My previous charming stories of alarming stupidity have had one thing in common: the degree of imminent threat to my continued corporeal well-being was low enough to allow the stories to be charming rather than terrifying. My dad's car's window got nicked up, six squad cars were dispatched to deal with some bad gas when they could have been writing traffic tickets, but other than that, there was very little chance that I or anyone else involved could have been injured, maimed, stabbed, kidnapped, or murdered. This next tale deviates a bit from that standard, as were it not for the intrepid and quick actions of Trenton's Finest, I would most likely not be alive to tell this story today.
Once again, all names have been changed to protect the truly stupid.
It was a Sunday night during my junior year of college, and my friend Steve's 21st birthday. He was the second of our friends to turn 21, and I was the first, so it fell on me to take him out for a drink. Another friend of ours, Mark, had an extremely convincing fake ID, so he tagged along, and another friend, Ned, offered to drive us, as he was still only 20. The four of us piled into Ned's car and set out to the local college bar, Firkin's, for a pint and a shot.
Upon reaching the venue, however, we found it to be blacked out and closed up. Refusing to be deterred from getting our friend truly and legally drunk for the first time, we set out for a nearby bowling alley, Slocum's, only to find its bar closed, as well. New Jersey bars tend to close early on Sunday nights, so we were forced to scramble for some solution. We drove to every bar we knew of in Ewing, NJ, only to find more of the same. Eventually, we downshifted to liquor stores, but still found no doors open to us.
Reality set in, along with despair and resignation. "Thanks guys, but I don't think it's going to happen for me tonight. I can just get a drink tomorrow," Steve tried to lessen our shame, but I refused to give up.
"It's your 21st birthday! You guys were there for mine, and I'm making damn sure you get a drink on yours. This is important.” I frantically brainstormed for someway to legally put alcohol in my friend that night, but was coming up blank. One by one, the other passengers in the car gave up as well, until I was the last one holding out. Finally, I faced up to the truth of the situation. “Well, I’m sorry man. I’ll buy you two beers tomorrow! But there’s just no 24-hour bars around here. Ned, drive us-”
“Wait. I know a 24-hour bar,” Ned spoke up.
“What?! Why didn’t you say so before?” I was furious, as I usually was at Ned.
“No, take us there! This man is getting a drink tonight!”
“OK... but you should know, it’s a bit of a drive.”
“Where is it?”
My school, The College of New Jersey, was located in Ewing, NJ, but close enough to Trenton to at one time be called Trenton State College. The name was changed after too many people confused it with Trenton State Penitentiary. While my school’s town was a pleasant suburb with only the occasional overflow of inner city gang activity, there were parts of Trenton where gang law held precedence over the police, where Crips and Bloods warred when they weren’t fighting off Latin Kings or corrupt police. There were certain areas deep in Trenton where four college students just out of their teenage years should not be after midnight on any night.
The clock read 12:30 AM.
“What’s the name of the place?”
Passions Nightclub was directly in the center of one of these areas. Ned told us, over and over, that it was nowhere we should be, that it was a mistake for him to even bring it up. That the cops didn’t even like to go there. Ned did a lot of charity work in inner city Trenton, and the families of at-risk youth he worked with all knew that was a bad part of town. He had only driven past it in the light of day, and only once, just to see what it was.
“Ned... take us there.”
He finally relented and started making his way there, briefing us as we went. “As soon as you guys see it, you’ll know. You won’t want to stay.” As we got closer, his briefings turned more dire. “Seriously, you guys really shouldn’t go. If you guys go, I’ll be the one who took you, and I’ll be responsible for what happens. Please don’t go.” Finally, his briefings turned into battle plans. “Alright, fine, you go in, but I’m staying in the car, one block up. The car will be running. As soon as I see you leave, I’m pulling up in front for three seconds. Whoever’s not in the car after that is getting left there.”
Being a 21-year-old idiot who had never truly seen the consequences of his actions, all this sounded more like an adventure to me than a dire warning. The thought of a beer in my immediate future also inflated my invulnerability. Steve and Mark were wary, but I had enough confidence for the three of us.
“Guys, please, it can’t be that bad. If it was, the cops would shut it down, right?” Ned rolled his eyes. “Look, we’re smart guys, and we can handle ourselves if it gets out of hand.” Ned’s eyes rolled so hard they touched the top of the car. “If the place looks too shady, we’ll just turn around and drive home. Deal?” Everyone’s nerves were put at peace with this.
Finally, after a half-hour drive through parts of Trenton that probably weren’t on maps anymore, Ned told us we had arrived. I looked around at the intersection. On the east side were boarded up, abandoned houses long caved in or spray painted over. On the southwest corner was an empty parking lot with some sort of white shack on it. On the northwest corner was an empty, overgrown lot.
“Umm... so where is it?”
“You guys see the shack? With the guys hanging around outside it?”
We all saw the shack, and I now noticed the crowd of men standing around outside of it.
“That’s Passions Nightclub.”
Upon closer inspection, I saw there was a sign on the outside of the shack. In neon lighting tubes, “Pas ions Nightcl b” was spelled out, along with a rendering of a man and woman dancing some sort of tango. I say “Pas ions Nightcl b” not because the S and the U weren’t lit up. None of the sign lit up. The S and the U had been broken off. Passions Nightclub wasn’t so much a nightclub as it was a structure that housed containers of alcohol somewhere inside. My attention, though, was drawn to the gentlemen standing outside. All were wearing some shade of blue, and some of them had noticed our car standing across the street, with four very young faces staring out of it. One of them started to cross the street.
“DRIVE, NED!” Mark finally spoke up, and his two words were the only bit of rational words that escaped anyone’s lips that evening.
