a short, young woman with cropped hair, lent a crisp, beautiful voice to "Mary Jane."

Karaoke is supposed to suck. Why the hell were these people here and not on Broadway? To get the scoop, I decided to chat up Olivia, a curvaceous woman with long brown hair who seemed to belong to a trio of incredibly good singers — including Shay and Chef Mikey's beau.

"What brings you out tonight?" I asked her.

"I'm a tax auditor," she said. "This is my stress release."

"How many tax audits do you do?" somebody asked.

"I do five audits a week, plus 12 sets of taxes," she said, looking stressed just thinking about her work. "And I do karaoke three times a week at a few different bars.

"That stressful, huh?"

"My all-time favorite is 'White Rabbit' by Jefferson Airplane. Or maybe some Journey — I'm doing an Ozzy song next," she said. "I'm also the reason Freddy has so much metal in his book. What song are you doing?"

"Ohhh no," I said. Glittery or not, I don't get on stages if I can help it. "I don't sing." I mean, not for people, but in the shower, to my plants, and in the safe confines of my vehicle."Getting up there is an amazing feeling, and everyone will support you," she said. "I can actually sing, but a lot of these people can't." That wasn't reassuring. I had heard her sing, and she didn't just sing; she was practically Celine fucking Dion.

I felt the need to change the subject abruptly.

"What do you think of all this monkey stuff?" I asked.

She pointed at a painted wooden cutout of a brown chimpanzee with a particularly devilish expression on his little face.

"I'm in love with him," she said. "He just looks like he's saying, 'C'mon, let's go fuck with somebody.' I sit by him every time I come in."

The evening was a success. My monkey adventures were better than Jane Goodall's, except, you know, with less science and more beer.

Then the time came for Chef Mikey to make his way to the stage. He began his rendition of "Low Places." He started a little shaky and missed some words and notes occasionally. He let out a few loud sounds most polite primates would never make in public, but he grew increasingly comfortable with the stage — near the end, he even let out an impassioned "Yeehaw!"

When he finished, everyone applauded, and strangers slapped him on the back. Applause and acceptance make me happy too, but neither one can compare with the joy of monkeys.

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Tara Nieuwesteeg

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