SAN DIEGO — A short while ago, I visited a third world country. Visas were no longer necessary, but that may change after the next election. The country’s name is South-Eastern Florida. I was there to reunite with long lost Jewish friends of fifty years ago from the New York City area. We had scattered to all corners of the United States seeking fortune, fame, and families. I found some of my comrades via the Internet. I also sought out several cousins who had relocated to this sun-drenched nation.
The real reason for my visit was to obtain my cousin Rosalie’s brisket of beef recipe, which is to die for. While accomplishing this mission, I observed the behaviors and life styles of my Jewish brethren. Florida, is very different from California, where I’ve lived for many years. In fact Florida Nation has no relationship to any of the forty-eight states I have visited. Kansas and Nebraska are the only states I have not set foot in. Since they only have a total of six Jews, between them, they don’t count.
There are no old Jews left in New York. Once a week, buses, paid for by guilty children, sweep the streets clean of them. They are issued electric menorahs and shipped off to South-Eastern Florida. The buses stop at the Georgia/Florida border and the passengers are forced to disembark and pass under a metal bar set at a height of five-foot-six inches. Those who cannot pass beneath the cold unfeeling bar are denied entry and must re-board the bus, doomed to spend the rest of their days stateless wandering in Georgia, eating lox and grits for breakfast. Now you know why there is not an extra long men’s suit jacket to be found in a clothing store south of Palm Beach.
Originally, the bus’s destination was Miami. That changed when Cuban pioneers washed ashore and settled in the city now called “Havana Norte.” In the beginning, the Jews welcomed the newcomers with open arms because they brought wonderful Upmann cigars with them. However, when Castro’s castaways brought their extended families over in successive boatloads, things got out of hand. The cigar smoke became intolerable and Miami had the nation’s first Panatella blue-out smog alert. Worse than that, the Jewish wives complained about the smoke and the smell, and made life miserable for these previously-contented husband pensioners.
Moses Inc, a travel agency experienced in wilderness treks came to the rescue and led them north. After forty days of wandering, they arrived at a new and nearly empty land, except for a leftover pioneer fort called Lauderdale. There they built humble shacks, but the buses in New York were relentless, depositing hordes of settlers farther north, until the migration breached the moat at Palm Beach. Luxurious condominiums arose (ghettos with palm trees) with views of the bay or ocean. I visited some friends in one such hovel and had to insert my Visa card to gain admittance. The expansion continues on and on to this day, and soon will reach Cape Canaveral. Then retired dentists and clothing manufacturers will be launching space rockets to keep busy. Imagine a rocket called “The Torah Explorer.”
These pensioned pioneers from the environs of the New York metropolitan area settled in golf course ghettos. These walled communities are reminiscent of the old days in Russia and Poland, with guards in booths to keep out Cossacks on horses that might start a “Sun Pogrom.” These enclaves have names to disguise the inhabitants. Hunters Run, Canterbury, Kings Point, Bristol. They are named so the Czar would think only Englishmen lived within the walls of the shtels. Nowhere did I find a Delancy Street Garden, or Pelham Parkway Palms, which would have been a sure giveaway.
Within these walls, people are very active. They play miniature golf almost every day on an eighteen hole, five-thousand-yard courses. The players are not allowed to walk the course nor drive their carts on the fairways. Their exercise is limited to walking to and from their carts on a paved path, to hit the ball. They take mighty swings at a ball that they own for a very short time. The courses have all been designed for free by the golf ball manufacturers. Every golf course has water hazards for players to aim their balls at. There are so many balls hit into these ponds, that in Hunters Run, for example, the ghetto where I stayed, a ball recovery company pays $10,000 annually for the privilege of salvaging and reselling the little white nuggets.
After golf and a rewarding lunch at the club, the afternoons are devoted to card playing. There are so many disputes among the competitors that when the men play, the entrance door to the card room is guarded by two burly eunuchs, who-body search all players for pistols, Uzis, Saturday Night Specials, grenades, and brass knuckles.
The inhabitants of the area are a cast of a musical comedy. Relaxation is the main occupation. Much good humor and good-natured ribbing is constantly exchanged. I went with some friends from California to a bird sanctuary located nearby. Only visitors from out of state know this marshy habitat of reclaimed golf course water. There is no record of any locals ever having been seen there. The sign at the entrance to the park warned of alligators lurking in the grasses. As we entered the boardwalk leading into the habitat, my friend asked a woman if she had seen any alligators, “No,” she replied, striding past us, “But I did see my mother-in-law!” We asked a woman with huge binoculars around her neck who seemed knowledgeable what the state bird of Florida was, She replied, in a heavy guttural accent, “Mocking Bird.” I didn’t hear the reply clearly and asked my friend Bebe, “Did she say Mocky Bird?” “No,” my sharp friend replied, “She said Early Bird!”
