This is why Tel Aviv Gardens is on our list of senior living facilities to visit today. She is eager to sample their kosher cuisine and pictures her grandmother’s hands gently resting over her own as she lights the Sabbath candles and mouths the words to the prayers recited in a language that she herself never bothered to learn.
My father has an entirely different scenario in mind for where they should spend the last chapter of their lives. Dad’s choice is a senior living residence called the Imperial Club, or the Ambassador Club, or maybe it’s the Commodores’ Club? I keep mixing it up. It’s something vaguely nautical that implies luxury and first-class treatment befitting the tribe he most identifies with: the wealthy country club set.
The Jockey Club of Miami in the 1970’s was where I feel certain my father experienced the happiest moments of his life. At least the ones that didn’t involve hookers or poker. The club offered tennis, dockage for yachts, disco dancing, casual access to the wealthiest locals, and over-the-top Sunday buffets. This combination of access to the monied class and marbled meats was irresistible to my father. A towering presence in his younger days, six foot four and 250-ish pounds, my dad had an insatiable appetite for money and food equally.
Having a sophisticated or at least a satiated palate has always played an essential role in my father’s life. Every family story involves a meal or food group. During World War II, chewing gum was a luxury. To stretch the life of his Dubble Bubble, Dad would take a worked-over, flavorless wad of gum, sprinkle it with sugar, wrap it in wax paper, and freeze it.
It’s unfathomable to imagine an eight-year-old today going to that kind of trouble. Stories about his time in military school in northern Florida revolve around hunting possum (not kosher) and making turtle soup (even less kosher) or eating alligator (don’t even ask) in the Okefenokee Swamp. His gumbo recipe (which has not only every kind of shellfish imaginable but bacon, ham, and pork sausage to boot) is famous in several counties.
Our family vacations were planned around food. We went to Boston, ostensibly, to visit historical sites. Pictures show us walking the Freedom Trail, but I don’t remember it at all. The only vivid memory I have of that trip is climbing the narrow, dimly lit staircase leading to the century-old dining room of the Durgin-Park restaurant, where we ordered Flintstone-sized slabs of prime rib.
At the end of each week, the nouveau riche and the faux riche, like us, gathered at the Jockey, where the gluten was free flowing and diners engaged in a competition to see who could raise their cholesterol level quickest. I was my father’s daughter, buying into his financial alchemy and sharing in his passion for meats of all kinds, so Sundays were special to me as well. Dressed in our matching shiny polyester shirts and bell-bottoms, we’d load into my dad’s copper Mercedes 450 or my mother’s powder blue 280 and take the causeway connecting our gated island community in Biscayne Bay to the private drive of the swanky club, located a bit further north on the water.
To this day, I’ve never seen so much food in one place in my life as I did at those Sunday brunches. Table after table of silver platters overflowing with eggs Benedict, eggs Florentine, sausage, bacon, ham, and lamb. The meats were laid out like the stations of the cross and manned by a corpulent server in chef whites and toque blanche who carved roast beefs the size of beach balls. These were the days before veganism displaced hedonism as the preferred ism of the moneyed classes and patrons gazed rapturously as the beef fat glistened in the Florida sunlight.
The clubbing days are long gone for my parents.
The deal that brought our family to Miami and ushered in our country club years was one in a series of ambitious financial schemes sure to make a fast dollar, as they said in our hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Not surprisingly, most of my father’s associates were disbarred attorneys or CPAs who’d lost their licenses. If you were looking to my father to raise capital it meant you’d probably exhausted all other options. This first deal, somewhat appropriately, was an opportunity for him to build a fast-food empire. Dad was hired to fold a restaurant franchise called Jamie’s Great Hamburgers into another chain with forty-five outlets called Burger Castle. Jamie’s had a few joints scattered across the South and their hook was that they offered a hundred different dressings for your burger. Burger Castle’s hook was that people who’d had enough to drink might confuse them with Burger King. Burger Castle was sued by Burger King. I wouldn’t know if the brands were, in fact, too similar, but as someone who has worked in food service, those hundred dressings sound like a side work nightmare.
The failed burger merger was followed by a multitude of gold-plated opportunities. There was the renovation of Union Train Station in Saint Louis, a worthwhile project, but despite best efforts, the train never left the station. Next, Dad lit upon an idea for H. R. Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft to create a puppet theme park that went up in a puff with, sadly, no stuff. There was a stint distributing soft-core pornography and even a foray into distributing lithographs by famous artists like Peter Max which brought in boatloads of cash that wealthy people were trying to hide until the IRS decided to shut down this kind of art tax shelter.
Dad’s last high-profile venture was a re-launching of the Embers Restaurant, a Miami Beach institution famous for its thick-cut steaks cooked over an open fire pit that had fallen into disrepair. I’d just started college when the renovation was completed. I flew down and warbled Shirelles’ songs at the reopening-night party. Luckily the acoustics were terrible and my singing didn’t spoil the festivities. Like many of his ventures, business was booming at first, but very quickly graft became rampant, steaks were flying out the back door, and Dad couldn’t hold on to staff.
