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Tales From the Tour -- December 2002
"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my
experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.
Monday, December 02, 2002
GAINESVILLE, FL / HUNTSVILLE, AL
Gainesville, home of the University of Florida and not much else of note, gets a less than glowing review from a member of our cast who attended the school's rival, Florida State University. There is no information on Gainesville in my Frommer's Florida 2003 guide. And so when we arrived, after two and a half hours, at this apparent strip-mall-and-fast-food-chain haven, my hopes for an enthralling afternoon were small.
With three free hours, I took a walk up NW 13th Street in search of lunch options. The prospects looked bleak; the first remotely enticing establishment was a grocery called Mother Earth, one of those organic-food stores with a highfalutin subset of normal vegetables and enough emphasis on health and packaging that they felt entitled to charge $4.99 for a little package of smoked turkey breast. Dejected, I left briskly.
But just a couple of blocks away, at the corner of NW 7th Avenue, I was elated to come upon the Nol Boo Grocery, a Korean market that also served meals. At the recommendation of the friendly proprietors I had yuk gae jang
, a spicy beef-broth soup with stalk vegetables, accompanied by all those wonderful side dishes that come with Korean food. Gainesville, one of the proprietors said, has a Korean population of about 400.
I walked along NW Seventh Avenue, a residential road with single-story houses that were all overgrown haphazardly with various shapes and sizes of shrubs and trees. The neighborhood had a very used feel, as if the same people had lived there for decades, now spent much of the time elsewhere, and only occasionally came back to make sure their homes hadn't dilapidated to the point of uninhabitability. One house had a dozen newspapers strewn over the front porch. The whole area had a rather homely charm.
Every few months, when my hair becomes unmanageably wavy, I grudgingly shell out a few bucks - no more than absolutely necessary - and have it cut. This was one of those times, and it so happens that near the hotel in Gainesville were two places advertising $5 haircuts: Gator Cuts and Wild Hair. Not prone to doing anything crazy with my hair, I chose the former. It was full of customers, even though the sign proclaimed it shut; suspecting they'd pulled a Higher Ground
, I entered, but I was warded off by a booming voice that said, "We're closed!"
So on to Wild Hair it was. I had to sign in and wait about 15 minutes until I'd be at the mercy of whoever became available to take me, but I didn't mind, my meager expectations for the afternoon surpassed by a tasty Korean lunch. Alberta did a fine job on my hair, and for the first time I felt that the $9 I usually spend on haircuts on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan was excessive.
The Phillips Center, part of the University of Florida, was a pretty venue with a large stage, and we gave one of our better performances. Two dining options were available after the show: Denny's, which I found too uninteresting, and an Irish pub called the Shamrock (it neighbors a remarkable Middle Eastern supermarket), which others found too smoky. And so we parted, and I dined on hearty shepherd's pie at the Shamrock while watching four people fulfill the major stereotypes of open-mike performances: the punk singer with good pitch but wild vocal affectations, the comedian who cursed every couple of sentences and failed to elicit more than a chuckle, the anorexic singer with good pitch but whose lyrics were incomprehensible, the rock singer with good enunciation but bad pitch. A sign behind the bar said, "Employees Only Beyond This Point - All Others Will Be Beaten and Pissed On."
For reasons I don't entirely understand, we left Gainesville at 5:30 Thanksgiving morning to head for Huntsville, Alabama, where we'd have a turkey banquet and then three days of performances. For reasons I'm sure I could never understand, we stopped for "lunch" at 10:35 somewhere on the outskirts of Atlanta - exit 233 off I-75, if you're keeping track - where there was a McDonald's and a long stretch of closed restaurants and empty parking lots. (Did I mention it was Thanksgiving?) This promised to be a most unfulfilling stop; Matthew (a good eater, one who had joined me for Indian food in Springfield and who had been the most likely of the bunch to accompany me to the Shamrock) and I walked a bit along the highway, until he gave up. I turned left and followed a residential back road, Meadowbrook Lane, which was as pretty as its name suggested. I turned left again, and I was shocked to arrive at a Vietnamese supermarket called the Trinh Grocery and Video. I picked up something for the bus; I don't know what it was, but it was all at once smooth and sweet and salted and spicy and crunchy and wonderful.
During the second half of the bus ride, after pondering the savings the Georgia highway authority must realize by omitting the dots from the i
's on the road signs, I made my way through my new book, Peter Fleming's News from Tartary
, which describes a 1930s overland journey from Beijing to Kashmir. After a fuel stop somewhere in Tennessee (you apparently cannot get from Gainesville to Huntsville on the interstate system without detouring through Tennessee), we watched the movie Spinal Tap
at a decibel level that was higher than congenial, though the film grew on me gradually when they weren't actually playing
loud rock songs. The ride through northern Georgia and Alabama was pretty, with leafless trees juxtaposed against lush evergreens, and every once in a while a lone farmhouse or horse or country lane would pop into view. Noel slept or rested in the bus aisle for virtually the entire ten-hour trip.
Our Thanksgiving feast was held at 18:00 (yes, I'm sticking with that
system too) in a private room of the Huntsville Hilton's restaurant. It consisted of the Thanksgiving buffet, which was in the main dining room and therefore the one available to the masses as well, and an open bar, on which no restrictions had been expressly placed by our company manager. I sat at a long table with eight cast members and our bus driver.
Inspired to heighten the festivities to their proper extent, and seeing no one else assume such action, I took the liberty of ordering champagne and three bottles of wine for our table. I should have known we were in trouble when I ordered Veuve Clicquot (I figured we could get away with that but not Dom Perignon) and something with the Kendall-Jackson label and our waitress, bewildered by such an apparently bizarre and obscure request, asked me to point to my selections on the wine list.
The hotel was clearly unprepared, in terms of food and staff, to deal with a banquet for several dozen people. I had to visit the buffet four times before finding cranberry sauce and stuffing, because each replenishment consisted of only a little bowl of them. I was nearing the end of my first plate of turkey and pork (which, admittedly, were pretty good), and some people were on to dessert, before our champagne was finally served, 35 minutes into the meal.
Getting the wine out was equally inexpedient. Nearly another half hour passed before a manager came over to me (I'd been pacing around as if on the verge of making a scene over the nonexistent service), and he said they'd been trying to get in touch with me - evidently telepathically, as no staff member had ever come near me since the champagne was delivered. The message he needed to convey was that they were out of two of the wines we'd ordered and the third would be out shortly. We found substitutes, and we also tried to get more Veuve Clicquot, but we couldn't, because the hotel stocks only one of each bottle of wine and champagne. One! The wine eventually made it, but I took to cocktails after that.
Service notwithstanding, however, it was an enjoyable evening. Later that night some people went to the movies, and I joined them. Most of them went for the animated flick Eight Crazy Nights
; I needed something more aggressive, more big-city, and so I saw 8 Mile
, about which I'd recently read a complimentary article in a complimentary copy of USA Today. If the film is really autobiographical, Eminem and I have more in common than I'd imagined: a will to conquer the big city in some small way, an inspiration to create new songs, an energy to go it alone. (To be fair, I never had domestic violence or poverty or the F-word or anything but parental encouragement growing up, so we don't have that
much in common. But the film moved me greatly, and it even gave me a new appreciation, which is to say some at all, for rap music.)
For reasons I don't entirely understand, my invitations of "Anyone for a hike up the mountain at dawn?" had been met more with chortles than with enthusiasm (what did I just say about going it alone?), so the next morning - actually a few hours after dawn - I walked for 80 minutes up Governors Drive to Burritt on the Mountain
, the mansion built by philanthropist Dr. William Henry Burritt in the 1930s. It's also a multiple-building museum showing prototype homes restored to their appearances in 1850 and 1900: a lower-class farm, a slave house and garden, a middle-class home, to name a few. They still raise animals at the museum; there's a gorgeous three-month-old calf, Otis, who only comes up to my waist. And the view from the mountaintop over the Tennessee Valley was stunning.
The route along Governors Drive, which becomes a highway when you leave Huntsville eastbound, was not conducive to walking. Where there was a sidewalk, it was only a half meter or so wide, and often I'd have to duck into the street because the sidewalk was blocked by a mailbox or telephone pole or bags of raked leaves. Often there was no sidewalk, and so I walked in the median dividing the highway in two. On the way back to the city I twisted my ankle and sat down on the median for a moment; a car made a U-turn and the driver offered me a ride back to the city, but I didn't realize he'd turned around and so I refused, thinking he was heading in the opposite direction. Southern hospitality indeed! My foot was all right shortly thereafter, and I continued on.
On the way back to the hotel, I walked through downtown Huntsville, which centers around Courthouse Square. It's a rather quaint square with some historic buildings, such as the 1835 Greek Revival Regions Bank Building and the 1895 Harrison Brothers Hardware Store. Indeed, the only eyesore in the square is the looming, boxy courthouse itself. I had a late lunch (eggplant terrine and shrimp pizza, for those of you die-hard fans keeping all the details) at the Jazz Factory, an airy, charming spot on the north side of the square.
After that night's show I convinced Ross, Liz, and Brian (our trombone player) to trek to Mollie Teal's, just behind the square, where they had dueling pianos and (according to the lady I spoke with on the phone) food. The pianos were not so much dueling; one guy was playing and singing energetically and doing most of the work, while the other mainly just sort of comped. There was no food except pizza brought in from some other establishment. Our waitress (who no doubt received the same accredited training as our Thanksgiving banquet staff) proffered pizza, and waited there for several minutes while we decided what to get on it, and when we made a decision she finally volunteered the information that the only available pizza was sausage-and-pepperoni. So we ordered six slices, and she came back a few minutes later to announce that there was in fact no pizza of any sort.
"So there is no food at all?" I tried to ascertain. "The lady on the phone said you were serving food until at least midnight."
"When the kitchen opens," our helpful little genius affirmed.
I thought it strange that the kitchen would start dishing out fare after 23:00. "When does the kitchen open?"
"Oh, maybe in a couple of months."
Being a railway buff, I spent the next morning at the Huntsville Depot & Museum, set in the original 1860 Huntsville station building. A man who very possibly might have been present when the first brick was laid showed me a film about Huntsville and then pressed a button that began a somewhat contrived, but surprisingly informative, display with three wax station attendants discussing what it was like to run a railway. The man, who was dressed like a train conductor, also provided compelling anecdotes related to the exhibits on two of the building's three floors. In some of the rooms are graffiti scrawled by people who have had some connection with the building, including Confederate prisoners held on the top floor after the Union occupation of Huntsville in 1862. There are also exhibits about the cotton industry and life during the Civil War. But the emphasis was on trains; there was a large functioning model of the station area, and outside I could climb aboard a 1904 steam locomotive, an old passenger car (Huntsville served passenger trains until 1968), and other stock.
We had two shows that day, and in between I walked to University Drive in the northern part of the city, the site of some promising dinner options. The walk took me, literally and figuratively, to the other side of the tracks; the road north was dimly lit and passed under Interstate 565 and by some seedy-looking houses. Ideally, I would make it to Barnhill's Buffet for "homestyle cooking." Within the first few minutes on University Drive I passed several buffet options (all-you-can-eat steak for $7.79 at Ryan's, a buffet at a place called Shoney's, a Chinese buffet called Formosa). Then I came to a billboard saying that Barnhill's was three traffic lights ahead, and since I saw no traffic lights at all in the immediate or even distant future, I settled on Shoney's
. I didn't realize it was a chain (it's mostly in the South
), but it seemed to be a perfectly good one: There's a buffet option every day, and this night happened to be ribs for $9.99. I pigged out (so to speak) on ribs, and then on fruit, and in general I felt very content. After the evening performance I hung out with cast members in the hotel bar, and Liz and I played classical piano pieces for each other on the lobby piano.
