Goodbye, David Clarke

I told myself I wouldn’t write this.  I had already said my goodbyes in a few ways, made my comments, and as is normal these days I made some comments on your facebook feed.

Then I saw this picture of you on a pass through my picture collection.

It must have been what was in the back of my mind when I wrote on facebook that day.  It’s exactly what you’d do.

You’d park yourself in the backyard under my umbrella.  Next to the pool, you would go out there “Not To Smoke” but you would anyway.  You were the only person allowed to smoke on the property but never in the house.

Bringing your cup of tea out there, it became Your Spot.  You could look across the pool at the tropical plantings secure in the knowledge that they were tended to by someone else.  You were taking a break from your duties.  I guess we could call you a Concierge because you were always doing something for someone in some weirdly random way.  I was always surprised to find out some of the things you would do.

My backyard was your refuge from all of those duties.  You came here, occasionally but not frequently enough, to get away from all that happy nonsense of the life you chose during the week we met.

I have known you since, as best as I can tell, February 1987.  We met when I vacationed there and you had just landed from London.  It was a vacation from that life, but you would make it permanent.  A lucky break or three gave you just enough to be able to set roots down and you could live there.  Maybe I have the timing off one way or another but that is my best guess.

We kept in contact excluding a gap in time.  One chance meeting I was walking into the market some time around February 1992 and there you were coming out.

It was like old times.  We did not lose contact again.

You visited us in Philadelphia.  You enjoyed my own neighborhood of Chestnut Hill as much as we did.  I was told it looked just like the English countryside town that you came from.  It was “Very English”.  When you were there, I didn’t tell you that the shop owners took you to heart.  When you left they would occasionally ask when you were coming back.

Later we moved to Wilton Manors, Florida.  It’s a full 190 miles away and a long four hour drive from you in Key West.  I was warned that it was one way in and one out and traffic could completely block.  People could have a 10 hour trip through the keys because “The Sysco Truck broke down” or overturned or some dumb tourist cut in front of it.  All were plausible.  None happened when I went down there.

Just watch your speed driving the Keys.  They will ticket in some places at one MPH over.

My visits were a mirror of yours.  Take over a room, drop the suit cases, and relax before a long wander through town to see how much things changed.  Key West changed completely over the years.  Wilton Manors less so.

Every visit I would spend fixing your computers.  I was happy when you got a Mac because then you wouldn’t get those Windows viruses.  Then the virus writers targeted Mac and you would get them there.  I remember you had a literal stack of machines and every one would end up used up and set under the bed in the spare room waiting for care because Virus.

Stop clicking on links in emails, please.

Well now there are no more links to click.

No more Mangos to duck from the trees.

No more check ins.

Someone else will feed the cat that visits you on your porch for food and sometimes come in for a short visit.

You died suddenly of natural causes on July 29 2017.

I didn’t find out until after I called you and left a message, worried.

Four minutes later someone on your facebook feed confirmed it.

The stories went back and forth.  You never completely hide from friends.  Now it is much easier for friends to talk.  We shared details of how you were planning to come here but kept missing the trip because you were feeling badly, twice in the week before.  Each time this happened I’d implore you to visit the doctor.  You would become more strident about my coming to visit.  I think we know why now.

I had a wonderful chat with your friends, even in your home town.

You were so very proud of that town, Winsford, England.  When I showed you how to virtually walk down the street there you were “gobsmacked”.  So was I.  I would love to see it myself but probably never will get there, just like  at this point I doubt I’ll get back to Key West.

I captured that picture of the big stone church and put it on your computers every time I set one up for you.

In fact there were three computers here for you to look at.  All with the picture of that church in Winsford, England.

We would go through those pictures and virtually visit your town with the old show To The Manor Born on the TV.  We watched that series so many times that we could quote dialog along with Audrey and the Rest.  All those old comedy shows that you’d bring along, some I had seen, some not, and always a very enjoyable time.

You are and now were more than a friend, you were a big brother from another mother.  You will be missed.

Goodbye David.

No Good Mango Goes Unpunished

Mangoes.

There are two kinds of people.  Those who eat them and those who don’t. 

By. The. Bucket.

There’s a tree in the neighborhood.  It’s on the property of an apartment building.  We know the owner and he told me to go pick my fill whenever I want to.

