Avoiding birthday malaise via ladies in sparkly underwear.
Twenty-sixth birthdays are a sad excuse for an occasion, lacking even the unsexy administrative benefit of the previous year’s break on car insurance. In my case, my party-planning efforts have been steadily declining for five years, paralleling my waning tolerance for alcohol and 4 a.m. nights. The only thing on the rise, it seems, is enthusiasm from my friends, which has historically manifested through the phrase “Let me buy you a shot!” They are words that always haunt my throbbing, slightly older head the morning after. This year, I planned to avoid this by celebrating somewhere that would remove attention from my inevitably wilting self, and I had the perfect distraction: Go-go dancers.
Not that watching women dance around taking off their clothes is really my style; it’s the exact opposite, really. My first experience with the genre was at an unspeakable stage show in Bangkok’s infamous Pat Pong district, and I assure you, there was very little dancing involved. The traumatic visual put my 19-year-old mind against the idea for years.
This was different, though. Swellco and Swellco is an army of exhibitionist freaks reveling in their own sense of humor. On the drizzly Tuesday of my 26th, they were gathering at Bob and Barbara’s to benefit the mildly damaged Baby Cheezwits, a ventriloquist’s dummy in the likeness of a decayed zombie corpse bizarre enough to Febreeze away any lingering Jeff Dunham stink. How having an amateur strip contest would fix the dummy was a mystery to me, but it certainly wasn’t stopping anybody.
My attention didn’t so much wander as sprint away from my thoughts and over to the little platform on which a beautiful girl with pale, flawless skin was dancing, her eyes alluringly half-shut behind a veil of brown hair. As I took another slug from the traditional PBR can, I felt a warm body lean up close. A voice declared, in a whisper meant just for me, “I think she’s wearing a wig.” I turned around to see my old buddy Joey grinning like an ass and nodding. Right, this was a performance, not a strip club. I turned my attention back to the stage, but it was already on to the next one.
The Jersey-ness of the next contestant’s look reminded me a bit of Girls Gone Wild despite myself, but it was nice to see how little that brand fit the environment. This wasn’t a showcase of coerced girls too drunk, naive or desperate to completely realize what was going on, which was one of the most unnerving parts of my experience in Bangkok. The succession of women (dyed, pierced, tattooed, cornrowed, possibly wig-wearing women) who followed Jersey Girl all seemed to be having a lot of fun with their acts. Each peeled off clothes to music that made me yearn for the days when the smoothest jams contained live instruments; and if they weren’t reveling in the exhibitionist thrill of the spotlight, they were faking it pretty well.
The judges’ table, occupied by what looked like the rejects from a supervillain high school reunion, lumbered through its scoring, slightly hindered by the increasingly drunk energy of the crowd. But as the crowd got faced, I was pleased to note that my shots-avoiding gambit had worked. While I was far from sober, I still had control of my limbs, and it looked like I was finally going to make it through one of my own birthday parties.
The moment of judgment finally arrived. The girls marched up, wearing oddly nervous smiles for people who had just participated in a strip-off for the benefit of a ventriloquist dummy. Was this being taken seriously? The scattered glitter, the articles of clothing strewn about, the boys and girls and everything in between all began to concentrate into a single mass. The verdict was in. Upon hearing the results, the winner, a black girl with braids and a slim, boyish body, clasped her hands over her mouth as her eyes went wide. Victory! It was an oddly emotional moment. The other contestants congratulated her in a very physical manner.
After that weirdly intense note, Joey and I stumbled out onto South Street. I checked the time. It had been Wednesday for quite a while. I was 26. Good citizens were at home in their beds, getting rested for work in a few short hours. Joey and I, full of that magical amount of booze that makes you act like a sugar-high 5-year-old, took off on a mad dash down a residential street. It was garbage night, and our path was an obstacle course of recycling bins and kitchen bags, which we ended up launching at each other, our giggles stifled by our out-of-shape lungs struggling to keep us moving.
After an extensive battle, and with a tattered trail of trash behind us, I laid down on a bench, out of breath. The last time we pulled dumb shit like this was in college. We had been turning 21.
After a few breathless minutes, Joey helped me up and we trudged home. I’d accomplished my goal of being able to stand at the end of the night, but I felt like I’d also unexpectedly exorcised something. Thankfully, it wasn’t too too late. We both had work the next day.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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