The early-morning conversations at Skinner´s Grill are like a river. Sometimes the talk is smooth and graceful, eddying around a twig of thought that slips from person to person. And sometimes it roars -- with laughter or what sounds like rage but is more like passion, but passion that turns to laughter. At the L-shaped counter, Frankie reads the sports section. He´s not talking to the waitress just now, so she is unable to get his order. ¨What does it take to get some food ´round here?¨ he finally hollers out. ¨Oh, you´re talking to me now?¨ she responds. Bragdon sits in the corner, orders toast, and often brings tomatoes from his garden for Ms. Skinner to slice. ¨How much does an order of toast cost?¨ one of the guys asks one day when he decides it´s time to prove that Bragdon is probably the cheapest man on earth. Another day, Frankie and Bragdon discuss the war in Iraq. Basically, Frankie says if we are going to go in there, we got to go to win. And Bragdon argues that we should throw all our technology at them so a minimum of our soldiers dies. But Iraq is only one subject. There´s also Serena Williams. There´s the weather. There´s Jay-Z. There´s the slave revolt in Haiti. There´s Osama. ¨He´s Cisco,¨ one woman keeps insisting every time the subject returns to bin Laden. She thinks he has had plastic surgery and is now living in the United States. And then there´s the question of whether anyone should bother trying to properly pronounce Bragdon´s name. It´s respectful to do so, Bragdon says. ¨That´s just the point,¨ Frankie answers.

Sure, it´s a labyrinthine building with drab hallways and floor plants -- and, yeah, those stairwells look like they belong in a federal penitentiary (Alternate title: ¨Best Place to Film a Shank Scene¨) -- but don´t forget the Broward County Governmental Center as a summertime destination. Hey, how else you gonna take advantage of government handouts? That cold air is free, man. What´s more, entertainment waits behind almost every door. Public hearings (every second and fourth Tuesday in room 422 at 2 p.m.) are a good place to meet your community´s angriest and most vocal critics, and zoning board meetings will put you to sleep faster than those tapes of whales singing. So if you want to cool down this summer, go to the center´s front desk and get a visitor´s sticker. Or don´t. It doesn´t seem to matter. New Times strolled through the center without one, poking our nose in different rooms, eavesdropping on water-cooler chatter, taking smoke breaks with public employees. Ah, government in the South Florida sunshine.
Only the hardiest of butterflies ever ventures north of South Florida´s subtropical zone. Oh sure, temperate-region dwellers may get a colorful eyeful during visits to museums of natural history, but those lepidoptera are impaled and quite, quite still. Butterfly World, on the other hand, has created screened, outdoor gardens alive with fluttering brilliance. The plants and flowers that grow in the 240,000-cubic-foot habitat replicate the flora that butterflies depend upon in the wild. There are also more than 5,000 butterflies representing 80 species from South and Central America, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other Asian countries. If you´re motionless, some will light upon you. For the jaded out-of-towner from the tropics, hundreds of species native to Florida also swish about the outside gardens.
¨I´ll give you two dollars for that bag of forks.¨ Well, that answers the question of ¨where´s the bargain?¨ But the Swap Shop, that wonderfully entertaining theater of human tragedies and oddities, offers more than good bargains. Behold a sea of mullets, Camaros, mullets in Camaros, Rastafarians, girls in thongs, guys in thongs, crying children, midgets. And this is just in the parking lot. On any given weekend, you can browse a plethora of goods. But even better, you could possibly overhear people haggling over the price of transgender porn; watch tourists take photos in front of the somewhat-sad circus; see a young woman argue with her significant other on a cell phone while buying a Twister mat; and witness a young man dressed in a goat costume, complete with hooves, play Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade. (DDR is a Japanese game in which you pre-program a song and have to follow the dance steps on a lighted board. Goat-boy was damn good. The hooves didn´t impede his desire to dance. Yes, it really happened.) Up next: Survivor: The Swap Shop? We can only hope.
Sure, you almost always feel all warm and fuzzy after doing volunteer work. But it´s not bad if you can learn a thing or two in the process. The Guatemalan-Maya Center is a great place to help new immigrants adjust while learning about one of America´s oldest civilizations. Every month, the center serves about 450 families chosen from a population of 30,000 Guatemalans living in Palm Beach County. Still, the charity has no regular volunteers. Managers say they´re looking for folks to mentor Guatemalan kids, help run two after-school centers, and translate for recent immigrants. Spanish is helpful, but the center is desperate for volunteers who speak Mayan. Many of those aided by the center are expectant mothers in need of translators for doctor´s visits. Guatemalans are one of South Florida´s fastest-growing minority populations, so the center is a great opportunity to learn a little about your new neighbors while helping out.
