Earlier this month, we sent Pat Jordan, author of A False Spring and a lot of fine sports journalism, down to Daytona Beach for Spring Break. He took a pistol and a van and sent back this report, via fax.
Part 1: "Let's throw the Old Man at Spring Break!" ... A van, a 9-millimeter, a lawyer on call ... Philosophers and perverts ... A fight with a rollerblader ... Baby fat in the Land of Sleaze and Sun ... Wrinkle bears ... Blood on the tiles
So, the boys at Deadspin had this idea. Brilliant, really. Hilarious. They were sitting around the office one night, throwing out story ideas, coming up with nothing, getting frustrated, or maybe there isn't actually a Deadspin office, and they really are just a bunch of guys hunched over their computers in the darkened basements of their mothers' houses, surrounded by boxes of cold pizza crusts and empty beer cans, emailing each other with one idea after another when one of them came up with this truly brilliant idea after having seen Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart too many times. "Let's throw the Old Man at Spring Break!" The Old Man with his white beard, threadbare thrift-stop Hawaiian shirt with the pink flamingos, OP shorts, Publix flip-flops, looking like a Florida derelict wasting away in Margaritaville, smoking his cigar as he tries to chat up some co-eds from Ann Arbor and Iowa City in Froggy's and Razzle's and the 509 Lounge with some pitiful, dimly remembered barroom rap that used to work for him 40 years ago, the co-eds thinking he's a harmless old man, at first, like their grandfathers, until, after enough questions, they begin to think, maybe not so harmless after all, maybe a dirty old pervert actually, and they glance around the bar for a bouncer or a cop, which is why the boys at Deadspin told me, "We'll have a lawyer on call 24 hours a day in case you need one."
But what the hell, I'll do anything for a story, and a check, small as it may be. What did Voltaire say? A friend asked if he'd ever had a homosexual experience. He said, yes, once. The friend said, then you're a pervert. Voltaire said, no, "Once, a philosopher, twice, a pervert." Which is why I drove south out of Abbeville, S.C., where I live now, in the up country, on Secession Hill in the Land of Cotton, on March 12, driving over two-lane country roads through Ninety Six and Newberry until I hit I-26 and then I-95 and headed south toward Savannah, Jacksonville, and my Spring Break destination, Daytona Beach. I had rented a white cargo van, stripped of seats in back, like a cave, threw a pillow and mattress on the floor, threw a bottle of Jim Beam Black in my duffel bag, my notebooks, pens and tape recorder in my man bag along with a 9-millimeter CZ 85 semi-automatic pistol with 15 hollow points in the clip and one in the chamber because, as Christian Slater said in True Romance, "It's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it." What the hell! I was going to sleep in my van, unless I got rousted by the cops in a motel parking lot at 2 a.m., the cops checking out my CZ, my CWP, then running my ID through their cruiser's computer, looking for outstanding warrants, priors, coming up with only one — a firearms charge at Fort Lauderdale Airport in the late '80s, a chickenshit charge, really, but a long story, the third-degree felony knocked down to a misdemeanor, adjudication withheld — and me in the backseat of their cruiser at 2 a.m., my hands cuffed for only the second time in 68 years (OK, third, if you insist on counting that barmaid in my St. Louis hotel room in the '70s), trying to remember the telephone number of that Deadspin lawyer.
Before I left home, my wife, Susie, said, "What if it's cold, baby?" I'd almost forgotten. In early spring, Daytona is always 10 degrees colder than Fort Lauderdale, my home for the past 30 years. So I went to the attic and dusted off my black sateen windbreaker, the one with my name in lipstick red scripted on the front, "Pat," and in back pink script that reads, "The Booby Trap, Home of Stylish Nude Entertainment," and below that, a pair of fat, pink, puckered lips. I looked at it and smiled. Cool!
I rented that cargo van because it reminded me of all those beat-up vans and Volkswagen buses I used to see parked along The Strip overlooking the ocean on Fort Lauderdale Beach in the '80s when 370,000 college kids invaded my then-hometown to rape, pillage, but mostly just drink beer and throw up and piss on the street so that walking along The Strip was like walking on melted taffy, your flip-flops sticking to the sidewalk until you took a header face down into the sidewalk. The kids slept in those vans along the beach until the late '80s, when the city threw them out because no adult tourists with actual cash in their pockets, or any self-respecting locals, would go anywhere near The Strip during Spring Break. Lacking self-respect even then, in my 40s, I loved The Strip during Spring Break.
