Beer, chicken, and Caroline

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We start pre-gaming for the bar early in the evening. I head south from Broadway with Ben, Matty, Katie, Marie, and Jakob to their friend’s apartment. It’s a nice place, and it looks very new. The outside of the building shines with ambient light; beautifully tiled walkways lead us from the street to the front entry. Marie pushes a button on the call box, and moments later we’re walking into a lobby not unlike that of a luxurious hotel. A fountain of blue stone and trickling water adorns the wall just above a very classy logo. Warm lights highlight artwork and the comfortable colors of the room. Furniture with modern lines suggests elegance and simplicity. We’re met almost immediately by Marie’s friend who pulls us away to the party upstairs.

Within an hour, a crowd forms inside the modest apartment. The noise level increases with each round of shots, and I completely lose track of names and relationships even as Matty continues to introduce me to new people. Someone knows someone else, yet no one knows everyone else. As long as I keep the people I do know in sight, I’ll survive the night. Two of them, Ben and Matty, sing a boy band duo from 1999, and another, Jakob, makes crude phallic innuendo with progressively larger glass objects. Someone I don’t know eventually calls out for a group photo, and after much trial and many errors, we get the shot. This of course encourages everyone to take more shots.

The party pretends to end but really just migrates from apartment to lobby, lobby to street, and street to bar. Jakob misplaces his affection and finds himself tongue tied with a street-side scarecrow. Others in our group are dodging raindrops and puddles while twirling about the street in the general direction of our destination. Bound no longer by four walls, I feel better about the noise and raucous and take to recording these moments for future hilarity.

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We pile into Feierabend, a loud pub with bold wood and brick features. Drunk pours from the open doors as we crowd ourselves around a table and start the real party. Matty wastes no time to hand me a pint. A frothy top sloshes around over a deep and dark brew. We cheers all around, and I soon find myself with an empty beer, another pint, and finally a boot. Strangers on all sides heckle the boot into the air as I gulp. Others in our party do the same, and the boot goes from full to empty touching a dozen lips along the way without ever making it to the table. I sneak away to the potty before anyone can hand me another.

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Katie joins us after work only to find us sloshed and ready to leave. She hustles outside and lines us against the wall for a headcount. Head low, shoulders slouched, and stomach tied in knots, Ben looks ready to eject. We finally realize that the missing person is Katie’s boyfriend, Jakob; we think he’s wandered off to walk himself home given the limited number of seats in Katie’s car. I climb in the back with Matty and Marie, and we put Ben securely in the front. The instructions are clear. Don’t puke all over the place; puke in the bag. Nurse Katie pulls bags from the door pocket and hands them out like she’s done this before.

The streets of Seattle climb and fall like a carnival ride. Lit buildings race by my window in rivers of light. I push a bag closer to Ben when I see his look of despair turn to epic projectile mode. Just when his body finishes slouching from a left turn, the car turns right, but his mind, still stuck left is slow to catch up. He’s rolling east and west in the turns and north and south as lights change red and green. When we start moving at the busiest intersection yet, he clicks off his seat belt and leaps through a now open door with the skill of a drunk man. Katie freaks out; the car erupts into high alert. She balances driving with yelling orders. Marie and I crank our necks looking which direction Ben’s gone as Matty quickly leaves the car to join him. Yells of despair from Katie start all over again. All this happens in the seconds after the light turns green and traffic lurches forward. We quickly swerve into a nearby parking lot to catch our breath and hope that a car hasn’t smashed Ben or Matty into a pancake.

Somewhere out of sight, Matty finds Ben and urges him back to the car. He must just need a break from the twirling lights and roller coaster ride of Seattle’s streets! Better he puke outdoors than in the front seat of Katie’s car — even with a bag catching the mess. When we all make it home safely, I down a fist full of ibuprofen with two pints of water, set the coffee machine to brew in seven hours, and fall fast asleep. Tomorrow we leave for Oktoberfest.

