an inside peek at the last decade of downtown Orlando bar-hopping
Always going downtown and never getting to the bottom. This is how I feel about downtown Orlando. Downtown Orlando, where Orange street burns with life as the bars along it open up weekend upon weekend. I love it and hate it. I get bored with and over it. I feel perplexed, intrigued and awed by it. I find it dangerous, foolish and beautiful. I find that people downtown reveal whoever they wanted to be all week long. Bars allow people to negotiate their identity. Downtown is the mall, the workplace, the classroom and the airport, on crack. People hide who they are and watch who they want to be. People are free downtown. People are trapped downtown. Oh, and people drink downtown.
On a dark night, when I have picked the outfit that fits best and represents the best fashionable manifestation of my personality, when the lights are dimly bright and the traffic is packed with people trying to get to fun, then the chase for something begins. It is beautiful not knowing what people are thinking, but only seeing how they dress, how they strut, where they go, how much they spend, how much they drink, who they stare at, who they meet, who they try to forget, and how with so much detachment everyone passes each other by.
The angst of identity is on display. Identity, exploited. Identity, decorated. The decorations are garish, mysterious, foreign and human. People engage. People stand empty. People move, brimming with the freedom of expression.
These are the bars on Orange.
No cover, mostly a dance floor, three bars, pool room, diverse crowd, but many hipsters. This bar is the back of a bar called Bar-b-cue bar. I call it Eye-spy, because the front bar is just a bunch of smoky hipsters talking their lousy politics, with odd things tacked to the walls and cult films like ET running in the background.
I order Grateful Deads, which are Long Island Ice Teas with raspberry Chambord instead of coke. Strong drinks are good when the venue sucks. I have put in the most hard hours downtown at this bar, because the old posse I used to go downtown with was obsessed with the place. Jackie, charsmatic Jackie, dragged me there every weekend. She would call night before.
“Hey, we have to go out tonite. I really just want to chill with my girlfriends. I just want a chill night. I think I want to dress up. What are you gonna wear?” Jackie says.
“Yeah, I’m down. I don’t know yet. Jeans and a cute shirt or a little dress. I don’t know if I have a slutty enough shirt to wear.”
“I’m going to wear this dress I bought. It’s an excellent, yellow dress. And I have these great shoes that go with it.”
“So, it’s a dressy night? I thought we were just gonna chill.”
“Well, whatever. I mean, you can wear whatever you want; I’m just really excited about this dress. It’s great. Plus, I looked like crap all week.”
“Okay. I’ll just wear my blue silky dress. Guess I have to shave.”
“Okay. Nine o’clock. Be ready. Oh, and don’t mention Tim to Kelly. She’s getting all crazyface about him. Again.”
Jackie’s a good planner.
The more I go to eye-spy and immerse with the crowd, I feel conflicted. I decide that I neither fit in with, felt intrigued by, nor wanted to date, people who don’t want to wash their hair or ride BMX’s. My preppy, charismatic girlfriends were curious about these kinds of guys. It takes me while to figure it out, but I start to realize don’t want to date them or get to know them better. At all.
But, oh the dance floor. There is plenty of space to cut a rug. The music is a great mix of rap, pop music, indie music and classic rock hits.
First club I ever went to. Under 21, wide-eyed, and awed by the winding staircases that led up the sides to the VIP room where the owner asked my friend if she wanted to work at his club as a dancer. She said no. It was time to head back down to the dance floor.
If you are white, you will find yourself a minority in this crowd. This place is street, hood. Want to booty dance on Hennessy? Go here. Unless they choose the techno DJ. He might bore you to death, but you can stand on the side and watch people climb the ladders and dance on mini-stages. Beware, girls seem to forget that they are wearing skirts when they ascend these ladders.
Sometimes, downtown, I feel proud. Those days I say, hey world, look at me and my friends. Those days I want to be looked at. Those days the music reflects what I’m feeling, and I know we’re all the same. But, maybe I’m a little better than everyone. I share in a moment with a crowd, and we’re all in it.
