Every Tuesday night for nearly a year, a small group of friends and I had played bar trivia at one of West Hollywood’s oldest, smelliest bars. On an average night, the skimpily-clad waitresses at this dank, storied hell-hole might serve paleo salads to a cross-fit class afterparty in the back, pitchers of Coors to a shaggy-looking couple shooting pool, and burgers to incognito celebrities sitting at the bar. In our year of weekly patronage to the place, my groups’ celebrity sightings have included Robert Pattinson, Chris Rock, and a One Directioner. The blonde one. On the extremely popular trivia nights, you can add to that unfathomable sea of humanity a smattering of birthday girls, socially awkward old men, nerds and wannabe-nerds of all stripes.
As if all this weren’t eclectic enough, it’s also a sports bar. Televisions hang from every corner of the bar’s highly-cornered interior, broadcasting a mix of whatever is showing on ESPN and ESPN 2-10. This cornucopia of sports-package programming draws even more people to the already-crowded bar during any kind of playoff season, and should one of these games fall Tuesday Trivia night, finding a seat becomes a full-contact sport of its own.
Never in a year of Tuesdays was the Table Dash more challenging than during the 2015 NBA finals. The Clippers were out of it, and the Lakers were nowhere near it. But Golden State, California’s last hope, were set to win it all if they could only take down LeBron James and his supporting cast. On the night of game three, trying to snag seats for eight, we arrived early for trivia to find the place as crowded as we’d ever seen it. It was the fourth quarter; we’d have to wait out the game, at which point tables would clear as the clientele shifted from jock to nerd. Some of us stood outside with the smokers while a few of us floated awkwardly in the narrow passage between the front door and the seating area. After several minutes of dodging harried waitresses and drunk Warriors fans, I shifted to a spot in front of a young couple’s booth in an attempt to get out of the way.
The couple was seated side by side on one part of the booth – whether for intimacy or a better view of the TV, it wasn’t clear. Very aware that I was standing conspicuously in front of them, I asked if I was blocking their view of the game. When they said no and asked if I wanted to sit down in the empty half of their booth, I decided to go for it. They seemed nice enough, and it would allow me to stop worrying about finding a table, as the group across the aisle was about to leave too, meaning my friends could swoop in, no problem.
Over the next 15 minutes, I surprised myself with my own energetic friendliness. I learned that my new tablemates were visiting from New Jersey; like me, they were rooting for Golden State out of ill will for LeBron; and the woman of the pair was a hairdresser whose lavender hair had just been dyed that shade earlier that day. The highlight of our brief encounter came when I told them that I was trying to make it as a screenwriter. The purple-haired woman looked at me earnestly and said, “You're going to make it. I truly believe that you get back the energy you put out into the world, and you have such a positive energy.” As if that ego boost weren’t reward enough for my stranger gamble, after the couple left and my friends sat down, I was congratulated for my dedication to table getting and my prowess at friend-making. Trivia night began with me feeling like a real champion in this little game called life.
It was one week later, on the heels of this social success story, that I met Joe. It was the night of game six of the NBA finals, and we came to the bar ready to do battle in the seating wars that we were sure to find there. The first wave of our group made a miscalculation, snagging a four-top that had no nearby seating prospects for the rest of us. The game ended – Golden State won the championship – and the sportsfans began to pay their tabs and finish their beers. I was on the lookout for someone leaving, and my eyes landed on Joe. To be honest, he was hard to miss. He was a hefty, middle-aged, white guy, red-faced and seated by himself at a booth, an empty beer glass and a giant pizza box on the table before him. The people at the table across from him had just left, and he'd been sitting there looking like he’d been ready to leave for the past 10 minutes. My friend Nick slid into the newly empty booth, but it wasn’t big enough for our whole group. Dammit, I wanted this dude’s neighboring table.
So I went in, leaned over to this puffy man and, as politely as possible, asked, “Are you leaving soon, or are you staying for trivia?" He turned to me slowly, uncomprehending. But hey, it was loud in there. So I asked again: are you leaving? He said that he was, but made no move to depart. When he added, speech slurred, that I should sit down, I hesitated. But then I thought of the week before. I thought about what a wonderful, friendly, warm hearted person I am, that kind of person who gives strangers – even dazed, bloated strangers – the benefit of the doubt. So I sat, just perching on the booth’s edge.