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Seven hours later, the coffee brews, and the whole house wakes. We manage to cycle through the shower and coffee while laughing plentifully at Ben for last night. He takes our jeering in stride, chalking the experience up to good practice for tonight, cracks a beer, and cheers everyone. Tonight, the beer festival of all beer festivals awaits us in Leavenworth, Washington. Ben and Matty promise the experience will do a new beer drinker — me — good. They tell of giant beer mugs, endless piles of beer people beer dancing and beer singing and beer drinking and beer eating and — I get less and less interested in the painted portrait for tonight’s festivities. Because I already bought a ticket, I have no choice but to go.

We leave Seattle in two separate vehicles around mid afternoon to start the 120-mile, two and a half our journey east into the mountains. About thirty minutes into the ride, I make noise about needing to do something with all the coffee in my bladder, and Matty stops at the next available service station. Before leaving the station, hunger gets the better of me, and I buy a grocery sack full of snacks. Jakob grabs a barrel of savory nibbles. Everyone else hits the drink cooler. I fill a bag with chocolate milk and the makings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; others grab tea drinks, candies, and chips.

We’re greeted by a domestic fight of sorts outside. Two people dressed head to toe in dirt and denim are screaming obscenities and accusations about pot and booze. The woman holds strong to a bag, and the man struggles between holding a leashed dog and grabbing it from her. The dog looks quite bewildered and keeps as far away as the leash will allow. The woman screams all sorts of things, the least of which is actually intelligible. All of us get the idea that she ain’t got his pot; she thinks he must’ve smoked it all. He breaks away in angst as she slides to the ground, still clutching her bag. Righting herself inside a mess of dirty clothes and slowly making her way back up the wall to a standing, crouching, slouching — or whatever that posture is that all scary people seem to posses — she continues to talk to the man as if he’s still close enough to have a conversation. He’s already across the lot speaking his own conversation, though neither ever hears the other.

My friends and I stand back in awe. I’m struggling between urges to take photos and video with a natural instinct to drop my food and run. With the man and his dog gone, the now somewhat erect woman turns her attention to us. She’s quick to heckle us for money in the true spirit of Oktoberfest — she just wants enough to buy a beer. The few of us lucky enough to tail our group quickly ditch the sidewalk for a safer route to the car, but I’m nearly in the lead and left hanging to answer this poor woman’s request. I am definitely not giving her money. And when I tell her so, she insists on food — the food I’m clearly carrying from the store to our car. And when I say no to that, she follows us to the car asking for a ride — a ride in the car that’s clearly not full. I send silent stares to my friends urging everyone to climb in so we can get the heck away from this place. We feign being late for church, lock the doors, and leave very quickly.

Two hours later, we roll into Leavenworth and don rain coats and umbrellas before taking to the streets. Leavenworth is in full-on party mode. Women dress in the traditional German dress that conveniently covers everything but the bust, and men dress in lederhosen that seem to disproportionately cover their entire bodies. We poke in and out of shops that sell everything from giant doll houses with miniature furniture to books and candy and toys. Between each is a bar. One such dirndl clad shop keeper of children’s toys all but steals me away to the back room for a grand tour of miniaturized doll furniture. I escape up the stairs with the lady still describing the hours she spends arranging furniture. When again reunited with my friends, I suggestively ask about the beer part of this party. They get the clue and start walking in the direction of the loud music.

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A gate keeper checks our ages and takes our tickets. When an unfortunate woman ahead of us announces she’s forgotten her ID, everyone in line sighs — not because her forgetfulness risks delaying our entry but because she’s forgotten to bring her one ticket to a fantastic evening! We politely claw our way through the throngs of people still sighing in her support. As if magically transformed beyond the imaginary backside of a German wardrobe, everyone inside the gates wears their best imitations of Oktoberfest with ten times the authenticity of those still awaiting entry. People suddenly look, dress, speak, and act more German, more drunk, and more happy than I ever could have imagined. We’re dazzled by this mystical land of giant steins overflowing with froth and brew, giant dirndls overflowing with bosom, and enough accordion music to last a lifetime.