Well “Woo Hoo!” I said and have been picking that tree for a couple years straight ever since.  He keeps elevating the tree, trimming the lower branches, and that does make it difficult. 

With a Mango Tree, you do not want to do that.  The shape you should go for is an Umbrella – not very high but broad.  Why?  Keep the fruit as close to the ground as you can.  Since they can grow as large as two pounds a fruit, a solid Kilogram of sweetness, they can cause damage when they fall.

Imagine a melon falling from 32 feet in the air.  It takes a second to fall that distance.  21.9 MPH.  Imagine someone smacking you with an under ripe fruit at almost 22 Miles Per Hour.  An under ripe mango is about as hard as a rock…

Yeah, that’s gotta hurt.

In Mango Season I go out with our trusty orange fruit picker pole and pick what I can.  When I get a bucket, I over-pick for my needs and hand some out to the neighbors.  Usually I keep a couple extra “dog bags” in my pocket so I can grab them when they fall.  The fruit tend to roll out into the street and make an awful mess if they haven’t bashed in a windshield or dented someone’s head.

But I have been watching our neighborhood tree.  It has been a good fruit year and there’s plenty more where that came from.  It’s going to take a ladder to get the ones up above the 20 foot limit of my reach at this point.

I got out there, picked my fill, and picked another dozen for a neighbor.  That’s where my own size got in the way.  The neighbor’s house is right around the corner, so I dropped the bucket on my porch next to the planter and pole and walked on over.   Up the drive to the front door.  I was in luck, there was someone inside cleaning.

Tapping on the window I said “Hey, I’m leaving this for the family here, can you bring this in when you are ready?”.  

After all, the ants will get to a mango on the ground in 10 seconds flat, and it will be eaten away to nothing in a day.

I was greeted with a lot of yelling and hand gestures.  Ok, I can speak English, a bit of French, a tiny bit of Spanish, and a whole lot of Stupid.

As I started to turn and walk away, I draped the “t-shirt” bag on the doorknob.  “I’ll just leave this here!”

More gesturing.  I don’t think she can hear me.  She was yelling something in standard American English, I was wondering why she didn’t just nod and smile.

“It’s OK, I’ll leave this for the family, bring it in when you can.  It’s just a bag of Mangoes!”

More gesturing.  I spun to leave.

As it is, I’m a bit “top heavy”.  High center of gravity.  I nearly fell off the porch.  At this point I realized it was either leave the fruit there and hope for the best or leave the porch and twist an ankle or worse.

I shouted at the door “It’s OK, you don’t have to open the door.  I’m going!”.

Scratching my head in confusion I wandered down the drive.  The bag was left on the door until I was well out of sight.

That night I ran into one of the people there, Marc, and told him the story.   He laughed so loud that his dog looked up at him in some confusion, and my dog Rack dropped down to the ground.  I was told that the housekeeper was telling him about some giant guy that came by and left him some fruit but “She made a rather nice arrangement of them after all was said and done.”.

So the moral of the story is that if you are going to spread the mango goodness, make sure it is jelly or jam.  Get a good recipe first.

Celebrating Craig’s Birthday by the Sea

There has to be a reason, a good one, to drive 100 miles.

Actually it was drive 100 miles, get stuck in traffic for a solid hour at a walking pace, see some beautiful scenery, and finally end up slightly lost.

Yes, we had GPS.  But we had been there before.  We also knew where we were going, but like the saying goes “Not all who wander are lost”.

While I’m dropping the old hackneyed sayings, sometimes the journey is the destination.

Plus I really do like going for a ride in the car.

Next time, we bring Rack, I promise.

You see, Craig came down.  He’s a great friend.  We have known each other for years now, probably safe to say decades.  Knowing he’s from up North, way up North actually, and had never been South of Orlando before, I had to get him to touch toes to the Keys.

I know of a great restaurant down there.  We all do if we go there enough, so I’ll save its name.   Why am I not telling you?  Take me there and I will, but it was crowded enough.  It sits just on the South side of the key, on the water, in a cove.  Ok, so I have described about half of the restaurants in the Keys, from Key West to Key Largo and every place in between, haven’t I?

Good.

