Michael Brennan remembers a crazy time and a crazier encounter.
I was, this past Easter weekend haunted by the Ghosts of Spring Break Past, and while ruminating over my many youthful misadventures I unlocked this unusual remembrance.
I have lived in New York City for almost 30 years, but I grew up in Florida and spent many knuckleheaded nights below Spanish Moss. I am both embarrassed and prideful of this period in equal amounts. I have sometimes found that when I reluctantly tell my old Florida tales, people often ask me for more.
My cosmopolitan friends are fascinated by my impossible stories of cockatoo cops and robbers riding unicycles over high wires, firing revolvers, and putting out imaginary house fires, as my dad sipped free Michelob beer at the old Busch Gardens outdoor pavilion. It feels like revisiting a lost world—a more rustic Florida, something of a frontier with wilder, unregulated attractions that of course no longer exists.
I once declaimed I would not lower myself to discuss the deadly fall-off-the-hotel-balcony nonsense that’s known as Spring Break in Florida. It’s colossally stupid— thousands of pale college students migrating southwards for Spring Break, to all the worst beaches, for corporate institutionalized and peer-witnessed partying. On the other hand, I was the victim of that a few times myself—so who am I to judge? The swell of youth gathering can be irresistible. Still, Spring Break was for amateurs, I went to the University of Florida where it was Spring Break everyday. Now I live in Brooklyn and am more of a water sipper.
One time, because I had no judgment, I found myself in Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break. I may have been conscripted for a bachelor party—I remember drinking Canadian whiskey for the first time with some Homestead lads. This was long before the numerous Spring Break bans that later took place in Ft. Lauderdale, and the pre-premature death of college basketball star Len Bias. Everyone noticed a distinct downturn in partying at UF post-Len Bias. He was in death a more effective drug deterrent than Nancy Reagan was in life. Crack emerged in Gainesville FL at this juncture—it was called “rock” locally and carried in shoes. With the introduction of “rock,” the drug scene took a seriously dark turn for everyone. Suddenly all recreational drugs were factory processed.
Anyway, I remember frivolity at The (once world famous) Button in Lauderdale, and at some point it was time to leave—closing time. Jay, my purveyor of Canadian and I were sitting on some benches, facing the ocean at 5:00 a.m. There were benches across the street facing us as well, but the view from those was just cookie-cutter condos. There was also a broad sidewalk on the other side, and a causeway, large enough to accommodate both pedestrians and bikers alike.
It was a quiet night. My friend and I passed the bottle of Canadian, sipped, and listened to the sound of the ocean.
It wasn’t too long before somebody came along and disturbed our ‘Wa’—our peaceful state of being. There were two guys, both about 40, across the street from us wearing guayaberas. They bumped into each other on the causeway. One came from the North side. One came from the the South side. They recognized each other immediately and began tossing insults back and forth at each other. Hands were shot straight up into the air and pumped up and down in exclamation. I had s years of academic Spanish, so I knew enough to recognize their curse words.even
Almost right away these two start going at it, physically, each locked both hands on the other guy’s collar. They were tussling, spinning around, cursing like mad. They were equally matched, so nobody hit the sidewalk. Nobody gained any advantage, and they both got winded after 2-3 minutes of this exchange. Once tired, they both let go, and each one backed off, hunched over, walking away in reverse, still facing their opponent, lobbing obscenities. And then they were gone, out of sight. They disappeared into their respective vanishing points.
We shook our heads at this sad comedy, passed the Canadian, and reveled in the cool, quiet, Atlantic air. The black of the night was just shifting towards blue.
About 20 minutes later both guys returned. The guy on the left had a black revolver in his hand. It looked like a snub-nosed .38—a “Saturday Night Special.” The guy on the right was storming forwards; he had a Zippo lighter in one hand and a long paper stick in the other. The stick was a roman candle.
I always liked roman candles. They were my favorite item in the gigantic “Robert E. Lee” box of fireworks my Dad purchased every year while driving through South Carolina. I liked that out of all the different types of fireworks, roman candles offered the most sustained joy, and they were not just a single instantaneous pop like most other fireworks.
Roman candles remind me, the first novel I ever bought on my own volition—or at least it felt that way—was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I always liked this famous passage:
[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!
What’s not to like in that hi-octane passage? I bought On The Road at age 16 at a bookstore on South St., in Philadelphia. After I purchased the book, a heavyset, drama teacher type behind the register slid the book across the counter, cocked her head back to the left side, and shot me a stare from above her Ben Franklin bifocals, then she dramatically brayed “THE FIRST OF A GENRE!!!” She slapped her hand down upon the face of Kerouac, and gave me raised eyebrows—something of an “are you worthy?” look. She was a Beat Inspector General.
Back in Ft. Lauderdale, the two guys stood about 20 paces apart. Jay and I feared that this was now too one-sided a fight. We were alarmed but we did not know what to do. We knew it was probably safer to remain still and invisible on the bench. I fully expected the man on the right to be dead within a minute.
The man on the right lit his roman candle and pointed it towards the guy on the left. Mr. Left pulled up his revolver, stretched out his arm and aimed it squarely at Mr. Right. Left cocked the trigger. At this point, colored fireballs were spitting from the tip of the Right’s roman candle. Right had to adjust the pitch of his aim in order to get the falling arc of the burning balls just right. It did not take long because each sphere acted as its own tracer through space.
Mr. Left fired his gun. He shot three times quickly in succession. Nothing happened besides gun smoke. He fired again. Nobody dropped. It turns out Mr. Left was firing a starter pistol. He was just shooting blanks. Shooting blanks and cursing while burning colored balls bounced off of his cheeks…red…white…then blue.
Left was getting angry. He put the gun in his belt, and scrubbed his face with both hands, quickly up and down, like a cartoon squirrel washing his face. This went on for another minute or so. Left’s hair and guayabera were getting scorched. He finally started shielding his face, elbow cornered out, like Dracula. He did not retreat. Right was advancing slowly, but his weapon was nearly spent. They were only about ten feet apart when they both ran out of ammunition. As soon as the smoking roman candle went dark they both departed, retreating again while facing each other, each shouting black curses at the opposition.
Show’s over folks, the sun was coming up, Jay and I left for breakfast. For all the stupidity of this scene, I think I do now appreciate the fact that these guys were able to confront each other without killing—they might’ve been family, I don’t really know. Fake guns are color coded nowadays, usually at the tip. I really was expecting to see a murder that night. I was happy that did not happen. Was there any lesson to be had? Never bring a gun to a roman candle fight.