Ned tore off quickly, and when we were safely blocks away, nervous laughter began to creep out of us, growing into a great cacophony, and quickly dying back down to giggles. Ned turned around started taking us back to the college. We had rode to the mouth of the dragon’s cave, saw it was far, far deadlier than any of us had realized, and rode off with our dignities and persons intact. These knights would ride another day!
Then, their king, King Idiot, decided to speak up. If you haven’t figured out from these stories yet, I’m King Idiot.
“Wait, guys. Are we really not going to go in?”
Ned just turned and glared at me. Steve was already on board -- it was his 21st birthday, after all. Mark sat quietly.
“Are we such bad friends that we can’t do this for Steve? Steve, who was there for my 21st? Steve, who will be there for yours, Ned, and yours, Mark?” And I swear to God, the next line escaped my lips. “In every story, the heroes eventually come upon seemingly insurmountable odds. But they surmount them, guys! Are we heroes or not?”
In my 21-year-old, alcohol-craving mind, this was a good reason to walk back into Pas ions Nightcl b.
I easily convinced Steve. Even Mark was happy to go along for the adventure. We finally got Ned to turn around again, to go back to the gang murder shack. He repeated his plan from before, “Fine. But I am going to be one block down the road, with the car on, waiting for you to leave. As soon as I see you, I’m coming to get you. Run out into the street if you have to. And whoever’s not in the car within three seconds is getting left behind.”
Ned rolled up outside the bar, and we stepped out. Roughly a dozen hardened gang members looked at us with a mix of bewilderment and an emotion I thought only sharks could feel.
“The fuck you white boys doin’ here?”
I was first to approach the crowd, so I spoke up. “Ahh... we’re here to get a drink.”
I heard laughter as the crowd opened before us, allowing a path to the door. As I reached for the door handle, a calloused hand stopped mine. I looked to my right to see a grizzled man with a Black and Mild hanging from his lips staring at me.
He repeated the question.
“...the fuck you white boys doin’ here?”
When you’ve already woken up the sleeping bear, why not squirt hot sauce in its eyes?
“It’s my friend’s 21st birthday. We’re here for a drink.”
“OK... well you can’t go in tonight. There’s a band.”
I looked through the glass of the door to see the room inside. Four men were standing around one woman leaning on the bar. There wasn’t room for a stand up bass, let alone a band.
“Well I don’t see a band.”
“Well there’s a cover.”
“Alright, how much?”
The man stared at me in angry confusion. “Thirty five dollars.”
“Thirty five dollars?! That’s ridiculous. Forget it guys, let’s get out of here.” A death hut in the middle of deepest Trenton surrounded by gang members was reasonable. A $35 cover was not.
“Hey man, just let them in. There’s no cover, he’s just messing with you.” His friend waved us through. Satisfied at having beaten the cover, I strolled through, only to find another door, this one locked. I looked again to the right and saw a window made of bullet proof glass with a rotating payment carousel at the bottom. I spoke to the bartender through three bored holes in the glass.
“Yeah, what can I--” The bartender stopped short when he saw who he was speaking to. “...the hell?”
“I’m here for a drink, please.”
Suddenly, I felt a large hand on my shoulder. I looked to see a thick leather glove, and turned to see a cop in full riot gear staring at me through a plexiglass face shield.
“...WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!” That question seemed to be going around a lot.
“I’m just here for a... for a drink...”
The cop dragged me outside, where I saw Steve and Mark being yelled at by the man who tried to make me pay the cover. Two cop cars had jumped the curb, and a SWAT van was parked on the street. All the blue-clad men from before were up against the wall of the building, hands and feet spread, and three cops were holding them there with guns drawn. A fourth and fifth were patting them down. SWAT team members rushed past me to clear the venue out. My friend from before, who tried to make me pay a cover, saw me and stormed up to me.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! THIRTY FIVE DOLLAR COVER! YOU--” he stopped to catch his breath. It was at this moment I noticed the police badge hanging on his neck. “You ain’t supposed to be here!”
Apparently, three college kids from the suburbs had walked into one of Trenton’s gang epicenters right before a raid was about to go down. It was at this point that Ned screeched up.
“And who the hell is this asshole?!”
“Uh... that’s our ride.”
The undercover cop stared at me, Steve, and Mark, looked over at Ned, then paused for a minute to think about the extra paperwork involved in explaining how three 21-year-olds screwed this sting up.
“Get in the car, and never come back here.” We didn’t need to be told twice. We were still diving in as Ned drove off. We made it home, sober, safe, and thankful.
Up until that night, I lived with a steadfast refusal to learn from my mistakes so severe it was probably medically classifiable, bordering on spite. My trip to Passions Nightclub was the night I finally became a man, because it was the night I realized how perilously close we all dance to the edge of mortality every second of every day. And damn it, I need to stop tempting fate, because one day, the police won’t find my fart story funny. One day, the window won’t hold against the angry biker whose manhood I just insulted. One day, a police SWAT team won’t show up out of nowhere to save me from an inner city gang looking to induct some new members.
I’m still an idiot, but I’m an idiot with a lot of cautionary tales under his belt, and a knowledge that most people don’t get three. That stupidity drive is one every mind needs, because it keeps life interesting, and makes it much easier to populate your online blog. But it needs to be tempered -- my god, does it need to be tempered. Most people temper it with common sense or reason, but for some of us (sup?), common sense proves too elusive. For us, we only learn from stupid mistake after stupid mistake. While smart gets home safe and stupid gets home with a story, sometimes stupid doesn’t make it home unless he has a SWAT team’s worth of apparent guardian angels.