Main | Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Flare From Fort Lauderdale

Well, I haven't forgotten how to drive. My annual visit to South Florida is usually preceeded by a bit of irrational fear that somehow my driving skills have atrophied, like a language you never practice, and that I have lost the ability to navigate the sea of rental cars barreling down I-95 , each vehicle starring in a one car show called Hey, That Was Our Exit! This year, I wonder if all those onboard direction computers are only heightening the drama, "The map lady said you were supposed to take that exit. You never listen. Why she even bothers, I don't know."

And let's hope that je me souviens not to venture onto the roads between 3-5pm. That's when the snowbirds, those tens of thousands of Quebecois who winter in Broward County, turn the streets into a daily running of Early Bird Dinner Special Deathrace 2000, a Francophone demolition derby of seemingly driverless Crown Victorias and Lincoln Town Cars, automotive Flying Dutchmen slaloming down Hollywood Boulevard in a breakneck race to reach the restaurant parking lot first, and win that most coveted of culinary prizes, the Good Spot.

The largest French-speaking community in the United States is in Hollywood, the sleepy oceanside burg sandwiched between Fort Lauderdale and the Miami-Dade County border. Hollywood hardly seems to have earned its co-starring billing at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, yet it's the place to go if you want to see a cocktail lounge Elvis impersonator deliver an accordion-laced version of Blue Suede Shoes, en francais, which you do. During the four month snowbird season, every business in Hollywood shoves a Je Parle Francais! sign into their window, if they know what's good for them. Right now, Denny's marquee is letting everybody know that the Grand Slam Breakfast is available tout le temps, in case you were wondering.

The lingering effects of Hurricane Wilma can be seen everywhere. From where I sit writing this, I can see bright blue plastic tarps on the roofs of several homes on this street. The local construction and utilities industries were caught out of position with Wilma. So much manpower had been directed to the Katrina effort that it took many days just to get basic services restored. This visit, I've been feeling my way around town. Some store signs and other landmarks remain gone or knocked down and with so many street signs missing, I've had to actually count off the blocks as I drive past, so that I can find the streets where my friends live.

It's striking how the palm trees survived largely unscathed, other than a general frond denuding. The ficus trees are another story. Ficus trees, long prized by homeowners for their fast growth and ample shade, have proven deadly to many structures because of their very shallow root systems. On every street you can find a massive ficus lying on its side, its roots hanging as high as the branches once did. I have a feeling that the expression "ficus-free lot" will become a common tagline for South Florida realtors.

From what I can tell, the tourists appear to be thumbing their noses at the mountainous roadside piles of hurricane debris and are continuing to stream in as always. The bars and restaurants are jammed and the highways are in their usual state of winter gridlock. Yesterday, I joined the crawling line of cars creeping along the beachfront drive. Sunburned tourists jaywalked between our cars, shuttling frozen drinks in to-go containers out to their blankets, which I think is a no-no, but I'm gonna guess that the alcohol police have been told to look the other way this year.

Last night I dropped in at The Ramrod, which I once decided would be the winner of Best Leather Bar That Used To Be A Convenience Store, should such an award exist. I've made up other awards for Fort Lauderdale bars. I used to say that The Stud (now defunct) would win Best Gay Disco That Used To Be A Red Lobster and that The Eagle (also defunct) would win Best Leather Bar Where The Patrons Have Sex After Hours In The McDonald's Playground Next Door. Briefly, there was a Best Gay Bar That Used To Be A Titty Bar award, but the category got too crowded to pick a clear winner.

I left Fort Lauderdale ten years ago, but last night at the Ramrod I didn't run into anybody from my past, which hasn't happened before. Not that I didn't know at least half of the crowd, by name or by face, but New Yorkers don't count.

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