My left butt cheek had barely touched down onto the vinyl when Joe jerked his head across the aisle to my friend Nick, who stared ahead at the front door, completely unaware of Joe. The din of the crowded bar made it difficult to hear anyone more than a couple feet away. "Is that your boyfriend?” he slurred. He must have seen us talking before.
Already second guessing my benevolence toward odd strangers, I lied. ”Yes, yes he is,” I replied, trying to sound like it was obvious.
"You guys having good sex?" Joe, the total stranger, then asked.
I should have walked away. Instead, I forced a pivot. “Were you rooting for Golden State?” Very clever.
“No," Joe pouted. I nodded, disappointed that my attempt to change the subject had run aground. But hey, I thought, maybe he’d get up and leave now.
Joe did not get up and leave. He stared at me with a sloshed blankness. "How is the pizza here?" I shouted, pointing to the giant box before him. The to go box. TO. GO.
He shrugged his shoulders. It's pizza. He offered me a piece, but I declined. He patted his ample stomach, adding, “You can probably tell I've had a lot of pizzas.”
What is the appropriate response when a fat, drunk stranger asks if you can tell that he's fat? I pretended the question was about pizza. "Oh me too. I'm from Chicago. We have all kinds of pizza."
"You're from Chicago? I'm from Chicago!" Of course, I thought of course this doughy drunk guy in a striped polo shirt is from Chicago. "What high school did you go to?”
When I explained that I went to high school in Northwest Indiana, he told me his four kids went to Culver, which is a kind of fancy prep-school in the area. I knew a girl who left my seventh grade public school class to attend Culver, so I told him I was familiar with it. “Culver’s the fuckin’ best school,” he asserted.
I was relieved to find that this pervy loner guy was perhaps not such a pervy loner after all. Here he was, an out of town visitor, an Midwesterner, a proud father of four. I learned that he was also a businessman who financed films. When I told him I was a screenwriter, he handed me his business card and said that I should email him. And sure, he phrased it by slurring ”If you don't e-mail me in the next twenty four hours, you're dead to me," but still, this encounter was starting to seem like a real networking win for me. He took at piece of pizza out of the box and handed it to me, and this time, however reluctantly, I took it.
Across the way, our friend Russ arrived and started talking to Nick. I ate my slice of pizza slowly, refusing multiple times when Joe tried to offer me another. Instead of getting up, he ate another slice, so now we were both sitting in the booth eating his leftovers straight out of the to-go box. I propped my chin up on my hand and watched Steph Curry thank God and his teammates on the nearest corner television, out of things to say to Joe and hoping he would decide to head home already to sleep it off.
"How do you do that?” he asked me.
“What?” I replied, genuinely confused.
“Sit so still like that. And make that face. Like a model.” Oh shit. Had he just gotten drunker?
“I'm just watching TV." I forced a polite smile and, instead of turning back to the screen, began trying to will him to boredom telepathically.
Joe took a deep breath, "I'm just going to throw this out there…" he began.
I was suddenly struck by that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when bracing for terrible news, like the death of a loved one. What the hell was this man about to say to me?
“Is there an amount of money…that could be exchanged…and you’d go back to my hotel…and we'd…have sex?”
I wonder what face I made. I can guess, but my brain temporarily shut down for a moment, so now I can't be sure.
“Say, $500? $1000?” He was starting high, which was peculiarly flattering.
“I don't think so.”
‘2000? 3000? 5000?”
Look, I get that those are large sums of money, and I am poor. But I mean it when I say that there was no part of me that was even remotely entertaining the idea of having sex with this man, ever. Or, to be fair, with any man. I could consult the short list of celebrities I lust after — Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey. Theo James in…Downton Abbey. Possible Regency Fetish aside, if you offered me $50 to have sex with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, I’d tell you to keep the money so that I could actually enjoy myself. Some women might get off on being paid for their services; many more find the act fundamentally transactional, and thus might as well get paid for it. I am neither one of those types.
