There I was, standing in an abandoned-warehouse-turned-underground-nightclub that consisted only of a rectangular island bar and corner stage that was taller than me. On that stage was a skinny guy in all black standing behind a DJ stand, a flurry of strobe lights, and sub-woofers so big they had to secure the bottles at the bar so they wouldn’t fall off the shelves.
I looked at my watch. 5:13 a.m. At this point, there were about 20 people left: myself, Kevin and Daniel, and an assortment of locals standing awkwardly far away from each other doing a dance I can only describe as running man meets vicious bee attack. Everyone was wearing tight black t-shirts and jeans with the occasional tight black button down thrown in; they like to mix things up every once in a while. Being the cultural chameleon that I am, I was wearing a plaid button down with a Columbia fleece vest, khaki pants and some blue vans. Blended right in.
I was tired and wanted to go home, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you never leave a friend behind. I’d stuck with Kevin and Daniel all night, and I wasn’t about to leave them now.
Like a Swedish Maverick and Goose, Kevin had the looks and charisma and Daniel was his trusty sidekick, always there to entertain the fat friend. I had met them earlier that evening (which was technically yesterday) on the hostel courtyard ripping off-brand cigarettes and sharing a pitcher of rakija (Serbian moonshine), so becoming friends with them wasn’t hard. They told me they were planning on hitting the notorious Belgrade boathouse nightclubs in search of some “extra-curricular” activities that night, and asked if I wanted to join. My immediate thought response was something to this effect:
“I think these dudes are trying to fuck me tonight. Do I put off that type of vibe? Have I always put off this vibe? Do people think I’m gay? Am I gay? That guy at the burger place was definitely gay. Fuck, now I’m hungry. Is it weird that I’m hungry? Am I gay?”
But luckily, cooler heads prevailed and I came to my senses when Kevin pulled out a small bag of white powder. “Ooh, those kind of extra-curricular. Thank God, I don’t know how I would have told my girlfriend that I don’t have that I’m gay.”
Thinking that was just your run-of-the-mill nose candy, I happily agreed. But when we went into the game room and divided up some lines, Kevin looked at me and asked, “Have you ever done speed before?”
My heart dropped. Of course I had never done speed before. Who does speed? Wasn’t speed the same thing as meth? I like having a full set of teeth and had already bought into the idea of marrying someone outside my family, so of course I hadn’t done speed before.
Maybe it was the reassurance from Kevin that the feeling could be compared to taking a double dose of Adderall. Maybe it was the sweet honey flavored liquid confidence flowing through my blood stream that gave me some much-needed liquid confidence. Maybe it was the fact that I took a 4-hour bus to a 12-hour train where no one spoke English and the “no-smoking” signs were just mere suggestions to get to Belgrade, which was a feat in itself, and, well, if I could survive that, a little amphetamine won’t take me down. As the saying goes, “get busy living or get busy dying,” and since this qualified for both categories, I threw my apprehensions out the window and went for it.
I looked at my watch. 1:24 a.m. How was it already that late? Where did the time go? Is this why they call it speed? Last time I check it was 11:10 p.m. Well, actually, it was 23:10, but I’m not here to condescend. The night so far had been somewhat of a blur, but from what I remember, Kevin, Daniel and I were sitting at a table working on a second pitcher of Rakija with a cute hostel worker, a quaint Chinese guy, two other Americans, and Luis Santiago Manuel Hidalgo, the smoothest talking man to ever come out of Mexico city. I think this guy had a magnet embedded in him that actually attracted vagina. In a normal situation, I’d be playing second fiddle to son of the Dos Equis man, but like the 2001 Barry Bonds, I had some juice behind my game. Jokes flowed out of me smoother than the morning after a Chipotle eating contest. I was sharp, witty, and besides the darting eyesight and persistent jitters, I was feeling great. However, before I knew it, we were on the move ready to go to our next destination: the boathouse nightclubs.
Since I’m going to assume that not too many of you are familiar with the Belgrade nightlife scene, I’ll try to paint a picture. Imagine you and your buddies are feeling crazy and decided to rent out a houseboat to have a degenerative weekend out on the river or lake. Except in this scenario, your buddies are drugged up Serbs and the houseboat is loaded with a ridiculously deafening speaker-system blasting “turbo-folk,” a genre unique to Serbia that takes traditional Serbian folk music and puts it to a ridiculous techno beat, a light show worthy of the Super Bowl halftime show, and enough booze and cigarettes to survive a NATO airstrike. Now picture this scene going off seven nights a week until 6 a.m.
At this point, we had lost the Chinese guy, both other Americans, and the hostel worker (I’ll miss you Danijela), leaving just Kevin, Daniel, myself, and Rico Suave. We get to the club around 2 a.m, which is somehow considered early. We cross the bridge connecting East and West Belgrade in pouring rain and get to the line of boathouse nightclubs, our veins coursing with amphetamine, honey-flavored distilled liquor, and libido-fueled adrenaline in search for whatever shenanigans the night has to offer.
