On the edge in Edge City

Brad Tyer finds fun, more fun and big fun on the Richmond Strip

Unlike the Yucatan or Blue Planet or Centerfolds, Dave & Buster's is neither pick-up joint nor palace of illicit pleasure. It's more like a frat party gone good, offering all the usual recreational nonsense of eat, drink and be merry without the risk that anything might get, as they say, out of hand.

And what kind of people are enjoying all of this gay security?
Very Middle America," noted my companion on one trip. "Mervyn's Casuals crowd all the way." It's a remarkably homogeneous crowd, post-college to middle-aged, leaning heavily, though not exclusively, to the white. A general manager who assisted me on a guided tour through the premises identified D&B's target market with charming candor as "25 to 45 -- the credit-card group."

Conservative hairstyles are the rule, including one for women that is ubiquitous up and down the Richmond Strip. I hadn't noticed (and I certainly wouldn't have known what to call it) until a fashion-conscious fellow visitor pointed it out as The Cobra. It's a modification of the outdated but still ever-present Bumper Bang style, in which the forelocks are curled into a protective tube over the forehead. In the Cobra modification, the bangs are stressed by some force of styling into a gravity-defying upward sweep that gives the wearer the appearance of supporting a fanned shield above her head. Thus, The Cobra. The very shape of the 'do -- suggesting its wearer's confident, aggressive, outgoing style -- articulately bespeaks the notion of Big Fun.

One frequent patron, a male video-game fanatic, summed up D&B's appeal in words eerily similar to those so often repeated in the promotional pamphlets.

"It's just the kind of place you go, maybe on a first date, you know, where you can eat and get drunk and have fun all in the same place."

That word again. Fun. Big fun. What kind of fun are all these people having?
It's a fun that's actually more akin to relief, the sort of fun that comes with not having to exert oneself, or interact with the self of another. One need not leave when one runs out of cash; one need only visit the on-site ATM. One need not worry about where to eat, or where to drink, or what stripe of amusement to indulge in afterwards. One need not even walk to the bar to procure that drink, because scattered at small intervals throughout the premises are flip switches, connected to pool tables and video games, that activate overhead lamps, signaling roving waitresses that service is desired. You don't even have to ask, but simply grunt out your order. And if, in the midst of all this fun, one's shirt should become tattered, one need only purchase a new one emblazoned with the Dave & Buster's logo at the gift counter.

Into the Looking Glass
This is the fun we have now. It's Big Fun, and it inevitably suffers a loss of charm with the corporate elevation of scale. But all the kitsch-bitching in the world by would-be taste police doesn't seem to have any impact on the fact that, according to the development trends and sales numbers and traffic patterns and all the other little tell-tale signs that point the direction to the future, this is IpreciselyI the sort of fun we want to have.

I searched the Strip for the perfect scene to convey why, and how, and who. I sat in a padded booth amongst a late dinner crowd and listened hard for the soul at Billy Blues. I gorged on the nightlife at Fat Tuesday's. I watched, uncomprehending, as patron after patron took to the karaoke stage of the bulbous, boat-shaped Showboat Seafood, and I consumed (and later disgorged) $27 worth of fried seafood in two plastic baskets as a band called Zen Archer played Rush's "Spirit of Radio" on the patio of Sam's Boat. Still, I felt I was getting only slices.

On my final night of research, expense account run dry, a friend and I made a run out to Bait Camp, a last-ditch effort to find out what it all meansI.

And there it was, spread out like a banquet.
The ridiculous, hodgepodge architecture, the shirts tucked in IwithoutI a dress code, the bar games and the constant flow of beer and buffalo wings and Cobraheads lurking at every table. A cover band called Arrival -- what I've taken to calling a live jukebox -- played at the front of the room, in front of a large-screen TV broadcasting the Buffalo Bills/Miami Dolphins game. During a commercial, cars crashed over the band member's heads, and the music lover in me screamed metaphor. Arrival's singer launched into Pearl Jam's "Black," and as the song's triumphant crescendo peaked with a grimace-laden howl, Bills QB Jim Kelly tossed a 28-yard pass to Don Beebe in the third quarter for a touchdown. The Bait Camp crowd cheered. For what, I know not.

I was drained.
As we finished our beers and prepared to go, a woman wearing some textile that, if it isn't called blue velveteen, should be, stumbled past our table and toward the door on the arm of a slightly less tipsy male and cast my companion and me a long, lingering gaze.

"Oh my God," said my sometimes-bitter friend. "Darwin was wrong. The weak and the ugly are breeding."

Which struck me as just slightly off-base.

These, by the looks of things, are the strong ones.

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