Dark Impulses

At night, downtown Phoenix is a ghost town except for a few bright spots

As soon as the Suns game wraps up, they come busting out of the north doors of the America West Arena like a pack of hungry wolves.

"The party's in there," declares a young black woman in micro-braids and a form-fitting blue dress, checking out the long line that has already assembled outside 9 Lounge a block north of the arena on Washington. "You can smell it!"

Indeed you can -- and she's not just referring to the bracing blend of hair gel, perfume and cologne wafting out of the already crowded downtown Phoenix club. While the place has only been filling up since the Suns vs. Magic game let out less than 30 minutes ago, there's already a palpable party vibe bouncing above the loud hip-hop beat at 9 Lounge, just a few degrees hotter than the one coming from the diverse crowd gyrating to jungle house music at the Sports City Grill two doors down.

Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.
Top: Tagging the Brickhouse. Above: Tiki talk at Bikini Lounge.
Top: Tagging the Brickhouse. Above: Tiki talk at Bikini Lounge.
Top: Big laughs at Amsterdam. Center: The men all pause at Newman's. Bottom: Big Al's -- karaoke worth dancing to.
Top: Big laughs at Amsterdam. Center: The men all pause at Newman's. Bottom: Big Al's -- karaoke worth dancing to.
Left: Latin love at Sky Lounge. Right: Fate owner Johnny Chu (left) hangs with the night owls.
Left: Latin love at Sky Lounge. Right: Fate owner Johnny Chu (left) hangs with the night owls.
The all-night downtown diner is alive and well at IHOP.
The all-night downtown diner is alive and well at IHOP.

Details

Contributers:
Elaine Bell, Quetta Carpenter, Joy Hepp, Brendan Joel Kelley, Paul Kix, Jill Koch, Michele Laudig, Steve Lemons, Christopher O'Connor, Robrt L. Pela
Photography by Emily Piraino



Read more in this series

The doorman at Sports City Grill tries to entice passers-by with economic logic. "Our cover charge is just $3 tonight -- better than the $10 they're charging over there!" he says, noting that the bargain fee also covers entry to the bar's upstairs club, Sky Lounge. But reason has little to do with the after-game crowd's party-spot picks. At the Hard Rock Cafe immediately across from the arena, patrons are not only pick-pocketed a ten spot but also probed with a metal detector -- and the crowd inside is already approaching capacity level.

Party over here? Party over there? For the thousands of fish-out-of-water suburbanites emptied onto the downtown streets after each weeknight sporting event, moderately juiced up on overpriced beer and a post-game testosterone buzz, downtown Phoenix transforms into a temporary French Quarter. There's a tourist-like curiosity in the way all the couples and singles packs roam the streets, following the crowds, peeking in doorways and furtively seeking out the best place to blow off whatever steam they have left.

It's the same thing on First Fridays -- although the migrant party crowd on those well-attended monthly art walks is more likely to yell "Show us your Keith Krassner of the woman with saw blades on her breasts!" than the more popular cat-call of the sports bar crowd. While a bit more bohemian than the post-basketball group (jerseys are only worn if they're in some way ironic), First Friday fans party with downtown in their own peculiar way.

On one month's first weekend opener, for example, a raucous crowd could be seen gathered around a band of fire-eaters outside the Holga's artist community on Third Street just south of Roosevelt, where a collective of offbeat artists paint and live in a funky old restored 14-unit motel. In front of the gallery, the Tempe pyrotechnic performance group, Fyrae, put on a sort of gothic circus, twirling flaming batons to thumping techno music while creating a tribal, fire-lit dance hall in the parking lot. Inside the gallery, meanwhile, several young women in cosmic makeup and beehive hairdos mingled with guests, conjuring the feeling of a house party with the B-52's.

Call it the art crowd's beer and hot dogs -- the combination of stimuli gets them just as charged up to do the town. A couple hours after the last bus run, though, just like a couple hours after the game, it will also all be over. By 1:30, most of the bars will be closed, the parking lots will be emptied and downtown Phoenix -- like a too-eager-to-please party girl gang-banged by the visiting team and quickly left for dead -- will return to the lonely, abandoned ghost town of non-event nights.

Downtown is the city's disrespected be-otch, the Valley's ho. Great for the occasional wild night out, but hardly deserving of a long-term commitment. Few choose to live there: Many visitors, in fact, are still afraid to park their cars on the streets after dark, even though the downtown blocks are patrolled more vigilantly than any suburb, and the hookers and shady characters still associated with downtown have migrated to the malls.

