By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
By Kyle Munzenrieder
What do you get when you mix a Veterans of Foreign Wars post with a South Beach high-rise? You get VFW Post 3559, possibly the world's most fabulously fusty rec room for veterans and the people who will listen to their stories in exchange for cheap drinks. Located on the first two floors of the Floridian, the post is an example of the odd quickie marriages sometimes made in the swelter of Miami's various real estate booms.
Post 3559 has been in roughly the same spot since the Thirties, when the 33-story Floridian was built on West Avenue in 1997 with the usual luxury amenities, such as valet, concierge, 24-hour security, fitness center, pool, and spa. In order to build it, the developers had to make a deal to construct a two-story clubhouse complete with elevator for the veterans. They also have their own parking lot on the side and are vigilant about towing cars not on official post business.
The Floridian converted from rental apartments to condos in 2004, after being sold for about $98 million. This past March, more than a dozen people camped outside the building overnight to get first crack at buying a unit, ranging from nearly quarter-of-a-million-dollar single-person affairs to million-dollar penthouses.
Yet amid all of this fabulousness, one can sit, barstool-to-barstool, with men who fought in foreign lands, from Germany to Vietnam to Iraq, but who are now content to sip a beer for about two bucks and contemplate a spectacular view of Star Island and the MacArthur Causeway. The bar is on the second floor, but to get there you first have to know the place exists at all. Most people are totally unaware of it, even some who live in the building. To the left of the main entrance is an unassuming door stenciled with the post's name. The door is always locked, but if you press a button, the bartender, if she likes the look of you, will let you in.
Despite the amazing water view, you will immediately feel as if you've stepped into a style-impaired patriot's basement rec room, with a low ceiling and walls amateurishly painted with scenes from America's various foreign entanglements. The bar is dark and cluttered, with a sign just below the cash register that reads, "If food, drink, or service is not up to your standards, please lower your standards, or better yet, GO HOME." Amenities include a free pool table, several television sets, tables and chairs, and a jukebox, for when no one's watching the game. There are also a few video poker-style machines scattered about the bar.
If you ask, the bartender will make you a hot dog on the George Foreman Grill, but snacking is not encouraged. Drinks are easily the cheapest on South Beach, topping out at four dollars for a top-shelf mixed drink. Jell-O shots are a dollar. It's worth noting there are rules here, posted on the wall next to one of the video machines. They address a range of undesirable behaviors, such as mixing firearms, post business, and alcohol. Other rules address minors, animals, and profanity, but really the only rule that matters is No. 4: The bartender on duty is in charge at all times.
This is usually Debbie or Phyllis. They hold ultimate power, because technically the club is only for VFW members. But nice, well-behaved patrons are also welcome, if partially to dilute the occasionally obnoxious boys' club atmosphere of a totally former military environment. This is a place for regulars. Larry, for instance, the post's quartermaster, is a round fellow with a big mouth, but a good sort once you get to know him. Ancient Iris is a charmer, sipping her Miller Lite in headband and Von Dutch T-shirt. She is more typical of the older folks who like to slip into the bar in the late afternoon, when it is quiet.
Later in the evening, the crowd becomes a bit younger and slightly more South Beachy. For instance, Juan, a lawyer from New York enjoying a second career pursuing insurance fraud, can often be found chasing the eight ball around the pool table. Courtney, a British ex-pat who supervises building construction, drops by to chat about his experiments with recipes for the fish he catches in the bay. "Baby barracuda," he enthuses one evening. "Sweet!" Hugo, an affable Colombian who retired from the navy and now works part-time at the Coast Guard PX, is not a particularly good pool player, but what he lacks in skill he makes up for in a willingness to try unlikely shots.
"It's the best-kept secret," Debbie the bartender says. She is ambivalent about the possibility of word getting out and bringing flocks of patrons, even though this would mean more tips. "This place is word of mouth," she muses. "I like nice people. Nice people tend to bring other nice people."
Owe Me the Money"At the gambling table, there are no fathers and sons." -- Chinese Proverb.
According to a 2004 Florida statute, the maximum bet at a poker table "may not exceed two dollars." But casinos, being the clanging, clockless, glowing cathedrals of controlled risk they are, have figured out a way around this rule. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood hosts what are known as "sit and go" tournaments. These last about an hour and are held 24 hours a day.