But there's something more potent in the air -- the unmistakable crackle of sexual anticipation.
Soon, they start to arrive: hot young girls and trendy pretty boys. They are pop punkers and indie rockers and others from subcultures yet to be named. At the door, they check their coats, their inhibitions, and their pants.
One boy wears a sports jacket. Below the waist are long, hairy legs and an impossible-to-hide bulge in his black Jockey shorts. An older woman grabs him by the lapels and tells him he is so fucking hot.
A girl with dyed black hair wears a tight T-shirt and panties. Metal fans from a concert at the adjoining Peabody's encounter her on the way to the bathroom and stare in slack-jawed wonderment at her butt.
"What the fuck is going on here?" asks one bemused patron.
What's going on is an Underwear Dance Party, and it's quickly becoming one of the sexiest, most unique nights out in Cleveland. The parties happen on the last Friday of every month at The Pirate's Cove -- with plans to go weekly, come summer. A typical night finds scores of Gen-Xers strutting around in lingerie and boxer briefs. Imagine a punker's Playboy Mansion.
"It's cool -- just a bunch of cute kids in their underwear having fun," says Raqui Brown, a 19-year-old regular attendee. "Who doesn't want to see cute kids in their underwear having fun?"
The parties are the brainchild of Kathy Sazdanoff, an unlikely 19-year-old entrepreneur from Norwalk. Several years ago, Sazdanoff launched OnlyUndiesClub.com, a website that invites scenesters to post profiles and photos of themselves in their skivvies. Thanks to a confluence of trends -- the rise of profile sites like Friendster and of so-called "punk porn" sites like SuicideGirls -- OnlyUndies caught fire, attracting thousands of members. For Sazdanoff, the site's appeal is obvious.
"It's still innocent, and it's still cute, but it's the borderline of being naughty," she says. "How often do you see the girl next door in her underwear?"
Sazdanoff walks into Que Tal on Coventry wearing chunky boots and stockings held up by garter belts that disappear into a barely-there skirt. Two hoops pierce her bottom lip, completing a look best described as Paris Hilton meets Alice Cooper.
She does not adhere to conventional standards of decency. That much becomes clear as she munches a burrito and loudly holds forth about hardcore porn, much to the chagrin of a conservative-looking couple seated nearby, who didn't expect that their dinners would be served with talk of girl-on-girl action.
She's accompanied by her boyfriend, Jay Murr, a shy, thin, 21-year-old dressed all in denim like an indie-rock cowboy. Sazdanoff met him five years ago at the house of a mutual friend. "All I saw of him was his clothes, and he wore the same kind of clothes I did, and I thought it was a girl," she says. "And I was jealous, because I thought I was the only girl there, and I thought it was going to intimidate me, and then he walked in, and it was a guy, and I was in love."
It helped that Murr had the right body. "He's lanky, and you don't really see guys like that around here, just super lanky and tall," she says. His body provided the seed of an idea that would ultimately germinate into OnlyUndies. About a year into their relationship, Sazdanoff began taking photos of him in his underwear, "just out of boredom," she says. She decided to put the photos online at lanky-boys.com, a site she created. Soon, she was corralling other skinny guys for underwear photo shoots.
"The girls really loved it, and the guys were like, 'Hey, I'm a lanky boy,' and they got noticed," she says.
Although it started as something of a joke, the site was a success, and it wasn't long before it was getting hundreds of hits a week. With the interest came e-mails accusing Sazdanoff of bias: "I got a lot of requests for 'Let the chubby guys on!' or 'Let the girls on!' And I was like, 'But this is lanky boys!'" says Sazdanoff.
Soon she realized that the underwear was the real attraction and launched OnlyUndiesClub.com, a site featuring boys and girls of all shapes and sizes. She modeled it after MakeOutClub.com, a profile site that was becoming increasingly popular with indie-rock scenesters. "Even if there are no kids on your block that you relate to, online at MakeOutClub there are 75,000 kids that you might find something in common with," explains Gibby, the site's too-cool-for-a-last-name founder.
Within a month, OnlyUndies was receiving 20 new profiles a day. At last count, there were 3,455 profiles posted -- some originating from as far away as Japan -- evenly divided into "The Bras" and "The Briefs."
Last July, Blender Magazine listed OnlyUndies and MakeOutClub at number 53 on its list of 100 cool things. OnlyUndies was also covered in Vice. "It is the best place on the Internet for cute young emo kids to hook up and be friends," wrote the hipster magazine, "and it is the best place on the Internet for voyeuristic aging punks with teenager fetishes and old fags who like lanky boys."
Sazdanoff, who's also launched a line of underwear that sells for $12 a pop, dreams of one day presiding over an underwear empire, but for now seems content to revel in her newfound notoriety.
"I'm cooler than Mandy Moore," she jokes, referring to Blender's list.
"But you're not cooler than a lot of other stuff," reminds Murr.
"Yeah," she says. "Isn't Kid Rock cooler than me?"
Two Suicide Girls take the stage at the Beachland Ballroom to the tune of "Stuck in the Middle With You," the soundtrack for the grisly ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. The girls -- one dressed as a cop, the other as a criminal bound to a chair -- proceed to perform a porno pantomime, re-envisioning the torture scene as a girl-on-girl S&M fantasy.
