Soviet Block Party

Some people just prefer the taste of Russian dressing

Russian Attitude Adjustment Friday was making me feel foreign. What was with these women? Dressed in shimmery sequins, clingy velvets, and silk ruffles, they looked like they´d dressed for the Vegas casino or a swanky hotel lounge rather than the family restaurant we found ourselves in. I was beginning to have my suspicions about the techniques employed in mood improvement at the Java Moon Café and Grill.

As my childhood friend and I gaped at these non-nesting Russian dolls, they displayed their assets and danced with more enthusiasm than seemed natural. When I spotted a tiny blond woman in a tuxedo-style top, short shorts, and six-inch plexiglass and cork wedges, I couldn´t stifle myself.

¨Who dresses like that?¨

Tony Gleeson

¨Hookers. Russians...,¨ my friend said, making a short list and then doing the math for me. ¨Russian hookers.¨

It wasn´t just the women who were dressed extravagantly. Many of the men were Euro-pimping it, just a little too slick (thanks to hair gel) and stylish (thanks to expensive jewelry and clothes) to be Palm Beach County Americans. The razor-creased duds and the smoldering cigars, as well as an imposing guy with a shaved head, looking equal parts Mr. Clean and Daddy Warbucks, made us think that maybe we had stumbled into a gathering of some international organized-crime syndicate.

The restaurant itself -- a chain that, among other things, serves specialty coffees and deli sandwiches, chicken wings, and salads (evidently with Russian dressing) -- was everything I expected of Palm Beach Gardens. I´d fled that soulless hell as soon as I graduated from high school, and when I returned on occasions like tonight to visit family and friends, the tidy lawns and expensive-yet-tasteful jewelry frequently sent me into a rant about suburban superficiality.

But this was a scene we never knew existed. Just in case our suspicions about the commercial appeal of the women were right, my friend insisted I call her by the assumed name Madeline. While she worried and I wondered, we struck up a conversation with the casually dressed couple standing next to us the only other people not dressed to the nines. They´d just sucked down shots of red stuff and were canoodling at the bar. These were personal trainer Jimmy and former flight attendant Denise.

¨We thought this was a coffee place,¨ Jimmy told us. With a small army of empty shot glasses in front of them, it looked like he and Denise, dressed in Capri pants and a tank, had adjusted just fine.

¨Free shots,¨ she explained.

We grabbed a couple of freebies off a tray, quickly downing what was clearly a lot of cranberry and a little vodka.

¨By the time we have a couple of these, we´ll have the cleanest urinary tracts ever,¨ I said, reaching for another and then ordering a proper vodka drink.

Just then, a brunet in a curve-hugging red dress was sharing the spotlight with a blond with a Paris Hilton look, though the ponytail and open-back dress with the flouncy kerchief hem were also saying ¨Ice Follies.¨ As they danced, they kept an eye on the crowd to make sure they had their attention, and we kept our eyes on the dancers, trying to work out alternative explanations for their behavior.

¨Why are these women working so hard?¨ Madeline asked, as if answering that single question would unlock the mystery.

When I went to nose around, I was surprised to recognize a familiar face. Things were already looking more legit: It was Zhenya, an international student whom I´d helped with her college essays. I´d never seen her in stretch velvet animal print and pumps before.

¨I´m Bulgarian, but most of my friends are Russian,¨ she said when I asked what she was doing there.

¨You know these people?¨ I asked, genuinely surprised.

She said that her usual party scene was Palm Beach or South Beach, but tonight she was part of a large group that had come for a birthday party, which explained the table full of presents and purses and another with jumbo shrimp cocktails and cosmopolitans. The birthday girl, Elena, was standing nearby in a pink, ruffled top and a pair of white slacks. She´d moved from Russia to the United States, ¨the best country in the world,¨ 15 years earlier.

¨European women have a different kind of taste,¨ she said with a smile. ¨They want to be elegant and feminine, and it´s something, I think, American women could use more of.¨

Suddenly, my silver-leafed T-shirt, pink Capri pants, and Mary Janes -- all perfectly funky for the coffee-shop scene I´d expected -- felt conspicuously plain.

¨Wow, I just got told,¨ I said, turning to Madeline, who took up the cause, more defensive of feminist values than of American fashion.

¨I think American women don´t want to be seen as a piece of meat,¨ Madeline began, and then I missed the rest because she leaned closer to Birthday Girl so they could actually converse over the house music. Whatever she said made Elena gesticulate emphatically. Not wanting to be in the line of Soviet fire, I stepped back and stayed out of it. After that cultural exchange, Madeline and I went outside to discuss what she´d learned.

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