It was a sunny, peaceful, and freezing Sunday morning at about 10:00 when I began the self-guided walking tour of historic Huntsville. As I approached Courthouse Square, with its 19th-century buildings, I felt as if I'd stumbled into a ghost town. There were very few cars and people about, and there was a refreshing silence, broken only by the tolling of church bells and the crisp crackle of dry leaves under my feet. (Well, that's the paragraph I wanted to write. It so happens that the silence was also broken by the burglar alarm at the 1859 Episcopal Church of the Nativity, which went off as I walked by. At least it was in the same key as the pealing bells.)
The 52-site tour took me to noteworthy antebellum homes of diverse shapes and sizes in the Twickenham and Old Town districts, the main difference being that houses tended to be smaller and newer in the Old Town. Some of the Twickenham (Huntsville's original name, until sentiments toward the British soured in 1811) homes were truly grand, with two-story columns and multiple chimneys and servants' quarters and various backyard outbuildings and gardens. One of the most impressive, the Pope Mansion at 403 Echols Avenue, dates from 1814. Some of the homes have been converted into offices. I peered into one such office and found a drawing of the courthouse that had stood until 1964, a pillared building that anchored the square much more elegantly than the current one.
Liz, who plays the second-keyboard part, is also the assistant conductor, and she conducted the Sunday matinee so that Ross could watch from the house and do some quality control. This meant that Liz didn't play her keyboard part, so they pumped in the pre-recorded keyboard track. Unfortunately, they can't pump in just one keyboard part; it's all or nothing, which means that mine gets pumped in too. In other words, when Liz conducts, I play very little of the show.
Extremely little. Specifically, I play "Percussion Four," "Mein Herr," "Sing Sing Sing," and 35 additional measures of music scattered around the score, where they happen not to have been pre-recorded. Put another way, the first act is 45 minutes, and I play for four of those minutes; there are stretches of 12, 16, and 10 minutes during which I have no responsibilities. The second act is only slightly more involved.
Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
got me through most of the show. His description of Carbondale, Illinois, shows that he had the same reaction to strip-mall suburbia in 1989 that I do on this tour: "Every town, even a quite modest one, has a mile or more of fast-food places, motor inns, discount cities, shopping malls - all with thirty-foot-high revolving signs and parking lots the size of Shropshire. Carbondale appeared to have nothing else. . . . There was no town, just six-lane highways and shopping malls. There weren't even any sidewalks. Going for a walk, as I discovered, was a ridiculous and impossible undertaking. I had to cross parking lots and gas station forecourts, and I kept coming up against little white-painted walls marking the boundaries between, say, Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppe and Kentucky Fried Chicken. To get from one to the other, it was necessary to clamber over the wall, scramble up a grassy embankment and pick your way through a thicket of parked cars. That is if you were on foot. But clearly from the looks people gave me as I lumbered breathlessly over the embankment, no one had ever tried to go from one of these places to another under his own motive power. What you were supposed to do was get in your car, drive twelve feet down the street to another parking lot, park the car and get out."
(And yes, I did read the forewarning that says, "No part of this book may be used . . . except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews." I maintain that the quotation in the preceding paragraph, as well as any that I may summon up in the future, is brief, and that this travelogue meets the criteria for a critical article. It doesn't happen to be critical of Bryson's book. But it is critical of strip-mall highways.)
Even if I didn't play much in the matinee, I did at least figure out, purely by accident, how to prevent my keyboard from conking out when I go to the bassoon patch in the middle of the second act. There's a computer bug that takes whatever volume level I'm at when I switch to the bassoon and makes that the maximum for the rest of the show. So if I take my volume pedal all the way to zero and do the patch change, I don't get any more sound. But if I keep the volume all the way up, I'm home free.
I've earned one of the reputations I'd hoped to on this tour, which is to say that on our second and subsequent days in a city people turn to me for restaurant suggestions, since by that point I've usually walked along all of the nearby streets and then some. The best I could suggest for dinner near the theatre was Captain D's
, a seafood place I'd passed on the way to the Burritt Museum. Indeed, that's where I went, accompanied by Brian. I hadn't realized it was fast-food
seafood (it's mostly in the South
). It was several steps up from McDonald's (so, for that matter, is a meal of sawdust and fermented cockroach guts), but on the walk back to the theatre I still had the bloated taste and sagging belly to remind me that my entire meal had basically consisted of fried batter. (To be fair, Captain D's also offers broiled fish, and that's what I shall partake of should the opportunity arise again.)
Ross conducted the evening performance, so I got to play most of the show again. Some people had suggested Humphrey's as an after-theatre spot for a quick bite and drinks and live music, but I'd grown tired of the walk downtown, and I decided that I would not be betraying the mandates of compulsive travel by abstaining from immersion in Huntsville's enticing Sunday-night offerings.
Friday, December 06, 2002
HUNTSVILLE, AL / DURHAM, NC / MACON, GA
I usually drift back to sleep on the bus when we have an early-morning departure, but I stayed awake leaving Huntsville, mainly because we were on the pretty road I'd hiked up to Burritt (Governors Drive, or U.S. 431) and not on a charmless, scenery-devoid interstate. We passed a somewhat depressing stretch of mobile homes, we passed trucks hauling them to their destinations, and we passed the stores that sold them. One such store called them "country homes," which must be the euphemism for these horizontally enhanced, geometrically simplified, hue-challenged dwellings. They all looked essentially the same, and I wondered how one goes about buying such a thing. Do you go into the store and say something like, "I'd like the Turbo A300 Habit-o-Matic with power windows and air conditioning," and walk out with it on the spot? It seems probably not much different from buying a car, except that with a car you at least have a choice of color. Nearly all the mobile homes I saw were white, off-white, or tan.
We also passed a staggering number of churches. Huntsville had had dozens of them, and now they were stretched out along the highway every couple of kilometers. They all had catchy slogans in front, such as "God Answers Knee Mail" and "Don't Be a Turkey - Give Thanks." The Son-Rise FCM Church looked like a mobile home.
After crossing the Tennessee River we came to a town called Guntersville, a place that might be worth spending some time in. It had an ice-cream shop called Wanda's, a grand church with tall pillars and a congregation that probably hasn't changed since the War Between the States (as it is known in these parts), and stores whose S
's and N
's and percent signs were backwards and you couldn't tell whether it was because they thought it was cute or because they actually didn't know any better. We also passed a worthwhile little town called Gadsden, at the entrance to which a sign proclaimed that 92% of the town's residents used seat belts. How do they know
such things? We were on U.S. 431 for two hours, largely traveling alongside train tracks (it always heightens the experience to travel alongside train tracks), and then we got on an interstate and I slept.
By the clock, this became a 12-hour trip, but because we crossed time zones and stopped several times it was really only about nine hours on the road. There were a few options for lunch; most of the cast went to Chick-fil-A, a place whose cutesy orthography put me off. Rodrick, the show's male lead, and I lunched at Cracker Barrel. I'd never been to one, and they're all over the South. It's part gift store and part Southern restaurant. I had the ham with sides of fried apples and dumplins (it was "dumplins" all over the menu, never "dumplings" or even "dumplin's") and a bottomless lemonade served in a frosted mug, and while the cut of ham could have been bigger, it was a very satisfying meal.
Rodrick and I discussed our upcoming journey from Macon to Atlanta, a 90-minute drive that according to our schedule was to begin at 14:00 on Thursday. Rodrick and I - and several others as it turned out - agreed that it might be much nicer to leave in the morning and have most of the day in Atlanta. We proposed this idea to Dave, our company manager, when we returned from lunch, and a vote was cast whose result was too close to call.
"We can stay in the hotel until two o'clock," Dave said, as if that were supposed to be an incentive to remain in Macon. If we arrived in Atlanta early, we couldn't check into the hotel immediately. And then the zinger: "The weather could be foul, and then you might have to stay on the bus for a few hours." Excuse me? Stay on the bus
? Does Atlanta have no public place that shelters people when it rains? When it pours in Atlanta, does the entire population get soaked, or does it dawn on them to go indoors? And are people really so shallow that they'd be afraid to walk a little bit around a big city, one I've never visited but no doubt has much to offer, simply because it's raining or chilly?
The last of these, evidently, was true, because another vote was cast, and though the hands were not actually counted Dave declared the matter closed. I downgraded by a point or two my opinion of those whom I remembered voting in favor of the later departure, and then I retreated to Peter Fleming's visit to the Kumbum lamasery and assumed a surly grimace for the remainder of the afternoon.
Later on, they showed a video of our New Brunswick performance on the bus, a performance in which the camera had been too far from the stage for us to make out any faces, and whose sound quality left something to be desired. After a rest stop at a shop that sold mainly cigarettes and in which I passed the time reading an article in a truckers' magazine about the dangers of having separate speed limits for cars and trucks, they showed American Pie 2
. I marveled at the cheap, trite, tasteless humor, and then I marveled that it actually evoked laughter. We were all very glad when we finally arrived in Durham.
There was no show that night; many of us dined at El Corral, a Mexican place across the street from our hotel. It was everything a Mexican place in a non-Mexican neighborhood should be: good, basic fare; enormous and cheap margaritas; oft-replenished chips and salsa. We split up into smokers and non-smokers, six of each, in separate parts of the room. Our company manager (a member of the former camp) was kind enough to treat the smokers to dinner; it's the first time that being a non-smoker has actually cost me money, but at least I still have my lungs to show for it.
The only thing I knew about Durham was that it was one of those hybrid airports, particularly prevalent in the South, that I used to see when I collected airline flight schedules. Let's see, there was Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Sarasota-Bradendon, Florida; Tampa–St. Petersburg–Clearwater, Florida; and the ultimate punctuation curiosity, Greensboro–High Point–Winston-Salem, North Carolina - that's en dash, space, en dash, hyphen, to my fellow pedants.
The only thing within walking distance seemed to be the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum, directions to which the hotel staff was at a loss to provide, even though it was right around the corner. The hotel provided breakfast, and one Matthew (who sings "Razzle Dazzle") and Nova (who heads up the "Rich Man's Frug") ate with me, though they were disinclined to accompany me to the museum.
"I want a full report," Nova said.
"Oh, you'll get one," I replied.
"With an essay."
"Oh, there'll be one," I assured her with a straight face. I still haven't told people on the tour that I'm keeping a travelogue.
The Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum was reached by a 20-minute walk along three streets that, as I've come to expect, were busy and had no sidewalks. I've never thought much about tobacco except that it should be avoided, and this museum was really fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that nicotine is named after the onetime French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, and that tobacco is named for the country of Tobago? And that the sons of Washington Duke, who founded this estate, basically controlled the whole tobacco industry around the world for quite some time? And that a slave who fell asleep in 1839 whilst attending to the curing of tobacco leaves hurriedly added charcoal to refuel the fire, accidentally discovering the curing process that made bright-leaf tobacco famous? Neither did I.
