Part One: Florida
Every flag in the anchorage was flying an American flag. That was the first strange thing I noticed about being back in the States. We're used to Canadian, British, German, Dutch, South African flags and can sometimes even distinguish among them. The French we learned to recognize early on, because they're always the ones who anchor up your behind. No one can figure out why-we know it can't be because they like us.
There's been a lot of this sort of hey-wowing since our re-entry.
The anchorages, we discovered on Day One in the Dry Tortugas, are crowded. It's like finding a parking spot on the Upper West Side.
"Hey, we can practically walk to shore over the other boats, Gary said. "Ain 't civilization grand?"
Yes and no.
Moving from at-sea into a sea of merchandise is a mixed bag. After six months in small barely-populated places-the little known Honduran Bay Islands, the remote outer reefs of Belize and Mexico's hidden secret, Isla Mujeres-I feel both visually assaulted and grudgingly besotted by beyond-burrito restaurants, snap-pea-and-sushi supermarkets and "Yes-of-course-we-have-it" Big-Box stores. Convenient rental cars are pleasant, but traffic snarls still set my teeth to gnashing.
In Key West and South Beach, I realized that crowds are a condition of life. As are tattoo shops. And Cheesecake Factorys. Since when did The Cheesecake Factory become the McDonalds of grownups? And does a Cheesecake Factory actually serve cheesecake?
There were other mysteries: exactly when did $8 become the basement, not the ceiling, for a glass of screwcap Pinot Grigio? When did an Extra Large tee-shirt become the diameter of a tube sock? Does every female now wear fuck-me clothes or is this merely a South Florida happening? I can only hope.
Mr & Mrs Chris
On the other hand, filling up-the boat, that is-is suddenly a cinch, an almost ethereal occurrence. Since LULU is a diesel guzzler in motor-scooter societies, scrounging for fuel is a fact of our life. In third-world countries you don't just pull up to a Texaco Station, punch in Cash or Credit, stick the hose in, then thrum your fingers on the wheel till you're full.
First, we've got to find the Texaco station. Then we've got to hope the commercial pier it sits on has only sooty black truck tires to cuddle up to and not splintering wood walls hiding knife-sized nails. Sometimes there is no Texaco station. But we know someone's bringing in fuel for the bigger local users. So we swing into ask-around mode: we wave down fishermen in skiffs, we approach hotel owners behind desks, we interrupt dive guys filling tanks.
In Roatan, we found a willing local who off-loaded a truck-full of diesel from a nearby tanker, then bounced down a marshy hill to meet us at waterside. He unreeled about 100 feet of heavy black hose and started pumping. It all worked okay until he delegated the sludge-encrusted hose to his teenage sons who held an impromptu pissing contest, splashing a vast area of deck with filthy, oily diesel fuel.
In these instances, you've got to A) Hold your tongue-because you may need this guy next week and B) Trust what seems to be his personally-calibrated gas gauge. An overenthusiastic guage is the only way our 350-gallon tanks could suddenly, miraculously, hold 400.
The pinnacle of our fueling nadir was our last fill-up in Belize, where the fuel-schleppers' union was on strike. A knowledgeable hotelkeep hooked us up with a female entrepreneur who owned a tugboat that could fill us. MR CHRIS, it was called. The plan was the tug would come out to the anchorage, raft up to us and transfer the fuel. Sounds easy. Unless you know better.
We dinghied in to take a look.
"It's gotta be that orange boat," Gary pointed from a distance.
"That's not orange, that's rust," I said. (This is what laser-corrected eyes will do for you.)
Close-up, it was no mere five-o'clock shadow of rust MR CHRIS sported. He was profoundly, globally, malevolently rusty-like he'd been recently salvaged from a 20-year snooze in the deep-and if you so much as brushed a surface, he'd crumble completely back into the sea.
"No way that hulk is coming near us, Gar."
"We don't have a choice, Lou. We'll cover our fenders in garbage bags."
"We can't do this to our boat!" I wailed.
"Look, it won't even touch us. It'll be fine."
Why does he keep torturing me with that phrase?
That night I dreamed of tetanus shots; of Quasimoto bedding Snow White, of LULU becoming MRS CHRIS.
Matters didn't get better in the morning. The Bronx junkyard came looming at us bow first, on too acute an angle-it was about to slice us diagonally into a bologna sandwich on white. I wanted desperately to cover my eyes, but I was one of two assisting in the raft-up. At the very last minute MR CHRIS began straightening out.
Now I could see for sure our sausage-sized, Hefty-wrapped fenders were no match for the corroded behemoth-besides, MR CHRIS'S topsides were a foot above our puny decks. I considered throwing my body between the two boats as a human fender, but there was the pain to consider. Also I was already way too tanned.
