Party lines

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On a recent Saturday night, rolling down Michigan Avenue in a bus decorated with streamers and balloons, my friend and I knew that our tour of the city wasn't going to be like any other we had ever taken.

Brad, our guide for the evening, provided the first tip. He roamed up and down the aisle, pumping up 35 complete strangers for an after-dark odyssey that would eventually lead to four of downtown's dance clubs.

Amused by the energy of our guide, I looked across the aisle at an attractive blond, smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

"Are you two from Chicago?" she asked, leaning over her arm rest. She was from Maine. Her travel companion, a short brunette, leaned over her lap and said hi. The night looked promising. Interesting sights

For the next few minutes, the four of us exchanged vital statistics as best we could. Which was not easy, given the volume at which Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" blared over the bus sound system.

Despite the sonic obstacles, the conversation seemed to get off to a good start. Not good enough, however, to compete with the Village People's "YMCA." As soon as it began, our friends forgot us and started to wave their arms in the familiar dance as it swept up and down the length of the bus.

Unable to beat 'em, my friend and I joined 'em. And thus began the first leg of our ride on the mobile dance party known as The Party Bus.

The Party Bus is one of a handful of bus tours in Chicago (see listings below) whose exclusive purpose is to take their passengers to where the fun is. They're not charters - anyone 21 and older can ride. In general, the tours' fees include cover charges to all the clubs visited and may also include drink and food specials.

These tours aren't for everybody. They're certainly not for people thirsting for knowledge about Chicago history. Tours that spend about an hour at each destination require a more basic and urgent thirst. These tours are not for people seeking interesting sights, unless you count that happy bachelorette from the suburbs whose hands are wrapped around a bottle-hugger shaped like a piece of the male anatomy. (She and her excited entourage rode in the back of our bus.)

Despite the harried pace, these tours do have their strengths. For tourists who don't have a local escort for Chicago's nightlife, party tours can lead to places they might not find on their own. And anybody can appreciate the way in which traveling together in a large group breaks down barriers between people better than cocktails in a quiet bar.

Even though the two women across the aisle ignored us to dance the "YMCA," we eventually became friends with them, and numerous others on the trip, after bumping into them repeatedly at the various clubs.

We weren't the only ones quick to make friends. At our first destination, my friend and I spotted an Australian banker on the tour slipping a garter belt up the thigh of the bride-to-be.

Climb in, crawl out

The Party Bus
8 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Saturdays
This double-decker bus ferries passengers to four dance clubs in slightly over four hours. The fee includes admission to four of the city's downtown dance clubs as well as drink specials at The Party Bus's take-off point. Past trips have included a variety of downtown dance clubs including Polly Esther's retro '70s and '80s dance music, Excalibur's house music scene, Dennis Rodman's Illusions "cigar and caviar" club and Drink.

The Pub Club
4 p.m.-midnight on Saturdays, twice a month
$20 ($15 for members)
Ready. Set. Drink. Participants have 50 minutes at each bar to take advantage of various drink specials. The sponsors aren't complete sadists -- they kick off their eight-hour, six-stop drinking binge with a two-hour visit at an establishment that serves food. The itinerary changes with each crawl, with a focus on a particular neighborhood such as Wicker Park or Lincoln Park. For the $5 discount, annual club membership is $30.

Chicago Blues Tuesday Road Trips
9 p.m.-2 a.m. first Tuesday
This one's actually educational. On the first Tuesday of every month, Blues University's deluxe tour includes admission to two South Side and West Side blues clubs and a guided tour to historical landmarks such as Chess Records and the house where Muddy Waters lived in the '50s and '60s. A compact disc and T-shirt are included in the price of admission. Blues University also runs a network of shuttle buses between blues clubs periodically throughout the year -- $10 includes all cover charges and bus rides. Check the Web site for upcoming dates and locations.

Robert Finkelstein is a Chicago free-lance writer and bus rider who also wrote about the high-minded Chicago Neighborhood Tours for Metromix.

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