Word got to our cousins in Mobile, who knew people who knew “Sam the Plumber,” a bagman for the mob. Sam DeCavalcante was a member of the New Jersey Mafia who did a little moonlighting for mobster Meyer Lansky, who’d retired to Miami. Sam brought a brown paper Winn-Dixie grocery store bag containing two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to our home. I stared at it on the kitchen counter, too frightened to peer inside but tempted by its contents nonetheless.
“Dad, you should keep it!” I advised with an eighteen-year-old’s naïve enthusiasm. He didn’t. In hindsight, with the benefit of repeated viewings of Goodfellas, I understand that a bagman collects ill-gotten gains that the mob launders in a way that has nothing to do with washing machines, and there’s never just one bag. Plumbing is always a good business to be in.
The restaurant went under and became a seedy nightclub. Five years later, my grandmother Rebecca would call to ask, “What is my grandbaby doing on the television looking like a nafka?” “Becca, I’m playing a hooker.” I was showing Detective Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice where I’d been “cut” on my neck by my pimp Choo Choo, while standing right where I’d sung “Dedicated to the One I Love.” It’s impossible to say what was more surreal, trying to convincingly portray a scarred-up streetwalker or filming at the location of the restaurant whose demise contributed to altering the course of my life.
Not long after the Embers closed, a massage table at the spa of another exclusive haunt, the Cricket Club, collapsed under my father’s weight. Even though this turned out to be rather fortuitous, as my parents successfully sued and lived on that insurance settlement for several years, they were blacklisted from clubs and spas around town.
So, what kind of food the facility serves, whether the address will connote wealth, and whether it will be close to the casinos are the questions of the utmost importance to my father.
Gone are the days of associations with disbarred attorneys and CPA’s who’d lost their licenses, his current circle includes poker players and a guy who lost his hairdressing license.
Only I didn’t know that my father has been playing poker several times a week during the last decade.
“When you’d call him and you’d hear announcements in the background, where did you think he was?” my sister asks me.
“Airports? Traveling . . . for business?”
“Let’s hit the town, Dad!” I say as he lowers himself carefully into the passenger seat with the help of a “car cane,” a $19.99 geriatric lifestyle aid he saw advertised on daytime TV. I hold my breath, wishing, for his sake, that we were on the kind of adventure we used to take back in the day, when I was his wing man, his confidante, before the illusion of my father’s infallibility was shattered.
The summer of my sophomore year of high school, my dad invited me to accompany him on a business trip.
We flew to Los Angeles and checked into a two-bedroom suite at L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. I have no idea what a suite cost back then, but you can’t get a suite in the hotel for less than two thousand a night now. The room had mirrored walls, deep shag carpeting, and wicker furniture with chrome accents. If you ran your finger along any of the smooth glass surfaces you’d probably have picked up trace amounts of cocaine. It was the opposite of my mother’s home with its tasteful oriental rugs, altar fruit, and crystal sconces.
My dad wanted to show off the offices of his film distribution company, located on a high floor in a glass building in Century City. I remember opening a set of massive wooden doors that led to a vast space where only a few employees milled about. Ten years later, I got my first starring role in a nighttime TV series on HBO, whose offices were in the very same building.
My dad also arranged for me to have my picture taken by a photographer he said was tops in the biz. The night before the shoot, I went clubbing on the Sunset Strip with a girl whose family had moved from Miami Beach to Beverly Hills. She knew where the doormen would let in underage girls. I lost her to the night and found myself in the men’s bathroom smoking angel dust and then making out with Danny Bonaduce. I was so stoned that even though I was less than half a mile from the hotel, it was almost sunrise before I stumbled into our suite, only a few hours before what had to be a very expensive photo shoot.
The photographs have a distinct Saturday Night Fever disco vibe and tell the story of a girl who hasn’t noticed she’s gotten just a little zaftig. The face is a bit chipmunky—like she’s storing nuts in her cheeks. I’d just given up my twice-weekly ballet class, but not the post-class chocolate milkshake. I am wearing more makeup than I have ever worn in my entire life, practically a kabuki mask.
In the pictures I am gazing at my own image in the mirror; I am plucking petals from a daisy; I am practicing ballet. Mostly, I am practicing looking intense. And hungover. It seems impossible that I was in the same city I now call home and where Danny Bonaduce resides within walking distance from my house. The city where I had no history, no family connections—all a plus. I had completely blocked these memories out of my mind when I moved to Los Angeles.
I never used those photographs professionally. Would we be heading to these retirement homes if he hadn’t frittered away so much money on that pricey photo shoot? It probably wouldn’t have made a dent but I feel sure that neither Tel Aviv Gardens nor the Captain’s Clubhouse, or wherever it is that we’re headed, will be anything like L’Ermitage.
Excerpted from the “Going Tribal” chapter of WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE THEY ARE by Annabelle Gurwitch with permission from the author.
Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and the author of the essay collection, WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE THEY ARE (Blue Rider Press, April 2017); I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT (a New York Times bestseller and Thurber Prize finalist); YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY SHUT UP (coauthored with Jeff Kahn) and “FIRED!,” also a Showtime Comedy Special. Gurwitch gained a loyal following during her stint co-hosting “Dinner & a Movie” on TBS and years as a regular commentator on NPR. She’s written for the New Yorker, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter. Learn more about Annabelle at: www.annabellegurwitch.com