Punkers hoot and holler with raw sexual appreciation -- though it's likely that some would label the show exploitative, if this were a strip bar. Yet context is everything, and when the Suicide Girls do their burlesque shtick -- equal parts Lady Marmalade and Sid and Nancy -- it seems less degrading than liberating.
The burlesque tour is the latest spin-off from SuicideGirls.com, which is fast becoming an internet DIY success story. The website launched in 2001 with a deceptively simple idea: Show punk girls naked. Instead of the too-perfect blondes with fake boobs that populate much of the porn industry, SuicideGirls features pierced and tattooed toughs doing their best impersonations of '50s pin-up queen Bettie Page.
The formula has proved remarkably successful, attracting 500,000 visits a week and 24 million hits a month. Imitators have followed, including BurningAngel, which fancies itself the Hustler to SuicideGirls' Playboy. "We show explicit content, like actual fucking," says Jay Chummy, BurningAngel's 24-year-old owner. Now even Hugh Hefner wants a piece of the action; Playboy's website recently added a "Suicide Girl of the Week" feature.
There is a little punk porn in everyone who posts profiles on OnlyUndies; BurningAngel recruited half a dozen models from the site, says Chummy. But most seem content to merely play at being porn stars.
Scrolling through the profiles can feel like peering through a Porky's-style peephole. A girl in a prom dress and high heels is bent over a bed with her butt in the air, revealing her panties. Another, reminiscent of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, dresses as a naughty nurse, her legs crossed suggestively. Several girls cup their breasts or flash their thongs.
The boys take a more humorous approach, inspired by the goofy streaking in Blink-182's "What's My Age Again?" video. Three guys -- screen name "Sexy_Bitches" -- strike Zoolander poses in boxers, a thong, and a Chili Peppers-inspired cock-sock. Another boy dons a top hat, a banana-hammock, and white gym socks, the costume of an exceedingly bad gigolo. Others wear bras or trucker caps.
Yet there is also no shortage of chiseled abs and bulging briefs, and girls who are more modest get away with showing just an inch of waistband. Members are, for the most part, free to display themselves as they choose. Among the few rules: no bathing suits, no sex toys, and as Sazdanoff puts it: "Please do not have anything 'hanging out' in your photos."
The nearly naked young bodies -- and the name suggesting a preteen slumber party -- has led more than one person to ask if OnlyUndies traffics in kiddie porn. But the club, according to the FAQ, "exists strictly for the artistic appreciation & beauty of being in undergarments." Sazdanoff has also been known to reject photos she finds distasteful.
"I like keeping OUC cute, and I like keeping it somewhat classy," she says. "If there's a little 14-year-old girl who is spread-eagled with a sexual description, she's not getting on. I keep them in check."
OnlyUndies stakes its claim to the vast middle ground between the yearbook-style headshots on conventional dating sites and the gynecological explicitness of online porn. The PG-13 approach lets members act sexy without feeling slutty. Several girls say that posing in their underwear online is no different from wearing a swimsuit to a beach.
"In mine, I'm in tube socks and boy underwear, and you can't see anything above the waist," says Stevie, an 18-year-old college student. "It's just a joke. Nothing scandalous, nothing juicy."
Still, not everyone gets that distinction. Upon posting their profiles, many girls find themselves deluged with instant messages from pervs seeking nude photos or cyber-sex. "Within three days, I had 58 boys blocked on my IM," Stevie says. "It's ridiculous. They don't understand that it's not a dating service, and it's not a brothel. We're not there to be whores."
But though the girls may complain about crude come-ons from creeps, that doesn't mean they're not looking to get laid, says Sazdanoff. "I think the girls' ulterior motive is that too. If the guy was attractive, he wouldn't be an icky perv."
Alice Goguen remembers her fling fondly. She first noticed the boy's frequent posts on the OnlyUndies message board. He shared her taste in punk music and was "definitely very cute in his underwear," she says.
They struck up a conversation and exchanged more underwear pictures. Before long, they were talking on the phone long into the night.
The problem: He lived in California, while she lived in Yellow Springs, near Dayton. Nevertheless, when spring break came, he hopped a Greyhound bound for Ohio.
A pretty brunette with a lip ring, Goguen didn't know if they would hit it off, but when he arrived, they ended up hooking up. "It was really good," she says. "He was super-cute and super-nice and definitely . . . I don't know . . . It was good."
Goguen's story is far from unique. Jamie Davidson, a 19-year-old from Massachusetts, says she met at least five boyfriends through OnlyUndies. "I've met people I've hooked up with and people I've just made out with," she says.
Chummy, of BurningAngel, brags of banging "four or five girls" on OnlyUndies and says that friends in punk bands often use the site to arrange trysts when they're on tour. "You can mask it any way you want, but those sites are really for antisocial people to get laid," Chummy says.
Dating has become big business on the internet. A recent report by trend-spotter Forrester Research found that 1 in 10 people who use the web visit online personals. While most of the top dating sites attract singles ages 35 to 44, profile sites like Friendster skew to the 18-to-34 crowd.
