With the month of March drawing to a close, a bar-hopping people-watcher like me has had her fill of sightings of sunburned youths in Greek-lettered T-shirts. Scores of them. They leave beer cans on the beach. They stumble along A1A. They're raucous, super friendly, and brimming with college dorm energy. Droves of them congregate around the Elbo Room, a spring break staple since 1938.
But times are changing. Elbo Room, despite being present when spring break was drunkenly conceived and subsequently born onto Fort Lauderdale's sandy beach, is not Spring Break 2008's headquarters. Key West-inspired Sloppy Joe's is — at least, according to a flier I found. (I wonder who put that out there.) And not only did the flier claim Sloppy Joe's (17 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.) as HQ, it advertised weekly March events — including a Thursday night wet T-shirt contest. Though the feminist in me opposes wet and clinging objectification of women, Thursday night promised lowering standards and drunken debauchery. And the voyeur in me couldn't pass that up.
Cover was $5 at the door, and after a thorough inspection of my ID, the bouncer stamped my hand with the words "Fort Lauderdale 2008." He said the wet T-shirt contest was set to happen in less than an hour. I peered inside and didn't spot anyone readying a hose.
Ambience: At about 11 p.m., I found the DJ spinning booming trance to an empty dance floor. To the right, people hovered near a table set up for beer pong, but no one seemed to be playing. Pictures of Ernest Hemingway adorned one wall, and a fog machine spewed steam from a small center stage. The bar area stretches length-wise across the club, so I walked alongside it until I found the patio. A warm breeze swept under the green-and-white awning, cooling off the scattered outdoor clientele. The scene was pretty quiet — nearly half the tile-top tables were empty, besides an occasional abandoned sandwich plate or drained glass.
The only party pocket in the place was the table directly behind mine — a gathering of guys in polos and sun-toasted girls toting expensive purses. The group's giddy nature suggested that these spring breakers weren't quite the hardcore partiers I was looking for. They kind of reminded me of when I drank a wine cooler as a young teenager and got buzzed for the first time. ("God, I'm drunk! This is awesome! I'm so fucking drunk! This is awesome!")
"Where the party girls at?" I heard the DJ ask from inside the bar. Maybe he was looking for a big cheer, like the David Letterman crowd, but the women ignored him. Someone better find those elusive party girls — or just some drunken sluts willing to provide nipple-to-clinging-cloth action.
Drinks: Presidente was $2 a bottle, so I broke a ten dollar bill and was set for the night. Bacardi girls walked around offering liquor samples and giving out bead necklaces. I spent a few minutes trying to count the many empty bottles of beer on the giggling spring breakers' table behind me. A hefty girl in a polka-dot dress began grinding up against a skinny guy in khaki shorts, her bouncing cleavage about to leap out of her dress. Since full nudity isn't an uncommon direction for wet T-shirt contests to take, I guessed she might be one of our eventual contestants.
One of the other girls at their table, Kristy, told me she and her friends were on spring break from Western Kentucky University. Kristy had freckles and a dress that decently restrained her cleavage. She was also stone-cold sober. As a self-described "bigger girl" than the others, she obviously knew how to handle a few drinks.
When the DJ played "Rock Star," by Nickelback, all the girls at the table jumped up and began mouthing the words. With half-hearted enthusiasm, Kristy lipped a few lyrics to a rail-thin blonde beside her, who danced for a minute before having to steady herself with a chair.
"You gonna take them back to the hotel to sober 'em up?" I asked.
"Yeah, we're done for tonight," Kristy said. "But they won't sober up until tomorrow. They just need to get home and out of trouble."
"You're the mommy of this group, eh?"
"Someone's gotta take care of them," she said, smiling weakly.
With a guardian like Kristy, these girls weren't about to take a chest-soaking to win a $50 bar tab.
Bartenders: I found a deserted section of the bar, where a scruffy, plainly dressed male bartender was shuffling glasses and receipts in an attempt to pass time. I leaned over the bar toward him. "Hey, what the hell is going on here? This place is dead."
"Don't judge us by tonight," the bartender, Jamie, said. "It's a criss-cross night. Some spring breakers are leaving town tonight, some are just arriving."
"What about the wet T-shirt contest?" I asked.
"We can't get any girls to enter yet," he shrugged.
"Guess you can't have a wet T-shirt contest without willing titties," I said. "What kind of spring break is this?"
Customers: It was nearing 1 a.m., and though the dance floor was getting packed, I still didn't see any girls unclasping their bras or discarding their dignity. The DJ played "Shout," which brought people to their feet — more reminiscent of a liquored-up wedding reception than a spring break alcohol-induced orgy.
Over Kristy's now-empty table, I spotted three uncomfortable-looking guys sipping beer by themselves. If Sloppy Joe's was a high school cafeteria, these three would've been playing D&D in the corner. Connor wore glasses and a flannel shirt. Pete, the responsible designated driver, was short, with slicked dark hair. Mike was disheveled and probably good at math — when he wasn't piss-drunk. He stared, got too close to my face when talking, and bought me a beer, warding off my evil vibes, because he "didn't trust" me for talking to them.
Apparently Fort Lauderdale now attracts not just girls unwilling to show a nipple, but guys who wouldn't know what to do with a girl's nipple if it ripped through a wet T-shirt and poked them in the face.
"So what brings ya'll to Fort Lauderdale?" I asked.
"It's 30 degrees in New Jersey," said Pete. "It's 80 here."
"Fair enough," I said. "Got big plans? Hook-ups? Booze? Beach time?"
"We're just here to have a 'real' spring break," Pete said. "But we don't really know what bars to hit up."
"There's a bunch near here," I said. "Check out Elbo Room."
"We did before we came here," said Connor. "It was boring, too."
Where the girls are: Maybe the biggest problem was that, with so many bars in the area to choose from, the promise of a wet chest ain't great lady-bait. When I left Sloppy's around 2 a.m., the dance floor had filled up — with guys. And the girls present looked in no particular rush to be hosed down.
Fort Lauderdale bar merchants seem to want that spring break money rolling in, but most people in the city don't want Spring Break. Been there, heard about that. Sell 'em a beer and move 'em along to Panama City.
I don't know if the wet T-shirt contest happened after 2 a.m., but as far as I was concerned, exploitation had been averted. A proud day for feminists everywhere — frat boys going home without witnessing that slippery slope of wet T-shirt contest debauchery.
So, just a bad night for spring break '08? Maybe. Or maybe lately Fort Lauderdale's just started attracting a tamer spring breakin' dame.