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Hell night in Fort Wayne
FWR’s intrepid critic-at-large journeys through the Fort Wayne spots he finds really scary
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Back in late 2007, George W Bush was still president, the economy was about a year away from collapsing, and apparently, Fort Wayne Reader had a lot more guts than we do now…
Back then, our critic-at-large Chris Colcord wrote a three-part series called “Hell Night In Fort Wayne,” a highly opinionated account of a Saturday night spent in establishments that — by reputation, at least — offended his tastes, assaulted his sensibilities, or even seemed to pose a threat to his person. The series was offensive to some and humorous to others. It was also, unfortunately, buried among the pages of FWR and perhaps not given the prominence it deserved. Can’t recall what we were covering in 2007 that seemed more interesting. Probably Matt Kelty…
In the weird way these things happen, in the past month or so we’ve received a couple responses to this piece. Why now, eight years later? We don’t know. But it caused us to check it out again, and we found ourselves laughing out loud, and decided to run it again, in its entirety this time. As we said, it’s from 2007, so there’s a bit of a time capsule quality to it — a few of the places, like Zambuca’s and Hooters, are no longer with us, and other places may have changed — but it’s still more than holds up.
Maybe one day we’ll send some intrepid soul out on a similar, more up to date journey. Maybe. But until then…
Socially, I'm a pretty intrepid guy, but I have to admit there are some bars and restaurants in Fort Wayne that look like such depraved hell holes that I've always been too scared to walk through their doors. For years, friends and acquaintances have assured me that some of these places aren't so bad, but I've never trusted them. These places are radioactive to me, and no matter how popular these establishments are with their regular clientele, I had no desire to ever set foot in any of them. Until last week.
It happened like this — I decided, finally, that it was high time I learned to conquer my fears by looking them directly in the eye. And frankly, I've been curious — could these places really be as bad as I imagined? You should do something everyday that scares you, Eleanor Roosevelt once said, and with that in mind, I made a list of the seven worst places to go on a Saturday night in Fort Wayne, and with steely resolve, two hundred bucks and a head-to-toe black outfit (jeans, boots, T-shirt), I went to every last one of them. The following is a record of my excursion to the dark side, which began with dinner at 8:00pm and ended with last call at 3:00am.
8:00pm: Hooter's Restaurant
Avoiding Hooter's in Fort Wayne has been easy for me because the restaurant/bar contains the four elements I've always hated in a dining establishment: one, it's a chain; two, it's on Coliseum Boulevard; three, it's a sports bar; and four, it's, well, Hooter's. And really, I've never been offended by the Hooter's concept (Hot Wings and Cleavage) nor the demographic (male, knuckle dragger, 26-54); it's the name of the joint that I could never bear. Super-obvious euphemism that twelve-year old boys giggle at — call it a rule of thumb, but if you're embarrassed to utter the name of the restaurant, you probably shouldn't go in there.
But I did go in there, and I must confess, the experience wasn't nearly as creepy as I thought it would be. I was expecting boorish, goatish, locker room behavior — basically, strip joint etiquette for the PG-13 crowd — but it never materialized. For the first time on Hell Night, I realized that many of my pre-conceived notions were dead wrong. Hooter's is primarily a sports bar, with high definition TVs everywhere, and the spectator-inducing atmosphere tends to inhibit any bachelor party exuberance. Plus, there are women here — forgive my incredulity, but I was shocked at how many female customers were present. Not 50-50, but much closer to 60-40 than I thought possible. Many of them on dates, too. Couples in their early twenties. Did I miss something somewhere? This is a dating joint? That seemed as inconceivable to me as bringing kids here, but hold on. . . there are kids here. I counted seven infants/toddlers in attendance. I guess I now understood why Hooter's was selling kids clothes in the lobby.
