Another cold front’s uncurling across Florida and blowing hard; it’s licking up waves on the bay the size of manila envelopes and ripping open their papery tops. Same old shit. I cursed the ugly sight out-loud and returned back inside my condo, pulling the sliding glass door to the balcony lanai shut behind me.
Cops I know say when it comes to weather, the full moon theory’s a myth; crazy is crazy…. any day of the month. What they do notice, they say, is the wind. The way a hard charging wind can squeeze the wits of even the most average, buttoned-down sort when it goes on too long. The way it can suddenly peel back the tab on their safely screwed lids, and then, the vacuum packed contents can spew and rage in very unnatural ways. The wind. That’s what they notice, they say.
So for weeks now, I’ve been waiting for the warm Cuban balm to arrive and settle my mind, but barely a whiff of that sweet stuff has wandered up much past the Keys. I’m raw and I’m jumpy. Another dry, heartless morning in America, another uneasy bar of the maddening tune dancing us toward the Apocalypse.
But today I was looking for a way to sneak out of the freak parade.
I needed a few days off and I had some ideas.
I knew it wasn’t just the foul weather that’s making me crazy; it’s the daily infections of bad news that keep blowing in with it. Because as anyone diseased enough to be paying close attention knows, the country’s on life support, her vital signs are actually vital, and the odds for recovery are being measured in single digits by people who know.
Dangling like beef on the hook; it’s a horrible sight with America’s guts spilling onto the killing floor day after day. Few have the stomach for it. This… includes me. Everywhere, people’s faces are twisted with fear and confusion, and the cold blue flame of inevitable madness and unmanageable stress burns in the eyes of ordinary people that only two years ago screamed along on the crest of the never ending Big Wave. They rode it out with their free hand high and they never looked down; but now, they can’t look down, they don’t even dare.
I sat down at my computer to see if I’d gotten any response yet from Kirsten Wilkes, Media Relations, Octagon Sports Management. Last night, as part of My Plan, I’d filled out a rather sketchy, hole-ridden application for a set of media credentials to the upcoming ACE Group Classic. A PGA Champions Tour golf tournament starting this week down in Naples.
I’d explained to her that the PGA event in Naples was of vital interest to the readers of OpenSalon.com. That I had just “covered” the recent Obama town hall meeting in Fort Myers, and serendipity had left me “available” to provide to that furiously devoted - and nationwide readership - a full account of the ACE Group Classic. I assured her an eager, untapped, market was clamoring for a full report on the activities of Messers. Trevino, Player, Kite, and Langer.
The closer truth being; Roy Hobbs was a big golf fan and needed a cheap getaway from the crash and carnage of American everyday life, 2009 edition. It all dovetailed as they say. I reasoned a few days “inside the ropes” was the perfect solution. Walk on some even ground a while.
My instincts told me the Rich were having all the fun.
So I needed to mingle. And was there a better place to catch the insidiously carefree and remarkably privilaged pursuing hardcore frivolity, and full-color nonsense than a pro-golf tournament?
It was perfect.
Super Rich pro-golfers, being watched and applauded by the idly Rich; playing stick and ball games outside in the fresh Florida spring surrounded by constant adulation, corporate hospitality tents, luxurious landscaping, gourmet catering, open bars with top-shelf liquor; a veritable pantheon of unnecessary activities provided by the fabulously wealthy…. with all the seriously furtive attention and budgetary consideration given a NATO summit meeting.
Elegant diversion. But I knew buying a ticket at the gate was no way to see a show like that. Rule One in America: They don’t ever sell tickets to the real action. Free is the only acceptable price of admission among the rich.
You either get in free, and float blithely across the grounds like one of Gatsby's luna moth guests....or you sit like a dolt silently watching from the bleachers and sidelines. I needed to access this monstrosity on its own terms. I didn’t want to see the beast, I wanted to ride it. Nothing satisfying or soulful would come my way unless I have full, unfettered access to Everything.
