Swiping Sweet 'n Low.
Early Bird Dinner With My Folks in Florida

by Mitch Lemus

Visiting from New York, I wallow in the heated pool of my parent's South Florida retirement community where a group of bathing cap clad seniors exchange their Early Bird dining experiences: places that offer good value, places that have gone downhill, places that are owned by the mafia, places that cater to those on low-cholesterol, low-sodium diets.

The pool is just one of 14 within Wynmoor Village, a 5,000 unit sterile condo complex situated on acres of exceptionally manicured grounds. Surrounding the entire community is an 8-foot wall, where rent-a-cops at the gate leer at me suspiciously, like they first did 12 years ago, when my folks fled Brooklyn.

As I sip water from the poolside fountain, an elderly woman approaches me. "Sonny, can you do me a favor? Go into the men's sauna and ask if there's a Sol Finkel inside. If he's in there, ask him when he's coming out. Tell him his wife Minnie needs him to drive her to the butcher. Would you be a nice young man and do that for me?"

At 4:30, my parents and I drive to nearby Century Village (a.k.a. Cemetery Village), to pick up their friends Murray and Evelyn Moskowitz who are joining us for Early Bird dinner. We will be dining at "Antonio's" in Deerfield Beach, normally a 10 minute ride via I-95. But my mother, who never learned to drive, has a morbid fear of highways, and insists my father take the streets. At age 74, this is probably not a bad idea. Yet, even on the streets, my father is oblivious to cars he cuts off, like the kid in the Camaro who flashes him the finger. After 45 minutes of stop-and-go traffic, we arrive at "Antonio's."

The restaurant is located in a strip mall, sandwiched between "PIP Printing" and a podiatrist's office with an overhead sign that simply reads "Podiatrist Office." My father steers his tank-size Mercury Marquis around the lot, but is not content unless he parks in the closest possible spot to the restaurant. We circle around and around past rows of late model Cadillacs, Buick Roadmasters and Oldsmobile Eighty-Eights. Finally, he catches someone pulling out, ultimately saving us a few steps.

"Antonio's," apparently one of the area's hotspots, is bustling with senior citizens. Bald men wearing checkered pants and white patent leather shoes. Women draped in gold accessories sporting stiff white hairdos.

"Hello, I'm Ronald, and I'll be your waiter this evening. Would anyone care for a drink?" All at the table shake their heads no.

"I'll have an Amstel, please."

"You know, beer is not included in the dinner," my mother whispers to me. "If you want beer, I'll buy you a bottle at the supermarket."

"But I want a beer now, with dinner."

"You can wait until we get home."

"Yes ... no?" asks the waiter.

"Yes, please," I say. My mother flashes me a look.

"I'll pay for it myself, OK?"

"Don't be such a big shot."

My parents study the menu as if they're picking stocks in which to invest their life savings. After several minutes, they begin calculating the options: With the Prix Fixe dinner they can get the filet of sole, plus salad and coffee for $7.95 per person. But if they order a la carte, the filet of sole is only $5.95, the coffee $1.25, the salad $2.50 -- but it's a large salad with tomatoes. However, if they share a salad, then substitute the French onion soup from the Prix Fixe menu for a $1.50 surcharge...

"Are you ready to order?" asks our waiter.

"We need a little more time," says my mother. The calculations resume for several more minutes, before my parents finally decide upon a "Consumer Reports Best Buy."

"What's the weather like in New York lately?" asks my father, who seems to have a never-ending fascination with the subject.

"Seasonal. You know, 30's, 40's."

"You must be freezing your tuchas off."

"No, it's OK."

"Well, looks like you brought the cold weather down with you. It's been sunny until now."

"They say it's going down to the 50's tonight, could you believe?" adds Evelyn.

"Speaking of cold, there's such a draft in here, you can lose your head yet. Please have them lower the air conditioning," my mother complains to the waiter. "Mitchell, put on your sweater, you'll catch a cold, yet."

The waiter says the air conditioning can't be lowered, but offers to move our table. We all get up and follow him to another area of the dining room. A busboy tags along with our bread basket and water glasses in tow.

"Sir! Excuse me, sir! These rolls are very hard," my mother tells the busboy.

"Rolls too haat?" repeats the busboy.

"Too hard," not "too hot," I try to clarify.

