Within Close Range – Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport

to a new winter retreat –

a 20 story high-rise in Pompano Beach –

it’s clear things aren’t as they have been.

Gone are the Mid-Century neighborhoods

with small, tidy bungalows

and pastel-colored apartment complexes.

Gone are the small, neat streets

crammed with big, American cars

and the quiet, inland canals

with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the coast,

casting long shadows over these old ghosts.

Smothered by “The Strip”,

a popular stretch of beach –

and the only way to their new place,-

Nonna and Papa are forced to face

nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking youth

balanced precariously between child and adult

unkempt,

half-naked –

all god-forsaken.

But Gina and I crave this uncharted world,

which we’re slowly cruising past

in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac,

filled with the sounds of Perry Como

and the smell of Jean Nate.

The closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s,

the older the demographics begin to slant,

until beers and bikinis are soon replaced

by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code

is a bigger abode –

and a separate door to the outside world –

or at least to a corridor,

and an unused stairwell.

To Marlboro Lights

and poorly rolled joints,

and late night escapades with girls from New York.

Gone are our grandparents’ halcyon days

of minding their ways.

These are the carefree days of youth.

Of baby oil and B-52s.

Getting stoned in the sauna.

Drinking beers on the beach.

Somehow convincing Nonnie

to hand us the keys.

Of cranking up the radio

and rolling down the windows

to inhale the salty air

and the sweet smell

of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us

and Nonnie –

from high above –

noticing them, noticing us.

These are the Florida days

of pushing boundaries,

especially ones so poorly guarded.

Well past our very strict curfew.

Nonna is waiting and bleak.

She’s worked herself into such a state,

she’s lifted off her bunioned feet.

She cross-examines,

reprimands,

and threatens to send us home;

then leads us in to Papa

in the unlit living room,

Leaden and pacing.

My heart is breaking.

When all is said –

which isn’t much –

he turns his back

and sends us to bed.

The first thing we see in the morning

taped prominently to the fridge

is a newspaper clip with a giant headline,

“Girls Found Charred on Beach”,

and Nonnie,

with her back to us.

Sighing and tsk-ing,

but not saying anything.

Until behind closed bedroom doors,

on an all-day call with her sister, Rose,

we can hear her tell of all her woes;

heralded, at times, in a pitch so high,

dogs throughout the high-rise begin to cry.

This leads to quieter Florida days,

of shorter visits

and solo stays.

Now more observer than the observed;

studying Nonnie and Papa

in their Florida world.

In their well-aged routine of marital malaise.

Wondering if I know what a happy marriage is?

Hours of watching old ladies by the pool;

with their sun hats and cigarettes

and bad romance books;

their games of Canasta,

and over-tanned skin…

wondering if any

were ever really young?

When Papa leaves to tend to the store,

it’s hours of Gin Rummy,

and little more.

Alone with Nonnie,

playing round after round

on the windy, high-rise balcony,

sixteen floors from the ground.

Where 8-track cassettes

of Liberace and Lawrence Welk

teach me tolerance,

and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies.

Happy to stay indoors

and in our nightgowns.

The condo is especially quiet.

No washing machine

or television

reminding us of other things.

Other lives.

No dinner out

or big meal in.

We barely move.

Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears,

returning with something powdery and sweet

or cheesy and crusty

and hot from the oven.

Such deliciously quiet moments

of simply doing nothing.

Oh these my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Florida Days – the early years

It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom

built at the corner of an inland canal;

brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites,

and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.

A peculiar land of tropical scents

and strikingly unfamiliar sights.

Far removed from the only place I know at night,

home.

Put to bed too early,

I lie in the sitting room-turned-my-room,

tossing and turning on the lumpy sofa-bed

for what seems like hours and hours on end.

Listening intensely to the sounds of apartment living

made especially audible by the glass-vented door

opening onto the curved building’s exterior hall.

My slatted portals to an unknown world.

To the sounds of the apartment people

returning from the pool,

the shops,

the grocers,

dinner out.

Of doorbells ringing

and little feet skipping,

and hugs and kisses

and friendly greetings.

Of moist, briny winds

carrying the scents

of jasmine and orange blossoms,

and parking lot asphalt.

And the ladies’ perfumes

as they stroll past my door.

The echo of laughter in the nearby stairwell,

and their happy words

which disappear

with the sudden click of a heavy car door.

Murmurs from the living room TV

add to this strange symphony,

with familiar sounds

and flickering lights

that seep through the bottom of the door,

casting short, cryptic shadows

on the thickly carpeted,

recently vacuumed floor.