My Gmail. account beeped open and there, just below a “special insider offer from iTunes”, was the dark bold subject line from Kirsten Wikes. “Media Credentials Confirmation”. “So what do think, Bud? Did she by it?” My orange tabby “Bud” couldn’t actually hear my question, he’d just climbed up and crawled through the torn place in the screen onto my balcony. Right now he was looking irritated and just slightly pathetic outside the glass door with his vanilla-orange nap swirling with the breeze.
“Mr. Roy Hobbs." it read, "Thank you for registering with The ACE Group Classic. Your Media Credential Request form has been received and approved. Please read the following information for a clear understanding of our 2009 procedures.”
It went on…. “parking will be valet in the south parking… present your affiliates working credentials for admission….pick up you ID badge in the Media Tent….breakfast will be served at….lunch is at….full access will be given…..” and on and on.
I stared at the confirmation and reread it twice. They actually bought it. I was in a little in shock. It was clear OpenSalon pulled some heavy weight. But I couldn’t see a real journalistic opportunity here, although maybe I’d take a few pictures. I saw a week of free admission, valet parking, three meals a day and the full run of the venue. I stood up and looked out to my rumpled cat waiting for breakfast. “Well Bud, looks like we’re off to Naples to see how the other half is coping.” The cat’s eyes only soured at the dusty wind.
Cats…. are hard to impress.
Packed and ready to go just after nine a.m., I rambled down the condo’s concrete steps.
My neighbor Davidson Faulkner was up and already out in his tiny front yard reading a newspaper in the sun. Last night, just as I’d given up on Letterman and hit the remote, I heard him bumping around downstairs with his wife. Two tired voices searching for light switches. It was He Faulkner and She Faulkner just arrived from Detroit.
Each year they return, for the past two anyway, to: delight in the eviction of his seasonal tenants, terrorize the roadways with his gigantic, vanilla colored Chrysler wintered like angry bear in the garage, and reoccupy the condo below mine for another three months. I’d come to despise him, but I can’t exactly say why. Although, I’m perfectly satisfied with the notion that there’s no reason to like him either.
I stopped briefly at the bottom of my stairs pretending to fiddle with something in my shoulder pack, trying to avoid contact with the supercilious prick. Rationally I understand it’s all - mostly anyway - in my head, but all I see, is a walking, breathing American icon of compulsive consumption, contented ignorance, and a condescending manner of delusional affluence. His type is the gasoline feeding America’s bonfire.
(Last year while Obama winning the southern state primaries, he expressed a brief interest in establishing some sort of literacy test before people were qualified to vote. That would just make sense wouldn’t it?)
Other than his settled opinion that I’m must be crazy for living down here the year around – citing the murderously hot summers for his reasoning, but failing to confront the salient fact that I actually work and live in Florida; and, his whistful description, every time we speak, of the autumnal splendors of fall in Michigan…don’t I miss the seasons?….he has very little to offer mankind but a stifling, unexplainable arrogance. At least it’s unexplainable to me.
Because from what I can gather, his life’s defining achievement is thirty-one consecutive years at the same tool and die factory perfecting his use of a twelve ton stamp-press; a circumstance which finally enabled him - for three months every winter at the age of sixty-two - to evacuate that hellish frozen country with the passion and fear of a ground hog fleeing a range fire. An idyllic arrangement only made more so by the recent and graciously accommodating demise of his mother-in-law, the previous owner of his current southern digs.
Unlike the man who was born on third base and thinks he’s hit a triple, my neighbor spent thirty-one seasons in the bleachers and apparently has come to believe he’s a critical part of team management now. His team’s last victory of note, the razor-edged triumph of W. Bush in 2004
Seeing him there, you’d guess he was in a deck chair on a Carnival cruise. A smug little man sipping so luxuriously from his Jeff Gordon racing mug you can almost hear the paper umbrella crinkle, and smell fruit garnishing its rim. But he isn’t cruising. He’s assumed the same position as last year; stretched out in his lawn chair above a crunchy mat of seashell and gravel, thumbing the morning newspaper; wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts and a give-away Corona-Lite tank-top – and, for my taste, neither article of clothing sufficiently concealing the wild mutiny of body hair advancing in all directions. The way his rubbery lips curved up at corners made him appear immensely pleased about something, but I tried not to think about it, because I knew the answer. It was cheap and bare and obvious. I wasn’t playing along.
