I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the Palm Beach crowd. A co-worker had suggested a nightlife excursion to hunt for rich men. But once the plans were made, she blew me off. So I found myself alone in my little coupe on my way to happy hour at the chichi Italian ristorante and bar.
Once there, I beelined it for the information table.
"We don't adopt out dogs and cats, but if you need a llama or an African kinkajou," Sonia explained when I asked about the special services of the Broward center, whose function also includes the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native wildlife.
"Or," she continued, "if you need someone to come pick up a 22-foot reticulated python in your backyard or that emu running down the street."
Or, evidently, a seven-foot raccoon. Rocky, the center's mascot, entered the back patio, and Sonia directed him out to the sidewalk, where temperatures were in the upper 80s, so he could wave to traffic in his full-body, fake fur costume.
I guess prevention of cruelty to a human disguised as an animal isn't covered under the SPCA Center's mission statement.
Gater 98.7 DJ Keith van Allen was behind the bar as I sipped my vodka tonic and absorbed the happy hour culture. I could easily figure out the home team from the visiting one merely by clothing choice. The society ladies wore expensive, season-appropriate colorful prints and event-inspired animal-embroidered sundresses and skirts including kitschy Lilly Pulitzer with coordinated tops and sandals.
The rest of us, society interlopers, were easy to spot. Many had overdressed. (In South Florida's heat, who besides a junkie wears long sleeves in May?) Some sported fun but cheaply made tropical wear. And then there was yours truly, who in an effort not to stand out had dressed in all black.
"Next time I'll know what to wear to one of these things," I said to the woman next to me, Jane, whom I mistook for a mainlander since she was dressed in a relatively run-of-the-mill knit cami and wore (gasp!) costume jewelry. Later, I learned she was actually from Singer Island a ghetto by barrier island standards.
"You look great," she reassured me.
"Look around," I suggested. "The only ones wearing black are the servers."
She conceded the debate with a nod.
As I was sizing up the fashion-class distinctions, I noticed a tray-holding hottie with spiky blond hair. He was looking at me every time I glanced over. Finally, I met his gaze and was momentarily frozen by his ice-blue eyes.
When I snapped out of it, I sighed. Maybe fitting in with the help wasn't such a bad thing after all.
I turned away from the object of my distraction to meet David. Sporting a Jimmy Buffett look, the center volunteer told me a tale of moving his "zoo" from Queens to South Florida. He'd driven with seven animals two dogs, five cats with nothing but a scissor gate to confine them to the back seat of his car.
"As soon as I got to the Holland Tunnel, it was chaos," he remembered. "I had cats on my head, cats on my shoulders, cats under my feet."
I withheld the gratuitous joke about being up to his neck in pussy.
After a relatively uneventful stint behind the bar, van Allen turned his post over to Toni May, host of WXEL-TV's South Florida Today. Dressed in a green dress with a perfectly matched necklace of emeralds, she looked impeccable.
Jane's friend Aimen sure thought so. He ordered a Jägermeister shot and passed a $100 bill, instructing Toni to keep the change for the wildlife charity, an action he repeated many times over. His blond shaggy hair, dark tan, and deeply lined face hinted at his passion: making art from litter collected on the beach, which he uses to teach environmental etiquette to schoolchildren.
"He caught a sailfish today," Jane reported, assuring me no fish were injured in his sportsmanship. "Catch and release. Always."
Exactly the sort of program I envisioned for my server stud, who was making his way over with a tray of pizza samples. As he approached with his eyes on me, I looked away and felt my face grow hot. I shook my head as he extended the tray.
Soon, I met a foursome of guys with just two names: Chris and Andrew.
"I hate animals," said one of the Chrises, a conservative-looking fellow with a liberal streak of self-importance. "I do love a good steak."
Why the ill will toward four-legged friends?
"I had a Jack Russell, but I gave her to the ex-fiancée," he explained with a look that suggested the two would be happier alone together. "If there's going to be a third in a relationship, a kid's OK. But not an animal."
Ah, that explained the hostility. Cock-blocked by the terrier.
A commotion outside interrupted our meet and greet. Aimen was spouting off and waving a handful of hundred-dollar bills around. He'd come to the benefit to meet May, hoping she'd do a story on his art project. According to Jane, he'd begun drinking while he was sailfishing, and since their arrival, I'd watched him down at least four Jäger shots.
"Toni, what do you need, baby?" Aimen slurred as he crawled across the bar top, cash in hand, to get at the TV-show host. "Toni! You're looking the other way! Toni!"
I had to hand it to her: May showed more patience than I would have. She gently guided her fan off the countertop and returned his change from his last drink purchase, talking to him as if he were a small child.
Once on his feet again, he dramatically threw the change into the tip bowl with an unspoken "Bam!" as if he were Chef Emeril.
"What?" he challenged, peeling off hundreds. "You want more?"
"C'mon, she can't be bought," Jane reprimanded, laughing embarrassedly.
"I wouldn't go that far," Toni retorted with a big smile. Evidently, this charity was close to her heart.
After insisting that she wasn't with Aimen, that they'd just shared the same cab from Singer Island, Jane and I did a little bonding by helping the huntress in each of us bag our game.
"Did you see that guy inside with all the hair?" I leaned over trying to find her mark on the other side.
"The European-looking one," she said, guiding me in my search.
"Damn," I said when I was caught conspicuously checking him out. "Sorry, that wasn't too smooth."
I pointed out the guy I'd had my eye on.
"That one's mine," I said, gesturing discreetly with my eyes as my tray-carrying Adonis approached again with more appetizers I would decline. I was beginning to wonder who was stalking whom.
In what would probably be considered un faux pas terrible (and, yes, my French is worse than my social graces), Jane took charge and introduced me and our server, Scott. I dropped my eyes as we shook hands, more embarrassed by my obvious desire than by the etiquette no-no. For a brief moment, I wished I didn't have a date later.
"A bird in the hand," I reminded myself.
Since I was just being greedy, I figured we'd better focus on Jane. We moved inside so she could advance on her prey. There, she took the initiative with her man while I stood next to her talking to one of the Andrews, an architect/interior designer with an office on Worth Avenue, the street for shopping if you're into designer anything.
"The Wednesday celebrity event crowd is not congruent with the regular happy hour crowd, though most of the regulars have been through here tonight," he said, providing me his perspective as one of the regulars though there was nothing regular about his elevated diction, long blond hair, perfectly plucked eyebrows, or elegantly polished nails.
I was trying to overhear the conversation between Jane and her hunk, but all I could discern was his smooth accent Italian, maybe and her delicate, feminine laughter. (Wise strategy: Better if he thinks she's the prey.)
"Amici brings all different people for the charity events, including Palm Beach society who like to get their pictures taken," Andrew explained, "as evidenced by the two society photographers."
Jane's European interest, however, wasn't looking for publicity. With his full head of tousled, salt-and-pepper hair and the four top buttons of his white shirt undone, he probably got all the attention he could handle. He looked like he'd materialized from the cover of a steamy romance novel.
"He told me he was in real estate," Jane reported when she turned to face me, "but he says that's his second job."
"What's his first?"
"Gigolo," she giggled.
He did look like a taller Richard Gere.
As a good reporter, this Night Rider followed up to check her facts, but the stud staunchly denied Jane's claim, refused to identify his country of origin, and asked that his real name not be used.
No good asking the center for help. Some exotic wildlife was beyond its expertise.