Moviemakers just can´t get enough of Broward County´s little honky tonk by the sea, Hollywood. Indeed, several big-time moguls have in recent years become enamored of the picture-perfect beach and Broadwalk, the cozy downtown, and the ´40s-era homesteads. And they have brought the stars with them. During the past two years, alert stargazers could have caught Denzel Washington filming Out of Time, Julianne Moore in The Hours, and Brian Dennehy taking the lead in Three Blind Mice, a made-for-TV movie. Music groupies got to gaze at Ice Cube in All About the Benjamins and Ludacris during filming of 2 Fast 2 Furious. Keep your eyes open for Matt Damon, who just might end up filming a bit of the Farrelly brothers´ Stuck on You in our Hollywood.
Let´s make a list of things we adore: a lemony-colored, wafer-thin omelet that practically dissolves on the tongue; a gooey slab of camembert with a nice Chardonnay; an eclectic, visually appealing range of hors d´oeuvres served just before dinner; chanteuse Edith Piaf; and artist Claude Monet. After French President Jacques Chirac had the gonads to refuse to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq, some very rude people, who likely think themselves patriots, called places such as Alliance Francaise to complain. For Pete´s sake, people! This Francophile club gives French lessons and little parties to promote the culture! Could you be more rude? And then Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, sensing the pulse of our emotionally gung-ho electorate, called for a boycott of French wine and cheese. Hey, Burt, kind of selective on your French imports, aren´cha? Send back egalit! Out with fraternit! ¨No, operator, I need to clarify your return policy on 227 years of libert. Operator?¨ Oh wait, never mind, Burt; that was the Patriot Act.
Since 1969, this family-owned, ten-acre naturist park on the edge of Davie has been home to the bare-assed -- those who want to feel the breeze blow and the sun warm their skin without interference. Used to be a happening place, before Miami-Dade officially allowed nude sunbathing at Haulover Beach, before Europeans started going topless on South Beach, and before places like Paradise Lakes on Florida´s West Coast in Pasco allowed well, you know. This place doesn´t have lots of pizzazz. It´s just a circle of mobile homes surrounding a swimming pool, a small restaurant, a community center, and tennis courts. It´s not the least bit intimidating. Your local gym has more body self-consciousness. This is about r-e-l-a-x-i-n-g, not mirror-gazing. Single women or couples are allowed a couple of visits to check it out. The cost is $20 per couple and $10 for single women. After those initial stays, you have to join the club to partake of this slice of public nakedness in the midst of more private suburbia.
In the 1950s, that famous buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era stiffness let loose in the phenomenon of the tiki bar. At the time, they were ubiquitous. All things Polynesian seemed foreign, so it was OK to delve into a world of rhythmic hips and almost fleshy tropical blossoms. Even in the backyard, tiki torches burned. Since 1956, Mai-Kai has been serving this Polynesian fantasy on a deluxe plate. While other spots on the tiki circuit slowly went under, this one persisted. Tiki culture lives on there underneath thatched roof huts, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, with rain falling over the windows while you sit inside transported. The 51 tropical concoctions, with names like the Zombie, Black Magic, and the Jet Pilot, served by sarong-clad, as they say, maidens, helps set the mood. The stage shows are awesome. Pricey at about $45 a person for the whole shebang, but check out the special drink nights, and call for floor-show-only nights. If you´re there for drinks and they have room, you can sometimes be seated for the show for an extra $9.95.
There is better food, films, coffee, and scenery here than on any other stretch of Broward County road. This strip offers a full night of refreshments, entertainment, and nature. Best of all, there´s no need to burn a lot of gas, even if you drive a monster SUV that seems to get feet rather than miles to the gallon. Start on the south side of Sunrise at the Federal Highway intersection for an early-evening treat at Fantasia´s of Boston. The coffee drinks are good, but it´s the desserts that tantalize, calling out in sugary ecstasy from the glass case that lines the counter. After you feast, go next door to see an independent film at the Sunrise Cinemas at Gateway. The Gateway specializes in great movies that no one else shows, like the latest by Pedro Almodvar or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After you´re done at the theater, go a block east to the Gateway Shopping Center, where you can choose between Sukho Thai or Heart Rock Sushi for dinner. Before you leave the parking lot, stroll to the back corner for a cappuccino at Archives Book Caf, a combination bookstore/coffeehouse/antiques shop. Then venture a couple of blocks east and read a little next to the New River on the back patio of Borders Books and Music. Next, cross the Intracoastal Bridge, but drive slowly so you don´t miss the raccoons that line up in front of Birch State Park. In a couple more blocks, you´ll arrive at the beach. Swim, walk, or just stare out at the breaking waves. Now that´s a South Florida night to remember. And you can do it as often as you want.

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