Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Jacqui and Lil and the Coyote Ugly -- Then and Now

[Except for those in the title, names have been changed because I feel like it.]

The first time I was dragged to the dark hole in the wall at 1st Avenue and 9th Street was almost certainly some time in the Spring of 1993, a few months after it had opened its doors -- which weren't batwing doors, but could have been. Before my eyes adjusted, I registered only two things: the jukebox was playing "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," and the joint reeked of beer. It was afternoon -- or daylight, at least -- not that you'd know it as soon as you passed through the door, even though the entire front of the bar was glass. It was like magic. Very black magic.

I was there at the behest of a very large, hard-drinking softie, Jack. Jack loved the alcohol that bears his name; indeed, I and my sixth floor suitemates in our dormitory overlooking Third Avenue took the heat for one of his suitemates (next door) throwing a bottle of Jack out the window (which, unfortunately, opened just wide enough to permit the ejection of just such a bottle) of a Saturday night to shatter (like a bomb, I imagine) on the sidewalk below. Jack almost always wore like a toga a large tan overcoat; his hair hung lanky down to his collar; and the easy non-directional amiability of his smile betrayed his midwestern origins.

We were both in our freshman year at a small school located a few blocks from the bar. Our classmate, with whom Jack had grown close in that swift easy way that happens when a bunch of kids are thrust into a new environment, a sexy, brassy redhead named Carla, had recently landed a gig at a local bar -- the Coyote, which we typically pronounced with two syllables, the second O at once long and short, cut off by the not quite vocalized stop that stood in for the T, which died silently on our palates.

As Hank Williams gave way to Cash grumbling about his Folsom Prison lament, the first contact I remember having with the Man in Black's ouevre, my eyes adjusted. To my left: a short, weather-beaten bar, backed with a jumble of bottles and a filthy mirror. To my right: a shitty jukebox. To the rear: a step up to a level with two dimly lit dartboards side by side and a couple of booths off to one side. Behind the bar: a proto-indie rock goddess, petite, agile, and overbrimming with palpable attitude, in a painted-on three-quarter-sleeve top in thin Waldo stripes, short dyed-black hair, blue eyes like twin glaciers converging on a valley in which I stood, paralyzed. Hers weren't, in the abstract sense, the most perfect breasts I had by then seen or have seen since, but they are perhaps the breasts I remember most fondly among all clothed breasts, and are probably the only ones I can still recall in vivid almost loving detail from that time in my life. I'm sitting here seeing them. To call that surreal doesn't even begin to do justice to the phenomenon, like a weird hiccup of a typically shoddy memory, wishful deja vu, perhaps.

Her name was Madison. When I left the bar that night, I could barely hold myself upright, but I knew that Madison was a drummer in a band, and I had her phone number in my pocket. She had cautioned me that she wasn't supposed to give it out. Then she slid it across the moist bar anyway; I still remember folding the small sodden piece of paper gently below the bar, as though engaged in some clandestine mission. Piss drunk was never more heavenly.

Tonight, on my couch on a Friday night, I flicked through my idiosyncratic array of basic cable channels until I stumbled across the last fifteen minutes of a Dukes of Hazard episode on Country Music Television. Country Music Television. In my grazing I also had found on C-SPAN-2 a panel discussion addressing the blogosphere's impact on the mainstream media. The panel, hosted by the National Press Club, held my interest despite its utter dryness only because it included two of my favorite bloggers, Matthew Yglesias and Wonkette (so cute; I <3 fast talkers), and the man voted most likely to ask the President and Scott McLellan softball questions in the White House Press Room, whom Tony has taken to calling Ganuckert, fusing the two identities (male escort; White House correspondent) for which he's quickly become infamous.

I happened to be on DoH when it ended, and out of perverse curiosity I let it run through the credits, watching the General Lee circle around and around that tree with Roscoe in futile pursuit, and eyeing the names for anyone who later became a mogul. No dice on the mogul stuff, but the nostalgia was a gas. Before I could turn away, however, the next program began -- a documentary examining the real Coyote Ugly, which, it turns out, did so against the backdrop of the run-up to the opening of the tenth Coyote Ugly in Austin, Texas.

And there were Jacqui and Lil, who surely wouldn't remember me, but whom I will never forget.

Coyote Ugly is a real bar, all of this is to say, and was a real bar beginning in January 1993, long before Liz published the article in GQ that spawned the disaster Jerry Bruckheimer called a movie, back when it looked more like a real bar instead of some glitzy, overproduced Vegas attraction. I must confess, as a matter of principle I have refused to see the movie. But I needn't see it to know they got it all wrong: the credits at IMDb reveal that there is no Jacqui in the film. That's enough for me to take a big pass.

