Humberto pushes open the door to the Make-Out Room at 9:03 p.m. and assumes his position on 22nd Street. He looks left toward Bartlett, then right toward Mission Street.
“Feliz Año Nuevo,” he says to a friend walking by. And then he waits.
Inside, a slowly rotating silver disco ball hanging from the ceiling tosses frisbees of light around an empty dance floor. Nine red and gold paper Happy New Year hats sit delicately on the bar among white leis, glittered tiaras, strands of plastic beads and party horns. The bartender and her barback cut limes and stock glasses.
They have 11 minutes before the first guest arrives, 11 minutes to enjoy the vintage jazz. The 11 minutes end too soon.
“Oh my God, I’m so excited,” says the first partyer of the night. Her black high heels click on the wood floor and her silver miniskirt shimmers like the tinsel above. She’s followed by a girl in a skirt just as short, and two guys ready to cater to her.
The girls squeal as they sift through party favors, and the guys head to the bar. In less than three minutes, the girls have taken off their coats, put on paper tiaras and posed by the Christmas tree. The guys are called over to take photos. The girls flip their hair, giggle and strike poses until the guys give up.
One of tonight’s DJs, El Kool Kyle (of El Superritmo), enters in a straw hat, followed by a guy dragging a suitcase full of equipment. He says hello to the bartender, grabs the first party horn of the night, blows it. “Hark, the herald angel sings,” he says dryly.
He heads to the stage at the back of the bar, ready to throw down the best cumbia, dancehall, reggaeton, salsa, soul, hip-hop, funk, mambo, electro, disco and “whatever else gets them movin’.”
Another bartender arrives. “We’re off to a slow start,” she says to Doran, the barback. “We’ve got plenty of party hats, though.”
“We need heads for the hats,” he says.
But he’s not worried. This is a nightcap destination, he says. People come and stay for the night.
For now, he has time to talk. His New Year’s resolution is to be less aggravated when he drives his ’91 Corolla around the city. People don’t use their blinkers, he says. All it takes is lifting your hand. “I’ve flipped the bird a couple times,” he says. “So I’m going to try to go to a happy place when I encounter situations like that.”
The DJs have started spinning, and loud, quick rhythms zoom toward the street through the open door.
Two middle-aged men stop and listen. “What’s going on here tonight?” one of them asks Humberto. Latin American dance music, he says. “It’s always a good party.” He knows, because he’s been working the door here for El Superritmo nearly every Saturday night for the last three years.
“How much?” they ask.
“Twenty dollar cover.”
“Wow, 20 dollars,” one of them says, eyebrows raised.
“A lot of dancing, ” Humberto says. “A lot of girls.”
The sales pitch fails.
Three girls in black miniskirts and heels approach him. Without thinking twice, they hand him the money. They flirt in Spanish as they roll up their sleeves and turn their right wrists to the sky. Stamp, stamp, stamp.
The worst part of the job is telling people to leave at the end of the night. He hates doing it. They’re having such a good time.
Two young guys wander up and debate whether or not to go inside.
They decide yes, but cringe as they hand over the money.
Humberto doesn’t mind working the door tonight. It’ll keep him from partying like he did last year in his hometown of Mexico City. “It took me a lot of days to recover from that party.”
New Year’s resolutions are silly, he says. Very few people actually do what they say they’re going to do. “I wanted to learn how to roll joints,” he says. A friend gave him a book on how to do it, but he didn’t get around to practicing. “And now it’s the last hour of the year and I realize I didn’t fulfill the goal.”
This year he wants to run a 10k race. He should push himself to do 20k, but you know, hold your horses.
“I will have to learn how to roll a joint by then, so I can celebrate,” he says.
Back inside, unmet resolutions don’t stop the celebration. The dance floor is heating up. Four hats are left on the bar. The two young guys sit facing each other at a small table, and between sips of beer they take turns blowing party horns at each other.
Francisco comes here a lot. He likes the ladies, the music, the dancing. He’s dancing with a woman much taller than he is, and he’s way ahead of the beat. She looks down at him and smiles. Every woman who dances with him looks down at him and smiles. When the song is over, he waltzes over to the bar and asks another woman to dance.
“No thank you,” she says.