Gary and I and the lone crewman on the tug-fortunately a colossus-fought to keep the two boats apart. I managed to lift a few fenders, which move saved all but one stanchion from the crunch of MR CHRIS'S red-bearded embrace.
I couldn't wait to get filled up and get a quickie divorce.
Having better to do than while away his night thinking up King Kong-Fay Wray scenarios, Gary had devised an ingenious electric siphon-so that we didn't have some non-English-speaking gorilla pouring 55-gallon drums into a single puny funnel.
In the morning, Gary disconnected our main fuel transfer pump and attached a garden hose to it; the pump would suck the fuel from the drums electrically-and neatly. The Gorilla didn't think much of the plan, grunting to indicate his disapproval. Gary gave him to understand we were trying it our way.
Tough luck-the garden hose deflated like a junkie's vein. Fuel dripped through, but at the speed of an IV. The Gorilla hefted the first drum onto his shoulder, leaned over from above and poured. After some 55 gallons of the first 110 had splashed onto the decks, Gary insisted the IV method was, though glacially slow, a lot cleaner.
The hint of a propina (tip) probably helped.
If I'd had my doubts about five full months in the US, our first fill-up, in Miami, squashed them. I signed back on to civilization. A brand- new Zagat also helped. Or at least seemed to.
The Southern Florida Zagat was our second purchase, just after we took on 300 gallons of Federal-Bureau-of-Weights-&-Measures-metered diesel.
The Zagat gave us the opportunity to discover that the $250 dinner-for-two is not an exclusive New York phenomenon.
Someone said Coral Gables is the current cauldron of hot restaurants. Worth investigation but we lacked wheels. Fortunately there's Enterprise, which brings your car almost to your slip. In this case, the car was a pickup truck-yet another trend to explore. Black, though, down to the door handles.
My nose for prose guided us. Working the Zagat like a Gameboy, I starred the most exciting-sounding bistros, the hippest new chefs. Norman's, with a first in all Miami for food, sounded just right. Too bad you can't literally eat words
No sooner did we reserve than we began doubting. How great could it be if Norman's had a reservation for us, at the last minute, at 8 PM?
We handed the pickup obediently to the valet car parker and entered. The décor, slick, screened-in porch. Only two tables were occupied-and Norman's was no eight-table Rao's. A waiter brought us water, without so much as a sniff when we chose the du-faucette over the six brands of bottled. He handed us two leather menus and a tome of a wine list. I scanned the menu while Gary dove into the wines.
Minutes later, I came up with only one main course, which barely piqued my interest: a veal chop- doubtless from a milk-fed, likely spa-raised calf-that Norman would pat, herb, spice, infuse and liqueur with a long and mysterious list of ingredients. (When did a dinner entree become more complicated than a quadratic equation?) From the ingredient mélange I recognized-and knew I would like-the dusting of pecans, though honed instinct told me I'd prefer a blanketing to a dusting.
$45 The Chop. Vegetable additional.
Amazed no appetizer suited me, the waiter, a squeaky-clean preppie type, fresh and young as the veal-offered I could choose anything from Norman's $125 tasting menu. Lucky break but, yet again, nothing beckoned.
Gary, meanwhile, looked up, appalled.
"I can't find a wine here under $100," he reported. "And most are closer to $1000."
"Oh, no, sir, we have several," the waiter said, confidently. Thumbing through the list, he could point out two-both in the upper $60s. Refilling our water glasses, he left us to our meager choices.
"This is really dumb," I said, which crossed with Gary's, "Let's get the fuck out of here."
With $300 saved and 350 other fine Zagat choices, we could afford to be brazen.
Feeling very grown up indeed, we marched out of Norman's. Thankfully the nice waiter missed our exit.
I will say this for Norman-he didn't charge us for the valet park. Nor did the suddenly-it's-a-bargain, $200-for-two steakhouse we then chose-because we parked around the corner and walked.
I had learned nothing: en route to Ft Lauderdale, I shuffled, like a Las Vegas dealer, through the Zagat. Next, my penchant for hyperbole led us to Steve Martarrano, who I like to think of as the meatball tsar. Martarrano is a South Philly boy with a good gimmick. In South Philly he'd be selling slices or slapping $6.00 hoagies together, but in South Florida, he's parlayed Mamma's meatballs and Nonna's gravy into a glitzy, ritzy Café Scene.
Steve's clientele consisted primarily of the cell-phoned, swivel-hipped Super Cool and their companions, the sleek, young trend-indentured, who are pared down to virtual slivers, flashing labels like sequins. Contrasting sharply was a smattering of pallid facelifts floating over displays of very, very real jewelry and several tables of made men showing off their gomars.
They're all clamoring to pay $40 for a bowl of spaghetti and gravy. Docile and compliant, everyone swallows Martarrano's edicts: No menu. No butter on your bread (butter's for breakfast, knucklehead). No cheese on your shellfish. So you'd better think it through before ordering that angel hair with clam sauce.
