On a weekday night around 10 p.m., the passenger drop-off area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is pure bedlam. The parade of stop-and-go vehicles at Philadelphia International seems mild and controlled by comparison. Drivers honk relentlessly, even at slow grandparents picking up children and grandchildren.
Being Florida, it’s a hot and steamy scene. The fast-forward movements in this pickup zone belie all stereotypes about the South being “slow.” I feel like I’ve arrived in some South American country. Most people are not Caucasian like in Portland, Maine or the Berkshires. I’m reminded of the famous Seymour Krim book title from 1970: “Shake It for the World, Smartass.”
I’m glad when my ride arrives.
Former Philadelphia Homicide Detective Tom Augustine, who interrogated Herbert Haak, arrested along with Richard Wise for the murder of Kimberly Ernest in November 1995, is now retired and lives in a lovely condo six floors up on a nice stretch of beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Tom, who experienced the worst of times when he worked in Philly, can handle pretty much anything except traffic.
“I hate to drive now,” he tells me, after I put my suitcase on the back seat of his car. Of course, it’s not the act of driving he hates, that being the sensation of fingers on a steering wheel, but the menace of other drivers — the rudeness, the ignorance, and the barbarity of what is happening on the road.
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We’re driving less than ten minutes when someone dashes in front of Tom and swerves to the left of the road and back again before engaging in a suicidal zigzag. All this happens on a road leading to a drawbridge over a canal that rises whenever a yacht needs to pass. Sometimes, depending on the time of day, there are more yachts and big boats than cars, so there’s a lot of stalled traffic at the drawbridge. Tom tells me that years ago, before the city installed flashing lights to signal when the bridge was about to rise, a woman walker thought she could beat the drawbridge but miscalculated. “It’s because of her death that we have the flashing lights,” Tom said.
I think of her as we cross the bridge, wondering why she was in such a hurry.
It’s 11:20 p.m. and most restaurants in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea are closed, so we opt for take out from McDonald’s to bring to Tom’s condo. We sit in the kitchen. The sliding glass door that opens to his balcony is open, letting in a cool ocean breeze. Outside are palm trees, a world of difference from the honky tonk and often trashy sounds of Aramingo Avenue in my Philadelphia neighborhood.
Who wouldn’t enjoy coffee and grapefruit juice on a balcony facing a beachfront — off season, no less — where one can spot — through Tom’s binoculars — early a.m. swimmers and ships at sea? On a patio table, Tom has a baby rubber alligator that scares the pigeons that try to build nests on the condo balconies. In the balcony above his, deserted temporarily for the summer, a nest is already in progress. Management won’t clean up a pigeon infestation if they see the beginnings of a nest, especially a nest with eggs.
“It’s got eggs,” the security guy tells Tom when he calls to report virulent pigeon activity.
Staying out of the sun in an air-conditioned space is the goal of every southern Floridian. Tom’s condo has a fairly large community pool with a deep end of 10 feet, a delight to swim in judging from the number of residents who hang out there for hours with their water noodles. By and large, the people who bask in the pool every day have skin types that allow them to do this. I don’t, being a sunblock aficionado since the 70s.
Not far from Tom’s condo is another condo high-rise where American flags are rarely flown. Is this because more Democrats live there?
The pool is a sort of community hub where information about residents is shared. Three days into my stay, I notice a recurring theme in Tom’s stories about his neighbors. That theme is cancer. Everybody seems to have some form of cancer: cancer of the lung, brain, tongue, kidney, or cervix. Some have had chemo while others, freshly diagnosed, prepare for treatment as they take their daily swim. The high cancer rate seems to affect all ages, not just the ultra-retiree who may need a walker to get to the pool. Cancer is everywhere like the blue sky above the ocean.
It occurred to me that the high cancer rate in southern Florida may be more than coincidence, so I did a Google check and was hit by a landslide of headlines.
