Home is no longer home. It’s snippets of a different time. Familiar yet strange.
That’s how the town of Palm Beach feels to me. Most of the world probably thinks of it as the playground for the super rich and very old money. For me, it’s where we lived most of my high school years and a few years after college. We didn’t live in a mansion and were by no means rich.
My beloved ‘Mummy’ first came Southern Florida in the 1940’s when she was a young woman. It made a huge impression on her life and she always vowed to return. She realized her dream when we moved there with my younger brother after my parents divorced and my older brother went off to college. Living across the bridge in West Palm Beach was not an option for her.
Our home base was a tiny, fan-cooled cottage that has since been torn down to make room for a parking lot. As a New England kid, this hovel seemed exotic and jungle-like because it was surrounded by tropical plants with the occasional lizard intruder. We arrived in a steamy hot summer. Later we moved to various apartments within a block or two of the beach and the famed shopping mecca on Worth Avenue.
How Mom managed to support us during that first year with her below poverty wages while maintaining her innate sense of style, I will never know. I don’t remember ever being hungry or not having things we needed. I worked for whatever I wanted. While friends who were obviously in line for a big inheritance might have had better cars and toys, they were not happier than I. In fact some were downright miserable. At least one was suicidal, I can only presume from the pressures of having to live up to family expectations. As an outsider, it looked like he had everything in the world that he could ever want and still, it wasn’t enough for this sad young man.
What sets Palm Beach apart from other ritzy areas of the world is that it’s an island, literally. On one side is the Intracoastal Waterway known in this area as Lake Worth, on the other is the Atlantic Ocean. If someone commits a crime, the police can raise the bridges to prevent escape. Cross the last eastbound span and enter a different world where those in the know, know the rules.
Planning a shopping trip on Worth Avenue? Better get dressed up. Looking less than perfect is just not done. Nouveau riche? Not impressed. Celebrity? Don’t care. Even in this day and age, certain people are not allowed to join certain clubs and members really shouldn’t press their luck and bring “those people” as a guest. Of course this is never discussed and would be denied if pressed but I’ve seen it in action and know it happens.
Years ago, I worked as a cashier at Publix, the only chain supermarket on the island. Women put on their best furs and jewels to discerningly buy deli meats for their precious little Fifi, who of course is sporting a jewel-studded collar, matching leash and designer coat. This is long before anyone thought about designer dogs.
A certain, very tan actor once argued with me that I overcharged him a penny. Of course I was right, but really, a penny? On another day, I rang up groceries for an opera icon. She had dark glasses and was wearing a cape, looking very mysterious. Heirs to household names occasionally stop in for a quick purchase maneuvering aisles crowded with “the help” who are out replenishing pantries. These were and most likely are still every day occurrences in this quirky little town.
Nowadays, whenever I am in the area I always take at least one drive through my former hometown and this trip is no different. Winter is “The Season” in Florida meaning that all of the snowbirds have come down to roost for the winter and prices are in the stratosphere. Once they migrate north for hurricane season, prices drop back down to earth.
For example, we can usually get a room at The Chesterfield Hotel for around $150 a night during the summer but at this time of year the same room is $450. This is one reason why we are in a hotel in the considerably more economical Boynton Beach. The other is that we are closer to family obligations further south and it just makes sense to stay down there.
Mike and I cross over the Lake Worth Bridge and head north. This town is chock full of grand estates built by Addison Mizner. These Mediterranean Revival style beauties include the Kennedy’s’ “Winter White House” on the north end and the very exclusive Everglades Club at the end of Worth Avenue. It was Mizner’s vision that created the charming little Vias or courtyards that dot Worth Avenue including one he used as his home based called Via Mizner.
We pass one of my favorite mansions – the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate (as in Post cereal). Known as Mar-a-Lago, meaning Sea-to-Lake (I love the names of these homes!), it’s now a private club owned by Donald Trump. Across the street another exclusive fortress, the Bath & Tennis Club, known locally as the B & T.
Further down the road is El Solano. This Mizner mansion was owned by the Vanderbilts then former Beatle John and his wife Yoko. My mom and step-father passed up a chance to buy it (before the Lennons came along) for a measly $700,000. They decided that the upkeep would be prohibitively expensive. After John’s death, Yoko spent a few million dollars to renovate it. Public records today show its assessed value is more than $6-million. Zillow says $16-million. Whatever the true value, this Atlantic coast property would have been a cool place to visit my Mummy and beloved step-father.
