On the edge in Edge City

I'm hanging out on Richmond Avenue -- horizontal, face down, strapped and buckled into a body-length harness usually employed by hang gliders, staring bug-eyed through 150 feet of empty space at a small patch of pavement behind the Yucatan Liquor Stand. I'm here on assignment, charged with the seemingly cushy job of providing an overview of the self-contained entertainment district that has sprung up on this outside-the-Loop strip of Richmond, bordered by Hillcroft on the north and Chimney Rock on the south. I've got quite the overview. I usually don't take my assignments this literally.

I'm up here in awkward familiarity with a 23-year-old man named Terry, whom I've just met. He's strapped in at my right, in a harness similar to my own, and we're both dangling by the same cable, having been cranked to this height by a pull wire connected to the tower peaking one foot behind our outstretched feet. When Terry pulls the ripcord -- a job he seemed intent on procuring -- we'll plummet in a pendulous arc, anchored by the cable's attachment to another tower across the pavement. We'll hit 55 m.p.h. somewhere near the bottom of the arc, about ten feet off the pavement, and continue our high-speed swing past a chain-link fence that looms like the business end of a garlic press before we clear it, and out into black night. And then back. And then forth. And so on, until we've slowed enough for an assistant to reach out with a pole and drag us to a halt.

To have an overview of the Richmond Strip is to experience vertigo.
"God damn!" whoops Terry, when we're on our feet again.
"Damn!" I reply, with an unexpected and newfound sense of camaraderie.

"I'm gonna buy you a drink!" Terry tells me, with great enthusiasm, and I simply nod in thankful acquiescence. I need a drink. And in Houston, for thousands of young adults with discretionary income, the Richmond Strip is the place to get one.

It's also the place to get fed, tained, and if the sparkle in the eyes of most patrons has any basis in fact, the place to get laid. The Richmond Strip has developed over the course of the past decade into a true entertainment district, a place to be and be seen, Houston's urban-sprawl equivalent of Sixth Street in Austin or Beale Street in Memphis or New Orleans' Latin Quarter -- part local destination and part tourist trap, offering sensory overload in exchange for dollars.

Inner Loop hipsters and suburban hermits alike hold a certain disdain for the Richmond Strip, either because it lacks a certain element of soul, or because its flashy pace and distance from more distant 'burbs makes it foreign, but it's not at all surprising that it should have planted itself here. Houston is what author Joel Garreau, in his book of the same title, calls an "Edge City" -- a metropolis on the forefront of a national city development trend in which jobs and retail are moving away from traditional downtown areas and out toward the suburbs, to where most of the people already live.

Houston is an archetype of the trend, with ten well-developed edge cities expanding the city's frontiers with semi-urban pockets from Clear Lake to F.M. 1960. Three of these, identified by Garreau as the Galleria area, the Greenway Plaza area, and the Sharpstown Mall/Highway 59 area, contribute to a high population density in the relatively small geography surrounding the Richmond Strip. A statistically significant chunk of Houston works and lives within a 15-minute drive of the Strip (one of Garreau's criterion for designation as a "mall"). The area's high density of apartments makes it a logical residence both for post-college adults moving into their first homes and first jobs, and for newcomers to the city.

The Richmond Strip is their playground.

Fun: Where the shark bites
On the Strip, the Yucatan Liquor Stand in particular seems to be the place to get tanked. According to the bar manager on duty the evening of my first visit, the most recent records from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) indicate that for the month of September, the Yucatan's sprawling environs played host to a higher dollar amount of alcoholic consumption than any other watering hole in Houston.

The favored drink, a fresh-faced female bartender tells me, is a concoction called the Sharkbite. Since the Sharkbite is served in a Mason jar of approximately the same proportions as a small goldfish bowl, and since my evening's festivities are just getting started, I ask for a sample taste. The Sharkbite is sweet, a combination of dark and light rums, grenadine, and pineapple and orange juices. It is not a drinker's drink. It is, as bourbon fans and career drinkers are fond of saying, a frou-frou drink, designed for maximum ease of inhalation in a light-footed party atmosphere. Drinking on the Richmond Strip is not a means to any standard alcoholic ends. It is, rather, a too-obvious corollary to the strip's fundamental mantra: Have Fun.