But the same perceptions that keep Valley residents from settling into domesticity downtown draw them there for occasional nighttime adventure. There's a certain disconnected "what happens here, stays here" anonymity to the downtown nightlife: People like letting their hair down in a place where they know they won't be seen the next day. Downtown may feel a little too edgy, sleazy and dangerous to bring home to mother. But when's the last time Ahwatukee cozied up next to you at a game and beaconed, "Hey -- wanna party?"

For this report -- the sixth in New Times' downtown series -- we dispatched our crew of music, arts and entertainment writers to treat our long-suffering downtown to a proper night out, from dusk 'til dawn. We actually revisited for several nights: Every lady has secret charms that aren't all revealed in one evening, and downtown is one moody dame. Mostly, she only feels like dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. But she'll sing karaoke on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays, you may catch her in a tango.

We wined her and dined her, and danced with her under the stars -- all the while searching for that heart of gold. We even stuck around long enough to buy her breakfast.

It's a Soused World
5 p.m. -- The Happy Hour cruise

Cruising the downtown Phoenix happy hour scene at 5 p.m. is a little like rafting through "It's a Small World" at Disneyland -- appropriate, given Jerry Colangelo's theme-park-like plans for the district. The only difference is, all the smiling wooden animatronic hula dancers and Arabian princesses are replaced by bushed office workers, eager night-outers and hard-core daylight drinkers.

Around each turn downtown is an entirely different group of natives enjoying an entirely different environment. But, just as the strains of Irish rock blaring from the front door of Seamus McCaffrey's blend into the slow blues wafting up the stairs from Monroe's across the street -- which in turn gives way to the loud Mexican pop blaring from the cranked jukebox at Newman's Cocktails -- everyone at happy hour is singing a different version of the same song: Work's done, nighttime s coming, and boy, could we use a drink.

This, of course, is the theme song of happy hour hotspots everywhere. The unique thing about initiating an evening out downtown, though, is that these wildly different variations on the same theme all blend together. Particularly after you've had a few.

A quick stroll down Central, beginning at the newly quaint, brick-lined Portland Parkway and extending to the bus depot on Van Buren, takes you past at least three distinct pockets of humanity. Beginning with the round table of tie-loosening off-duty executives enjoying a Hennessey at pricey Portland's, beyond queer-eyed young men taking refuge in the plush furnishings and pulsing Euro dance beats at Amsterdam, just north of the ruins of boarded-up bar fronts, and ending up down among the surly early drinkers determinedly extinguishing the fires of workday aggravation at the unapologetically divey King's Cocktails, you can discover more variations on a single personality type than in an entire Jungian psychology class.

Mind you, there are some scary stops along the ride. One ex-patron of King's describes the two-room watering hole as "a filthy place full of hardcore drunks," where "fights break out regularly." This is true, some say, of virtually any downtown establishment boasting on its outdoor signs, "Cocktails/Package Liquors" (of which there are plenty). At Pete's Newsroom, on First Street south of Fillmore, a fallen soldier already lies passed out in the nearby parking lot at 5:15 -- a sure sign of killer happy hour specials.

Fortunately, there are pleasant turns along the downtown happy hour cruise, as well. The pretty young waitresses at Majerle's will welcome you sweetly at the door and then entice you to find a spot around the crowded square-shaped bar, where you can quietly nurse your fantasies about ever actually talking to them again. And, on the outskirts of downtown (but worth moving the car for), it's always a pleasure to stumble in through the kitchen of the 50-year-old Durant's and be warmly welcomed by distinguished, dapper men and women in black, whose genteel smiles assure you that your money is good here.

The View From Top to . . . Topless
6 p.m. -- Appetizers at Rain

Downtown is sophisticated or seedy, depending on your point of view. And depending on what you come downtown for, that view can be changed with a walk or an elevator ride.

While the sexy young women passing out glossy strip club invites to all the single men leaving the sports arena may make downtown visitors feel they've landed on the Sin City Strip, Rain on Central, the newly renovated topless club previously known as the Jungle (and made famous by all that glossy post-game litter), is actually the sole oasis of adult entertainment in the downtown Phoenix area.

It's also, surprisingly, one of the district's most whimsically decorated clubs. About $150,000 reportedly went into the renovation, and it looks like most of the money was spent on props salvaged from the old Kon Tiki on Van Buren. Stretched along the periphery of the north wall is a bamboo thatched roof sprinkled with ornamental lights. Behind the stage is an immense Temple of Doom-style skull, lit with colored lights and a waterfall running behind its gaping mouth.