His crooked set of unmatched toes were growing up from a cinder block rest, curling east with the drift of the sun.
“Beautiful day!” he informed me with the authority of someone who knew. He looked out over his paper focusing on nothing in particular.. He’d caught me just as I appeared past the hedge - another passenger on a shipboard stroll.
I was tempted to blast the haughty bastard with the news that the Asian markets were tanking again, and in about thirty minutes Wall Street was opening to a viscous bloodletting that would make Antietam look like a PTA meeting. But he’d tear open his 401K statement soon enough. Then he’d quiver it in the air, shaking it at his wife, crying out indignantly that this sort of thing was just what he expected - anyone with half a brain knew this happen with that socialist agitator in the White House! I nodded, and when I saw how pleased he was with his own evaluation of the day, I just smiled and hurried toward my car; a cold north wind was throwing darts through my chest.
I didn’t get it, I could never get it. Jumpin’ Jesus! It’s barely sixty degrees! Is he completely nuts? These guys could deny anything, including the weather. I looked back and watched him thoughtfully lick his finger tip, stroking back another page of his paper. A bubbly patch of goose flesh rose on my bare legs.
Every year, they try to explain it to me, that somehow their blood is “thicker”. “Son, compared to where I’m from up North….” they say about anything over sixty degrees “sure feels nice, doesn’t it?” No, it don’t. It’s COLD and it’s cruel. Put on some clothes. I jerked the zipper up on my Gortex wind breaker then dug my hands deeper into my pockets and jogged in an awkward stutter-step for my car.
He was from Michigan – so the weather bar was set unusually low. But my mind clamped shut on that excuse. After eight years of Bush’s bombastic fumbling, finally dropping America on its head like a drunk juggling babies in a maternity ward, it’s getting tedious taking pity on people just because they don’t know any better.
The nut of it is, for eight months a year, we have “summer”. Okay, no freezing slush and breaking our pelvis’s….I get it, we’ll take the trade-off. But for eight months we’re trapped like amoeba swimming a sub-tropical soup of 90% humidity; each day we drip salty sweat into our lunches, guzzle cheap beer and hide out afternoons in dark, air-conditioned movie theaters for survival; a relentless pattern only occasionally broken-up by strings of rampaging tropical depressions….that bring savage rain squalls to flood our driveways and violently strip away our porch awnings.
Naturally, we do get some comic relief from the odd, pulverizing hurricane swinging by. And, even more hilariously…..sometimes the whirly-girls travel in bunches.
So in a doctrine of holistic fairness, I hold Mother Earth accountable when it comes to the 6-8 weeks of “spring” weather we are rightly due. She owes us 81 and balmy. Not 62 and shitty. Because either way, by Easter, we’ll be back to sticking like chocolates to our car seats.
So it’s break time. I know somebody must be having a good time out there. I’ve decided to find them, jump in close, swim around a while and take advantage of their wake at the American Riviera - Naples, Florida. This week the rich and powerful are coagulating in a very small pond. Professional sports - the last, lavish, big screen production still getting financing. 70mm, carefree Technicolor adventure - old money and good times. I’m off to see first- hand how they’re surviving the holocaust. I have my suspicions. But I needed get moving, right away.
I jumped the Pathfinder out into traffic diabolically swerving across three lanes and terrorizing a furiously gabbing soccer mom. As I flashed past her astonished face, I watched the cell phone pop out of her hand like a bar of soap in the shower. I jammed it down hard and kept it geared low, it was good to hear the motor whine and beg. It has been too, too long. The next lane, I slanted past a distracted tourist who’d just turned and back-handed her kid with a solid thwock to the side of the head. I watched a mouth-full of foaming soda splatter in a ragged sunburst against the inside of the passenger window.
