It's hard not to feel a little uneasy, standing alone at the San Leandro BART station a couple hours after dark on New Year's Eve, the wind whipping icily through my dress as I await the "party bus" helmed by Blake Kerentan.
The East Oakland massage therapist turned promoter broke into the party bus racket via an office neighbor at his East Oakland massage studio. "MacArthur Tours was in Suite 203, and I was in Suite 205," he recalls. They helped him plan a private party bus trip to Reno in the fall of 2000, providing contacts with casinos, clubs, and other party promoters, not to mention valuable booking and advertising advice. From there, Blake led tours to more casinos, along with wineries, clubs, and bingo tournaments -- he even has a trip to a Burbank taping of The Price Is Right scheduled for March. He gets the word out by fliering grocery stores, taquerias, beauty parlors, sandwich shops, barbecue joints, malls, BART stations, and bingo halls, not to mention the sandwich signs on International Boulevard. Gradually, this has become a full-time gig; Blake now parses out just a few hours a week for massage appointments.
For NYE '05, the man friends affectionately call "Papi Party Pants" is collaborating with another promoter, one so-called Gorgeous Nate, whom Blake later explains "had all the inside connections to the San Francisco clubs," allowing him to make executive decisions with no input from anyone else.
He's lured us in with a mass e-mail promising a safe and fun-filled evening -- "Enjoy comp drinks while being chauffeured in a positive party atmosphere to three of SF's hottest clubs," it reads. The $60-a-head cover includes transportation, complimentary champagne, and VIP treatment at Velvet Lounge, Gravity, and Club Element.
But now, at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve -- after the bus had already made its last pickup in SF, we realize the agenda has been slashed from three clubs to one: Club Circolo, a joint the original sales pitch never mentioned.
Granted, when the first couple of partygoers climb aboard, they're blithely unaware of all the brouhaha lying ahead. It's around 6:30 p.m., and New Year's Eve still brims with the promise of cocaine, beautiful booty girls, and vapid house music. Blake -- a baby-faced 33-year-old in khaki pants and shirt tails -- is shooting the breeze with an older guy named Larry, who's decked out in a fox-fur coat and a wide-brim fedora pimp hat. At Walnut Creek BART, the bus picks up two more drifters, Blake's cousins in the blood and fraternal sense, respectively. Our host cracks open a couple bottles of champagne, and someone pops in the new Ying Yang Twins record; as we meander toward SF, the walls rattle with primordial stripclub beats and raps that describe genitalia of mythic proportions.
In downtown SF, the bus collects two frattish dudes plus the aptly named Gorgeous Nate, a svelte, twentysomething guy in a blazer and gator shoes. "I got twenty more heads coming on," he promises, and suddenly, there they are: ten fly-ass brothers (looking like J. Crew catalogue models) followed by a mostly white crowd of SOMA loft yuppies (plus a couple of token Baby Boomers) toting designer clutch bags and V-neck sweaters. The bus stops at a food mart for a cigarettes and Bud Light run, and it looks as if the party bus is really gonna live up to its name.
Except that within ten minutes, class conflict has set in. The loft yuppies are clearly loaded and effusively tout their college credentials; several boast that they're lawyers, while another says he works in marketing, "but not this type of marketing," he mutters, with a snide nod to Blake and Nate. They discovered the party bus via word of mouth; a really fey guy with a Mohawk says he got roped into going while doing lines with a dude he'd just met. Mr. Mohawk soon pisses off another busgoer by referring to everyone who's not a lawyer as "The Help."
Nobody else feels a trace of empathy for the lawyer crowd. There are rumors of a bus DJ, but when said DJ never materializes, the promoters crank up KMEL, assaulting their clientele with deafening, relentless "My Goodies" jams at insane volume. DJ Big Von Johnson is prattling about all the fabulous, hyphy things you could be doing to celebrate "2000 and Thizz" -- hanging out at the Beehive with Mistah Fab and Dem Hoodstarz, for instance, which is perhaps exactly where the party bus promoters would rather be right now. The lawyerly folks complain loudly about the music, to no avail. Meanwhile, the driver appears to be lost, twisting like a rudderless ship through dark SF neighborhoods where the only sign of life is a stalled Cadillac or the sallow beam of a streetlamp. The busgoers start to panic, recalling that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Wonka steers his magic ferryboat off-course into a dark and forbidding tunnel.
"Hey, are we going to fucking San Jose, or something?" someone shouts.
By the time the bus grinds to a halt outside Club Circolo in Potrero Hill, the only person who doesn't appear to have his or her panties in a bunch is Larry the pimp -- a party bus veteran, evidently. As everyone dribbles out, Larry starts handing out business cards; turns out he's a tax-fraud investigator.
One of the swankest clubs in this neck of SF, Circolo is a dizzying Wonderland of dishy cigarette girls, electric geysers, and dim cocktail lighting. The VIP cabanas upstairs allow the well-heeled elite to look down imperiously at the commoners lounging below. A few emissaries -- gorgeous Asian women with stylish furry boots and hoop earrings -- are dispatched from Club Whisper across the street to recruit some of the J. Crew catalogue guys (plus Blake himself) to a different party, where the crowd is younger and more fashionable. Only a couple of them opt not to go; one of Blake's cousins bumrushes a Circolo VIP table and starts hitting on an attractive corporate powerhouse woman. You get the sense he's very adept in the art of table-bumrushing, and you're kinda rooting for the guy.
Except for a couple of local celebrity DJs -- Pauly Paul from Wild 94.9, and Aebl Dee from 2232 MLK's Young and Sexy Wednesdays -- the Circolo crowd is mostly stodgier and older than the median party bus age, and the music trends toward a sedate, tepid Top 40 mix heavy on Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, and Chubb Rock (!?). All the elegant drunk people crowd the dancefloor to revive the Roger Rabbit and the Humpty-Hump; it's close to midnight before the party bus stragglers realize they're all interlopers in some kind of obscene corporate mixer.
Thankfully, Blake comes to the rescue shortly after the balloons drop, though by that time most of the crowd has already bailed. Some lawyers are trying to catch taxis. Meanwhile, Mr. Mohawk steals a loaf of bread from Circolo's kitchen and rips it to shreds; it looks tantalizing, but he refuses to share, suggesting you shut up and steal your own. Apparently vexed at the thought of spending another three hours with the insufferable lawyers, Gorgeous Nate decides to switch gears and direct the bus to a house party in his friend's tony Potrero Hill loft, where the kitchen is stacked with top-shelf liquor and classy hors d'oeuvres.
At this point 80 percent of the bus has been duly excommunicated from what is now Nate and Blake's exclusive New Year's Eve party.
Let's chalk up the party bus as a cultural metaphor: a hermetically sealed space wherein different classes jockey for power -- the lawyers by importing their upper-class pretensions, the promoters by deploying pulverizingly loud KMEL booty music as an intimidation tactic so it's easier to ditch their clientele at the end of the night. "Man, I shoulda charged them $100 a head, instead of $60," Gorgeous Nate remarks.
Blake, meanwhile, explains that anyone who feels shortchanged by the party bus is obviously getting it twisted. "We did go to two clubs," he argues. "Some people went to Whisper, and then went back to Circolo. To break it down to the science, we did club-hop. I club-hopped. I went to Whisper, then went to Circolo. Some people went to Circolo, then to Whisper, then back to Circolo. That's club-hopping."
The bus engine sputters to life, and the unwieldy vehicle starts lurching haphazardly through Potrero Hill, en route to the loft party. We've seen this through to the bitter end. Happy New Year.
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