It would make a great place for a kid's birthday party, if it wasn't for all the topless women walking around -- and tonight, the selection is diverse: petite, Amazonian, Asian, blonde, brunette, pierced. Sultry electronica, bump & grind hip-hop, and strip club classics by the likes of Guns N Roses pound over the loudspeakers as a faint aroma of perfume, mixed with scents of the steaks and fried appetizers being devoured by the after-work crowd, permeates the air.

Of course, most of Rain's regulars don't pay much attention to the ambiance. The tables situated around the stage fill up quickly during happy hour with laborers in matching work shirts angling for an intimate view of the gleaming silver poles and their handlers. In the far corner, lounging on two couches facing a big-screen TV (which is currently showing a blank screen), big spenders shell out $20 for a couch dance -- twice the cost of the table dances.

A Scottsdale cabaret owner is currently working on turning the property around the corner from Majerle's into a "bikini bar" (translation: topless, but with pasties) -- a development the sports hero himself is fighting. For the time being, however, Rain is the only place you can actually find the brand of adult entertainment many still think is rampant downtown.

7:10 p.m. -- Cab with Cheuvront

Just up Central, the view changes dramatically. It's like a Cheers full of all Frasier and Niles Cranes at the Cheuvront Wine and Cheese Bar after nightfall -- and just a little too well behaved. Democratic State Senator Ken Cheuvront, a freshly scrubbed Boy Scout if there ever was one, watches over this, his four-month-old baby, like a 21st-century Donna Reed in pants. But he needn't worry. The crowd's mostly white, polite and happy to quietly sip their Cabs by the glass in the sleek, slightly mod environs, chatting sociably and chortling at the James Bond films with French subtitles playing on the big-screen TV.

Hand-crafted cheeses flown in fresh from New York are served on square white plates, and people stuff their mugs with the sort of smugness usually reserved for purchasing one's first Beamer.

"Unisex bathrooms?" gripes one fortysomething as he stands before the unlabelled, steel-gray doors in the back. "Hey, we're not all metrosexuals here." Actually, this distinctly European touch befuddles quite a few, but it's the only place in the bar where the clientele isn't clearly divided.

A pack of rowdy Republicans spills into the room, commandeers a few tables and starts sucking up vino like they just conquered France. They're members of the Senate Republican staff, here to celebrate a compatriot's birthday. Suddenly the Repubs are trading barbs with the Dems, and the place gets rockin'.

7:30 p.m. -- Snubbing at the Compass

Twenty-seven floors above the downtown streets, a different kind of crowd takes in a different view at the slowly revolving Compass Room atop the Hyatt. Here, men in expensive suits and women in designer shoes sink into the contemporary black leather chairs and slide into the candlelit swank of downtown's toniest (and, depending on your perspective, cheesiest) top floor.

The smoothness of the Compass Room is almost slippery, as canned Billie Holiday and muted trumpets croon over the clinking of silverware. People stream in at the rate of about two every 10 minutes. By eight o'clock, it's just full enough to be lively, without being crowded. The staff is like invisible clockwork, sneaking in just as you need another glass of Shiraz and slinking back through doors that slip away as the restaurant revolves around the kitchen and host station, making one complete revolution per hour, give or take. At a compass point of 125 degrees southeast, according to the plaque on the window, the closed-roofed Bank One Ballpark looks like a bloated bar of soap. The softness of the oil-lamp candles makes it impossible to do anything but chat like dippy characters in a Hugh Grant romance, sip your drink, and admire the view, which makes the Phoenix skyline look surprisingly metropolitan.

This is the kind of place where a love affair should be conducted, or a secret compact forged. It is languid, soft, comfortable and elegant -- in an obvious, prom-date sort of way. Far below, the city's homeless huddle outside the Central Arizona Shelter, and a few new inmates check into the Maricopa County Jail. But up at the Compass Room, turning a roving birds-eye view to the streets below, even the horndogs hustling through Rain's back parking lot appear like tiny creatures of the forest, looking up with admiration at the twitterpated Bambi and Faline.

At 154 degrees southeast, a table of businessmen seated opposite a table of single women overhears the girls bemoaning the lack of good men in Phoenix. Wine is ordered between the tables and the air becomes flirtatious.

It's going to be a good night for the women from the building next door and the men from Toldeo.

8 p.m. -- A Barstool at Bianco

People wait a long time to eat at Pizzeria Bianco, a tiny Italian pizza oven housed in one of the doll-worthy early 20th-century buildings in downtown's Heritage Square. Owner/chef Chris Bianco is the reason: a James Beard Award-winning chef who chooses to specialize in pizza -- kind of a Chic-E-Cheese for the masses.

