It was the Tuesday night after the storm. With a 7 p.m. curfew, there wasn't a hell of a lot for a nightlife columnist to do in a town that hasn't been bitch-slapped this hard since the '50s. I had a freezer full of pork loin hours from thawing into rank uselessness. And even if I did have a grill to cook it on, I didn't have the domestic know-how to make edible cuisine. Thankfully, Career Girl came to the rescue. Over at her condo, she said, people were dealing with being forced to socialize by getting stinking drunk.
Ah! The sky that had been full of ferocious wind and whipping telephone lines on Monday had settled by Tuesday night into a planetarium's worth of stars. Tucked in the back of a North Broward neighborhood, two squat five-story buildings called Riviera Park Condominiums sat in the darkness on a dead-end street behind a collapsed light pole sprouting multiple power lines that stretched across the street like giant and potentially lethal snakes.
Residents, in other words, were trapped.
So they dealt with it by throwing in together and getting to know people they'd barely spoken to before Wilma arrived and played improbable party hostess.
Manning the communal grill was Stacy, a middle-aged blond with a raspy voice and plenty of smarts at the barbecue. "I used to work for Time magazine on the business side. Then I owned restaurants for years. Now, I'm a headhunter for insurance companies. Not small time. I don't do less than a hundred thousand. It's not worth my time."
With all the time in the world suddenly on her hands, I thought she might be able to get down to cooking up the pork, whole chicken, and kielbasa offerings I'd brought over.
Then I spied the the long table filled to the brim with scallops, shrimp scampi, flank steaks, and salad.
When Stacy set down a platter of cornish game hens, I realized I'd been topped. But no matter, the pleasant vibe at Riviera Park was infectious.
The open-air meal was marked by the simplicity of one of my favorite children's books, Stone Soup. It's the heartwarming story of how a small town of stingy folks learns to combine resources to create a delicious meal for all. What one person lacks, another provides, so that all can partake of the bounty.
Along with a packed house of nosepickers on a field trip, I recently watched a musical production of Stone Soup at Broward Center's Children's' Series. I regarded the play as a comedic and childish fantasy. Wilma rendered it reality, but one better. Local peeps added the critical element that Stone Soup lacked: sloppy juice.
With bottles of red wine, Captain Morgan and Stoli in tow, I sat down to a dinner table that was already littered with empty containers of vino.
The affable Brit in the group, Louise, went off when I brought up the kids' play. "It is like Stone Soup," she said. "I feel like we've been isolated. You can't get out unless you drive over live power lines. Everyone has shared their food, wine, water. Someone even gave me a phone so that I can keep in touch with my fiancé. Everyone's pulled together."
I mentioned that I had a frozen chicken in my cooler, and Louise took it to her condo by the light of a lantern to stuff it with garlic. "In one hour, it's going to be delicious," she said.
Erica, a composed woman in her early thirties with a pleasant face and dark brown curly hair, related what had happened to her and her boyfriend during the storm. "I woke Mauro up from bed to go look at the storm. And while we were up our bedroom window blew out. If we'd been in bed, it would have been bad."
They found themselves holding a piece of carpet against the compromised window, and when the fire alarm in the building went off, their neighbor, George, a young, bespectacled fellow with a near-constant grin on his face, came over and helped them block the winds. They set up a mattress to cover the window and it held throughout the storm.
Mauro's lingering frustration was the downed power line. "If I had a chain saw, I'd cut that freaking tree that's holding the power line and let the pole fall to the ground. I'd cut the line so people could go in and out."
Louise reappeared with the chicken, and took it over to the grill. "I flipped the vagina chicken," she said, speaking, apparently, about the bird's orifice that she'd stuffed.
Everyone was a little confused by the reference, but laughed. Then the conversation turned to how little we know our neighbors and how Wilma was bringing together 20 somethings, boomer types, and '60s refugees in ways that never happened otherwise.
Louise soon plopped the chicken-loaded platter on the table, and said, "Here's your vagina chicken. It's all moist for you."
Tasty, to be sure, but I seemed to be joined by few in digging in.
Too much food, too much drink, too little sleep. But the condo residents weren't ready to give up the party Wilma had started.
"The couple that lives in the house next door has a generator," Louise said. "They've stored all of our ice and food. Jean is going to cook pancakes tomorrow and make coffee. But then, there are people like the one man in the second house along the dead end who wouldn't let anyone pass by."
Denise said, "Back in the old days, before our time, they used to have alcohol at the condo meetings."
Louise added, "Now, we're thinking of having a monthly get together."
"Because we need to connect, we need to know what each other wants."
As normalcy is restored, many in Broward and Palm Beach counties will be confronted with a similar issue: Will we rush back to our banal rituals and look over our shoulders awkwardly at our neighbors as we get in our cars, tucking to the back of our memories that time when our lives opened to each other? When the televisions get cranking again, will we make time for a bottle of wine or twelve beneath the stars with the folks Wilma blew into our lives?
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