Tales in the Storm

As the sun rises Friday morning, a few television crew members who spent the night in their satellite trucks wander in to buy orange juice and doughnuts. They don't seem tempted by a plastic jar next to the cash register marked "Cuban Cigars." The price: $1.50 apiece. None of the stogies, however, has a band or other identifying mark. Could they really be Cubans? "I don't know," Jack admits. "Some jackass out of Fort Lauderdale brings 'em in here every week."

Two Associated Press photographers have commandeered a portion of the front counter and one of Jack's telephones so they can transmit digital photos to their office in Miami. Amid the sudden activity, a handsome young man with a deeply resonant voice strolls over to Jack and introduces himself as being with NBC News.

"Are you that jackass that's been parked out there all night?" Jack queries playfully.

"No, I'm the jackass that got here this morning," volleys the newsman, Gulstan Dart. "I think we're going to be camped out in front of your store for a while."

Jack turns to his own TV, which is tuned to Channel 10, and declares, "I still ain't got used to Dwight Lauderdale without a mustache." Then he asks the man: "What station are you with again?"

"NBC," Dart says. "Really, it's MSNBC." He pauses, but sensing no recognition from Jack, presses on: "It's a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC." He pauses again; Jack says nothing. "I'm usually an anchor," Dart adds hopefully, "but they sent me down here to cover the storm."

Finally he asks, "Do you get MSNBC down here?"
"Hell, I don't know," Jack retorts, turning again to his TV and the hypnotic enigma of Dwight Lauderdale's upper lip. "He just looks funny."

"Hey, Jack, I seen you on TV last night," says a customer as he walks up to the counter with a six-pack.

"You were on TV?" asks another.
"Yeah, I was the one with the good hair," Jack laughs as he runs his hand over his bald head.

Sure enough, Jack was on TV the night before. A crew from Channel 6 stopped in to elicit his impression of the storm and to interview him about why he was staying open. A shameless flirt, Jack was more than eager to talk to the attractive female reporter.

"He did good on TV," adds Michael Lero, a shrimper who supplies Jack with bait.

Even though the storm isn't hitting South Dade particularly hard, the damage to the Keys troubles Lero. "For the next couple of weeks I'm not going to have any business," he grumbles. "All of us shrimpers who sell shrimp in the Keys are going to be hurting."

Lero is not the only one feeling the storm's bite on this day. About a mile down the road at the Last Chance Saloon, owner Skeeter Dryer nurses a morning Miller and fumes over the fact that the highway patrol decided to set up its roadblock just north of his venerable establishment, thereby preventing anyone from stopping in for a libation. "It's not like we were going to have a hurricane party," Skeeter protests, "but they denied me business all day yesterday."

More important, Skeeter continues, is the fact that he told a number of people they could stay in his bar when Georges struck. "This is a very safe building," he reports. "I'd gone out and bought a lot of food. I have a shower on the premises and a few private rooms. I've got an emergency generator. We were prepared. During Hurricane Andrew we had fifteen people, seven dogs, and a five-day-old baby ride out the storm in here. I take my responsibilities as a barkeep very seriously."

In Skeeter's world, hurricanes aren't things merely to be survived; they must also be experienced. Successfully doing so is a badge of honor. On baseball caps and T-shirts, the bar's name is always coupled with the phrase Riders of the Storm. "That's what we are," he insists.

Skeeter has owned the Last Chance for 23 years. The bar itself dates back to the early Forties. The clientele is mixed -- from locals in a neighboring trailer park to tourists on their way to the Keys to bikers who make the Last Chance a regular stop during weekend runs. Indeed it is bikers who are most identified with the Last Chance these days, but Skeeter says he doesn't believe they had anything to do with the troopers' decision to cut off access to his place during the storm. "They just decided it would be easier to turn people around up there than to the south of me," he says. "I tried to talk to them about it. I walked up there, but they were not in a conversational mood. They were under duress themselves, which I can understand. But what I don't understand is why they couldn't be a little more accommodating."

Besides, Skeeter adds for good measure, there's not a darn thing wrong with bikers. Not long ago about 1000 of them came through his bar during a charity event and there wasn't a hint of trouble. "Put this in the paper," he commands. "A thousand men peed in that bathroom over there and not a single one tossed a cigarette butt into the urinal. They're good men."

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