The evening kicked off with me politely declining all of the normal and traditional invitations from my friends—food, frolic and frivolity, doused with plenty of libations to keep the night fully-lubricated and in motion. I had a plan—something that’s been tugging at me to do, and last night was the right time to do it. I robed myself in festive attire and committed to bar hopping down Central Ave, just what was in an easy walking distance from my downtown apartment, stopping short of slithering around on the high ticket Beach Drive locale.
Early in the evening, I stopped for a small bite at Ricky P’s before I embarked on my adventure, where the bartender is always friendly, cheeky and warm. But, the crowd around the bar was not the usual set of eclectic masses whom I have come to expect, haphazardly sitting in the round, trading stories of bad plays and worse lovers. Instead, a group of young men crowded there, flexing their wisdom of “life experiences,” because they, of course, know it all at the ripe age of 26. Funny how we knew so much more then than we will ever know again. The good news is that if you ever need the answer to a daunting life question—you can always resort to hypnosis, because certainly, your 26-year-old self knows the score!
So, I ate, and then I prepared to take on the night. I knew that I would be writing, and I contemplated which tools I was going to bring along: my trusty notebook and pen? My small tablet computer? No—just my phone. I decided to chronicle the occasion via Facebook status updates, just taking note of observations and winding thoughts and how those all tangled up in my brain. Then, off I went to the first stop on my list—The Emerald Bar.
At the Emerald, I knew I’d be visiting the seedier side of St. Pete drinkeries, and I was looking forward to it. This is where professional drunks, the restaurant crowd and all those who just like a good sip of alcohol without frills and pretense settle in. Here people watching was elevated to an art last night, and the tunes melded with the scene in a disturbing but alluring amnesiac scattered recollection. Salt n’ Peppa was resurrected through the Juke Box in its nostalgic glory: “Don’t know how you do the voo doo that you do… Shoop.”
Between what was securely planted in place, followed by what poured in the door was a garden of regulars, drunkards and escapees from the Beach Drive scene—a mixture of weeds in a lot. A single stand of multicolored holiday lights and a fat guy in a cardboard Happy New Year hat sparkled in the dark landscape… “Oh baby you got what I need…” blared in the background.
A brief stumble next door, and I felt like Alice going through the looking glass. Things could not have been more different if these bars were on other ends of the globe. I found myself in a techy, not-quite trendy, trying to be a concept but not committed to it, because that would be lame, so we’re just here… vibe. I’m at the Sake Bomb. There’s no liquor here to adorn their shelves, so they’ve displayed beer bottles in an underwhelming fashion.
A smaller, younger set of loiterers have congregated here, jamming to 80s new wave, which is oh so Not New. Collectively, they are decidedly much more sober than the hanger-outers next door. And far less entertaining. I intended to blow the joint as soon as possible, and possible occurred right after I finished my beverage. The youngish, horny mid-rent crowd didn’t intrigue me at all, possibly because that sort-of described me. So, I chugged my tasty Stella Cidre and bounced. But, wait! Just before I roam along to the next watering hole down the street, it happened! Seated at a table outside the Sake Bomb is an older man preaching the 12 steps of sobriety to four younger people, fully engaged in the topic over a bucket of beer! Noteworthy people-watching—score!
Oh, Cycle Brewing… you are everything I’ve come to expect from St. Pete’s string of craft beer joints. While I am partial to The Ale and the Witch, I stopped there last night, so tonight, you’re on the map. At Cycle Brewing there was a livelier, more animated, younish crowd. A very cool thing about the atmosphere created by the people here is that each grouping of beer drinkers is fully engaged in energetic conversation. Eves dropping tells tales of traveling plans and experiences, strange loves, troubled relationships and goals for the New Year, whilst somewhat cranky about the one soon to pass.
The groupings were a cultural construct of couples, friends and small crowds. Like tended to be with like, representing minimal age diversity—lots of 30-somethings with a few older and younger mixed in. One would do well to go quantity surveying here—it wouldn’t be challenging, and it might be a bit dull, but so is the concept of quantity surveying. It was heartwarming to see familiar face, though–here’s to a brilliant New Year, Frank Wells!
While strolling down Central Ave to my next watering hole I made a startling auditory observation—really bad live music! May I insert a plea to local eateries to please use a little discretion when choosing live entertainment: scaring your customers with off key tunes, featuring weird playlists is not good for anyone. Please stop it and hire wisely. We have very talented musicians in town. Book the best talent early, and don’t hand the mic and the amp over to your special niece.
“Take me away from here. Tell me about someplace else,” she said.
He said, “We’re always someplace else. Wherever you want to be.”
That gorgeous conversation I passed by was soon interrupted by St. Pete’s finest waking up a homeless man on a bench. The guy was a little combative, and his smart-assed mouth nearly got him arrested. I was hoping he wouldn’t end up bringing in the New Year at the 49th Street Hilton. Quickly the guy got ahold of himself and moved along as instructed without incident. Be cool, St. Pete!
I wandered off of Central Ave. just for a minute to check out a spot that has great personal meaning to me: Ruby’s Elixir. When I quit my job and went freelance full time, it took me a while to realize how free I really was from the tyranny of nonprofit grant writing. Unless you’ve been there, don’t mock me. It can be life-consuming, and yes, my particular brand of pathology made it much worse than it needed to be. Anyway, that’s not the point… when I finally claimed my freedom and took ownership of it, I was here, drinking gin at Ruby’s. Here I was again at Ruby’s Elixir on NYE to find a big crowd, cover charge and a low key performance. The first show I saw at Ruby’s was Betty Fox and the Dirty Bastards (AKA The Betty Fox Band), and she stormed the tiny venue! I was lured there by the powerful sound of her meticulously tuned voice, rocking blues like nothing I’d ever heard! People dancing spellbound by the music and her presence, and I became a groupie of sorts. Where’s Betty rocking tonight, I wondered? Anyway, I strolled back onto Central.
