The Tiki Bar Is Open

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” Thank God, the tiki bar is open
Thank God, the tiki torch still shines
Thank God, the tiki bar is open
Come on in and open up your mind”  ~   John Hiatt

Somebody, please. Give me a Buffet backbeat and a Rumrunner. I need a drink. I know it is 6:12 AM, but I didn’t say I was going to drink it now. Meet me at three and we’ll do this thing. I’m angry. But maybe I should say I feel anger. The friggin bar where I grew up has been bulldozed, flattened to rubble, leaving dreams and memories, and nothing else. They can’t touch those memories, nor the dreams. Hydraulic machines are not designed to deliver in that way. Are you thinking that maybe I didn’t really grow up in a bar? I did. Deal with it. I don’t mean to be snippy here. Some things deserve outrage, besides Donald Trump. What he needs is a Nerf canon and a Supersoaker. I’ll leave the rest to you. Moving forward  .  .  .  backward, whatever  .  .  .

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I was a teenaged bartender. Eighteen. Open-air bar, right near the beach. Salty, sulphuric, aromas. Fish, coconut butter. Alcohol. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I am still to this day unclear on that point. My dad managed and operated the Tiki Bar, at Holiday Isle Resort, along the eastern shore of the Whale Harbor Channel, on Windley Key, Islamorada, Florida. He took charge of the bar not long before Nixon was sent packing. Richard cried. I would have bought him a drink. Dad inherited many cases of booze with the bar. Cases of Banana Liqueur, cases of Blackberry brandy, Hiram Walker’s finest. And grenadine. He endeavored to make use of the stacks of booze. So, a shot of blackberry and a shot of banana. Healthy dose of reconstituted lime juice. A tad of grenadine for color and sweetness. And rum: Lemonheart Demerara 151º. Woof. Good buzz, tasty too. Believe me about the rum. Don’t listen to fucking Bacardi. They had nothing to do with the drink until they commandeered the recipe and tweaked it just so, which would have been in the earliest years of Reagan’s reign: gentrification. What folks are drinking nowadays is what is commonly referred to as a facsimile. Things change. Still a good buzz though. In the early years the bar was a true, pre-Buffet expatriate hangout. Actual church pews and hatch cover tables sealed with polyurethane; not that anyone was worried about stains. The sealant was for pretty. I could fill a whole book with stories and memories, some true, some not, but all of them anecdotes that spread out into mythos. I think my favorite scenes were the times I got Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle shitfaced. I didn’t drink much in those days, and my scientific mind was baffled by the state of oblivion toward which so many people aspired. Now I understand.

I started working there just out of high school; National Honor Society, Pen and Quill, an egghead long-hair kid. What was I thinking? But the tips were great! After a year off from school I remained as a weekend bartender while I enrolled at and attended Florida Atlantic University on their Faculty Scholar Program. This is not about me, right? The point I am trying to make without going all Hunter S. Thompson gonzo on ya is that I was an academically sharp intellectual kid, with a world class education, and I was working in a bar. The thing at the University fell through when I succumbed to the first damaging depressive spell. I don’t regret it. Other things have happened that brought me here today. Sometimes I wonder how much of an impactful effect, affect, whatever, the bar had on me. It is hard for me to articulate what was going on there. It had a Camelot vibe to it. It was a bubble reality of the sort that would have served as a more rustic setting for the kind of prose that Hemingway used to relate his time in Paris with other brilliant people, in his brilliant A Moveable Feast; a book which incidentally began to sell like wildfire in Paris after the most recent ISIS attack. Hemingway would have been right at home in the Tiki Bar. Buffet was there on occasion. Neil Young. Brilliant people, most of them inconspicuous and wanting to stay that way. There were so many people who had moved to the Keys to literally get away from it all, away from the American mainstream, fired by Viet Nam, burned by Nixon, punched by the bullets of MLK, the Kennedys, and Kent State. I remember one customer who claimed to be a Special Ops guy. Name of Rocky. He was from Honduras, a huge barrel of a guy. Loved his piña coladas, which he called “pinche cabrones”. I was his little buddy. We spoke of deep things, both philosophical and sublime. He dressed like a spokesmodel for Banana Republic. I always doubted his Special Ops claim – until the US troops began to be withdrawn from Viet Nam. Rocky stopped showing up for a while. Then when the final troops were being airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Viet Nam, there he was. I was watching the Evening News, I think it was CBS, and there stood Rocky, beside the aircraft atop the roof, standing by as men boarded the craft.

Dad eventually got fired. A Mafia group from NYC bought the resort. They wanted to use dad’s image on hats and t-shirts and stuff. Dad refused; too commercial. He had run that bar with zero advertising, taking it, over a 9-10 year period, from $25 a day to $100,000,000 per year. At one point the Chicago Tribune rated the Tiki Bar as one of the top ten bars in the world. With no paid advertising. Imagine that. Dad had invented his Rumrunner drink, I suggested an ice cream machine when we got to making, by blender, 300-400 drinks per night. Big success. That’s what I am saying. After dad left the place went from good to huge. The last time I saw it was back in 2007-8. The place was like going to Disney World for alcoholics. I was bummed then but I am more bummed now, thank you very much.

My brother gave me the news last night. They bulldozed the friggin place; a place that was so integrally a part of my formative years. I cannot stress just how mythic it all seems to me now. But somebody decided to demolish an iconic monument to an old expatriate gathering spot. After more than 40 years. They – whoever they are – ripped a big hole in my heart. Yet I love what they did. In using their hydraulic monster machines to plow it under they succeeded in pushing the place beyond the material realm, and off into the quantum realm of probability, into the mists, just as Avalon was pushed into the mists when Camelot became a destination resort. I may be over-dramatizing it all, but I think not. I don’t know if dad would have been proud or wounded; he left this earthly place long ago. I know how wounded he was when Bacardi ripped him off. Now, here I sit on an icy, frigid morning in the high desert mountains, an old man remembering a younger day, tapping out some prose that lingers a little too close to cheesy, tapping on a device that would have been nearly unimaginable back then. WTF. They plowed the place under. What seeds will grow? There is no time for that now. Things change.

Peace out, y’all. Goof gloriously.

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