You’re looking at the view I had for lunch on Sunday.  I purposely put my arm on the railing, in the sun.  Just the right one.  I wanted a little bit of tan.   I can still see one arm darker than the other a couple days later, and I wasn’t looking to sit on a beach. 

We sat there, I had my Fish and Chips (Mahi Mahi, actually), and a bottle of some rather excellent beer, and some incredible conversation with Craig, Kevin, the waitress, and some of the surrounding tables.  There was, typical to the Keys, plenty of things to watch that were natural.  Just below us were some small fish, and a fish I kept calling a Grouper.  It could have been a Grouper, but might not have been.  That doesn’t matter, it would have made a great meal for two from the size of it. 

The children around us were thankfully well behaved, and I have no doubt that the waitress would have followed the instructions of the sign on the bar “Loose or Unattended Children will be fed to the Tarpon”.

Keep your kids quiet, and at your table.  No matter how much you love them, others will find them annoying.

But we sat there taking in a 2 hour lunch watching the boats come in.  This was one of those places that while you’re enjoying the jazz brunch, debating whether the singer is lip synching or not, and having fun telling R-Rated stories to the waitress, time goes on around you.  I’m not the kind of person who is used to sitting tight for a meal, I tend to be one of the first to finish and one of the first to want to leave.  But for once I was content to sit there and watch the little boats come by. 

Lucky dogs on that one there.  There were two.  One stayed with the owners, the other got bored and went back to the boat and curled up under the shade.  I’m with the dog, it would have been a great place to kick your feet up and watch things go by, slowly, at the Keys pace.

Having finished our main course, the waitress brought Craig a slice of Key Lime pie, and another waitress and the Jazz Singer to sing him a happy birthday while he sat there under the umbrella, smiling away.

You have to admit, if you’re going to take two hours to get to lunch, sit in a 20 mile backup, and have lunch by the water, this was a great way to do it.

So, Craig, if you’re looking for something to do on your next birthday, I know a great restaurant, by the water, with an amazing waitress, good food, interesting lip syncing or singing (we’re not completely sure), and an entertaining view.

We’d like to have you back.  Besides, it gives me an excuse to take a good friend to a jewel that I won’t readily tell people where it is.

Who’s Vacation Is It Anyway?

When I lived in Philadelphia people would ask: “When’s the last time you went to see the Liberty Bell?”.

Normally when I heard someone respond they’d say “Oh back when I was a kid” or “A couple years back”.

I did go to see it from time to time.  I have a great picture somewhere, probably lost to the ages, of someone walking behind it so that it looked like The Bell was walking somewhere.

I guess you had to be there.

But that’s the thing.  The Locals don’t do these sorts of things. 

Oh sure, I was at The Rocky Steps, the Art Museum Steps in Philly, many times.  It was a great place to cool down when I had a race or was just out training.  It’s also a great place to rub shoulders and meet up with friends, or friends to be.  But to go TO the Rocky Steps to do that run up them?  Nah.  The Art Museum in Philadelphia is a totally different thing, a world class museum of Art that if you’re there, you should go see it.  I did… Back when I was in High School.

Get the picture? 

Now that I’ve been here 9 years, I’m starting to grow roots.  Some of them are quite deep, the others may just be a bit grey, but they’re sinking in.  I’m beginning to make those comments about my adopted home city of Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale area in general.

“The Beach?  Floridians don’t go there except in their car to look at it.  It’s pretty but it’s just full of tourists!”

“South Beach is a nice place to go for a meal but it’s such a hassle to get there.  You can drive through it though and look like you’re in an episode of Miami Vice or Grand Theft Auto!”.

“The Keys?  You have to do it at least once, that drive to Key West, but be careful.  It could last anywhere between 4 to 12 hours to get to Key West.  I heard once there was a fender bender in the island just above Key West and the traffic didn’t clear for two whole days!”

You know, those comments “Locals” say when they have been there a while.

So add to it the general “Nice” factor and you know what I am going through this week.

“Whaddya wanna do?”
“I dunno, what do YOU want to do?”

Then suggestions are made, the nay sayers are heard, and eventually something happens to the day.

Nice to have a day to “kill” anyway, right?  You’re in paradise, the sun is bright, the weather is warm, the Everglades are burning because the wet season paused.