The museum had a lot of memorabilia, including several machines used for processing tobacco. They showed a video of a tobacco auction, a process that's dying out, in which company buyers congregate to purchase cured tobacco leaves of varying grades of quality - the process was exactly the same as that of the fish auction I saw in Sweden this summer. I was captivated by the television cigarette ads, especially Pall-Mall 100's, "the seven-minute cigarette." One ad showed someone smoking while waiting for a bus, timing his cigarette, while others stood around in disbelief that it would last for seven minutes. When the count reached seven minutes, they all cheered, and then they realized they'd missed their bus. Another had an orchestra percussionist, who'd been smoking for seven minutes, enter just in time to pick up the triangle. After I'd seen the museum, one of the caretakers, Dennis, showed me the various buildings the Dukes used in curing and processing tobacco, and he showed me the Dukes' two-story house with its period furnishings.
Our performance was at one of the theatres at Duke University (and now I know whom it's named for). After the show was a small reception featuring some thrillingly horseradish-y cocktail sauce (and appropriate items to go with it), and then we returned to El Corral, where I basically dined on a giant strawberry margarita and on chips and salsa, having filled up at the reception.
The nine-hour trip to Macon was uneventful; the sky remained gray and the weather cold. When we stopped for lunch I found a Japanese steakhouse called Sapporo, and I had a gargantuan meal of barbecued salmon with vegetables and fried rice as I tried to tune out the restaurant's broadcast of Lite 98, "Your All-Christmas Station." They even played a song with an unmemorable melody. I think it was called "It's the Holiday Season." I may have a more curmudgeonly take on Christmas songs than most, but one thing you and I can probably agree on is that they are virtually all memorable. I can't recall hearing a single Christmas song from whose melodic grasp I could not extricate my brain four or five days later. But I can't for the life of me remember a single line from this song. Now that's
"Macon was nice" is Bill Bryson's entire commentary on the city. "Nice" might be an average, but it runs from one extreme to the other.
I saw the lower extreme during my first walk around. Once I got to the streets beyond City Hall I was in a maze of used-tire shops and crumbling buildings, and all the cars that passed me were long and darkly painted and had shaded windows. I was the only white person on the street. It reminded me of the poorer sections of Lima, Peru. I could have bought two adjacent office buildings for half what I paid for my one-bedroom New York City apartment. I passed a place called "Nu Way Weiner Stand - Best Weiners in Town" and wondered how an establishment's primary product could possibly be prominently misspelled twice
on its sign.
But eventually I came upon the visitors' center, where a friendly woman named Sadie (whose daughter just moved to New York City, and who was flabbergasted by the $1,100-per-month rent on the Upper East Side) made the city come alive for me. She informed me that the wide, median-enhanced streets were designed to evoke Babylon, she pointed out the mansions that I could visit the next day, and she went on and on with interesting little facts.
The Grand Opera House was not grand enough to house all eight of us in the orchestra pit, so we were backstage. There was room to put us onstage for the final number, but the onstage piano wasn't hooked up properly (something funky had happened with the wires), so they played the recorded track of my part instead, a track that bore scant resemblance to what was printed on the page. Basically I went through the cumbersome process of changing into my tuxedo purely for looks, since I wasn't actually making any sound. I could have had a wax dummy take my place while I went out and had a nice dinner at one of the places Sadie had recommended.
I was in dour spirits after the show and thought about staying in, but Erica, who works for the costume department, and who is the only person on the tour who matches me where interest in food and sightseeing is concerned, and whose last name just so happens to be Weiner (she said Nu Way's culinary output wasn't much better than its spelling), was up for going out on the town, such as it were. The streets were almost deserted, but we found a place called Trio, which had live jazz and $2 Czechvar beers. It was a cozy lounge, approached through an archway and past an old piano; the walls were brick and lined with old instruments and there were leather couches to sit on. Erica wanted to take a cab home (on this subject she and I part company) and the bartender called one for us; when the wait time transpired to be 45 minutes one of the managers, Kevin, drove us home instead.
The next morning I walked 40 minutes or so, along streets with sidewalks, thank you very much, across the river to the Ocmulgee National Monument. It's the site of earth mounds built by the Mississippians, a Native American tribe, who lived in the area from about 900 to 1100. As I entered the access road I was greeted by the rustle of some white-tailed deer, who sized me up and let me have a glimpse of them before they scampered away through the forest.
There was a short film about the place, as there is often in such places, and there was a small museum containing Mississippian artifacts. The most impressive mound was the reconstructed earth lodge, where the original 1015 clay floor is preserved; it holds 50 seats for tribe members of carefully calculated rank, and the most prestigious three seats are atop an eagle-shaped platform. This is where the Mississippians held tribal council, to vote off members who couldn't eat their live insects fast enough for the TV cameras, for example. There are also temple mounds and a funeral mound and a trading post (which was used several centuries later by the British), on all of which used to rest important buildings, but the buildings are gone, and they just look like hills now, with only signs placed by the National Park Service to mark their historic value.
On the way to Ocmulgee I'd passed by the pretty, brick United House of Prayer for All People, and then by Fort Hawkins, a hilltop house originally built in 1806. It's a three-story house (stone, wood, wood, going up) whose top floor is wider than those below it, but actually what stands there now is a reconstruction, fitted with replicas of the original 1806 electricity powerlines and the original 1806 basketball court just outside. On an unassuming street behind Fort Hawkins was a decrepit green building called the East Side Rib Shack. This would have been the perfect lunch spot, but although "dinner" was served "daily" starting at 11:00, it was firmly closed. So I headed back into town, lunching at the sumptuous $8.95 Southern buffet at Willow on Fifth. Their candied yams were to die for.
The Hay House, a 25-room, seven-story mansion built from 1855 to 1860, looked enticing and was recommended by Sadie but charged a hefty $9.50 admission fee. However, Erica had gone the day before and said it was worth it, so I hied myself over there for the last tour of the day. It was indeed spectacular; the house was decades ahead of its time, with indoor hot and cold running water, an elevator, and innovative ventilation techniques. There are also amusingly deceitful qualities, such as a painted wall made to look like a door but serving no purpose other than symmetry with the actual door, and a hidden linen closet behind an inconspicuous vase on the way up a staircase. My tour guide, Rebecca, spewed out wonderful information for about 75 minutes, leaving me amazed by the place's elegance and secrets. I delayed my return to the hotel for a bit until it got dark, and then I detoured along streets lined with stately 19th-century homes that are delicately illuminated at night.
I shouldn't have lingered for quite so long. All I needed to do was run up to my 10th-floor room and get my music, but my key had been deactivated, probably because neither Dave nor I had supplied a credit card on our arrival (I usually do, but the reception desk was processing people at a rate of something like one per 20 minutes). So I had to rush back downstairs to have it reactivated, at which point the fire alarm went off, which did not force an evacuation but did force a delay by the receptionist. Once she fixed my key, I retrieved my music and exited the room.
But the door did not lock when I left, and so I had to call down to the receptionist to have it fixed - I wasn't about to leave an unlocked room. She said an engineer would have to come up and fix it, and I said that time was of the essence. When no one showed up after five minutes I called again, and she offered to do nothing but call the engineer once more. This I found unacceptable - being held hostage in my room by an electronic locking contraption that wouldn't lock. I've been taking Southern hospitality to heart and have generally been a more patient person than I used to be, but I think I was completely justified when I yelled at the receptionist over the phone, "I am leaving now. If anything is missing, this hotel is in big trouble. Thank you." Then I slammed the phone down and rushed to the theatre, 10 minutes late for my half-hour call.
Having made sure my pit keyboard was working and ready for the show, I secured from Ross permission to go back to the hotel for a moment to see if the technician had shown up. He hadn't, and I was just leaving my room to make a big scene at the reception desk when he finally appeared, 20 minutes after I'd first called.
"It's just the batteries," he said. "It happens all the time."
He fixed them quickly, but this comment angered me even more. In other words, with some regularity
, people are confined to their rooms because their doors won't lock? What about people who just close their doors when they leave, but aren't as diligent as I am about making sure the locks engage? Rebecca had welcomed me through the front door of Hay House using what could well have been the original 1860 lock and key. Whatever happened to regular keys, the kind with teeth? Can we go back to those . . . please?
As I climbed onto the platform for "Sing Sing Sing," I asked one of the techies whether the onstage piano had been fixed. He said that it should be working, but it hadn't been tested. Of course it didn't work, and I faked the song more lifelessly this time than I had the night before. I considered returning to Trio after the show, but I didn't feel like drinking, and instead I immersed myself in my Florida guidebook, reading about a very appealing kind of key: Key West, which I shall visit when we have a few days off at the end of this month.
Thursday, December 12, 2002
MACON, GA / ATLANTA, GA / COLUMBUS, GA / SAVANNAH, GA / MELBOURNE, FL
I spent my final morning in Macon at the library, bringing you the latest drawn-out travelogue entry and using Hotels.com
to book a very good rate at the Indian Creek Hotel
in Miami for part of our upcoming break. I lunched at bustling, festive Satterfield's, where the locals eat. I had a flimsy pulled-pork sandwich and a tiny turkey sandwich and confirmed my theory that sandwiches are best made quickly at home and are seldom worth the price in restaurants. The food was good, but I should have had the ribs platter.
After crawling through traffic, we pulled into Atlanta's Regency Suites Hotel, which was bordered by Peachtree Street, West Peachtree Street, Peachtree Place, and Tenth Street. The first two of these ran parallel in the area around our hotel but intersected downtown. When we finally arrived, company manager Dave said, "Enjoy Atlanta. It's a fun city." Uh, thanks. And what are we to do if the weather is foul?
Jessica, who sings "Mein Herr," knew of a good sushi place nearby. And so, not long after my big Satterfield's lunch, I joined her and a couple of others at Nickiemoto, where I was unable to resist the sashimi combination platter and the restaurant's signature roll, which consisted of eel, salmon, avocado, roe, and a couple of other things. After the show a bunch of us went to the Gordon Biersch Restaurant and Brewery, where I had a gargantuan plate of hummus and salad. It was a full day of eating indeed. At the show itself my onstage piano was partially fixed, but the pedal hadn't been hooked up properly, so every note I played got held for ever and ever, until it faded out. This they realized midway into "Sing Sing Sing," at which point they muted me and it was back to the tracks.
I got up on the early side to explore Atlanta before we headed off to Columbus, Georgia (there must be a Columbus in every Southern state). I walked along Peachtree Street downtown. The city had some beautiful office buildings, and downtown there were some pretty churches. There were even parks spread about, Broad Street downtown was lined with some good restaurants, and there was a new eatery-and-shopping plaza called Underground Atlanta. But although nothing was really wrong with the city, I felt unfulfilled. Something was missing. What was it?
It was the bustle and drive that bring most cities to life, the telltale everyday symbols that contribute to a place's history and future. Except near the somewhat isolated government buildings, I found only one plaque downtown explaining something of historical value: the Winecoff Hotel fire, which killed more than 100 people in 1946 and was the impetus for modern fire codes. The 15-story building still stood when I visited, and as the innards were under construction it looked as if a fire had just ravaged it. It was perhaps the most interesting building I passed.
On my loop back around, I walked along side streets and started to find the city heartbeat I'd been looking for: a nightclub, a cheap Thai restaurant, a discarded bottle of liquor (and another and another and another) - but by that point it was almost 11:00 and I had to head back up West Peachtree Street to the hotel for departure.
Columbus was prettier than I expected it to be. You wouldn't know it by looking out at the highway from our motel-like Howard Johnson's, but we were at the edge of the historic district, with densely constructed homes dating back to the early 1900s. There was supposed to be a walkway along the Chattahoochee River, but it was under construction, and so, just for kicks, I crossed a bridge over the river and ended up in Phenix City, Alabama. I walked up to the next bridge and crossed back, stopping briefly in a supermarket called Piggly Wiggly, which lived up to its name - every part of the pig was for sale, from snout to tail. Fosse
was the first Broadway show to play at Columbus's brand-new RiverCenter auditorium, which opened in May 2002. It was a pristine and inviting place, with comfortable-looking seats and a sleek backstage area, and the stairwells had that scent of newness that is vaguely reminiscent of the aroma of Mexican food.