That's why Terry and his girlfriend, a 23-year-old woman in a maroon velvet dress, like to party at the Yucatan. It's fun. It IisI. There are two huge, fully stocked bars in the main room, and outposts on the patio. There are tables and chairs, to which you can have snacks and bar-oriented food delivered. Baby-back ribs and the chicken scraps drenched in bright-orange spicy sauce, known as buffalo wings, are eternally popular. There is a dance floor, filled on a Friday night with young people in their twenties and thirties -- mostly white, but also black, Asian, Hispanic -- trying frantically to keep up with the paradoxical changes of mood tossed out by the resident disc jockey. One minute, maudlin country music fills the hall, the next, a throbbing disco beat. Periodically, a band called Slippery Fish takes the stage to play covers of pop favorites, with a heavy emphasis on just-slightly-behind-the-curve trendiness. Side-by-side versions of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots songs crowd the set, and each draws people to the floor. The dancers -- with the occasional exception of the learned country kickers -- are uniformly unexpressive, bobbing with heads and shoulders while feet remain anchored to the floor.

The decor is studied ramshackle, with flags and beer posters and neon and lots of pseudo-rustic wood cramping every available nook and cranny. There is a Wall of Shame -- under one name or another, the ubiquitous signature of a Richmond Avenue establishment -- featuring signed photographs of local and national notables who have paved a path of fun before you. There is always something to look at in the Yucatan, and if the conversation hits that seven-minute silence, or if the drinks run temporarily dry, or if for any reason there should be a lag in the fun, one can reasonably occupy the awkward and sure-to-pass moment by taking a quick visual inventory. In a corner hangs an oversized poster of a reclining buxom blond of the sort evidently preferred by the majority male clientele; her caption reads "Yucatan: My Favorite Wet Spot."

The disc jockey's voice booms over the PA with a dedication to "Holly and Ducky," and a coterie of women leaps up from their corner table squealing, headed for the dance floor, followed by a slightly less enthusiastic group of their male companions. The song's chorus burbles, "I finally found what I'm looking for."

Outside on the patio, a pickup volleyball game is in progress on a sand-covered plot. Every now and then the ball hops the short, boarded boundary and momentarily disturbs another patron's drinking. Out back also is the previously mentioned Sky Coaster, previewed with a sign listing precautions for riders. Drunk patrons, for instance, are not allowed to swing, probably for the sake of clean pavement. Number two on the list, interestingly enough, has been blocked out with a swath of blue paint. I ask the man tending the booth if he can tell me what outdated safety rule the paint hides, but he can't remember. The Sky Coaster, at $20 for a single-harness ride, seems to be gaining popularity as the night wears on, and boyfriends and beaus become more eager to impress girlfriends and would-be bedmates.

Displayed prominently by the door joining patio to interior is a coin-game punching bag, also designed with an eye toward impressing the fairer sex. Terry, "his lady" standing by his side, waits for a chance to play. He places money in the slot, winds up, and strikes the bag IhardI. The score display -- a graded graph illustrated with the likeness of an adoring woman -- lights up to a level that seems to indicate a certain dearth of masculine vigor. Terry shakes his head, looks at his lady, glances around at the bystanders, and places more money in the machine. He hits the bag hard again, hard enough to knock anyone without tripod legs in the dust -- the score is worse. Terry looks around again, mutters something disdainful about the machine being broken, and heads inside for another drink.

nside is where Terry tells me that he used to be a professional baseball player with the Atlanta Braves. I accept this as unconditional truth. Terry is stocky and strong, with a look and demeanor that support his claim, but he doesn't seem to be having as much fun as he was having before the punching bag defeated him.