Steve's rules are delivered by your waiter, who slouches to your table with a spiky arrangement of dried pastas in a straw basket. He sits down with you, fondles each packet lovingly, then describes what the boss has in mind for you tonight.
The gimmick-besides Steve's list of no-no's-is peasant foods treated like royalty: merged with only the virginest of olive oils, the most ancient of Balsamicos, the crumbliest of Parmigiano, the boldest, fattest of peppers, the homemadest of sausages, the giantest of scampi. The byword is big-no, actually, colossal: meatballs like soccer balls; prawns the size of lobster tails; linguini in baptismal-sized bowls; fist-sized pork chunks fighting the penne for space.
We should share an entrée after meatball and scampi appetizers, our waiter Todd warned. But it seemed unreasonable not to sample heavily from our past: the robust Sicilian joy of Mrs Menutti's gnocchi, Frank Martorella's cacciatores, Vesuvio Restaurant's marinara crude and seafood oreganatas.
Todd was right; we barely touched our entrees. Notwithstanding, I still believe my stomach continues holding to a long-ago truce-it faces all culinary challenges without protest or significant advance forward, as long as I stuff it with food that's no less than fabulous. Steve's wasn't. That distinction belonged to the tab.
This regular diet of bloated or not-worth-it checks continued. It took a long while but eventually we decided to concentrate on the scenery instead-to savor a slow 1200-mile dance up the East coast and the opportunity to waltz around brand new places.
With no wind and fluffy little waves, we motored on to Cape Canaveral. I was unprepared for how I'd feel there, having never quite connected with the space program (except at failed launches when good people got killed.)
Clearly, I was doing something else during that very moving first moon landing. I'm guessing since I then married to my first husband, The Gadgeteer, we were probably combing the county for the latest in stereos, cameras and convertibles. Or buying yet another new Electrolux, supercharged, with every new brush and nozzle. So frequent a visitor to our house was Jim the Electrolux salesman that when the marriage fizzled, he was just about my first date.
In Canaveral, Gary and I were both knocked out by the Space Center, by the awe we felt at its mammoth scale, by the size of the achievement. The exhibits and presentations were slick, in the best sense of the word, and sometimes stirring to the point of tears.
It's impossible not to have a personal realization of the monumental task that was announced and then somehow accomplished. All those specialized buildings and roads and computer components and modules and launch pads and crawlers and rockets and delivery systems-millions upon millions of pounds of stuff that never existed before and then, for the most part, actually worked. Not to mention, the input of hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, architects, technicians-even our cruising friends, Sarah and Carl on MY DREAM.
What a tribute to the ingenuity, vision and creativity of humankind. Now if we could achieve all that, why can't we accomplish peace on earth? Clearly it's not an idea whose time has-or apparently will ever-come.
Parenthetically, all those millions and millions of pound of steel, aluminum, asphalt and concrete made us feel like flyweights, enabling us to abandon our diets with abandon that night.
The awesome day also made it easy to keep forgetting that my car had been stolen that morning from my daughter's driveway. The very morning it was supposed to go in for a repaint. We told ourselves it's just another physicality-besides aging bodies, boat and apartment-to handle when we get home.
Next morning, we got a waters-eye view of the Space Center site and its massive individual components: it took LULU more than two hours to glide by it. That day we chugged 120 miles, with bare puffs of wind and the flattest, gentlest waters we've ever encountered. It was like floating in a vast, almost deathly still lake.
After 13 hours, we dropped into to St Augustine-arguably the US's oldest city. Sailing in is a very special experience: history greets you as you pass beneath the 19th century turreted drawbridge-the Bridge of Lions, evoking crossed swords and trumpeting heralds-and into a pristine harbor fronted by immaculate antique and modern houses.
A white wedding cake of a building, frosted in terra cotta scallops, dominates the low-slung horizon, which setsthe city's predominant color scheme: creamy stone and ruddy brick.
St Augustine is delightful-but first you've got to get through the historic downtown pedestrian center, now unhappily overrun by cutesy Olden Days frippery: candleries, sachet shoppes, villagey apothecaries and cunningly named stores hawking vintage-last-Thursday merchandise.
Once free of the amusement-park inauthenticity, we could trolley beyond, through old brick streets arched by stately trees dripping in lacy Spanish moss. The city is a wonderful mix of Ponce-de-Leon- and Gilded Age Robber-Baron architecture, with accents of homespun clapboard, curlicued rococo and church stately. Further enriching the mix are several fantastic 18th century Spanish Renaissance hotels built in grand scale to accommodate the hundreds upon hundreds of guests who once came to "take the cure." All flawlessly preserved, scrumptiously landscaped, and a most tempting introduction to the Deep South, coming up.