Before our Columbus performance we had a short meeting to resolve some bus-related issues. For instance, people had been sleeping in the bus aisle, which left the floor inaccessible, making the trip to the restroom an alpine event requiring use of the armrests as footholds and the overhead luggage racks as handles. A vote was cast and we put an end to this practice. We discussed some other matters related to rest stops and the bus's cleanliness. I'd have proposed a few self-indulgent suggestions of my own, but I'm sure they would have been unpopular voiced in public - and so, under the protective obfuscation of a long, rambling travelogue, with a sly wink I submit the following:
1. No rest stops on trips of six hours or less.
2. Trips of 12 hours or less to a city of any historical or cultural significance must be begun sufficiently early in the morning as to guarantee arrival before the restaurants cease offering their lunch specials, regardless of whether our hotel rooms are ready or the weather is foul.
3. The bus's window shades must immediately and forever be removed, as lowering them blocks the view.
4. Snacks with ranch, sour-cream, or similar putrid flavoring are henceforth banned on the bus.
My onstage keyboard was finally working again in Columbus. This thrilled me to such an extent that I took a walk around town afterward, checking out the nightlife, such as it were, and looking for a quick bite. The nightlife basically consisted of one street, Broadway, and it had a few pubs that had ceased serving food and had the audacity to exact cover charges. I almost grabbed a hot dog from a street vendor, but then I came upon Rose's Caribbean Foods, which was just about to close but let me stay for a spicy Jamaican pork sandwich. Satiated, I returned to the hotel and did laundry.
Savannah was stunning. I was instantly enchanted by the numerous park-like squares that dot the gridded city streets; each park is green and shady and honors someone important, usually someone instrumental in the founding of Georgia. The streets are lined with gorgeous brick houses, some of which date to the early 1800s. The city has a clothing store called Chutzpah & Panache and a country store called the Cinnamon Bear. And then there's the waterfront along the Savannah River, where restaurants and pubs and shops are housed (according to Bill Bryson, who also raves about the city) in restored brick cotton warehouses. On the north side they face the river and the shops are on the ground floor; on the south side they face a higher street and the shops are on the second floor; steep cobblestone alleys take you between the high and low streets. I paused at River Street Sweets, where pralines and other goodies are freshly made, and had a tasty if expensive maple-walnut praline. On the walk back to the hotel it dawned on me that after Savannah, our next performance, in Melbourne, Florida, was not for two days, and we should be staying an extra day here rather than booking it to Melbourne. But no one put me in charge of travel planning.
The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus was in Savannah at the same time that we were, and so the way to the theatre was marked by the sight and scent of elephants and such. I booked it out of the theatre to take advantage of Savannah's nightlife. My first stop was the Casbah, a lavishly decorated Moroccan restaurant, which served me a very tasty Cornish-hen b'stilla and lamb with caramelized apricots. Then I met up with a few tour people at Kevin Barry's, an Irish pub along the river, where a (male) Irish singer named Fran Doyle performed songs from his native country. I requested - and got to hear - "The Fields of Athenry," which has surely remained my favorite since my 2000 visit to Ireland.
A few of us took an early-morning walk through the city, and I took a swing around the Colonial Park Cemetery, where people were buried from 1750 to 1853. Many of those interred here were involved with the American Revolutionary War. For instance, there's Archibald Bulloch, whose epitaph reads: "Tell your chrildren of him and let them tell another generation." Note to self: Hire competent proofreaders for gravestone.
And then, after a long, rainy trip, we arrived in Melbourne, Florida, probably the dullest place I've ever visited since I spent a day in Yinchuan, China. Our home was the Melbourne Airport Hilton, and any time you stay at an airport hotel you know the place is going to be surrounded by parking lots and devoid of anything of interest. We arrived on the day that Melbourne had its biggest one-day rainfall ever, about 170 mm. Our hotel was across from a residential community called Trailer Haven. When I asked about attractions at the front desk the receptionist eyed me quizzically and said, "Attractions?" It was a cruel joke that we'd have three days in Melbourne but had less than 24 hours in Savannah. At least the Hilton had a free shuttle to places in the area, and so a bunch of us were able to dine at the Outback Steakhouse.
Our first full day in Melbourne was mostly free, so I walked the eight or so kilometers to Indialantic, a little town along the beach. It's separated from Melbourne by a bridge over a waterway, and at the highest point of the bridge someone had placed a cross and flowers, probably to mark the site of someone who jumped to death out of boredom. I couldn't even find a good waterfront seafood restaurant for lunch. The best I could do - and it was perfectly fine - was the Ocean View Diner, where I had the flounder-and-21-shrimp special. Coming back from the beach I stopped at a small, friendly, well-priced produce stand called First Fruits, and the next morning I stopped at a branch of the Florida supermarket chain Publix, where, after much deliberation, I purchased one of those fully cooked summer sausages that last for months. I thought it would be a good bus snack, and it also fulfilled a sort of bizarre nostalgia, as it reminded me of the snacks I took onto the Trans-Mongolian Railway a few years ago. Publix overcharged me by 40 cents, but I didn't bother to complain, partially because I was in a good mood, partially because I didn't really want to take the time to do so, and partially because I still felt a hint of guilt at having inadvertently tried to steal a TV Guide the last time I was in a Publix, which was when I was about seven years old and shopping with my grandmother.
Melbourne's King Center was a 25-minute drive from the Hilton. The orchestra pit was enormous and shallow, so it was a good vantage point from which I could watch the show when I wasn't playing. I spent my last two nights in Melbourne in our hotel lobby with others, the first night accompanied by wine and pizza, the second night accompanying various cast members on the lobby piano as we tried to make our way through show tunes the complete lyrics of which no one could remember. Dustienne, who stars most notably in "Steam Heat," also entertained us by singing and playing a bunch of tunes.
Oh, and thanks to Erica, I finally had a Scrabble game. We didn't have time to finish, but suffice it to say I now know that METH and SNAFU are acceptable words. EPT, however, is not, which leads me to wonder how something can be in
Monday, December 16, 2002
MELBOURNE, FL / WEST PALM BEACH, FL / SARASOTA, FL
"It occurs to me that there is too much grumbling in this book," writes Peter Fleming midway through his tale, after a series of trying days, long delays, and dull villages. Perhaps I am guilty of the same offense. It is true that our inter-city bus trips are scheduled based on hotel check-in and check-out times and not, as they should be, timed to maximize our stays in the places of most interest. And it is true that there's a dearth of things to do in Melbourne, a city in which on my final morning I spent a considerable time watching ants haul a piece of crab claw along the sidewalk, a venture that no doubt passed for entertainment as much for me as it did for the ants. But the fact is that I'm getting to see a whole lot of the country that I wouldn't normally get (or think) to visit, I'm getting to do it with a better-than-expected amount of free time, I'm getting to travel with a bunch of wonderful people, and, heck, I'm getting paid a little bit. And Melbourne at least had a good library laced with Internet terminals, which enabled me to grumble and stumble through the last travelogue entry.
West Palm Beach was gorgeous. A few of us lunched at the Cheesecake Factory at City Place, a tastefully designed two-level dining-and-shopping complex, and then I crossed a drawbridge over Lake Worth into Palm Beach proper. This is where the richest of the rich reside, in secluded homes hidden by meticulously carved shrubbery. They shop on Worth Avenue, purchasing antiques and century-old oil paintings. Much of this opulence came about because of Henry Flagler, who oversaw the construction of the railway down Florida's east coast. One of Flagler's mansions, Whitehall
, is open to the public, and Erica and I (we've both been getting into mansions) were shown around the building by a 90-year-old tour guide who knew all about Flagler's family. Built in 1902, Whitehall was way ahead of its time with respect to indoor heat, lighting, and other amenities (though Macon's Hay House had virtually the same amenities and is 42 years older). Each of the main rooms at Whitehall represents a different design style. In the Gilded Age tradition - notwithstanding the bulldozer doing construction behind us - Erica and I had afternoon tea in the Whitehall Cafe, served with seven little sandwiches and a few pastries. And then we wandered over to another of Flagler's creations, the Breakers, a magnificent hotel overlooking the ocean.
On my two nights in West Palm Beach I made for Clematis Street, which teems with pubs and clubs and restaurants. Thursday night, after walking along the street a few times in search for something that captured my attention, I plunked myself down at Dax (no doubt named for the fabulous daiquiris served there) to people-watch; I also struck up a conversation with a guitar player who was there with his two friends - an action that rewarded me with his interesting thoughts on the current trajectory of pop music and, equally important, with a tasty shot that the bartender served the four of us, a shot that she called simply, "Damn, that tastes good." Friday night I dined on Irish stew at O'Shea's (if that's not the name of an Irish pub, I don't know what is), listening to the very young and very well-rehearsed band Six on the Road
. I was clearly the newcomer here; it was one of those bands that people have been seeing for weeks and weeks, and the audience chimed in with a loud response after certain phrases during certain songs. When the band performed "Take Me Home, Country Roads," a very drunk group eked out the chorus with surprisingly good pitch considering their stupor, and thereafter they sang a chorus of that same song after every subsequent tune that the band played. Train tracks bisect Clematis Street; on the way home at a little after 1:00 I had to wait for a 100-car freight train to pass, and I didn't mind one bit.
Oh, yeah, and we also performed Fosse
a few times in West Palm Beach. One of these performances was at 10:00 in the morning, for high-school students. It's always rewarding to perform for high-schoolers because you're guaranteed a reaction - indeed, they howled at the dimming of the lights, before a note was played. The theatre (or some sponsor of the theatre) provided breakfast before this unusually early show, and suffice it to say I'd much rather have a morning show than the traditional 14:00 matinee, since that way you get out for lunch and have the entire afternoon free.
West Palm Beach to Sarasota was one of the more interesting drives, since no interstate cuts across Florida from east to west at that point. We were on Florida's Route 70, hemmed in on both sides by a temporary moat due to the recent high rainfall. Along the highway cattle and white egrets grazed side by side. We passed orange groves thousands of rows wide. In one such grove, amidst all that greenery, there was just one tree that somehow had no leaves but full of oranges. How had it gotten that way?
Sarasota wasn't the most exciting place, especially compared with West Palm Beach, but it at least had a pretty main street, called Main Street, with a few reasonably priced restaurants that of course wouldn't be open on Sunday. We were staying at the Wellesley Inn, about a kilometer north of downtown and Main Street on U.S. 41, also called Tamiami Trail. We performed at the extremely purple Van Wezel Hall, which inside is actually quite beautiful. There was quite a bit of humor at the place: Instead of marking the parking-lot sections with boring old letters, they used composers' names beginning with different letters (Dvorak, Elgar, Faure, Grieg, Haydn); backstage signs were in various random languages as well as English, so the sign for the dressing rooms also pointed the way to the loge d'artiste camarín
, and the sign for the orchestra pit to the orkestovaya yama
; there were also witty sayings posted on the notice board ("Sometimes you're the pigeon. Sometimes you're the statue."). Very clever signs. If they'd bothered to punctuate "Womens Restrooms," I'd have thought them very educated as well.
