I was lured to the grand-opening, invitation-only VIP bash with promises of "signature cocktails" and a "parade of delights" from the kitchen (which, unfortunately, was not code for "hunky chefs"). But the new drinkery was as hard to find as a drop of its namesake.
No one not even the Boca Center valets had heard of Absinthe or its gala. Boca's zoning laws, I learned later, delayed the installation of signage, so I wandered through Boca Center asking random strangers for help.
I was just about to ask the gods for a sign when I found the party on the bottom floor of the Boca Center Marriott. I was late, and many guests were already trashed.
Arthur a bald, middle-aged gentleman accompanied by a much younger, attractive Ukrainian woman generously offered me a drink that didn't cost him a cent. But when I asked for a cosmopolitan, he said, "OK, but I'm not gonna be good with those drinks with names that have more than one word." Evidently, he'd discovered a new side effect of alcohol slurred hearing.
"You missed the drunk grandmother," the woman to my left, a North Carolina vacationer who was staying at the hotel, reported. "She was like 75 years old, and she was trying to get her 8-year-old grandson to drink those shots they're giving out."
It wasn't a Disney vacation after all. This was Boca, and a Boca hotel party at that. So who's to say whose customs should prevail?
The bar was handing out signature cocktails, like a cucumber-and-thyme concoction, but I was still curious about the legendary namesake liquor. Where was the absinthe?
Steve, one of the hotel bigwigs, claimed that he had a bottle of the stuff the real thing that he'd purchased online to celebrate the occasion.
"It's made of wormwood. It's the sister plant of marijuana," he claimed, perpetuating an urban legend.
"After all, it is Four-Twenty," I smiled.
The comment amused Steve, who promised to let me sample the notoriously psychedelic beverage after he tended to some business.
Nearby was a table of six Gen-Xers who bore no signs of ever being slackers. One of the well-dressed group's two women was rubbing her bulging, exposed belly. The tall, tanned guy next to her reached over and gave the mass a jiggle.
"I'm a pimp," the belly jiggler claimed when I asked what they all did for a living.
"I got these bitches, their bellies all hanging out," he laughed.
His friend John the dark-eyed, domineering one who'd told me to sit produced his business card, and while we were discussing the business of business consulting, I guess I was emitting an anti-Boca vibe. Soon he was ranting.
"I'm sick of people coming to Boca and sweating our culture," he bitched.
"Your culture? You make it sound like it's its own country," I said.
"It is, in a way," he replied, defensively. "Look, we're all from Boca. We've known each other for years. We're all real people with hearts that hurt. The only thing is, we live at a different financial level."
I was just beginning to sympathize with these unfortunate, misunderstood economic elite when a server arrived with red martinis, and John swiped the last one off the tray as I reached for it.
"I want to write a book called Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover with my picture on it," he said. "It's all a façade. That's what it's about."
Boca culture in a nutshell.
In an effort to demonstrate further the customs of his homeland, John threatened to sue me if he appeared in the Night Rider column. In an effort to demonstrate my own culture, I laughed at him.
Most of his friends stayed tight-lipped, but the kinky-haired diva of the group decided one Boca blowhard was not nearly enough to give me the full Boca experience.
"My name is Kiki," she mocked in a squeaky voice (earlier she had introduced herself by another name that I had forgotten), "and we're swingers. We're into quadruplesomes."
Soon "Kiki" was playing with her cleavage in a manner that was half juggle and half massage.
"She's got nice breasts," I conceded as she was leaving for the ladies' room and bent over and wobbled her boobs against her male companion's head.
"Rub your titties on her head," another suggested, meaning my noggin.
I wasn't having the best hair day, but I doubted titty static would improve things.
After those exchanges, Esther's company was refreshing. Riffing on absinthe's nickname La Fée Verte (the green fairy), she flapped her hands like wings and repeated to all who would listen, "I'm gonna green fairy it on out of here."
I wanted wings too. Where was that absinthe?
Using my highly developed substance-tracking skills, I found the corporate honchos drinking the herbal liquor in a booth in the back. Steve waved me off, with a promise that I'd get to sample some later. I couldn't buy the stuff all the bar could legally stock is Absente, which had all the icky flavor and none of the kick so all I could do was wait.
In the meantime, I discovered Richard, who remarked of the remodeling: "This is how they spent $6 million. That's what it cost."
Looking around, I couldn't see where they'd spent it. Earlier, someone had described the Marriott's previous restaurant as "a 1980s geezerteria with a cheap buffet." Like many people in town, the place had undergone a radical face-lift to make it more appealing, but this didn't look like $6 million worth of reconstruction.
When I pressed him, he said, "Let's just say I know. I'm in the investment business."
Good for him. But were the suits going to leave me any absinthe? I began to doubt it.
That's when I was reunited with Arthur and Victoria, who revealed that she was a gifted palm reader. I held out my hand.
"Hey, any chance there's some freakin' absinthe in my future?" I wondered silently.
Examining the creases in my palm, the Ukrainian beauty predicted the outlook was not good for this Night Rider: "You live not too long a life. You die young."
Before kicking the bucket, I was determined I'd get my hands on that bottle. Steve finally arrived with the much-awaited libation. The bartender delivered the ritualistic setup: a glass with a slotted spoon holding two sugar cubes balanced on its rim. After he poured a half-inch of the verdant, 150-proof beverage over the cubes and set them aflame, he dumped the flaming cubes into the drink, igniting the whole thing. Quickly, he added some water to douse the flames and dilute the drink's bitter potency.
Twenty minutes after I finished the absinthe, I still didn't feel any different. The mostly empty bottle sat on the bar with three inches of botanical sediment at the bottom.
"I say we dry this out and smoke the leavings," I suggested to Steve.
"That would be like Four-Twenty-One," he quipped.
After a full half-hour, I asked for another shot. Perhaps Dracula's claim in the 1992 film was true. Maybe the green fairy who lives in absinthe did want my soul. I was willing to risk it. I did hate to be greedy, but I hated the thought of missing out on an absinthe-inspired experience even more. Sadly, the ultimate effect wasn't much different from any other 150-proof hooch.
The bartender was dousing the cubes of another cocktail for me when Uzma arrived. The Pakistani-American told us that people repeatedly asked her whether the terrorists were planning another attack.
"Like I would know," she said. "I had this friend, and the same thing happened with him, and he wasn't even from another country. He was born in Long Island, so he's from America."
I wanted to tell her that here in South Florida, things weren't that simple. You could think you were in America and suddenly discover yourself in another country. You know, like Boca.