Pickles and vodka make a fierce pair.
Caligula is alive and well and living in Philly. Only now he's Russian, swills vodka, sucks pickles, lives in a strip center in the Northeast and no longer bangs his sister. Sounds ridonkulous, I know, but it's true. Swear to Zeus. Just walk into Golden Gate at 11058 Rennard St., a Russian dance hall and restaurant, and see for yourself.
The lobby is smoke-choked, has a couple arcade games and a raucous, ear-rattling chatter in languages you don't speak. The walls just past the lobby are draped in a white cloth from floor to ceiling; the carpet is red and busy. To the right is a stage where a man in leather pants sings thin Casio versions of American pop tunes in Russian. Two dancers in cowboy hats flank him. They also wear leather.
To the left are rows and rows of 20-top tables that buckle under an elaborate spread. There are whole roasted pigs with apples in their mouths, platters of smoked sturgeon and salmon, buckets of crabmeat cocktail, wheelbarrows of garlic roasted potatoes and stacks of crepes smeared with butter and salmon roe. There are pieces of puff pastry filled with chicken, and slow-simmered shoulders of beef. There are also pickles. Lots and lots of pickles. Pickles and things that have been pickled. Later in the night our livers will be pickled too. Ba-dump-dump.
I'm here with interior decorating design firm Busybee for their holiday party. Owners Anna Powers (maiden name: Lazebnik) and her husband Todd have been to Golden Gate many times, have lived through the experience and now feel obliged to pass on the common and overwhelming feeling of "Where the fuck am I?" only a place like this can cast off to their loved and adored co-workers. "You will not believe this place," we're told several times on the bus ride over.
The bus is, on top of a huge convenience, a life-saving device. Tucked under our seats are cases of Pravda vodka, tequila, beer, wine, more Pravda and one very pricey, very exclusive, very brown pepper (?) Vodka imported from the Ukraine. By night's end we'll have drained it all, will stumble drunkenly into the bus and be dropped off at our doors at 4:30 a.m. We'll have puke splattered on our shoes. And by "we" I mean "I."
As we take our seats on the second story overlooking the dance floor, drinks are poured and we're given a stern warning, "Pace yourselves, guys. They bring out food for five hours. Keep eating bread." The leather-clad singer breaks into Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" as we toast one another.
We toast again. And then we toast some more. Pickles. Bread. Pravda. Repeat.
After some time we make our way down to the dance floor where the band is playing Gipsy Kings. This makes absolutely no sense. I consider the possibility that I'm hallucinating.
After raising our temperatures a bit we head back upstairs, open the bottle of Ukrainian brown vodka and toast once more. It's plenty hot, but doesn't quite live up to expectations. "Those Ukrainians are pussies!" we surmise. We drink more of their pussy brown swill and play a spirited game of Pollyanna.
Pickles. Bread. Pravda. Pickles.
To the bus. Head count. Start the long journey home. There's a singer among us. He's taking requests.
"What's your favorite song to sing?" someone asks. In the quiet, drunken still of the night, he begins to croon Nat King Cole's "Lush Life."