Sometimes, I am trapped. Everybody around me is meaningless, distant, and most likely cruel. The music ekes of desperation. The world is claustrophobic and I do not want to be looked at. Those nights I wear clothes that are like a wall. They separate me from people, and my smile is impenetrable. Those nights are long, cloying. Everything stifles me. People are stagnant and smoke cannot hide their sadness.
Backroom is a much better place than Eye-spy to embrace misfit madness, or simply dance around in whatever casual to formal wear you decided to wear with cheap drinks and an only moderate are of anti-pop pretentiousness. I’ll drink free beer after paying my five dollar cover. This is a smaller bar with a stage and dance floor and decorations that border on artistically thought-provoking.
Mark is a regular there, but mostly because his scream-o band plays there. His bangs are much too long, but his chops pretty much make the rockstar look worthwhile. Oh, and his guitar playing helps. His girlfriend goes too, and her bright colored American Apparel dresses and boots match the feel of the place. It’s a bit predictable. You will be sure to take home some good photo booth shots. But you definitely won’t see someone who is drop dead gorgeous that you will be sick with envy or love by the end of the night.
One bar, loud classic 80s and 90s song with the occasional popular party rap song, Greek life or people who dress like Greeks, no cover, no real dance floor. Actually mounted on the wall are deer heads and other lodge-like paraphernalia. The décor motif is rich people on the vacation, so people that love this place wear polos so that their La Coste emblems will blaze, while girls plaster on smiles that grow wider as they grow drunker. People here know each other. This place is super social and a fair amount of actual talking does go on. Drama about someone’s ex standing across the room may even occur. But that’s about it.
No one really surrenders to dancing or flirting. Instead people surrender to the particular stance of their preppy clique and dismiss everyone standing around them. The night does not grow more interesting than this. You can sit in the one tiny booth or mingle around this rectangular room, but unless you are going to show your ex-boyfriend how much more incredibly good-looking you have grown since you broke up, you may want to skip this bar. Alcoholic cider at a bar that acts like a cabin in the woods, but is filled with fake beautiful people just isn’t a very exciting Friday night.
No cover, cheap drinks, weird people, dance floor with oldies to indie music, 3 bars, lots of smoke and one excellent large patio.
Independent bar is where the other hipsters go. These hipsters are kids who listen to indie music. They talk about the uniqueness of Radiohead and their obsession with ten other bands you have never heard of. Note to hipsters: Your bands are CONVERSATION KILLERS. You will not bond with popular people. This is a fact. Do you enjoy conversation? Do you? So you’re saying the bands are so good that the amount of people that like them must remain few. To retain exclusivity. It makes perfect sense. No one knows about them because they are just that good. Like sneaky assassins. Musicians are assassins.
Hipster, or rather, emo-kid dancing is a jerking sort of motion and does not differ much from guys to girls. One advantage is that there is a lot less crotch grinding. You can breathe better while the LGBT community asexually dances in circles around each other and mixes the charm of swing dancing with the angst of head-banging. Nirvana grunge seeps down the jeans of one quarter of the older guys that hang here, while the other guys are indistinguishably male with their fringe bangs that cause one to query: which do you like more, your ability to hide or your inability to see?
Emo dress does not differ greatly from guys to girls. Especially since tanks and skinny jeans took over in the last years. However while the typical bar has a competition for sluttiest pretty girl, these bars have a competition for freakiest pretty girl. All unspoken, of course.
The thing about this I-bar crowd -most good bars have a name that can be shortened so the frequenters can causally toss it out there- the thing about this I-bar crowd is that they are the leftover gothics from the 1990s. I sometimes think of this as “the reject bar.” I see that people who don’t know where they belong decide that they should go there and find other non-belongers. Also, the lights are very dim so people can’t see each other well. This means ugly people can get by. And ugly drunk people may do even better.
