Xmas Spirit

As the rest of the nation reeled from the thousands of deaths and carnage of 9/11/01 and the anthrax scare that followed, the Boca Raton-based monthly newspaper Happy Times barely missed a beat, pumping out heartwarming pet stories, upbeat celebrity interviews, and New Age wisdom. The staff pieced together a...
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As the rest of the nation reeled from the thousands of deaths and carnage of 9/11/01 and the anthrax scare that followed, the Boca Raton-based monthly newspaper Happy Times barely missed a beat, pumping out heartwarming pet stories, upbeat celebrity interviews, and New Age wisdom. The staff pieced together a big, celebratory issue in October of that year with a feature stretching across the top of the front page titled "Service with a Smile." This was about a high school senior whose mission in life was "to show the world how simple it is to help others."

Take that, Osama.

In the same issue, founder Brigitte Lang, in her monthly "Upbeat Note from the Publisher," made a rare admission. There's a troubled world out there. "It's time to pick ourselves up, remembering that the highest ideals endure," she wrote.

Then it was right back to more uplifting fare, like the tale of Jakey, the spunky cancer-afflicted Labrador, and a talk with actress Rita Moreno, who had discovered that "when you recognize and acknowledge your own goodness, you ultimately become more compassionate."

Tailpipe was delighted to learn from the 44-year-old Lang, a tense Canadian-born woman with a slow-in-arriving smile, that there's a market for happy news. A big one. Lang says that the free newspaper's three nearly identical editions (including the Happy Herald, which is circulated in northern Palm Beach County) have a combined circulation of 75,000. The papers, left in neat little stacks at restaurants and hair salons around Broward and Palm Beach, are snatched up by grateful readers, says Lang, whose favorite phrase appears to be "triumph over adversity."

"Not only do people read it," she insists. "They keep it around for a month and absorb it from cover to cover. We've got letters from people saying the paper has changed their lives."

A gasp of gassy disbelief flies out of the tube. Tailpipe leafs through the current issue (profile of a double-amputee dachshund named Sage, Lang's advice to do some good deeds for Christmas, etc.), scratching his metallic noggin. You telling us that people actually suck this flavorless stuff up?

It's all true, Lang insists earnestly. In fact, Happy Times is really cooking these days. It will soon expand into Boynton Beach and West Palm Beach. In five years, the paper goes national. "It's going to be massive," she says.

Happy news was bound to happen, Lang contends. There's a growing aversion to the nightly hubbub of murder, rape, and wreckage. "I think all of that negativity has an impact from the sheer repetitiveness of it," Lang says. Nine years ago, Lang and "a circle of very positive people" put out the first issue, distributing 10,000 copies around Boca Raton, Delray, and Deerfield Beach.

This crusty, hopelessly pessimistic tube found that, yes, there is a kind of adrenaline-charged energy coursing through Happy Times' cluttered little one-room outpost in a charmless industrial section of Boca Raton, but most of it came from the sales section. At a front desk, advertising rep Carl Davis implacably worked the phone, cold-calling businesses to offer deals on multiple ads, hitting an occasional snag ("The police? You want to call the police? Go ahead, go ahead. I'll give you the address!").

Tailpipe tried to pin Lang down on how she deals with the dark, ominous world outside Happy Times' door. What papers does Lang read? "Well, I read Happy Times," she says grudgingly. What about the local daily? "I do pick it up. Mostly, I look for advertisers there. Yes, I watch world news. The major things." She gets the news the way George W. does, you could say.

Last April, Lang apparently noticed that there was a war going on. As American tanks and Humvees rattled toward Baghdad, she dug deep for her upbeat publisher's note. War makes relationships more special, she wrote. "There are more hugs that last longer and end with a loving tight squeeze. Let's practice saying, 'Thank you,' for people, pets and things."

So who are the thousands of escapists who read Happy Times (In fact, do they really exist, given that the paper's numbers aren't checked by the trade group that keeps track of circulation figures?)? In search of answers, the 'Pipe repaired to one of his favorite watering holes, Maguire's Hill 16, where there's usually a neat stack of Happy Times near the front door.

