Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Maybe it was Fay's mind-warping approach, but something fishy was going on at the Palm Grill

Twas the night before Tropical Storm Fay, and already the sky looked dark and gloomy. I'd seen the advertisements for Palm Grill's drink deal — three martinis for a measly $9 — awhile ago, but I was waiting for the perfect situation in which three martinis might be necessary. An impending tropical storm, which might lead to me being holed up in my apartment without near enough liquor? A situation crying for cheap martinis.

Ambiance: Sunday night found the Beach Place Palm Grill (17 S. Atlantic Blvd., Fort Lauderdale) relatively low-key. It's a spacious spot, with low lighting and large windows facing the ocean. Diners sat engaged in candlelit conversation at a smattering of the dark-wood tables, and the bleached-blond bartender busied himself with the handful of drinkers perched at the U-shaped bar. A few flat screen TVs, all showing the Olympics, graced the gold-tinted walls.

The Mystery: At the door, a guy in a big straw hat and colorful shirt played clear, harmonious island renditions of popular songs. Tom, Mike, and I stationed ourselves at the leg of the bar closest to the door and soon found ourselves alternating between looking at the menu and stealing glances at the musician by the door. He played the keyboard, guitar, and sang — but the million-dollar question: Was the guy actually singing? Was that a real voice or a woofer-tweaked electronic simulation?

Drinks: With Fay supposedly blowing in soon and the mystery of the reggae musician unsolved, we decided three martinis each would be a very good plan (because, of course, after three martinis are consumed, no coherent plans get made again for a very long time). We had a host of bitch martini options, all with titles like "Jolly Rancher" and "Key Lime Pie" and each boasting a host of rot-your-teeth-out flavorings.

"So, can I get a regular martini?" Tom asked the bartender.

"Me too," said Mike, jumping on the testosterone bandwagon. "Extra dirty."

The bartender, Matt, nodded, and turned to me expectantly. I sighed.

"No, I'm not manly enough for that shit," I said. "I'm the one in the gang who orders the pussy martini. Sour apple, please." Look, I was gonna enjoy my $9 of booze. No stomach-turning liquor-soaked olives for me, thanks.

Bartender: Matt quickly brought us our choice of poisons. The glasses were smaller than a typical martini, but enough alcohol was packed inside to give me a buzz from just breathing near the neon green drink. I blinked back tears from the ass-kick of my first sip.

From behind us, a reggae rendition of "Hotel California" caught our attention.

"Hey, what's with the singer?" whispered Mike to Matt. "Lip-synching?"

"Man, no," Matt said sharply, his tone borderline offended. "He's got a microphone!" Matt never seemed to be standing still for long, and was a blur of blond hair again as he rushed back to pop open a Heineken for another patron. So our question was preposterous, eh? Hadn't he read the stories about the Chinese girl lip-synching to the beautiful voice of a less cute girl at the Olympics opening ceremony? She had a microphone too. We were unconvinced.

Customers: By the time I'd downed my first concoction, a trio of 20-somethings had walked in, and, riding the wave of the sour apple buzz, I approached them for some small talk.

The guys were a pair of freelance audio engineers from Miami ("DJs in suits," as one of them put it). They'd been working all day at the nearby Ritz Carlton (formerly the St. Regis), putting on PowerPoint presentations for hotel staff meetings. Franccesco had dark eyes and long black hair; Luke had short hair, brown eyes, and chiseled, handsome features. Franccesco's slender, dark-haired girlfriend, Mari, had driven up from Miami to join them for dinner.

"So, you guys are drinking on the job?" I said with mock incredulity. Like I wasn't.

"We've got margaritas coming," Luke said. "But we're off-duty right now."

"We can drink; we managed to get the hotel to let us stay in a room for free," Franccesco said, evidently proud of his finagling. "Tropical storm's coming."

"Sweet job," I commented.

"Yeah, but we have to give a little," said Luke. "We have to dress in suits."