There was a little reception after the first Sarasota show, and then Erica and Keith (another crew member) and I had a so-so Mexican meal (few late-night menus are wonderful) at Two Senoritas (they didn't bother with the tilde, so why should I?), after which we walked through a plaza called Sarasota Quay, which the locals rhyme with "way," instead of pronouncing it the same as "key" - perhaps to distinguish it from Florida's Keys, some of which are just a yacht ride away. We found a back entrance to the seating area around the Hyatt hotel's outdoor swimming pool and parked ourselves there for an hour or so. The depth markings beside the pool were visible: 4 ft 7 in, 3 ft, 1 ft 6 in, 1 in. One inch
? I had to test it out. I dipped my index finger in and it came out half wet - fair enough. We were craving wine - I perhaps more than the others, and perhaps more than I should have been - and so I sprung for a bottle at the poolside bar, which had closed an hour before but was kind enough to sell and uncork a Chilean cabernet. There was a cool breeze and dim lighting and palm trees and we briefly all felt very content.
The next morning I bolted out of bed as if awakened by a cobra. All sorts of thrift-related thoughts raced through my mind as I had a vague recollection of impulsively shelling out $32.82 at the Hyatt to satisfy a reckless wine craving just a few hours before. I also realized that it was 9:30 and if I showered quickly and got downstairs before 10:00 I could probably pig out on the Wellesley Inn's complimentary continental breakfast to tide me over until I got to the theatre for the matinee and could ingest some fruit from the theatre's hospitality offerings (nearly all theatres provide at least drinks for us before shows). I still had most of that summer sausage from Publix. I decided to try to make it through the day without spending a cent.
Having wolfed down a couple of little bagels and a muffin and some yogurt, I took a long walk up Tamiami Trail, away from downtown. After about three kilometers I arrived at the highly recommended Ringling Museum of Art. I didn't have time to go into the museum, but I strolled around other attractions in the complex. There was a rose garden, which looked sad and unkempt. More impressive were the gigantic banyan trees, with all their dangling roots and branches and multiple trunks - superimpose maps of the New York City, Moscow, London, and Tokyo subway systems on each other and you get a vague idea of the complexity of these trees. Then there was the orange-brown Venetian-style Cà d'Zan, a mansion built by John Ringling (yes, one of those Ringlings - there's a circus museum here too) and his wife in 1925. I didn't go in, but I peered through the stained-glass windows for a look at the grandeur, which of course reminded me much of the Flagler Museum.
The Cà d'Zan opens out onto a waterside porch, and I stayed there for a while. A pelican swooped down and landed on the chain barrier that's supposed to induce people not to go into the water. The pelican had a gray back and a white breast and was the size of a small calf, with a sharp beak and a bill as long as my forearm. We eyed each other with caution and reverence, and then the pelican ruffled its wings (making the sound of a small jet) and hopped off the chain and over to me. It was within arm's reach. I watched this thing for about ten minutes, wishing I had some food for it, and hoping it wouldn't nibble off one of my fingers when it discovered I didn't.
Along Tamiami Trail I'd been astounded by the number of motels, and I counted them on the way back. Between the Wellesley Inn and the Ringling Museum complex there were 21 motels, 17 of them in the 1.5 kilometers just south of the museums. Once you've seen the museums, was there really that much to do in Sarasota? Or, put more pruriently, was there that little
to do? The adult-video store amidst them, as well as a couple of lingerie shops, I think, put an emphasis on the latter.
Between the matinee and evening shows I took another long walk - about 40 minutes - to St. Armands Circle, which, it so happens, is on St. Armands Key, reached by two bridges. It was a peaceful sunset walk, though it had gotten a bit chilly. St. Armands Circle is a posh neighborhood with many upscale restaurants and shops - fortunately I didn't have time for a meal, because some were quite tempting. (Sadly, the travel shop Global Navigator, recommended by my Frommer's guide, seems to have disappeared.) And so I sat on a second-floor bench overlooking the circle and had summer sausage, and I caught the Sarasota Trolley back into town - 50 cents well spent, and indeed it was the only cash I outlaid that day.
Saturday, December 21, 2002
SARASOTA, FL / ST. PETERSBURG, FL / BUNNELL, FL / LAKELAND, FL / CORAL SPRINGS, FL
The next morning, as I consumed my complimentary do-it-yourself waffle at the Wellesley Inn, I overheard this conversation between another guest and one of the housekeeping staff:
"They're leaving us?" asked the guest, referring to a group of about 20 suspicious-looking youngsters whom we'd all seen smoking and going about barefoot and shirtless the day before.
"We kicked them out," replied the staff member with a subtle grin. "They're leaving a week early." He had a calm, soothing voice vaguely reminiscent of that of the maitre d' at Ashford Castle
's Connaught Room.
"Throwing out a group - isn't that bad for business?"
"We can't have them disturbing other guests."
Bit by bit, between the receptionist and one of my fellow tour members, I pieced the story together. They were not, as I'd suspected, high-schoolers on an outing (what would there have been to do in Sarasota for more than a week if they weren't, say, aspiring anglers?), but rather people performing some sort of service for a magazine. The police had had to come several times the night before; there had been a brawl and one of the kids had slugged an officer; somebody (probably that one) was now in jail; they had left the rooms a mess and done a considerable amount of drinking. As they prepared for departure, one of them envied my waffle. See what a little lawlessness denies you?
To reach St. Petersburg (which really is named after the Russian city, though they didn't bother to change it to Leningrad and back again several times), it was a quick hop over the Sunshine Skyway bridge, which has a long, flat access and then ascends and descends steeply along a short, simple cabled span. At the top are several phones whose secondary purpose is to provide motorist aid and whose primary purpose is to provide a convenient, quick line to a crisis center, lest anyone hike up the bridge with the intent to jump off. On 9 May 1980, a Liberian-registered freighter slammed into the bridge, killing 35 people. (There's an alley leading to BayWalk, St. Petersburg's version of West Palm Beach's City Place, lined with copies of noteworthy old editions of the St. Petersburg Times; several of them discuss the Sunshine Skyway, whose opening in 1954 provided a vital economic link between St. Petersburg and Bradenton.)
St. Petersburg overlooks a bay, has many worthwhile restaurants and museums, and in general was a very pleasant place to spend two days. I walked north along the water and then turned sharply inland to reach the Fourth Street Shrimp Store, part market and mostly no-frills amazingly cheap restaurant. I started with a dozen raw oysters ($5.99) and a large free-refills Coke (99 cents), which were delivered about 40 seconds after I ordered, as if they'd been waiting for me all day; this is probably the only time I've gotten raw oysters and not had to ask for more horseradish. Then I had an overflowing clam roll ($3.99). It's a good thing I gorged myself there, because after that night's show our company management threw a party for us in our hotel's lounge, a party at which the only food available was buffalo wings (one of the few things I don't eat) and a couple of sandwiches, the latter of which were gone before I had even reached the table. But lack of food notwithstanding, the open bar was (as is always) appreciated, and we all got to hear Jalynn (who sings the sultry "I Gotcha" song) and our technical director (who goes by the unlikely name of Squatch - would that that were acceptable in Scrabble!) perform a dueling scat duet against Ross's peppy gospel accompaniment on the lobby piano.
At 10:10 the next morning, the lady at the Florida Holocaust Museum pried the doors slightly open and asked, "Can I help you?" - apparently bewildered by the sight of someone with a tourist brochure peering through the entrance ten minutes after opening time. They weren't quite ready to open; the security officer was in a meeting. I came back a few minutes later, this time joined by two Russians. "Do you want to come in?" we were asked. I decided that a response of "No, we just want to bomb the place" might be taken the wrong way.
The highlight of the museum's collection was an actual boxcar (and an actual rail segment) used to transport Jews to killing centers, and there was an interesting display on the St. Louis, a ship carrying refugees who would have survived had they been allowed ashore in Cuba (the original destination) or the United States (where the ship tried to dock after the Cuban government invalidated their visas). And there were instruments believed to have been used by torturer Josef Mengele.
But that was about it as far as original specimens go. The problem is that there is really no reason for there to be a Holocaust museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. All the original stuff has gone to other Holocaust museums, so basically what you get is a series of timelines taking you through Hitler's rise to power, a brief description of ghetto life, and toned-down exhibits on the genocide process itself (the audio explanation of Josef Mengele doesn't even explain why he was so horrible), and then suddenly the war is over and you're in the gift shop. What they should have done, perhaps, was place that boxcar in a memorial and ask for a buck or two as a donation, rather than charge $8 ($7 with a ubiquitous discount coupon) to let you read the same information that you can find on-line.
The second floor, granted, had great exhibits brought in from other Jewish museums: a holographic exhibit from the Jewish Museum in Vienna (which, as it so happens, I'd seen in Vienna), an exhibit on the history of the Jews of Frankfurt (from that city's museum), and an exhibit from the Jewish Museum in London telling the story of how Britain saved 10,000 Jewish children by allowing them to immigrate. Across the street was a French restaurant called Cafe Bonjour, where I had a splendid escargot pastry for lunch and watched the waitress shoo panhandlers from the outdoor seating area.
You'd think the Salvador Dali Museum's outrageous $12.50 admission price ($11.50 discounted) would include a couple of original Dali works to take home as a souvenir, and if two people hadn't highly recommended the museum I might have balked at the fee. I got there just as a group tour was starting, so I was taken through the important stages of Dali's life and art - an intriguing tour, as it turns out. They displayed a multitude of works representing his most famous styles, such as surrealist paintings (I was particularly fond of "Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano") and dual-image paintings (I was fascinated by his master work "The Hallucinogenic Toreador"). I went through all the paintings again after the tour and, quite simply, I was much impressed. Still, I'd have thought $6 or $7 would have been a more appropriate entry fee. Pondering all that, I took a walk along the bay as dusk approached.
Following that night's show was a reception at the theatre, thrown by the parents of someone in the cast; the food selection was much better than the previous night. A bunch of us took to BayWalk afterward for daiquiris at Wet Willie's, where Jalynn wowed everyone with her karaoke performances of "The Greatest Love of All" and "Respect." That place closed, and we went across the walkway to another place; I do not think I ever knew what it was called, but their apple martinis were excellent.
For the next three days we crossed from coast to coast daily. The first stop was Bunnell, where I took a nasty fall immediately upon arrival at the Microtel: I was walking through the parking lot with my suitcase and backpack and tripped over one of those car-width concrete slabs used to keep octogenarians from driving their automobiles into buildings. Luggage in hand, I had no way to break the fall. Always practical-minded, as I was hurtling through the air, my first thought was to the bottle of Bordeaux in my bag, which I'd been carrying around since Melbourne.
From the degree of support from the cast you'd have thought I'd announced that I'd been diagnosed with leukemia. Within seconds someone had run into the hotel to get ice; another was offering Neosporin; another helped me inside to get the leg elevated. I had a skinned left knee with a bruise about two centimeters in diameter; the right knee was slightly skinned; my palms hit the ground and hurt, but not enough to affect my piano playing. As there was not a whole lot to do near our hotel anyway, I was content to sit outside for a while and read about a day when Peter Fleming and his companions had trekked for 12 hours, gotten lost, and dined on a vile concoction of tsamba (parched barley meal) and melted mutton fat mixed with Worcester sauce, and somehow my skinned knee seemed trivial.
Flagler Auditorium in Bunnell, actually part of the Flagler Palm Coast High School complex, was by far the smallest theatre we've played in. Virtually none of the set could fit onstage, save a bit of scaffolding used in the second act. The "Sing Sing Sing" bandstand didn't have a chance onstage, and in any case there was no way to exit the orchestra pit except through the house. We did not have one of our better shows that night; I don't know whether it was due to claustrophobia or other distractions.