Matty leads us to a ticketing booth where we lay down green dollars for pink drink and food vouchers. Tickets come in $20 increments, and It looks like five dollars buys a beer, and another five buys a sausage — how convenient. The line from buying tickets flows directly into the beer line. Ben, Matty, Jakob, and a hundred other people talk loudly of the night to come, and I try my hardest to avoid sensory overload given the hundreds of people who look to have started their party much earlier in the day. Even a 90-percent probability that everyone here is a happy drunk leaves 10-percent on the verge of trouble. I feel that the police force knows this too. Badged security officers dressed head to toe in intimidation patrol the two giant buildings and overflow tents. Altogether, the party occupies four separate staged areas with seating and beer available for a small city. A food vendor in each building and tent offers everything from traditional Oktoberfest sauerkraut and sausage to coffee cake and sweets.

Inside our chosen tent, we split among the different aisles in search of seating. Entire sections of tables look empty, but a single person left to tend each bench I approach turns me away. Jackets and hats and bits and pieces of other German articles occupy another bench where the entire group has gone for more drink. The noise from the audience rivals the noise from the stage, so I put my arms out with palms up and shrugged shoulders to an equally puzzled Matty across the tent. It looks like we’ll be standing for a while.

I’m not sure why we chose this tent over the other or why we chose a tent instead of one of the two giant buildings. But as I look around at the different kinds of people, I begin to wonder if venue choice matters at all. No one here looks alone or without reason to have fun. Men and women dance circles ahead of the stage, entire tables sing bar songs and slosh their mugs about the air. As one band grows tired, another takes its place. The mechanics of this party are so well planned that no one will ever run short of reason to stay, and as the night draws on, more rain falls, more beer flows, the singing becomes less pronounced. We inevitably find seats and join in the fun. Together with my friends, I sway and shout to Sweet Caroline, roar with the crowd to Rocky Mountain High, and dance in my seat to the Funky Chicken.

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In the middle of a chorus of yodeling, we hear a quiet explosion through the tent walls. The crowd around us fears nothing of it and continues their worst attempts to follow the lead yodeler. Within minutes, the crowd doubles and I become fairly aware of the people sitting around me. There’s a girl too drunk to notice the guy groping her legs and chest. There’s the giant of a man wearing an outfit crossed between the Cat in the Hat and a life-sized Furby. I see a few men wearing Halloween costume quality Oktoberfest garb several sizes their junior. And then there’s the creeper old guy in a jester hat who can’t keep his eyes off of Marie or all the other pretty girls for that matter.

An announcer interrupts the set to explain the explosion of people — not to mention the actual explosion outside. The other tent lost power after a transformer blew, and now a third of the party is looking for a new place to party. The fire marshal has enforced an occupancy limit for the remaining venues, and that means anyone who leaves the tent for any reason must now wait in queue to get back inside. An urgency to urinate overwhelms me, and I suddenly realize the only reason anyone would ever need to leave the tent is to do just that! The beer bus and food troughs fall within the boundary, but the portable johns are on the other side of the line. Great!

I watch a few girls sneak past the outside edge of the tent in a makeshift alleyway where they’ll find enough privacy to do their business. Soon enough, Security gets wise and puts a stop to the public peeing. Now we’re forced to pinch it off, cork it up, or leave the tent. As a matter of mathematical ratio, I’m sure that the lines to pee will be just as long as the lines to drink, so I don’t wait for imminent eruption. Outside, the rain falls politely as if sorry for being such a burden. I zip my jacket and pull the hood tight before snaking my way through all the smokers and past the barricade. An officer waves at a single person to take my place as I exit. I’m surprised by the tranquility outside — surprised at how well canvas contains noise but does so little to hide the shadows of dancing drunks. They look much louder than they sound. When I turn the corner around a refrigerated tractor trailer full of beer, I rejoice at not having to wait to pee.