It didn't take long for those college kids to find another Spring Break home, up north in Daytona Beach, a tacky little redneck town going nowhere as anybody's idea of a spring vacation destination until the city fathers, in their wisdom, let it be known that their little Florida city welcomed Spring Breakers with opened arms. Why not? They already welcomed outlaw motorcycle gangs. What harm could a few hundred thousand pink-faced college kids do that a few dozen biker gangs hadn't done already? In another of mankind's brilliant ideas, the Daytona city fathers combined Bike Week with Spring Break, youthful innocence with hardened depravity, the virgin with the rapist, the pink-eared rabbit with the yellow-eyed wolf, the ... oh, you get the picture. To keep violence to an acceptable level, maybe only one or two murders a year, the city fathers forbade all those one percenters from wearing their gang colors in bars.
Every afternoon in Fort Lauderdale in the '80s, after work, I left our little apartment a mile from The Strip and pedaled my beach cruiser to the beach. It took me an hour to weave my way through the throngs of drunken kids, who were like an invading army of Huns. Sometimes, Susie went with me, which is how I got into that fight with a rollerblader, the only real fight I ever got in. We were pedaling along the sidewalk alongside the beach one sunny afternoon when I saw this big muscled rollerblader skating backward toward us without even looking over his shoulder to see where he was going. Just as he passed my wife, he clipped her bike, almost knocking her to the sidewalk. As he passed me, I said, "Watch where you're going, asshole. You almost hit my wife." He skated back to me and said, "Who you calling asshole?" I said, "You, asshole." He looked at me, an old guy in his 40s, but not that old, considered his options and skated into my wife's bike, knocking her on her ass to the sidewalk. The next thing I knew I was flying over my handlebars, airborne, then body-slamming that asshole to the sidewalk with me on top of him. We grappled on the sidewalk, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, each of us groping for an opening, to the amusement of tourists and to Susie's screams. "But I'm all right, babe!" His body was so lathered in oil it was like trying to grab hold of a snake, and I couldn't get a firm grip on him so I could punch his lights out. Finally, he slithered out of my grasp, leaped to his feet and raced off, calling back over his shoulder, "You're fucking crazy, man!" and he may have been right.
Most of my excursions to The Strip in those days were not so eventful. Usually, I'd just park Susie on the sand where she sunbathed in her g-string bikini, while I went across the street to the Candy Store to have a beer at an outside table alongside the pool and overlooking The Strip.
I watched the college kids cruise by in their beat-up vans, hanging out the windows, screaming at the co-eds walking by, "Hey, baby, wanna ride!"; the co-eds giggling, considering their options, sometimes taking that offer, but mostly just walking on, feeling good about themselves now. It was easy to spot the college kids, with their pink, inflamed three-day tans, from the street hustlers from Covenant House, with their pool-room pallor and their dirty clothes. They were mostly young teenagers, maybe 16, but older in the ways of the world than those college kids. They hung together in furtive groups, boys and girls, eyeballing the vans and cars passing by until they saw a long, black Lincoln moving slowly down The Strip, its closed windows tinted black, the Lincoln slowing at the group of street hustlers, a window coming down revealing a fat, florid-faced man with white hair, eyeballing the hustler chicks until he made eye contact with one of them and nodded. The chick separated herself from the group, followed the Lincoln until it turned the corner onto a side street and stopped. The chick went up to his driver's side window. They talked for a few minutes, trying to settle on a price, and when they couldn't the driver buzzed up his window and peeled away from the chick, almost running over her foot. She screamed at him, "Asshole!" and ran after his car, stooping to pick up a beer can, throwing it at his car, banging it off his rear window, the guy jamming on his brakes now and the chick running back to the safety of her clutch on The Strip.
Meanwhile, on the beach, Susie was lying on her stomach when some college boys came by and stopped, grinning and pointing at her naked ass, one of them aiming his videocam at her ass to film it and bring back to Peoria or wherever to show his friends. Susie heard them giggling, turned and looked over her shoulder, saw what they were doing, and stood up. They looked embarrassed now at this older woman, almost 50, who was older than their mothers, as she began to berate them to the applause of the few other locals on the beach, the boys shamefaced now, skulking off while Susie stomped after them, still berating them.
