I was introduced to the Café Catacomb by a lovely young woman named Sarah (not her real name). She and I had taken up together as a result of a shared Christmas break ride from Lexington, KY to south Florida in the crowded front seat of a 1957 Pontiac. The back seat was full of luggage, and the trunk was filled with a pile of the owner’s junk and Sarah’s embalmed cat. A microbiology major, she was taking anatomy. That was the only relationship she’d ever had with the cat, as far as I know.
A thousand miles in such close proximity is bound to result in feelings—either everyone ends up really good friends or they finish by loathing each other. Sarah and I ended up loathing the owner/driver, who spent a lot of the trip name-dropping and telling us all about his exploits with the Palm Beach in-crowd. The Pontiac’s heater was on the fritz, however, so she and I snuggled up under a blanket and spent a number of pleasant hours devising ways to relieve the boredom. We finished the trip exceptionally good friends. But I digress…
Sarah, a displaced Buffalo-ite, lived in Coconut Grove in south Miami. In those days “The Grove” was just a pleasant place to live, not having developed the cachét that it enjoys nowadays. That being the case, she had searched farther afield for entertainment, and so it came to pass that we ended up one evening at Las Olas and A-1-A in Ft Lauderdale, where the little coffee house—with wooden beams, fiberglass spider webs, paper-mache stalactites and other catacomb-like decor—lurked down the alley behind the Elbo Room.
I was only about three months out of the small town of Sebring, FL, and those had been spent in Lexington. I was not the epitome of sophistication that I am today. In fact there’s a good chance that I had never heard of a coffee house. To me, “folk singing” was the Kingston Trio, or maybe something like country and western (for which I had taken pains to not develop a taste, that being far too close to my redneck roots for comfort).
In those days the habitués of the Catacomb (owned by Roy Connors, who went on to become one of the Highwaymen) weren’t exactly hippies, nor were they Beat, but they looked damned exotic to me. The idea of paying $1.50 for a glass of iced tea, Constant Comment or not, was a bit alien back in 1962, but worth it when I discovered that I not only liked folk music but actually knew some of the songs. They were what folks sang—and I knew lots of folks, having been raised in a family of Kentucky hillbillies transplanted to central Florida. By the end of the evening, I was hooked.
We won’t go into my throwing myself into the study of folk songs, nor my brief career as a part-time folksinger. Suffice it to say that I’d found a home of sorts. When summer arrived I made the trip to Ft. Lauderdale many a night, and many a Yankee girl accompanied me, accumulated on my day job as a lifeguard. The following year I chose not to go back to U.K., and much of that year’s hiatus from responsible academic efforts was spent in the coffee houses of Ft. Lauderdale.
I got to be pretty good friends with the manager of Café Catacomb, a gentleman we’ll call Dave, since that was his name, and with the (most of the time) headline act, to whom we’ll refer as Dick for the same reason. I used to stop over at the house they rented in a seedy section of Ft. Lauderdale on the way to the club. We’d play with Dave’s young puma and get — ahem — how shall I put this — um — well — stoned on whatever they happened to have in the house. One of my clearest memories of those times is of racing across the 2-laned Intracoastal bridge on my Honda Super Hawk next to Dave’s old Porsche, with me in the oncoming lane. Needless to say, traffic was much lighter on Las Olas back then.
I lost track of both of them after that year, and have often wondered what happened to them. Dave welcomed me into their world and made me feel at home, instead of like the hick I was. Dick, who played — extremely well — a 12-string guitar that he’d built himself when he worked for Gibson, taught me a lot of songs, enchanted me with his playing, and was the originator of the expression, “I’m going to get it tuned and have it welded,” which I’ve used so many times since to describe the control issues of addicts and alcoholics. For that line alone, I owe him.
The motorcycles, sports cars and northern girls came and went. I got a different slant on life from the paths that I traveled in the following years, and it was a long time before I came back around to the same kind of relaxed attitude about it that I had in those days. The last I heard of Sarah from her uncle, the podiatrist, she was still at U.K. in graduate school. We never got back together after my hiatus, and it’s just as well. It’s not likely that an ex-altar boy from central Florida would have turned out to have much (besides lust) in common with a nice Jewish girl from Buffalo.
Note: I was contacted today by Roy Connors, whom I have not seen in close to 50 years. He saw this essay in a different venue, and wanted to fill me in on “The Cat’s” history. I stole the piece back from myself, and here it is. Depending on what I learn from Roy, there may be a follow-up. We’ll see.