In memory of the life, love and wit of Carol Versandi
Whatcha Hungry For?
May 9, 2014
I know I've mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating.
My mother made friends everywhere she went.
I don't mean that figuratively.
She made friends EVERYWHERE.
She was very personable and very outgoing and very curious and occasionally very nosey. If a stranger was doing something curious or someone had an interesting look, my mother had no problem walking right up to them and asking them questions. In fact, my mom rarely had "conversations" in the traditional sense. Talking to my mom was more like an inquisition.
It was rapid fire questions…one after the next.
I used to joke with her that she wasn't really my mother.
That she wasn't really human. I would accuse her of being an alien sent here to gather as much information about earthlings as possible. And that every night, she would send transmissions back to her home planet about what she had learned.
I'm still not 100% certain that I'm wrong.
Seriously, when she met someone new, she inhaled their entire story.
It was fascinating to watch.
And for the most part, it was harmless and incident free.
But the problem was, my mom had no sense of self preservation.
No internal red flag alert system.
And no fear.
And sometimes, that had the potential to be disastrous.
A few years ago, my mom and I flew to Florida to meet up with my brother and his biological sister Tina. Tina's young daughter was having surgery at the Shriner's Hospital in Tampa, and we came down to show our support. Tampa is a nice city, but like any city it has it's good and bad areas. The Shriner's Hospital is located pretty much in the center of the city itself.
But since my mom and I wanted to be closer to the beach,
we opted to stay in Clearwater, which was about 45 minutes away.
A fairly easy drive. From Clearwater Beach it's just a straight shot over the Courtney Campbell Causeway (which passes right over the azure blue waters of Old Tampa Bay), down 589 and over to the 275 Expressway.
The only problem is, is that it does take you through one or two sketchy neighborhoods. Not really a big deal, just so long as you don't get out of your car and start asking questions.
But I was traveling with my mom, so it was possible things could go south.
We were only in town for four days.
The total commute time to and from the hospital was 90 minutes.
By my calculation, I only had to keep my mom distracted and focused on anything other then the bad neighborhoods for a grand total of 6 hours for the entire trip.
I was screwed.
The first day we made it to and from the hospital without incident.
She didn't see anything or say anything about wanting to stop anywhere.
The second day was a different story.
On the way to the hospital, we drove past what I'm sure the owner liked to consider a "Restaurant". But what it really was, was a broken down mobile home with a black cast iron smoker half buried in sand in the front "yard".
I hesitate to call it a yard…it was more like a 10' x 20' patch of ground that was
equal parts drive way, storage shed, seating area and outdoor bathroom.
With a big wooden sign with white painted letters that said "B-B-Q *GOOD FOOD* MEAT!" nailed to a tree.
There was also a deer pelt, a collection of Rosary beads, some old fishing poles,
a Coors sign and a steering wheel nailed to the tree.
For the sake of argument, let's just call it "art".
My mom, was of course, captivated. "Ohh Mikey, lets stop and get something to eat!", she said. I told her that it was only 9 o'clock in the morning and that they probably weren't open yet. Plus, by now we had driven past it and I didn't want to turn around. She said, "Ok, we'll stop on the way back to the hotel".
I was hoping she would forget about that place as the day went on,
but no such luck. As soon as we got to the hospital, my mom asked
Tina if she had ever eaten at that BBQ restaurant just before the
bridge, and if so, how was the food.
Now, let me just explain something…my mom was a very friendly and social person. Easy to get along with and fun to be around. But geography was never her strong point. She knew that Tina lived in Florida and she knew the BBQ place we just drove past was also in Florida, so naturally, she assumed Tina had eaten there.
It didn't matter that Tina actually lived in Vero Beach
which is about 140 miles away from Tampa.
It didn't matter that Tina had never been to Tampa before.
Nor did it matter that Tina was actually staying at the hospital with her daughter.
To my mom, the equation was simple.
Tina = Florida.
BBQ = Florida.
Tina + BBQ = Florida.
Anyway, Tina said "no" she knew nothing about it.
I was really hoping that was going to be the end of it.
Around 1pm we all got into my car to go grab some lunch.
Tina didn't want to be away from the hospital for any extended period of time,
so we just grabbed some fast food at a Sonic right around the corner.
Of course, the whole time, my mom kept asking, "Does anybody want to go to that BBQ place?" I told her it was too far for right now and that her and that we would stop there on the way home.
To make a long story short, we didn't stop.
We didn't stop the next day either.
Even though my mom never stopped asking me to.
The truth was, not only was it a dumpy looking place, but it was in a really bad neighborhood and the few people we did see tending to the half sunk smoker, seemed more like seasoned gang members then experienced grill masters.
I simply had no intention of stopping there ever.
But Carol was a tough cookie.