More Fun: Hold on to your butt
Next door to the Yucatan, Kacross a driveway and past the valet parkers, there's yet more fun to be had. Club Blue Planet caters to the indulgence of a crowd somewhat swankier than the laid-back fun-hustlers of the Caribbean-motifed Liquor Stand. Where the Yucatan houses a casual crowd of Docker- and jeans-wearing men mingling with women decked out in 1980s-era mall fashion, Blue Planet hews closer to the cutting edge. There are more synthetics in the wardrobe, brighter colors, blacker blacks, and the generally more dressed-up feel of a clientele that takes its partying seriously. Standing in line at the door, I was asked to please tuck in my shirt.

Blue Planet is four months into a new life, its building having previously harbored The Rose on Richmond, a country-flavored disco. If Richmond Avenue has somehow designed itself to offer all things fun to all stripes of fun-lovers, Blue Planet embraces the glam-style ethic of the roaring 1980s. Every surface is stylishly and glossily painted to add up to a garish mosaic effect the polar opposite of the Yucatan's beachwear nonchalance. (Blue Planet's owners cover the bases, though, with Bait Camp, their cluttered, plastic-sheeted version of on-the-sand ambience, just down the road.) The room is jammed with svelte bodies, strobes flashing off of gleaming skin, bar help working doubletime, dance beats shaking the floor. Here, as elsewhere on the Strip, waitresses wearing leather shot-glass harnesses and bottle-holders roam the room, fueling the fun. Jello shots are a hot drink item, and my date and I split a lime and a cherry version.

The manager, Jeff Meinecke, is eager to show off his new hot spot, pointing to the stage when I ask him just what Blue Planet offers to draw the crowds on competitive weekend nights. Up there, partially obscured by fog machines and human steam, an employee in full-dress costume is lip-synching to a recording of comedian Sam Kinison's version of "Wild Thing." The evening's schedule promises more of the same, including three young women mumbling along with the words and shimmying provocatively to "Nasty Girl," and a crew miming a Beastie Boys medley. Dancing patrons eat it up, and before closing time, more than a few are jerking and swaying atop tables and barstools.

In the bathrooms, attendants man counters flush with cigarettes and perfume, quietly hawking their wares to high-maintenance customers. At the ladies' room, my companion waits in a line for five minutes, only to discover that the queue is not for a stall, but for the mirror. In the men's room, a handsome, clean-cut man in his mid-twenties is growling about some woman who has abandoned him for the dance floor. "I bought that bitch dinner," he implores a commiserating buddy.

If sex is the hardly veiled subtext in Richmond's more casual food-and-fun drink\her\hies, it's the hand on your ass at Blue Planet. My date suffers four butt-grabbing propositions while I am -- as one less-than-subtle suitor put it -- "missing the boat" in the bathrooms.

DJ, a beautiful, buxom black woman with a mile-wide smile and short, stylish hair, is stationed outside the men's room with her shoe\hshine kit and chair, and she seems perfectly acclimated to the hormonal feeding frenzy whirling around her. Men want to know her name and to be seen talking with her, for the air of familiarity with the club that she lends. She is passingly and convincingly affectionate with them all. She's been shining in this building for four years, through the transition from country bar to glam disco. "I used to have long braids," she tells me. "But this is a different group." She says she's slowly rebuilding her clientele after losing most of the boot-wearers in the changeover. I ask what sort of living she makes, shining shoes and boots at six bucks a pop.

"I buy myself a real prett new bra every week, I can tell you that," she says with a gleam in her eye.

After she finishes shining my boots ("I've seen worse," she says, with a look that says maybe she hasn't), she begins a short massage of my calves, a ritual with which she indulges all of her male customers. It strikes me as a pretty solid ploy for tips, considering the scene, but halfway through she winks at my girlfriend standing at her side. "They don't know I do this 'cause it's the easiest way to get the polish off my hands." And then, with a wicked smile back at me "ooh, baby, feels good." When she's done, I hand her a ten.