“6000?” I just kept shaking my head. I sneaked a look over to the first group of my friends, seated in the corner on the left. Not one eye was on me. I turn to the guys across the aisle to my right, shouting silently "Are you getting any of this?" But the bar was beyond noisy, and they weren’t even glancing in my direction. Clearly (or so it seemed to me in the moment) I’d created a monster out of my own independent friendliness. These dudes were SO not worried about me and my ability to look out for myself. I loved and hated them for it.
“7000? Seriously? Still no? Why?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong girl.”
Joe stopped at $50,000, finally getting the message through his loaded skull. I think we both knew that there was never a chance that he’d actually pay me $50,000 for sex; it was more that he needed to know that there was a price at which he could buy anything he wanted. When I still did not assent, Joe took a dejected, momentary timeout before telling me that the whole thing had been a kind of thought experiment. A joke, really. ”She said she do it for $1000” he said, pointing to a passing waitress who had not stopped, or even glanced, at the table since I'd been there. “I'm happily married to a wonderful woman. I've got four kids.”
“I remember. They go to Culver.” Drunk as he was, this response still seem to make him nervous. I pretended to believe that his indecent proposal has been a joke from the beginning. I laughed and nodded, feeling like I had passed some kind of cosmic test and desperately trying not to picture this man's tiny penis. Then the people at the table behind Joe got up and left. I could move to that table and be a bit closer to one faction of my group, or, if my friends moved to it, they could be closer to me. It was after 9pm by now — trivia set to start any minute — and I had a decision to make: should I continue to sit across from this man who had now proven himself to be every bit the pervy loner I had once feared him to be, or should I abandon my post, thus rendering the entire ordeal a complete waste?
“So there’s really no chance we’re going to have sex?” Joe then asked, as if trying to help me with my decision.
"Sorry," I said, standing up."Thanks for the pizza." I still had the stale crust in my hand.
“I am trying to play trivia with my friends, and we want to sit together,” I explained. A hurt look crossed his face, as if he was just now learning that I’d been waiting for him to leave ever since I first asked him if he was leaving soon.
“Can I at least have a kiss?“
“Sorry,” I sighed, exasperated. What had I done to deserve this?
“Fuck you then,” was Joe’s charming rejoinder.
I threw my purse into the adjacent booth. "Watch my bag,” I hissed to Russ and Nick.
“Everything ok?” Russ asked me, suddenly aware that I was looking flustered. I just shook my head and rushed off to the bathroom, wanting to be as far away from this stranger as possible. Once in the bathroom, I suddenly felt very dirty. I hurled the tasteless pizza crust into the trash with violent disgust. Why had I even taken it? I didn’t want it. Why had I even sat down? I was just trying to be nice.
When I returned to our new table, Joe was still sitting there in front of his pizza box. He left a few minutes later. He probably wouldn't remember any of this in the morning. But I would.
I debriefed my friends on the encounter. Reactions were divided sharply along gender lines. The boys were over the moon about the unreality of it all. One of them asked me why I didn't take Joe up on his offer, laughing when I answered that it would have meant missing trivia; another said that once he saw I had scored a piece of pizza, he figured I must've been doing pretty well for myself. The girls, however, bought me a milkshake and gave me hugs, telling me how sorry they were that they hadn't noticed I was in trouble. And you know, both sides were right. Being asked to join the worlds oldest profession, if only for a couple of minutes, had been both horrible and hilarious. I was both traumatized and kind of flattered. I mean…$50,000?
We came in second at trivia that night. I was tasked with saving the gift card we'd won, and I stashed it in a purse pocket, right next to the business card Joe had given me. When I pulled both cards out the following week, I noticed Joe's card was double-sided. An investor service was listed on one side, a commercial real estate firm on the other. Under his name, on both sides, were the letters “CEO.”
* * * * *
Is there a moral to this story? I don’t fucking know. I don't want it to be "don't talk to strangers." For one thing, that puts the onus on me. Is it my fault a Midwesterner got drunk alone with his pizza and tried to pay me for sex? Had I been “asking for it” by my mere willingness to sit down at his table? The sweet couple from the week before hadn't tried to sleep with me, and they were from New Jersey!
So let the moral be this: Don’t get drunk alone in public if you’re a total asshat. Don’t try to pay people for sex unless they bring it up first. And when in Los Angeles, be prepared to put up with some weird shit in the name of finding a goddamn seat at the table.