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A Culture Change

Fort Lauderdale's new city manager, George Gretsas, didn't just arrive in town; he crashed like a Hummer into a Volkswagen. He smacked code violations down on neighborhoods and focused his laser-beam eyes on downtown's young party district, Himmarshee Village.

With a pen as a metaphorical sword in one hand and a gum scraper in the other, he railed against Himmarshee's "culture," according to a March 1 Sun-Sentinel article. Well, if there's one thing that a SoFla outsider is not going to get, it's this: The loons and lap dogs in this subtropical city demand weekend release. This is something desperately needed by the staff at random, fabulous Las Olas eateries who must scrape the crème brûlée crusties (grosser than gum wads?) out of those cute little cups. When they finally close the restaurant at 1 a.m., they deserve to go out and have a few cold ones in the time frame that accommodates their lifestyle.

And if they want to give someone a little kiss, nothing beats off that kitchen-air stank breath like a stick of Big Red.

The most flavorless detail of the February 16 "Memorandum of Understanding" between Gretsas and the Himmarshee Association reeks of Singapore's anal-retentive 1992 ban on chewing gum: "The District Representative shall work with the city to establish a program for regular removal of chewing gum from the sidewalks." The deal also restricted the sale of Jell-O shots and sidewalk beer vendors.

The gum's the rub, though. I've heard of people coming together to stamp out illiteracy, to save baby sea turtles, or to raise money for the Special Olympics, but a "program" for eschewing chew blobs? Yeah, OK.

So I wondered, how did the supposed cultural ignorati that frequents the downtown district feel about the new rules and the threat of a 2 a.m. last call if the area doesn't cease to be so dirty, dangerous, and gummy? If there's going to be a "culture" change, the people whose behaviors, beliefs, and associations constitute said defective "culture" should, I thought, have a winter-fresh voice on the subject.

At 11 p.m. on a recent Thursday, I picked up a few packs of Juicy Fruit, Bubble Yum, and Extra Sugarfree Spearmint, and headed for Dicey Riley's. I approached a group of three men in their late 20s who were conservatively and comfortably dressed. "Are you going to miss the chicks who walk up and down the sidewalks selling Jell-O shots?"

A pleasant, bespectacled social researcher named Brad answered my first question. "Jell-O shots," he responded, "are for when you're too lazy to get your ass to the bar or if there's too long a line."

His friend Abede added, "It's for when you're trying to get that last shot."

Well, what's wrong with that last shot? I say. I'm no fan of those jiggly things often delivered by vacuous hot chicks. But what has happened to the freedom to imbibe?

Then Abede and I discussed the club and city's plan to "establish a program for regular removal of chewing gum from the sidewalks."

He pointed to the expanded brick sidewalk and said, "They should maintain and keep this area nice, 'cause it was just built."

Why does Abede or anyone else care? Beyond the Prada- obsessed and foot fetishists, who actually looks down at sidewalks?

I did.

A popular Himmarshee eatery had 51 gum spots on the ground in front of its doors. An upscale bar nearby had 31. A corner bar had 134 dried black wads and three fresh white wads on the brick in front of it. A count in front of Poor House yielded 18 black spots, but it was difficult to count gum spots because the sidewalk was white with dark rocks in it, because, for some reason, the beautiful brick sidewalks didn't extend to its door.

We can play whatever role we want to in life. We can be obsessed with minutia if we choose to, and we can hold other people accountable for what we deem important. But what one person's particular fixations have to do with the larger culture of a city is beyond me. What chewing gum or outdoor bars or Jell-O shots have to do with the "culture" of a party scene is beyond most people, who just want to have a good time.

Brad, the social researcher hanging at Dicey Riley's, described to me what happened in England when last call for liquor was pushed back in his town. "There's more binge drinking. Four a.m. is late enough that people trickle out of the bars."

His friend Paul, who also lived in England at the time, added, "At 2 a.m., people would get aggressive and pick fights. They would be mean to wait staff and all that stuff."

Jennifer, an attractive blond woman in her 30s wearing a conservative, black, long-sleeved shirt, was seated at an outside table on the corner. She wasn't up for Bubble Yum, but she commented, "We will gladly give up the gum or whatever the problem is as long as we can keep [the] 4 a.m. [closing time.] I don't go to Las Olas to buy $60 drinks. If this side [of town] ain't broke, don't fix it."

Kerry, a 33-year-old man at the same table, responded favorably to my offering of Juicy Fruit and gave his two cents' worth as his cheeks puckered with the pleasure of a burst of fruity flavor: "I don't think there's anything wrong with the cultural situation in this area. Everyone feels safe. It's policed better than other regions. Nightlife here is safe, clean, and fun."

Jennifer added: "Las Olas. That's the rich side. Four a.m. was the best thing ever done."

"If the drinking curfew is 2 a.m.," Kerry said, "you'll have more DUIs. People will try to travel to other places to finish the night's activities."

Jennifer finished: "Riverfront [area] is the young side, the fun side. We're not 40. We're not going over there."

At 1 a.m., I approached a group of young men standing at the outside bar of Capones and asked them about the city manager's proposed change in culture. Twenty-two-year-old Josh, a blond man with a buzz cut and blue eyes who wore a plaid shirt and boot-cut jeans, yelled, "What? What? That's a load of horseshit."

His calmer friend said, "You can't change the culture down here. It's South Florida. It's Latino." Of the 2 a.m. closing, he added, "It would be a loss business-wise for the city. If they closed at 2 a.m., I think it'd be empty now."

"Why no more beer on the sidewalks? You can't change culture in Florida. People are going to be coming from everywhere all the time."

Oh, wait! I've got a better idea. How about we start a 2 a.m. book club at my place? Let's start with Middlemarch.

If you have yet to get your Karma on, it might relieve you to learn that Karma Lounge is not closed, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It's currently open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. under the new management of David Gaudiana, who said the atmosphere is "more casual, not so pretentious as it was before." The venue will host "good music from a lot of different genres," he said. When Gaudiana hooks up with the kind of promoters he's currently seeking, the club's events could expand to other nights. Weekends are heavy on drink specials for ladies, and In the Biz specials are available both nights.

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Courtney Hambright

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