And she was a master manipulator.
She could make you do things you never thought of doing.
Not only that, but she would make it so you only realized you did them
after it was already done.
If I had to guess, I would say it was some sort of Jewish witchcraft.
So in the end, we wound up at this BBQ shed.
Let me set the scene for you… It was about 8:00 at night.
The sun had just set so it wasn't completely dark yet.
There was still that fading glimmer of twilight.
The BBQ place was as I've already described, except now, the owner/cook was outside tending to the grill. As were about 20 of his friends.
I'm going to be as delicate as I can here and try not to offend anyone but in order for you to get a real sense of what this was like, I have to be honest.
The cook was an older black man. Probably in his mid to late 60's. Completely bald except for what can only be described as a white "unicorn afro". He had a tuft of hair growing straight up and out from just above the top of natural hairline.
He was wearing a white t-shirt which was stained with what I'm hoping was barbecue sauce, black pants and was chewing on the ancient remains of a cigar.
His friends ranged in age from 17 to probably 50.
There is no other way to describe them then to say they were straight up gangsters. Seriously.
Not "gangsters" like Al Capone or Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II or Robert De Niro in Goodfellas or Robert De Niro in Analyze This.
No…"gangsters" as in the Bloods and the Crips and the Latin Kings and the MS-13 and as in asses that were about to get capped.
I don't mean to sound racist, but every bad black stereotype was on full display.
There was fried chicken and there was 40 oz malt liquor and there was loud rap music and there was gold teeth and there was harsh untrusting stares….
…and then there was us.
Me, long-haired white boy in flip flops and Jimmy Buffet "Tales from Margaritaville" T-shirt - extremely nervous and not making eye contact with anyone… and my older Jewish mother who is smiling ear to ear.
At no point did it ever occur to her that maybe, just maybe,
we should not be here. And if we are here, maybe we should leave.
I guess having grown up in the Boogie-Down Bronx
gave my mom a ballsy fearless outer coat.
She strolled right up to where the old man was cooking, stuck her face right into the smoke coming off the grill and said "Mmmmmm…smells delicious. What is it?"
"Pork" the grumpy unicorn man grumped.
My mom crinkled up her nose and said
"Eww. I don't like pork. What else do you have?"
At this point everything stopped.
The cook stopped.
The 20 or so gang members stopped.
The old woman who ran the cash register came out,
looked at us and then
stopped and then finally, my heart stopped.
For what seemed like an eternity, nothing moved.
Even the wind stopped blowing.
Everything was deathly silent.
The first sound I heard was a "click"…and then another "click"….and then a third "click". I didn't look over to see what it was, but my imagination had taken hold and I was pretty sure it was the sound of ammunition being loaded followed by the distinct cocking sound of multiple hand guns.
The old man slowly looked up at my mom – who was still smiling like a crazy person – took the gnarled wet cigar out of his mouth, spit on to the ground and did something I never in a million years thought he would do….he smiled.
He smiled at my mom.
His eyes lit up like he was a kid on Christmas morning and he laughed.
He put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Honey, we got anything you want. Whatcha hungry for?" For the next half hour, I watched as this woman chatted up this old man and learned all about him, his family and his BBQ restaurant.
His name was Carl. He was born in Haiti. Moved to Queens. Then to Ohio and then finally to Florida. He used work for the Post Office and also had a butcher shop. He was more or less retired and only had the restaurant because he loved to cook. Most of his customers were his friends and nobody paid full price. The woman at the cash register was his wife Bo. Bo wasn't her real name (I'm not sure if he ever said what her real name was). They had been married for 37 years and had 7 kids. All of whom lived out of state.
On and on it went.
By the time we left it was almost 11pm.
And before you ask, the food was incredible.
I had the pulled pork, which Carl did Carolina style, in a vinegar based sauce and my mom had the chicken. Lightly spiced and grilled to perfection. We each had white bread with sweet butter and macaroni and cheese as a side. And for dessert, we split a huge piece of Pecan pie. It was spectacular. But not that it mattered. It wasn't about the food. It was about my mom and watching her make yet another connection with a total stranger. In this case, a really scary looking stranger with a lot of really scary looking friends.
I've been to Florida hundreds of times.
From the Panhandle down to the Keys.
I've surfed in Ft. Lauderdale, swam with Manatees in Homossasa, drank Cuban coffee in Miami and got married in Key West. But dinner at Carl's place with my mom in this shitty little neighborhood just outside Tampa, will always be a standout memory for me.
And it never would have happened…could never have happened with anyone else.
My mom was a magical person.
There is, not now, nor will there ever be, anyone quite like her.
Her death has left a hole in me large enough to drive a freight train through.
I miss her more with each passing day, but knowing that I was fortunate enough to have the time with her that I did, helps to ease the pain.