My waitress, my personal Hooter's Girl, was friendly and efficient, though I did have to reassure her a number of times that I really didn't want the Fried Pickle appetizer, that I was trying to limit myself to only three thousand calories per sitting. She told me her name, which made me laugh, because it was exactly the sort of name you'd expect from a Hooter's Girl (or a stripper, or a Playmate — there's a fascinating, chicken-or-the-egg question here.) She wasn't overly flirty, didn't josh too much, which was a relief, but I did find out later that all Hooter's Girls have to sign a contract which basically says that flirting and innuendoes from customers are part of the job. As is wearing the trademark, skintight Hooter's outfit. And indeed, my waitress seemed completely at ease squeezed into her tank top, but I must say, the sight of all the Hooter's Girls bulging out of their outfits made me a little uncomfortable. Not that I'm a prude, mind you, but the uniforms are unforgiving, and let's be frank — normal humans simply don't have bodies like the girls in the Hooter's calendar. And the girls at the Fort Wayne Hooter's — all attractive, admittedly — certainly had normal bodies. I know this is the opposite of what I was supposed to be feeling, but when I saw how intensely the uniforms magnified every flaw on the girls, I couldn't help but feel embarrassed for them. Instead of objectifying them, the uniforms actually made the girls seem more human to me, because I thought how deeply horrified I would have felt to have my physical flaws on display for all to gawk at.
I spent about ninety minutes at Hooter's, and if not for one unpleasant event that happened right before I left, the whole experience would have been (relatively) benign. Unfortunately, though, there was a bachelor party present, and the Hooter's Girls performed a little ceremony for the groom, sort of like those annoying birthday celebrations at chain Mexican restaurants. The girls made a circle around the poor schmuck, made him dance a humiliating dance as they clapped hands and sang some idiotic song about the Hooter's Girls he'll (now) never get. Swear to God, I can't figure out why guys insist on subjecting themselves to these ridiculous displays. The groom looked mortified, and the bachelor party just stood there, with blank looks on their faces, no hooting, no laughing. Just standing there, doing something they think is expected of them as opposed to something they really want to do. I'm sure later they'll tell everyone what a wild time they had.
The bill was reasonable, I guess, and of course I overtipped my own personal Hooter's Girl, like everyone else. Hell Night cost so far: $20. I still had 180 bucks left, but that had to get me through a karaoke bar, a strip joint, 2 meat markets, and a biker bar, with a little left over for possible bail money.
I have always been amazed that while Japan catches holy hell for Pearl Harbor, Machiavellian trade policies, and pornimation, nobody says boo about karaoke. Karaoke began in Tokyo in the early 70's, spread like a virus to the U.S. and western countries by the 80's, and by the year 2000 had established a beachhead in virtually every country in the civilized world. In Fort Wayne today, on any given weekend, an intrepid vocalist has the pick of 20-30 places that regularly truck in karaoke machines. It is by no means coincidental that these are the same 20-30 places that I scrupulously avoid every weekend, which may give a clue to my general nature — I have always had a fantastically low threshold for public embarrassment, and nothing has caused me to avert my eyes or squirm in my seat more than an excruciating karaoke session. And I have discovered that the vocalists don't have to be bad, either; for some reason, I get more creeped out by the good karaoke singers than by the bad ones. The good ones always seem to unhealthily greedy for the spotlight, too into it, and I can't help but wonder how awful their week must be for this to be the highlight of it. But that's me, I guess, always looking for the existentialistic dread when I should just be drinking and having fun.
So it is with deep surprise that I must report that attending karaoke night at a northwest Fort Wayne bar turned out to be the highlight of my Hell Night. I'm not going to mention the name of the bar, because I don't want to imply any negative connotations towards it — it's a friendly, working class, neighborhood joint with pleasant bartenders and cheap drinks, and why does it deserve my opprobrium just because there's a karaoke machine in the front window? Plus, the patrons were cool. I engaged in conversation with one of the regulars, who looked exactly like the character actor (and biker patron saint) Sam Elliot. The guy was in full Harley regalia — leather jacket, leather chaps, with flowing gray hair and a moustache — yet there was nothing intimidating or confrontational in his demeanor. It was the end of the working week, after all, and he was there to celebrate and hang with friends. Nothing wrong with that.
I caught 10 songs while I was there, with three rotating vocalists, and I was pleased to discover that one of the songs performed was a terrific old rockabilly tune that I never heard before; it reminded me of the great Springsteen song "Open All Night" from Nebraska or that bitchy Replacement's tune "Waitress in the Sky." (I wrote down the name of the song afterward and downloaded it the next day. Conway Twitty, for those of you keeping score.) The rest of the songs were less obscure, contemporary country songs by artists I've always hated (Reba, the Judds, Toby Keith, Vince Gill.) The singers were good enough, I guess — earnest and nervous, nothing jarringly off-pitch, and they seemed to be having a good time without causing the audience to blush too much. I found myself rooting for them, oddly enough, hoping they'd do justice to these awful songs I knew I'd never willingly listen to again. I clapped hard after every song, occasionally shooting a "thumbs up" gesture to the singers as they passed by my booth.
