In the backwaters of Card Sound, business is thriving
By STEVE GIBBS Citizen Staff
Article Tools The economy is in crisis. Prices are up. Unemployment is up. Layoffs are up. Housing prices are down, but mortgage loans are hard to come by. Tensions and fears are rampant. In these troubled times, people are looking to escape from reality more than ever.
Dancing to the music at Alabama Jacks is one place where some Florida Keys residents are finding refuge.
It's 2 o'clock on a Sunday and the Card Sound Machine, a four-piece band, sings "Give me a Redneck Girl." Their pleasant voices mix with the smell of yam fries and burgers.
Jeanie and Raquel and the crew hustle between the kitchen and the outdoor tables, serving up beers, snacks and meals to a mixed bag of colorful patrons, from weekend bikers to aging dancers to families with children. Everybody seems welcome.
A breeze mixes with the ceiling fans to cool locals looking for an afternoon's escape from harsh times, and visitors who have heard about Alabama Jacks for years.
At the bottom of the Card Sound Bridge, on the north side, is the centerpiece of the community dubbed "Downtown Card Sound." Alabama Jacks is a throwback to an earlier South Florida, a place where working-class folks, and an occasional Ocean Reefer, go to hear good country music, drink a few beers and dance.
Betty Whitten, dressed in a black skirt with a bright orange Halloween pumpkin top, dances by herself on the small dance floor in front of the band -- then another, and another make their way up and line dance in step, moving easily. Whitten teaches a few newcomers the steps to a line dance and they join in.
She dances every dance and relishes the attention, and the applause. At key points during the dance she upstages the others by dipping forward and flipping her black skirt so her undergarment is exposed. In another place, children would be ushered out. Here, it's good fun. Everyone cheers.
A lady in her mid 70s walks in. She is decked out in a pink Western outfit. Her escort sits while she joins the dancers. One younger woman, in her 30s, joins the others. Today everyone is young.
Betty Massey and Terri Miller sit at a table. Betty sips a cocktail while Terri nurses a beer. Both watch the dancers and tap their feet to the music.
"My daughter just left," Miller said. "She came down from Jupiter -- the town, not the planet -- and we met halfway."
"We're from Big Pine Key," Massey said. "I own the Crazy Fish Bar and Grill. Terri is the karaoke diva. This is our day to get off the rock."
A row of big motorcycles lines the parking lot, front and center. Most are Harleys. There is no room now -- it's almost 3 p.m. and the place is packed -- so Okie and Robin Eschels park their bike across the two-lane road. Like many of the Sunday regulars, they drive down from Homestead.
They cross the road and take a seat at the back of the bar where they can see the stage, the band, the entrance and most everyone here. They know their way around.
"I worked here from 1998 until 2001," Robin Eschel said. "This is where I met Okie."
He wears a straw cowboy hat that seems a part of him.
"I wore this hat when we got married," he said. "It was May 1, 2001. We were married right here. The band took a break and we got married."
They hold hands as they talk.
"It was a Hawaiian theme," Robin Eschel said. "After the wedding, we rode off on the bike to the Miccosukee resort."
As a half-dozen dancers step to the music, a group of bikers walk in. Most of the tables are full, and a couple at the bar have eyes for no one but each other. The bikers stand at the end of the bar and order drinks. They ignore the couple. Soon one of the bikers, a man in his mid 40s, takes the stage and plays a few energizing riffs on a pocket harmonica. His sound takes the band to another level.
Williee Armellini gets a good round of applause as he leaves the stage.
Everyone is relaxed and the mood is one of a family reunion with cracker cousins in North Florida. The band plays on as the place fills up. As folks get into it, more line dancers take the stage, including Janie Wilcox, 74.
Her husband, Bill, said they have been coming here every Sunday afternoon for 32 years, except for the two years when they lived in Oklahoma. They drive down from Florida City so she can dance. He said he just enjoys watching her dance.
They eloped to Georgia in 1971. She already had 10 children when they married.
"We first found this place in 1969 when the editor of the Homestead News Leader brought us down. We've been coming ever since," she said. "We like everything here. It's so laid-back and there ain't no better music."
The music and dancing, Janie Wilcox said, lets her forget her problems.
"All week I worry about my children. All seven [of those left] have cancer. Their real father died of cancer," she said, looking over at Bill.
"I don't know what I'd do without Bill," she said. "I come here to forget."