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Randall Cunningham's bejeweled choppers
Randall Cunningham's bejeweled choppers
Colby Katz

The First Train to Clark-ville

A couple of years from now, if there's a guy named Wesley Clark in the Oval Office, South Floridians will be able to look back to a fateful evening in September 2003 and say it all started -- at least the Broward County part of it -- at Shooters Waterfront Café in Fort Lauderdale. It was right there at a long table at the front of the bar last Monday that an eclectic group of 16 citizens, shouting over the Avril Lavigne and Michael McDonald records, decided to start a "Draft Clark" committee. Tailpipe was there trying to get his, er, finger on the pulse of the voting public.

Though the 'Pipe isn't taking sides yet in the Democratic Party beauty pageant, he did get a feeling of being present at the moment of creation that night. For this gathering of acolytes, it seemed as if Clark, the four-star general who once commanded NATO and orchestrated the war in Kosovo, had stretched out a long finger -- something like God famously reaching for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- to give the spark of life to a campaign committee.

The "meetup," a web-driven method of getting people organized, gathered an almost-perfect microcosm of this swamp-ridden region's citizenry. There were youngsters and oldsters, whites and Latinos (though no blacks). They included a lawyer, a luggage manufacturer, a corporate executive, a student, a web consultant, a couple of self-described "envelope stuffers," and a retired 66-year-old medical technician/real estate agent/homemaker who's a long-time political junkie. This last would be Barbara Miller, the person who started Wesley's subtropical ball rolling.

"He's so polished, so... clear," Miller says of Clark, who, Tailpipe's emissions sensors say, is expected to announce his candidacy as we go to press.

What drives Miller, a blond, broad-shouldered Philadelphia native with an easy smile, and the others at the meetup is a deep aversion to Dubya and a fear that the declared Democratic candidates just don't have the oomph to overcome our make-believe Top Gun. "There are a lot of people who are talking about voting for Bush just because he went over there [to the Middle East] with guns to show them who's who," said Jim Fletcher, the web consultant. "The only chance to combat that sort of thinking is with a four-star general who's got a degree in economics and a Purple Heart from being wounded in Vietnam. Unlike Bush, Clark has really served his country." Howard Dean? Good ideas, but he won't impress the flag-wavers or the "conservative Democrats." "He's peaking early," one participant says. John Kerry? A stiff. Dennis Kucinich? Ugh, a vegetarian.

Clark has been flitting around the edges of the Democratic Party nominating contest for about six months now. (He affiliated himself with the Democratic Party only two weeks ago.) He's got military credibility; he expressed doubts about Iraq right from the beginning. He got national play -- and earned a White House rebuke -- by criticizing the war effort on CNN. And he seems ready to take on the prez. A dream candidate, several people said at the meeting. But, then, what do they know? Only one or two of them has ever been seriously involved in a campaign before. (Luggage manufacturer Peter Levine acknowledged that he once ran a campaign for a candidate for county property appraiser; his guy got creamed.)

Miller, who bravely displays an "Impeach Bush" sticker on her car, says her only real connection to politics is that she has a friend who works for Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Boca Raton), though she remembers campaigning in a conservative Pennsylvania district for lackluster Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis back in 1988, when he was running against that other Bush. All in all, she told this tube, she'd just as soon be playing bridge ("I'm too old and too fat to be at Shooters"). But there's something cool and steady about this guy Clark, and she wants to get involved. "He doesn't get rattled," Miller says.

The meetup crowd is just itching to get started. "Shouldn't there be the beginnings of an organization here?" Levine says.

Then, like Mickey and Judy putting on a show in the old barn, they start parceling out tasks. One member will set up a committee website, another will find a meeting place ("We need someplace quiet," Levine says over a hyperactive Kelly Clarkson song). And others are going to talk up the organization. It takes a little more than an hour, and they're in business.

The smart money would say Clark doesn't have a chance, not in Broward County, not in the U.S.A. Campaign contributions are drying up, volunteers are committed to other candidates, and Clark has a reported campaign chest of only about $1 million. But one thing Tailpipe has learned: Never count out challengers, particularly when they're Rhodes scholars from Arkansas.