Inside, everything goes as planned. I make my scheduled deposit and take a few minutes to enjoy the relative quiet and privacy of a portable toilet. Despite the little light that makes its way through the translucent top, everything looks clean. At the very least, the space smells clean, and I think everyone’s managed to put their deposits into the right holes. Ironically, hundreds of people have urinated and/or defecated in this spot hundreds of times in the last few hours. And it is still leaps and bounds cleaner and better smelling than the permanent toilet at that Texaco station near the Canadian border.

Someone looking to take my place bangs hard on the door and startles my stream. I quicken the flow but refuse to answer the knock. To my absolute surprise, I exit to an entire parking lot of people waiting in queue. The line to get back into the tent is no better.

Near the end of the evening, Katie returns to her seat with a sad face. I learn that the nearby cabin she promised to be our night’s accommodation is occupied by a group of birthing mothers. We won’t be staying near Leavenworth as planned. Instead we must drive our tired selves home — in the rain, in the dark, and across the treacherous highway that brought us here so many hours ago. Earlier, when I volunteered to stop drinking hours ahead of our departure, I planned on a quick thirty minute drive to a private cabin where we’d continue our party in the hot tub. Katie shakes her head and apologizes profusely for the miscommunication. Better we find out now than while barging through the doors onto a bunch of pregnant ladies breathing hot and heavy.

The night grows tired. People grow tired. Each new band plays Sweet Caroline as an opening number, and then they repeat the Funky Chicken without end. They turn the entire repetitive, drunken mess into a competition and call people on stage to bounce in place with imaginary wings. The audience judges a winner, I momentarily wish death upon the world, and then a new flock of chickens starts the bit all over again. I plug my ears and dip my head, ready beyond ready for Oktoberfest to be Oktover with. Jakob, our other designated driver, looks just as tired and through with the night as I do. Finally, our group feels compelled to leave. The six, seven, or eight of us, for I can’t quite remember the exact number, make our way out of the tent, through the gate, up the street, and back to the cars. I hold the power of the keys, so I know at the very least I will be in the vehicle on the way home. It’s up to everyone else to make sure they join me.

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I lead the way in Marie’s car with Matty in the back seat — drunk beyond drunk — offering to give me direction when we near Seattle. Rain pelts the windshield out of town as we climb into the mountains. My speed slows, and cars quickly form a line behind us. The dark of night and the pitch black tarmac beneath our wheels absorb nearly every lumen from the car’s poor headlamps. I quietly sigh relief every time the light that does manage to escape hits a reflective surface and returns reassurance that my course is true. Be it a center line marker, a sign, or the series of posts marking the ditch, I find myself praying for the next reflector — anything to show the direction of the road and keep us from tumbling down the mountainside. And not only must I watch ahead for obstacles, but I also keep an eye on Jake who’s following close behind. The conditions, my comfort, and the safety of everyone on the road demand I keep the car at 40-mph. A stop every half hour gives my eyes and body a break. More than an hour into the trip, I down the last of a coffee, take several deep breaths, and violently shake my head to stay alert. Another train of cars has collected behind us, and we’re not even half way home.

Matty keeps his promise when we near Seattle. He expertly directs me through the various exits and turns that lead us home. I pull into the first available parking spot near the apartment, confident Jakob can find his own spot nearby. My passengers slowly peel themselves from the clutches of sleep to exit the car. It’s half past three in the morning. The stress of the drive evaporates with each heavy breath; each lingering step toward the apartment brings with it lustful thoughts of restful sleep. I thank Matty for guiding me into the city; everyone thanks me for delivering them home safely. With a smile and a slow nod of my head, I accept their thanks. When I finally find myself in bed and ready for sleep, the sheer exhaustion of the day overwhelms me. In the last few moments of conscious thought, I promise to never see those dark and wet roads again.

Brian

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