Good Girls should try not to be born on Mardi Gras.

This blog originally posted at

…if it’s at all convenient.  My birthday is on February 24th, and this year it fell on Fat Tuesday, as it is occasionally wont to do.  It was a tough birthday this year — no celebrating, really.

Which immediately sent me back in time to the last time my birthday was on Mardi Gras — in February 2003.  For those who know how old I am, and those who have wanted to, here’s a confession: that was the day I turned 21.  Things went about as badly on that birthday as could be expected.

I was in the middle of midterms at Stanford.  It was a Tuesday night, and I had an intensive written exam on Romantic music analysis from 6-9pm.  I had spent the day rehearsing, composing, and catching up on reading about genocide and world hunger or something equally depressing.  I was unwashed, un-made-up, and dressed as dowdy (dowdily?) as I know how to dress. Midterm Frumpy is a special kind — more hopeless than Finals Frumpy, as the end is not yet near.  I left my exam exhausted and without much desire to drink and be merry.

But I knew, in advance, that I would have no such desire.  So I trapped myself into a night out on the town with three excellent friends who agreed to go to a club with me on a Tuesday.  I wanted to hear a great band called Sinister Dexter, in which a fellow Stanford composition student played bass.  Getting out of the dorm and off campus was a big deal for me at the time.  And hell, I was 21.  I had been served red wine & beer regularly by my parents at home since age 15, but dammit, I needed to celebrate.  So out we went, in my roommate’s ancient land yacht of a Chrysler, intending to rock Palo Alto. Rock it like the square yuppie REI kayak that it is.

We realized our mistake once we reached downtown. The streets were full of tottering revelers in stilletos, wreathed with colorful beads. Having spent every Tuesday night since birth in some music rehearsal or another — and being from the Pacific Northwest where Mardi Gras is mostly not much of a thing — it took my friends’ prompting to help me understand what was going on. “Oh,” I said. (I should have said, “Oh, #$&% this, let’s hit the liquor store and go watch a movie at home.”)

We managed to park, which was epic in itself. We walked to the club wearing several layers and still freezing. We waited in line, wishing we could hear the band over the revving cars and shouting frat guys. Scantily clad girls went in ahead of us in droves, skipping the line with impunity, before our Midterm Frump Clump was admitted. We all had our coats. For protection, I think.

The place was packed.  The band went on break the minute we came inside, and loud house music came on instead. I remember thinking that it felt a little harsh after writing about Beethoven for weeks. Nothing for it but to wait for the *clearly amazing* band to get their drinks and start again.  The horn section & accordion looked promising, and my fellow composer looked hot as usual.

I tried making small talk (= small shouts) with some friendly guys, but they turned out to be sketchy European grad students. “It’s my birthday too!” exclaimed one, hugging me and asking his friend to take a photo. I was way grossed out, and too young to have the confidence to send them packing. And they wouldn’t pack voluntarily; they were obscenely hopeful about us. My one friend finally got protective and den-motherish, my other friend was terrified and didn’t know what to do, and the third (more accustomed to clubbing) jumped right in and started making out with strangers. Her sacrifice saved the rest of us, and we escaped.

I fought our my to the bar. Only makey-outey friend was also drinking, so I was on my own. It was five people deep all around the counter, and there was an uncomfortable amount of skin between me and placing an order.  I tried the upstairs bar and managed to work my way to the front — and then realized I had no idea what to order. I hate liquor, mostly. I drink beer and wine. And they had crappy beer and wine. And I didn’t know the names of any drinks, except ones I’d heard in the movies. The bartender gave me a look that made it clear I would lose his attention if my cash and drink order were not turned over pronto.

“Um, an appletini…??” I shouted. I did not then and I have never since liked things like appletinis.  Ten long, sweaty minutes later I got a red plastic cup — and felt a sudden crushing disappointment. Red plastic cups were what we drank from on campus. I had imagined a quiet-ish Tuesday night bar with small talk and real glassware and a concert. And if it hadn’t been for the awesome band, I would have gone out in search of one without delay.

As I clutched my red cup and tried to turn around to break from the bar crush, the tall skinny girl next to me — inches from me — lifted her shirt all the way up and squealed at the bartender at top volume. She was given a free drink for her trouble within fifteen seconds. No one had ever explained this part of Mardi Gras to me before. I was confounded. My faith in cash-as-currency was shaken somewhat.

Shy Friend, Protective Friend and I found a place where we could huddle in the upper balcony and wait for the band to resume playing. The girls’ devotion to getting me a 21st birthday drink knew no limits. Neither of them had a beverage, or any beads. Neither of them looked to be having a good time. Our stilted conversation mostly consisted of nerdy variations on “Wow, this is crazy.”

Our wait was long, because the ten band members could not physically get back to the stage. I saw some players trying to clear enough space around them to tune, plug in, or play their instruments. The trombonist was having a hard time making the drunken trio directly in front of him understand their imminent danger. “Spit valve!” I wanted to tell him, telepathically.

To encourage crowd movement away from the band, the rhythm section and singer played a slow cover song at high volume. I think it was also to meant to encourage the bar to turn off the loud house music. Break over.  I started getting excited for the actual music — even on a slow song, their technique was promising and their sound was tight. I began writing a paper about it in my head and waited eagerly for the accordionist to get his mic set. Also, I ditched the appletini, barely touched. Waiting waiting waiting waiting for the players to settle and the endless slow song to end…

…Cue the police. The crowd writhed as one like a school of minnows. The band leader ended the slow song neatly and announced, “And that’s all for tonight, everybody, because the Palo Alto police department will be closing this fine establishment for the remainder of the evening. Good night.”

If I had known then what I know now about life, I would have indulged myself for one moment upon that announcement: I’d have “dropped” my plastic appletini over the balcony at an unsuspecting drunk chick. The one with the most beads. She would never suspect the frumpy baby-faced girl with the coat on.

We had heard no music, drunk no alcohol, and had no fun. Fail trifecta. I don’t believe we brought makey-outey friend home with us; she hit some other clubs before going home.

I would like to say I went home and drank wine and listened to some Eric Whitacre by candlelight to make it all better. But no, I just went to sleep. With earplugs to block out the returning revelers.

This, friends, is why you will find me enjoying my next February 24th Mardi Gras in the home of a good friend with plenty of beer and cheese and music I like. And should something go wrong, I will be unafraid to throw things. Lesson learned. MY birthday.