“You married today, honey?” The bartender gestured toward the Shalimar Chapel behind me. Or that’s what I think he said. It was hard to decode his thick Cuban (I assume) accent. Nor did the standard “reality check question verifier” work; I had no idea whether it was or wasn’t likely for a bride to drink alone on a Saturday afternoon in a bar across the lobby from her wedding. So I gave a noncommittal nod and ordered a Cuban sandwich and an aptly named cocktail, “La Periodista.”
From my perch on a Toca conga-drum bar stool, I could see the wedding chapel, the street, the bar and the kitchen. Happy in every direction.
For a long time, I sat on that drum and watched the ebb and flow of weddings. They came in. They came out. It was like drinking at the beach. Maybe that’s why it’s called the Florida Café.
I kid. Its full name is “Florida Café: Cuban Bar and Grill.” Emphasis on Cuban. Speaking of which, did you know that conga drums originated in Cuba? Or that, according to its website, the Toca brand was designed to “provide the ‘Afro-Cuban’ sound”? But what’s great for authenticity isn’t best for comfort. There are no good foot rests on a musical instrument.
Looking to the street, I admired the sheer American-spirit optimism of placing a table on the patch of cement between the café and Las Vegas Boulevard. Cars zoomed past, causing a mojito advertisement to tremor in their wake (or so it seemed). Now that’s the audacity of hope.
Recognizing the owner in a flashy black T-shirt, I asked, “Where’s your white suit?” He thought I said, “Where’s your wife?” Hilarity ensued, especially considering he was single and we were mere feet from a chapel.
“Is the party happening tonight, too?” I asked, changing the subject. Yes, and he wanted to know if I was going to come. Maybe.
Back to wedding watching. Occasionally, bridesmaids would wander through the restaurant to the bathroom. Wait, is that a pregnant bride? I had nobody to share the joke with. Alone, I thought back to Emily and my only other trip to the Florida Café.
“Day drinking. Saturday. Meet me at the Florida Café inside the HoJo.”
I assumed HoJo was some one-off hotel/wedding chapel/watering hole. Turns out I was right, except for the “one-off” part. As Google soon revealed, “HoJo” is short for Howard Johnson, the beloved icon of Americana.
White limos and Easter dress-wearing pedestrians blocked the entrance. Finally inside the lobby, I pushed through two more wedding parties to get to the bar.
Emily was already sipping a mojito. As a tribute to my favorite “Cuban” author, I ordered the “Daiquiri par Hemingway.” How cute, I thought, they translated the word “daiquiri” into Spanish. Little did I know that daiquiris are Cuban (gracias, Wikipedia).
Emily ate a Cuban sandwich, and we enjoyed the sunny afternoon, a treat since most bars are more light-tight than a vampire’s coffin.
Eventually, two Dominican men sat next to us. They went on and on about this thing in the back room that we just had to see. Now I may not have lived in Vegas long, but I know not to fall for that proposition.
Finally the guys called over the owner (I knew him by his pristine white suit) and had a conversation with him in Spanish. It ended in the owner leading us all to this fabled back room, which turned out to be a nightclub.
It was only 4:30 p.m., but the place was on fire: laser lights, fog machine, Spanish rapper onstage next to a ladder and vacuum cleaner. About 10 people watching in the blinking darkness. It felt like walking inside an Atari game. Emily and I spun around on the empty dance floor under the mirror ball.
That was Emily’s last day in town. My beloved bar companion is gone now. Perhaps it was ironic that I was sitting across from a wedding chapel, having lost a friend due to separation. Or is that status quo? Like most people in this city of transient commitment, she moved away.
Without Emily, I was much too conspicuous. And a little lonely. Finally, I texted her that I was at the Florida Café.
“Jealous. With who?” she responded.
I guess. The Spanish, the upbeat music, the painted cumulous cloud sky. The happy vibe. The Cuban sandwiches and conga drums. None of it shone as brightly without her.