"And they used to have big ol' beards," Mari said, indicating the guys' baby-smooth jaw lines. "The hotel made 'em shave."

"We feel like little kids right now," Luke admitted.

Maybe some facial fuzz would make me look a little older, I speculated idly. That was the martini talking, of course. I don't usually go into crazy beard-growing, circus-freak ruminations.

"As sound guys, maybe you can tell me: Is that musician lip-synching?" I pointed over at the island-dressed musician. Their consensus? A resounding no.

Of course, who'd believe a couple of guys in suits so wedded to the corporate tab that they'd shave their facial hair? Show me some evidence.

Mystery Supposedly Solved: When I made it back to my seat, my buddies were on their second rounds, and I had a freshly filled glass of sour apple martini before me. I slogged it down and told the bartender I wanted a strawberry daiquiri. I wobbled over to talk to the musician himself, who was packing up his guitar.

"Are you lip synching?" I demanded, my breath probably smelling like a hellacious blend of booze and Gobstopper.

He laughed heartily. "No. I used to work in the audio industry. You pick up some tricks along the way." Like singing "Honeysuckle Rose" when your lips are going Peter-Piper-picked-a-peck-of-pickled-peppers?

"What's your name?" I asked.

"People call me Larry," he said, smiling. "Americans aren't good at pronouncing ethnic names."

"Try me."

"OmnahrShaKari," he said. "That's my real name."

I echoed him in stilted syllables, and then told him my last name so we could briefly celebrate our multisyllabic monikers. It's a small world after all, if an OmnahrShaKari and a Nieuwesteeg can get along.

"I'm not Jamaican. I'm from Boston, but I like the island sound," he said. "I spent three seasons playing every club in Key West. What do you do?"

I informed him that I am a professional drinker who occasionally is allowed to write.

"Are you gonna be telling the news on TV one day?" he asked. "Please, not Fox News."

"Not one for bloodthirsty conservatism?" I asked.

"I check into Fox News every so often, just to see what they're up to," he said, slitting a suspicious glance at no one in particular. "Bill O'Reilly? Man, that guy needs to get laid."

The Escape: I found a hawkish, drunken dude with a buzz-cut sidling up to my friend Tom. Tom had been busy making awkward conversation about the Olympics, and the guy — a burly military man named James — had been trying to move in.

He poured Tom's unfinished drink into his own glass.

"Careful," said Tom.

"I would never spill on you," he said, doing something with his eyelashes that dangerously resembled batting. Even three martinis couldn't slice through the non-consensual awkwardness that was now penetrating the room.

"It's my last night in Fort Lauderdale," explained James, clearly one of those sad souls who'd been spending his military career not asking or telling. James seemed to have my straight friend in mind for a parting gift. His hand suddenly disappeared under the bar.

"Don't do that," said Tom sharply. James gave him a quizzical look. Where was my Mace spray when we needed it?

"Time to go," announced Mike, leaping out of his chair with all the finesse of the leader of an elephant stampede.

"I'm not done with my daiquiri," I complained.

"Chug," he hissed unsympathetically. This dude was ready to tear into some man ass, and Mike felt it his responsibility to either prevent that ass from being Tom's or to save Tom's conscience from living for the rest of his life with the memory of having stomped some heroic military ass into the Palm Grill floor.

James slowly got up and prepared to leave. Unrepentantly. He walked past Tom, brushing my friend's side in a caress of unrequited love. Military bravado, no doubt.

The bartender sensed our discontent and brought us plastic cups filled with frozen drinks to take for the road. I myself left the bar pretty damned happy — maybe because of the bonus drink in my hand or maybe because I met cool people, drank twice my weight in sugar-sweet booze, and listened to some (live, maybe) catchy island tunes at a bar with a great view. Yeah, Tom was more shaken up than a Bond martini, but in my eyes, the night was a success. Tropical Storm Fay? Bring it on, I thought, as I walked out into the night. If we can handle horny army guys and get the goods on lip-synch suspects, I'd like to see a little bit of wind and rain faze us.

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