“I’ll wait for you,” he promises. He places a paper tiara on her head, steps back to admire it, and says, “It’s a princess lady.”
It’s 10:30 p.m. The bartenders mix cosmos, Stoli crans and lemon drops for girls in tight dresses. The guys stand back and watch the way the light scurries across bare shoulders.
By 10:50 p.m., the last hat has been snatched up and the path to the dance floor is jammed. Cody slips through a small opening to grab two beers. As 2011 slips away, he has no regrets. He got into his dream law school and just finished the first semester. “I’m actually disappointed to see 2011 end,” he says. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Amber is glad it’s over. She hates to say it, but it’s been a pretty bad year. She’s spent most of it trying to recover from the bad economy.
Ramon stands by himself at the bar, drinking a can of Corona. The year was good and bad. Good because he got a job working construction. Bad because now he’s been alone for three years. He wishes he had a girlfriend.
Francisco returns to the bar, sweating, and once more asks the girl to dance.
“I can’t,” she says.
“But I love you,” he replies.
“At midnight, I’ll dance with you,” she promises.
The first make-out of the night happens at 11:14 p.m. A thin blonde has her back against the bar. Her boyfriend is pressed up against her. After the first kiss, he kisses her gently on the lips every time she says something.
Armando stands alone and eyes the dance floor. He works every day selling his spray-painted pictures to tourists on Pier 39. Except for the rainy days, it’s been a pretty good year. He gets $10 to $20 a pop for pictures of Marilyn Monroe, the 49ers logo and Bob Marley. 2012 will be better, he says, because he’s going to start screen printing his work on T-shirts.
Seth, the “coat check girl,” sits in the back corner of the room by himself, wearing a navy blue coat with a “Walmart Tire and Lube Express” patch on it. His feet rest on a keg of beer. There are 15 minutes left in the year. It’s been a good one. He got his first job driving a taxi, and he loves it. “You meet every walk of life,” he says. When he’s done here, he’ll jump in his cab and work until tomorrow afternoon.
“It was too short,” he says of 2011.
Outside on the sidewalk, Wilson, 19, cooks hot dogs and onions on a small grill in front of the bar. He lives in Oakland, but he’s here every Friday and Saturday night. Nobody wants a hot dog now, but he’s staying anyway; he knows the rhythm of the night.
Back inside, the Make-Out Room gets ready for the countdown. The DJs spin a fast-paced “Billie Jean.” It’s 11:57 p.m. The girl Francisco asked to dance is dancing with somebody else. He puts his hands up. She shrugs her shoulders.
“It’s the Make-Out Rooooooom, everybody,” says one of the DJs. They know. As 2011 becomes 2012, they’re making out all over the place. The first song of the New Year is Prince’s “Kiss,” which inspires more making out.
There’s no balloon drop at midnight as advertised, but there’s free champagne, so nobody seems to care.
It doesn’t take long for mud and flattened party horns and broken hats to cover the floor. The booths empty out and people spill onto the stage to dance in front of the DJ station. Pitchers of beer have replaced fruity cocktails.
“I hate drinking alone,” says a guy to a girl as he pushes a pint glass her way. “Happy New Year.”
Another guy writes “2012 DRAMA FREE” on a piece of paper. He just broke up with his girlfriend. He takes a gulp of beer and writes “SINGLE” in big letters.
It’s 1:28 a.m. “Are you ready to make some noise?” the DJs ask.
Not really. People can hardly stand up. Hips aren’t swaying like they were three hours ago. Girls are falling into guys. Eyes are half-closed. Makeup is smeared. The bar is drenched with beer. A girl falls on the dance floor and a guy clutching the bar loses his balance. The bartenders signal “no more drinks.”
At 1:44 a.m., the lights come on. The DJs don’t stop. They haven’t stopped all night. “It’s time to go, but I’m gonna play one more song,” one of them says. People keep dancing.
Two minutes later, a second set of lights comes on. The music stops. The bartenders scramble to collect stacks of dirty glasses. It’s Humberto’s least favorite part of the night. “Alright, guys,” he says. “We love you, but we need you to go.”
Outside, the party has just begun for Wilson. The grill sizzles and the hungry swarm. He was never worried about spending New Year’s alone.