As luck would have it, I happened to have two cousins passing through Bunnell that night (they would have been there anyway!), who came to see the show; even if it was not the pinnacle of performances it was great to see them. They had driven down from New York in their motor home, and in it we had some ice cream, cookies, and cider after the show. I'd never been in a motor home; they are quite fascinating. Theirs - one of the smaller models - sleeps six (the "master bedroom" is in back, two can sleep above the driver, and the dining area opens up into a temporary bed). It has a refrigerator and a microwave and an electricity generator. It even has a shower. The drawback is that it gets only about seven miles to the gallon (I'll spare you the conversion from kilometers per liter).
In the lobby of the Microtel was a detailed street map of the area, and as I gazed at it I noticed that all the streets north of us started with F. In another area they all started with B, in another C, and in another W. I took the briefest of walks through the F-sector the next morning, after picking my way delicately through the hotel's parking lot as if tramping through unexploded Cambodian land mines. I walked along Farrington Lane and Farragut Drive, passing Faith Lane, Farmbrook Lane, Fairview Lane. It was a lushly green residential area with a park and very little to do nearby except stock up at the Publix - the perfect place for, say, a three-day Scrabble retreat. I pondered the street-naming convention. I guess if someone says he lives on Crabtree Lane, and you happen to live on Willow Lane, you know instantly what region of the town he's in and that it's not within walking distance. But if, driving around slowly at night tailgated by an impatient truck, you're trying to find your friend's house and you're thinking, "I know it's something pastoral, starting with C," and you cannot remember whether it's Crabtree or Crabgrass or Crudbucket (Bill Bryson's made-up Ohio town), you're pretty much out of luck.
Then it was on to Lakeland. I'd been there six years before, with the Harvard Glee Club, and all I could remember about the place was that it was the only one-word oxymoron I'd ever heard and that they told us it was too dangerous to go out at night. But Lakeland was a tranquil place. As its name suggests, little lakes abound, and so you find yourself walking through downtown along Main Street (which is only about six blocks long) and suddenly you're circling a lake. So you take another street and come up against another lake. There's an area with several antique stores, and there are a bunch of restaurants that unanimously have decided to open for dinner only on Fridays and Saturdays (of course we were there on a Thursday). There's a pretty central park that was awash with those flimsy white holiday sculptures that are only worth looking at when illuminated at night.
I'd noticed, by reading the little brochure that accompanied my key at the AmeriSuites, that a bunch of restaurants abounded along South Florida Avenue around the 3000-block. This was quite a hike, but when I got to 800 and saw that one such place was offering all-you-can-eat snow-crab legs and sushi, I decided to continue the trip - about a half hour's walk from downtown. Every town in Florida must have a place called the Grand Buffet, offering cheap, Americanized Chinese food, and so I was skeptical about the quality, but I couldn't pass up unlimited crab legs and sushi (and free sodas, owing to the coupon in the AmeriSuites brochure).
This Grand Buffet, at 2607 South Florida Avenue, in the Southgate Shopping Center, was hands down the best-value buffet I've ever come across. (I guess you could argue that a comped buffet at the Showboat casino would be inherently better value if I happened to earn it by a few hours' blackjack play in which I'd come out ahead.) Dinner started at 16:00, just a few minutes after I got there, and I was amazed by the variety and quality. The snow-crab legs were perfectly steamed and presented with melted butter. The squid sushi was among the best I've ever had - squishy and crunchy and sticky and creamy all at once. There were giant raw oysters as well - maybe not the most splendid around, but perfectly respectable, and you could have built the Pyramids with the mound of shells on my plate at the end. All this for - ready? - $9.95. (Lunch is $4.95 but without all the goodies.) And I didn't even mention the rows and rows of Chinese dishes; I tried a few spare ribs and stuffed clams, and they were excellent; everything looked enticing, but I had only 45 minutes to eat and had to focus on the best offerings. If I lived in Lakeland I would eat there almost every day. If I am ever within telegraph-cabling distance of Lakeland I'll do everything practicable to revisit.
I hied myself back to the theatre for sound check and the show and, sensing that I had the aroma of someone who'd wolfed down dozens of oysters and crab legs and then sprinted for a half hour, I showered and stayed in that night.
Once more we crossed Florida from west to east, arriving at the Wellesley Inn in Coral Springs at about the same time as a downpour. Our touring company, as a sort of year-end present, arranged for each of us to have an hour massage by students at the American Institute of Massage Therapy. I'd never had a massage before. I told my masseuse, Amber, that I was a pianist, and so she worked primarily on my arms and hands, working out a few of the kinks that had developed since my tumble in Bunnell (the skinned knees deterred her from doing anything with my legs and feet). The experience was plentily pleasant, but instead of being able to clear my thoughts and relax I was invaded by all sorts of questions: Will this lotion bleach my black shirt? Who wrote the music we're listening to? How will I report this in the travelogue?
The theatre at the Coral Springs City Center was about the same size as Bunnell's, and here we had another perk: The musicians' dressing room was the same as the green room, so it did not afford us the degree of privacy to which we've been accustomed (which is, actually, not all that high). But the hospitality spread included chocolate muffins, so I was not displeased. All sorts of weird things happened on opening night in Coral Springs, mainly related to those fickle pre-recorded tracks: They didn't work at the beginning of the show, so the prologue was delayed for a minute or so while they went into backup mode; then they accelerated at some point during the second act; then they stopped ticking altogether; then "Mr. Bojangles" came on in a higher key than usual (as apparently happens whenever the backup tracks are used), leaving the singer frantic and leaving Ross to improvise an accompaniment to add substance to the tracks. (Some songs in the show are performed live, some have accompaniments that are entirely pre-recorded, and more often than not it's something in between, where the orchestra is enhanced by the pre-recorded tracks. "Mr. Bojangles" is almost entirely pre-recorded, since that's when the band usually goes onstage.)
After the show Tammy (who dances the difficult, stunning choreography to the trumpet solo in "Sing Sing Sing," among other things) and I walked to Barnes & Noble, where we browsed briefly. I consulted Lonely Planet's Miami guide for advice on getting from the Fort Lauderdale airport to South Beach, which I'll need to do tomorrow, and then I got to read about Uzbek food (next year's trip!) for about three minutes before the store closed. Across from our hotel was an inviting lounge with a waterfall, a DJ, and dancing, and Tammy and I had a couple of martinis (somehow the hospitality muffin, the continental breakfast at the AmeriSuites, and the bar snacks at this lounge sufficed for the day's food) and discussed life goals and mortgages and investments and all that fun stuff. Tammy is perhaps the most career-minded, intelligently professional person on tour.
When I tried to enter my room, the electronic key didn't work - the fourth time since Macon. We'd been expressly told that our keys would be deactivated if we didn't leave a credit-card number as a guarantee of payment (apparently they thought we were those drunken teens from the Wellesley Inn in Sarasota), and so I'd given them my credit card as soon as we arrived. I was furious. I stormed - as much as one can storm in a gentle elevator that progresses one floor every five seconds - down to the lobby, fuming.
"I'm in room 422. This key doesn't work," I told the receptionist dryly, plunking the key on the desk.
"May I see some identification?"
I gave her my driver's license. "This is the fourth time this has happened in two weeks. If it happens again, I'm not paying for my room."
"You haven't been here for two weeks."
"It's happened in other hotels over the past two weeks. Why can't we just use regular keys?"
She ignored this question. "The key was demagnetized. Was it kept near a cell phone?" she asked, re-activating it. Oh, so it's my
fault the bloody thing doesn't work?
"I don't have a cell phone," I said bluntly, taking the reprogrammed key back. Apparently electronic keys can lose their functionality if they're placed near something remotely magnetic, like a mobile phone, chewing-gum foil, or a penny.
"Did you have it near any loose change?" she asked.
"I don't know," I called as I walked away. "Just make it work." I'm supposed to rearrange my pockets just to keep my stupid key in service?
Back when I was seven or eight and electronic keys were just coming out, I thought it was pretty neat that you could insert what basically looked like a playing card into a lock and have the door open. But I now find them a complete nuisance. Regular keys always
work, whereas electronic keys only usually
work. The reason, of course, that hotels have gone the electronic route is that it doesn't matter if people lose key cards and it doesn't matter if they walk off with them after checking out. Now, to cross the line into snobbishness in order to make a point, I have traveled internationally for about six weeks a year for the past six years. That's nearly a full year of travel. I've stayed in cheap hotels in dozens of countries, and I have rarely, if ever, had to use an electronic key. And I have never been denied access to my room because a key didn't work. If I ever lost a key, I would expect to pay for lock replacement. If I ever wandered off with a key, I would post it back immediately and call the hotel with my deepest apologies. But hotels in the USA don't want to make people take responsibility for their actions. This is clearly a case of the competent being inconvenienced because of the negligence of the idiotic.
On a sweeter note, the Kyocera 7135 Smartphone was finally released, albeit by Alltel in the USA and by Telstra in Australia. I'm waiting for the Verizon release. Take a tour of the phone
and you'll see why I'm obsessed.
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
CORAL SPRINGS, FL / MIAMI, FL
For a fortnight, the cast had been abuzz with Secret Santa, a game in which participants draw each other's names randomly and then clandestinely leave a series of gifts for their chosen recipients. I didn't play (I prefer to spend free time sightseeing rather than shopping for little trinkets), though I acted as a gift-transporting messenger in a couple of instances. Between our two Saturday performances, the final gifts were opened and the secret Santas were revealed at the theatre. This little party featured company-provided pizza that, fortunately, was not exclusively for game participants and, fortunately, provided enough sustenance that it did not matter that the kitchen at the lounge across from our hotel had closed by the time we arrived that night.
Sunday began a stretch of five days off, during which I had planned a little vacation in Miami Beach and Key West. The company provided a bus service to the Fort Lauderdale airport, from which, I'd discovered through laborious Internet research at the excellent Broward County Library in Coral Springs, I could get to my hotel in Miami Beach via Broward County Transit bus 1 and Miami bus S. The 95-minute journey cost just $1.25, with an instantaneous transfer at the Aventura Mall at the northern tip of Miami.
I got to the Indian Creek Hotel at 10:40 - well before the check-in time, but luckily they had room 222 ready for me. In true Art Deco style, my room had flowery upholstery on the bed, black-and-white photos on the walls, and a heinously pastel-colored, striped shower curtain. The lobby was festooned with all sorts of old memorabilia. My keychain was a giant toy alligator and, to my delight, attached to it was a regular key. And guess what - it worked every time.
I took a stroll around South Beach, just a short walk from the hotel. You've heard of the South Beach hype - the glamour, the exclusive clubs, the beautiful people - and while all of it's certainly there, there are plenty of normal folks around, plenty of dusty areas, and plenty of eateries that don't even set you back a Jackson. I wasn't sure where I'd fit into the mix, but suffice it to say that my ego was pleasantly boosted when a bikini-clad, roller-blading hottie (my "hotties" once went unchallenged in Scrabble, but it's not legit) thought I was attractive enough to know which way was the Lincoln Road pedestrian thoroughfare. And, by golly, she was right.
Miami has a bunch of great restaurants, and I tried to make a dinner reservation at one of the more popular spots, Tantra
. I left a message after I got a recording saying they were busy helping other customers, which I later learned simply meant that they were not checking the reservations line. I figured I'd just show up that night and see what happened.