I braked hard and slipped past a barrier of construction cones - I couldn’t sense their exact purpose, but I was fully committed and mashed two of them like cupcakes into a patch of fresh, black asphalt and screamed onto Highway 41 exit heading south.
I was leaving the dustbowl futility and bare bones of doom rattling in the distance. This had dragged on long enough. I’d heading out to dig around in the soft, fleshy parts and see if I could find an artery to drain.
Already I felt better.
So far, the sun refused to break out from behind a smear of oily looking clouds that were drifting and spreading. But for open road travel, my timing was perfect. Plenty of room to work. It was just after nine am and traffic was light. The morning work rush was over, and the lunchtime logjam hadn’t begun to form.
I’d follow the Tamiami Trail all the way down to Naples. I knew the Trail was a hopeless, twisted mess of vapid commercialism, but I needed to stay off the Interstate. Nothing good could come of that. Run close to the action, stay in touch, look out for signs of anyone or anything resembling affluent America, past or present or future, and investigate thoroughly. The golf tournament would be bringing in big migrations of the wealthy into the tight, dimly lit watering holes along the way down. I should hit several, for research. I hoped access wouldn’t be a problem. I had a budget to consider.
In an hour or so, I had made it as far as Fort Myers and a heavy wind was twisting the wild sprawling arms of West Indian Pepper and rattling the cabbage palms running the fence lines. The big Red-shouldered hawks and harriers were sitting tight, bucking the breezes and hunting from the low perches of cattle fences and road signs. For a while, a pair of osprey kept pace above me, marking their territory in tight circles and dark outlines through my sunroof. Murders of crows were everywhere. Sharp, black silhouettes hunkering down and lined up in the bare branches of the winter buttonwoods, they huddled and swayed, they rocked off balance and cried soundlessly out into rushing air.
As I drove, I wondered about the big solid predators everywhere. A classic sign that the eco-system was still strong?
After seventy-five years, after every possible effort has been made to scrape and fill and drain and pave – with decades of developers raking through Florida like a child’s sandbox and where every construction configuration and alteration and laceration imaginable has been submitted, approved and built - the top of the food chain is practically elbowing for room in the skies?
But irony immediately attacked the problem and I realized these birds were feeding and scavenging on a fat population of rats, weasels, and snakes. As I saw it, a nearly inexhaustible resource in Florida. If anything in Florida remains constant, we’d hardly be running out of those types anytime soon
I made good progress but in a couple of hours, things started jamming up just south of Cape Coral. It became harder and harder to slalom the lanes and slide through the shortening stop lights. I knew it was time to find somewhere to hide out for a while, get off the road, because in a very short time the whole Florida lunchtime rush would be out running the streets and clogging the lanes.
I had just crossed the county line leaving the trashy backyard sprawl of Lee County behind. The long, hell beaten highway of cheap Mexican food joints, bleached out plastic signs of the rundown Gas-n-Go’s, abandoned strip malls shedding with wrinkled, unpainted plywood covering their store fronts, and the used car lots flying cheap, ragged banners promising no credit, no problem…..it all falls away in one clean line at Collier County, where Naples is the county seat.
In the width of an intersection, the landscape suddenly explodes with carpets of impatiens and swirls of salvia decorating the medians; giant wrappings of stylish copper and zinc wrought gratings and gates, and huge brooding wildlife sculptures defending the entrances to the luxury compounds of the rich and the exceptionally rich.
The cheaply over-made, slutty fifty miles of Lee County persona evaporate and burn away in a stitch - like evil thoughts too close to the sun, leaving all the little girls on this side of the fence with bright carefree ribbons dangling in their hair, and all curtsies and with please’s and thank-you’s. Going from Lee to Collier is like returning from commercial and seeing The Wizard of Oz has suddenly switched from black and white into full blazing Techni-Color.
Beer joints have become wine bars and strip clubs become country clubs.
