Take the A1A

“It’s 78 degrees in Ft. Lauderdale right now,” I overheard him say to no one in particular as I waited for my drink.

He was pointing up at the television and shaking his head, watching some sporting event.

“Yeah, always beautiful there.”

“Really?” I asked. “I’m going there for work next week.”

“Oh yeah? You’ll love it! It’s my favorite place in the whole world. I used to get down there all the time.”

I told him I had never been there, and until I looked it up on Google maps, I didn’t even know how close it was to Miami.

He warned me not to go to Miami. Miami Beach, maybe, but not Miami. “So sleazy,” he said.

I asked him how long it had been since he last visited, and seeing his face drop, I realized I had touched on a sore subject.

“Can’t afford to anymore. Ever since the smoking ban went into effect, this bar is barely hanging on. Lost my health insurance, lost my benefits, might lose my bar. Best thing Illinois ever did for Indiana was to ban smoking in bars. Everybody just heads to Indiana and Wisconsin now.”

It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention that Wisconsin has had a smoking ban for years, or that I found it hard to believe that hordes of 20-somethings were crossing the border just to smoke, because really, maybe they were.

“Any places you would recommend I visit while I’m there?”

His eyes lit up, as he yelled at the woman behind the bar, “Hang on… Amy! Grab me an index card and a pen!”

He was left-handed, I noticed, as he scribbled in a giant swirl on the card before throwing the pen in the trash and requesting another. Motioning for me to follow him, he led me over to the cigarette machine, where the glowing light behind the packs of Marlboros and Kools made it easier to read his instructions.

“You need to eat dinner at The Aruba Cafe. It’s my favorite restaurant in all of Ft. Lauderdale. If you’re there on a Friday – will you be there on Friday? – if you’re there on a Friday see if they have the blackened snapper. Spicy…”

He closed his eyes and smiled for just a moment, his voice trailing off as he remembered the meal. As he went down his list recommending other bars, restaurants and hot spots, he became more and more animated. At one point, I had to wipe fine droplets of spittle off my face while he reminisced about specific meals and the ocean air.

“Make sure you rent a car and drive along the A1A highway. It’s amazing – the road is here, and the ocean is here,” he gestured with his hands, indicating how close they were. “But you know the best thing about Ft. Lauderdale?”

By this point, he was half yelling, with spit punctuating each sentence, so I started to back away, folding the index card and shoving it in my back pocket.

“I’m older than you – 61 – and the one thing Ft. Lauderdale has that Chicago doesn’t have is adult nighttime entertainment.”

For a moment, I thought he might have meant that Ft. Lauderdale wasn’t just full of bars where young, rowdy kids hang out. Actually, I didn’t really think he meant that, but I wanted it to be true. He clarified.

“Strip clubs, escort services, massage parlors… you name it. They have it all! It’s amazing.”

He continued, “Yeah, Ft. Lauderdale is a woman-run town. You don’t see that here, you know? You don’t see beautiful women driving around in their Mercedes convertibles in Chicago. But there? Whoa! Everywhere. These gals go out at the end of the night, hitting the 4:00am bars, with $2000 cash in their pockets that they just earned that night. They run that town.”

It was at that point that I turned back toward my friends, thanking the man for the recommendations. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed at my own ignorance. I consider myself an ardent feminist and yet I had no idea that the women of Ft. Lauderdale had achieved what the first-wave feminists fought so hard to create: a bastion of social equality where women could shed the shackles of sexism, finally free to pursue any career they wanted, be it stripper, whore, or full-release masseuse.

And to be able to smoke indoors at the same time? It was almost too wonderful to process. To think I almost made the mistake of taking a day trip to Miami. Can you imagine? So sleazy.