I had two drinks at the karaoke bar, but left most of the second — it was going to be a long night and I had to pace myself. As any drinker in Fort Wayne knows, DUI's are a pretty big deal here, and I wanted to limit my hellish experiences to bars only, and not the county lock-up. Even with my 100% tip my karaoke trip only cost me $10. Total so far: $30.
11:15pm-1:10am: Zambucas, Piere's
Here's an ethical riddle for you — which is more reprehensible, a pick-up joint for horrible 40 year olds, or a pick-up joint for horrible 20 year olds? This was the moral dilemma I turned over in my mind for the next two hours, as I weaved my way through two of Fort Wayne's most notorious meat markets. I never came up with a satisfying answer, but I didn't feel too bad about that — a council made up of Plato, Solomon, Wittgenstein, and Descartes probably wouldn't have been able to adequately answer that puzzle either.
The other question plaguing me that night was more of a reproach — why in God's name hadn't I bought stock in Revlon, Con Air, or any other company that manufactures hair straighteners? "The look" for girls was unmistakable at Zambuca's and Piere's — straight blonde (bottled) hair, raccoon eye make-up, the requisite short top flashing the requisite flat stomach — in short, Nicole Richie. I probably tripped over a half dozen Simple Life clones at both places, and if that sounds unduly harsh, well, there you are. The guys were the usual pack of meatballs — too much cologne, buttoned-down shirts with three buttons unbuttoned, stubble, dark jeans, etc. In New York they're called "Guidos from Brooklyn." I'm generalizing, of course, and I realize I am being completely unfair, but too bad — after five minutes I was in such a foul mood that I felt wholly justified in giving full vent to my misanthropic thoughts. More than anything else it was the sound that put me on edge. Everytime I passed a gaggle of partiers I was assaulted by squeals and cackles and braying laughs. I remembered reading about an English vaudevillian who claimed that too-robust human laughter can be one of the most terrifying and hair-raising sounds on Earth.
And the dancing, boy oh boy — I know I'm going to come across as hopelessly provincial here, but when exactly did public dancing go from being an individualistic, physical sensation to these clumping humpfests? The R&B singer Alicia Keys, wise beyond her years, said once that the whole of American society has become a soft-core porn industry, and after watching the dancers that night, I had to agree with her sentiment. I don't think I watched any illegal acts — at least I hope not — but what was most disturbing was how the humpees kept glancing back at the general public from the dance floor, making sure there were witnesses to how naughty they were being. One caught my eye and gave me a casual smirk, and I felt complicit and tacky.
If I had to make a distinction as to which place was less toxic--and believe me, we're splitting hairs here--I'd give the nod to Piere's, if only because the bartender honored my request and broke my $50 bill into six fives and twenty ones, which I immediately began creasing on the bar top. Shangri-La was the next stop on Hell Night, after all.
Total cost so far: $55, which left me $145 for the final stage of my night…
1:20am-2:40am: Shangri-La, Poor John's
Okay, full disclosure — I am a profane man with a checkered history of licentious behavior and I freely acknowledge that my Billy Sunday, revivalist fury against strip joints makes me a total hypocrite. Understood. And let me further admit that I am not a moral compass, that I don't own a moral compass, that I don't even know where to buy a moral compass. Having said all that, however, I must declare with absolute certainty that strip joints are for creeps and skanks and anybody who walks through their doors instantly becomes a lesser person.
Of course, becoming a lesser person is sort of the point of strip clubs. Everybody needs a place where they can let loose, or so the theory goes. As a brazen, callow youth I went to my share of bachelor parties and twenty-first birthday celebrations, I tucked and prodded and got glittered, but almost immediately I realized you'd have to be a moral imbecile not to see that strip joints are designed to bring out the absolute worst in people. I went to the Gibson Girl once (at 21) and caught sight of something I've never been able to shake — the back of a stripper's thighs, black and blue and bruised. This may have been someone's idea of an erotic fantasy, but it just made me feel sickened and scared. I saw the girl as a person, felt terrible for her, which was the last thing the club wanted — you can't make money off sudden flashes of humanity.