Oh that last one happens around this time of year.  You see things dry up and burn out there on the river of grass.

But yeah, you’ll see it.  We can go for a drive there.  Hit Federal Highway and maybe drive down to the Keys if it’s not backed up. 

Rack in a Sleepover Cage

I’m not sure what to call these boxes.  I do know that leaving my boy at the rather excellent Dr Glass’ Family Pet Center in Fort Lauderdale was not done by my first choice of what to do this morning. 

But I really didn’t have a choice.

The thing is, that it was the best choice for him.  It also was a bit of a shock how it came to happen.

When they tell you that the mouth, dog or human, is one of the most dirty places around, believe it.

I’m having house guests this week.   My buddy from Atlanta, Craig and his dog Katie have arrived.

We went through all the normal precautions of how to introduce two dogs.   Both dogs were medicated with “Doggy Downers” so they were “toned down”.  Katie was let in our back yard after a 10 hour drive here.  She was feeling off, so we introduced Rack to her while on his leash.  She didn’t seem to care, so eventually we let Rack and Katie run free.   For a good half hour they were acting Normal.  Running around, sniffing, peeing, doing normal dog things.  We had no reason to expect otherwise.

When we all came into the house, after about an hour, Katie started coming out of it and Rack went off to his corner.

Then when he went to get a drink, Katie nipped his back leg.

Rack didn’t even  really react other than my running over, separating the dogs, and sending them to neutral corners. 

After 10 hours in the car, Katie had had enough of today.

By the next morning, this morning, Rack was tender from the bite.  We got him to the Vet and found he had been running a fever and was put on antibiotics and a saline drip.

Not too much more to tell.  It’s mid afternoon, my dog is probably in a really weird alternate universe.  We got a muzzle for Katie, a Gentle Leader for her, and some instructions to Craig on how to do some training exercises. 

I’ve got another hour before I can find anything else out.

Goodbye Betty

These days you get news differently. 

I remember when Mom was alive, we had a hard and fast rule.  Stay off the phones after 9pm.   That was when the phone was reserved for important family business. 

When she finally went, it was years before I relaxed.  Still to this day if the phone rings after 9pm, I jump.

Now it’s social media.

That’s how we found out that my Aunt Betty passed away.  She was a week before her 96th birthday so I guess you could say she went because of that.  “Being 96”.

What you will never know is how powerful that woman was.  She was a character.  Put the three sisters together in a room and you were due to have a tornado of strength going on.  You knew where you stood with her, my mom, and my other Aunt Millie as a result.

Do something they didn’t agree with, they would tell you.  You’d eventually realize they were right, and you’d eventually tell them so.  Its pretty much the way things were.

Betty would come down to her condo in Century Village for the coldest months and having her there, in easy reach, was a blessing.  It meant that I could come up for random visits.  Of course those places were gated communities so a “drop in” was always a planned event.

We’d go out for our favorite “bad Chinese” food, run a few errands, and do other things which generally meant enjoying each other’s company.  She had made the transition from Matriarch to Good and Trusted Friend decades before, and that was great with both of us.

Once in a while, we’d get to discussing things in general and one of us would get onto food.  Our family was very food centered.  Visits to any of the houses meant these large productions centered around too much food, loud conversations, and the extended families meshing in the house.

I can still picture that oven of hers in the house in Woodhaven Queens stuffed with tray after tray of foods, the counters crammed with dishes yet to be cooked or cooling, and every square inch of that little kitchen stuffed with people rubbing elbows.   There would be a card game going on in the bedlam at some point, and she taught me how to play with the best of them.

“How about a game of Continental?” would be heard and we would settle in as the oven finally cooled well after dark.

But this time the food got moved.  I had gotten to talking about the roasts we made.  The beef was prime bottom round.  We did that up “Old School” in a roasting bag with vegetables and made up a Port Wine Gravy that was so good that I would freeze the stuff up and dole it out sparingly for months.  Every bit of that roast was used with care.  Other than slices for dinners and sandwiches, the bits and scraps and other detritus that fell off the thing would be made into Cornish Pasties, Pot Pies, and other specialties for weeks.

That was when I heard Betty say “Oh that sounds goooood!”.  I knew she was hooked.  She had a certain tone to her voice which turned it into an unsaid question of “You are going to make that for us aren’t you?”.

