Depressing Thanksgiving

When Craig McCarthy can’t have a Thanksgiving at home with his family, he decides to have the worst Thanksgiving possible. At a strip club.

Photo by libcindy

A year ago, I was working for a marketing firm, promoting a new wireless internet service. This meant traveling to a different city every month, wherever the service was launching, to set up little displays where we showed off the capabilities of the product. It was boring work, but I enjoyed the aspect of living out of hotels and experiencing new places. As Thanksgiving approached, my coworkers and I realized that we wouldn’t have a chance to get back home for the holiday. This got us feeling a little down, and a few of us thought we could piece together a passable celebration of our own.

I had a different opinion on the whole situation. I thought doing a half-assed job of Thanksgiving in a hotel room would just add to the disappointment of not being home. Instead, I proposed going in the other direction: doing the most depressing activities possible for Thanksgiving — dive bars, betting on horse racing, or even better dog racing, Waffle House, strip clubs, frozen turkey dinners.

And thus began the concept of Depressing Thanksgiving. Everyone else looked at me like I was deranged and they had no interest. But I figured going it alone would add to the spirit of the day. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I liked the idea of doing the opposite of what I would have been doing back home.

Unfortunately our company lost funding and we were all laid off before Thanksgiving rolled around, which meant I was forced to spend Thanksgiving among good food and loving family.

A year later, I’ve moved across the country to Portland, Oregon and have a job as an office assistant at a law firm that specializes in divorces. I had to work on the Wednesday and Friday sandwiched around Thanksgiving (not surprisingly, the holidays are a busy time in the divorce world), so again I wouldn’t be able to celebrate at home. So I planned on Depressing Thanksgiving.

I wake up around at 10 a.m. on my friend’s couch, where I’ve been sleeping since I moved out here. I decide to grab a coffee, then walk down to one of my two favorite dive bars so I can watch the Packers/Lions game.

Of course both of the bars I like are closed, and I realize that it was foolish of me to assume that a bar would be open at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving. I’m forced to go to a big, glitzy Dave and Busters-type sports bar, where the atmosphere is far more upbeat than I would have liked. Instead of aging alcoholics, the place is mostly filled with young sports fans looking to grab a beer before going off to their holidays. There is something depressing about listening to people excitedly talk about their more traditional plans while I’m alone, watching a halftime performance by Nickelback.

The game ends up being a disappointing blowout, so I leave a little early to prepare for the next leg of my journey, the main course in my eyes: the strip club.

Portland has the largest number of strip clubs per capita. Even though I live in one of the more pleasant, family orientated neighborhoods of Portland, there are approximately eight strip clubs within a three-mile radius of me. Once again, Portland = ass loads of strip clubs. Learning from my earlier mistakes, I start to make phone calls to see what’s open and, to my surprise, I can’t find a single place that is. It’s disheartening to hear that I may be one of the only people clamoring for strippers in a city that obviously has an appetite for such things. But after several fruitless calls, I get a hold of an establishment called The Safari Club, where an attractive voice assures me they’re open with a tone that says, “Why would you even think we’d be closed?”

When I tell the few friends I know that I’m going to The Safari Club for Depressing Thanksgiving, I get the same reaction from each person: “Wow, that is depressing.”

And indeed, the location is not one of the more picturesque spots of Portland. It is off of a major road, surrounded by a Motel 6, a bowling alley, a McDonald’s, and two more strip clubs that happen to be closed. The three clubs form what people call the Bermuda Triangle.

The inside is predictably dark with an eerie blue glow emanating from the several aquariums placed strategically throughout the floor. Most of tanks are empty and only serve as mood lighting, and to obscure the view from one room to another. There is a bar, a main stage with a large lounge around it, a second smaller stage, and several curtained-off “private rooms.” Judging by size of the place and the expansive, empty parking lot, I imagine that the club holds several hundred people on busy nights. But for now, it consists of me, an attractive female bartender, two middle-aged Indian guys, and the one dancer who is covered up and checking her phone.

Cheerily, the bartender greets me as I sit down at the bar and order a beer and the six-dollar ribeye with fries special. Another quirk of Portland strip clubs is that they are so numerous that food and drink prices have to be reasonable. There is a strip club around here that is known for a high quality, five-dollar steak, and it seems that you can usually get a cheap beer for two or three bucks.

The aquarium behind the bar actually contains a fish and I ask the bartender what kind it is.

“Oh that. It’s a barracuda. Unfortunately she’s just been widowed. She devoured her boyfriend last week, so she’s been feeling a little sad ever since.”