On the porch outside Bar Bianco, the second building Bianco opened mainly as a waiting room for all the people willing to wait hours for a slice of his house-smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage delight, young people sitting around tables crowded with empty beer bottles and well-dressed couples nursing fine wines from Naples wait patiently to be called next door to dinner. "It's short for a Tuesday -- only an hour," says one patient regular. Yet even a party of one has to wait for a barstool, where he sits to wait again.

A middle-aged man in a grey baseball cap and a woman in a sparkling red evening gown chat with the bartender in animated Italian while a young man with spiky blonde hair and a Code Pimp tee shirt makes time with an artsy-looking bobbed brunette in clunky dark green boots.

The affable Bianco mans his post at the blazing brick fire oven and nods hello to every customer in the place. Hardly anyone leaves without offering compliments to the chef.

"This is the world-famous owner," says a man in a suit introducing his lady friend to Bianco. Two preteen boys dining with dad, after receiving a polite explanation of what "basil" is from the Italian-speaking bartender, also leave with high regards for Bianco, who even pauses to say hello to them on their way back from the rest room.

"The pizza cook was really nice," one kid tells his dad. Bianco, overhearing the review, just smiles and gets back to pounding the dough.

The Old and the Restless
8:30 p.m. -- Acting up at the Theater

Downtown, the cultures of different generations clash nightly like a battling Bart and Grandpa Simpson.

Over at Phoenix Theatre, the curtain has gone up on yet another warhorse. This is where the blue hairs come to watch plays they've seen before and, if this evening is any indication, where they come to hack up a lung. There's more coughing in the audience tonight than in a TB ward.

Besides the sickly septuagenarians, this production of Noel Coward's Private Lives has drawn the PT's usual crowd of first-night theater hags, friends of the cast and drama critics, several of whom can be seen exchanging troubled glances and glowering at the record number of late-comers who've arrived well after curtain. Then there's the jerk in Row M who's talking on his cell phone, an inexcusable faux pas that's right up there with wearing jeans and tee shirts to the theater -- which, because this is a typical night out in Phoenix, several etiquette-impaired audience members happen to be doing.

Intermission provides an excuse to sneak out and head over to the Herberger, where theater patrons are better dressed but no better behaved. During Act Two of Actors Theatre's Frame 312, two patrons are snoozing and a third is enjoying a noisy conversation with his seatmate about where he was when JFK was shot -- that is, until a fourth patron throws her playbill at them.

9:20 p.m. -- Hot Pink at Boom

Entering Boom, just a few blocks away, is like stepping into an alternate universe where no one ages past 25. The boys, with their shaggy, dyed black hair and vintage tee shirts, look like long-lost members of the Strokes. The girls favor an early-'80s look -- nostalgic, for them -- with off-the-shoulder striped tops, polka dotted dresses and plenty of thick black eyeliner and punky platinum hair.

On Hot Pink Fridays, the music is heavy on the '80s sound as well. Nellson Noriega, a 24-year-old graffiti artist and kids' dance instructor, comes here every week for what he calls the "good mix of decade music. Nostalgia music." Over a pounding beat remix of "Tainted Love," first-time visitor Tim Elliott, a former Goth who tonight brightens his wardrobe with a yellow blazer, remarks it was nice to hear Adam Ant played earlier.

While the scene may be a kicky blast from the past to the twentysomethings who frequent Boom, it's a blast that would nonetheless flatten the old folks lost on their way to the Herberger. On the club's large dance floor, in a second room adjacent to the bar, a thick fog swirls while lasers and strobes flicker in fuchsia and green and a throbbing remix of a Hot Hot Heat song plays at extreme volume. A skinny go-go boy writhes alone on a platform near the entrance to the room, and two girls dance with several shirtless guys around a pole on another platform in the middle of the floor. Two fierce, towering drag queens dominate the back end of the room. Nearby, three rockabilly girls stand watching, while dozens of people crowd around a second bar along the wall, and attempt to talk over the deafening din.

9:45 p.m. -- Squaring Off at Circles

There's a place downtown where the two cultures come together -- and even then, a glass wall separates them.

Hanging in the front room of the Circles record store on Central, surrounded by bins bursting with vinyl disco singles, are homies and freaks and a couple of drag queens, all waiting to spin platters on the store's turntable. Sheek Louch is rapping on the sound system now, and some party-primmed girls are busy checking their reflections in the wall of gold records.