Cruising the Plastic Fantastic
If we call the Richmond Strip Houston's answer to Austin's Sixth Street, it's impossible not to notice the distinctive quirks that place it squarely within Houston's own special mythology. For one thing, it's never quite finished.

For all the nightclubs and discos and live-music venues and restaurants and titty bars that line this concrete corridor, there are still gaps, holes in the fabric filled with incongruous establishments like health clubs, office buildings, furniture outlets, ticket re-sellers and tarot-reading shops.

There's also the constant turnover. Buildings that house the present establishments often metamorphose at least every few years into new uses. Gold's Gym used to be a Best Products outlet. Rockefeller's West, soon to be Bayou City Theater, lived past lives as Texas Live and 6400, among others. When what the people want changes, as it invariably does, those who hope to cash in are forced to follow suit, and that gives the Richmond Strip an unsettled quality that is quintessential Houston, a young boom-and-sometimes-bust town that's still fighting a day-to-day battle with its own growing pains.

And then there's Houston's notorious allegiance to car culture spreading things out, necessitating that each establishment provide adequate parking for its auto-bound customers. There is, unlike on Sixth Street, almost no foot traffic on Richmond. Most of the clubs here don't charge a cover -- a strategy designed to encourage comparison shopping and shared clienteles -- but people don't just drive to Richmond, park, and stroll the avenue. Rather, they drive, park, sample, drive elsewhere, park, sample, ad infinitum. Depending on your point of view, the Richmond Strip is neither cramped nor cozy.

With the consumer offerings changing at such a rapid pace, and with the average customer traveling at 35 miles per hour, the establishments of the Richmond Strip have resorted to another quintessentially Texan device to draw the crowds: astounding size. Centerfolds is big enough to be a bowling alley (and who knows, may someday be). Billy Blues is built like a barn for more than just thematic reasons. Dave & Buster's offers an astounding 53,000 square feet of interior space and a parking lot to match. And since, as Garreau writes in Edge City, the farthest an American will willingly walk before getting into a car is 600 feet, D&B's offers customers an AstroWorld-style tram ride to the farther reaches of the concrete plot. Valet parking is the rule, not the exception, on Richmond. If everything is bigger in Texas, then the square footage of our playground, the sheer exuberance (if not tact) of our architecture, and our American insistence on convenience are no exceptions.

Of course, the space, pavement and cars discourage not only foot traffic, but the businesses that thrive on it. Size, as they say (and as nobody in Houston seems to believe), isn't everything. It's what you do with it that counts, and the sort of businesses that are generally thought to contribute to a high quality-of-life index -- secondhand bookshops, mom-and-pop restaurants, sidewalk cafes (sidewalks, for that matter) -- are conspicuously absent. The Richmond Strip is a setup that some find sterile, and many territorial Inner Loopers rely heavily on the word "plastic" in dissing the Richmond scene.

Richmond outside the Loop is plastic. Prefab, soulless, rootless, charmless -- most all the adjectives of disdain apply in spades. But it is also very much of our time and of our city, and if it lacks a certain bohemian charm that has come to pass for genuine, it's not because of some corporate-planned conspiracy to suck the soul out of a city's citizenry. It is because the secondhand bookshops and cafes and mom-and-pop establishments do not thrive in this town. They are not known for raking in the bucks, and when the reigning credo of a city's development screams big as loudly as Houston's does, the character of its corporations is not likely to thrive on smallness. There will certainly always be a vocal minority of design professionals and artist-architects and aficionados of European style who don't like it that way -- perhaps because they're more comfortable with a smaller scale that more closely approximates that of human interaction -- but the unavoidable fact is that the collective, democratic We seems to be as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine with the arrangement. That's why the Yucatan Liquor Stand sells more alcohol than any other bar in the city. That's why Dave & Buster's thrives in laboratory cleanliness. That why Billy Blues can pay a local blues musician twice as much as an independently run and perhaps more appropriately funky venue could.

