The Rum Shack and I go way back. I'd enjoyed the place when it was Rosie's, but in its second incarnation as Ray's Key West Grill, the place was just weird. The people were as unpredictable as the food and service. You might hear a guy growling "I am the devil" to his guitar at the open mic out in front or have a mic thrust at you by a manic, bespangled karaoke host who insisted that your presence alone required you to sing, even if you only wanted to eat stringy chicken wings.
So now that the place had opened again, I looked for the familiar and spotted an auburn-haired server. I didn't know Steve from a previous incarnation of the Shack but from a place nearby. He had been the bartender at Margarita's, a place so jealous of its anonymity an unmarked, mirrored door that it had drawn me in. At the time, I had thrown back shots with a self-professed drug smuggler, Dave, who'd done time and who claimed to have all sorts of stories for me. But the seedy joint had closed before I could write about it.
Steve had found new employment pouring drinks at the Rum Shack, which only cemented the point that places are opening and closing with such frequency in Lake Worth that the group of regulars who make the town unique have had to migrate like a pod of soused whales.
Kevin Knight, the Rum Shack's owner, introduced himself and declared it a band-free zone that wouldn't host an unsavory element.
"It's the staff. They bring their friends," said the intense Knight, who, along with his family, also owns the Lantana restaurant Anchor Inn.
If there's one thing I could tell about Knight, it's that he means business. Don't mess with his recipes (he was furious when a new chef tinkered with the yummy, piña colada-flavored coleslaw), and don't bring your low-life buddies to his bar.
The Rum Shack is representative of a Lake Worth trend everything is classing up. The addition of luxury condos next door, which house that ubiquitous coffee-shop chain, didn't bode well for the culture of colorful if not flat-out crazy locals. And all of us eye the code-violating, sun-blocking six stories like the bad omen for local culture that it is.
But it meant good news for good eats and predictable service that yuppie bucks can buy. And though Steve's previous job had him serving felons, his friends include a Boynton Beach cop and a dive boat captain. They can be quite loud (screaming my name in unison across the bar on the Rum Shack's opening night) and colorful (tying their shirts up like country girls' and wagging their hips as they walked). To all appearances anyway, they are a bunch of law-abiding (and -enforcing) local goofs who aren't afraid to embarrass themselves in the pursuit of a good time.
Like the rest of us, they make the rounds. That includes singer/songwriter Keith Michaud, who made his Shack debut on a Thursday night, which brought me out. Michaud's a guy you want to keep bringing his indie-rocker buddies and their entourage, because they know how to drink and they're not too hard on the eyes, which is why there's usually lovely young women who accompany them.
On that Thursday, I'd come straight from a late night at the day job and was in need of victuals. While I was waiting for food, bartender Valerie started me out with a complimentary shot, something she'd invented. Rip Your Panties Off was certainly a fun name for the tasty drink so good, in fact, that I had a couple but I was going commando under my jeans. With no undergarments on which to work, the grape shot instead turned its stripping powers on the contents of my stomach, which I'd filled too late with teriyaki chicken wings and gorgonzola French fries.
The upshot is when I upchucked later, I was in that offensively posh Lucerne condo building next door. I'd been invited up by Martin, a friend of Michaud's, and spilled my guts into a silver-leafed wastebasket Martin helpfully provided. I guess it was one way to express how I felt about the place.
Although the Rum Shack's face-lift is part of a troubling trend, it is a family business, not the plaything of a bunch of shady, corporate land grubbers, so I was happy to bring my friends Kim and Keely back with me. Other than a coleslaw shortage, the only drama that second night was the arrival of another colorful local, Greg Rice. You remember him. He and his brother were like the tiniest twins in the history of TV commercials, until his brother died tragically in 2005. A small crowd was making a fuss over Rice in a big way in the booth behind us.
That weekend's street painting festival had brought in all sorts of little people, including children. Though as it got later, families became fewer, I still craved a more grown-up scene. As we prepared to split for the new Havana Hideout across the street, I griped over the attention that Rice was receiving.
"You know what really bugs me?" I said, riffing on the subject of Rice brothers commercials. "He's just capitalizing on being short. Tall girl with the writing skills can't get no love over here."
"You need to get on TV," Kim surmised.
"You know, you could do those celebrity bartending events, increase your visibility," suggested Keely, who'd recently had a few lessons in attention-getting.
Her husband, Andrew "Drewkowski" Procyk, is a mayoral candidate who had been featured on the Channel 5 news for both his unconventional politics and his personal flair. In preparation for the March 13 election, he'd shaved his hair into a Mohawk. Having known the guy as a performance poet who is as intelligent and informed as he is self-promoting and rabble-rousing, I was certain Procyk's platform was as much about raising people's awareness of him as it was about the programs he touted like wind-generated electricity as an alternative to the city's wildly costly and unpredictable power plant.
The exorbitant electricity costs, according to highly dubious rumors going around town, were blamed for the closing of the Dirty Dwarf. I'd written about the place before, filled with lots of wrought iron and other handmade, decorative accents, which ironically harkened to a time before electric bills. The place drew not only the societal misfits from Society for Creative Anachronisms, a historical role-playing group, but also the questionably athletic Palm Beach Hash House Harriers, whose members call their group "a drinking club with a running problem."
Not to worry. The sneaker-sporting sots who refer to each other with suggestive nicknames had a new place to call their own now at the Hideout. I ran into both "Special Head," so called because she used to teach special education classes, and "Anal Inspector," deemed such for being a hyper-picky home inspector.
Hideout owner Chrissy Benoit denied official affiliation with the club, many of whom are Lake Worth residents and regulars.
"I supply them wildly, though," she laughed, as she passed me a generous glass of Syrah across the bar.
A modest but decent wine selection was one of the changes Benoit had made to the bar. In keeping with Lake Worth gentrification, which some might say was signaled by my arrival four years ago, under new ownership the place had gotten prettier and more yuppie-friendly. In addition to a fresh coat of paint and some redecorating in the bar's tiny interior that seated maybe a dozen, she'd invested considerable expense in the garden, where a new patio, palm trees, and blooming succulents spiffed up the place.
Even Bob, who owned the place when it was the ramshackle dive Roundin' Third, agreed: "The place looks the best it ever looked."
But the $2 domestic drafts the cheapest beer in town were keeping the rough-around-the-edges regulars around. I still see them every day on my drive down Lake Avenue. They're the sort of folks who make the woman in the red track jacket feel at home there.
"Congratulations on the universe!" she exclaimed, though I'd never met her before, and then she walked away.
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Congratulations on the universe, indeed. The comment had a crazy appeal to it. I said as much when I reported back to my friends, who were inside drinking their beers with a white-bearded guy in a straw hat whom I'd seen around town and who introduced himself as "Farf."
"Yeah, I know you. You're a loca," he said. At least, I heard it that way. I think he actually called me a local and not a crazy woman.
"Everyone right here, right now, we've invited into our world... so that's our universe," he said.
A gentrified, shifting universe of batshit crazy drunks, politicians, and street philosophers. But yes, it's our universe, and congratulations.