Around the corner, the chick at the curvy wall of listening stations is crooning so loudly to the Elf soundtrack (right now, she's doing a dead-on impersonation of Eartha Kitt singing "Santa Baby"), she's drowning out the rowdy remix of Elton John's "Are You Ready for Love." One of the queens hollers, "Girl, you sell that sour note!" and the baby gangsta at the turntable snickers and says, "Tha's my lady."

All this action is lost on the tonier crowd next door in soundproof Circles Classical, a separate store where the strains of Murray Perahia performing Bach English Suites blends with a polite discussion about which recording of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D Minor, Opus 47 is better: Salvatore Accardo's on PolyGram, or Anne-Sophie Mutter's on Mercury. Beyond Classical's revolving glass door, a lobby squabble has broken out between one of the drag queens and a young discophile who's snagged the last copy of Chicken 'n' Beer by Ludacris.

Looks like someone's about to kick out the jams.

Mood Swings
9:50 p.m. -- Tango at the Paper Heart

At suburban hangouts, the scene is often dependably consistent. A TGI Fridays, by design, always feels like a Friday. At Fat Tuesday's, it's always Mardi Gras. Downtown, however, the same venue can change into something different each night.

The Paper Heart Gallery, with its concrete floors, basement furniture and eclectic art displays, seems an unlikely place for the tango. But on certain nights, at least, it transforms into an Argentinean ballroom.

"We're really here to do a dance," says Ravi Khalsa during one of his and wife Satya's monthly instructional excursions at the art space off 5th Avenue and Van Buren.

The Khalsas, middle-aged ballroom dancers who only picked up the exotic Argentinean art form four years ago, began teaching lessons at Paper Heart six months ago. That was their way, Ravi says, of bringing the dance to younger, bohemian-styled people.

Unfortunately for the Khalsas, Tango Night so far has been a hit or miss affair. Some months, they've attracted several dozen attendees. Tonight's event attracts only six. Yet most of them are advanced enough in their knowledge of tango that this November evening proves to be intimate and relaxed.

The pupils, led by Ravi, in thick beard and Sikh head covering, and Satya in subtle white blouse, brainy spectacles and stylish white and black dance shoes, focus on arm movements, tricky spins and cultivating an appearance of elegance. They spend very little time on leading or stepping to the beat, which in tango is tougher than it looks. The few dancers, as a result, laugh and chat through the night and use the time to enjoy the art and each other to the sounds of a Juan Darienzo recording. Tomorrow night may be a performance art night, featuring spoken-word monologues by folks in costume or aided by multimedia. Tonight, however, it's Ravi and Satya's exotic dinner party.

10 p.m. -- It's a Brickhouse

The Old Brickhouse Grill, tucked behind America West Arena on Jackson, is another box of chocolates where you never know what to expect on a given night. This box is big, though -- almost intimidating big. With the high ceiling, ample space that separates the bar from the stage and cave-like echoes and PA noise, the Brickhouse and its sprawling, for-the-general-populace atmosphere is certainly an oversized venue for many of the artsy, out-of-the-norm bands it books.

Tonight's lineup is a perfect example -- a showcase for a group of experimental Valley bands collectively known as the Shizz, shuffling sets by the latter-day grunge trio the Budget Sinatra, surf rockers Vin-Fiz, and video-game cover novelty The Minibosses.

Though the Brickhouse can hold a maximum of 665 people, tonight's experiment draws less than 100. Still, it seems a promising start to Cole Massey, inexhaustible co-owner of the place.

Massey's booking strategy is to build every night of the week on a different theme, so that people come out regardless of who's playing -- and tonight's small but enthusiastic turnout seems likely to spread the word. In the minutes before the Minibosses speed through the most gleefully unrehearsed version of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town" you'll ever hear, Massey and Budget Sinatra bassist Donald Martinez toast to shots of kamikazes and spend the rest of the night feeling they've pulled a coup for the benefit of the downtown music scene.

10:30 p.m. -- Bikini Dash

The Bikini Lounge is the nearest thing to an East Village bar Phoenix has to offer. Sure, there's the cheesy Tiki decor, the fake fire torches made of paper, the Edward Leeteg-style black velvet wahine on the wall behind the bar -- none of which seems to have been dusted in about 50 years. But the theme's incidental, because here you'll get a slice of humanity as inclusive as the A-Train, and nearly as crowded.

On First Friday they pack 'em in three and four deep -- black, white, young and old, the near famous and near infamous. Students and artists. Poets and firemen. The beautiful and the butt-ugly, all vying for the attention of Mary behind the bar, who acts like everyone's Aunt Bea. "You should come back when it's not so crowded, hon," she tells a newbie.