But now it was brunch time, and, at the recommendation of my Frommer's guide, I had the Sunday buffet at Nemo, a pan-Asian place. Where else can you get Indian-spiced lamb, soba-noodle salad, wok-charred salmon, and sushi rolls in the same meal? I saw everyone drinking mimosas, and I asked my waiter whether they were included in the buffet price. He answered no, whereupon I assume he went back inside to call Tantra and tell them that the wavy-haired twenty-something who'd be stopping by that night was a cheapskate.
The buffet was not bad, but I felt that pretty much everything could have been spiced more strongly - toward the end I found myself more or less subconsciously spooning wasabi onto everything. Most notable about the place was that they kept taking my food away. I had a half-eaten smoked-salmon omelet - a really terrific one - and by the time I went to the buffet for a second helping and got back to the table, they'd cleared it away. I pointed this out to my waiter, and they made me another. Later on in the meal, noting that brunch was due to cease in one minute, I sprinted for the dessert table, trying to make it back before they had the chance to clear my second omelet. When I was back within view of my table, a busboy was just starting to take it away.
"No! Don't take my food!" I called out across several tables.
He put it back. My waiter came over to see whether everything was OK.
"People keep taking my food!" I said with what I hoped was enough sarcasm to indicate that I was more stunned than angry. There were no more problems after that, but this introduction to South Beach worried me. This was supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Miami. Shouldn't they know
I spent much of the afternoon strolling around the well-maintained beachfront and the Art Deco district - most of the buildings along Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and the side streets have the immaculate pastel facades that they did when erected in the first half of the 1900s. It really does make the area beautiful, and Collins Avenue, with its white luxury hotels elegantly illuminated at night and fronted by waterfalls or fountains, is especially exquisite. My mind never tired of the walk to and from my hotel on 28th Street, but my feet did - done briskly, the hike from the hotel to the end of Collins Avenue was about 45 minutes.
After a two-hour nap and a shower to get me as close to ready as I could possibly be for nocturnal mingling with the beautiful people, I headed back to Tantra. They hadn't gotten my reservation, but the place was virtually deserted, and when I asked whether I could come back at 22:30 the hostess asked if I could make it earlier, 21:45. I was surprised by this. The Frommer's had indicated this as one of the few places where reservations were required rather than merely recommended. Shouldn't the place have been packed?
This left me with about a half hour before dinner (I wasn't hungry yet), and so I strolled along the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall, with its little outdoor cafes and shops. I paused briefly in one, the Ninth Chakra, one of those places that sell healing oils and feng shui books and incense and things written in Tibetan. Properly primed for a tantric experience, I returned to the restaurant.
The setting was serene, with sculptures and a little waterfall and soothing music. Apparently the place turns into a jam-packed, noisy club most nights, but I saw no evidence of this. I enjoyed two of their martinis, which are served with edible purple flowers, but I have trouble trusting any drink menu that repeatedly refers to "Kettle One vodka." What is it, made with tea leaves? Come on, restaurateurs! Don't you have any pride?
My appetizer - "Golden Tom Yum Thai Lobster Soup" - was indeed sensational, with a terrific aroma and large chunks of lobster. The "Saigon Saffron Seafood Stew" main course was pretty good, though not sensational. A suggested tip was included in the bill (which often happens on South Beach); when my credit-card slip came back for me to sign, the suggested amount was pre-printed as "gratuity," and there was a blank line for "tip." Did they think I didn't know what "gratuity" meant?
And am I going to end every paragraph about South Beach with a question?
Miami was America's unhealthiest city, according to an article from the magazine Men's Health prominently posted in the men's restroom at Tantra. I pondered this as I left, but then my thoughts turned to the missing crowds. I'd practically closed down Tantra. There had been very few patrons at Nemo. The streets were almost deserted. Where was everyone?
I found them at Nikki Beach
I approached the Nikki Beach nightclub, at the foot of Ocean Drive, along with dozens of other people on foot and hundreds more in expensive cars. This was clearly one of the hottest spots - one where guys line up for hours trying to get past the velvet ropes.
Actually, it didn't take long to figure out how to get in: be a woman; be a member of a group that's predominantly women; be a columnist writing an article on the place; or walk up to the doorman, call him Carlos, and kiss him on the cheek. Carlos wouldn't pay any attention to single guys or all-male groups. I told another man that what he had to do was approach a group of unaccompanied women and ask if he could go in with them. That worked for him. I might have done the same thing, but by then it had become so fascinating just watching people try to get in that I lost interest in getting in myself. But eventually, after talking for a while with a promoter of other clubs, I realized that you
, dear reader, would want to know all about Nikki Beach, and so I hooked up with two British women, got past Carlos, and shelled out the $20 cover charge. It was about 1:00 at this point. The Brits and I were never in contact again.
It was worth the $20 just to see the place. It was enormous, with a multitude of bars, a small dance floor, and a round outdoor area with lounge chairs, curtained shacks, and little tepee-like huts. When I got there, a flame-thrower, or some such person with torches, was spicing things up as people danced next to her.
I went back to the dance floor. The first song I heard was something that I shall title "The Same Two Alternating Notes a Half-Step Apart for Ten Minutes." I guess you don't go to these places for the melodies. You go for the people, most - though not all - of which were indeed gorgeous.
Time passed quickly. I had a couple of margaritas, danced a bit (they did amazing things with the strobe lighting, most of which I hope masked my inferior dancing ability), had a brief chat with a Venezuelan, and lay down on one of the lounge chairs (someone circulates with a flashlight to make sure no one falls asleep). By the time I left, at 3:50, the party had just barely started to wind down. Suspending my usual rigid adherence to foot-power, I cabbed home.
Living the Miami schedule should have meant sleeping in until noon, but my body would have none of that, and so I found myself up at 10:00 figuring out how to get to Little Havana by bus. Little Havana, not surprisingly, is home to a large native Cuban population. Southwest Eighth Street (called Calle Ocho in these parts) is the heart of the area, with lots of Cuban supermarkets and cigar shops (Cuban cigars are illegal, but they sell stuff that comes close) and cheap restaurants. There's a park where Cubans meet to play dominoes. The residential side streets were pretty and each house had color and character, though I wonder whether that continues when you get far from Calle Ocho.
I investigated a supermarket and came face to face with a slaughtered suckling pig. Eventually, for lunch, I plunked myself down at a place (it may be unnamed) that, for $2.50, served me ropa vieja (a shredded-beef sort of stew; the name literally means "old clothes") with rice and cassava. I sat on a stool outside and practiced my Spanish with the proprietor.
Little Havana ain't so little. I covered 27 blocks of Calle Ocho - only about half of the district. Thirsty and foot-weary, I stopped in a supermarket for a liter of blackberry juice (only ethnic markets seem to offer such things). Then I took bus 27 to Coconut Grove, which has an attractive waterfront and a few enticing restaurants and bars but is basically noted for its shopping complexes, CocoWalk and Mayfair. I stayed for about an hour and then got on the Metrorail going back toward downtown. I'd have gotten off and transfered to a Miami Beach bus, but when I realized the Metrorail was elevated I decided it was a good way to see a lot of the city, and so I rode it all the way to Northside (there's a huge indoor flea market there) before coming back. Starting with bus 27, it cost only $1.75 to get home: the base bus fare was $1.25, the transfer to the Metrorail (valid until midnight) was 25 cents, and when I got on the Metrorail I'd gotten another 25-cent transfer to take a bus back to Miami Beach. Public transportation in Miami has come a long way in the past few years.
After an hour's nap, I walked along Collins Avenue, stopping in a couple of hotels to see their impressive lobbies. The Delano's is the most stunning of all: rooms separated by large white curtains, hotel staff all in casual white garb, white fur-lined chairs and couches, high ceilings, very dim lighting, a sushi bar off to the side. Most hotel lobbies have lots of "stuff" in them; the Delano's lobby's "stuff" all seems soothingly secluded. It wasn't until my walk back through the lobby, in fact, that I found the reception desk, and it wasn't until I walked through the next day that I found the elevators. The outdoor pool's depth markings included an eight-inches mark; that's where there are a table and chairs in the pool so that you can soak your feet while you drink.
Dinner was at Shoji, noted for its unusual rolls. I sat outside until the wind kicked up and the gyrations of the giant table umbrella started making me dizzy; then I moved indoors to the sushi bar. There were some unusual appetizers as well as innovative rolls. I started with sazae, a giant snail - a bit sweeter than a clam, and with a sweet seaweed-y aroma. I continued with white-salmon collar - white-salmon meat is a bit lighter and sweeter than regular salmon, and, as I learned from the sushi chef, they can't tell a white salmon from a regular salmon until they cut it open at the fish market. I sampled the rolls, too: a spicy-lobster roll (with mango) and a Caribbean roll (conch and hearts of palm). Following dinner I spent a couple of hours listening to live salsa music and watching the dancers at Mango's, before calling it an early night by Miami standards, which meant I left Mango's at 2:15.
I slept a bit later yesterday morning, until about 10:30. On my walk down to South Beach I visited the deeply moving Holocaust Memorial. You see it from the street as a giant sculpture of a hand reaching upward. Then you get inside and see the story of the Holocaust etched into the walls along with pictures, and you walk through a narrow tunnel with Jewish prayer music playing and the names of concentration camps carved into the walls. As you emerge from the tunnel you're face to face with a statue of a beggar child with an outstretched arm. Similarly haunting statues abound. Pretty amazing.
I had a quick lunch of penne with salmon at Caffe Milano, overlooking the ocean and the street traffic on Ocean Drive, and then I visited the fascinating Wolfsonian, a sort of "random things" museum. It had all sorts of memorabilia from the Industrial Revolution, and in particular items displayed at World's Fairs. There was also an exhibit of Republican propaganda from the Spanish Civil War. I only wish the curator hadn't told me, when I'd stopped by before lunch, that I'd have time to see everything in 45 minutes to an hour. I found myself shooed out after 90 minutes, having given a few rooms only a cursory overview and having barely skimmed the texts.
I decided that Monty's, a seafood place in the southwestern part of South Beach, would be a good place to watch the sun set, and, by golly, I was right. I lingered there, immersing myself in the happy-hour raw bar, which offers 50-cent oysters and clams and $2.50 stone-crab claws. These claws are famous in Florida and are available only in the winter. They're perhaps a little fishier than lobster, but for the price I don't think they're appreciably better.
I now have to rationalize having not booked a hotel room for the night. I'm pretty sure you'll agree that if you have a plane or train or bus departing at, say, midnight or 1:00, that you don't need to keep a hotel room for the night - you'll store your luggage at the hotel and pick it up on the way out of the city. If it's 2:00 or 3:00, you might need to linger at a bar for a while to pass the time, but you probably still don't need the room. If it's 4:00, it starts getting questionable - you have to decide where to draw the line.
I decided that, with Miami's cutting-edge nightlife, I could find ways to pass the time until a 6:20 bus departure, which would save me the cost of another night at the Indian Creek. Let's face it - I'd probably have gotten back to the hotel at 2:00 at the earliest anyway, and have had to leave by 5:00, so I would essentially have spent $25 an hour just to sleep. I figured it would be more interesting - and thrifty - to explore nighttime activities and wait it out until an hour or two before departure. Then I could sleep for the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride.
