It was Friday night, and Big & Rich's "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" echoed deep in my ears as I sipped a raspberry daiquiri and relaxed at Scandals Saloon with some of Wilton Manors' finest gentlemen. As the Friday-night liquor-drenched festivity unfolded around me, I found myself mesmerized by Bob. Gray-haired and spindly-legged, Bob wore a carelessly unbuttoned striped shirt that fluttered and curled as he moved. In black ankle boots and a ball cap, he swept across the light-soaked dance floor while disco balls twirled overhead and country music pulsed through the air. The crowd that gathered on the outskirts of the dance floor sipped booze and clapped as Bob and a handful of other dancers dipped, stepped, turned, and spun in perfect synchronicity. Bob may have been sharing the floor with dozens of toe-tapping Texan wannabes, but this unassuming dude definitely stood out as Lord of the Line Dance. And somehow, I'd managed to wrangle a front-row bar stool to watch some killer line dancing at the best — only — damned country-western bar within the city limits.
Ambiance: Scandals is a cowboy-themed gay bar cozily situated in Wilton Manors. Friday night, the venue buzzed with a combo of Garth Brooks tunes, witty banter, slaps on the back, stiff drinks, and weekend anticipation. The place is set up like this: There's a bar at the center, a pool room with a popcorn machine and crane game to the right, a shiny polished dance floor to the left, and, out back, a breezy patio area and outdoor bar. Steer skulls, cowboy hats, and photos of well-muscled, clothing-deficient cowboys grace the green walls. Just beyond one wall that's plastered with bumper stickers of varying naughtiness (from "Party With the Best — Party With a Bear" to "First Tell Me How Big It Is") hangs a shelf with various country trinkets, including an adorable miniature horse and covered wagon.
Drinks: When I arrived, Howard, the general manager, emerged from his office to give me a quick peek around the place and jump-start my eventual drunkenness with a $5 megasized raspberry daiquiri.
"People thought it was crazy to open a country-themed bar in the middle of South Florida, but people love it," said Howard — white-haired, mustached, and clad in a blue plaid shirt. He was sugar-sweet to me, but I'd bet money he could sure wrangle some cattle (or rowdy patrons) if necessary.
"There's just something about cowboy boots," I said.
"Yeah, my partner is a redneck," he said, laughing. "He drives a big ol' truck and wears cowboy boots."
"Marks of a good man," I said. "So, who comes to this bar? Age range?"
"We get about age 35 to death," Howard joked. "Well, mid-50s or so, I guess. But everyone's welcome, and we're friendly to all." He introduced me to his staff, including Pooch, the "oldest bartender in the world."
"The whole world," emphasized Pooch, who sported a goatee and a rock-solid upper body. "I've been bartending for over 30 years."
"Since he was 4," Howard said.
"How old are you?" I asked. Pooch blatantly averted the question.
"I couldn't even get him to put his birth date on a job application," Howard teased. "He just left it blank."
Howard then propelled me toward the dance floor, which was empty. He motioned for the DJ to turn the lights on, and when the switch was flipped, the reflected light glimmered off the disco balls, reflected in the mirrors, and snaked across the floor. I took a sip of my daiquiri.
"What's that?" I asked suddenly, pointing up at the most specialized disco ball ever. It was shaped like four back-to-back cowboy boots, all covered in tiny pieces of shiny glass.
"A bartender made that," Howard said. "It's made out of real cowboy boots; he glued all the bottle pieces onto them."
"Now, you just wait until 9:30 or so," Howard said promisingly. "Things will really get busy then." I responded with an enthusiastic slurp of my daiquiri.
Patrons: Howard left me with Jim, a loyal customer who wore a low-necked shirt and gold necklace, at the small bar parallel to the dance floor. Jim had shaggy hair and a steady, earnest face. He told me that the bar owners give back to the community and that they really care about their customers. I believed him, of course, but at this point, I was a slave to the daiquiri, and the daiquiri did not care about its community. I also found out that Jim had just broken it off with his boyfriend, so I tried to offer my (slightly slurred) condolences.
"If there's no love connection, you have to let it go," Jim said. "Sometime after my wife died, I dated a guy for 17 years. Eventually we just drifted apart. That love connection is most important."
I nodded (or, my head wobbled drunkenly) in what I thought was an appropriately understanding manner. Being a soulless robot, my circuits start frying at the first mention of gooey emotions like "love."
"I wanted him to be my husband," Jim comically gestured at Michael, a slight, goateed fellow on the bar stool beside us. "But he was already married to someone." Michael offered a sheepish grin and pleasant laugh.
When I emptied my daiquiri, Jim — truly a sweetheart — graciously journeyed to the outdoor bar to procure me another. To repay him for his kindness, I stole his seat.
Line dance: Around 9 p.m., people crawled in from the outdoor bar and folks stormed the dance floor, squaring off in neat little lines. Several rows of dancers formed, most in thick-heeled cowboy boots and broad-brimmed cowboy hats. When the catchy country music came blastin' from the DJ booth, they all sprang into synchronized motion. Bob, the gray-haired superstar I mentioned earlier, was smack-dab in the center, spinning with a coy little smile. A tall woman in tight jeans also dipped with the best of them; nearby, a wiry guy in a black hat gave a good show, and a paunchy, olive-complexioned gentleman proved himself to be surprisingly limber. Bald heads bobbed, boots stomped, and I stared in awe.
I turned to Michael. "Are you gonna dance?"
"I can't do that," he said wistfully.
"Can't, or can't without more booze?" I asked. "Or, shouldn't because it would be a serious debacle of epic proportions?"
He studied his drink. "Maybe with more booze," he said.
When Jim came back with my drink, he introduced me to Scott. Scott wore shorts and black sneakers. He showed off his shirt, which read "Bad to the Bone."
"Which bone?" Jim quipped.
"Oh, be good," Scott said.
I pointed to Bob as he pirouetted all over the floor and asked Scott, "Can you do that?"
"Oh, I can't hold a candle to that old man," Scott said. "That guy comes in here, line-dances, and only drinks water."
Bob: When the line dance was over and the two-step began (the DJ alternated dances), Bob went to the quiet, outside front porch to guzzle water — and read the newspaper.
"Sir, I saw you dancin' out there," I said. "You've got moves!"
"Well, if you'd taken as many dance classes as I have, you would too," he said, smiling. "I've taken hundreds of them. I'm turning 84 soon — I'm a World War II vet. I've been dancing long before you were born."
"You only drink water?" I asked.
"Alcohol's not great for dancing," he said with a fleeting look of reproach. I hate it when older people really do know best. Damn their decades of experience! I saluted Bob for his groove-bustin' ability and slipped back into the bar.
Once inside, I was handed a Cowboy Cocksucker shot by Ken, the bar's dark-haired co-owner. We toasted to ourselves, threw back our heads, and swigged down the sweet nectar. Once finished, he serenely observed his cowboy kingdom with a slight smile. I watched an adorable couple two-step gracefully to a sloppy-sweet country song and felt the shot work its way into my bloodstream. I knew I wouldn't be leaving my bar stool anytime soon — not without being roped and wrangled first.