Florida, I found, has the sixth-highest number of hazardous waste sites, known as Superfund sites, in the country. In 2016, the state was slated as having the second-largest number of new cancer cases in the country. Science Daily reported a relation between cancer and the Superfund sites. Florida also has the nation’s third-highest cervical cancer rate, and cervical cancer mortality rate, in the country. There are also so-called “cancer hot spots” in Florida associated with hazardous waste sites. Brain cancer has been traced to radioactive water in the swamplands, and certain zip codes throughout the state have been pronounced “cancer clusters.”
Since 2014, cancer has been the second leading cause of death in Florida after heart disease.
What does this mean to the people in Tom’s pool? Not much, I suppose, since, in their opinion, life is fragile and temporary (and you have to spend your time doing something). The people in Tom’s condo, either cancer-diagnosed or cancer-free, live life to the fullest. Consider the retired Chicago stockbroker, a zillionaire, who goes to dialysis three times a week but who has a marvelous time when he takes a dip in the pool or the ocean. This makes me ponder: diagnosed with a fatal illness, would it be harder to “leave” life if you lived in what many consider to be paradise, as opposed to a ramshackle rowhouse in Port Richmond?
When it comes to love and romance, Fort Lauderdale has that in spades.
Quite a number of older men in Tom’s complex are divorced but have younger second wives, many of them from Columbia. I can’t count how many times I heard the phrase, “He’s an old guy, but you should see his young wife from Columbia!” It got me wondering whether there is a special Columbia-connected import/export dating business in Lauderdale. Even some women I was introduced to have first or second husbands from Columbia.
There are staunch liberals and conservatives in Tom’s condo complex. Tom is conservative, and flies his big American flag off his balcony whenever he can, but this practice has subjected him to criticism posing as “safety concerns.”
“Aren’t you afraid that huge flag you fly will fall and hit somebody on the ground?” he was asked some months ago. The person asking this was a liberal Democrat, a woke retiree from Brooklyn. Not far from Tom’s condo is another condo high-rise where American flags are rarely flown. Is this because more Democrats live there? I dubbed the condo “Charlie Crist’s woke beehive” when Tom told me stories about some of the (unruly) occupants there.
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Generally, the people in Tom’s condo have learned to avoid politics as pastime conversation, but liberals being liberals, they sometimes can’t keep their mouths shut and will say things in the pool while fiddling with their noodles.
Tom’s nearest neighbors are observant Orthodox Jews who often appear on their balcony in skull caps and prayer shawls. “Wonderful people,” Tom told me. He says the same thing about his best friends, Carrie and Bill, a Russian Orthodox couple who live on the twelfth floor who invited us to a dinner party four days into my stay. Like serious Russian Orthodox believers, Carrie and Bill have a striking icon collection. They also make it a point to say grace before meals, something that’s long gone out of fashion in society. As an Orthodox Christian, I asked what they thought of the Catholic Church of the Assumption, just across the street from their condo.
I was told that the Mass there is somewhat “Protestant,” especially when the Eucharistic ministers go pew to pew to distribute Holy Communion.
“The people are so lazy they can’t even walk up to the front of the church to take Communion,” someone said.
Of course, not all Catholic parishes are like this. Laziness ails Catholics and Orthodox, Protestants and Jews. Perhaps the parishioners’ behavior can be traced to a nearby “cancer cluster.”
Most days, I spent my time avoiding the midday sun and reading Jean-Luc Barre’s “Beggars for Heaven,” the story of Jacques and Raissa Maritain. I’d often walk the beach and take a dip into the ocean after five p.m. There was also a road trip with Carrie and Bill to Key Largo where we lunched in a thatched hut on the ocean’s edge. Then there was church on Sunday — a small Orthodox congregation named Saint Nicholas.
In the evenings, I watched Sandra Bullock movies and a seven-part Andy Warhol documentary.
On my last day, Tom drove me to the airport at five a.m. where I boarded Flight 1004 for Philadelphia. I had a window seat and sat beside a professional surfer who had spent the last three months in El Salvador.
His skin was brown as a berry and he was so jetlagged he slept for the duration of the trip.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.