The hard-core choreography came later, when Jaqui suggested formalizing some of the bar's intrinsic mania, which initially had been the spontaneous outgrowth of cute, loud girls with balls of steel surround by junkies and townies and Confederacy-nostalgic lost souls and random college students there for the eccentricity value. But certain things now associated with the larger Coyote phenomenon were there in protean form when I was. Jacqui, indeed, spit fire. Bartenders, and more than a few customers, indeed mounted the bar from time to time to perform, mug, or just stagger around precariously enjoying a few seconds of wanton attention.

Perhaps most notably, penalty shots, as they are now called, were in effect, and looked something like this. The only penalty shot I remember receiving might, in fact, have come from Lil (it's all a bit blurry), but probably came from Carla. If there's something worse than having well tequila poured generally onto your upturned face from four or five feet above you I really hope I never find out what it is. Even through the haze of my drunken stupor at the time, and even through another muslin layer of years, I can feel that vile distillate's bite, a rancid, caustic liquid that had little to do with agave.

Only once did I walk out of Coyote Ugly under my own power, and then barely. I ended up at some trendy, all-night alphabet city diner in a basement somewhere with Jack and that night's bartender, whoever she was. I woke up in Jack's subsidized apartment in co-op city near the river the next morning feeling as though I had suffered a vicious mugging the night before. Back then, that feeling, as caused by my relative inexperience with heavy drinking, often accompanied an evening lost in substantial part, like pages ripped out of a children's book. But I never really forgot my nights at the Coyote.

Although, as discussed in this article, the movie resulted in an inundation of that small East Village space, Jack, whom I still see once every few years, remains a regular, having been there since the beginning. He bemoans the crowds, sometimes, but as far as I know enough of the real Coyote has survived, in that bar if none of the others, to scare away the true naifs, the tourists, the people who will never know what it is to "don't just get drunk, get ugly." Above the bar, in the wake of the movie, hung the sign: THIS AIN'T THE MOVIE.

And how could it be? It's still a hole in the wall, with nothing of the theme park elements that I could see in the set-up of the Austin location, and in the rigid choreography instilled by Jacqui and Lil in the new "coyotes" in the week prior to the grand opening as though they were Rockettes.

And the documentary showed that it's still Lil's game, still being done her way in some sense. Plainly, she's a shrewd businesswoman, and is at least as concerned with her bottom line (a fact she emphasizes time and again to the Coyotes-in-training as well as the filmmakers) as she is with maintaining anything like conceptual purity. And I've never visited any other Coyote; indeed, I haven't visited the original since before the movie came out in 2000.

But Lil and Jacqui are so charismatic, so convincing, so utterly themselves, whether in front of the girls, in front of the camera, or behind the original bar, that I can only applaud their success (four more Coyotes have been added since Austin, to make a total of fourteen, about half of which are owned by Lil and the other halfed licensed from her).

Even more striking, however, was that I took at face value Jacqui's insistence to the new Coyotes that the experience would be an empowering one. Yes, sex sells and is sold. But the women they select, at the new and old stores, come in all shapes and sizes: bombast over bra-size, feistiness over fitness, attitude over tits and ass. The girls can dance, they are sexy in that way only confident women can be, and they absolutely put it all on display. Their dances are big teases; their outfits leave little to the imagination.

But unlike, say, Hooters, where women are dressed in uniforms and adhere to a simple code of conduct, fit a physical type, have no clear talent except that manifest in any competent server, the Coyotes have real style, which is encouraged. Moreover, they are trained by women to be the sort of women who own men.

And I can attest to this being a dominant element all the way back in 1993: there were never any men behind the bar except by invitation, and there was never any question who was in control. I have never been convinced that women using their sexuality in whatever way comes to mind is disempowering, or constitutes fundamentally a capitulation to anything. But until tonight, I never really paused to ponder what was happening those odd nights in the Coyote. Those women were royalty, capricious, loving, and wrathful goddesses.

In many respects, they were among the most powerful women I've met, person-to-person. And not because of what they gave or took away, because of what they suggested or defied, but because of the poise and energy for which they were hired, because of the autonomy they appeared to be given in the moment to moment conduct of their work, the spontaneity they weren't only indulged in but were urged toward. Would that all of our workplaces allowed us such freedom to do what felt right.

In any event, god bless and long livethe original Coyote, which long before it became a phenomenon was hands-down the most memorable bar of my early youth, and I spent lots of time in lots of bars.

(By the way, I did eventually call Madison, and we had a nice chat. But nothing ever came of it. More the pity.)


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