Ways to survive this bar include downing 1$ PBR’s and ogling the usually good-looking bouncers or hanging out in the patio area that spills into the public sidewalk of all of downtown. There are actually chairs facing out. These chairs provide the best view and the most interesting show. Chairs facing in would be confined to the people with bad haircuts who consider themselves edgy. Chairs facing out reveal people in full stride, strutting their stuff to all the clubs; those with good hair, bad hair and a smörgåsbord of outfits.
The décor is both shabby and strange. It’s a celebration of dolls and random things that apparently go together because they don’t match. It’s a celebration of the odd. While some may find this atmosphere freeing and unjudgemental, others may see it as so self-aware in its lack of self-consciousness that the cycle just repeats. People still judge. People still dance. And these strange people like other strange people and prefer riding bikes when cars work just fine.
People think this is my kind of bar because I read books and enjoy artsy things, but enjoying artsy things and artsy personalities are completely different. While one can sip different wines and simply spit out the bad ones, standing next to the most awkward male you’ve ever seen with a leather necklace and eyeliner is a much longer lasting and disturbing situation. Inanimate art is much easier to stomach.
One small caveat. If you do want to try out your new red vinyl pants, this is the perfect place to go. No one will react negatively. You may get a compliment. And you might just look like everyone else.
Paige is a frequenter of I-bar. The gender neutral name is key, here. No memo’s officially went out, but it is a gender-neutral meet-up which may require explanations regarding post-bar stories. Paige, the girl, swears she doesn’t go to bars and hates downtown’s in general but had to meet up with her friends and, besides, guys, she can’t even drink yet. But she wouldn’t. Paige doesn’t drink or smoke like her friends but she outdresses and outpeirces them everytime. They all listen to Mumsy. She eats organic food. She can do a damn good Britney Spears on karaoke. Grits and gravy, the oldies night, is one of her favorite nights to ride her bike there.
No cover, expensive drinks, attractive female bartenders, DJ’s blaring loud techno, 2 bars, swanky white booths, and minimal dancing space. This is a pretty people bar where people spend money while soaking up their total and complete love for themselves, hoping someone with equal self-love will enjoy an overpriced cocktail standing a mere two feet away will flash perfect teeth at someone else’s better body.
Rocker Room is very small and thus has a VIP quality that fools its customers into thinking they’re VIPS. It is near Churchstreet which should promise some class. The entrance is tucked away from Orange and even her sneaking sidestreets. In fact, to get to this club one has to go down a rather hidden but well-lit alley to find the steep metal staircases that lead into this den of glamour. Once in the den, remember to stop the ascension and refrain from climbing the ladder on the wall that leads to a semi-lit corner loft area. The DJs get mad if you invade their space. Also, ladies, dresses and ladders NEVER mix.
This club provides enough light to showcase its fine guests. Even the X-ed out girl wearing a short-brimmed hat and skin-tight clothes has zero hips spilling out of her jeans. Well-tanned and recently bleached blonds lean against counters and tilt their single chins. Even the rustic and moderately thoughtful can find themselves temporarily well-placed as a picture of an arduously disheveled and deance Bob Dylan laxedly surveying the crowd from his black and white portrait hangs above. He says, “C’mon guys. We’re rockstars. Act like it.” I believe him.
Charles, a recently successful, though still battling student loans, mischievous young man maneuvering his way through entertainment, business and sales, loves this bar. Charles is quite charming, wears the traditional–downtown-ironed-button-down, either light blue, dark colored or striped, shirt tucked into jeans, only occasionally buys girls drinks, and often flirts by gently putting his hand on the small of a girl’s back while waving the other hand in the air to express the key moment of hilarity in a witty story that is most likely some conjecture about that couple across the bar staring at their feet. You will have fun with Charles and think about it. Charles will have fun. Charles will buy you two drinks. Charles will spend seventy dollars on his own drinks.
6$ cover and some drink specials, varying music, though often terrible DJ’s who play 90’s rap, fluctuates from younger crowd to older crowd, mostly superficial people who are fun to look at.
