Who says you have to wait until the sun goes down to have a good time?
Sunday night, after watching Two Weeks in Hell, a show about the brutal, two-week tryouts for wanna-be Green Berets, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. after dreaming about killing zombies with my bare hands on a 50-foot rope ladder. Luckily, I was just hours away from meeting my good friend Ronda, ex-co-proprietor of the recently departed Ruby Room and Day Drinker play-date at The Royale Lounge on 16th Street. She'd sort this thing out.
At the Royale, they tell it like it is. Forget about seeing any well-marked sign with the name of the bar, you want the giant, neon "Cocktails" beacon on the front of the building. And don't even think about entering if you don't have any money, are "disfunctional," or making ends meet as a drug dealer or hustler -- they've got signs about that, too. We went inside anyway.
There's nothing like a bar decorated for the holidays to bring back unpleasant childhood memories of your uncle's basement post-grown-up holiday hoopla -- sagging garland and lights Scotch-taped to dark paneling, fake snow crammed between bottles of Smirnoff and Jose Cuervo, and streams of tinsel hanging from the ta-tas of every Bud and St. Pauli girl. The Royale went the extra mile and added Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and an array of motion-sensored musical characters, adding to the destruction of childhood memories.
We heard shouting from inside the bar, "Fuck global warming!"
A silver-haired cowboy type and his two ball-capped buddies were in a heated discussion, giving us the once-over. They were gritty, denim-clad, and drinking the hard stuff. They were the Royale Circle, and our membership was clearly pending. Time for some cream liqueurs with a splash of coffee.
Susie, the morning bartender, was happy to oblige. Looking like an older, inflated version of Family Affair's Jody Davis and speaking as though she just got punched in the gut, Susie listened like she had to, with a slight smile that seemed to say, "Thanks, but I've heard it all before." She tottered up and down the bar; clutching a jumbo-size A&W root beer. She was clearly part of the Royale Circle, and it wasn't until we established a connection (we both grew up in Michigan), that she warmed to us and told us about a shooting the night before.
"Some guy was messin' around in someone's backyard or somethin'," she wheezed. "Just got out of jail for sellin' drugs. Got shot in the leg and came in here to call for help."
Guess he didn't read the signs.
This juicy news, sent us racing outside to play CSI: Phoenix, and we nearly bumped into a hunched-over man wearing an orange safety vest and pointing at something on the cement.
The man looked up and said, "Some guy got shot here last night and I'm following the trail of blood."
If Buddy Hackett made a deal with the Devil to be resurrected as a guy in Phoenix wearing an orange safety vest, Velcro shoes, and sporting a urine stain, it worked -- he's more funny now than he was in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Turning my head away to stifle a giggle, I spotted dried blood drips near the cigarette-butt bucket and pointed them out to Ronda and Buddy.
"They need to clean that up," Buddy said, inspecting the crime scene. "It's unhygienic."
Back into the bar and past the Royale Circle, who were still busy ignoring us, we sipped our second mugs of Bailey's and coffee. With the transistor-like sounds of a motion-sensored snowball dog woofing "O, Christmas Tree" whenever Susie teetered by our only exposure to music, we decided to plug some coins in the jukebox and get our morning rock on. This act did not go over well with the Royale Circle, who answered the howls of Mick Jagger, Brian Johnson, and Robin Zander with Seal and Geddy Lee.
The second today's Tom Sawyer started getting high on us, we went back outside to look for more blood and met Dave. A union commercial painter originally from Richmond, Indiana, Dave's been out of work for seven months, painting the Royale Lounge and doing other odd jobs to make ends meet. We jawed about the current state of unemployment, Midwest weather, and the laser-rocket arm of Peyton Manning. Down-to-earth and optimistic, Dave was certain things were going to turn around. I asked him what color the stripes on the side of the Royale building were going to be.
He grinned and said, "Colts blue."
Thankfully, back inside, the battle of the bands had ended. As we walked by the Royale Circle, we tried to make nice by mentioning the new paint job on their clubhouse.
"Where'd that orange color come from?" someone sneered. "Tijuana?"
Clearly not making headway, we left Snubbsville and ventured into red beer territory. At only a buck twenty-five, the price couldn't be beat. Besides, tomato juice is good for you, especially when it's mixed with Budweiser. In between downing our first glass and attempting to ignore the fat man next to us who was gulping beer, then Diet Coke, then thumping his chest until a burp came out loud enough and foul enough to make you want to bury your head in your neighbor's armpit, we met the man of the morning.
Looking like a cross between Fidel Castro and Jim Croce, Ernie was a vision in black, save for the dark blue ball cap with large, Old English E's on every side. His shirt was unbuttoned to the point that it appeared he might not be wearing one at all under his black leather jacket. Speaking in a thick, Mexican accent under a heavy black beard, he told us about his girlfriend of 14 years, whom he did not love but who loved him.
"I stay with her because she can cook," he explained.
Storytime with our new friend continued as Ernie regaled us with tales of being gored by a bull, his time as a mason, baker and paratrooper, his recent stroke, kids and grandkids, how former President Bush had ruined the country, killing a man with your bare hands, and O.J. Simpson's sloppiness.
"If you're going to kill someone," Ernie said soberly, "you need to think it through."
After purchasing drink chips for us, we tried to return the favor, but Ernie wasn't having it. He made a gesture of stabbing himself in the heart and said, "What you say offends me. It hurts me right here. Why do you wish to make me sad?" Then, raising his hand to the top of his head he added, "I am high-class."
With a second round of red beer on the way, the three of us talked and laughed until the Royale Circle was all but forgotten. After Ronda's story of a job interview gone bad, thanks to her telling a joke involving birds and venereal disease (it's "untweetable"), Ernie smiled and said, "When I am with men, I act different. I need to be respected. With you two, I can relax and have a nice time. I can be a sissy."
The Royale can have their cranky clique. This morning, we're hanging with Ernie.
Royale Lounge 2310 North 16th Street 602-262-9354