Do patrons ever pick them up? "They do," allowed bartender Linda Robinson. "Don't ask me why. It's pretty weak stuff. Not much juicy gossip or anything."

Waitress Tina Mann may have solved the mystery, though. "Oh yeah," Mann said, spreading her hands over her head. "People pick it [Happy Times] up. When it's raining, they'll pick it up and use it as an umbrella."

Say it ain't so, Rick.

The 'Pipe has held a certain admiration for Rick McDonald ever since he learned about McDonald's websites, and The websites gave South Floridians an opportunity to share their horror stories about dealing with H. Wayne Huizenga's $19 billion auto empire (see "Who Ya Gonna Call?," October 16).

Spurred to create the site after allegedly being screwed by Maroone Chevrolet in Pembroke Pines while attempting to purchase a little red Corvette, McDonald began posting signs at busy intersections around Broward County and even advertised his jihad with a 10-by-20-foot billboard. At first, AutoNation officials in the company's Fort Lauderdale headquarters didn't have much to say about McDonald's stunt. "It's not worth my time commenting," Marc Cannon, the company's vice president of corporate communications, told New Times. But by mid-October, AutoNation had offered McDonald $10,000 to take down the website. McDonald refused the initial offer, claiming he cared more about the principle than the money.

To Tailpipe's distress, that was not the case. Last month, after more than 150 individual consumer stories had been posted, McDonald sold out. The two expose-Maroone domains now belong to AutoNation Holding Corp. The sites are offline. Reached at his home, McDonald wouldn't explain the arrangement or his reasons for selling when reached by the 'Pipe. "I signed a hush-hush agreement," he says.

A blast of carbon-flecked emissions at you, Rick. They offered you $10,000 a month ago, right? What did you finally get from them? "I'm sorry," he responds. "I'm not allowed to say."

Matt Sentinel, a 42-year-old Fort Lauderdale man who had posted his Maroone Dodge horror story on McDonald's website, swallowed his medicine like a man. "That's disappointing, but websites are going to come and go," he says. "Somebody will start a new one. Out of all those people [who posted on], someone has to put one up."

The 'Pipe takes this one as a lesson: H. Wayne really can buy whatever he wants -- even the silence of one of his most vocal critics.

Speaking of getting screwed, patrons of Fort Lauderdale's glitzy Las Olas Boulevard not only had to pay higher parking rates last summer in the public Lot H, on SE Second Court, but they found city-employed meter vultures striking faster than lightning. In the time it took to hustle up three quarters for an hour on the meter, many complained, they were getting hit with $25 tickets.

Those rate increases were just a little revenue generator for the city, concedes John Noelle, assistant parking division manager for Fort Lauderdale. The various hikes around the commercial center of America's Venice ought to raise more than $1 million annually.

Faced with growing patron discontent, the Las Olas Merchants Association brought in the big guns. Since November 26, Alex O'Rourke, a gritty 18-year-old Plantation resident with short, spiky dreadlocks, has been earning $7 an hour offering change to the good folks who lack sufficient bullion for the lot's 101 quarters-only meters.

On a recent weekday evening, as the sunset bled pink into the clouds above the skyline and the mercury plunged below 60 degrees, O'Rourke was a lone heroic sentry in the lot. In a white-hooded sweatshirt over a maroon apron, he moved his hands idly in the shirt's front pouch, jingling coins.

"This is a real boring job," the young Plantation man said. "Real boring. You just have to wait for people. Some people are like, 'You're the change guy. I've never seen one of you guys before. '"

In March, the city will begin offering a debit card system for existing meters. In O'Rourke's lot, the city may install four $12,000 multispace meters if the Las Olas Association chips in $15,000, which association President Chris Gaus says he's trying to raise. The gas-spouting 'Pipe gets the picture. How does Fort Lauderdale spell relief? G-o-u-g-e.

-- As told to Edmund Newton

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