The crowd changes every time you look up from your drink. One moment, you're sitting beside a brunette stunner in a backless floral number exposing as much flesh as the law will allow. A few sips later, she's a thin, pale lass in long blonde pigtails who looks like Andrew Wyeth's Helga and is sipping a whiskey on the rocks and discussing Austrian folk tales. Blink, and it's a hairy Goth guitarist in a spiked black-do and leather jacket, staring at the TV showing Jerry Springer coaching some trailer park reject and rattling on about his band's last tour.

The Bikini is a spot on the downtowner's "to do" list, but the tables turn over fairly quickly, ushering in the next group of scene hunters who grab a Sex-on-the-Beach in a test tube from the spandex-clad blonde in the corner, squeeze into an observation point for a while, then leave. Eavesdroppers' opinions are offered like breath mints on the way out.

American Stars and Bars
11 p.m. -- Karaoke at Big Al's

Sitting in a chair near the karaoke set-up at Big Al's, the tall black woman closes her eyes and rips into "I Can't Make You Love Me," the gorgeous love ballad made famous by Bonnie Raitt. As she sings, a white couple dances romantically under the soft, dim lights in the space in front of her. It's a serendipitous moment made possible by the DJ's false start, which wiped away the lyrics and left Renee on her own.

It also is the night's most telling movement. Karaoke nights -- and middle-class, after-work bar crowds, for that matter -- don't come much more diverse than this one at Big Al's, located in a strip mall off the corner of Central and Grant. Black, white and Mexican share the mike and indulge in each other's musical tastes. Surprisingly, those tastes are actually good musical tastes. Tonight, the singers indulge in Tejano waltzes, Kool & the Gang's "Gimme the Night," Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and old soul classics like "My Girl," "Cruisin'" and "Ain't No Woman Like the One I Got." And mostly, they all can sing -- the half-cocked execs and their fetish for Air Supply are nowhere to be found, replaced by a playfully competitive, friendly string of participants.

Later in the night, Renee returns with a singing partner, a noticeably younger, funkier black woman named Dee Dee. The two decide on the night's most ambitious selection, dueting on "All My Life," an enormous mid-'90s hit for brothers K-Ci & JoJo. Here, they stumble over the song's trickily supple melody and inspiring, soaring bridge, relying in spots on the vocal overdubs the karaoke machine hasn't erased to carry them. Yet by song's end, they've ironed out the awkwardness and their take on the line "And I hope that you feel the same way, too" is undeniably riveting. It's a moment that nearly makes all the sins committed in the name of karaoke forgivable.

11:45 pm -- Amsterdam drag show

Over at Amsterdam, the performers get even more into character. Amsterdam is stylish and cozy, with dim lighting, soft leather couches and chairs intimately clustered around tables. If the attention to interior decorating doesn't serve as an immediate tip-off to the type of bar you've entered, one look at tonight's performer will: a drag queen in shiny, long teased blonde wig, wearing tight jeans and a striped tee and lip-synching the old Stacey Q hit, "Two of Hearts."

The crowd of maybe 50 people, who sip martinis and beers, is made up of mostly clean-shaven thirtysomething white gay guys in button-down shirts and tees, with scattered fag-hags. A small group of dressed-up women gather around a table in the middle of the room.

A performance follows by a super-voluptuous "Cher" in a long straight black wig, knee-high boots, black leggings and a black lace shirt. She has all the Cher mannerisms down, even the tongue flick. Next up is Anita Buffet, a full-figured black drag queen in a short, curly wig, sequined long black dress, rhinestone earrings and necklace, and glittery make-up. She favors old Patti LaBelle hits like "New Attitude" and "Lady Marmalade." Later, there are a few songs from a drag queen named Topaz, a feisty blonde in sheer black.

Blair Jones, a gay, 36-year-old computer tech, lives within walking distance from Amsterdam and likes it because it's nice, and not too smoky. Nevertheless, the 18-year-old Phoenix resident criticizes the "lame" gay music circuit that he says has existed since Chupa, a popular club at Seventh Avenue and Jackson, closed about seven years ago.

"For the club scene, that was the high point," Jones recalls, admittedly missing the pre-Will & Grace era before gay was cool. "I think it just got kind of mainstream. I mean, gays became mainstream."

As the subdued weeknight crowd lounges and chats quietly, Anita Buffet dances throughout the room, giving out kisses, and the women in the middle of the room playfully pucker up.

11:54 p.m. -- Slumped at Newman's Lounge

No one's acting, singing or even doing much talking at Newman's.

