The Palms of Hell

Last night was the night that I reached that moment in every family visit: the point where you look around and say, "this is my family?" and the whole situation just seems surreal. It's the moment that you realize how much you've all changed over the years, how many things that would make you insane if anyone but your family did them are going on around you, and how strange it is that these are the people who shaped your earliest years. I retreated to my room and read an interesting article in Texas Monthly about the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, along with a scary article about how terrorists could launch an attack in the Houston Ship Channel that would kill 10,000 people.

Merry Christmas - as the song stuck in my head all day says, the year has been good but days are just so.... well, today, I don' t know. My father and I did our usual Christmas Day drive. I could film this drive and I would call the result "From Target to Prada." Or maybe just "The Palms of Hell." This is what we do: we head south from the retirement-oriented spot where my folks live. This involves passing some very nice places, all nice in different ways, and some very scary places, all scary in different ways. Every time we take this drive, it ends in Palm Beach. Each year, it's a little more exciting, as my dad gets a little more distracted while driving. (My mother does not come along, and wouldn't take on the driving anyway, as she has decided to no longer make left turns.)

Palm Beach always looks like a movie set. Probably for a horror flick in which aliens or zombies or robots take over some upper class town by working their way through the social register. It's frighteningly orderly, with an incredible number of women who have their hair done up like battle helmets driving Bentleys. (Can hair crack up against leather headrests?)

On the other hand, the beachfront is quite nice. Unlike so many South Florida communities, they haven't turned their beach into a row of atrocious high rise condos; there's a well kept stretch of grass and sidewalks along the main street, and it tends to be filled with pedestrians. Being Palm Beach, it tends to filled with vacationing pedestrians with accents of unknown but vaguely European origin. And honestly, after a few days of seeing people in giant pickup trucks with confederate flags on them cutting off little old men in giant Cadillacs with New Jersey plates, there's something nice about being on foot and seeing Latin boys with pouty lips perched on benches by the beach, smoking their cigarettes in a world-weary way and looking bored behind their exquisite sunglasses and perfectly tousled hair.

When you cross back over the bridge into the city of West Palm Beach, you get to see the latest attempt to inject urban vitality into a decaying corpse. Dr. Frankenstein, now a city planner, is trying again, this time by redoing all of the downtown streets, with confusing signage that makes it completely unclear where you can turn and where you can't and whether you're about to drive into a ditch. Shockingly enough, the streets were empty of all signs of life. How did that happen? Just north of there, you can see the neighborhoods where the gay boys are turning former crackhouses back into delightful bungalows surrounded by flowering bushes.

But then it's back to real Florida - the unreal part - that is, a vast expanse of tract housing arranged in developments with names like "Captain's Cove" or "Seagrape Haven" or "Pelican Droppings," each lying behind a big gate with a guard house, but with convenient access to supermarkets, golf courses, and book/music superstores.

I know, just by looking at demographic data, that there is more to South Florida than this, but this place manages to hide it quite efficiently from visitors. In fifteen years of coming here I've never gotten more than a faint glimpse of something that felt like real life to me. Today, I did find decent Thai takeout, so I consider that a small victory for the forces of good in the world.

Tomorrow I will be in Fort Lauderdale visiting friends. Then Monday, mercifully, back to Houston.

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