Can't Play It Again, Sam

The bar where nobody knows your name

I'm having a dark moment. It's Friday night, and I'm in the Roof Top Lounge on the eighth floor of the Howard Johnson Hotel on Alton Road. Dark is good. I go to dark places when I want to be alone and drink, when I don't want to pack my own conversation. If ever I wanted dark, this is it. There should be music here, but there isn't.

The Roof Top Lounge is a poem of a place. An ode to every swingin' little space-age bachelor-hotel bar that time forgot. The décor is Fifties and Sixties Hollywood Hip: a crazy cocktail of modern and Oriental influences. This is the joint where Sinatra takes Angie Dickinson for a drink in the Rat Pack classic Ocean's 11. It's the Hong Kong where painter William Holden falls in love with beautiful prostitute Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong. And it's also old Miami Beach's idea of CLASS: Rattan tables and chairs scattered throughout two rooms, an oval island bar with a distressed copper surface and a plush vinyl railing (just in case you need to rest your head), and maybe, just maybe, the best view in town. Picture windows offer an unobstructed panorama of downtown Miami, the Port of Miami, and, for those inclined to watch the cars go by, the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

I sit down and realize that, at almost half past nine, there are only four people up here: two middle-age guys talking sports over by the window, the bartender, and me. "No crowd tonight?" I ask the bartender, hoping I already know the answer. "Maybe later," she says. This particular HoJo caters to the convention center crowd: visiting schoolteachers, health-care professionals, and salespeople of every stripe. At the end of a long day of networking, many of them are too tired to go anywhere -- or, being out-of-towners, don't know where to go -- so they'll come here for a nightcap. It's a neighborhood bar hundreds of miles from anyone's neighbors.

A Rat Pack flashback at the Rooftop Lounge
Steve Satterwhite
A Rat Pack flashback at the Rooftop Lounge

The bartender's name is Maria. She's worked at the Roof Top for four years, having come from Mexico about six years ago. This is her place. Technically she works for the hotel, but way up here nobody tells her what to do. "I close up around eleven, eleven-thirty, if there's no one here," she says. "Otherwise I stay open as long as I want. Till 1:00 a.m last night."

Maria knows people. She seems to be pretty good at figuring out if you want a little conversation or some alone time with your drink and your thoughts. She gives me a little of both. "This is a great place to work," she says, when she sees me with pad and pen in hand. "A young guy used to come up here all the time to sketch." Then she slides out from behind the bar, lights a cigarette, and pulls up a chair in front of the projection television.

What really hurts is the fact that the TV sits alongside a performance stage and sits in for the performers. A constant whir of white noise that frustrates the illusion of the golden age resort. There's an upright piano and a couple of speakers on the elevated platform, a reminder of a time when piano bars dotted the landscape of the beach. "When does the piano player show up?" I ask hopefully. "He doesn't," she says. A piano bar without a piano player. Too bad. If a guy in a suit -- even a bad tuxedo -- showed up every night to tickle the ivories and maybe sing a few tunes, there wouldn't be a better place in town to forget your troubles. As it is the only music comes from the next room: a small tabletop stereo, programmed to the local jazz station. It'll have to do.

The two guys who had been sitting over by the window pay their check and scram. I'm starting to think it's going to be one of those early nights for Maria and me. And then the regulars arrive (here "regular" means you show up each one of the three nights you're in town).

"How are you, Maria?" asks a middle-age man wearing a white short-sleeve shirt that accentuates his lobster tan. He sits down across the bar from me and introduces himself as Bob. He's from Orlando. Some fleeting sound byte from the TV prompts a story he probably tells a lot. "I know a kid that ripped off Disney for four million dollars," declares Bob to no one in particular, though he's got the attention of the three or four of us now sitting around the bar. "Got four guys together with Disney uniforms and clearance into that underground network that runs beneath the park," he says, making sure we're following along. "They just intercepted a delivery of money. Got away with it." Really? "Well, he served six months, but he's still got the money."

The two guys sitting on either side of me smile. It's an idea, anyway, they seem to be saying. "Hey, I got one for you guys," says the man on my right, introducing himself as Mark from Chicago. He means a game, not a story. He places three shot glasses on the bar. The first one is face up, the second one face down, and the third, up again. "Okay," he says, pointing to each one, "you have to turn two of these over at a time, three different times, never turning the same two twice. When you're done, they all have to be facing the same direction." Collectively we assure him we can crack this little nut. And we do. "Yeah, I got that one from a guy who was in here last night. Used to be a magician's assistant, or something."

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