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Last call, 2:45 a.m., Saturday night in the District.

“That’s it, it’s over,” screams the bartender at Cities over the blaring techno-pop as he pours the final rum-and-Coke of the evening. Ignoring the “come on, one more” pleas, he commands the stragglers to drink up. When all else fails, he switches on the searing overhead lights, revealing beer-sodden floors littered with smoldering cigarette butts and discarded bottles.

The doors open and drunks spill out onto the streets of Adams Morgan. Most fumble for their car keys, headed for a bleary ride home.

But a select few have other plans.

While Washington’s white-collar drones sleep, a secret after-hours subculture thrives in the city. A knock on the right door can lead to a place where $5 beers and $6 drinks sell as fast as bartenders can pour them, quaffed in a desperate attempt to postpone the inevitable letdown that comes with daylight.

With a healthy flow of nocturnal customers, a few District clubs have found that the money earned running a seedy late-night establishment outweighs the risks and penalties of being caught operating an illegal enterprise. These clubs are understandably hard to find. But with determination, you can find one raging almost every night of the week, out of sight of police officials and the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.

“I don’t think we know of a place that routinely serves after hours,” says Janet McCormick, an ABC spokesperson.

District bars and restaurants are permitted to serve alcoholic drinks until 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, according to Paul Walters, a program manager for ABC. Those caught serving later can face a fine from $500 to $5,000, or a license suspension from one to 10 days. An establishment that regularly violates the law can have its license revoked, Walters says.

ABC officials admit they rarely conduct on-site inspections; instead, they rely on callers to provide tips about illegal enterprises. Not surprisingly, their phone never rings.

“These places don’t exist for us in terms of people calling and telling us about them,” acknowledges Walters.

But they’re well-known to people in the alcohol-serving business. In particular, bartenders and waitstaff tend to be late-night regulars, since their free time begins when the bars close. The locations of the newest or hottest clubs are passed along by word of mouth. They’re notoriously short-lived, though, since their popularity inevitably attracts police raids and busts—which only heightens their allure for many patrons. Eventually the heat becomes too much, and the clubs are forced to close or move.

After one popular U Street club moved, its former location became a known after-hours hangout. The new club that took over tried at first to break even during regular hours, but eventually turned to the intoxicated freaks of the night to stay afloat. It went through the usual boom-and-bust cycle, including a slew of name changes, before closing its doors for good. The site is now home to an Ethiopian restaurant.

The old “Vault” on the F Street strip downtown used to be known for its late-night service. According to former employees, the club gave up its risky business after a Memorial Day raid last summer.

“It was fun. It was cool, but now it’s over and we don’t like to talk about it,” said a former Vault bouncer, now manning the door at a downtown club called “Babylon.”

“There’s no more after-hours in the District,” declared another burly Babylon doorman, dressed all in black and sporting two gold hoop earrings. “Not since they closed the Vault.”

In fact, just the opposite is true. In certain parts of town, “last call” heralds the start of the night’s adventure. With black screens drawn tightly over their windows, after-hours clubs may appear to be deserted. But drop the right person’s name, or say the right password, and you can join a crowd bent on partying until sunrise.

With a friend in tow, I latched onto a crowd like that one recent Saturday night as it took a sharp turn into a dark Adams Morgan alley reeking of fish and other garbage from nearby restaurants. We huddled together near a door in the dim light, passing the time by watching guinea-pig-size rats scurry by.

“Is the after-hours going tonight?” asked a passer-by who joined the line without waiting for an answer. As if on cue, a short Hispanic man appeared who we later came to know as Adams Morgan’s after-hours maitre d’. He pulled a long skeleton key from his pocket and unlocked a medieval-looking iron gate set into the side of the building, revealing an unlit brick passageway—the portal to tonight’s intrigue.

“OK, now does everybody have their cards?” he asked. Everyone looked perplexed. “Your cards? I need to see your cards,” he insisted.

Annoyed, he ducked behind the gate and explained to the group—quietly, so that two Hispanic youths in the rear couldn’t hear—that the next time he asked for cards, we were to respond affirmatively. Even though he’s Hispanic, the maitre d’ explained, he forbids his own kind from entering because they “start fights and cause trouble.”

As it turned out, this was only one of three after-hours bars with entrances off the alley. Another caters to a Latin crowd, while the third draws an upscale group with a taste for cocaine. Our host said he just wanted to make sure everyone stayed with their respective “kind.”

When the card charade failed to lose the Hispanics, the maitre d’ told everyone to leave and return in 10 minutes. When we did, there was no sign of the two youths. Presumably, the maitre d’ had told them a different story—not an unusual phenomenon in the late-night scene.