In the late afternoon, I watched the belly-flop contest at the Candy Store pool, the fattest college boys always making the biggest splash, winning the contest, a six-pack of beer, just what they needed to deaden the pain from their sunburned stomachs smacking the water. Then the emcee announced the beginning of the hot-bod contest, his name, he said, was Jack Mehoff, but the kids didn't get it. The co-eds lined up beside him in their two-piece bathing suits from the cruisewear department of Nordstrom's, and their baby-fat bodies that were maybe hot back in the Midwest but here, in the Land of Sleaze and Sun, couldn't hold a candle to the tanned, toned bodies of the local strippers with the rose tattoos on their asses, pre-tramp stamp, and their skimpy g-string bikinis from Lace To Lust that showed off their plump new store-bought titties, the poor co-eds staring crestfallen at the strippers now, knowing they didn't stand a chance, feeling stupid walking around the pool to hoots of derision and splashes of water from the boys, while the strippers walked around that pool in their stiletto heels, with that stripper's swayback walk to accentuate their ass and store-bought tits, and those boys screamed out their approval.
Later in the afternoon, after the hot-bod contest, I walked a few yards to the Marlin Beach, the gay hotel on The Strip and had another beer outside, watching the boys, in pairs, sunbathing on the beach in their little Speedos, all in a group, their own private section of the beach except when some unsuspecting low-rent tourist couple plopped down with their two young children, laid out their blanket and their kids' toys and then, looking around, realizing where they were, quickly scooping up their things and hustling their kids farther up the beach away from the gays.
One day, at the Marlin Beach, a waiter brought me a beer. "But I didn't order one," I said. He turned and pointed to a young college kid, who smiled at me, puckered his lips, and blew me a kiss. "It's from him," the waiter said. "He told me to tell you he loves older wrinkle bears."
We never stayed on into the night for the wet t-shirt contests and the banana-eating contests and the whipped-cream-eating contests at the Candy Store and Penrod's and the notorious Button, which are all gone now, closed down, their owners and emcees arrested for obscenity. The only bar left from the '80s still standing is the Elbo Room on the corner of The Strip and Las Olas, a tiny hole-in-the-wall, where the drinkers are mostly red-faced locals with beards and, only occasionally, college kids these days.
After the kids were thrown out of Fort Lauderdale in the late '80s, I missed them for awhile, The Strip now being renovated with four-star hotels and restaurants and European tourists with real cash to spend. I missed the hot-bod contests and the kids' pranks, like the time a group of college wrestlers picked up a Volkswagen Beetle and carried it across the street and hid it in a mom-and-pop motel parking lot and then went back to The Strip and waited for the Beetle's owner to come back and wonder if he was too drunk to remember where he parked his Beetle; or the time some kids caught a baby hammerhead shark in the ocean one night and carried it, gingerly, across the street to a motel pool and dumped it in, and then woke early the next morning, standing on their third-floor balcony looking down at the pool, waiting for that first tourist to take a morning dip, and then, panicking, splashing out of that pool as fast as possible. Sometimes those boys on the balcony got the clever idea of diving off into the pool, and sometimes they missed and landed headfirst on the tile around the pool, and you could hear the shrieking of the EMS sirens, and then the ambulance drivers bending over the prone bodies of those kids, their life bleeding out of them onto the tile, which the motel's owner quickly washed away after the body was removed so that the low-rent tourist families wouldn't be terrified in the morning when they woke up to find the tiles around the pool saturated with congealed blood.
I left for Daytona at 4 a.m. in darkness, and by the time I passed through Ninety Six heading toward Newberry on a two-lane blacktop bordered by woods, I saw the deer had come out, hanging by the side of the road in groups of three and four, the deer the color of dust, waiting until they saw my headlights approaching and then bounding across the road, forcing me to brake at first and then slow down to 45 miles per hour, my eyes swiveling left and right for the deer for the next hour until I reached the lights of Newberry and got on I-26 toward Columbia.
Part 2 will run tomorrow. Spring Break photos via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.