MAXWELL:  A setting for the absurd

4/4/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Ever wonder why the setting of Carl Hiaasen’s novels is South Florida? And what about Elmore Leonard? Ever thought of why he often places characters in this sun-baked arena?

One major reason is that the so-called Gold Coast _ a conglomeration of too many out-of-state retirees, every ethnic group under the sun vying for the same karma, too much conspicuous consumption and poverty side by side, too many controlled substances, runaway land development, too many crooked and crazy politicians, too many students and too few schools _ is one of the zaniest regions in the world.

Where else, for example, would you find the following agricultural scam so blatantly carried out?

Dr. Harold Dubner, of Boca Raton, who owns hundreds of acres of land in western Miramar near Fort Lauderdale, keeps 30 cows to save thousands of dollars in property taxes. Okay, so what is wrong with keeping 30 bovines to save money? Nothing exactly, until you look at the details. The cows are kept on two gravel “pastures,” as they are called, off busy Miramar Parkway within a stone’s throw of Interstate 75. The nearest green grass is on well-manicured berms and lawns out of the cows’ reach.

Wait, there is more. Those gravel “pastures” are actually two lots _ in a highly developed subdivision _ facing the bustling parkway at Southwest 148th Avenue and Flamingo Road. The emaciated animals have nowhere to graze, standing 24 hours a day on rocks. Hay and grain are trucked in, and the cows drink from holes and ditches. Local residents said that they have never seen such skinny cattle.

“If they are on rock or concrete all day, that’s bad for their feet,” sad Dr. Frank Bernard, of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville. “They need to be able to graze properly so they get nutrition. They need shade so they don’t get heat stress.”

Here is what Dubner gets for mistreating his suburban cattle: In 1998, his property at 148th Avenue was valued at $114,840 for taxes. The tab would have jumped to $812,280 without the agricultural tax break. The Flamingo Road lot was assessed at $7,350 for taxes. Without the tax break, it would have been valued at $257,320. Meanwhile, the 30 cows keep getting thinner.

Only in South Florida.

Just up the road from Miramar, in western Boynton Beach, is probably one the worst examples of selfishness anywhere. For several years, the Palm Beach County School Board has known that a new middle school had to be built. The problem, of course, was finding a suitable site. By every measure, a parcel on Woolbright Road was ideal, and the board voted for it. Trouble is, the site is near an upscale retirement community.

When a brigade of elders organized and trotted into a meeting with signed petitions, board members, being the politically expedient creatures that they are, realized that middle school kids do not re-elect them. Old folks do _ in blocs.

What did the board do? It reversed its vote and is now looking for a new place for the badly needed school. Meanwhile, thanks to these well-heeled oldsters, many of the youngsters who live in the Woolbright Road area will continue to be bused 40 minutes each way to school.

Given the old-timers’ reaction, you would think that the county was putting a landfill or a shooting range or brothel or a topless doughnut shop in the area. You might even think that a black family was moving in.

Hold on, there is more to this South Florida tragicomedy.

The major excuse _ framed as a safety concern _ that the retirement gang used to block the school reflects an incredible mix of chutzpah and goofiness. Here is how Sun-Sentinel columnist John Grogan describes it: “In a letter to Superintendent Joan Kowal, Mitchell A. Radin, an opposition ringleader, said children might end up injured or worse given the driving abilities of seniors. “Our eyes and reflexes are not acute,’ he wrote. Boy, there’s an admission I’d like to see carved in stone. Isn’t it convenient? The same folks who ferociously fight any attempt to impose safety tests on older drivers are trotting out their infirmities when it suits them.”

Alas, South Florida.

A few miles south of Boynton Beach, city commissioners in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, proved that they also have have been out in the sun too long and have far too much time on their hands. They unanimously passed a law that prohibits residents from interrupting a council meeting or making “personal, impertinent or slanderous remarks” or becoming “boisterous.”

The mayor, Oliver Parker, swore that the ordinance was not intended to curb free speech or public debate. “We’re not going to be using this to bust people’s chops,” the enlightened leader promised.

Taxpayers who run afoul of the law, however, can be fined $500. By the way, other South Florida towns, such as Margate and Pompano Beach, that also are populated by a bunch of Yankees and Midwesterners, have similar Draconian ordinances.

Is it any wonder that Hiaasen and Leonard love to place their amoral, psychologically challenged characters in zany South Florida? For all of its wealth and leisure, the region is pure theater of the absurd.