There are other behaviors unique to this land of aged annuitants. Particularly how they handle their automobiles. Years ago, the Florida legislature wisely banned two door cars for anyone on Medicare. There is also a law that the shorter the driver, the larger and longer the auto required. This becomes a major factor in a supermarket parking lot, commonly known as “The War Zone.” A sign at the entrance clearly states, “Warning: anyone with anxiety disorder or in imminent need of stress medicine should not enter this area without permission from a physician.” Why this dire notice? Just get behind a driver trying to enter, or God forbid, try to back out of a parking space. It would take the ocean vessel QE2 less time to dock or cast off. If you are unfortunate to get caught behind another vehicle at the end of an aisle, you’d better have provisions and water stored for emergency use until they decide which direction to turn. (My friend Mike was reduced to tears and trembling as we waited behind such a vehicle.)
There is valet parking to make it easier for the infirm to enter the store. This service is absolutely a necessity. I suspect it’s also a status symbol. Where else in America can you find a parking service at the Post Office and Social Security office? There are so many places with valet parking that the largest group of employees in Southeastern Florida are parking attendants. The morning rush hour of is the queuing up for valet service. When the shoppers are finished inside the store, there is a long, long bench filled with exhausted patrons near the door who sit and wait for their vehicle to arrive. This shopping adventure starts at dawn, and concludes at high noon. It is celebrated, with a well-deserved lunch, followed by an hour’s nap to restore energy for an afternoon of Bridge or Mah Jong.
The first four nights I stayed with friends in their lovely home in an upscale development. I hadn’t seen Bobbi and Mike in forty-six years. I walked in the door and it was as if I had just been there yesterday. We talked nonstop for four days and nights. Mike, a retired diamond dealer, is by his own admission a classical overbearing “Jewish mother.” He needs to know the minute-by-minute blood pressure and pulse readings of his children and grandchildren, as well as their activities. Bobbi, his philosophical spouse, decided a long time ago that since Mike does such a good job worrying, it is unnecessary for her to pursue this pastime. Instead, she concentrates her energy on keeping the computers in her walled residential community operating. She gets calls from pleading souls from early morning to late evening, begging her to immediately come over for a “few minutes” (translated, a couple of hours) to solve their problem. After listening to these tearful appeals for a couple of days, I told Bobbi, “You don’t have clients, you have patients.”
After four days I was booted out unceremoniously from Mike’s house, replaced by four children who were arriving for “Guilt Week.” This is the time throughout this sun-drenched land when children and grandchildren arrive for their annual visit. The holiday begins with President’s Day in February, when it’s still bitterly cold. This is a perfect time to fulfill the filial obligation. Down here it means not being able to get into a restaurant. My cousin Roberta, who lives within walking distance of Bobbi and Mike, took pity on me when she heard of my plight and offered an empty room. Her husband, Marty, was not at home. He had left the day before to fly north, along with other husbands not fully retired yet who had business interests in Yankee country. A few days later, they all return on the “Money Plane,” with fresh cash for the gin rummy games. You can tell this airplane by the dollar sign painted on its tail.
The fully-retired inhabitants of this unique cloister live or die with the gyrations of the stock market. Every morning when they report to the golf course, the previous day’s closing Dow Jones average can be read on their faces. There are television sets everywhere, all tuned to the up-to-the-minute market report. I was in a restaurant that had small television sets built into the wall at eye-level above every urinal. The guy next to me gave out a shout of joy as his fortune rose, causing him to have difficulty zipping his fly.
Everyone wears designer clothes. There are designs for every age and occupation. Ancient Bubbas, bent and weary from aggravating children, look splendid in imported outfits designed to compliment their wrinkles. Amazingly, no one has gray hair. Their tresses are designer-coifed and colored to match their outfits
I had a sentimental visit with a childhood Boy Scout friend. Coincidentally, he, too, lived in this complex. I hadn’t seen him in fifty two years. Back then he was a pleasant, short, skinny guy with an innocent sway to his walk. He was so cute in those days that the revered head of the Boy Scout camp we attended for a few summers tried to seduce him. His appearance had changed since then. He had an an entirely different image. He had done fabulously well in business and now looked like, walked like, and talked like a CEO. He has a personal trainer, dog walker, and judo instructor. In spite of these defects, the charm of my old chum of those cardiac-free days came through.
A final observation of my aging brethren. There are so many health-conscious people suffering from diabetes and watching their weight that Florida may just become the first sugar-free state in the nation.
Dear reader, if the only reason you’ve waded this far is the anticipation of me revealing Cousin Rosalie’s brisket recipe, you’re going to be disappointed. The only way I will relinquish the ingredients in this exquisite delectable dish, is if you to send me a written request accompanied by a chocolate covered Halavah Bar wrapper. (The correct spelling according to the Old Testament, is HALVAH, but everyone pronounces it Ha-la-vah.)
Humorist Ira Spector is a retired artist and businessman residing in San Diego.