Gut Instinct: Darkness at Noon

A drunken bike ride leads me into a Corona-fueled dance club in Queens

“Corona!” I bellowed. “Give me a Corona!”

“Qué?” replied the busty barmaid.

“KA-RONA! KA-RONA! I want a KA-RONA!”

She tilted her ear toward me, an act more symbolic than useful. The rollicking ranchera tunes at Viva Zapata Bar (80-14 Roosevelt Ave. betw. 80th & 81st Sts., Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-898-4747) thundered loudly enough to make a cochlear-implant salesman a millionaire. Dears, what was I doing here?

I first glimpsed Viva Zapata one rambling afternoon. I’d just eaten crunchy carnitas tacos at Taqueria Coatzingo (76-05 Roosevelt Ave. at 76th St., Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-424-1977). Full of fatty pork, I sauntered down Roosevelt until a blast of south-of-the-border beats stopped me.

I assumed the music’s source was unassuming Mexican restaurant Viva Zapata. Yet the noisy culprit was its separate, second-floor lounge—bienvenidos al bar advertised a sign adorned with martini glasses. I peeked upstairs. It was shadowy. It was creepy. It was a perfect scary bar. I inserted the address into my “bad ideas” mental file, which I accessed last week.

Since it was sunny out, I eschewed the subway for my bike—always a brilliant idea when drinking. I steered my pedaling machine to Queens, maneuvering past myriad SUVs trying to steamroll me into road pizza. Upon arriving unscathed, I chained up beside texting teens and cluttered shops hawking loin-quaking music, the very sort pouring from Viva’s second floor.

I opened the door just as a gentleman with bristly brown hair exited. He froze as if hit by a superhero’s icy ray. “Quiero cerveza,” I said. I offered a toothy smile that both said “I’m harmless as a puppy” and “I’m coming for your daughters after dark.”

“Cerveza?” he replied, inching backward.

“Yup.”

He flicked his head toward the dark, deafening upstairs void.

I ascended into a windowless, sunlight-murdering room. At the purple-neon-ringed bar, baby-cheeked Mexican men wearing baseball hats sat beside curvy ladies clad in skirts as colorful as they were abbreviated. They shouted into one another’s ears, their reflections bouncing off mirrored walls. A blow-up Pacifico beer bottle dangled from the ceiling. A disco ball splattered glittery drops across the vacant dance floor. Low-wattage red and green lights—viva Mexico—kept the mood seedy and cheesy, just like the music.

“AMOR-blah-dee-blah AMOR!” the songs blared ad nauseum.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I envisioned my girlfriend asking, examining me with fingers plugging ears.

“I’m…curious.”

“No, you’re a moron. You’ll get stabbed one of these days.”

“I’m harmless. Who’d stab me?”

My question should’ve been, Who’d serve me? After futilely shouting at the bartender, I gestured at a Corona ($4). The bartender nodded. She inserted a lime wedge into the bottle’s neck, then swaddled in white napkin. The little details are so delicious.

I grabbed a two-top table and swigged deeply. A beer-bellied DJ hidden in a CD-filled closet stepped out. I waved feebly. Belly didn’t. He retreated into the cave and cranked up the tuneage. A lady in red and a guy in blue jeans commanded the dance floor. They gyrated like high-schoolers who only recently learned how their bodies worked. But whenever the man tried touching the woman’s rump, she redirected his hands to her bony hips. This occurred, five, 10 times—until I ran out of countable fingers.

When their oddly chaste twirl ended, the guy slipped the girl currency. Good gosh, Viva Zapata was a lower-rent El Flamingo, the sexy-ballerina bar where forlorn men buy dance-floor romps with women in high heels and short nightgowns.

Tonight’s pay-to-sashay act repeated with new men. Women followed the dollars and switched allegiances like baseball free agents. I had another beer. Sometimes, that second beer’s all I need to switch from Grumpy Gus to Gregarious Guy. But the second, and soon the third, barely lifted spirits. Buying love is only funny in ’80s teen comedies. The doorway gentleman, I now saw, wasn’t telling me I was unwelcome; he was telling me I didn’t need what waited at the end of that long, lonely set of stairs.

“Besides,” my girlfriend would add, “you hate to dance.”

“There are many things I hate,” I’d respond—the Pittsburgh Steelers, tequila, men hogging multiple subway seats—“and that is definitely one of them.”

“So shouldn’t you be somewhere where you don’t have to pay to be with women? Like home?”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?”

“Yes,” I replied, emptying my Corona and heading downstairs into a brighter world.