Miller isn't making any big predictions. "Let me make it very clear," she says, with a laugh that almost veers out of control. "What I feel has absolutely nothing to do with reality. But I'm heartened so many people showed up."

Tailpipe always likes to be the first to spot a trend, so when he spied Randall Cunningham at Thrifty car rental in Dania Beach recently, the 'Pipe hit the brakes fast. It was the smile. Not the million-dollar smile but, it turned out, the $3,500 one. That's the amount Cunningham spent to have a row of gems surgically implanted on his front teeth. They're small, circular jewels, the size of apple seeds, ranging in color from green to blue to red. When Cunningham talks, these multicolored rocks flash and sparkle like a disco ball.

Cunningham, age 35, a rental-car agent who's a native of Jamaica, had his pearly whites decorated in his home country 18 years ago. He was going for the ever-popular gold look, he says, but the good doctor said he was bo-o-ored with doing caps. Try a semiprecious stone, only $400 to $500, the dentist said. A light bulb flashed above Cunningham's head. How about a whole row of them? Make it a family thing. "I have 18 brothers and sisters," Cunningham said. "I couldn't put in 18 gems, so I thought eight was close enough."

The dentist drilled small holes in Cunningham's teeth and bonded the jewels with a special glue. Cunningham had a slight headache when it was done, but damn, there was that blinding smile. He says the jewels haven't complicated his daily rituals -- they've never caught on his wife's lips, for instance (though the first time he met his wife's parents, they said, "What's with the teeth?"). The only problem, Cunningham says, is that everyone always wants to study them. "They'll tell me to open my mouth wider [so they can see them better], but I can't get my mouth to open any wider," he says.

This could be the next big thing in dentistry, contends Steve Hesse, president of the Minnesota-based ToothJewelry Co., who wants to bring stone-filled dentistry into this country in a big way. "This could be bigger even than tooth whitening," Hesse says.

Tailpipe asked his own dentist (yes, this smoke-spewing cylinder has teeth) if he could get some jewels implanted. She made a face. "Not in this practice," said Dr. Natalia Alvarado.

Copasetic week for Tailpipe. The message light on his phone glowed with special energy the other day. Powering it was an eloquent personal appeal from Anthony Spota, owner of Synn City, a Pompano Beach strip club mentioned in Tailpipe's September 4 column: "Tell that stupid fuck [Tailpipe] that the recent DEA raid that he said hit nine clubs never hit Synn City. Tell that stupid fuck his information was not correct. I'm fuckin' furious. I got money to burn, and I will sue the fuckin' balls off of New Times." Then this: "I just found out that your editor called back my manager and started yelling at her. I spoke with DEA about this, and the only reason they might not get sued for millions or maybe a couple of hundred thousand is that they said the arrests were made in the vicinity of the club. Tell that cocky-ass editor that the vicinity of my club is the ghetto."

Tailpipe isn't exactly sure about all the implications from the word raid, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said that two frequenters of Synn City who "pretty much had the run of the place, including behind the bar" were arrested August 15 and 17 after they sold a combined 800 Ecstasy tabs to undercover agents. The transactions were made inside the club, DEA spokesman Joe Kilmer said. While the two were eventually arrested elsewhere, they were swept up in a dragnet that covered eight Broward County clubs. Spota apparently runs a clean operation; the Synn City management was not implicated. But the alleged offenders were "clearly something more than casual customers," Kilmer said.

Even more edifying, after enjoying Spota's Henry Milleresque encomium, the cylinder was dressed down by one of the strippers he ran across at another club. Tailpipe's description of the gals at Davie's Fantasy Lounge (which had been shut down for 30 days following a raid by state agents) was insulting, and the lascivious illustration accompanying the column didn't look at all like them, she said. The stripper didn't like the 'Pipe's characterization of Laurie, the bartender, either. Tailpipe could hear a voice from behind the bar shouting in the background: "Ask him what the hell pugnacious means!"

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