When we arrived at our BeachPlace destination in Fort Lauderdale, the sea-scented breeze wafted through the three-story, open-air mall with the strains of a piano-accompanied "Son of a Preacher Man" in its currents.
Inside, the place looked like the average sports bar, but the vibe was rowdier. The crowd's energy was fueled by "the most dangerous drink specials," including 85-ounce buckets of booze for just $14. Instead of adding extra go-juice on top as a floater, the truly festive could purchase a flask of additional alcohol to be upended into their party pail.
No mere spectator sport, the show was all about audience participation. Members of the crowd could take the stage and sing their requests and celebrate events. All they had to do was fill out a little form, similar to karaoke with a minimum $20 motivational fee for the musicians.
Or folks could use their fee to purchase a public taunting for a special occasion just as Bing's friends did.
"Happy 38th Birthday Bing" was scrawled on the mirror behind the stage, and the piano men brought up the birthday boy. When he brought his drink with him, the visiting Cape Coral resident was forced to chug it.
After some bad name jokes ("We've got 'Bing'; now we just need 'Bada'"), a unique version of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" ensued. The revised lyrics joked about the diminutive proportions of Bing's organ. Perhaps these piano guys were merely compensating for their own tiny instruments?
Bing's public humiliation ended with a spin of the Wheel of Destiny sorta like the Wheel of Fortune which besides real prizes could also yield a fear factor shot (concoction randomly created by the bartender), an ice bath (bucket of ice down the pants), or a Howl at the Moon (mandatory pants dropping to the cries of the audience). Family Feud theme music played as the wheel spun, and Bing walked away with a HATM T-shirt.
"It's my real name," Bing told me later, pulling out his driver's license for verification. "It was my middle name, but I changed it to my first since it was supposed to be my first name. When I was born on my dad's birthday, they named me 'Richard' after him instead."
Making the official change in 2003, he preferred the onomatopoeia (his siblings used to replace his name in dinner time conversation with a chimed "bing" on their water glasses) to the nicknames for Richard. It made sense. It's bad enough being called "Dick," but as a junior... yup, he'd have been "Little Dick."
His Lantana-based friends Jason and Julie had suggested Howl for the birthday celebration. So why the Fort Lauderdale trek when there were other piano bars that were closer? For a moment, no one had an answer.
When Jason broke the silence, it was with this gem: "Hugh Jorgans [a piano bar in Delray Beach] can suck my huge organ!"
His wife, Julie, provided a girl-power follow-up: "And this is the only piano bar with a chick," meaning the female musician who had played a few songs that night.
Meanwhile, on the stage, a Philadelphia couple got engaged while performing "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes." When the couple faced each other, on her way to reach for her knees, the woman accidentally touched her partner's crotch.
"I can see why you proposed," the piano man teased.
When the newly engaged vacationers were back in their seats, Gregory explained his motivation: "I knew we were coming to the piano bar where we could put things up on the mirror, and being a bizarre and outrageous guy, I wanted to make that impact."
Aimee, though she accepted Gregory's proposal, shyly confessed, "I don't like being in front of people."
Soon the piano keys hammered out the chorus of "Lucille," and the audience, savvy to tradition, yelled out a triad of insults: "You bitch! You slut! You whore!"
Coincidently, another trio appeared. At the bar, three Paris Hilton clones were ensuring their ability to live the simple (minded) life with one of the gi-normous buckets of Long Island iced tea.
Having learned that it took only a minute to miss some real action, I told Derek we'd urinate in shifts. While he was away, I met the two Lindseys, 21- and 23-year-old Nova students.
"Yeah, we travel in packs," 23 laughed about their shared name.
21 was holding a bucket of Long Island iced tea, which she said Josh had bought for her.
"Want some?" she asked, extending the bucket.
"Are you and Josh an item?" I asked after a curious sip.
Embarrassed, she laughed, "When we're drunk we are, but when we're not, we're not."
How sweet. His purchase, then, was actually an investment in their future.
Holding the bucket up so I could take another sip (though I had no plans to sleep with Josh myself), 21 scanned the room for the drink investor but found only her friend Adam.
"He's one of the ones that takes us out and gets us liquored up," 23 said by way of introduction.
"I don't know about that," Adam shrugged and walked away.
"He's cute. Is he yours?" I asked 23.
She shook her head, "He's hot, but he's slept with half the campus."
"Yeah, you wanna stay away from that," 21 advised.
You only gotta tell me once. Usually.
I spotted Derek on his way back, so I excused myself from the Lindseys and handed off my pen and paper to my accomplice as we passed on my way to the loo.
"Fill me in," I called over my shoulder. (Like the movies, I needed to know what I missed in the time it took to pee.)
In the powder room, there were the usual women gazing at their reflections in the mirror perfecting the "Shoulders Back, Titties Out" posture. But there was also something new: a woman practicing the universal symbol of rock the devil horns.
"This hand rocks!" the chesty blond claimed of a horn-shaped right hand, and then of the other, "This hand not so much."
Probably a jazz hand, then.
When I spotted a 40-something woman leaning on the wall, laughing to herself, I had to know what was funny.
"Watching this girl steal a bracelet," she said, nodding at the woman with the dirty-blond hair who was walking toward us, away from the counter where the attendant was selling jewelry. Meeting our gaze, her eyes challenged ours. Then she tossed her braids and swung out the bathroom door. Dirty blond, indeed.
When I got back from the restroom, some guy was wailing Oasis' "Wonderwall" so hideously that I asked Derek for a recap of what led us to this moment.
"Seven guys they were calling them 'Drunk at Work' like Men at Work were on stage, but I have no clue what they were singing," he said of the garbled, drunken sing-along. "He was what's left."
Kyle, an Irish bloke, had commandeered the mic and was parading across the stage, climbing on the pianos and other stage furniture while security reprimanded him. As he screeched and strutted, his friends high-fived him.
"Let's go nuts at Howl and get thrown out," the piano man jeered, though he continued to tickle the ivories. Finally, Kyle shut up and got down, and security let him stay.
To put more howl in the evening, the Wheel of Destiny yielded some more prizes that night. One guy won a fear factor shot of tequila, wild turkey, 151, Baileys, and lime juice.
"I'm calling it a Hairy Sanchez," the bartender announced.
I looked at Derek questioningly.
"Like Dirty Sanchez?" he suggested, slang for a poop-smeared upper lip.
So that would make a hairy Sanchez a plain old mustache then? Neither of us got it. Maybe because just a few cocktails hadn't primed us for the humor. Perhaps a person needed a complete 85 alcoholic ounces to appreciate all the jokes.
However, we were restrained by the wisdom of Night Rider experience that told us, "Howl now, whimper later."