As a high school student in Michigan City, Ind., I'd often daydream about being glamorous.
As a chubby, book-reading former-Catholic school girl with an ex-park ranger for a mom and a steel worker for a dad, it's fair to say there was nothing in my immediate surroundings that would suggest I'd grow up to wear sparkly dresses, glittering false eyelashes and four-inch designer shoes, all while sipping cocktails in a gorgeous bar filled with pretty people.
But I had faith, buoyed by fashion magazines and Entertainment Tonight.
Then, one night, it happened.
Walking up to the glowing glass cube of modernity that is AZ 88, spotting the conspicuously dressed people inside, marveling at the avant garde art installation behind the bar, I felt like I'd arrived.
The lighting was low and warm. The cocktails were icy and oversized. The servers were sharp in white shirts, black ties and black slacks. The conversations were quick, and punctuated with laughter, air-kissed introductions and exclamations about fabulous footwear.
A DJ perched in a second-story booth played esoteric lounge music, old-school R&B and knowing tracks from New Wave and Brit pop bands.
The clientele ranged from a gussied up couple of 70-somethings at the bar, having just left a show at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, to a table of spiky-haired hipsters debating the merits of Phoenix's First Fridays, to a booth crammed with gay men of a certain age, hashing out this month's Barney's catalog.
I felt so at home here, it's where I brought my parents when they visited from North Carolina. I made them get dressed up, picking out a fuchsia lipstick for my mom and approving my dad's sports coat.
Even after befriending the hosts, managers and a server or two, I was still unable to get a table for 10 in less than two hours that night. I was nearly drunk before we got to our seats. My parents didn't notice, thank God.
I prepared my mom for the ladies room, an easy-to-miss cutout in the wall that one just pushes against, hoping not to look foolish. I told her she'd be surrounded by four walls of mirrors, even inside the stall, and neon pink lighting.
My dad ordered plates of hot wings and sat between two of my gay friends, chatting comfortably about God-knows-what and looking just as in-place as anything else here.
Conversation stopped each time the server gingerly couriered a brimming martini to our table, the glass precariously balanced on a silver tray. Draping a cocktail napkin, he'd then lift the drink and lower the glass at a glacial pace. We barely breathed as we watched this display of grace and eye-hand coordination.
And conversation would pick up again.
That was just one night out of scores that I've spent at this place, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
It's where my friends and I celebrated when a long-lost member of the group visited. It's where, chilled on the patio, I joked that I wanted a wrap, and moments later, the server presented me with one to borrow. It's where I went to see the Christmas tree made of Barbies floating in jars of colored liquid, before going on a Christmas light tour. It's where I met an ex-boyfriend to hash out what went wrong. (My server from that night was always a little cold to me after that. Justifiably.) It's where I cried in the bathroom, after too many gin and tonics and a rumor that the aforementioned ex was gay. (Untrue.) It's where a favorite shaggy-haired waiter will send over a favorite drink, just because. It's where no one minds an hour and a half-wait for a table of six, because the people watching is just that riveting. It's where once, this impossibly chic place, asked the question, in the form of black letters on a wall, "What if the Hokey Pokey isn't what it's all about."
And it's still where we go when all other bars seem to be filled with aggressive bouncers, plastic-y scenesters, inelegant grownups, and disappointingly mixed cocktails.
Here's to another 20 years.