I couldn’t wait for last Thursday to end so I could go home, lie down, and think about what I’d just done. I felt like I’d entered a place from which I would never be able to return. My life had changed irreversibly, and not necessarily for the better.

End-of-season designer clearance sales are a dizzying reversal of fortune, like when the guy who dumped you and broke your heart and whom you’ve finally gotten over starts drunk-dialing you every night, begging you to take him back. That camel-colored woven-leather Bottega Veneta bag that used to mock you from inside the glass case at Neiman’s is sitting in a bin with the rest of the unwanteds, a red line across its price tag. It’s no longer too good for you. Now it needs you.

Still drunk from the $2.50 well drinks at Club Foot the night before, I came unglued on the Gold Coast. First I found a zebra-print Moschino suit in my size at Field’s, marked down 80 percent. Never mind that I rarely have occasion to look that grown up–I had to have it. I rode the momentum of that purchase into the quiet, imposing Yves Saint Laurent shop on Oak Street. The ash-blond saleswoman took one look at my corduroy jeans, thrift-store necklace, and greasy hair and could barely mask her disgust.

That’s when I saw it: a black suede tasseled handbag that made me shiver with desire. No other purse has ever made me feel so vulnerable, so desperate. I entertained visions of myself at exclusive, arty affairs, wearing my zebra suit, fancy bag in one hand, extra-dirty martini in the other, pinky erect. I’d impress my new friends with some wild but charming story and they’d throw their heads back and laugh heartily. “Oh, go on,” they’d urge. And I would.

The saleswoman cleared her throat. “It’s been marked down twice,” she said. My heart started pounding and my arms went numb; I was sweating through my top.

Leaving the store with a giant white shopping bag with the letters YSL printed in elegant black type, I felt way too conspicuous, like when I was 11 and had just frenched a boy for the first time. I’d walked home as fast as I could and shut myself in my room, paranoid that my parents would be able to tell what I’d done just by looking at me.

Reality came crashing down the next day, when the most glamorous event on my schedule was taking place at a bowling alley. The annual Chicago Reader staff party, which always happens after the holidays, was held at Lincoln Square Lanes, a kick-ass old-fashioned establishment located above a hardware store.

Most staff parties are heavy-boozing free-for-alls designed to shame employees into not wanting to talk to one another for another year. But we at the Reader have no shame. There is no dress code here and no hygiene code, nor do there seem to be strict rules of conduct. (Proof: I still have a job.)

By the time I got to the party, more than half the staff was bowling, and nearly everyone, including the supposedly reformed, was puffing away, determined to suck down as many cigarettes as possible before the ban took effect.

In the middle of the bar/lounge area a wobbly table was piled high with stacks of white pastry boxes. Music writer Jessica Hopper was attacking them like a vulture, pulling out sesame ball after croissant Lorraine and shoving them in her mouth, trying to gross people out. It was working. “These are really good for the skin,” she said, squeezing out the bean paste from a sesame ball–it looked like coagulated blood–and rubbing the oil into her hands.

Someone–I wish I could remember who–told me people were doing coke and having sex in the bathroom. I ran into the ladies’ with my notepad and was greeted by our human resources director, innocently washing her hands. I’d taken the bait, but I didn’t feel that foolish–at one Reader party I actually witnessed illicit substances and near-fornication in the loo. Another year my then-boyfriend tried to get an employee’s wife to give him a blow job in a stall. At still another party I came dangerously close to making out in public with a coworker. In fact, there were two years when people told me they weren’t bringing dates specifically so they could hook up with colleagues.

This year’s bash seemed far more innocent–possibly because no one had told the newbies to leave their significant others at home. Highlights included the Magic Fork, which, if held in one’s left hand while bowling, was believed to guarantee a strike; newly hired editor David telling our boss, Alison, after the open bar closed, to “buy [him] a drink, bitch,” then challenging her to a drinking contest; music editor Philip bringing his very own bowling ball (it even has a name: the Hammer of Bill).

The veterans seemed disappointed by the excessive restraint. “I keep waiting for the next generation to step up,” said a member of the editorial staff who’d rather not be identified by name. “I’ve done my part with the inappropriate making out in the past.”

Afterward, I headed to a birthday party in a cement-floored hovel inside a Garfield Park warehouse. (I won’t name the birthday boy so he doesn’t get in trouble with his landlord.) Like the Reader party, it was loads of fun for no good reason.

The place looked like Santa’s psychedelic workshop: Christmas lights, troll dolls, and manly tools were strewn over tables, benches, and utility cabinets full of hardware. On a counter near the door, platters of cheese cubes and julienned vegetables surrounded a big pink ham that had been ripped apart Ren-faire style. A four-foot stage bounced as several young ladies danced on it to bad 80s music.

I joined the dancing girls, and after a few songs I felt like Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. “Ready?” I asked my boyfriend, who was standing on the floor and couldn’t see very well, as he was wearing a friend’s glasses. He looked at me, which I took to mean yes, and I took a running start into what I imagined was a graceful leap into his arms. I belly flopped onto him, knocking him backward into some filing cabinets and onto the floor, cracking the back of his head on the keg.

We got up and took inventory: I had a giant welt on my hip, my right hand was puffy and sore, and my pants were ripped in the ass; Ringo had a matching hip welt, a cut above his right eyebrow, and scratches down his back. “What were you thinking?” he asked me. I struggled to find an answer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.