Thursday night. A muggy, rainy South Florida night, and I was feeling particularly grouchy. It had been a long, punishing mini-Friday, the air around me was veering toward triple-digit humidity, and I had just gotten one of those wish-you-were-here calls from my family in Texas. Everybody fine, and, oh, yeah, the weather is absolutely beautiful. Autumn had tiptoed in on dainty feet. Leaves were changing colors and falling off trees, and the air was as crisp as new money.
In truth, I needed to ship my unproductive, unpleasant disposition to a strange, faraway land — but who likes driving long distances in the rain? So I opted for a bar in my neighborhood, one I'd seen but never had cause to enter. I knew nothing about Kalahari Bar (4446 NE 20th Ave., Oakland Park), though I had a vague sense that the name stood for a place in Africa. By the time this dreary evening came to an end, though, I had met new friends, heard some interesting tales, and found a pretty cool place to hang out when life slips a full nelson around your neck.
The original owners of Kalahari were a South African couple— Hal and Dee Hofmeyr. They had sailed around the world for 13 years before joining the landlubbers of South Florida and establishing what they dubbed "the first authentic South African bar in the USA." They decorated the interior with South African paraphernalia and drew a large group of South African regulars. Hal was an adventurer who could regale customers with tales of the open ocean and life back home. When he turned 80, the couple decided to live out their golden years back home. The new owner, Lou —not South African but with enough imagination to envision that exotic country — bought the bar, décor and all. He decided to keep it as the Hofmeyrs had left it.
Ambiance: As I got near the door, a couple was just leaving, grinning and laughing. Very good sign. I walked in, shook off the rain, and took a seat at the bar — a few spots down from the only other patron in the building. The place was red-walled and low-lit, with dark furniture and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" playing softly in the background.
Rugby club hats and lanterns hung over the bar; I looked up, and found cloth maps and flags tacked directly over my head. There was enough stuff on the ceiling to give me a crick in my neck. Photos, T-shirts from regions in South Africa, zebra skins, wooden tribal masks, straw hats, and pieces of old yachts had all been carefully fit together, like interlocking puzzle pieces, to transform the building into a jolting display of South African pride and heritage. One side of the room boasted dartboards and a pool table, plus three tables with chairs upholstered in leopard-print.
Reflecting back all that heritage — plus some carefully assembled bottles of booze and, of course, yours truly — was the mirror behind the bar. Which reminded me: Before I became distracted by animal skins, witchy looking cooking pots, gaping-mouthed masks, and leather-covered drums, I'd come with a very clear mission: procure booze and imbibe it.
Bartender: The woman serving drinks was a blond named Vicki, an older woman who enjoyed bobbing to AC/DC and anything else that came on the digital jukebox. Friendly, and probably bored out of her skull just now, she told us that the cash register was about 60 years old.
"So, do you still get a lot of South Africans in here?" I asked, glancing around.
"Sometimes, like when we show rugby games," she said. "Once in a while we get people here on vacation from South Africa who actually know the old owners." Indeed, she told me the couple leaving just as I came in were old friends of the Hofmeyrs. "Since Dee and Hal left, they mostly stay away. I guess it's more a neighborhood bar now."
"What's Kalahari refer to?" I asked, quick to reveal my ignorance, as usual.
"It's a desert in South Africa," Vicki and my companion said in unison.
"Yeah, well, I almost failed high school geography," I said. "I haven't been much better at it since."
Patrons: I eyed an older blond woman at the end of the bar, who sat methodically downing beer and puffing on cigarettes. By the way she was swaying, I decided I'd better talk to her now, because she looked like she was (or should be) about done drinking for the night.
Lori was thin, pretty, and wore a clean white sweater and a silver headband. After a quick introduction, she smiled genuinely and talked like we were girlfriends dishing. Yeah, she was piss-drunk, but it seemed to lend a hearthlike warmth to her personality, making me feel kind of good.