We get inside the club and start dancing, doing our best to be as inconspicuous as a group consisting of the Swedish Seinfeld and Constanzo, an American in classic frattire, and Fabio. I wanted to find myself a lovely lady to disappoint, but I very soon found out that Serbian women aren’t too fond of American guys — or Americans in general — and it’s not just women, the men don’t like us either…probably because we’ll take their women, amirite?! (I wasn’t right). It also didn’t help that I was two months into my study abroad semester in Croatia, and saying that I was an American living in Croatia to a Serb would be the equivalent of rocking the U in South Bend in the ’80s, but instead of playing unapologetic smash-mouth football, they played deeply-held ethnic resentment as a result of a horrific civil war. Anyway, finding a lady was proving harder than expected — except for Hidalgo. He was doing fine.
Seeing that Kevin and Daniel were having similar luck, or lack thereof, we resorted back to our original plan: bolstering our party résumés with some extra curriculars. The speed was starting to wear off, exposing the scene for what it really was: a crowded, sweaty, dirty boat packed with so much intoxicants it should come with a surgeon general’s warning. However, if we were going to enjoy the rest of our night, we would need something else, so Kevin started asking around for ecstasy, a drug that seemed to be a prerequisite for the Belgrade night scene, as it was the only thing that made turbo-folk enjoyable to listen to. Surely, it would be easy to find, right? Wrong. The only ecstasy that was seemingly on that boat was coursing through the veins of the surrounding Serbs. But, while no one had any handy, they all gave us the same suggestion: Go to “The Drugstore,” an aptly named underground nightclub on the outskirts of town. While every instinct in my body told me “hey, you’ve had your fun; now might be a good time to pack it in for the night,” every instinct except one, which was telling me “DRUGS,” which in the moment was a much more compelling argument. So, at 3:30 a.m, Kevin, Daniel and I hopped into a cab and headed to the drugstore (Dos Equis Man was off riding shirtless on a stallion on his way to an orgy with every supermodel in Serbia, I imagine). Fuck.
This brings me back to the beginning of the story.
To our dismay, by the time we got to The Drugstore, the pharmacists were all out of goodies, leaving us nothing to do but just drink and dance awkwardly to the soundtrack of the long-lost Transformers sex tape. It was past 5 a.m. and the store closes in an hour, so doing any type of drug at this point would be a waste, right? Wrong. We’re men of principle, determined to find what we set out for. So with the morning sun on the horizon, our saving grace entered the club in the form of a spazzy Serbian teenager named Aleksander, who looked like he just escaped middle school picture day, wearing a striped polo, floodwater jeans, New Balances, and a ratty sweatshirt tied around his waist. But for whatever reason, we trusted him when he told us he could get us some drugs no problem.
We waited and waited and waited until 6 a.m when the lights came on and the club closed. This came as a great relief to me because I was so deliriously exhausted from the night that I could barely form a sentence. It was time to go back to the hostel and get some much-needed rest after undoubtedly the craziest night on my life. Wrong again. Aleksander had other plans. He told us that if we really want to have a good time, we should come with him to an “after-party” nightclub, which is open until 10 a.m.
It’s hard to explain what was going through my mind at this point. How can anyone would still want to party? Do people sleep here? Do they work? I was having an existential case of the Sunday Scaries, and needless to say, the idea of getting to a nightclub — well, “morningclub” I guess now, at 6 a.m sounded too ridiculous to be true. I looked over to Kevin and Daniel, expecting them to be as horrified as me, but to my amazement, they seemed unfazed by this proposition. Having already sealed my fate by committing to stick with them no matter what, I reluctantly got in the cab with them and headed off. My exhaustion and frustration must have been obvious, because Kevin leans over and whispers to me, “Don’t worry, if this kid leads us the wrong way, we’re going to beat the fuck out of him”… and just like that all my anxiety magically melted away! Those Swedes sure know how to comfort a guy.
The four of us get dropped off in the city and Aleksander begins to lead us through a network of decrepit, graffiti-filled alleyways of Belgrade. From a distance, we hear the all-too-familiar sound of turbo-folk and the smell of stale cigarettes and disappointed mothers. It’s about 7 a.m and the morning sun is fully out, adding to the only intensifying hangover that’s been building for the last hour. We duck into an alley and head up a stair set to the entrance of the after party, but not before Aleksander informs us that this place may or may not be run by the Serbian Mafia. But not to worry, he knows a guy, so the two Swedes and an American should be welcomed in with open arms. Kevin and Daniel are now getting agitated with this fruitless goose hunt we’ve been on, and agree to just get the drugs, save them for the next night and leave as fast as possible.
We got in the club, and to our absolute surprise, Aleksander was right: The mobsters loved us. They had never talked with an American before, and were so amazed that we had gotten as far as we did that night. After a few rounds of rakija shots, Aleksander directed us to the bathroom, where him and a few friends were waiting for us with a small baggie of speed. Finally, after a night of making new friends, losing new friends, heavy drinking, recreational drug use, boathouse nightclubs, underground nightclubs, and after party mafia-run morningclubs, we found what we were looking for. We thanked the mobsters, did a courtesy line with them, and walked back to our hostel with our hearts full of pride and an irregular beating pattern. We arrived back at our hostel at 9:30 a.m., finally putting the lid on the craziest night of my life by far and leaving me with a story that I will somewhat remember forever. Please don’t tell my mom about this..