Dog Park Decadence
Looking like a cross between Jet Li and the Hives' Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, pimped out like his bandmates in a regal purple tux and a Green Hornet-style black mask, and twisting and shaking as if Benny Hinn had just laid hands on him and filled him with the Spirit, Russell Quan blasts through a surf punk cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say?" His velour jacket is wet with sweat, in part because he'd been pounding skins through the first set before stepping to the mike for the second half of this rare Phantom Surfers appearance in P-town.
Before him are hometown honeys in pink '50s-style gowns, rockabilly types in vintage shirts and thick lambchop sideburns, hot punk chicklets in too-tight black tees and strategically torn fishnet stockings. Everyone's smoking, dripping fat beads of perspiration, throwing back drinks, and convulsing like their boy Quan. That includes Jett, a.k.a. the L-word Keira Knightley, and myself, PHX's mound of renown, the Zona's own Biggie Smalls, your hardly humble, candy-coated captain of corpulence, Kreme.
From this intro, you might expect that Jett and I are kicking it at the Emerald, or some other hipster sweatbox in the Phity (short for "Phoenix city," yo). But check it, we're peepin' the Masked Ones as they play the lounge at Phoenix Greyhound Park at 38th Street and Washington! That's right, while the Phantom Surfers tear up the room, immediately behind us at the bar, mixed in with the twentysomething party peoples, are crusty gamblers chewing on cee-gars and placing their bets as they knock back John Barleycorn while watching the race results on TV screens above.
The Phantom Surfers are here as part of a benefit for the Renegade Rollergirls, a league of amateur Phoenix roller derby enthusiasts, who have a kissing booth set up outside the lounge. (French Kiss Army and Mother Truckers are but two of the teams of young women who re-create the sport locally.) Revelers have plunked down $10 to see the band and anti-comic Neil Hamburger, who opened the night for them.
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The Phantom Surfers finish their concert and dive offstage, returning for an encore before they head back to the impromptu dressing room behind the lounge. Jett and I are hard on their heels. We catch the legendary Bay Area foursome in the middle of stripping down to their BVDs.
"Why are classy fellas like you playing a dog park?" I query the quartet.
"Someone asked us," smirks guitarist Mel Bergman, who with his Colonel Sanders mustache and beard looks like a young Robert Altman. "I've been doing this for a long time. There's no reason to promote ourselves as we've achieved as much as we're gonna achieve as a band. In fact, this is the pinnacle."
"So what do you think of this whole roller girl phenom, since you're playing a benefit for them?"
"My take is it's for punk rock girls, some of whom are getting on a little bit [in years]," clowns Bergman. "Kinda like a quilting bee with wheels."
"Ooooh, cold, but these ladies look pretty tough," chimes in the Jettster.
"Hey, I've had female relatives that were quilters, and they were plenty tough, too," jokes bassist Mike "the Mouth" Lucas. "In fact, I'm working on a book right now, Tough Quilters of the 19th Century."
"I guess this explains why there are no roller derby groupies back here," says Jett.
"Look at me," implores Bergman, like some lounge-lizard Job. "You think we have roller derby groupies? That would be hoping beyond hope. I'd have to jack my game way up."
"I dunno, sir, you're lookin' pretty sharp," I comment.
"Yeah, but you're not a roller derby girl," says Lucas, butting in.
"No, but I have lovely chesticles," I say, grinning. "And, of course, there's always Jett here."
"Hey, leave me out of it," my lipsticker co-pilot demands.
"Baby, it's all about you," says Bergman with a leer.
"Now that he mentions it, Jett, you are the only female back here," I point out.
"Argh, men!" cries Jett in disgust.
Jett and I exit stage left. Back in the lounge area, we run into the great Neil Hamburger, the hardest working comic in the biz, who's doing his shtick 365 days a year in pizza parlors, malls, Malaysian comedy clubs and, well, dog parks. In fact, the L.A.-based comic plays the dog park annually, this being his third or fourth time at the canine speedway. Hamburger even sells a DVD of himself in performance at the venue, titled Live at Phoenix Greyhound Park, on his Web site, http://neilhamburger.tvheaven.com.
Hamburger could out-nebbish Woody Allen in his maroon tux and big, black horn-rim specs. In his act, he's so bad he's good, a modus operandi that's earned him a cult following and the love of losers everywhere.
"So, Neil, is it all about dog tracks now?" I ask.