Of course we did.  It just took time.  Logistics.  You had to go to one of the few proper old line Butcher Shops here in Broward County and put in an order for just the right cut.  Not Choice, but Prime beef.  If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.

We had to go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of Port.  That one, the one in the black bottle.

We got started using Port as a whim of mine.  It started with “Cheap Red Wine” as it said in the recipe, but we had run out, and the only thing remotely red was some horrible wine that was more vinegar than anything else and my cherished Port.  “Try it!” and it was good.  We never looked back.

The Port went in the roasting bag with onions, carrots, celery and potatoes.  If you never had roasted potatoes and carrots cooked in Port Wine, you are missing something truly wonderful.  The Port complements the carrots and enhances their sweetness and the potatoes are melt in your mouth good.

Can you tell we don’t do this for just anyone?

Betty was looking out the window as she helped us get the roast into the oven.  We suggested a glass of Port by the pool.  She loved the idea and for every visit from that point on we gave her a generous glass of the stuff.  I broke out the bottle of the good stuff, the roast didn’t need this.  This was a bottle of vintage port from a California vintner that after we got the bottle at discount learned that it was selling for over $250 a bottle.  Stock up!

Smooth as silk, it’s called “The Ruby Relaxer” by butlers everywhere and this was some of the best.

She settled in on the side of the pool, breathed in the jasmine scented air, and sipped the glass of red warmth in pleasure.

“Oh Bill!  This is wonderful!  It’s Bee-you-tee-ful out here!” 

Yes, she said it like that: “Bee You Tee Full!”.  Her first language was Italian, and she learned English before hitting elementary school, but if you listened closely, there was the tiniest hint of it still decades later.

But she was right.  It was bee you tee full.  We sat outside under the umbrella, getting up occasionally to check in on the roast.

One point we were outside and heard a hum and a thump.  This being FPL territory and my having lived here for 9 years, I knew what happened.  There was a transformer nearby that blew.  Power was out and there was a roast sitting in the oven. 

While I prefer a rare roast, this was still a wee bit early by thermometer but not much.  Maybe 15 minutes worth.  We closed the door on the oven and gave it that time. 

Part of the preparation of this feast was that you remove the vegetables from the roasting bag, after removing the roast and let it “rest”.  That allows the roast to have the internal temperatures equalize.  It’s a good practice for any cut of meat when they’re over an arbitrary thickness.  We placed the roast back in the oven although it was for all intents and purposes done at Medium Well instead of Well Done. 

It was this meal that got me hooked on making this dish by temperature in the future.  I don’t care for Well Done as much as most.

But how to make the gravy?  We weren’t going to waste all that Port Wine and Beef Drippings and the onions that sweetened it.  The next step was to pour it all into a blender, smooth it out, and then reduce it on the burners on the grill in the backyard if we had to.

Power was still out but I had a flash.  “Hey, doesn’t your car have a 110V outlet in the back from an inverter?”

Yes.  This meal was going to be finished by making the gravy in the trunk of a car.

“Back your car up to the carport, pop open the back!  We will make the gravy in the car!”

Betty was still out back.  She was unaware of the drama.

The car got moved in place, and I heard the blender fire up.  After a while the gravy was brought back inside.

“Now what?”

On cue, we heard the power snap back on.  The oven had to be turned off, and we fired up all four burners under the roasting pan to quickly reduce the gravy.

True to form this was an amazing meal.  Betty enjoyed it so much that she asked to take some home with her for later.

“I’m glad you liked it.  Did you know what happened while you were out back?”

I told her the story and said “Yes, your gravy was made in the back end of a car!”

A one of a kind meal for a one of a kind woman. 

We all will definitely miss her. 

When I got the news from her daughter, Darlene, I was floored.  I was expecting it.  Our birthdays are two weeks or so apart.  I thought something was up when I didn’t get a birthday card from Betty.  The last one was waylaid since it went to the Fort Lauderdale P.O and then back to Long Island.  I was hoping it was something like this but I somehow knew it wasn’t.

We heard that she was in a hospital, and that she was recovering from an illness.  Things were touch and go.  If anyone could beat “this” it was Betty.