Just two blocks south of Amsterdam -- but worlds away by every other measure -- the closet-thin Newman's Lounge manages to feel crowded even with four solitary drinkers at the counter. At Newman's, you've got little more than a long bar, with stools positioned beneath and some booths in the back. On a busy night, Newman's can seat 25, hold 50. That's a figure for the fire marshals, however. Tonight, there are four surly drinkers taking the edge off what remains of a weekday, staring at some documentary on PBS about commercial aviation.

After absorbing cigarette smoke and ashes for years, Newman's regulars call it a bar with character. Maybe it is. Or maybe it's just dirty. Either way, the beer's cheap. You can get a Pabst Blue Ribbon for $1.75.

With the exception of the bartender, an Asian woman aging well and singing along with the country classics from the jukebox, Newman's is all men tonight. As such, there is at least one bar stool separating each drinker. And nobody's talking.

And that's the way the regulars like it. It's quiet at Newman's, apart from the blaring country music on the jukebox. (Just now, Hank Williams Jr., is singing about how much he drinks and smokes and how it's not his fault, it's his daddy's.) And they leave you alone at Newman's.

Conversation is tolerated, as long as it's astute. "You know, that's pretty amazing," says a middle-aged guy watching the documentary and nursing a yellow drink. The four men stare transfixed at the lone TV screen, as a plane makes an emergency landing and technicians rush in to hose it down with . . . something. "What is that? Freon?" asks the man with the yellow drink.

The deduction pleases the others. They nod their heads, one of them never looking down from the TV. Yes, it indeed appears to be Freon.

Bat Hour in Gotham
12:20 a.m. -- Latins in the Sky with Gold Chains

As midnight passes and the still-wired partiers are ejected from the tamer clubs, a local Latino band fills downtown's Sports City Grill with conga-fueled rhythms. Just one couple dances, but the pair -- a Scottsdale dance instructor and her dashing man in black -- spins as though the earth's rotation depends on it. Despite the sparse crowd, the five members of Cascabel are determined to put on a show, the lead singer squeaking out frenetic violin solos.

It's Latin Night, and most of the action is upstairs at Sky Lounge, where the dance floor exceeded maximum capacity an hour ago. The room is booming as clubbers continue to pour in. The last of the button-down happy hour crowd has cleared out, making room for big hair and bustiers. Everybody's dolled up -- leather pants, halter-tops, gold chains -- and most of the predominantly Latino crowd walk in like they're on familiar terrain.

On Thursday nights, Sky Lounge plays drum & bass and house music, and the crowd is more diverse, with a scattering of gays among the hip-but-casual twentysomethings and a good mix of races -- Black, white, Asian, Mexican, Rastafarian.

Kate Roach, 25, lives in north Scottsdale and often comes for both the house and Latin nights. "One of the things we like about downtown in general is there's not as much pretense," she says. "It's not as plastic -- not all Kens and Barbies walking around. People are a lot more honest, a lot friendlier. It's easier to strike up a conversation with people. We don't really hang out in Tempe anymore because it's so college. There are more people down here in our age group."

There are also more people here with money. Everybody pays $8 to $10 to get in, and the drinks don't come cheap ($5 for a well margarita), but the prices allow the privilege of dancing 'til 2 or 3 a.m.

Upstairs, DJs Roberto and Leo spin a hip-hop number, and Latin moves give way to bump-and-grind. Dancers and fakers hit the floor in equal numbers: Some boast synchronized salsa steps; a few even know the bachata. For others, the music is just an excuse to reach out and hump someone. Psychedelic patterns swirl on overhead TV screens, and disco lights color the haze of cigarette smoke. The open patio lets in cool air, but even the spectators are breaking a sweat.

Sergio takes the mike and makes an announcement in Spanish, then repeats it in English. The body language on the dance floor, however, requires no translation.

2:15 a.m. -- Late, Late Fate

On the sidewalk a few yards before you get to Johnny Chu's bungalow-eatery-art gallery Fate, someone's scrawled a message to all and sundry in chalk: "YOU ARE NOT LOST." And indeed, after hours, all roads lead to Johnny's place, past the empty bottles of Jaegermeister and the spent packs of Camels, and into this funky, reverse speakeasy, where one can drink a bottle of raspberry iced tea and down a plate or three of pork pot stickers while sobering up.

Everyone inside is mellow and relaxed. DJ Stefan is rockin' Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and then something by Sade. Up front is a room bathed in blue light, with a huge canvas of William S. Burroughs -- patron saint of hipsters -- watching over you. But this seems a little too out in the open, so you choose the more intimate back room, lit by a red light instead, with these squiggly, glow-in-the-dark alien paintings by some cat named Clay Elliott.

