THE FLORIDA HANDLE CON
By David Arthur Walters
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 2004
I loved Kansas City but it was boring indeed so I made reservations at a Ft. Lauderdale hotel and boarded a plane. I knew that Hurricane Jeanne was flirting with Florida when I made the hotel reservation, but the reservations clerk assured me I would have a room when I got there.
The beaches and other designated flood areas were being evacuated when I arrived at the airport. I called the hotel to announce that I would soon check in according to my reservation.
“What reservation?” the desk clerk asked.
“The one I made yesterday, with Maria.”
“We have no record of the reservation.”
“Let me speak with Maria.”
“Maria is no longer with us.”
“I made the reservation with her,” I persisted. “Please give me a room at the special rate.”
“Sorry, the special offer expired.”
“That’s not fair. I made the reservation and am entitled to the special rate.”
“Sorry, the hotel is full because of the hurricane – Good Bye, Sir,” the clerk hung up.
First impressions are important to me: I was tempted to return to Kansas City instead of relocating to Ft. Lauderdale as planned. But I courageously forged ahead, hailing a cab outside the airport, and instructed the cabbieto take me to a reasonably priced hotel. He seemed to be driving around in a big circle – the cab fare was mounting beyond my budget, so I put his feet to the fire. He said he knew just the place for me, a motel often used by his relatives from the islands.
The so-called Days Inn, at 1700 West Broward in Ft. Lauderdale, was filling up fast with hurricane refugees despite its dilapidated condition. I soon heard that the motel had been purchased by seldom-seen Russians, who were holed up in an apartment at one end of the top floor; they had left the “Days Inn” sign up although they did not have the right to use the name, said my informant, an obviously disgruntled employee.
The neighborhood was not so good.I was accosted by panhandling hustlers the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the motel. I returned to my room and called a realtor about an apartment. He was not in, so I left a message for him to call the Days Inn on Broward. He returned the call; he said he had hesitated calling me back given the "sort of neighborhood" I had called from, and he bemoaned the fact that "tourists have to drive thru there on the way to the beach." Well, it was obviously a bad neighborhood, but it did not look that bad, I thought.But what did I know?
I had arrived at the hotel a little less than two days before the hurricane hit. I was being charged $50 a night. My next-room neighbors, a family of four who arrived a day later, were paying a mere $30 per night for the lot of them. They must have had good connections, or I was a sucker, or perhaps the Puerto Rican bus driver from New York who headed the family was a lot smarter than the rest of us. Another guest, a single, white woman from Ft. Lauderdale's beach, was being charged $100 per night; she said her safety was worth $100 even though the place was "tacky." A single female tourist was being charged $60 per night. She was furious, so I advised her to go to the front desk and politely mention the gouging law. She got her rate reduced. I later chiseled my own rate down to $40 per night. I don't know what the millionaire who checked in at the last minute was paying, and I still wonder how much money the five winosraised to throw a hurricane party in their room on the first floor. A local television station broadcast informed the public that it was illegal to gouge people during hurricanes or to force employees to come to work – that was news to me.
Our ability to pay rent naturally attracted several panhandlers from the neighborhood. The chief scrounger, whom we called 'Big Mama', knocked on doors, asking for canned food, cigarettes, beer and spare change. She barged right into the rooms without knocking when occupants left their doors open so they could get air after the electricity went off, casing the rooms for her friends while begging. She tried to get the millionaire to give her a ride, to somewhere "over there, not far from here," but the rich man’s spouse shooed her away.
I walked downtown the morning after I arrived, and got myself a bagel at Einstein’s. I was impressed by the beauty of the women there. Most of them sported long hair, and all of them had very large breasts; widespread phenomena I had not experienced in Kansas City. I strolled about the city, liking the looks of it too: the library, the canals and the like.
I checked out a couple of apartments. The rent was expensive compared to Kansas City. Instead of the first month free and $100 deposit required that I was familiar with, one had to have two month’s deposit plus first month’s rent to move in.I stopped by a fast food joint for a burger on the way back to the motel. The line was very long since it was one of the few places still open. I checked out the customers: lots of cheerful black people, many of them overweight; obviously homeless persons, some with half-pint bottles; young Hispanics engaged in strident conversations; - mostly people who could not afford to get the hell out of town.