I spotted a geometric mountain of smoked glass and river rock façade rising from a perfectly landscaped parking area and took two or three switch-backing turns making my way into the Glass Hog. It was a restaurant, sprawling and elegant as a Renaissance manor tucked away along the Po. I buried the Pathfinder among neat rows of blistering clean European imports. A fine place to mingle with the natives.
After holding the massive front doors for a breathless pair of aging, but still solidly built Barbie-dolls just off the tennis court still wearing their gleaming whites - a post-active look I assumed was fashionable in spring among the gentry here - I nodded my way past the young, ravishing hostess who granted my leave with an indifferent bob of her dazzling blond mane and took an open stool at the bar. I attracted no attention other than a couple quick, over-the-menu glances, from a pair of cougarish looking types being ignored by their husbands.
I knew working in close like this, appearance is crucial. I’d been careful. I outfitted for the day in full resort wear camouflage and blended into the resplendent dining room scene as smoothly as a dappled quill in pheasant.
(For the uninitiated, South Florida grows the finest thrift stores and Salvation Army outlets in the world. Every season, wealthy, dispassionate country club wives clean out their closets and flood the two dollar racks with clothes - usually their husband’s - they judge too bothersome to bring back up north. Today, I’m wearing new a pair of tropical-light Italian wool walking shorts, kid skin Cole-Hahn loafers, Dry-Fit Fairway & Greene Golf shirt with a Polo(couture) pull-over. Total investment less than the price of a lunch in joint like the Glass Hog.)
More than anything right now, I was thirsty. A substantial bar was positioned in the middle third of the restaurant where it looked like it did serious duty at night, with a pounded copper bar-top and generous faux-leather lean pad. The brass kick rail was scrolled with some sort of etched and polished monkey appendages attaching it to the bar. But not bartender in sight.
There was a relaxed looking woman in her forties waiting a couple stools down and drinking something very cold in a martini glass I judged to be the approximate size of the Tin Man’s hat.
“Is there somebody around?” I asked.
“Oh yes, he was just here pouring drinks for those two.” She indicated two country club types a few more stools down, somewhere between forty and sixty. They both were skulled in waves of perfectly plugged hair, Grecian tans and signs of so much facial work that it was impossible to guess their ages closer than that. The smaller one looked my way and smiled. One over-done eye refused to lift when he did, frozen as a fritter.
I swiveled around and considered the room. They were all here. It was officially the lunch hour and it appeared nobody wanted to be late. I was at the right place. Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation and their impossibly beautiful offspring filled the room. Tall, dark leather blanquettes along the walls pocked with every imaginable shade of cashmere sweater and rinse tinted hair. In the middle of the room, they had left a few tables open for a scattering of attorney and business types on their lunch hours; the ones still bothering to go through the motions of work.
“Wow, that looks pretty tasty,” I said to the woman to my right. “What are you drinking?”
With her emerald green silk jacket and long fall of pulled back, camel colored hair, she was striking in her own way, rather seeing a strange Ferrari in a parking lot , incredible to look at, but you weren’t really sure if you would want to walk right up and touch it. For any number of reasons.
Ruby coated lips curled into an eye crinkling smile when she spoke. “Oh yes, they’re just wan…derful. A Naples Old Fashion. Ricky makes them for me,’ she replied in a stalling, languid tone which seemed to imply that “Ricky” may or may not make one for me. Her voice was slow and smoky, and then she reached for the fruit swizzle and chewed off a cherry with the same dispassionate pace.
“So now… what makes it a Naples Old Fashion?”
“Actually, I don’t really know, I mean I used to know, but Ricky’s been making them for me for just ages. They are delicious.” I knew enough not to pursue the inquiry any further. A basic tenant among rich wives is that they’re unquestionably knowledgeable - even about things they can’t quite explain.
“Well, I have no reason to doubt that Naples Old Fashioned is anything but superior to the cheap imitations the common folk drink elsewhere. I think I’ll have one.”
The Ferrari now turned fully to consider me, managing the feat with a perfectly crisp rotation pivoting from her hips. “Well put.” She said, and then a brief moment later. “How adorable of you to say so.”
End Part One-