The tables are full of well-drink-refugees in vintage '70s shirts, jeans and sneakers. A Beck look-alike sporting a white trucker hat talks to another in a baseball cap and preppie windbreaker. Out of the corner of your eye, two prematurely balding pony-tailed blokes discuss films. And behind you, out of your line of vision, some guy crows, "I haven't had a job in four years!" To which someone else replies, "Congratulations."

Johnny Chu pokes his head in the back room to see how many are left, and your waiter tells you the kitchen is closed, but that you can keep sitting there if you want. "One more tea?" he asks, and you relent.

By 2:30 a.m., you've finished your tea, and it's that bat time. Sure you could wait until 3 a.m., but being the last to leave is more than a little pathetic. Like the man said, you've got miles to go before you sleep.

The Long Way Home
3 a.m. -- Looking for life

At 3 a.m., downtown Phoenix looks like a Playstation 2 driving game with the "traffic-off" cheat enabled. There's a certain eeriness to the tall, empty skyscrapers and deserted, gritty streets, as if the whole environment was rendered by a lazy game programmer who didn't take time to fill in the scene with some people.

To most Valley suburbanites, accustomed to ranch-style dwellings and new construction, the shadowy old towers downtown at night can look foreign, and foreboding. There's a sense of danger -- if only because the environment is more familiar to us from crime movies and shoot-'em-up video games than from anything we see in our own neighborhoods.

Downtown knows it can look like a bad mo-fo at night, which is why the Downtown Phoenix Partnership offers its "Pal Around" program. With a simple call to the phone number listed on its Web site, the free program, funded by fear-fighting Copper Square merchants, dispatches a personal bodyguard -- or "Copper Square ambassador" -- to walk the nervous downtown newbie from the club to her car, or ride up the rickety elevator in that dark, dank parking garage.

Ironically, while the service is offered 365 nights a year, the ambassadors are only available until 11 p.m., even on weekends. Why can't you get your own personal Kevin Costner at 3 a.m., when the pounding of your heart is the loudest noise on the streets? "We find the demand is higher prior to 11," says Brian Kearney, the partnership's president. Could that be because everyone's vanished by that hour? Kearney pauses. "If we could keep 'em here later, we would."

James Bailey, drummer with the Loose Cannons Blues Band, which frequently plays at the jazzy below-street-level bar Monroes, regularly witnesses this early evening mass exodus, and wishes he could keep the crowd downtown later as well.

Bailey, a longtime Phoenix resident who now lives by South Mountain, remembers the days when the city' s vintage downtown benefited from a kinder, more Ritchie Cunningham image.

"Were you here back in the '70s, when cruising Central was going on?" he asks, referring to the days when the city's main drag would fill up at night with hot cars packed with even hotter girls and mooning frat boys. "Talk about a downtown scene, man. I mean, that was wild! No matter where you lived in the Valley, you came down to Central, and there'd be thousands of people, parked along the street. Businesses would be open, there'd be busy restaurants on every block. That was the scene for the entire Valley -- until the city cut that off and the police started kicking everybody out."

The blues man would love to see the city bring "cruisin' Central" back, but says most of the classic car clubs he's talked to are skittish of attempting anything under current downtown policies. "Most of the car clubs are really nervous about it," he says. "They're like, No, we can't do that. The city will shut us down, real quick.'"

For now, time to start that long drive home. Take Central, and try to imagine the days when that street would still be lined with modern-day Fonzies and Potsies, all looking for late-night action along the downtown drag.

There's a little Arnold's diner scene at the 24-hour IHOP, where a racially diverse mix of bleary-eyed all-nighters stop for coffee and self-disclosure. A girl, her bare feet tucked beside her on the booth seat, treats her friend to tales of a steamy office romance gone sour, and the conversation travels. "I saw him at this happy hour party, and he calls me Michelle," she says, wincing. "Is that in any way close to Christine?"

Except for one woman in a strapless, backless dress, this doesn't look like the after-bar crowd. An elderly man in a Day-Glo orange jacket hacks loudly in the corner and reads the paper. In one booth, a couple in their 40s chew in silence. The amiable waiter, who's worked the graveyard shift for a year and a half, attributes the consistent calm to the fact that cops are almost always in the house. In fact, seven lieutenants are sharing a table in one corner. Outside, five cruisers line the street.

They're not really needed downtown anymore. It's an away-game night for all the sports teams in season, and the next First Friday is still nearly three weeks away.

Go to sleep, Phoenix. It's been fun. We'll call.

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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