I enjoy Wallstreet. Many are intimidated by the either preppy of dressy crowd that mills around the five bars on this street. Many are simply confused by the name that smacks of the stock market and suggests both grown-up inticements and grown-up consequences. You may run into young professionals here. They may simply be networking. However, many go here to be seen. Because cover provides access to multiple bars, Wallstreet appeals to those who do not want to be limited to one bar, but are not up for hopping quickly and paying more to get from bar to bar down Orange.
Generally, you will find at least ten hot guys at these bars. This is enough for me. They are clean, well-kept guys, unlike the artists and musicians moping across the street. Now, conversationally they may not be able to scintillate you, unless you find business, cars and annual salaries interesting, but who goes downtown for conversation? If you would simply like to giggle and look pretty with three other girls also wearing very high, uncomfortable, adorable, sparkly heels, while sitting at the table next to a group of guys that you can imagine are talking about you (when they may actually be talking about what time they should leave for Macos, where schoolgirls swing from the rafters), then this is the perfect place for you. For a girl’s night out you can also spend time discussing if the other girls at the bar successfully pull off their outfits. You can always couch disparaging statements on unsuccessful outfits by starting with “Okay, I know I could never pull off that dress, but it looks horrible on that figure.”
This bar is also a great place for running into old friends from high school. First, you can dress your best, and illicit the compliment that the running back from football should have given you seven years ago. Second, it’s loud so conversation is limited. You don’t have to catch up too much. Third, your friends will be impressed that you know such hot people. And finally, Slingapores, one of the bars, has a great dance floor and all hip-hop moves, sprinklers, krip walks, and dance circles are welcome. However, you may want to inch away from the 40 year olds who still think they have moves.
Jamie like lives at Wallstreet. I mean, she’s dating one of the bartenders, so her drinks are free and the staff has basically become all of her best friends. Here the fake downtown hug is perfectly polished and accepted (even with people you’ve met twice whose name you don’t know). Jamie is super chatty and basically nice, skinny and fun to be around. I wish I were super skinny, but anorexia would be such a hassle.
Either way. Happy or sad I can and I will dance. This is the escape hatch of all downtown activity for me, the getaway car for anxiety, fear, disappointment, and loneliness. Anger can move my hips with nearly as much tenacity as seduction. Dancing is such a mad whirlwind of movement that with a little bit of rhythm, you can do anything. I’ve been told I am a talented dancer. I have moves. I have also been told I look like I am going into convulsions when I dance. And not in a good way. But how I feel when I dance surpasses how I appear. My freedom is within the union of sound and movement, letting my body totally commit to its strength taking over and ruling me. Me, who can be so unruly.
A note about dancing: even if I do not feel inspired I know I will burn calories, and most likely end up having fun. I might look stupid and everyone will see, but tomorrow I will walk with less calories, and combining a night on the town with a work-out is a two for one that I cannot say no to. Planning workouts is hard. Dance floor workouts are excellent.
There is a bit of the fake it ’til you make it aspect to this. When I feel absolutely retarded on the dance floor, like my legs are unattached, my arms are flabby and just producing bulky jerky motions and absolutely no one wants to dance with me, I still try to smile. Yes, I am even a salesman on the dance floor. Occasionally, admittedly, I will just try and sell it. Sell the experience. If someone sincerely believes that I am having fun, they may want to dance with me. We might dance. Then I might start actually having fun. This mostly does not work. People mostly do not come up to dance with me.
But they do smile at me. And if they are amused, I am pleased. We are not alone. I amuse myself, too.
I go downtown to find myself. I go there to see all the options for who I can be. Do I want to be the pretty, untouchable princess? Do I want to be the social butterfly? The entertaining drunk? The untrusting watcher sitting on the sidelines? Do I have to choose? So, I bounce around in this schizophrenic mess and just laugh at the folly of a world trying so hard. I am malleable and interesting. I am superficial and deep, thoughtful and thoughtless. It’s okay to be a little bit of everyone.