Ft. Lauderdale airport was shut down at teno’clock in the morning before the storm hit. I went downstairs to the tiny 'lobby' - one chair, a TV, a table - to get a free cup of coffee. The 'Continental Breakfast' advertised had been cancelled because donuts and bread had not been delivered due to the hurricane scare. Despite the increased cash flow at the hotel, it did not occur to a member of the staff to walk one block up Broward and buy some donuts from the Dunkin' Donuts – the only place to eat within a mile of the motel that morning. So I walked over to Dunkin' Donuts and ordered a dozen donuts since a dozen were only a dollar more than a half-dozen, but then I changed my mind and bought the half-dozen.
"There is no way I can eat a dozen donuts," I explained to the young fellow behind the counter. We chatted for awhile. He said he was from Cuba, and was shocked by the lawlessness in America. He said he often feared for his life in the neighborhood. I recommended that he seriously consider returning to Cuba, where the streets are much safer. No, he said, the benefits he was receiving in America were a lot better that he got under Fidel.
Hurricane Jeanne put up quite a blow around the motel, but the damage was not severe. We lost cable TV right away; I learned how to use a coat hanger for an antenna, and then a long power cord stretched across the room. Then we lost power for a few hours. I was hunkered down in my room with the last two donuts and a bathtub full of water after the lights went out. I regretted my previous decision to get only a half-dozen donuts.
The howling of the wind gradually diminished. I heard girlish laughter outside, and water splashing. I stepped outside my room and beheld,in the early morning light,three lithesome, naked blondes getting out of the pool and jumping back into it with big splashes. The pool was filled with debris from the storm. On the previous day, I had noticed the water was covered with scum for lack of maintenance. I spoke with one of the lovely young ladies. She said they were “exchange students from Russia,” and were “working as maids in the hotel.”I said they should get bathing suits and go to the beach to swim in the ocean instead of swimming naked in the filthy pool. She said the owners would not let them leave the premises. I wondered what courses the exchange students were studying.
I ventured into the “lobby” to quibble over my bill. At least there was coffee. I waited my turn to talk to the desk clerk.
"We missed our plane yesterday morning! It was the last one out! We were trapped in our room during the hurricane!" complained a lady standing at the front desk. She was holding something metal in her hand. I took a close look at the object and recognized it as an inside door handle from a motel room. Her husband soon appeared, carrying suitcases.
"We did not get the wake-up call," he said gruffly, in a low tone of voice as if he were making an effort to control his anger. “I should have taken a chair and busted out the window,” he muttered under his breath.
"What time did you ask to be woken up?" asked the clerk, looking at his computer monitor.
"Well, we have that here. You should have received the call. I was not on duty then."
"But the phone did not work," his wife objected. "We were moved from a stinking room into a room we could sleep in. I asked the man on the desk to wake us up. When we woke up in the morning, late, I picked up the phone and it didn't work. It was seven-thirty already, and we were supposed to be at the airport by eight-thirty. We missed our flight. We had to wait out the storm, and it's your fault."
I believed her story about the phone. In fact my phone was out of order when I entered my room and tried to make a call. I complained right away and it was replaced with a phone from another room - perhaps the couple had gotten my original phone! As for the motel's telephone system on the whole, it was awful - my family and friends had found it nearly impossible to contact me.
"But you still had time to get to the airport," declared the desk clerk.
"Yes, but when we tried to leave the room, the door handle came off and we were trapped in the room!" the man said, clenching his fist on the front desk as his wife held the door handle up high.
"We tried to get out, pounded and yelled," explained the lady, "but nobody came until the maid let us out this morning, a day too late."
The clerk gave the couple full credit for their room. I spoke with him about after they left.
"It was a con," he said. "That man must have taken the handle off himself but I did not want to argue with him so I gave him credit."
"Well, if it was a con, they had me fooled," said I. "Why didn't you ask for some proof of their airline reservations? A ticket or something?"
"No, they would just say they didn't have a paper ticket."
"You could have called the airline and confirmed there was a reservation," I said.
"I didn't think of that. Maybe the next time. But we care not to argue with that kind. It is best just let them go on
"Yeah, there are a lot of crooks around Florida, and I suppose it is best not to argue with them all," I said, and finished my coffee. A friend of mine bailed me out of there shortly thereafter and took me to Sunny Isles, where I was persuaded that South Beach is a better place to be than Ft. Lauderdale.