My friend Jana, a college professor, just loosed the chains of her captivity in a long-term relationship, and she wanted a dive bar. She's usually drawn to finer digs, but she was feeling in need of big changes. And me, I was looking to enable her.
The Victoria Park joint's got a split personality, two bars on two different streets but joined by a hallway, and that gives it the sort of schizo appeal people attribute to psychopaths, even your run-of-the-mill ones. With any luck, we'd meet someone interesting tonight.
We settled on stools at the east bar, seduced by the dark, moody space and the intricate, hardwood bar, which appealed to my evening's whiskey-drinking disposition. Next to us, Patty pursed her lips, nodding her head to Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children" as four feet of healthy, blond hair rippled in waves down her back. Her secret?
"White vinegar," the off-duty waitress claimed proudly. Evidently, it's more than just a foodstuff and feminine hygiene solution.
"It's a natural PH balancer," she explained. "Take six cups and put it in a hot bath. You'll watch your hair and skin change in, like, ten minutes."
"To what?" I wondered. "Antipasto?"
When the jukebox started spitting J. Geils' "Freeze Frame," we realized why there were few in the otherwise ambient side of Kim's.
Having had enough of Patty's bizarre beauty secrets (and her music choices), we grabbed our drinks and beat a retreat to the west bar's rec room. With Radiohead's "Creep" on the juke, the room's anxious yellow walls and brightly lit space, by comparison, seemed the handiwork of heaven. As I went to the bar for some firewater, Jana navigated the pool and Ping-Pong tables and took control of the jukebox before anyone could aurally traumatize us further.
I sidled up next to a wide-eyed, wholesome-looking kid who was buying shots for three guys at the end of the bar.
"Cheers!" I greeted them just as Jana's first song Drowning Pool's "Bodies" aggressively filled the room.
Obviously, Jana had a little something pent up after her breakup. If the music wouldn't take the edge off, maybe one of the guys could.
Fortunately, our only competition a tortilla-thin, dark-haired beauty whose cell phone dictated the pace of her pool game got a call and quickly disappeared.
I could feel the wildcat energy growing in my friend, and though many guys wore running shoes, they looked like easy chase. Especially since it appeared most hadn't so much as jogged since the saber tooth days. (Hey, one afternoon of Discovery Channel will learn ya: When you're hungry, you pick off the easy prey the young, the old, the slow, and the weak. It ain't pretty, people it's life.)
The guys gulped their whiskeys, and Dave a 24-year-old Wisconsinite whose eyes I realized were not only wide but also glassy evidently saw in me what in his state looked like compassion.
"I offered to buy them a Helen Keller, but they said they were drinking Maker's Mark," he shrugged, disappointed.
"A Helen Keller?"
"Yeah, it's where you close your eyes and grab whatever and then make a shot out of it," he explained enthusiastically about the drink he'd invented. "Want one?"
Truth is, I did feel bad for the kid whose generosity had just been exploited by the premium-whiskey-drinking guys at the bar, so I took him up on his offer even though he was already close to deaf-dumb-and-blindly drunk.
"Hey, Mark!" Dave called to the bartender.
As we waited, Dave confided the impetus for his move to Florida. He was so sincere, it was painful. Like many transplants who will never recover, he'd moved to escape love gone wrong. His grandparents, Victoria Park condo owners, invited him along to soothe the spasms of his broken heart.
"Hey, Mark. Hey, Mark. Hey, Mark," Dave repeated like a kid trying to get a distracted parent's attention. Finally, the barkeep listened to Dave's request and said, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
The kid was momentarily crushed. Then he reanimated himself by extending a dinner invitation to me.
I declined. Crushed again.
Jana had been sitting next to me and chatting up the guy next to her.
"Having fun?" I queried.
"He's a day trader," she groaned over her shoulder and then introduced me to the day trader (and night waiter) whose daylight activities weren't making much scratch.
"This is a hobby?" I asked to Glenn's nod. "How's that working with the ladies?"
"Not too well," he admitted before jabbering on. School might be out for the week, but I think I was leading a course in Pick Up 101.
"Ever think of trying a hobby that might get you some ladies?" I suggested.
"I did. I took this class in medical coding. We learned all about the body, the disease processes..."
It was clear why this fellow in the faded denim shirt was still single and it wasn't just his fashion sense. The real fun began when he revealed that each billing code consisted of two numbers: one for the body part and the other for the affliction.
"So, like, what's the code for, let's say, gonorrhea of the elbow?"
He was still working it out including a bar-wide call for the correct spelling of the STD in question when New Jersey's own, Bon Jovi, shattered our big medical coding fun.
"Can't you shoot that thing?" a patron yelled across the bar, meaning the jukebox.
I spotted Jersey Patty, who'd infiltrated our side of Kim's. I was gonna have to get all eastside/westside on her ass if my suspicions played out.
"Hey, Patty, did you play this?"
She pursed her lips and bobbed her head in the affirmative. New Jersey residents should be required to leave their "culture" at home. Instead of getting violent, I stuffed a wad of singles in Jana's hand and sent her back to the juke.
While she was gone, I insinuated myself into the threesome at the end of the bar. A nice Latin morsel put a shot of Jäger in my hand shortly after I got there.
Mike, 36, a "law firm employee," had graduated from UC Berkeley and was a Kim's regular, just like his two friends.
Gary wouldn't reveal his age but had all the maturity of a junior high brat. He tried to razz Mark by insinuating that he was queer. Queer jokes at the straight bar in the gay neighborhood. Yup, this was our night.
"I'm more his type than you are," Gary said to me, laughing alone.
"Why? Did you just shave your legs?" I shot back, turning the joke on him as his buddies laughed.
"Nah, I just live in Victoria Park; I'm not a member," he retorted.
Jay, the baby of the threesome at 28, wouldn't reveal much about himself, but the five-inch crescent scar on his buzzed skull was mysteriously enticing.
I introduced him to Jana, and he passed around shots of something red to all of us.
"I like teachers," he flirted with her. "If you do something wrong, they make you do it over."
Jana found her inner cougar and pounced. It wasn't long until she dragged her prey into the alley of the bar's name.
"Don't take him to your place," I advised as I was leaving.
"Nope," she said, practically licking her chops. "It's easier to leave a body than to get rid of one."
And with that, the Night Rider careered into the darkness, embraced by only the damp night air, which was redolent with the scent of the season.