There are subtle changes in town since our last visit. A new clock tower has been erected at the end of Worth Avenue on the ocean side of the street. I’m not sure that it adds anything of value but it’s not a total eyesore. Across from that are new pillars with Worth Avenue etched in marble. The intersection of Worth and Hibiscus now sports a pretty little median with a fountain and delicate trees.
What’s still the same is that a favorite local watering hole and restaurant called Taboo is as busy as ever. The Ave. is still lined with the latest models of Maseratis, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Ferraris and Rolls Royces. Women are draped with jewels and impeccably dressed. Men wear sport coats, khakis and loafers sans socks.
We’ve had our fill of memories. Mike has a tee time and I have a lunch date with a good friend, both across the bridge in West Palm. In typical Palm Beach fashion we are held captive for a few extra minutes while the middle bridge is opened to allow a grand yacht to sail through.
We linger over an Asian salad and tomato basil soup for me. Susan had farfalle with tomatoes, goat cheese and chicken.
The food is good and the conversation is delicious.
While Mike and my brother are challenged by the links at Forest Oaks Golf Club, Susan and I stroll around City Place window shopping. Here we find typical stores such as Macy’s, Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn.
One place that piques our curiosity and draws us in is The Olive Tap. This sparse store has shelves of sleek metal casks that hold luscious liquids. This is a tasting bar for olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Tiny cups are provided for tasting before buying. Tasting side-by-side accentuates the differences between Italian and Spanish olive oils. We both have to have a bottle of the black cherry balsamic vinegar and I grab a small bottle of Persian lime olive oil to drizzle over shrimp or scallops. The black cherry balsamic vinegar is fabulous as a simple salad dressing. Yum, yum, yum!
Further down the street is a shop that sells swimwear. The show stoppers here are the well-endowed mannequins. It looks like the owner is trying to corner the market for the implant set. These perfectly rounded GGGs are not normally found in the natural world.
Having the sense of humor of 12-year-old boys, we MUST take pictures of these busty dolls. Giggling, we go in for a closer look and a few pictures with our iPhones. The man who owns the shop fails to share our humor. Obviously, this is his vision of what perfect women should look like so there is nothing unusual about his mannequins. We figure he is living out his fantasies with his bigger than life-size models.
The guys are still whacking the ball through an apartment complex that surrounds the golf course, so we take the opportunity to stop by Susan’s brother and sister-in-law’s house. They are very talented artists and I love their pottery.
My collection of mugs are pretty banged up these days and some need to be replaced. Jay digs through boxes of merchandise packed in their truck for an upcoming show. He finds a couple of large mugs with cats on them. I purr. Sold! He also throws in a charming little footed platter that is a 2nd – it has a small chip that he files down. These things put a smile on my face every day. I wish they had a website but the only place to buy their artwork is at arts & crafts shows – look for Toni and Jay Mann.
We end the day in Fort Lauderdale with Aunt Muriel’s famed pot roast. Many of my cousins gather to devour this simple work of culinary art. I have her recipe but it never comes out as good as hers. I think it’s a combination of the ingredients and the love that it’s made with. All of the cousins spend the evening having fun reminiscing and gossiping.
On Saturday, my cousin Joel treats a bunch of us to an airboat tour of the Everglades. Armed with a box of earplugs, ten of us converge on Florida Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. When our group is called for our tour, we board a large covered airboat that holds approximately 30 people. An alligator is nearby presumably watching for any missteps.
Our guide plies the rivers of grass and points out plant and wild life along the way. There’s an island with a stranded family of raccoons that come to gawk at the gawkers. Above them is a tree full of vultures looking for their next meal.
Further in, an alligator allows us to come within a couple feet of where he is keeping a watchful eye. We are so close that I could touch him if I wanted to…but I don’t. It’s a little too close for my comfort. He poses for our pictures and then we are off. The airboat screams down the rivers. Earplugs were a good investment.
The boat pilot doubles as tour guide and also does a great job juggling jokes with nature facts. He even cracks funny as we wobble out of the boat onto the deck and find him standing there, literally, with his hat in his hand. We say our goodbyes to the cousins and point our car north.
Our final night in Florida is a dinner get-together with dear friends. The last time we were here we went to the Rhythm Cafe in West Palm Beach. I don’t remember what I had but I remember it was really good. I want to go back but everyone thinks it will end up being an expensive night so we look for a cheaper option.
Mike suggests a lunchtime favorite, McCarty’s in Palm Beach. They have great burgers and the atmosphere is conducive to good conversation. In the past, we’ve always had a good time there. Dinner starts with a waiter who is clearly clueless. This is not a man who has chosen food service as a profession. If he did, it was the wrong choice.
