Sunday, April 8, 2012

The House of Coral Gables

Walking towards the house from the car at 4pm, I could tell that we were arriving during the middle wave.  Six wide stairs from the circular driveway’s approach put us at the impressive front doors.  Before I could raise my hand to knock, they swung open and we were greeted by an older man dressed in a bartender’s vest and white shirt.  A breeze pushed through the open door towards us, indicating that the entire house had been opened up and was full of alive air from the sea.  There seems to be a slightly complicated system of when a host or hostess will open the doors and windows during a gathering, with its implications being specific and intentional.  When the house is necessarily sealed, the temperature of the air conditioning is also used to say something about the house.  In this house it was off, and the palms by the water made their late afternoon twists and bows.  If the wind stopped the mosquitos would arrive, but it held steady and the coastal clouds told us that it would last throughout the night.

After Mrs. and I made the rounds and exaggerated how cold Boston was at that moment, she settled in with her cousins and their love interests by a tiled fountain to exchange news of children and drink the Cava that was going around.  I always watch her face during her first sip at parties, looking for the slight occasional wince, or a subtle half nod for the drinks served, observations which are only visible to spouses.  Since I have an amateur’s palate (with low standards), I take perverse pleasure in witnessing dissatisfaction from those who have particular tastes.

A small assembly of six played perfected hybrids of Cuban jazz and salsa, the piano forcefully directing the melody for the others, almost bossy towards the rhythm section.  Far more structured and precise than jazz, and substantially less hectic than salsa can be, perhaps “Cuban cocktail” is the best way to describe it.  It was breezy, clean, and crisp, and I was apparently the only one impressed by it.

I was invited to sit in one of the larger wicker chairs out by the water with several older men.  Like a delightful clich√©, I was offered Scotch and seated next to the host.  The men discussed art collecting and their disdain for the Eastern smuggling-based markets, conversations which were intriguing but far out of my league.  The youngest of the group was almost sixty, and I felt like a puppy laying by their feet.  Like several events, the host had hired a cigar roller as novelty.  He sat at a small table opposite the caterer’s bar and assembled cigars in all shapes, styles, colors, and strengths.  Guests were encouraged to take whichever they wanted, and the torpedoes resting in the squared box-presses caught my eye.

I had one of the dozen or so ties in the entire place, but jackets were ubiquitous, save the occasional micro-knit shirt or two.  There were well-defined styles between the Cuban, European, Jewish, and South American men, with facial hair and varying degrees of silvering hair differentiating the demographics, indicated by the degree of mustache/beard grooming detail.  The women were all exceedingly well put together and the older ladies were almost intimidating in their disproportionate social gravitas, the way Europeans and South Americans are occasionally cultivated: manner and carriage being the bedrock of poise, not vice-versa.

The house was mostly white or tan marble and stone tiles, with wood trim and details.  It had been built long before the others, and had been updated only with storm-proof windows.  The piano player took pleasure in filling the great-room with his flourishes and sweeps, and the percussion players used tea-towels to muffle the sounds slightly.

Down by the water, davits and winches had the patina of disuse, and the beautifully tiled swimming pool was heated to about 80 degrees.  Platters of iced ceviche and cold shrimp orbited the various rooms, and one of the waiters smelled heavily of pot.  By the house's water-side, a large fountain was active, but had been somehow designed to be almost silent.  Streams and sheets of water fell, but without the expected babble or gurgle, and I stared at it to figure out its design.

In an odd twist, the elderly host and hostess excused themselves quietly from the party because they “had tickets to see a movie in 3-D”.  It was outrageous and gutsy, and something only the well-heeled seniors can get away with.  Half of the guests also left, but we stayed on until the sun got lower, and the day caught up with me.  On the drive home I learned that the cigar roller had sent my wife with a sampler of about twenty, the bundle wrapped in a band cut from a paper shopping bag.  We went on to dinner in Coconut Grove, where we met up with some friends at the restaurant Jaguar.


  1. I have never been to such an event. I have however been to quite a few where a pig is roasted in a pit in the ground. I don't think thats the same crowd.

  2. "an amateur’s palate (with low standards)"


  3. I always enjoyed the jobs I’ve had. Some I was proud of, some I was not. Some I could tell people what I did, some I could not. And some, I didn’t even know what I did. But even with all that, the question I hated the most, and dreaded the most, and that came up all too often at cocktail parties was “So…what do you do?” Yes, I know, it’s a conversation starter, a way of opening up a conversation with someone you don’t know, but perhaps know of, and who is, obviously, known to the host or hostess. It is the currency of social intercourse, perhaps the reason we launch off on the careers we do - just for cocktail party answers - but I’m not happy with it. I hate being pigeon-holed. I know I’m not the first to rail against this.
    So why do we do this? Some years ago I began making up absurd answers to this question. Not false answers, but more like Oracle at Delphi, or The three Weird’s answers. I had a job that could be referred to as a fixer: someone who made sure that things worked the way they were supposed to or as they had been promised. I pretty much had the freedom to make up job titles, and was immune to firing – though occasionally was asked to “keep a low profile for a few weeks”, etc. - and so, when asked once during a meeting, what I did, I responded “I’m the janitor!”. Strictly speaking that was true. My colleague, unfettered by reality, budgets or the limits of earthly technology, was explaining at great lengths how we could do what the client wanted. It was up to me to clean up after him. Ergo: janitor.
    In a different job, I sat and listened to an editor and art director discuss with an author and venture capitalist the look and feel of a planned publication. When I felt the vision was straying into the ozone (and not the look and feel that the publishing house was known for), I gently nudged things back onto firmer ground. During a break, someone came up to me and said, what is it exactly that you do? “I’m a feng shui Master.”, I said in a serious voice. She nodded and excused herself.
    They were all metaphorically true and, most importantly, they make me smile: Elephant Trainer; Assistant Zookeeper; Babysitter; Talent Scout; Peeping Tom; Housekeeper; Taxi Driver; Candlemaker(where do you think the two-wicked candles come from?) ; Janitor; Feng Shui Master; Proctologist…you get the idea. But the point I have been belaboring, is what do you tell people in cocktail parties?

  4. I always say that I prefer not to discuss business in social settings, and then immediately ask them about their hobbies and interests.

  5. On occasion, at a loss for ice breakage, I have been known to ask people what they do all day. In my mind this is less rude than asking them how they paid for their shoes, which in any case I'd probably rather not know. I imagine though that it can sound like a cheeky embellishment to the innocent ear, implying they may not do anything all day. Often not getting much done all day myself, I wouldn't intend to critique anyone on that mark.

    Surely in many social conversations, the issue of how one earns one's crust does come up, usually to explain the perspective behind an opinion or comment that might otherwise come off differently. No harm in that, I suppose, but best when volunteered naturally as a part of the discussion.

  6. My grandparents lived in Coral Gables for a spell, back in the olden days. The party sounds lovely. How did the old folks like the 3D?


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