I also realized very quickly at the Gibson Girl that the strippers who were taking my money — the ones who were smiling, and flirty, and asked me a half dozen times if I was having a good time — they hated me. They tried to hide it, but it never entirely left. Ever notice the vengeful glee strippers show when they get some poor groom-to-be or newly-turned twenty-one year old onstage? It's supposed to be funny, the way they humiliate and mock the guys onstage, but the smiles always seemed frighteningly feral to me.
And really, who can blame them? Most strip joints claim to be "Gentlemen's Clubs," but damned if I've ever seen anything that remotely resembled a "gentleman" at any one of them. And that's ultimately what keeps me away — I don't want to be known as a member of that particular club. I've had friends who've joked that I'm not much of a man because I don't like strip joints, but the fact is, I'm too straight — if I wanted to share my sexual fantasies with a room full of guys, hell, I'd just start sleeping with them. It was nearly impossible to explain to them that to me, strip joints are the absolute antithesis of eroticism.
But on Saturday, I hadn't brought those creased one dollar bills for nothing, so when I got to Shangri-La I immediately checked my humanity at the door and pulled a ringside seat. My intention for the entire night was to immerse myself fully in the experience, after all, so I switched off my righteousness and became Strip Joint Guy. And guess what? Outside of a few more tattoos and a few more surgically enhanced bodies, the experience was virtually identical to the Gibson Girl, 1982. I managed to lose most of my twenty-five ones in about an hour, which was similar to the dissolve rate back in the day. If you pull a ringside seat, you're obligated to tuck a few dollars, but really, the entire place is designed to make you lose all your money no matter where you sit. In the nether reaches, strippers constantly circulate among the patrons, offering private, dollar dances, and it is virtually impossible to turn them down. When you're at a strip club, the girl is a Hustler and you're a Mark, and there's simply no place to hide.
I will say that all the dancers I spoke with (and got mauled by) were friendly enough, and I didn't sense the antipathy from them that I was expecting. And the sound system was great — I've always maintained that if Hell has a good soundtrack, I could bear it with equanimity. The initial songs were awful, party rap and nu metal, but when Green Day kicked in to a stripper's routine, I loved the music so much (and it was so gloriously loud) that I hyped myself into having a good time.
The sound system at Poor John's, of course, is not nearly as sophisticated. It's a juke box, and the dancers have to punch in their songs before taking their place. This provides some entertaining and embarrassing moments. One dancer performed her first song, mostly clothed, and was preparing to dramatically remove her top as the second song began, but there was a long pause between songs, and she completely mistimed her move. She stood still on the stage, naked to the waist, waiting for the song to begin. I felt like I was at a play, watching an actor try to remember his lines.
I'd always heard that this place was the bottom of the barrel, but it didn't seem nearly as debauched as I imagined. In fact, I rather liked the look of Poor John's — not rundown at all, with terrific lighting. And maybe I'm a romantic, but I've always had a fondness for older, seen-it-all guys that work in bars, and the doorman taking my money was that guy to a tee. I can never feel threatened when they're around. The bartender, too, was extremely pleasant — I rarely get all flushed with civic pride, but I have to say, even in our fleshpots, we have some of the friendliest folks in the country.
Last call: The Rock
I’ve always been terrified of The Rock, because I'm a wuss, and it looks like the sort of place where wusses get beaten up. I've heard various descriptions of the clientele from friends, and I imagined roving gangs of killer bikers seated at the bar, clicking knives and waiting for some dork like me to show up for the evening's entertainment. So I'm embarrassed to admit that, once again, my pre-conceived notions were a million miles off.
The prices are outrageously cheap — one Manhattan at Club Soda would probably buy you six drinks here — and the people I saw that night, well, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they've probably been there before. Dealing with drunks can be tricky, of course, you have to keep your eyes peeled, but once I read the room at The Rock most of my fear evaporated. The bartender and the DJ--a matriarch and a patriarch--looked like they had everything in control, and I knew if I just obeyed the rules, everything would be fine. It's a good rule of thumb when going to a new bar--pay for your drinks immediately, overtip your bartender, and keep your head down. And thus The Rock was rid of all menace to me, and I bet I'll come back again.
The strip joints, of course, took most of my money — I dropped about $55 dollars at the two places. I walked into the Rock with ninety dollars left, and spent ten. Total cost for Hell Night: $120.