"My son would love you, honey," she said, after laughing and calling me "adorable." "He's single — really big and strong; does construction work. But he lives in Michigan." She took a long drink.
"Oh, you must miss him," I said. Then, as is my way when real emotion rears its sticky head, I tried to change the subject quickly. "What do you do for a living?"
"I do corporate collections — I talk on the phone all day," she said. "And I'm good at it, honey. Really good."
"Is it stressful?" I hate talking on the phone.
"No, I love it," she said, smiling. "I'm good at it." Yeah, you mentioned.
"I can't do math," she continued. "And I figured, 'What am I gonna do to support myself?' I wanted to divorce my asshole husband and start my own life, but I had no idea how. And then this came along."
I suddenly realized I was taking a liking to Lori. My mom is back doing her Lone Star thing, and I miss her a lot. Here was Lori, maybe a hard-drinking Florida surrogate. Yeah, you guessed it. Homesick as a lost pup.
"You know, when I first saw you, I thought, 'Oh my God,' " Lori said, slurring slightly. "You look just like my daughter. She lives in Michigan, too."
"How old is she?" I asked.
"She's 26, a bit older than you," she said. "She's beautiful, and pregnant with her second child. I miss her so much." While pondering whether a drunk woman telling me I resembled her pregnant Midwestern daughter was a compliment, I noticed Lori's eyes had filled with tears.
Human emotion! Abort, abort, abort.
Lori ordered another beer, oblivious to my inner muddle.
"I have a picture right by the door at my house of my son and daughter, and anyone who walks in tells me how beautiful they are," she said. "I have a good job, and family, and I'm really blessed. I know that."
Drinks: In an obvious gambit to bail me out of playing Lori's therapist (or was she playing mine?), my companion ordered me a shot. Lori, seeing how delicious it looked, ordered the same, a specialty of the house, the Springbok (amaretto and crème de menthe). My friend downed it in a swift swig, frat-boy style, and broke into a smile. Not usually my reaction after taking a shot. "It tastes like Christmas!" he said. Lori swallowed hers and chased it with more beer. I ordered a Carlsberg and nursed it.
By now there were more customers in Kalahari, including a petite girl with dangling earrings and a boy with a buzz-cut wearing a long-sleeved shirt. They sat next to us at the bar and chatted for a few minutes before picking out pool cues and racking up for a game. I asked Tiffany if she was going to win.
"Oh, I can kick his ass at pool," she said.
Josh laughed and shook his head.
"Can she?" I called.
"Yeah, of course," said the gallant fool.
"Wow, that's a good boyfriend," I said.
"Knows just what to say."
"Oh, we're just friends," Tiffany said with a laugh. Awkward moment, like ghosts colliding mid-air.
"Thank God!" yelled Josh.
"We dated for... " Tiffany paused, and turned to Josh. "How long did we date?"
"I've put that behind me," Josh said.
"Well, if he's not your boyfriend, I guess you don't have to feel bad about kicking his ass," I said.
"They may not be together," said Vicki from behind the bar, "but they sure fight like they are."
More extraneous emotion for me to dodge.
Josh and Tiffany, with their manicured looks, seemed like the kind of couple I might see taking care of dating business — that hard-edged business that comes with a tally sheet like a gin rummy match — at Hard Rock.
Eventually I asked, bluntly, "What are you guys doing here?" I mean—a South African bar in a quiet neighborhood, of all places?
"It's cool, it's interesting, and it's within walking distance," said Tiffany. "Plus, I hate crowded bars. I just want to come and play some pool, you know?"
I understood: like chicken soup and tapioca pudding and the scent of live oak in an autumn breeze. There's an African-themed bar at Hard Rock called Pangaea. Right now, though, Kalahari was seeming a lot better and cheaper, a lot less contrived, less cluttered with faceless Ed Hardy-clad dudes. These people were real, the kind of folks you don't mind spending a wet, shitty Thursday night with.