Comforting is the knowledge

that Papa is in the room next door.

Feet up,

arms folded high across his belly,

and a large RC Cola at his side.

Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper,

or growling at the Chicago Bears.

When Papa finally turns the television off

I lie in the still and unfamiliar dark.

The inland water’s slow, buoyant motion,

lulls me into a deep and scented slumber.

until the morn.

When I linger on the lumpy mattress

and listen to the apartment people

begin their days.

Wooed by the sounds of others stirring,

I stretch toward kitchen utensils clanking

and the smells of breakfast cooking

on the other side of the wall.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Of sand slipping away beneath my tiny feet,

and seashell hunts as the sun dips low;

of Nonnie’s curled and bunioned toes

and skinny, seagull legs

dipping into the foamy waves,

but never past her knees.

These early days of sunset walks

along a stretch of beach

that leads to a lighthouse

and a creaky, tottering wharf

where Papa likes to take a walk.

And I like to walk with him.

Where fishing boats have funny names

and a tiny gift shop,

in a weather-beaten shanty,

sells orange gum-balls

packed in little, wooden crates.

Which Papa buys for his little, Pie-Face.

Of bright, green lizards

skittering across pastel walls,

and pats on the head

by terrycloth clad men

playing cards in the shades of umbrellas.

Where suntanned women

with the giant bosoms

and ever-blooming swim caps

wade in the shallow end,

with big, dentured smiles

for the little one

visiting Lenore.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Within Close Range: The Car Ride

Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.

Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.

It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.

A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.

I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.

“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”

Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.

Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.

Within Close Range: Stanley

Having had enough of Florida’s winter fun and sun for the. day, I’m sitting in front of the television in Nonnie and Papa’s 18th story living room, when the doorbell rings. Papa’s back at his store in Chicago and Nonnie’s in the kitchen making lunch, so I shuffle across the plush wall to wall, to the large double-doors.

And there, on the other side, stands a tall, slender figure with short, blonde hair and frosted highlights; impeccably dressed in a pastel pink shirt, a flowered, silk kerchief, and crisp, white linen pants.

The stranger asks if Lenore is in.

I turn toward the kitchen and holler, “Nonnie, there’s some lady here to see you!”, before scrambling back to the television.

It’s the first time I’ve met Stanley, Nonnie’s friend (and hairdresser), who also happens to live in the same building with his boyfriend, Roger. I would have felt embarrassed after learning of my gender mistake, but according to Nonnie, he was never more complimented.

Not only is Stanley Nonnie’s most colorful and lively Florida companion – by far – but he can make her giggle more than anyone (besides my great aunts) I’ve ever seen. Even more intriguing is that Nonnie astonishingly and unreservedly gives Stanley center stage. (It’s hard not to.)

In return for stepping back from the preferred spotlight, Stanley showers Nonnie with adulation for her fashion sense, culinary skills, and interior design flare.

It’s a match made in heaven. (Even though Nonnie has to whisper a lot when it comes to talking about her new friend.)

At Stanley’s invitation, we visit their little slice of beach-side paradise two floors up.

It has the same exact layout as Nonnie and Papa’s, in reverse. But that isn’t what disorients me.

It’s the feeling that I’ve just entered another dimension where Nonnie’s alter ego is given free rein. Where, with unimpaired power, her better dressed Doppelgänger has adorned every nook and cranny, every floor and piece of furniture, with textile and tactile expanses of purple.

With chintz and animal prints.

Golden cupids and satin pillows.

Velvet love-seats and silk bed sheets.

And endless yards of draped chiffon.

Where opulent silk flower arrangements sits on every gilded credenza and a colorful porcelain dog, cat, or bird resides around every corner.

As Stanley sweeps from room to room with measured grace and exaggerated ease, Roger – a dark, quiet man (who left a wife and kids, and a lie behind) – stands in the background, smiling contentedly. Proud of his plush and private paradise, where he and Stanley are completely free.

Even though, to me, Stanley seems as free as he can be; floating ahead of us into the newly wall-papered kitchen.

Stepping in behind Nonnie, I first think the effect of the sun streaking through the large bay window overlooking the Atlantic is playing tricks on my eyes, until I realize the walls are choked with make-believe flowers of reds and yellows, oranges, pinks and whites, splattered against a dark purple backdrop – as if the Spring, or perhaps the Easter Bunny, had exploded.

It’s absolutely glorious.

And so is Stanley.