So what did I do? I spent a good bit of time investigating hotel lobbies. I found the Delano's elevators, and I took one (it was brilliantly white, backlit with a sort of reddish haze) up to the penthouse floor, which was brilliantly white, with a sort of greenish haze. The Sagamore had similar decor to the Delano, but with some paintings and sculptures in the lobby. I strolled up and down Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue, for one last look. At about half past midnight I settled down to dinner (hummus and a grilled-tuna wrap) at Aura on Lincoln Road. I people-watched at a club called Blue (which was, indeed, blue inside) and watched people play pool at dive bars called Lost Weekend and Mac's Club Deuce. Was I lonely? A little bit. Most people were coupled, and South Beach is tough on your own. Was I bored? Not at all.
Oh, I did one other thing as well: I stopped into a Cuban-restaurant-cum-Internet-cafe called Tropical on the Beach, which is open around the clock, and brought you this travelogue entry. And now there are just 99 minutes before my bus departs for Key West, so it is time to say good night - or good morning.
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
MIAMI, FL / KEY WEST, FL / NAPLES, FL / NEW YORK, NY
The bus departed from the dingy Miami West Greyhound terminal at 6:50, a half hour late, but we arrived in Key West on time. There were only a few passengers, and I was lucky to score a seat in the handicapped-seating area, so I had an enormous amount of legroom; I slept the entire ride. The Fairfield Inn in Key West had a room ready for me by 11:30, and after freshening up a bit, I set out to explore the town.
Duval Street, the main drag, is saturated with restaurants, bars, and shops. Some of it is touristy, but it's laid-back and friendly, and I found it all quite attractive. I let the slow pace take control of me and had a fish sandwich at an outdoor pub called the Hog's Breath, second only to Crabby Dicks' (yes, the apostrophe goes at the end) as the Key West establishment with the most repulsive-sounding name.
A large coral reef surrounds the Keys, and in the late afternoon I boarded the glass-bottom Fireball
at the western end of Duval Street for a sunset cruise and coral-viewing expedition. I then stopped in at Sloppy Joe's Pub to listen to the slightly vulgar, amusingly witty songs played by a duo known simply as Pete & Wayne; the place was crowded to the point that it was possible to stand and listen for an hour without actually purchasing a drink. In the evening I participated in a ghost tour: Many of the downtown buildings are deemed haunted. I can't say I became a believer in ghosts, but I found our guide Matty's stories fascinating, and they are an integral part of Key West culture. For instance, one performance venue has remained boarded up for a decade because spirits are still thought to lurk after children were murdered in the building.
I'm a sucker for anything that says "buffet," and the ghost tour's ending point was across from one that offered snow-crab legs and stone-crab claws for about $20. It wasn't nearly as spectacular as the one in Lakeland, but it was nothing to complain about. I browsed pubs for a while after dinner before settling into an Irish place offering music that wasn't particularly Irish but provided a fulfilling conclusion to the evening.
I enjoyed a poolside breakfast at the Fairfield Inn before meandering a bit up and down the attractive residential streets. I stumbled upon the Flagler Station Historeum (remember Flagler?) - Key West was the terminus of Flagler's railroad from 1912 until 1935, when a hurricane washed away part of the track and it was deemed too expensive to repair. For a while you could board a train in New York or Chicago, transfer to Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway in Jacksonville the next morning, cross over to a ship in Key West, and be in Havana, Cuba, by that same evening. It must have been a remarkable train ride from Miami to Key West, a trip across 42 bridges, including the aptly named Seven-Mile Bridge.
I took a self-guided tour of the whimsical Key West cemetery. It contains, for instance, hypochondriac B. Pearl Roberts's grave - "I Told You I Was Sick" is etched into the stone (and, above it, Gloria M. Russell's reads, "I'm Just Resting My Eyes"). There's also a gravestone conferring on someone the moniker "Mr. Peculiar," and on another there's "Sunny Otto - Beloved Yorkshire Terrier of Gene and Anne Otto." The cemetery was opened in 1847 to accept the transfer of caskets from previous burial sites located closer to the water; in times of flooding the caskets would float up and drift around the city, which apparently slowed tourism.
The sunset is celebrated daily in Mallory Square, with street performers entertaining large audiences - people on unicycles juggling torches and knives and the like. The most spectacular performance, however, is the sun's descent itself. When I visited, a stationary ship eclipsed the sun's disappearance below the horizon, creating a sensational orange glow around the ship; that, along with the wispy, curving clouds, gave the effect of an impressionist painting.
I passed a couple of hours watching Pete & Wayne again (it was the cleverest music around) before heading to a performance of comedian Tom Snyders
. This was right up my alley: He's spent the past 15 years riding his bicycle around the United States to all his gigs, logging over 150,000 kilometers. A few years ago he biked from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West. He had a few compelling travel stories; most of his performance consisted of a slide show of hilarious road signs and other oddities that he's seen whilst traipsing around on his bike: "Drive Thru - $3.59 All You Can Eat" comes to mind, for instance.
I dined on the porch at a welcoming place called Nine One Five (it's at 915 Duval Street). It was tranquil and cozy; I felt as if I were dining at someone's house. I prepared myself for another long night of bar-hopping, which can be done in Key West almost as easily as in Miami - I was deeming my 6:00 bus back to Miami as another "late-night" departure. After trying a few spots I stayed awhile at the same Irish pub as the previous night, and then at another place across the road, where I chatted with another Jewish New Yorker and her friend and two black men. And then we all breakfasted at Denny's when the bars closed at 4:00, for there is not much else to do in Key West at that point.
I slept for virtually the whole ride to Miami, awakening only to see the remnants of Flagler's Seven-Mile Bridge and one of the other bridges of note. Another bus got me to Fort Lauderdale; as I boarded, an inspector meticulously opened my suitcase and checked what was inside, and then he ignored my backpack and I carried both bags onto the bus. Brian picked me up in Fort Lauderdale in a company-provided rental car so we could rejoin the tour in Naples. This necessitated a drive along the very straight Alligator Alley, which passes through the Everglades and affords views of some impressive birds. This particular day's drive also, as we discovered after a traffic jam, afforded a spectacular view of a charred bus. The front of the bus was intact; the back looked as if a fire had razed it for days.
That first Naples performance was the most fulfilling one I've played, though it was also the most nerve-racking. Our sound board conked out somewhere between Coral Springs and Naples, so there was no way to provide the usual background tracks and metronome clicks. The show was nearly canceled, until it was discovered that we could actually perform the accompaniment live
- no pre-recorded enhancements, no clicks to rein us into an unvarying tempo; just the musicians following the conductor, the way music used to be.
And so, a half hour late, we began. Not all the usual sounds were there, but the performance was more intimate. I was playing parts I hadn't looked at since I got the score in October. Every once in a while, Ross, unsure whether Liz or I would be covering a particular passage, would call out, "Who's got this?" - and one of us would assume responsibility for it.
The only drawback was that there was no way to perform "Sing Sing Sing" onstage live, so we faked it onstage while they played the recording. You may remember that I used to have to fake my own part, back when I was still learning my solo, and then later on when the onstage piano wasn't working. But this was the first time that we all had to fake it. This included Dave on the drums, which was a little bizarre - it's pretty easy to fake playing a trumpet, but it's a bit harder to go through the requisite motions with drumsticks but not make any sound. Anyway, the finale aside, this was the only chance we've had to perform the whole show live, and probably the only chance we'll ever have - the sound board should only crash more often.
Downtown Naples, about five kilometers south, was where the nightlife was. After this very strange performance Erica, Keith, and I took in some of the nightlife at the Yabba Island Grill, which at that point was serving a late-night "Floribbean" menu (Florida seafood with a Caribbean flair) and turning into something of a singles club.
Then there were two shows Saturday, and two shows Sunday. On Saturday Sandi Durell
, who spends part of each year in a Pelican Bay apartment, took me for a lovely lunch in the private Sandpiper restaurant along the beach (the restaurant, and the little trams that run along the boardwalks to get you there, are open only to Pelican Bay residents and their guests). On the tram ride back to her apartment we spotted an alligator.
A replacement sound board was brought in for Saturday's matinee, so there was little drama there. Between shows I drove downtown (several company-provided rental cars allowed us to explore Naples and get from and to Fort Lauderdale) and saw a magnificent sunset from the pier at the western end of 12th Avenue South. The pier is often crowded, not just with people gawking at the sunset, but also with people angling for black drumfish. I watched a guy gut three of them, and after extracting the meat from each he threw the carcass into the water, at which point a dozen pelicans would make a grab for it, biting over and under each other as if competing in a game of pelican Twister. Amongst the pelicans were smaller birds, which had no interest in the fish remnants but much interest in the challah that a lady and her kids were tossing over the railing. One of these small birds flew clumsily; it was missing a leg - no doubt the result of a previous Shabbat challah battle.
Brian livened up the pit Saturday night by hiding pornographic pictures at random points in Ross's score, which he discovered at various points during the performance. I lured Erica and Keith - and this time also Liz - into another trip downtown, for a post-show meal at an Irish pub (they are such reliable standbys!). Sunday morning I drove downtown again, for a walk through the Seventh Annual Downtown Naples New Year's Weekend Art Festival, featuring works by Florida artists, some of which were remarkable and innovative - such as Ron Balaban's vivid paintings of endangered African wildlife and Jon Smith's paintings of people looking at paintings (imagine a freeze-frame of the Louvre's security camera). Between shows I drove downtown yet again, with Brian, Brandi, James, and Lyndy, for a peaceful sunset seafood dinner on the heated terrace of the Boat House restaurant.
Thus we come to the end of our performance series in Naples, and we have only to get me home to New York. A bunch of us New Yorkers had been booked on Monday's 13:00 flight out of Fort Lauderdale, a 90-minute drive from Naples. That basically would have killed the whole day, and a whole day out of a fortnight's hiatus is nontrivial indeed. So I arranged to drive the car leaving at 3:45 in the morning and was able to go standby on the 6:10 flight. I had to check my suitcase, something I hadn't done in six years except for the time I accidentally tried to bring a toy gun onto a flight in 1999. (It was a prop in the first version of Heart Throb
.) Basically I believe that until the airlines can guarantee delivery of my luggage by the time I get off the plane, they have no business parting me from it. I also tend to think that people who have to check luggage simply have brought too much, and this time I was one of those people. There was no way to take the suitcase as a carry-on, and in any case I had a Swiss army knife in it.
JetBlue gets my praise for providing individually controllable DirecTV monitors for each seat; I was eager to get home and didn't sleep much, and it was nice to watch the news. I learned, for instance, that according to some study I can plan to spend 15 hours deleting e-mail spam in 2003. I found the Game Show Network and was depressed to see that in the early-morning hours it shows only infomercials and religious programming. ("Set the alarm for 6:00, honey - I want to be plied with insipid information about the Bust-o-Matic Butt Burner! Praise the Lord!")
I departed the plane at JFK and followed those dreaded words: Baggage Claim. I was crestfallen when my bag wasn't the first onto the conveyor belt; surely this would mean a 45-minute wait during which I'd miss five or six shuttle buses to the subway. But presently my bag did arrive, and, seeing no subway shuttle (and a dozen luggage-laden passengers waiting for it), I hopped on the local Q3 bus to Jamaica, a decision I instantly regretted. It passed by most of the other terminals and then halted for a few minutes before taking me on a leisurely tour of JFK's cargo buildings and the homes and businesses along Farmers Boulevard. Eventually we got to the subway, and it was a quick, uneventful ride home. I was in my building by 11:00 - two hours before I was due to leave Fort Lauderdale originally - and I was contently eating Ethiopian food shortly thereafter.
Thus completes the first part of this journey. We'll resume in Grand Rapids after a two-week intermission.
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