James Melgar is a dark and handsome waiter in his early twenties. He is also a speed eater who has devoured 21 ears of sweet corn in eight minutes, modeled in New York, and done extra work in L.A.
And he has been sucking down suds since he was 10 years old. "The first beer I ever chugged was a Corona," he says with a smile that reveals a set of swoon-worthy dimples. "I got it from my dad's refrigerator."
We're standing on the lush, breezy patio of The Vagabond (30 NE 14th St., Miami) during (((Shake))), a Cuban-spiced Thursday-night shindig heavy on early-Nineties nostalgia and topped with tons of deliciously filthy 305 flavor. The event's hosts — Sweat Records and the ¿Que Pasa M.I.A.? crew — are rewinding to a time when Miami had only one area code (sorry, 786) and The JukeBox showed nothing but videos of Uncle Luke telling shaking, G-stringed asses that it was, indeed, their birthdays.
beer chugging contest
Although the gold-grill-filled night claims to be "anti-hipster," it paradoxically attracts the stylistically unwashed who love the tongue-in-cheek nature of popping their coochies to 2 Live Crew, playing old-school Nintendo, sipping on gin 'n' juice, eating pan con lechón off a sheet of tin foil, and possibly bumping into a grown man dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
The real star of the night is the Colt 45 Chugging Contest. And that's not because past prizes have included swirling, trippy artwork or Heat tickets. It's due to the crowd's desire to compete with the five-time reigning beast of a champ: James. Word on the street is that witnessing the guy in action is like watching Garfield the cat unhinge his jaw and gulp down whole chickens, lasagna, cupcakes, pots, and pans from a large banquet table in five seconds.
"I think the whole thing is hilarious," says James, mocking his budding notoriety before pounding a dewy can of malt liquor.
As he shuffles off to grab another drink, I move on to Marissa, a counterculture Barbie doll who is wearing tiny white shorts and leaning over the top of the outside bar, begging for male attention. She is heavily tattooed and leggy, and her blond hair emits a green hue whenever she strolls under artificial light.
I'm not a man, and she's not a chugger, but judging by her lips, spackled with layers of gooey gloss, I'm guessing she has stuck a few freaky foreign objects into that orifice.
"The weirdest thing I ever put in my mouth was chicken and waffles," she says, her blue, doe-like/Anime-porn eyes enlarging with the expectation of shock. "And I once accidentally drank some bong water."
"Uh, I once got paid $10 to chug a plastic cup filled with spit-out dip."
Well, at least that explains the hair color.
Next I spot two girls chatting by the centerpiece of The Vagabond's bohemian back yard: a fountain that propels fine streams of water up and over a glowing fire. One is Renee, a sweet and friendly 23-year-old with dyed red hair, a Cindy Crawford-mole piercing, and two teased and curled lavender gift-wrap ribbons safety-pinned to the spaghetti straps of her top. She says she wants to be a librarian and then fills me in on the wonders of playing a game called "Power Hour" that involves taking a shot of beer every minute for an hour.
It's almost midnight, and in the spirit of Dirty Hour — a 10 p.m.-to-12 a.m. special in which Colt 45 tall-boys go for just a buck — I ask her to serve up the nasty. "What's the foulest thing that's touched your tongue?"
She tells me about sucking on a pool cue. "I stuck the tip in my mouth for a dollar." Renee then admits to eating cake from the garbage and sampling random plants such as bougainvilleas and angel trumpets, right off the vine, in hopes of getting high.
Her friend, a pigtailed brunette named Kat, does better: "When I was 15, my friends and I thought it would be a great idea to make a beer bong out of a vacuum cleaner hose. We just took off the attachment without cleaning it, stuck one end in my mouth, and poured a bottle of Heineken down the other. As soon as the beer and a giant hairball hit my tongue, I got so grossed out that I started to throw up whole mushrooms from a pizza we ate earlier."
By now it's 1 a.m., and a brief come-and-chug announcement blasts from the sound system. Judging by the small crowd assembled at a DJ stand, I'm thinking it's time to unleash the beer-slamming stallions.
On the way to check out the show, I run into Alex, a small man with big plans. "I think I can drink faster than James," he says. "Unfortunately I almost died from choking on my own vomit after getting alcohol poisoning on my 21st birthday. A friend of mine heard me gurgling in my sleep and turned me from my back to my side, thank God. But it really sucked. I haven't really drank since then, but I used to be able to down a quart in a minute. When I heard about this competition, I decided to start training."
And what does this training consist of?
"Drinking a Schlitz every night ... and I haven't consumed anything since 4 p.m."
James, on the other hand, is finishing yet another tall-boy as he squeezes his way into the middle of a line of about a dozen other contenders. "I get nervous before every competition, so I drink a little to loosen myself up," he admits. "There's got to be some competition out there somewhere."
Then the MC, José El Rey — a local artist known for his silly/sardonic Spanglish techno tunes and a truly remarkable (and magical) mustache — grabs a mike and says, "I am the king! But where is my court?" The other two members of ¿Que Pasa M.I.A.? — Slim Biscayne and Aholsniffsglue — distribute quarts of Colt to the row of motley chuggernauts.
Next the 32-ouncers are pulled from brown paper bags, and wide mouths are pressed to eager lips.
"Go!" El Rey abruptly shouts as teeth clank on glass, heads tilt back, beer dribbles down chins, people cheer, shirts are stained, and poor little Alex looks like he should just surrender.
Then there's James. He's living up to his rep, but close behind him is a sloppy guy in a long-sleeve gray shirt and overgrown curls — dubbed Queasoid for his wobbly state — and a curvy, confident woman who calls herself Ms. Goobs.
After about 30 seconds, El Rey's voice booms across the patio. "James wins!"
All the freshly queasy chug-a-thoners lower their quarts, but then the ¿Que Pasa? judges look more closely. When James and Queasoid put down their quarts, there's a half-inch of amber backwash at the bottom of their bottles. Ms. Goobs, however, has nothing but foam in her empty Colt.
Everyone is confused — and drunk —so a rematch is called.
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But Ms. Goobs ain't having it. "It's because I'm female!" she snaps and then waddles back into the crowd for sympathetic pats on the back. "You know what's funny? About two years ago on Halloween, I was in the Grove and I saw some guy dressed up as the Count of Monte Cristo passed out alone in front of [a club called] Cielo. Most of my friends couldn't give a shit, but I was concerned. So I tried to get him up and give him some water. But nothing was working. I found his phone and called the first number on it and told them they needed to come and pick up this kid.
"And that kid was James!"
Who is now chugging again, but after two tall-boys and a quart of Colt, the champ can't keep up. Queasoid beats him by a nanosecond and promptly pukes all over the floor, earning himself an upgraded name: Vomitron.
The audience laughs, but James looks annoyed. "I can't believe I lost to a drunk," he snarls.