"No, Indian casinos," he croaks, hoarsely. "These degenerate gamblers are my biggest crowd. These are my people."
"Ever play Laughlin?" asks the Jettster.
"I wish I could get something going there," he sighs. "I've played Elko, Nevada, though, which is a lot worse than Laughlin."
"Well, we love you, player," I tell him, patting him on the back. "Unfortunately, we couldn't hear your act at all. Sounds like your voice is about done."
"I drove here all the way from Las Cruces, New Mexico," he explains. "I was there trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for doing a 39-hour comedy routine. I got as far as 36 hours and my voice gave out."
"Better luck next time," I say. "Since we weren't able to get the full Neil Hamburger Experience, can you lay some of that funny bone on us, baby?"
"Sure, here's one: Why did Madonna feed Alpo to her infant child?" he asks.
"She had no choice, that's what came out of her breasts!"
(Pause. Sound of crickets chirping.)
"I don't get it," says Jett.
"That's the point," I tell her. "It's kind of an Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton riff. Though Madonna does look like a real bow-wow these days."
Hamburger and his entourage stroll on to the bar, and we stroll with them, 'til we spot this one blonde roller derby babe, as cute as she can be, hobbling along on crutches. She tells us her track handle is Annie Choakley (real name, Meleah Roadarmel, 23), and that she normally manages the HCX Hair Salon on Mill Avenue in Tempe, but now everything's on hold because of her injury. Says she got it just one month into doing the roller derby thing.
"We were in a scrimmage round during team practice," relates Choakley. "This was about six months ago. I fell and hit my tailbone really hard. I tried to get up and that's when I realized I'd broken my leg in two places."
"Ouch," says Jett.
"Yeah, I had a metal plate placed on one of my bones, but the doctor didn't prescribe antibiotics, so I got a really bad internal infection, which led to the second surgery. They took out a stomach muscle and placed it in my leg. I have another surgery coming up in five months. This is where they took out the muscle, by the way."
Choakley lifts her shirt to reveal a long, purplish scar snaking vertically down her tummy.
"I skate really well," she continues. "It was just one of those freak incidents. It really changed everything about my life. I went from being very active to being in a wheelchair, then on crutches."
"Poor kid," I say, my heart going out to the plucky lass. "Think you'll ever get back out on the track again?"
"The second I came out of surgery, my mom was like, `You can't do this anymore. Promise me!' So I promised her. I'll do anything behind the scenes for these girls, but I don't want to go through this ever again."
Not that my fat ass was ever inclined to hop up on roller skates, but Choakley's tale of woe will likely keep me safe and snug in my Pumas for the rest of my life. We wish Choakley a full recovery and finally make it back to the bar. There, the most interesting person is this Tony Soprano-lookin' dude, a gambler puffin' an eight-inch stogie, by the name of Dmitri.
"They call me Mr. Saturday Night," says the grizzled gambler, drink and race book in front of him. "This is my regular seat. I'm very superstitious."
"What did you make of Neil Hamburger?" I wonder.
"Dead meat," chuckles the Greek. "I've been coming here for five years, and this is Neil's third or fourth time being here. It's the biggest crowd he's ever had. I don't know if it's because of the roller derby girls or what."
Dmitri tells us he's in sales, and that he moved out here from New Jersey for the weather several years ago. He seems to know his stuff, so we ask him to break down the science of wagering on the tail-waggers.
"There are a number of ways you can bet on a dog," he tells us. "You can handicap 'em, or you can bet on favorite numbers, colors, or names. I go with the names. My favorite dog was named Buddha-head. I used to joke with the waitresses that Buddha-head's sister was Gimme-head. My new favorite is named Mao Mao Mama."
"I've heard some gamblers actually watch the dogs poop."
"Well, you can go outside where they parade them before a race. Some people feel that if the dog takes a shit or a piss, it makes them lighter. But it's all relative. How much lighter do you feel after you take a dump?" he asks me.
"'Bout 10 pounds," I reply. "After which, I usually want to take a nap."
"See, you wouldn't necessarily run any faster afterwards," he says.
"Unless you're clocking him before," says Jett. "I've seen Kreme flatten folks like Roadrunner cartoons on his way to the bog."
"Speaking of which," I say, rising from the bar. "You'll have to excuse me. Feels like my pal Jett has once again inspired me to greatness."
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