And before anyone gets too weepy about the new sterility of pre-packaged fun or the diluted character of the blues, it's well to remember that the musicians who played the blues into the history books were playing not to small, fervent and cliquish crowds who stroked their beards and appreciated the music's anthropological force, but to seedy nightclubs full of people dressed to the nines, on the town, and out to get laid. If Richmond seems to you soulless, it's because Richmond is not where you've made your memories. But there are thousands of people making their memories on Richmond Avenue every night. This is where the action -- such as it is -- is, and Houston is too young, too fast and too big for nostalgia.

Even More Fun: Company on the Company
Not to say that you canÕt indulge certain forms of nostalgia on the Strip. Many grown men, for instance, harbor an unweaned yearning for the female breast, and one place to service that desire is Centerfolds.

My friend and I arrived at 9:30 on a Thursday night and paid a $5 cover to enter a large room appointed with tables and padded chairs, upholstered booths along the wall, a bar with no barstools, and mirrors galore. Upstairs was a designated V.I.P. room, slightly quieter, which one needed no particular qualification -- aside from the desire to self-designate oneself as Very Important -- to enter.

Excepting a drunken miscalculation at an establishment called the Hot Box in Corpus Christi many years ago, this was my first visit to what the dancers called a "titty bar," and I was eager to find out how they work.

A woman wearing a very small red dress took our drink order -- two bottled Budweisers and a Jack Daniels on ice -- and relieved me of $16. We watched a woman sway lackadaisically on the main stage. There is also a secondary stage, really only a platform, on the ground floor, another upstairs, and dancers rotate from stage to stage to songs of their own choosing. We drank our drinks and watched and wondered if we could afford another round. Another woman in a very small black dress put her hand on my shoulder and asked if we wanted "company." We procrastinated and she left.

Shortly afterwards, another young lady, this one in a very small blue dress, asked the same question.

"Well," I replied cautiously, "what's the going rate for company?"
She smiled. "Company is free. Table dance is twenty dollars, but you don't have to do that."

My friend and I paused, unsure of the proper etiquette, and she sat herself down at one of our table's empty chairs, to be joined shortly by one of her co-workers.

"So what's your name?" she asked, with great and seemingly genuine friendliness, and thus started "company." The place was sparsely populated, but I noticed that, to our right, two businessmen were earnestly enjoying the company of two young ladies sprawled in their laps.

Her name was Tracy, though it may have been Traci, and it was a very slow night. And she, holding a regular job as a bartender at another titty bar "down closer to Clear Lake," wasn't a full-time professional dancer. That, anyway, was her explanation for (1) approaching such an obviously cash-shy table, and (2) talking with us and answering our questions for a good half-hour before asking if I wanted a table dance. The general rule, as practiced by the second lady to sit down at our table, was to provide "company" for three or four minutes, ask for a table dance, and leave if the answer was no. Tracy was bored, though, and liked to talk, so from her I found out that between 30 and 40 dancers work at the club, that they pay $20 a night to dance, or $35 if they can't pay until the end of the night, and that a good night brings a dancer like Tracy $400. In the unlikely event that a dancer still can't pay at the end of the night, the fee is double the next night. Dancers provide their own G-strings, which run in the neighborhood of forty bucks, and make their money from tips on the main stage and especially the $20 table dances.

Why was I asking all these questions? Well, I said, because I've never been to a titty bar before, and because I'm a reporter. Which had about the same ring of truth as saying "I'll take that large pink dildo over there, for this sculpture I'm doing."

Finally, and without any particular hope in her voice, Tracy asked if I wanted a table dance -- "You knew I was gonna ask sooner or later..." -- and in the interest of journalistic integrity, I said yes.

We waited for a fresh song to start, and Tracy walked me over to one of the wall-hugging booths. I don't know why we went to a booth, but I assume that the male patrons appreciate the minor illusion of privacy. Then Tracy discarded her top and danced. Knees rubbed groin, ass bobbed over crotch, and my nose was treated to several large doses of sternum. I was stiff as a board, posture-wise, and much too self-conscious to be aroused. For one thing, there's no place to aim one's eyes. To look at her face would have invited giggles. To look at her body was unavoidable but absurd. And to look away seemed to defeat the entire purpose. It was a relief to have the thing done with.

