A TALE OF TWO FLORIDAS

By Jeff McGann

Of all the favorite tastebud memories from my teenage years in the Fifties in Forest Hills, there is one that stands out above all the others.

Above a Mission Orange and Drake’s Devil Dog at Jones’ Candy Store, above a cherry Coke at Sutton Hall Pharmacy, even above a White Tower hamburger with baked beans.

I’m talking about a Florida Special.

The “Florida” was originally the specialty of the men’s locker room bar at the West Side Tennis Club. Immediately well liked upon its introduction, it soon became extremely popular with all the members. It wasn’t long before it became the “trademark” soft drink of the club itself.

Due to Forest Hills and the West Side’s status and fame as the tennis capital of America and home of the annual National Tennis Championships, the “Florida’s” reputation began to spread far and wide.

National and international tennis stars, officials, and fans returned year after year to the West Side for the tournament. The first thing they would do would be to slip off their status-rich B.O.A.C. and Pan American World Airways airline flight bags and order a “Florida”.

Before long it became truly a world -famous drink associated exclusively with Forest Hills and the landmark West Side. Wimbledon had their Strawberries and Cream shtick, and we had the “Florida”.

Simple ingredients: ice, orange juice, ginger ale and  (if you were a well behaved Junior Member and asked politely), a cherry.

Stirred, not shaken, in a tall tumbler. Sounds easy to make. (Stay tuned).

To me, as to thousands of devotees, nothing compared.

Delicious, thirst-quenching and refreshing, it also seemed to have some miraculous healing power which could rejuvenate after the most strenuous day of tennis or goofing off  (“hacking around”, we used to say) on a summer’s day.

The master “Florida” maker and possibly its inventor was Tom Foley. When I first met him in the early 1950’s, Tom was the head locker man and bartender at the small bar on the second floor of the clubhouse adjacent to the showers.

Tom was a patient and kindly man who always looked you squarely in the eye (and rarely below the shoulders) in the manner of a gentleman who maintained his dignity and composure day after day serving naked or towel wrapped tennis players coming and going to the showers.

Upon hearing the now all- too familiar, “A Florida please, Tom”, he would swiftly scoop ice into a glass with a flourish, pour in some orange juice deftly from a decanter, topping it off with ginger ale (Canada Dry from a green quart bottle). He then stirred his concoction with a long bartender’s cocktail spoon, which he deftly spun between his fingers causing the bowl to rotate like a tiny ship’s propeller.

Elapsed time: no more than 10 seconds. He would allow about another 10 seconds before he would thump the pad of charge slips on the bar with his magical spoon saying,  “Sign-um chit please” in the manner (inexplicably) of Sitting Bull. The chit was always blank but required a signature and highly confidential “audit number”.  (I can’t remember numbers from day to day now, but I sure remember the audit number assigned to me fifty years ago which I am still loathe to divulge to anyone!)

Audit number, scrawled signature, and the transaction was done. A testament to Tom’s accuracy in filling in rest of the information afterwards was the fact that members had such confidence and trust in him no one ever questioned that they were, in effect, signing a blank check.

This may account for the fact that I don’t remember what a Florida cost. Maybe it was 25 or 35 cents. I do know that the aggregate total mailed to the house every month always seemed to be enormous and the subject of much “heat” from my parents.

While living in California in the 60’s, and somewhat homesick for Forest Hills I tried to reproduce a “ Florida” at home. I reasoned that California, proud of its fine oranges could provide me with tasty and fresh ingredients and then all I needed was Ginger Ale.

Yuck.

I couldn’t come even close.

Canada Dry was not available and Schweppes and Lucky Market brands just didn’t do the trick.  Sure that Ginger Ale was the problem I gave up.

Fortunately, not long after that we returned to New York and I was able to obtain the real thing again at the West Side, which I rejoined in 1980. (Tom Foley, I was happy to see, was now in charge of all the bars and food service and could be counted on to handle the myriad problems associated with that job with his usual elan. He retired a few years ago after long and loyal service and I heard recently that he passed away. He is missed.)

In the late 80’s, however, we moved to Florida.

Indian River County no less! Home of the world’s “greatest tasting oranges”. Indian River County is to orange juice what the West Side was to tennis.

Delicious juice is available here (fresh-squeezed before your very eyes) at the packing houses on US 1 for less than $5.00 a gallon!

Off the “sauce” for a long time but still desirous of a before -meal beverage, I eagerly pictured myself observing a daily “Florida Hour” before dinner.

Able to obtain Canada Dry and really good juice here, I was so inspired I found and bought a long bartender’s spoon with a little red ball on the top just like Tom’s. I carefully assembled the ingredients and mixed what I hoped to be the first of many “Floridas” in Florida with my new spoon.

As they say up in New York, “Fuggeddaboutit!”

Here we go again!

It just didn’t taste right!

Slightly panicked, but still hopeful, I tried various proportions of orange juice to Ginger Ale. No go either.