But she couldn’t beat “Being 96”.  She was lucid to the end, had a long life full of love, family, and friends. 

Hacking the Morning’s Coffee at One Gram to the Ounce

Riding around town with a good friend I was told a story about office coffee.

The thing about office coffee is that to a self proclaimed Coffee Geek, it’s almost always not quite right.  Offices are falling into the whole automatic coffee brewing “solutions” these days.  Controlled amounts of water, controlled amounts of grounds, controlled brands, all into a controlled machine.

You’re locked in.

Now, that’s great if you like the stuff. 

I’m listening to my friend, nodding, making the per-requisite happy noises.  “Mmm Hmm”.

I hear “But some people are complaining it’s weak!”.

My response is out of the box as usual.  “The best hamburger is one you make at home, no matter how good that burger is out at the restaurant.”.

Huh?

At home, you control the ingredients.  Black Angus Beef?  80% lean?  Onion powder or other spices?  Egg for binders?  “Meat, Heat, and Eat”?

That last one is my favorite.  Add spices or salt to my burgers, and you had better have served beer BEFORE the meal so it hits me on an empty stomach and I relax a bit. 

I hate a salty burger!

But the point is that if you take the time to make a burger yourself, you are controlling the meal and the experience.  You are taking the time out to figure out how you like the burger.  It may not even be a burger and be all “Meat Substitutes” made out of tofu and soy protein.  That’s great, because it will be what YOU like.

That particular office has some people who love the coffee there, and sizable minority who are muttering about how weak it is.

“Maybe they’re used to espresso at home?”

I explained that there is a gold standard for brewing American Coffee.  Assuming your water is pure, which is a given in the US even from the tap here in South Florida, and your coffee is something that you like, there is a set amount of grounds to start out with.

One gram of coffee grounds per ounce of boiling water into a brew.

You already decided “how” you will be making your coffee, and that choice effects flavor.  A French Press is my preferred method, and that means I will get more coffee oil in the cup.  That also means my cup will be more complex than someone who does a “drip into Filter” method. 

Turkish coffees are boiled in a little bucket that are placed on the heat and then poured off carefully but some grounds always get into the cup along with some of the spices and all of that precious coffee oil.

Espresso has the oil too, and it is brewed via pressure with much less water to coffee grounds.

The point with that is that there are different ways to make the coffee, but here in the US, you expect a certain strength at the start.

Then you change things around per taste.

I explained that these people are probably the ones who consider themselves Connoisseurs of coffee.  They may come from a background with a tradition of a certain taste of the brew.

They would be the person who I would expect to put care into the drink.  They’ve got their own way of doing things that work for them.

The whole Office Coffee experience is all about putting caffeine into a body so you can get more productivity out of them.  That’s why offices keep coffee there.  Your manager decided it’s a great way to keep you motivated at 2PM instead of your nodding off.

“Hey, go get him some coffee, he’s half asleep!”

But the coffee itself?  Check the net weight of the grounds, and how much water are used.  It should be 1 gram to the ounce.

That got into another conversation.  I explained that I have a scale that is accurate to the gram, and while it sounds overkill, certain baking recipes (as opposed to cooking things like roasts and such) are very fussy.  Bread dough is effected by the humidity in the air, and since Florida has high humidity just like anywhere on the Seaboard of any country, that humidity changes the way you bake.  Same thing about desert climates, or living up a mountainside.

You just don’t get a good rise of dough if your flour is too moist because there’s a Tropical Storm a-brewin’ outside and the A/C is down.

So good dough recipes are measured in percentages relating to the weight of the flour.  Flour is 100%, water is 80% or 60% depending on the purpose of the recipe. 

Then you do the math for the other ingredients.  Weigh out 300 grams of flour, then calculate the weight of the water, then salt, yeast … so forth.

I told my friend to bring a measuring cup and a scale to work and see what he could do. 

Instead he gave me a couple coffee “samples” and asked me to weigh them.  11 Grams of Grounds per “pod”.  He should start with 11 ounces of water.

Unless you’re making Espresso, and that’s an entirely different game.

It’s one of those things that you never thought about.  But when you do think about it, there are more layers to that particular onion than you considered.

Pass me a couple of the Kona packets since you want my input.  I love a good cup of Kona…