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.
A segment of the popular, frequently televised World Poker Tour Boot Camp passed through the Seminole Hard Rock this past May and another is scheduled for September.
Tournament action is a little more serious than any of the normal cash games, where $40 can take all night to vanish. Each player puts down his or her buy-in money, and each is given a corresponding amount in chips. The chips no longer have cash value; they are simply measurements of who is ahead in the tournament, thus the two-dollar rule is skirted.
According to casino spokesman Gary Bitner of Bitner Goodman: "Sit and go is a poker culture term. We refer to them as minitournaments.... Buy-in levels are $140, $250, or $500. They are no-limit. First-place prizes range from $580 to $2300, depending on the buy-in level."
In Bitchspeak, no limit means you can bet all of your chips at one time and potentially lose your $140 buy-in in the first five minutes of play.
But back to the two-dollar law. Is its circumvention legal? According to The Bitch's law-enforcement-type sources, the short answer is it's probably not, but the Hard Rock falls into the weird regulatory void of Indian gaming regulations because it is on a Seminole reservation. Basically, federal law says any form of gambling the state allows is permitted on tribal lands. But because Florida has never negotiated a formal agreement with the Seminoles or the Miccosukees, the state can't regulate how broadly the Indians interpret this edict. That means it's up to the National Indian Gaming Association, or the U.S. Attorney's Office, to swoop down and say, "Um, really you can't do that." (It's likely a good gamble, given that many of the reservation casinos in Florida employed Vegas-style gambling machines long before it was strictly legal for them to do so.)
It seems some members of our local public-relations corps have been attending The Bitch Institute of Diplomacy.
Incident One: Mark Namit, a student journalist at Florida Atlantic University's University Press, was sent to the woodshed by a UP editor essentially for using too much of a press release in an advance about a production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton. Then some really weird things happened.
"This started when Mark violated every journalism ethic in the book: His editor asked him to rewrite a theater preview, but instead Mark forwarded his article and the editor's e-mail to the publicist at the theater. Then he asked the publicist to e-mail the editor and vouch for his story.... That was bad enough. But the publicist's response was worse," explains UP advisor (and writer about town) Michael Koretzky.
Caldwell flack Allyson Kleiman responded, in part, with the following, directed at Koretzky: "From what I heard, it sounds as if the Teletubby movies are more your speed, and that sort of tunnel vision on your part does not inspire confidence that FAU is grooming thoughtful, intelligent, and creative students....
"If you and your colleagues just care about Adam Sandler-type entertainment (which is so junior high school), then perhaps Florida's tax-paying citizens should be aware of how our tax money is being spent.
"We are disappointed not that you aren't able to understand Mark's well-thought-out writing but that your narrow-mindedness affects FAU's readership, some of whom, I can say with certainty, enjoy theater, even if Vin Diesel isn't in the cast. It is precisely because of mentalities like yours that overall arts' budgets have been drastically slashed throughout our country and those students who would benefit from exposure to the arts are left sitting on the sidelines, unable to pursue their love of music, theater, and ballet.
According to Koretzky, he called company manager Patricia Burdett, who told him she had nothing to say about Kleiman's e-mail, and if he was upset, well, "you live sheltered lives." Neither Burdett nor Kleiman would discuss The Bitch's sheltered life or anything else.
The student, Mark Namit, resigned from the newspaper.
Namit told The Bitch he didn't really know what possessed him to e-mail in haste. "It was just something I did maybe without thinking," adding he's absolutely through with the UP: "I've been trying to improve that publication for years, but in the end I told them, 'We just don't get along.'"
Incident Two: Michelle Payer, area director of public relations for the three local Ritz-Carltons, is usually pretty slick if vaguely imperious, but she got sassy when The Bitch pressed her about the triple cataclysm of rain, mosquitoes, and overwhelmed valets at the Key Biscayne Hotel at this past Thursday's dual Ocean Drive en Español party and launch of the Cantina Beach Restaurant.
The Bitch can't remember any event so inescapably irritating -- the keyword here being inescapably. The first sign of trouble was a surprise mandatory cash-only ten-dollar parking fee. It's not as if people who run with the OD crowd can't fork out ten bucks, but actual money is always a rare sight, and the singles and fivers in the hands of guests were likely intended for people actually doing work -- bartenders, baristas, and, yes, valets.
The Bitch knows she likes to show some love to a guy making steamy cappuccinos right next to a leaping fifteen-foot bonfire (always de rigueur for parties in Florida in June) with a cash reward.
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When The Bitch pointed out pretty gently to Payer that she'd rather dole out her biscuits to, say, the washroom attendant than the hotel's corporate coffers, Payer blamed Ocean Drive for not printing full-disclosure invitations and suggested that while The Bitch is probably too downmarket to get the RC anyway, the parsimonious dog might want to take a night off from her usual round of convenience store heists and glue huffing for a ten-dollar winetasting at the RC in Coconut Grove: "It's a STEAL and lots of fun if you're looking for something entertaining and a little more upscale after work."
The Bitch thinks she'll stick with her Schlitz Malt Liquor, but was reassured by an also-disgruntled professional journalist's similar tale. "I had to wait one hour and forty-four minutes for my car," groused the normally patient pro, noting the hotel didn't use the opportunity to send around some deet products and martinis to the captive audience. "If they couldn't handle getting 400 cars to people in any kind of timely fashion, they had no business booking a party that size."
Whatever I Want to, Gosh!
The Bitch promised permacrisp-Oxford-shirt-wearer Michael Capponi she wouldn't say too much about his housewarming party this past Saturday, which is hard because it was, like, the best party of all time. Efren Ramirez -- Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite -- was there, and was just as spacy and charming as his cake-baking student-council-president character.