We went back to the table and I casually slid her two $10 bills. She said "thank you" and stayed for a while, mostly ignoring us and commiserating with a co-worker named Melanie about the evening's dearth of serious business.

Centerfolds draws a different sort of crowd than the Richmond Strip's other establishments. Its clientele seeks a specific sort of entertainment '-- tits and ass, to be blunt -- that sets Centerfolds apart from the all-fun-for-all-people-under-one-roof odus operandi of the majority of Richmond's nightclubs. It hosts businessmen's lunches, corporate parties, out-of-town visitors and individuals with such suitably large wallets and small conceptions of drama as to be willing to repeatedly pay cold cash for acts of pseudo-sexuality without climax. It escapes my personal appreciation, but again, not that of a large and avid patronage.

Tracy told me that Houston, Texas, is the titty-bar capital of the world, and though I found no way to confirm the statistical truth of that statement, it seems believable enough. For some, paying a woman to perform an unconvincing slink in the proximity of your privates provides the height of jollies. And if an indulgence of the drinks and food and music and dancing and unpredictable company of the rest of the Strip fails to bag you an insignificant other for the ride home, a little T&A just might provide that feigned crumb of interaction that we fun-loving humans require to avoid having had that nightmare on Richmond -- a Bad Time.

(In the interest of serving the needs of our female readers, it should be noted that just down the Strip from Centerfolds is a place of business called La Bare, whose male dancers provide essentially the same services to a female clientele, but I wasn't about to spend my hard-won expense account on something I get to see a vague approximation of in the shower every day.)

Big Fun: Credit Cards and Cobras
If Richmond Avenue is about Big Fun, the biggest, funnest wad shot by the developers has to be Dave & Buster's: 53,000 square feet of the-customer-is-always-right attitude packed into a gimmick- and trivia-laden building with all the dust-less charm of its closest structural cousin, the mall. Dave & Buster's is the nightclub as mall, operating on the can't-go-wrong premise that if absolutely Ievery possibleI recreational whim is placed under the same air-conditioned roof, accessible to safe parking, and cleared of all possible undesirabilities, Middle America will spend huge chunks of its time and money in support.

They do. According to Dave Corriveau (yes, Dave himself), the Houston version of Dave & Buster's (there are also two in Dallas, one in Atlanta and another under construction in Philadelphia) does between $9 and $10 million in business every year.

Well, as the three young women who came bouncing out the door and across the parking lot on our first visit fairly bubbled: "Oh my God, wouldn't that be just the best place to have, like, a company party?"

Depends on the company you keep.
As you walk through the doors, you're confronted with what looks like a hotel lobby, complete with a You-Are-Here map of the premises, a gift counter, racks of promotional literature, a list of "House Policies" ("Disrespectful conduct strictly prohibited," "Loud and/or abusive language not tolerated"), a Dress Code ("No soiled work clothes, plain T-Shirts, cut-offs or tank tops. Clean, neat, untattered clothing required. All shirts must have sleeves and be tucked in") and a handy automatic cash machine. Once you've had your ID checked, you're free to explore.

There are seven bars, a full-service restaurant, five areas filled with pool tables (though nobody in D&B's employ will refer to them as anything but "World-Class Pocket Billiards," and the equipment lives up to the title), dance floors, corporate meeting rooms, a just-for-fun blackjack casino, a six-lane state-of-the-art bowling alley, a "Million-Dollar Midway" stocked with over 250 video games, a computer-tracked golf simulator, and a dollar-a-minute virtual-reality game in which up to four people ensconced in elevated, padded command posts and wearing wraparound audio-visual headgear simulate tracking and killing each other. D&B's is staffed by twelve managers and 268 employees trained to say "Welcome to Dave & Buster's" with an inclusive smile, though nobody said that to me, even though my shirt was untattered and tucked in.

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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