His face was covered in long, black whiskers. Sitting at the bar in Sublime vegetarian restaurant, with his curly ponytail popping out of the back of a baseball cap, he was probably still working on the gator vittles wedged between his teeth. It was the night of Gold Coast Magazine's "best of" party -- read networking event -- and, among the pressed-shirt-and-skirt set, Alligator Alley owner and musician Kilmo, née Carl Pacillo, would have looked like an outcast were it not for his easy, the-world-is-my-oyster demeanor.
At this real-estate-ad mag's fancy-pants affair, it was tough not to feel just how big this town is getting. Sometimes, the conversations that happen in places like this make condos bloom around town like those invasive ferns that threaten to smother our natural habitat. But mostly, it's just a bunch of folks scrambling to make a dollar out of 15 cents and driving cars that give the impression they already have. Outside, the world is a maelstrom of new-to-town strangers cruising through highways and byways, popping tires on nails scattered around construction sites.
South Florida has gone mad.
Mad enough that in the 50 mph-paced crisscrossing of acquaintances, strangers, and friends, this local columnist found herself abandoned by her ride.
So let's take inventory.
Drunken damsel. Check.
And over at the bar, an unlikely hero. Check.
As Kilmo and I climb into his crap-filled white van (old fliers, audio cables, auto parts, assorted paper) with kayaks on the roof and the main console ripped out, the man who describes himself as "an avaricious consumer of everything in the world," asked, "So, like, if we end up in Islamorada at the Jagged Edge, would you write about that?"
If the native Florida swamp-themed bar owner must be forgiven for one thing, it's for being a publicity whore.
Still, I wasn't going to skip an opportunity to chat up the man who runs the most intimate, eclectic live music venue in Broward. You know, really get to know him. And at that moment, a spontaneous trip to the mangrove-circled Islamorada with Kilmo would undoubtedly be the perfect antidote to a night of schmoozing with the kind of concrete-minded folks who would evict their own mothers to make room for a 300-unit high rise.
The short, hairy club owner's van rolls out onto Federal Highway, and our trip seems to be under way.
I'm looking for a seat belt, and Kilmo says, "The real use for seat belts is that it makes it easier for the ambulance to find your body."
Abort. Abort. A red light flashes through my brain.
"You're with the amazing Kilmo," he begins, "although I get misguided frequently."
A few drunken moments later (this is me I'm talking about, not my driver), the death trap on wheels reels into the parking lot of Maguire's Hill 16. We hit the bar to get a drink before we head to our remote destination.
I urge him to talk about himself. "I'm a University of Florida alumnus," Kilmo begins, "but I could hardly care about the Gators, unless they're barbecued."
Turning from the Alligator Alley cuisine to its vibe-is-everything ethic, Kilmo explains: "I was a chemistry major and switched. If I hadn't, I'd be a criminal, dead, or a successful Mob boss. What I have inside of me is not economically viable. I have a music habit that I have to support. You do what you can on the art scene."
Kilmo's phone goes off. The bar where he frequently puts in 80 hours a week is calling him home. It's urgent. Our Islamorada plans are sunk.
It's not like the adventure is over, though.
Walking into the dimly lit Alligator Alley on the third night of its Third Anniversary Party was like being a stranger in a strange town. In the semidark, groups of people stand around like silhouettes, intently watching the stage. The kitchen is behind the bar. Iggy, the chef, who's also a musician, watches the show and the crowd with a serpentine smile. But when an order comes in, he's back to throwing together oyster poboys, pulled pork, and gator ribs. A flame jumps up from a fry vat that's hissing with curly fries or some edible swamp thing.
This curious nook on Commercial Boulevard in Oakland Park is the second, and significantly smaller, incarnation of the bar. The first, Kilmo says, was a 10,000-square-foot monster that he opened in Sunrise with the backing of the Seminoles in 1999. "We were partying like it was 1969. My aim was to make a creative place for music and art, yin and yang. Symbiotic, if you will. There's a difference between talking and doing. Here, it actually exists. I played music with Chief Jim Billy. The Shack Daddys was his backup band. The Seminoles had political upheaval, and the chief was ousted over the Hard Rock Casino deal."
Kilmo thinks back to his days as a tenderfoot entrepreneur.
"The money was late," he recalls. "They were totally disorganized. I blew off my salary to make it work."
Now, Kilmo is on his own, but one customer, a middle-aged man at the anniversary party who's had more than a few, can't figure out how the math could work in the proprietor's favor. "Kilmo is barely surviving," he muses. "If you were to take his overhead, what it costs for him to be here, he's barely treading water. If you take the cover, subtract what the bands get, divide out what the people get, they're not even breaking even."
He misses the point. It's payment in and of itself that Kilmo's bar affords a stage where he can jam with prominent local artists whom he calls "the serious motherfuckers," like Raiford Starke, Albert Castiglia, and David Shelley -- all of them present tonight.
Shelley, whose blond hair trails down the length of his back, says, "Alligator Alley represents to me the last real, live-music venue that supports original music and the artists and that really allows all different kind of music, from punk to funk-jazz to blues and jam bands."
Does he get paid well?
"I'll drink my pay in beer," he responds.
Gosh, his words struck my head like a drunken swamp daddy's flailing kayak oar. Maybe it's really not about the money.
As the night winds down, Castiglia's smooth words drop into the mic: "Here's to the man of the hour. The man with the power. The man who's too sweet to be sour. Give it up for Kilmo." Kilmo nods to acknowledge the applause.
As the musicians wind down their set, the crowd starts to filter out. The kitchen shuts down.
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Kilmo pours himself another draft from the tap in his own Florida bar.
No matter how much concrete is poured in this county and no matter how many interlopers descend with dollar signs in their eyes, for the time being, there are still a few people who stay close to Florida's nature, art, and music.
Unlikely heroes of our sinking way of life.