Feeling Young and Magnificent Giving 21st Birthday Wisdom to a Bum
It was an intense dance-off. Articles of clothing were stripped away. Sweat flops soared across the bar landing on patrons and in their drinks. Security arrived to restore order but upon seeing the good times being had by all, the bulky guards in their yellow collared shirts joined the hive of drunks as spectators. The audience cheered. They wanted more.
This was not what they were expecting. And that was part of the thrill.
In 2000, the Bar at Times Square in the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas was a popular destination and packed to the walls most nights thanks to its dueling pianos. On any standard night, it was the place in all the valley to go for getting soused and singing along to Top 40 hits with friends and strangers. The night of the dance-off was not a standard night. I had turned 21 years old at midnight.
It wasn’t my first time drinking or being drunk in public but it was the first time I could do it without fear of the law breaking up my party, which invigorated me with confidence and a whole lot of late-night energy to burn off.
My roommate, creative partner and trusted best friend, Chris Gallant suggested the piano bar. He hit 21 six months earlier in November and had been a soft regular there since. It had everything we wanted of a bar at that time: booze, live music and girls. It was a Thursday night/Friday morning so the weekend crowd was in full force. We were crammed in the back against the bar, which made ordering Jim Beam and gingers a cinch, and it helped us meet cute girls as we helped them get through to the bartender. Chris and I had started drinking hours earlier at our apartment, so we were pretty deep into the buzz by the time we arrived at the bar. That warped our confidence into thinking we could afford to throw down big tips with every drink. We learned that night that in a crowded bar, you always make friends with the bartender first. Access in a crowded bar is everything.
We chatted up these cute girls, some who were older and on vacations with their husbands who didn’t like the young college kids harmlessly flirting with their wives even if it meant they got their Jack and Cokes in a timely manner. Chris told everyone we met that it was my 21st birthday. A few bought me a drink. Most raised their glass to me. I was overjoyed with either.
After an hour or so, Chris decided that he wanted the pianists to play my favorite song in honor of my birthday — Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl. He made his way to the center of the bar where the two pianos were to make his request. The pianist, who was in the middle of hammering out Rocket Man, nodded at the cartoonishly large snifter on the piano crammed with cash. Chris stuffed some singles into the tip snifter and yelled to the guy, “Play Brandy! It’s for my friend! David! It’s his birthday! He’s 21!” The guy shrugged and belted out the words of Bernie Taupin.
Defeated but not deterred, Chris came back to me at the bar. “We’re going to need more money.” I opened my wallet. He put his hands over it, stopping me. “No. Not you.” He proceeded to ask the people we had met and anyone in between if they could spare some dough to pay for his request in my honor. Chris is a good salesman. I don’t know how much he raised but it was enough. He returned to the pianos and waited for the pianists to finish playing a raucous Meet Virginia. Yeah, the pianists at the Bar at Times Square were so good that they could make Train’s Meet Virginia rock.
Chris held out his fist full of cash, a couple tens and twenties sticking out, and said, “Play Brandy. It’s for David. He’s 21 today.” Then he mashed the money into the almost overflowing tip snifter.
The pianist barked into the microphone, “This is a special request from — Hey! What’s your name?” he said off-mic to Chris.
“Chris. But it’s from the whole bar.”
“This is a special request in honor of David’s 21st birthday!” The place erupted in cheers. The other pianist instinctively played Happy Birthday as the whole place joined in. When the birthday song was over, the first pianist called me up. I made my way. “We don’t get to play this song a lot, so let’s hope it doesn’t suck.”
With all eyes now on me, I answered my own instinct to not just stand there like a dud. I started dancing. There wasn’t a lot of room — this was not a dancing kind of bar — but in my spastic, drunken, and yeah, I’ll call it clever way, I managed to dance a nice, roomy area for me to bust moves. (This became a trick I would use whenever the bars were too crowded for me to dance.) When the song was over, the bar cheered again. The piano players dove right into Sweet Caroline, a piano bar favorite. I kept dancing.
Then some dude came into fill the rest of the dance space I had made, and he began dancing. But he was aggressive about it. His eyes were locked on mine. I had never been in a dance-off before but I had seen West Side Story enough to know that this guy wanted to rumble.
He was good but he was too measured. He embraced the rhythm, I embraced my own spirit and then let it all go. I knew he couldn’t out dance me but I wanted a most absolute win. I stripped my shirt off, humped the piano, humped the floor, blew my nose into my handkerchief then wore it as a bandana. I humped my opponent’s leg, then the leg of who I assumed was his girlfriend. The crowd roared louder than the pianos. That’s when Security arrived. The song was only half over, I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t quit. I picked my shirt up off the ground and put it back on leaving it unbuttoned and continued to gyrate and shuffle and running-man my ass off. When the song ended, I collapsed to the ground limp, dead weight. I waited a moment then sprung back up to more applause. Chris handed me my drink. I slugged it back, took a bow, thanked everyone for the fun and headed out, walking through the security guards as they parted for us like the Red Sea for Moses — another drunk Jew.
It was a little after 2 a.m. On the bridge over Tropicana Avenue connecting New York-New York to MGM Grand, Chris stopped me to give me my birthday present. It was an engraved flask filled with Jim Beam.
