Travel: On Melbourne, Florida. And Orlando. And Serbia.

“Are you from here?”
“Yeah, dude.”
“Is it like this like this all the time around here?”
“Like what?”
“So loud? Packed, I guess? Insane?
“Yeah, man. Where are you from?”
“Right outside of Portland, Maine.”
“So what? You don’t like this?”

As the youngish, ratty dreadlocked punk said “this,” he pointed at the tiara-clad leader of a gaggle of women who were waiting at the bar for their drinks. They had walked in a few minutes before. One of them handed to me her phone and asked if I would take a picture of them and as I did, Ratty Dread used his own phone to take a picture for himself. When he pointed to highlight “this,” his index finger was aimed at the substantial breasts of the leader, who, like the rest of her girls, was squeezed into a brightly colored, extraordinarily low cut tube dress. Each boasted bleach blonde hair, and they stood irritated as the bartender, who looked like a rougher version of an early 90s Dan Cortez half-flirted, half-mocked them as he took their order.

Ratty Dread’s question brought to mind my trip to Serbia back in 2005, where most males—young and old—would constantly check in to make sure that I found their women of top quality. Among a large swatch of males, “How do you find our women?” was as common a question as, “So how about this weather?” The one who asked me this most often—the husband of a teacher I knew—told me that he had gone into an ice cream shop earlier in the day and was “tortured” by the image of a group of beautiful young girls who “erotically licked and licked at their cones as melting cream dripping all over their hands.”

“I had to kiss the chains,” he belted as he pressed his lips to his wedding ring before looking toward the heavens.

I got to Melbourne, home town of Jim Morrison, at 10 and before heading to Debauchery, the bar where the group of gals led by the woman in the tiara waited impatiently for their drinks, I went to a sports bar called Off the Traxx to grab food. I had a terrible black bean burger but this was really my fault. Sports bars that serve good veggie burgers should be celebrated, of course, but vegetarian fare isn’t really what they are known for and so it was stupid of me to expect anything beyond than bland mushiness. And up to that point in my trip to the middle of Florida, which had been going on for 4 days by then, I had been relatively spoiled when it came to food.

In Orlando, which is a little over an hour West of Melbourne, I had decent food (but a sort of crappy margarita) at Tortilleria served by a well-meaning kid who seemed like he was fucked up on pills. Admittedly I can’t remember what I had, exactly, as I had been awake for 22 hours by that point and this was the last thing I did before passing out. I also had a boatload of solid tapas at Cafe Tu Tu Tango where the waitstaff was impressive, and primary dishes, while great, were easily upstaged by a mind-blowing banana dessert pizza topped with walnut ice cream. The martinis were alright too.

I also ended up at Agave Azul where, after eating a full bowl of guacamole by myself, I went on to put away a full order of Pollo Relleno. I was full a quarter of the way through, but I was heading to a movie after lunch. The dish was wonderful and the thought of leaving a box of food in a car that would likely reach 150 humid degrees for several hours disgusted me more than the idea of housing what appeared to be more than 5,000 calories of chicken, ham and an ocean of cheese. It all was so delicious; it felt wrong to leave it behind.

Back at Off the Traxx, I held my nose, ate the shitty black bean burger I was stupid to order in the first place, and drank some beers while a cover band did a relatively faithful rendition of a Blink 182 song. Three young women to my left, dressed nearly identically to the women I would eventually photograph at Debauchery, were approached by a 50-something guy from Long Island who drunkenly entered their conversation. The uninvited visitor bought for them a round of some sort of peach shots he insisted were necessary to try. Pointing at the other end of the bar, he yelled at the bartender, “DON’T LET HIM SAY NO. GIVE HIM THE SHOT,” as his friend, to whom he sent one of the same drinks, waved his arms in protest. The women half-smiled, half-politely, and didn’t take him up on his offer. The drinks, which already had been delivered, were left untouched and the man excused himself resolutely. The one brunette in the group looked over at me and smirked knowingly, as if to answer the question I had asked in my head in the affirmative. “Yes, this does happen all the time.”

I smiled back and looked beyond her, only to catch one of the waitresses playfully grab the breasts of another. I looked off, this time in entirely the opposite direction, and saw a couple sitting at the bar. They were in their 40s and he was staring at the game playing above on one of the many giant screens that adorned the restaurant and she beamed an intense, kind of creepy stare in my direction. This led me to believe that there must have been something on my face and so I went to the bathroom to go and check it out. All clear. By the time I returned, they were gone, though I was immediately approached by two women dressed somehow more provocatively than all of the other bar-goers. They put a tray in front of me and asked if I would like to try a sample of some new rum blend. Oh, no thank you. Not tonight. Thanks, really. And when they turned around, a passing younger guy bulging out of a tank top reported, “These were good,” before taking a few more off the tray, doing the shots, and leaving the sample gals with the empty glasses.

