"Need a taxi?" said the bearded man with the leathery skin. He wore shorts and rubber sandals and looked like he spent his days out on a fishing boat rather than inside a cab.
It had been less than 2 minutes since I'd walked down the stairs from the puddle-jumper to the tarmac at Key West International Airport, the soggy humidity filling my parched lungs after nearly 6 hours of trans-continental travel at 30,000 feet. Red lettering welcoming me to the "Conch Republic" was perched above the doorway to the tiny terminal, and after crossing a fifteen-foot wide swath of gray carpeting inside, I was back out the door into the sticky heat, looking for a taxi to take me to Duval Street. I don't know if it was the way the cabbie approached me-- emerging from a shadowy corner where he'd been leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette rather than pulling up in a yellow-hued sedan and efficiently hauling my luggage into the trunk-- but it struck a sketchy note. As I followed him to his vehicle (which looked more like a dog-catcher's van) I thought there was a significant chance that I was headed for a scene straight out of The Bone Collector.
I gave the cabbie the address of our hotel and flipped open my phone to call Pauly. There was a lot of bar noise in the background and from the sharp volume and lackadaisical timbre of his voice, I easily deduced that he was in a rowdy drinking establishment and had been there, or a place like it, for some time. He said he'd meet me in 10 minutes in front of the hotel.
When I hung up, we were driving along a poorly-lit road next to a military base. Was this where he was taking me? Could I jump out of the cab and make a run for it if necessary?
"Man, I sure was glad that flight of yours was on time. It's almost always late and it's the last one of the day" he said. As he approached a stop sign, he fiddled with a laptop computer that was set up on the dashboard (telling his superiors that he had "the package?")
"This your first time in Key West?"
"Where'd you fly in from?"
"California" (best to be as vague as possible with potential serial-killer cabbies).
"Y'all have that Nancy Pelosi out there, right?" (oh, God he's going political)
"Did she ever get her plane?"
"Her plane. The big one to fly her home on weekends."
"Oh... I don't know. I don't think so."
"Pretty stupid thing to ask for."
It was about then that I noticed the sleeping child laying across the front seat. She couldn't have been more than 5. She had a Disney-themed coloring book tucked underneath her arm as she slept. Crayons were scattered across the floor. I guess I wasn't in danger after all.
As promised, Pauly met me in front of the Southern Cross Hotel. I stowed my backpack in the room and we headed across the street to Wendy's so I could get a quick bite to eat. I always order the same thing at Wendy's-- the Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
The man in front of us in line was so fucked up he could hardly stand. He had the same leathery skin as the cabbie did, was barefoot, and had his shirt halfway open.
"I'm soooo wasted!" he said to Pauly as we tried not to stare.
Once he got up to the register, he slumped onto the counter and looked as if he might vomit all over the young Jamacian cashier as he slurred his order.
Welcome to Thursday night in Key West.
After wolfing down the Spicy Chicken Sandwich and washing it down with Diet Coke, Pauly and I walked over to Irish Kevin's, one of Al Can't Hang's favorite Duval Street watering holes and joined up with the gang. Most had been drinking all day. I met Al's Philly crew-- Landow, Lewey, Big Mike, and JDub-- whom I had read so much about over the years. Gracie and Sweet Sweet Pablo were there. So were Derek, BG, Bacon Bikini Mary and StB. JDub bought me a White Russian. So I drank that. Then Derek bought me a double Soco. So I drank that. Then I bought myself a Stella. And I drank that too. Add a quick trip down the block with Gracie, Pablo, and Derek to smoke a bowl and I was pretty shitty by the time we left Irish Kevin's for the strip club.
I'd been hearing about these two strip clubs ever since Pauly had landed on the island five days earlier. There was "The Classy Joint" which was larger, semi-well maintained, and had decent looking dancers. Then there was "The Dive" which was described to me as "where strippers go to die in Key West." We were going to the Classy Joint, thank God.