“You were carrying that the whole time?” I asked.
“Yeah. This, too.” I revealed a handwritten letter filled with the kind of sweet sentiments best buddies give each other on their birthdays.
We each took a pull from the flask, then hugged it out and walked a little farther before being stopped again.
The man looked like an old baseball mitt that had been left in the desert sun for years. His skin was more of a hide — cracked and tanned. The teeth he had were crooked and yellowed. His hair was wispy and weighted down by oil and dust. His eyes matched his teeth. His voice was soft, broken, sad.
“Can you spare some change?”
I knelt down in front of him. “I don’t have any change, buddy. What I do have is this.” I dangled my new, full flask in front of him. “You like bourbon?” He nodded. “Have some.”
“David, I really wouldn’t—” Chris said. I shooed his advice away.
The man took a small sip. “No, no. Go ahead,” I instructed him. He looked at me then at Chris. “Don’t look at him. It’s my flask. It’s my birthday. Go ahead.” He took a nice healthy swig. “There you go. So, what’s your deal, man?”
“I’m a bum.”
“Isn’t that an offensive term?”
“Not if it’s true.”
“What’s your name?”
With a ‘C’ or a ‘K’?”
“Cool. With a ‘C’. Why are you out here begging for change?”
“I got no money.”
“Can’t get a job?”
“Look at me.”
So I did. “Look, here’s what I’m going to do…” I opened my wallet and pulled out the few twenties Chris wouldn’t let me spend. Maybe 20, 25 bucks. I handed them to Carl. “Take this money. It’s not much but it’s something. Use it to get yourself a haircut. I think there’s a BoRics not too far from here. I think it’s like eight bucks to get a cut there. And buy yourself a toothbrush and toothpaste. Swing by a Goodwill or something and get a decent collared shirt and some slacks.”
Carl held the money in his hand. He looked it a few moments. Then he looked at me. Then the money. Then me. And then Chris.
“Don’t look at him. It’s my money. It’s my birthday.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, David. I should also tell you that I’m a drunk.”
“Tonight, so am I.”
“No, a real drunk. I’ll probably spend this money on that.”
“Well, don’t. Look. Have some more.” I handed him my flask. “Drink it all. I don’t care. But tomorrow, you use that money to clean up a little bit. You’ll feel better. And I don’t want to see you on this bridge begging for change again. Use tonight as the start of your new life. This is your moment, Carl.”
He nodded like he agreed, like he’d probably done a million times before. Before he was a bum and just a drunk with friends and co-workers to tell him what this punk kid was telling him.
“I turned 21 a few hours ago, Carl. I’m a new man. I am now looking at many, many more options, opportunities and adventures. Tonight is the start of a new chapter in my life. It could be that for you, too.”
“That’s my birthday wish, Carl. When I blow out my candles, I’m going to wish that you are able to find your way to no longer be a bum.”
“That’d be nice.”
“Just don’t let me see you on this bridge begging for change again.”
“OK. Thanks, David.”
“You’re welcome, Carl.”
I stood up, Chris and I began to walk away when he said, “That was kind of mean but still nice. Kind of profound even. Especially for a guy drunk out of his head.”
“I might puke when we get home,” I said.
“Hey, David,” Carl called out. “Think I could get another sip of that bourbon?”
“Don’t,” Chris said.
“Of course,” I told Carl. “Remember. BoRics in the morning.” He gave me a thumbs up as he polished off the last of my bourbon.
I knew the moment I woke up on my birthday morning that the 20 bucks or whatever it was I gave Carl wasn’t enough for him to do all the things I had, with truly good intentions, instructed him to do. But I felt good that night. I felt empowered. I had been lauded and celebrated just for being born and dancing like a dickweed. It was an incredible thing to feel the way I did and I wanted to channel that out into the world, to others. Looking back on that night 18 years later, I know that ultimately, what I was feeling was young. Almost everything I did and experienced during those first few hours of being the legal drinking age were new. They made me feel unstoppable, immortal and more intelligent than I ever imagined I could be. Anything and everything was possible. I felt like I was a master of the universe. I felt magnificent.
Of course, I was none of those things. I was a drunk kid on his birthday.
This birthday, although I’m surrounded by new experiences and have scored a few worthwhile wins as of late — including a room full of people clapping for me, a healthy infant son, a wonderful wife to me and mother to my boy — I don’t feel as magnificent as I did at 21. It’s not that I feel bad or even old. It’s that all the new things I experience, while amazing, can feel familiar. Youth gives you a feeling of magnificence. Righteousness even. That’s why college students can be so insufferable. Being 21 is being at the intersection of when you’re smart enough to recognize and begin to process the world around you, and dumb enough to not know better to keep your mouth shut. Some of us never age past that intersection.
Thing is, I’d give anything to feel that magnificent again. But I’d have to give up all the wisdom and experience I’ve gained in the near two-decades since. Is it worth it? I don’t know.
Or maybe I just need to get blind stinking drunk and act like a bewildered clown who loves hearing the sound of his own imbecilic voice.
Happy birthday to me. I wish Carl kicked his addiction and that BoRics cleaned him up real nice.