Crowley’s Downtown seems to have been brought to you by a GAP commercial. Clean-cut, or rather an antiseptic version of a downtown dive (read: The Emerald). The patrons donned a higher-rent, near hipsters appearance tossing in a casual older affluent congestion of bodies, squeezing by one another in the doorway. Outside its doors, the street shots down Central are far more colorful than what’s on the inside of the joints. Early intoxication has made several pedestrians directionally challenged while Suite Six neighbors quickly shuffle their trendy clientele past the roped entry. There’s usually more affect than fun found behind those doors, I’ve learned through experience, so I didn’t bother to enter.
The sidewalk was so thick with people at one point, I decided that I’d either have to wait patiently for a clearing to be on my way our just charge through NYC style. Since I’m not usually fond of touching strangers, I waited for a clearing. I passed by the Oyster Bar, which does indeed have fabulous oysters and featured a cool guy with a guitar playing familiar tunes, and I decided then that I wanted to end my night there. I passed it up and would circle back as I had more bar hopping to do!
The breakfast bar! Mastry’s… A walk by Mastery’s in the a.m. will delight you with scenes of early morning drunkenness. If you care to imbibe yourself, you’ll find a quiet, mumbling welcome. By night, breakfast drinkers are forced to mingle with loud younger people who claim the space as their watering hole. Imposters! It belongs to the breakfast drinkers. You are merely visitors who lay out heavy change. As for NYE, I sat at the very crowded bar where a frantic bartender poured then spilled my Diet Coke all over the counter—the good news is that I got a free Diet Coke (which would have cost me the same as a beer), but the bad news is I had to drink it crammed next to a good looking fellow who reeked of rotten salami and stale wine. I drank my soda quickly!
Once I emerge from Mastry’s our hero appears from the streets. Thank goodness!! I have been instructed by a man in an SUV and a bull horn to: “Repent sinners! This is your wake up call! Time to get right with God.” Gladly, sir. Let me just finish my bar hopping first mmmmkay?
Next stop: The Pelican Pub—a momentous occasion for me. “This is not the Pelican Pub I knew from my childhood!” I exclaimed with sadness in my head. Yes, my childhood. Okay, let me explain…
My dad, he drank. A lot. He also was a prolific visual artist—a painter. Murals and commissioned works from designers, mostly. Some of his work can still be seen around town such as the lobby in the Bayfront Tower, but this story isn’t about art. It’s about the Pelican Pub. Back in the day (early 80s), The Pelican Pub defined dive bar, but with a twist. Occasionally, you’d find the Yacht Club set slumming at there, and my dad was no exception. In fact, I think he actually started the trend, bringing his fellow Club members over for a drink or many. Anyway, where dad went, I went. As a child, I vividly recall the smells of stale beer and piss from the back of the pub, wafting in from the alley. It had this wood bar with photos of regulars polyurethaned into the surface. There even was a photo of me sitting on Santa’s lap there… maybe at age eight. Thankfully for my dad, my mom’s sense of humor was twisted enough to find it amusing… Following about 6 months from her initial rage-filled eruption, touting one of many soliloquies she presented to my father on his irresponsibility, their standing in the community, what it means to raise a child, and whatnot. I think she had the script carefully blocked and memorized, fully prepared for an impromptu performance anywhere any time. No matter, I always had fun there, knew the bartenders and owners through Dad, along with several of the regulars such as “Tom the sail maker.”
And now… I found that it wasn’t the same place at all. The Pelican Pub has not even a fraction of the character that it had. It’s been cleaned, and it appears so have its guests. It’s good for a walk-through, a drink and to jolt some old memories, like the time I was hungry, so dad took me across the street for a Slim Jim at a convenience store, because it was protein and perhaps healthier than bar pretzels. Oh don’t worry… he wasn’t malnourishing me. Later that night we had dinner at the Yacht Club. We had to eat there often because he never had any money. True story. Oh, the irony of my childhood…
Then it was time to start heading back to the Oyster Bar for me to bring in the New Year. I wanted a plate of oysters and hoped to meet a few cool folks and engage in a bit of lively conversation, which I almost always do sitting at the bar there. I guess if there was a bar that attracts people I most gravitate towards—it’s the Oyster Bar. Casual but headed towards the upper-scale without the pretense and social-climbing urchins too often clamoring around the Beach Drive spots. At the Oyster Bar, I usually find intelligent, engaging, delightful company there along with tasty food and good drinks.
What I experienced there was more perfect than I had hoped for. I planted myself on the only stool left vacant at the bar, and I was seated between two friendly chaps. On the left side was John, and on the right, well, we’ll just call him smiley, because he had this cool beaming smile. Smiley had a date with him, who also was a friendly lass, but they had other plans to bring in the New Year, so they were just finishing up their drink and soon left for their final event. John and I talked a while. He told me about his kids, his condo, where he’s lived, how he should be dead after being run over by a tractor… look you can’t make this stuff up. We talked about art, the changing St. Pete, culture and dreams. Eventually we were invited to dance with a small group—played with balloons and such, then started chatting with a whole other small crowd nearby that were Coast Guard families and a really fun couple on the other side of me. Eventually I ended up bathed in spilled Champaign… twice! While talking about art, goals and dreams. We toasted to the New Year, made lots of noise and smiled, kissed and laughed together as we welcomed in 2014.
That’s my city, and I love her. Thank you, St. Petersburg. Here’s to a magical, dream-making 2014!