My first gig was at an all-you-can-eat crab leg joint, in Florida, where I’m from. I was a boy. This was shortly after the close of the Civil War.
I owned a guitar, but that was as far as my musical talent went. Even so, my uncle asked me to play my little guitar alongside him at a joint where he played on Mondays.
So one night, he drove me to the seafood joint on the beach. We rode in his beat-up Ford Ranger, with its three mismatched tires, missing windshield, no passenger door, and a little hula girl on the dashboard who was missing her grass skirt. And her coconuts.
We pulled up. This place was an authentic Florida dive bar. The real thing, such as you cannot find in Florida anymore. They served seafood, yes. But they also served beer. They even had an authentic malfunctioning neon sign which read “COLD EER.”
My mother would have killed me if she’d known I was here. And I am not speaking figuratively, but worse. Metaphorically. She would have brained me with a 1611 King James Bible and buried me in my christening gown.
My uncle shut off the truck. “Welcome to heaven,” he said.
“This is where we’re playing?”
I asked my uncle what kinds of songs we were going to play.
He slapped my back and said, “The kind that earn tips.” The he smiled. “Watch and learn, son.”
It was your basic Florida seafood joint. Sandy parking lot. Big deck, constructed of rotting wood and rusted tetanus nails. Waitresses stood outside, puffing Virginia Slims. The dumpster smelled bad enough to affect the weather.
My uncle sidled up to the bar and ordered a “cold eer.” I ordered a chocolate milk.
Then, my uncle plugged in his guitar to the PA system, sat on a stool, and announced, grandly, to the joint that his nephew would be joining him tonight.
The welcoming response I received was overwhelming. Two people clapped. And one tourist woman changed her baby’s soiled diaper right on the bar.
My uncle opened with “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Someone put a buck in our tip jar.
Next he played “Pirate Look at Forty.”
More applause. Someone deposited a five the jar.
My uncle played “Come Monday.”
His jar was now half full.
Soon, suppertime was upon the world, and sunbaked tourists flooded the bar with their sunburned bodies and raccoon-eyed faces. The floor of the old dive was soon covered in sand and flip flops, and the whole place smelled like rancid Hawaiian Tropic and BO.
The place was packed. American tourists came from all over the nation to experience “authentic Florida” at an authentic Florida eatery, where they served authentic Florida food. Namely, authentic fresh crab and shrimp which—that very same morning—had been purchased directly from an “authentic Florida” Sam’s Club Wholesale.
But here is what I remember most about that night.
At some point, my uncle played the song “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffet. And the place blew up. The joint came unhinged when we started singing.
I had never seen such a crowd response. People started dancing, swinging their partners, singing along with my uncle.
Children were twirling. Old men were dancing with granddaughters. An elderly woman tossed her bikini bottoms at my uncle.
When the song finished, my uncle’s tip jar was overflowing. Piles of cash were lying on the floor beneath the jar.
Later that night, as we walked to his dilapidated truck, my uncle counted his cash in the front seat. He split it with me, fair and square. Eighty-twenty.
“I don’t understand,” I said to my uncle. “How did you earn so many tips tonight?”
“Son,” he said, “you can thank Jimmy Buffet.”
Which is what I’m doing right now. God rest Jimmy’s soul.
And my uncle’s too.