"We've all had the frustration of seeing someone fleetingly who might be attractive, but the barrier of reaching out is prohibitive," says Duncan Watts, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age. "By putting yourself on one of these sites, you're indicating that you're interested in meeting someone . . . which isn't clear if you're standing at a bar or walking down the street."
Not everyone on OnlyUndies is looking for a hook-up. Some just want to chat, make friends, and post silly photos of themselves. "It's just quirky," says Stevie. "It's something to say that you did when you were young, something you can't do when you're middle-aged and have an office job." That attitude makes joining the site less embarrassing than signing up for other dating sites, says George Dean, a 22-year-old Texan who runs the MadRadHair profile site. "I think there's more of a stigma with those singles sites, because to me it seems like desperation, where this is just cool: 'What's up? What kind of music do you like?'"
The very fact that members are willing to pose in their underwear also says something about who they are. "It means they're definitely confident in themselves, and people like that and look for that when they're looking to date and be friends," says Christine, a 20-year-old college student. Tighty whities also have a way of keeping a man humble. "You'll see all the same people on MakeOutClub wearing these ridiculous outfits," says Stevie. "And they're totally trying to convey this image of themselves. But then you go to OnlyUndies, and they're just sitting there in their briefs. And it kind of strips away their false image."
The biggest draw, of course, is being able to check out the merchandise. "It's like testing a car out before you get it," says Byron Branch, a 19-year-old student at Sinclair Community College in Dayton. "There's really no guesswork. The undies are on them, and you pretty much know what they're going to look like." Goguen agrees, although she's not sure that's necessarily a good thing: "If you have a ton of people to pick from, you're going to pick the people who superficially will be the best, not the people who might be the nicest or the coolest in the end."
Seeing people in their underwear so early also has a way of accelerating a relationship. Instant messaging leads to phone sex, and by the first date, hooking up is a foregone conclusion. "I'm not a slut or anything, but I think that progresses things a lot faster than normally," says Davidson. "You're like, 'Okay, I can wait 15 minutes before I pounce on him.' You're watching the clock and saying, 'What's a reasonable time to wait before I jump his bones?'"
For those nervous about going on a not-so-blind date, underwear parties provide a chance to meet friends from the site. But there's a world of difference between posting an underwear photo online and being half-naked in front of dozens of people. It's like that recurring dream: You show up at work, only to discover that for some inexplicable reason you've forgotten to get dressed. Only in this version, you're not the only one.
"As weird as it would seem, hanging out in your underwear, it's actually comforting, because everyone else is," says Brent Fantozzi, a 20-year-old college student. "It gives it a cool theme, something everyone has in common, a starting point for a conversation."
Joe Reid, owner of The Pirate's Cove, first discovered OnlyUndies through a friend. "I kind of got hooked," he says. "I saw more and more people I knew on it." After talking to Sazdanoff, he agreed to host the live events. "We tried it, and it was awesome. It was the beginning of winter, and we did 75 people."
The parties have led to some strange moments. The Pirate's Cove and Peabody's share a bathroom, which means that burly bikers attending metal shows inevitably collide with near-naked revelers. "They're going to the bathroom with lanky 19-year-olds in their underwear," laughs Reid. "It's kind of funny."
One would expect that an underwear party would quickly degenerate into Girls Gone Wild, but that's not the case. "It's really levelheaded," says Fantozzi. "It takes a certain maturity to walk into a party like this and not walk around like a 12-year-old kid going through puberty." Briette Sheaffer, a 24-year-old from Ashland, agrees: "I was worried about people running around pulling down their underwear, pulling down other people's, but it's not like that at all. Everyone's real respectful. No one's touching you. And I've only seen one boner." (Note to boys: Pin your boxers closed.)
It may not be an orgy, but there's plenty of ogling going on. "You walk by a girl, and they're not looking at your face, they're looking straight down," Branch says.
Raqui Brown, a 19-year-old from Beachwood, gets pissed when people show up and refuse to take off their clothes. "I call them lurkers, because they just stand there and lurk," she says.
Still, good humor is the order of the day. "People are super-nice," Branch says. "Because think about it: You can't exactly be mean to people when you're open and exposed."
Though OnlyUndies may sound like an invitation to debauchery, the site has resulted in at least one marriage.
Jim and Trisha Masessa met two years ago. Trisha was scrolling through the profiles when Jim caught her eye. "He had boxers, and he had a little spiked belt over top of it, which I thought was pretty neat," she says.
She sent him an instant message: "You look good in your underpants." They struck up a conversation that lasted two hours and arranged to go to a movie the next day. "We wanted to start it out slow, just in case we didn't like each other, but we ended up spending eight hours together," Trisha says. One thing led to another, and last July they got married. "What a story to tell the grandchildren!" Trisha jokes.
Jim sent Sazdanoff an e-mail to share the good news: "I don't know if anyone else has ever met because of your site, but I'd like to thank you for creating OUC. I'm sure you didn't start with marriage in mind, but thanks to you I have the most amazing wife. We've attached a picture from our wedding night as a thank-you."
Appropriately enough, the picture was of the two in their underwear.