Generally, the women, while very sweet in conversation, were largely drenched with that sort of artificial stock “hot” veneer that masks whatever is naturally attractive about them in the first place. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who at the time of this writing is slumming it in jorts and boat shoes, and so I offer this strictly as an observation and not an implied judgement of value. They appeared to be in their mid-20s or younger with a few exceptions. Our friend with the tiara, for example, looked like either she might be a little older than everyone else, or that she had partied a little too hard over the years and thus seemed especially tired.

The men, many of whom were packed tight and rendered nearly immobile with muscles on top of muscles, were confusing in their age range. Maybe it was their builds, or the years in the sun, but they appeared weathered and leathery, and at least a decade older as a result. Or perhaps they were simply a decade older, a fleet David Woodersons hungrier for molly and dub step than for weed and Aerosmith tickets.

The men were also shark-like in their advances on women in a way I rarely see, though, again, I spend a lot of time at home, at cafes and at tiny venues, and it is hard to make any sort of sexual advance with a stick shoved straight up your ass. I was being guided around town by a 21-year-old local, and I would leave our table or the bar here and there to go to the bathroom or whatever and a guy who was sitting next to ours would turn around the second my back was turned and try to pick her up until I returned. We would stand up and leave and they would continue sitting at the table, because no big deal, I guess. This happened on several occasions. At one point, a guy who looked not unlike Larry the Cable Guy in both age and presentation—sat next to my friend at the bar and did nothing but stare at her for 20 minutes, no exaggeration.

If I am making any of this sound negative, I don’t mean to be. It is more foreign than it is negative, and I found the whole of it to be fascinating. And to be fair, I should underscore that this all took place in Downtown Melbourne, which is where I stuck hung around on the Friday I am describing, and a substantially slower Sunday evening. I don’t know that there are any other sorts of scenes around town, but I was told that there really aren’t. I did find a Meg O’Malleys which was quiet on that Sunday night. A handful of people hung around and watched the Heat lose Game 5 to the Spurs. The bartender carded my friend, telling her that next to me, she looked so young and so he had to ask. And then she looked across the way and saw a couple in their 40s making out and she told me, “No offense, but I hate it when old people make out at bars,” as if to say, “I know you are old and everything, but…” In her defense, I was lamenting that I had recently heard Nirvana played on a classic rock lineup earlier in the evening, and I was a 30 year old blogger observing early 20-somethings in their natural habitat like some drunk, lay-anthropologist.

But as I was saying, there is a possibility, I guess, that I could have found something else. Outside of the small handful of good food experiences in Orlando, I spent the days prior driving hundreds of miles in a rental car looking for something to do. To someone from New England, the fact that nearly everything in Orlando is located in a strip mall is somewhat disorienting, as pretty much everything in a strip mall up here is mediocre and shitty. While I largely came up short, I eventually found what I jokingly referred to a hipster cluster of strip malls. They housed Park Ave, a gem of a record store, a diner, a place that served microbrews, and a stationary store.

Before the third wave of modern brewers came about and niche bars popped up everywhere, Portland (which boasts a similar population to that of Melbourne) was largely known for its densely populated party scene. At the same time, there dirt bars which offered a breath of fresh air to folks who otherwise felt out of place among the muscles and tiaras. The next time I find myself in Melbourne, I hope to find for myself one of those dirt bars.

I had ended up at Debauchery because I was told that they have shows there sometimes, and when I got there there there were 5 DJs on stage, one of which I am pretty sure was responsible for blasting the dance music, and one emcee who occasionally lazily spat rhymes. Someone told me that there used to be a more robust punk scene and thus more shows around town, but then a lot of the punks got into blues—oxys—and it began to fall away, or at least get bogged down in the tired and tragic lameness of pill addiction. You have likely heard or read about it already, but Oxy addition is a big thing in the Sunshine State due to the proliferation of so-called pain centers, and more than occasionally you will find yourself engaged with someone who has their eyes fixed on some distant point, one of those pill zombie stares.

Somewhere around one in the morning I would leave to find a spot where I could go swimming, but not before settling up at Debauchery. I asked the bartender who was earlier hitting on slash mocking the tiara crew for my check, and he apologized, but I had not yet hit the minimum amount for credit card payments. No worries, I said, just bill me for another drink. I don’t need it. No, no. Let’s do this, he told me, picking up two shot glasses and filling them with scotch. He handed me my shot, we toasted, and he picked up a small stack of cocktail napkins that were sitting on the bar, which he threw into the air so that they would rain down like confetti. I thanked him, turned and nodded at Ratty Dread, and I smiled a big smile at Tiara before finding my way to the door, heading outside, and making my way down to the water.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.