We slipped into the pitch-black passage, feeling our way to a door. We pushed it open, walked past a grungy bathroom that hadn’t seen disinfectant in some time, and found ourselves in a dark bar. A couple of waitresses feverishly prepared for the late crowd’s arrival, changing the decor from that of a daytime restaurant to a late-night bar. But the crowd certainly had not come in search of plush surroundings or a state-of-the-art sound system. The makeshift dance floor and jukebox salsa music was enough to draw an exuberant response from these urbanites.

By now it was 3:30 a.m., and the draw of alcohol had brought together a strange brew of about a dozen nocturnal people, all bent on delaying the inevitable hangover. Punks with shaved heads mixed with yuppie couples. Even the beleaguered Hispanic kitchen workers, whom the maitre d’ had worked so hard to keep out, showed up and melted into the scene.

The odd grouping alarmed my companion. After we staked out stools at the bar, he asked me to “listen in and make sure no one’s planning to kill us.”

Yet the danger was clearly part of the attraction for this crowd, which had forsaken the safety of a warm bed to explore dank alleys. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that you don’t want to go home,” explained a 27-year-old lobbyist who said her name was Michelle. “D.C. is an early town, not like New York or Chicago, and it has a big young crowd.”

It was a relatively slow night for this bar, we learned, but the light turnout by no means lessened the illicit allure. As we settled in, we heard one man talk about how he had tried to leave, only to find the iron gate locked. This fire code violation didn’t seem to disturb him; he took advantage of the delay by ordering another Corona. We hung in for several more beers and tequila shots (while a drunken couple did their interpretation of the movie Dirty Dancing) before calling it a night.

It was about 4:30 a.m. when the maitre d’ unlocked the gate and we made our way out of the rat-infested alley. Our timing turned out to be propitious; when I ran into Michelle a few days later, she said the police had raided the club and closed it down shortly after our departure.

Indeed, when I saw the maitre d’ again the following Saturday night, things were not going so well. He was closing early—about 4:30 a.m. Despondently, he confirmed that the bar had been raided.

“It’s nothing,” he said as he walked patrons to their cars. “We just have to go to court about it.”

After that, I never saw him inside the club again. He was always in the alley, positioned as a lookout next to a pay phone.

At 2:30 a.m. the following Wednesday, we found ourselves making that zombie stumble down the alley again. By now we were considered regulars, and after a perfunctory kiss on the cheek from the maitre d’—still perched by the phone—we were escorted to the back door.

An ogre unlocked the gate, leaving us alone to feel our way to the door. Inside, Madonna’s “Into the Groove” blared from the jukebox. On a television on top of the bar, Dionne Warwick’s psychic infomercial silently mesmerized a few patrons. It was early; there were only 10 partygoers around the bar, including a guy called Curtis, who was out cold.

Curtis was with Kang, a fellow bartender from the nightclub Hell, and Mike, a newspaper deliveryman. They had left the Fifth Column, they said, then crawled to Adams Morgan to keep the late-night fest going.

While Curtis slept, Mike tried his luck picking up the bartender, Maria, a young Mexican woman wearing a see-through black-lace top revealing her black bra. The two were a complete mismatch; Mike was severely inebriated, and Maria didn’t understand English. The pickup scene was like something out of a bad Helen Keller movie.

By the time Mike was desperately scribbling his number on a napkin for Maria, Curtis was awake and bolting out of the bar, gagging. He returned within minutes, looking better and assuring us that he had just “made a deposit.”

“He’s with us, we’ll take care of him,” Kang said to the perturbed bar employees as Curtis collapsed again. “We won’t let him sleep here on your bar.”

Kang confided that, like many bartenders, he rarely has the opportunity to hang out during normal hours, so he regularly frequents the late-night clubs. But this night, he had another agenda.

“We wanted to make Curtis sleep on the bar and we did,” Kang announced triumphantly. “It’s like, why not? We don’t have nothing to do, until like fucking noon tomorrow.

Then, in a classic drunken mood swing, he changed the conversation to beating up his friend. “You guys want to get on that? Kicking Curtis’ ass?” he asked invitingly. “Then we’ll tell him a good story about how he got jumped by Mexicans.”

We agreed, just to see what would happen. But Kang rescinded the offer when Curtis awoke and attempted to light a cigarette.

Around 3 a.m., the place livened up when several groups of clubgoers suddenly piled in and took over various tables. A man named Michael fed an endless supply of dollars into the jukebox, where the unwelcome choices ranged from Spanish serenades to Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” One man who called himself “Six-Ten” (a reference to his colossal height) made the rounds with a friend who professed to be a reggae singer from Jamaica.

The crowd thinned out about an hour later, and the employees closed the bar. We finished our beers and made our way into the alley, where we encountered a party crowd in full swing, still looking for action.

“Man, tell them to open up,” pleaded one fellow. “Is my man Six-Ten in there?” He attacked the gate as if he could rip it open with his bare hands; when we looked back, he was still pounding on it, to no avail.

With the maitre d’s club closed, we decided to check out the other choices along the alley. A jittery, wide-eyed bunch was banging on the back door of another bar, so we joined them.

