109 West Palm Beach, FL: August in a City

West Palm Beach, Florida: August in a City

By February, I could wrangle a long weekend off of work, and I headed someplace warm and not near other towns with a Hopper. I got to West Palm Beach in the early morning, before the heat rose for the day. I knew it would rise because the town felt more like a Western desert town than a Southeastern shore one. The city was broad, flat, and sandy, riddled with piney scrub. Newts scurried across the soft, unstable ground. Parallel two-lane highways ran north-south through town, dotted with one-story stucco bungalows whose dusty lawns were lined with bougainvillea, gladiolas, and other brightly-flowered bushes.

Sixty-seven miles north of Miami, West Palm Beach (called by the locals simply "West Palm") is the largest city in one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. Donald Trump called the city's main drag, Clematis Street , the "hottest street in South Florida." Clematis was lined with Art Deco theaters like you might see in Hopper's paintings. The department stores had been converted into boutiques, cafés, and bars, including an "oxygen bar," and the Respectable Street Café--the antithesis of Hopper's cafes.

A chain coffee store was the only populated place when I arrived in the early morning and pulled up just behind a BMW with "Palm Beach Polo" license plate holders. Though the temperature already pushed eighty degrees, the reedy blond woman who emerged wore a sweater draped around her shoulders.

At a round table out front, an odd collection of people had congregated. Three older, gray-haired men (perhaps some of the influx of retirees) faced a young man, a young woman, and a middle-aged cop. One older man with his back to me wore a gold wristwatch and studied the newspaper. The girl wore a white T-shirt, and smoke from her cigarette wafted into the thick hair piled behind her head. The young man's beefy arms poked out from his gray sleeveless T-shirt and sunglasses rested atop his slicked-back hair; he also smoked, while nervously tapping his sandal. The policeman's standard-issue buzz cut seemed superfluous since he was balding. He looked an interesting mix of salty and jolly. His badge read, "Tim, serving since 1971." I asked him as someone who had to intervene in all parts of town what kind of city it was.

He whistled, "I've seen a lot of change. This town used to be filled with pineapple plantations. Was a sleepy town when I first came here fifty years ago. Started as the servants' quarters for the people in Palm Beach. It was seasonal to the point that a lot of people laid off the workers and just closed down during the off-season. It's a big city geographically. There's all kinds of neighborhoods."

"Downtown West Palm Beach," he continued, "was the retail district. Then in the past eight years, they revived it into the club district." He smirked and raised a hand to the streetscape. "As you can see." He pointed to three different street corners from his chair, each home to a chain store. "Those all used to be movie theaters, when I was a kid growing up."

"What's your most common call?" I asked him.

"'Disturbances:' domestic, among neighbors. My other most common call is for water violations. We're under water restrictions now for watering gardens, washing your car. People narc on their neighbors. Where are you visiting from?"


"I'm from Racine, Wisconsin," the youngest man roared, shifting the sunglasses atop his oiled hair.

"I'll bet you're happy to be here instead, now that it's February," I joked.

"Aww," he snarled, "it's a typical East Coast town: from shacks to mansions; land to sea. I'm thinking of moving back to Racine, even though my dad called and said they got 15 inches of snow. I miss the four seasons."

"They're coming to the local theater," the cop quipped. "I'm serious," he said when we all turned quizzical looks to him. "Check your paper."

The man with the newspaper checked and, showing us the ad, said with an Australian accent that surprised me to hear, "No, I'm afraid, that's Smokey Robinson."

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