POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA
I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time. Funny how traveling can do that. Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are. For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas. Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see. I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West. Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.
Everything is so white here: The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun. It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.
For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.” If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions. Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.
Dad loves gallows humor. He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:
- Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
- What the doctor said
- “You hear who died?”
After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.
South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.
“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.
“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.
My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.
We attempt to put together our orders.
“Got any soup?”
“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”
“I’ll have oatmeal…”
“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”
“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”
“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”
It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.
We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out. Denny’s had been crossed off our list.
But tonight, something else is on my mind. It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago. After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.
But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!
The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery. It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car. Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom. His directions turned out to be perfect.
When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral. I was sent around to the other side of the building. There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us. A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form. I was to write down the names of the deceased. The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names. She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death. I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996. When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992. This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery. The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.
Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed. I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible. My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high. I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me. The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable. It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates. Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names. As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation: Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies. (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.) There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones. A cookie cutter memorial. Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information. Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self: Ask Dad about this. This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.” Gag. As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.” While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas. My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.
And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996. It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.
Summer, 1996. I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston. I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day. I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death. My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once. Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline. The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder. If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself. I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away. I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone. I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.
I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can. I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate. The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately. As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.
We’re done here. Let’s go home to California.