"Rolls too haat," nods the busboy, removing the bread basket. Minutes later he returns with a new basket of equally hard rolls at room temperature.

Finally ready to place our orders, Murray chooses the baked scrod, to which his wife comments, "Oh, no, you don't like that. You like it broiled."

"I want to try it baked."

"You're not going to like it, and you're going to be disappointed."

"How do you know?"

"I know you."

Murray changes his order.

"Is the Filet of Sole fresh?" my mother grills the waiter.

"Yes, ma'am, it's very good."

"Because if it's too fishy, I don't want it."

When the soup arrives, my mother sends it back, asking them to reheat it. She insists I send mine back too, but I assure her it's fine. Later in the meal, she informs the waiter that "The last time we were here, the portions were much larger." The waiter walks away rolling his eyes, and virtually ignores us for the rest of the evening.

"Generally, you really get a lot for your money down here," my mother says proudly. "Not like in New York. What do you pay when you go out to dinner at home?" she asks me.

"Let's just say the appetizer usually costs more than your entire Early Bird."

"My god, I don't know how you can afford -- or why you still want to live in that sewer. The crime, the dirt, the traffic ... it's such a nicer way of life down here," she gloats. "When you go on a date, do you go Dutch?"


"So what does it cost you? I bet $50 for the two of you?"

"If not more."

"What do they charge for the movies there now?" asks Murray.


"That's a crime," says Evelyn. We have the $2.00 movies on Tuesdays up in Boca. We just saw, ummm, ... oh what was the name of it? ... Mr. Gump, with that Bob Hanks fellow. Very enjoyable."

"I don't know. When your sisters were dating, they always went Dutch," says my mother.

"Well, maybe they dated losers."

"Didn't they go Dutch, Joe?" she asks my father.

"I don't recall."

"All the young girls today work. If they're so into this Womens' Lib thing, the entire cost of the date shouldn't have to come out of your pocket."

"Mom, what do you know? You haven't been on a date since the Roosevelt administration."

"Don't make me out to be such an old fuddy duddy."

"You know, Mitchell, we have a niece in New York," says Evelyn. "She's a very lovely girl. Would you like her number?"

"We'll, I don't know. What's she like?"

"She must be about 28 now, I suppose. The last time I saw her was about three years ago at my cousin Gertrude's son's Bar Mitzvah."

"Sure, get him her number. What does he have to lose?" says my mother.

"She lives in Manhattan, too. You're practically neighbors," quips Evelyn.

"Give her a call," coaxes my mother. "She's got to be better than those shiksas you meet in bars, or wherever it is that you run with your friends. Am I right Joe?"

After 40 years of marriage, my father knows better than to disagree with my mother, especially in public.

"Yes, it's about time he seriously considered settling down and starting a family," says my father, to my mother's approval.

"Does she have a rich father, Evelyn?" my mother asks.

After a brief pause, Murray says, "So Mitchell, I hear you work for IBM."

"No, not exactly. I work for an ad agency that creates advertising for IBM."

"Oh, really. I saw an item in the paper today that said IBM is going to build a computing machine factory in Singapore," he says. "If you want, I can clip it out for you."

"No thanks. I'm sure my office already knows."

"Everything is with these computers today. The typewriters with the TVs on top. It's a different world." All nod in agreement.

As dinner concludes, the waiter appears with our check, which my father microscopically inspects. "You have to be very careful, because they very often make mistakes." He alerts the waiter that the coffee should have been included in the price of their meal, and the bill is adjusted accordingly.

The bill comes to $44.35 plus tax and tip for the five of us. My father presents a coupon from the Pennysaver which entitles him to an additional two dollars off. Murray and my father each contribute their respective shares. My mother adds 3 dimes, a nickel and a penny from her change purse to make sure the bill is evenly split to the last cent.

The waiter delivers a doggie bag of leftover fish and string beans to my mother, who then wraps the uneaten rolls along with a handful of Sweet 'n Low packets in napkins, placing them in her purse. "This is for you for later," she tells me lovingly. I can't wait.

Actually, I couldn't wait. Having finished dinner at 6:30, I awake hungry in the middle of the night, and butter myself some of those hard rolls.

Me and my parents in Florida, 12/99.

This story is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Shirley and Joseph Lemus.

Copyright Mitch Lemus.

The Early Bird Ate My Brain - By Mitch Lemus