We want to start with drinks and decide beer would go best with burgers. We ask a simple question – “What kind of beer do you have?” After some paper shuffling he finally rattles off a couple of mundane domestic beers. We ask if there is something else. This guy can’t answer the question so he asks what we want. Susan’s husband is known regionally as Dan The Beer Man. He mumbles something exotic but here the best we can get is Heineken or Sam Adams.
Mike and I decide to start off by splitting a $10 Caesar salad. An expensive and unsatisfying mistake. Both plates each contain exactly 2 small leaves of romaine lettuce and 2 croutons. I know Palm Beach can be expensive but this is criminal. We’re feeling ripped off.
Dan orders a salad with salmon and six of us get the tasty $14 burgers with fries. A couple of us asked for substitutions for the coleslaw that normally comes with the burgers. The waiter offered green beans instead of coleslaw so that’s what I ordered. They never arrive and our server never really gives me the chance to tell him so he can correct the mistake.
For dessert, we order the molten chocolate cake with a second scoop of ice cream and extra spoons. It’s $11 and we’re charged an extra $6 for that damn second scoop making it a $17 dessert!
The waiter is obviously ruffled when we ask to split the check. We are further disgusted when we find out that the crappy beer selection costs $7 a bottle. The “cheap” alternative for 7 of us winds up costing $314…before the tip.
Our portion because of the salad and dessert is over $100. FOR BURGERS AND BEER! Bye-bye McCarty’s. After all of these years, I think I am over you.
We all agree that the Rhythm Cafe would have been a less expensive choice. Mike is sufficiently shamed but we reassure him it was his fault. Things change and places from the past change.
It’s funny how things are coincidently entwined. While we visiting our artist friends Jay and Toni, the conversation turns to the Rhythm Cafe. They tell us about a recent visit to the Rhythm Cafe. They were having dinner with friends and who seated next to them? That same tan actor who argued with me over a penny so many years ago.
After the McCarty’s dinner, Mike and I stroll down Worth Avenue with my brother. We are reliving happier memories we inherited from our late mother. A show stopper is an art gallery with oversized art for oversized homes. The Marilyn Monroe optical illusion is a show stopper, as well as the giant woman in an inner tube, presumably lazing in the pool.
Behind the bling on Worth Avenue are hidden surprise courtyards, each one called a Via. My brother took us to Via De Lela. I didn’t remember ever going to this one. It’s dotted with sculptures of children at play surrounded by an abundance of flowers. Very charming.
We walk through each Via trying to get a glimpse into the lives of the people who live above them. The few apartments that we can see into from ground level have pecky cypress ceilings and doors.
Some have balconies and flowers are everywhere. We marvel at the architecture and brag about the buildings we’ve managed to see from the inside.
We finish our visit to my former stomping grounds with a drive back towards our hotel that includes the mansions along Ocean Boulevard. Lit up and full of life and, we imagine, clinking martini glasses and spoonfuls of caviar, dahlings.
They are magnificent. But it all feels a little askew. It’s just not right, and I realize Palm Beach never will feel right again. Because this is Palm Beach without Mummy.
The long drive home weighs heavy on us and we are anxious to get going so Mike and I are on the road at 4:53 the next morning, more than a full hour before we planned to leave. This alone is an immense accomplishment, since we almost always fail to start long drives at the “scheduled” time.
We drive the few miles to my younger brother’s house and pick up the elder (I like to say that – it’s such a little sister thing to say!). The trip really starts at 5:11 after a stop for coffee. It’s Sunday so we fly and make it to the Daytona exit just before 8:00 . We are making good time.
Our desire to escape the car coincides with our desire for lunch. My brother, the Savannah know-it-all suggests Sam Sneads in Savannah because he knows I will veto cheap, chain joints. I indulge in a Caesar salad followed by a shrimp & lobster pasta. Mike orders his beloved Reuben sandwich. My brother spies the special appetizer in honor of Super Bowl Sunday – wings with a baked potato and salad. Unlike last night, our waitress is attentive, cheerful, and loves what she’s doing! What a concept!
The otherwise uneventful journey concludes in our driveway at home at 4:15 pm. Three drivers make all the difference in the world. Well, that, and gadgets loaded with games. Angry Birds is a hit for the big kids on this trip. Time flies and so do we. Our total driving time is only 9 1/2 hours.
My poor brother has another four hours of driving before he’s home. I’m sad to see him go. My family fix has come to an end and I just want more.