High School Musical

“Listen,” I said, “you’re an exotic dancer, and I’m a guy whose hero is Mister Rogers. That ought to suggest to you that this isn’t gonna’ end up like it usually does.”

I’ve blundered into some unusual experiences in my life, but this one took the cake.

In the end, I would have been better off sticking with my original plan — staying in my hotel room watching Steven Soderbergh’s approximation of Las Vegas, Ocean’s Thirteen, on pay-per-view — to actually experiencing Sin City’s worst elements first-hand.

It all began innocently enough.

My colleagues and I were celebrating our week of twenty-hour days, sleepless night, and banner ratings high atop The Palms Fantasy Tower. I was drinking Belvedere fresh off of a deep tissue massage and two hours of sleep in the previous thirty-six.

And… cue the warning alarm.

Next thing I know, a handful of us were taking in the Las Vegas skyline from Ghostbar, one of two open-air clubs atop The Palms. I find myself playing the role of the skeptic (“What do you mean it’s an amazing skyline!?! It’s all paper mache and klieg lights!!!”).

At some point, a colleague says, “Ok, let’s go to Happy Town.”

‘Happy Town,’ I think. ‘Sounds like a good place to me!’

Not until the limo turns away from The Strip do I inquire, “Um, where’s Happy Town?”

“The Spearmint Rhino, dude.”

Now, I don’t get out much, but I catch ET and Extra! from time to time. So I’m suddenly aware that I’ve been unwittingly roped into a trip to one of the nation’s most (ir)reputable “gentleman’s clubs.” And I’m not psyched about it.

See, I’ve had a no strip club policy for years. I probably don’t need to explain why, but I will. My mom used to take me to her ERA (equal rights amendment) meetings in the mid-Seventies. I met Gloria Steinem at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1996 and put the experience right up there with meeting Michael Stipe or Walter Cronkite.

More than gender politics, though, and cash-for-sex (or something approximating sex) notwithstanding, it’s just not the kind of place I frequent. Hundreds of drunken men oggling silicon-enhanced young women just isn’t my scene. Heck, hundreds of drunk men doing anything isn’t my scene.

So I’ve avoided bachelor parties and left more than my fair share late night events just before they turned he corner. This time, though, I was stuck. Or at least I felt stuck as my three male and two female companions poured out of the limo and through security. A colleague, fully aware of my discomfort, paid my cover.

And I stepped through the rabbit hole…

The place was dark. There was no center stage as I’d imagined (or seen on TV), but instead a series of tiered booths. Scattered around the room were small, elevated, circular platforms upon women gyrated lethargically. Large, thick men in black with earpieces stood in the shadows (that is: everywhere) slowly scanning the room. The scene reminded the Mos Eisley Cantina (you know: the intergalactic bar in which Luke meets Han Solo), and my Jedi senses were telling me that Greedo was right around the corner. It did not feel like a safe place.

Moments after sitting (“Please don’t put me on the outside,” I plead to no avail), and before even ordering a drink, a slender blonde with too much red lip gloss and too little clothing (her bra and underpants seemed two sizes too small) sat on my leg.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Um, um… Benjamin,” I said sounding more like a question than a statement of fact. “What’s yours?”

“Divinity,” she replied, cracking her gum.

‘Divinity,’ I thought. ‘Rrrrrriiiiiight.’

“Where are you from?” she asked, feigning interest. “What are up to in Vegas? Business? Vacation?”

I did my best to explain to her what we’d been up to all week, stammering through sentence fragments and awkward pauses. She commented that my job sounded cool, which is what led me to my “What I Really Wanna’ Do” speech, and our Mister Rogers documentary.

The elephant in the room — or, more succinctly, the 100-pound woman on my leg — though, became overwhelmingly unavoidable. So I asked, “Explain this whole process to me. You take guys into another room or something?”

“Sure,” she said. “We find a nice, quiet corner of the place and I dance for you.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure I’m into that,” I said. “No disrespect, but, yunno’, the whole thing kinda’ creeps me out. I’m not sure I get it.”

“Well, she said tapping her pointer finger on my right temple, “you’d always have it up here.”

“Again, no disrespect, Divinity — I mean, you’re lovely and all — but I don’t want it up there.”

Which is when I told her it wasn’t gonna’ work out, and that she’d find better business elsewhere.

After a few minutes of squirming and trying to disappear into the crushed velvet booth, another woman approached. Which is when I excused myself, walked out the door, and hailed a cab.

Eleven years ago nearly to the day I spent a weekend in the mountains above Telluride meditating on whether or not to accept the job IÕve now possessed for pushing twelve years. I was concerned that the office would feel like high school. Based in no small part on what I knew from watching the network, I worried that my colleagues would be more concerned with gossip and fashion and being hip and cool than elevating cultural discourse, creating substantive art, or contributing to the greater good.

Life is, after all, pretty much like high school. And the Oscar’s, Grammy’s, et all are pretty much prom. In this era of amusing ourselves to death — obsessing over Osama’s beard and Britney’s tummy — we’d rather know who’s wearing what, who’s kissing who, and who’s fighting who. Preferably caught on tape.

Now, I love many of my colleagues, think they do good work, and know that most of them aspire to something more as well. Last night, though, in the moments before I pointed my suede bucks for the door, I thought, ‘I just wasn’t made for these times.’

This morning, as I grabbed my bags and headed for the airport, I passed my reflection in a mirror and smiled.

I will not bake cakes piled high with frosting and sprinkles from which Valium-fueled starlets tumble ploddingly. I will not channel Buck Rogers, all swagger and cool, consequenceless and cavalier. I will channel Mister Rogers, and be proud of my values, no matter how square they might make me. I can’t worry about what my fellow sophomores – I mean colleagues – think or say.

Because, as Lester says to William in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” “We’re uncool. The only true currency in this bankrupt world if what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

So when the sun came on Tuesday morning, there was nothing left to do but smile at my lack of cool, and decide what to where under my cap and gown.

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