I ask if it happened while the club was open.

“No, we came in one morning to see the skeleton and chunks of flesh.”

Midway through my meal, the lone dancer saddles up next to me and strikes up a conversation. She is blonde, petite, and looks to be in her early-twenties. She is wearing high heels, a white bikini, and some sort of thin silk wrap. She is attractive in a way that is different from most strippers, in that her proportions are fairly human.

Still being a bit of a strip club novice (I swear I am), I have a tough differentiating between regular interaction and stripper interaction. The bedroom eyes, the foot contact, the intense fascination with everything I have to say even when my mouth is full of steak — I have to keep reminding myself that this is all an act. I ask her questions about herself to be polite, but I wonder how much she likes talking about herself while she’s in character. Her stage name is Sapphire (or Gemini or something) and she is studying art at Portland Community College, hoping to get some of her stuff into galleries. After work she’s going to camp out at the mall for a midnight Black Friday sale. The whole time she’s keeping one eye on my plate to see if I’m finished, so when I swallow my last sauce-drenched bite, I somewhat abruptly end the conversation and say that I’m ready to sit at the stage. I’m worried that this is rude.

I’m the only one sitting at the stage, since the Indian guys are at the video slots. This works out incredibly well for me because I’m pretty much able to get an extended private dance for a few dollars. Once her three songs are done, she asks me if I want to go to a private room. I apologize and say that I find her very sexy but I don’t have a lot of money. She smiles politely and says she understands, that she had to ask, and puts her clothes back on. A few moments later, I see her walk back to the Indian fellows, who are happy to see her. They ask for some dances in the private rooms.

I’m now a little buzzed on the combination of beer and glimpses of T&A. Though I’m not very hungry, I decide that now is the time for my Depressing Thanksgiving frozen turkey dinner.

I stop by a local convenience store and look for the telltale blue box of Hungry Man, but they only have red, Banquet-brand ones. I consider undercooking the dinner to maximize the depression factor, but looking at the box and its steaming piles of turkey atop of stuffing and mashed potatoes has given me the nostalgia pangs for a well-cooked turkey meal.

Back at home, I rip the partitioned plate from its box, shove the contents into the microwave, and set the timer for twenty seconds over the recommended time. Grabbing a beer, I start to salivate over the upcoming feast. I toast a piece of bread to go with the meal. After an eternity, the timer dings, I peel back the plastic, generously season each square of turkey, potatoes, peas, and stuffing, and place a bit of each into my first forkful.

And goddamn if this is not the blandest tasting pile of cardboard I have ever shoveled into my mouth. The only sensation that differentiates between food items is texture. It’s not only the taste, but Banquet apparently tries to distinguish itself from Hungry Man by choosing portions that would not satiate a hungry man. I search for minutes around the 3”x3” turkey area for lost slices.

For the first time all day real depression starts to creep in, not the false, ironic depression that I had manufactured for the sake of a funny story. Every bite of my Banquet dinner reminds me how delicious my family’s food is and how it might be a long time before I taste it again.

I try and wash away the taste by going to a bar to play the video slots (horse racing and dog racing ends up being too tall an order to locate). After playing a few games, I recognize that I’m merely going through the motions. I resign to sitting at the bar and watching the 49ers game. Anybody who truly was experiencing a Depressing Thanksgiving (and there are plenty here in Portland, where there is a huge homeless population) would do anything to avoid it. So I try and forget the day by concentrating on a game I have no interest in.

Half an hour later, I receive a call from some friends who were having a late-night Thanksgiving meal of their own. I happily accept the invitation. I bring over what I deem traditional Depressing Thanksgiving presents of boxed wine and scratch tickets (with the only caveat being that if anybody won big, they weren’t allowed to share their winnings with anyone else).

Telling people about Depressing Thanksgiving made me forget how depressing it was. Most thought it was funny; some were even jealous. Even I myself don’t regret the day and recall it as a fun experiment.

Seeing that I’ll probably be stuck in a similar situation for Christmas, friends have asked me if I have similar plans. Though I suppose part of me wants to tempt fate once more (as long as I avoid inferior food products), I don’t think I could handle two Depressing holidays within a month. At that point, I’d just become a guy who drinks heavily and goes to strip clubs during holidays. And that conclusion is just far too depressing.

Photo by libcindy

Craig McCarthy was a writer an editor for Dickinson's alternative monthly, the square, and has written reviews for the Philadelphia Film Society.