Though there were a couple of lap dance virgins on our outing that night, I was not one of them. I vividly remember my first. It was at The Body Shop on Sunset Blvd. during my first or second year in Hollywood. Showcase and I took our friend Seth out for birthday drinks at the Standard Hotel and later adjourned to the strip club for a few dances. Showcase and I each bought Seth a dance and he said I wasn't leaving until I got one myself. I tried waving him off with a laugh, but five minutes later, a curvaceous, raven-haired stripper came up to me and pulled me into the back room where the private dance booths were set up.
"This is from Seth" she cooed into my ear as she ground her crotch into my thigh. Hey, this isn't so bad.
I was hooked. Lap dances were fun. I'd get several more in the years that followed-- from one at Cheetah's where a coked-up blonde poured a shot into my mouth and proceeded to stir it with her tongue, to Showcase's 25th birthday party at Crazy Horse Too when I saw him get a 45 minute lap dance from a six-foot tall black woman with the biggest tits I've ever seen, to that fateful night at Scores when Pauly, Grubby, Benny Hiroshima and I sat in a horseshoe formation, all with breasts both fake and real stuffed into our faces at one point or another, all four of us departing with our nipples burning after being twisted into unnatural formations by these ladies of the pole.
Compared to Vegas strip joints, the Classy Joint was small and really not that classy, which made me wonder just how sketchy "The Dive" was if this was classy. Pauly instantly got a waitress to take care of everyone and we took over three tables in the back corner. Al and Friends were already instant celebrities in these parts and we were treated very well. Many double Socos were consumed and at Midnight, AlCantHang turned 40 amidst clinking glasses and a dozen of his friends.
Al had brought a $50 brick of singles with him and by the end of the night all of them ended up in the garters of the panty-less dancers that took the stage. Yes, panty-less. These chicks went the Full Monty. Pablo, StB, Pauly and I rotated in and out of two seats next to the stage. During my turn, I put a couple of the singles in my cleavage and the girls skillfully removed them by mouth.
After another Double Soco, I was approached by a strikingly tall Russian girl. Her name was Olga and she was 6'4 in her lucite heels. She couldn't have been more than 20 or 21 and had ice-blue eyes, long chestnut hair and a surprisingly innocent face, like she could be the girl who sells you a croissant and a coffee in the morning at some random European cafe.
"Come with me. I give you two dance from him." She pointed at Pauly, who waved at me with a goofy drunken grin before taking my hand and leading me into the private dance room.
The private room was long, narrow, and mirrored, with a black leather banquette lining the walls on all sides. Six or seven girls were in there, some bottomless, grinding atop sunburnt tourists in t-shirts and cargo shorts. Olga led me all the way to the back and sat me down. She took her top off and grabbed my hands, placing them on her very soft, very real breasts.
"34B..." I thought as she started grinding away.
Midway through my second dance, AlCantHang entered the room with a dark-haired stripper. As Olga gnawed on my nipples through my padded satin Victoria's Secret bra, Al and I gave each other "the nod." That strip-club nod that's like "hey, here we are, being all debauched with dirty dirty paid-for girls at are going to do naughty naughty things to us and well, we're doing it in the same room, and that's a little weird, but we're just going to roll with it, OK?"
After my seven or so minutes with Olga, I emerged from the back room with a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin. I could have used a cigarette. Or maybe a shower.
"Oh my God, look at your hair!" laughed Pablo.
I racked focus toward the mirror behind our table and sure enough, it was all over the place. Sticking up, to the side, tangled and frizzy from where Olga had repeatedly run her hands through it.
"So, did you like your dance?" said Pauly, grinning ear to ear as he smoothed out my hair.
"I did. She was very dirty."
"Dude, I barely came up to her tits."
"Do you want another one?"
"No, I think that's all I can take for one night."
Maybe an hour later we stumbled back to the hotel and passed out. Seven hours later I woke up tasting stale liquor in my mouth as a rooster screamed from the tree outside our window.
And I smelled like stripper.