My friend — we'll call her Lily — finally stops trying to hand me the glass one-hitter around 10:45 Saturday night, and we walk from her St. Pete apartment to Push Ultra Lounge, the 'Burg's swank new nightspot. It's been a while since I've subjected myself to the cranium-rattling selections of a spiky-haired turntablist with a moniker like Jimi O. These days, I'm a low-key, cocktail-and-conversation guy but must admit — shamefully — that I was a club kid, for about 15 months, in the mid-'90s. Quality ecstasy could be had for $15 a pill in the hallways of North Tampa's Gaither High School my senior year, and many of us, perhaps foolishly, partook.
Back then, the clear, odorless, formerly legal bodybuilder syrup GHB, which dangerously amplifies the effects of the "love drug" and led to fatal overdoses and rave crackdowns, had yet to be widely introduced to the scene. Blow-up parties that started at 3 a.m. were held across Tampa in legitimate nightspots like Stingers (now Whiskey Park North) on N. Dale Mabry, strip clubs and unlicensed warehouses. Every person in the place would be rolling his proverbial balls off, and every proprietor knew this — but charging kids $20 for entrance and $7 for bottled water during off-hours is a temptation many couldn't resist. My friends and I would drive all over town — actually, I never drove, behind the wheel is a bad spot to be in a car full of contraband — attending these grimy carnivals of underage suburbanites and hardened criminals equipped with glow sticks, nasal inhalers, baby pacifiers and other silliness I'd rather not recall. On one occasion, we made the trek across I-4 to see a world-famous DJ, whose name I can't remember, spin at Firestone Club, which remains a hotspot in Orlando. What I do remember, though, is the daylight drive home, perhaps the worst experience of my life. My girlfriend, who was behind the wheel, offered me a bowl packed with high-grade hydro. The hit I took created a very bad reaction with all the other shit in my system. How bad? I was in the backseat with my good pal Lauren G. and her hair transformed, like a vision of biblical proportions, into my grandma's deceased poodle, Fuzzy. A metal power line tower turned into a tyrannosaurus rex bent on gobbling up our sedan. I had the fortitude to tell myself these strange happenings were the result of the drugs, but when my leg levitated it proved too much.
"What are you doing?" Lauren asked as I desperately clutched my left thigh with both hands, tightly gripping my own flesh so it wouldn't float away and be eaten by the evil dinosaur outside our window.
Although we'd travel as far as Orlando for some techno and debauchery, I don't recall ever getting down and blowing up in St. Pete. I don't think until just recently the 'Burg could have supported a multi-room nightclub like Push — one more reminder that the "God's Waiting Room" joke might actually die during our lifetime. "Is this place always this crowded?" I ask Lily as we stand in line on the sidewalk, a situation that makes me suddenly feel silly.
"Yeah, like on Saturdays and Fridays it's always like this," she says. "Not so much on Thursdays."
Lily gets ID'ed. I don't. This happens when you're 30 (me) and the girl you're hanging out with (Lily) is five years younger than you. It's $10 cover for dudes, free for the ladies. A bouncer stamps the word "LOVE" on my right wrist, and I feel even sillier. And so it begins.
Upon entering the former firehouse, we climb a flight of stairs, hang a right and enter the main dance room. Local DJ Jimi O spins Naughty by Nature's rap classic "Hip Hop Hooray" straight through — no mash-up, no mixing, just the same party anthem I've heard a thousand times. "I was in New Orleans at a small, packed club a couple years ago, and this Big Easy brass band called Big Sam's Funky Nation did this song," I tell Lily. "They had the entire crowd 'getting low' in a crouch position and then rising to their feet, jumping to the syncopated rhythms. There's nothing like being in a room with that kind of energy."
Not the case at Push, she agrees. People dance, but not with much zest or sense of community. On the other hand, it's refreshing to see so many young faces in one spot in St. Pete. The venue is handsomely designed, the rooftop bar offers a gorgeous view of the city, and the upstairs bartender, Stacy, does a fine job of accommodating the thirsty masses. But there's nowhere to sit and talk inside Push unless you pay extra for VIP privileges.
"You ready to go?" Lily asks me about 45 minutes into our stay. We walk around the corner to Café Alma, find a table outside and close the place down with a couple of guys we meet. They'd fled Push for the same reason we did.
"This is still St. Pete," says our new friend, who picks the nickname Blic. "They gotta lose the whole VIP thing."
Push Ultra Lounge, 128 Third St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-895-6400.