Writing my last post about my very first restaurant job got me thinking about my old fun-person days as a server in an Irish pub. I started working there the same month I should have graduated college, May 1997, and it was a wholly different rite of passage.
I go back and forth about how I feel about those days; on the one hand, I forged friendships that have endured and endured. It was my pub people who showed up at the hospital when my sister’s boyfriend was shot, bearing provisions and moving us gently through decisions that needed to be made (call your mom, stay in this hotel room.) I also had a lot of fun, and I squeezed my 20s dry of their up-all-night, sleep-all-day, cash-lifestyle possibilities. On the other hand, I did a lot of stupid shit that could have hurt me–“fell asleep” in cabs, accompanied shady people to crack dens, a sustained daily assault on my liver and lungs. There were many, many days when the only thing that eased my crushing hangover was the night’s first shift drink, and if I didn’t have a cigarette burning somewhere, it was likely because I was sleeping.
But, as with everything, some of that bad stuff was also really, really fun. Knowing where to go after last call, where you can still drink and musicians play and drama ensues until the sun comes up, is awesome. Dangerous, but awesome. (My belated apologies to the industrious souls of Woodley and Cleveland Parks, by whom I staggered, reeking and red-eyed, many mornings when I was on my way home and you were on your way to work.) (P.S. I always felt bad for you.) (And I’m sure the feeling was mutual.)
But then, there was also the crack den.
My favorite after-hours haunt was a mere half-block from my favorite watering hole. When we’d get kicked out of there–sometimes at last call, sometimes a bit later, depending on who was working–we were never ready to be done. Most of the time, we’d worked until nearly last call ourselves, slinging Guinness and listening to wildly arrhythmic tourists clap for the daddy-o. (The sight of Irish bar patrons trying to clap-clap-clap-clap in time with the musician is a source of endless sadness when you’re sober.) The point is, bar-closing time wasn’t nearly done-drinking time, and so off to the after-hours club we’d go.
We usually had to enter through a window. I’m not sure how much of the subterfuge was actually due to fear of marauding law enforcers and how much was just fun for the people who worked the door, but we tumbled through the window regardless. Drunk people are surprisingly bouncy, but heads were cracked nonetheless. It’s true what tattoo artists say; alcohol makes you bleed more.
The club was gross. The bathroom always flooded and never had working doors, everything was sticky, roaches scurried across the bar, and everyone was always completely obliterated. It was not the kind of place where you would like to lose track of your friends, because you might never find them again. Like, EVER. I used to do sickly sweet purple shots there that I swear were made primarily out of roofies.
The crack den was after after-hours, when what little common sense I possessed at age 24 was fully submerged in a sea of Harp and exhaustion. I only went once, when my friends had mysteriously vanished and two cute Irish boys invited me. I mean, they didn’t call it a crack den, they called it a “private club.” Looking back, I can’t believe I got into a car with two totally wasted acquaintances and set off for parts unknown, but in my defense I was really, really drunk. I sobered up quickly, though, when the “private club” turned out to be a rowhouse in one of DC’s worse (at the time) neighborhoods, where we paid $20 at the door and were ushered into the most terrifying scene I’d ever been part of…people cutting lines and snorting coke off tables, casually displayed guns, and several pairs of pimps and prostitutes.
The minute I stepped inside, a bolt of adrenaline filled me with stark, daylight clarity: I needed to get the fuck out of there. As I accepted a lukewarm can of beer from one of my idiot escorts, I said, as casually as possible, “I’m probably just going to finish this and get a cab home. I’m more tired than I thought.” He laid a brotherly hand on my arm, “Ah, I don’t think so. This really isn’t the kind of neighborhood you should even walk around in, and there are definitely no cabs.” Even spoken in a swoony Irish accent, I hated that sentence. I realized that he had become 225% less attractive in the past hour or so (did I mention the in-car groping? No? Because that happened.)
(Ed. note: Kids, remember hearing in history class that there was time before cell phones? This story takes place during that dark epoch. If this had happened now [HIGHLY unlikely] I would have just called people until one of them woke up enough to come get me…putting aside for a moment the fact that I had no idea where I was.)
My mom is going to so angry and confused to hear that I died in a crack house, I thought sadly, after backing out of a bathroom that had been taken over for a session of cocaine-fueled fellatio.
I didn’t die, obviously. I can’t even remember how I got home, only that I was stuck there for hours, nervously nursing a warm can of Bud (gag) and chain-smoking like my life depended on it.
Last summer, I re-connected with an old friend from college who had married a DC band guy. Over fancy grilled sausages in their Chevy Chase backyard, he and I engaged in a game of mild oneupmanship over who had done what stupid things in the late 90s. “And then, when the cops came, he was just sitting there eating a sandwich. They asked him if he’d heard the blaring alarm, and he said he’d thought it was just the music. He got fired,” I said. He countered with a story about wrestling a transvestite on tour, which was hard to beat, and I do hate to be out-storied. “I went to a crack den full of prostitutes somewhere in Shaw and couldn’t get home. I was pretty sure I was going to die,” I offered with a casual chuckle. “Sugar’s,” he replied instantly. I stopped short, fork midway to my mouth, and nodded. Nearby, another friend’s two-year-old petted their big friendly dog. His wife was talking to someone else about the deer that come into their yard. We concluded that we must have been in the same places at the same time, back in the day. But that was a long, long time ago.