Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Panama City, Day 1 - A near roller skating experience

The location – exotic. The premise – simple. My two best friends and I would take a couple days off of work, drink excessively, get a tan, and create stories. Panama City, once the mecca of the Florida panhandle, is only a half-day drive from most of the Southeast, but it's a different world.

For those born in the 80’s the place has a certain stigma. A reputation so powerful that, independent of economic or supernatural forces, will keep people coming back until my generation no longer has the strength to travel. For me, the lasting memory is intentionally sitting in traffic on the strip, going from car to car. Driving was a new phenomenon, and scantily clad girls held my attention for hours. Panama City is Vegas without the gambling or glitz. It’s New Orleans without Bourbon Street or the culture. It’s thousands of people waiting around for something to happen. Waiting and waiting for something to happen, so eventually it does.

We arrived just before 2 p.m., armed with a new cooler that would later be named ‘hot wheels,’ two cases of Miller Lite, and a handle of Appleton Rum. I’d felt like a salesman for this trip for weeks. We had a free place to stay, but conversations on the trip down were generally negative. My friend John had forgotten his wallet, and Tyler and I talked about how this was the least anticipated trip we’d ever been on. I’d invited all of my close friends, and this is what I ended up with. In hindsight, it couldn’t have been a better group. However, at the time, it seemed slightly awkward and forced.

Coolers with wheels are great, and I don’t regret the $3 upgrade, but they aren’t made for beaches. Things looked bleak. The typically aqua waters were overwhelmed by red sea weed, and instead of a crowded beach with gorgeous women, I saw scattered clusters of beach chairs struggling to hold their occupants’. With Hot Wheels in tow, our efforts to walk to a more ‘happening’ part of the beach were slowed mentally and physically. Our attention shifted from potential female conversation partners, to the contents of our cooler. We took a seat just past a large group of sea slugs, and opened our first beer. The Frisbee came out, and we dazzled ourselves with our long range abilities. John consistently executed his patented late-spin-and-catch trick, while I converted nearly 40% of my through-the-legs-from-behind-no-look catch. We told jokes, and spoke of how fortunate we are for being so funny.

With the golden hour approaching, and our first case of beer all but depleted, we drug Hot Wheels back down the beach. From the room we watched the sun set, and agreed that ideally we would have invited girls up to the room. Rum and coke would have to do. After showers and a quick Olympic viewing fix, we decided to eat our obligatory sea food for the trip. We ended up at a place called Sharkie’s, and somehow lucked into a spot that seemed closer than any of its handicap counterparts. Things were looking up, as the ocean breeze greeted us under a gigantic thatch roof. John didn’t get carded, so we got a round of beers and waited.

Snow crab, Mahi mahi, scallops, and fried goodness soon covered the table, and our waiter tried to make up for the fact that he wasn’t the good looking waitress in the other section by giving us advice for what we might want to get into later that night. He mentioned a weekly event called 'bar wars,' and on this particular night it was at Rockin' Lanes. Bowling and $1 beers seemed hard to pass up, so after helping John crack crab legs for 20 minutes we headed out.

I'm not sure why I was at all surpised by what I saw when I walked in. There were two dozen pool tables straddled by a gigantic roller skating rink and 30 plus bowling lanes. It was only nine, but everything was in cosmic mode. The place was filled with teenager girls wearing clothes their parents wouldn't approve of, and future Panama City taxi drivers. Each of them a few years from cutoff Russel Athletic shirts, manicured beards and the notion that they actually were living in paradise.

We would soon find out that the future taxi drivers were the current servers. Bar wars was for those that worked at restaurants or bars, and an old pay stub was required to get the cheap beer. It didn't matter much anyway, they weren't impressed by John's printed License, Passport and Birth Certificate. We bowled a game, but lack of alcohol had made John grumpy. We headed for the door, looking back over our shoulder at the roller rink. It would have to wait for another day.

We raced to the liquor store, and were confused when we walked in and saw a complete bar surrounded by liquor bottles. With John waiting in the car we shrugged and settled for a couple of pints of rum. Unfortunately the receipt had a tip line, and the liquortendor lucked into a sweet $1.50 tip. It was getting late, so we headed to the beach bar close to our condo.

Things start to get hazy here. The DJ was an overweight woman who was seated behind her laptop. A veteran showed me where a bullet grazed him, a couple from Dallas tempted me to steal an open beer from behind the bar, and two blondes held the attention of thirty men surrounding them. Needless to say, it was a good night.

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