Thinking now that it must be the container, I scrounged around in a few thrift shops until I found some old thin-walled, light bottomed, institutional-type Anchor Hocking glasses like the West Side used to use. Rushing home with my prize I was again disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t taste bad, it (sigh), “Just wasn’t a FLORIDA.”

Sure now that my problem must be the ICE, beads of flop sweat began appear.

The ice at West Side Tennis Club was unique.  I remember it clearly… rectangular with concave little dents on the ends. Not round or comma shaped like my refrigerator puts out, not a monolith like from7-Eleven.

On top of that, the West Side’s ice was clear as glass and hard as marble. Remembering also how it made a comforting and familiar certain “tink-chink” in the Anchor Hockings, I began to really despair.

Gotta be the ice”, I complained out loud.

“Don’t be silly”, offered, my dear wife of 40-plus years, Sally. “ It’s the same ingredients, probably better juice. It tastes delicious….you’re just trying to live in the past”.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy, healthy, married to a great woman, father of three great daughters who have produced three fine grandsons. I don’t want to live in the past BUT I think it’s perfectly OK to take a walk in the past every now and then. (Those of you who were there with me know how nice it was there in FH with KF and the CH and the Midway and PS101 and sledding Deepdene andChristmas Eve and all the other great stuff and don’t blame me, I’m sure!)

Anyway, I was thinking about all that stuff and Sally was right, as usual, because I finally figured out that I can’t make a decent “Florida” in Florida or anywhere else for that matter because there is one more ingredient and I can’t make it or buy it.

Call it AMBIENCE.

Ambience, thy name is Forest Hills!

This, then, is my missing ingredient. It’s a place and the fond memories of  having been there with great people during a unique and special time.

So now I know. That’s what was in a “Florida” too.

I guess the lesson here is a geographical oxymoron; “If you want a real “Florida” you gotta go to Forest Hills”.

I’m going, and here’s why:

The third consecutive reunion of Forest Hills Club members is being held September 19-21, 2003, in New York.

A “Day” in Forest Hills is planned for Saturday the 20th. Events will include a tour of “olde” Forest Hills with special emphasis on the homes of former residents who are on the List of Famous Forest Hillians compiled and maintained by Henry Hof.

A cocktail and dinner reception will be held at the West Side Tennis Club at 6PM that day with more activities in the planning stages.

Cost is $60 per person. Mail Check to Bob Taylor, 101 Storer Avenue, Pelham, N.Y. 10803. 

Visit our website for more details.

I’ve been to the previous reunions and I can assure you the joy and fun of reuniting with friends and acquaintances from “the old days” is as close as one can come to bottling up and enjoying that ambience I’ve been rambling on about.

We want you there.

If you haven’t been “home” for a while, if you come…

I can tell you that if you go to Station Square and stand in the island near the Police Booth and close your eyes you will start to feel snow-flakes on your nose and you will hear brass horns in beautiful harmony playing Silent Night, and then a stentorian voice will recite “T’was the night before Christmas…”

If you walk through Flagpole Green between the “Greenways” you will smell the honeysuckle, hear the crickets and see the fireflys of a summer’s evening again….

Stroll by the Community House and you will hear the screech of the lifeguard’s whistle amid echoing voices of children playing in the pool. From Hof Hall you will hear the thunder of pounding sneakers and the cheers from a Friday night basketball game.

Come especially to the West Side. The stadium still stands, however a shadow of it’s former glory and beauty.  It’s haunted but don’t be afraid. Walk underneath 150 feet. Stop, and listen carefully. You will hear Harry Steven’s men chanting:

“Here beer. Here beer. Getcha cold beer.”  “Franks. Hot Franks. Getcha Hot Franks here”. “Cold Beer Here”.  “Here Cold Beer”.

Then, you will hear a sudden roar from the ghost crowd above you.

From the PA system, “Advantage Mr. Seixas”.  Thunk..   Thunk..  Thunk. OUT!  Another roar.

 “Game, set, match, Mr. Seixas”.

Walk back to the clubhouse past the red-faced Pinkerton guard, “Clubhouse passes only please!”

Clump up the outside spiral stairs to the Men’s Locker Room.  Sadly, the well oiled old bar with its gleaming brass footrest is now gone but stand where it used to be. Listen closely, and when no one else is around you will hear the shuffle of paper slippers, the swish of a Consolidated Laundries towel and the words,

“A Florida please, Tom”.

On September 20th, I will be at the bar downstairs to see if Tom’s successors can make me a really great “Florida”.

Look for me.

I’ll buy you one.

Unless of course they’re $2.00 or something like that, in which case we can shake!

Best regards,

Jeffrey M. “Cap” McGann
Vero Beach
August 2003

Addendum from Vero Beach  July 2006:

I was ultimately unable to make the 2003 Convivium which was the focus of the above.

Henry Hof reported to me after the event which he attended anticipating slaking his thirst with a Florida that the staff there had no idea what he was talking about!

Alas.

Cap

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