“You want coke? This is the place for it,” said a bouncy Argentine suffering from cocaine-induced Attention Deficit Disorder. “But don’t show them your money first, or they will shoot you. Just get your drugs and get out.”

These comforting words did nothing to deter the masses. When the door opened, the bouncer decided he was in no mood to deal with such a large crowd, and pronounced the club closed.

“We’re not open,” he barked—a statement that, loosely translated in late-night jargon, usually means, “Chill out and come back in a little while and maybe you’ll get in.”

I spotted the face of a former Capitol Hill co-worker, which momentarily set me at ease. But that changed when he nervously asked if I liked “blow,” and pointed to his shirt pocket. He mouthed his address and walked away, expecting me to follow.

I looked for an escape and noticed a quiet crowd gathering at another back door. We joined them and within seconds were swept inside a Latin club. Just as quickly as we entered, the door was closed and locked behind us. We made our way through a kitchen to an unlit bar crowded with perhaps 50 or 60 people.

The sudden influx of patrons created a tense atmosphere. Men fought over doing coke in the bathroom until an employee finally stood guard by the bathroom door, allowing only one person in at a time. Meanwhile, we had settled in at the bar next to a man named Darryl, who kept an anxious eye on four “undesirables” that had come in with our group. Within minutes, a seasoned bouncer escorted the four men out, a move that Darryl assured us drastically lessened our chances of witnessing a gun or knife battle.

We drank our $5 Coronas as Darryl told us of his plans to open an upscale after-hours club downtown. The money, he said, was too good to pass up. “This place is normally dead during the week, and look at it now,” he said, gesturing at the packed scene.

On Sunday and Thursday nights, the after-hours scene shifts to Georgetown. The party-hearty crowd usually starts at the Back Alley, known on other nights as “Mr. Day’s,” then moves on to G-town, where another bar reopens its doors after 2 a.m.

By the time we reached the Georgetown club on Easter Sunday, it was well past 2:30 a.m. While the swells in Washington’s toniest neighborhood were in bed dreaming about another work week, a few late-night freaks were on the streets looking for action. But besides me and my friend, only three other restless creatures stood at the door. The pathetic showing was enough for a jittery bartender to authoritatively declare, “We’re not going to open tonight, so go home.”

This pronouncement didn’t discourage our little party. “Oh, they’ll open,” said a red-haired man with tattooed arms. “They’re just waiting for more people. Let’s stick around.”

We passed the time by arguing whether to blame Easter Sunday or the District’s wimp factor for the low turnout. The three guys, exhausted from drinking, crashed on the patio outside the bar. But reclining on a cold brick floor quickly aggravated the redhead’s friends, Gene and Tim.

“Man, we passed up some dates to head over here,” said Gene, who, it turned out, was just your average off-duty police officer looking to party.

“Gene, lend me your gun and badge and I’ll go in and pretend it’s a raid,” said Tim, who kept asking me if I’d like to get naked and wrap myself in his coat. When I mentioned I’d like to take a photograph, Gene obligingly stripped to his underwear and struck a pose reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, brandishing not his finger but his service weapon in the air.

By 2:45, with my buzz fading and Tim looking less and less appealing, I decided to abandon the idea of getting another beer and head home. Gene, Tim, and the redhead left as well, but not before extending one last offer to come sit with them in the cop car.

The next time I tried the club in Georgetown, I was too eager and it showed. By arriving right at 2 a.m., I committed a serious after-hours faux pas that the doorkeepers did not let me forget.

“Can’t you see I’m trying to clear the place out?” demanded a frazzled bartender.

When I returned 45 minutes later, the place was transformed. Black screens covered the windows, and I could see the bar was crowded. But my earlier mistake had set the bouncer on edge. Even after I dropped the prescribed person’s name, he refused to let me in.

“I only let in people I know,” said the man, who went by the name of “Danny.”

A few days later, I watched as a steady stream of leather-clad clubbers carrying electric guitars and a drum set headed down the Georgetown walk for the club. Danny, who was standing out in the street, casually told me he was just having some people come by to visit his apartment.

By now, I was too weary to argue. I had gone in search of the glamorous nightlife—models rubbing shoulders with celebrities, DJs spinning music for all-night dance parties, high-rollers laying down $100 bets on plush red-velvet roulette tables. Something out of Alphabet City in New York, where notorious late-night venues seethe with activity until well past sunrise. What I found were seedy restaurants with dirty bars serving overpriced drinks. Instead of rubbing elbows with the elite, I found low-life cops and coke fiends.

And the partying that passed for research had begun to take its toll. One of the friends who accompanied me was picked up for drunk driving; my former Hill co-worker was unemployed and nursing a newfound lust for coke. After spending several weeks and a small fortune drinking with the dregs of society, I decided to forgo partying…at least until next weekend.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jack Hornady.