The Big Chill

Yes, my weekend in Jacksonville, Florida, had its frivilous “American Pie” and vacuous “Real World” moments, but fundamentally, it was much more of a substantive “Big Chill” kinda’ thing.

It was a whirlwind. I woke at three, got my car at four, and met colleague Vanessa White Wolf at JFK at 5. AM, that is. We spied “Real World: Boston” star Syrus stepping onto a plane to Cinicinatti, had a laugh, then climbed aboard our flight. Two hours of restless sleep later, we stepped out into the hushed morning air of Jacksonville.

Our reason d’ etre was the betrothment of our dear colleague Langhorne Stoneburner to rock star Casey Shea. The Stoneburners had kindly availed the young folk the use of their beach house on Ponte Vedra, an offer too savory to refuse (though I was on the outer edge of “the youngs”). Our arrival was most “Real World.”

We crept up the long and well-landscaped driveway in Vanessa’s rental car (thanks for the ride, Vanessa) tentatively, as we had no idea if we’d found the right place. We tip-toed through the giant ferns and Spanish moss towards the sound of crashing waves, past the sparkling blue pool, and cautiously peeked into the back room. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘I know that dude.’

Singer/songwriter (and one-time tamborinist in my band) Jeff Jacobson tugged open the door with a smile. With a mug of coffee in one hand, and a warm smile on his face, he introduced us to singer/songwriter Amy Hills, and gave us the lay of the place. While not quite the full-on, gape-mouthed, “Oh my God, look at this place!” “Real World” walk through, it was a beautiful, impressive home where we were pleased to be dropping out bags.

And that’s about all we had time to do: drop our bags, and get back on the road. See, Jacksonville’s the nation’s largest city in terms of landmass (one of many interesting facts I learned from from our Hurry Cab driver, J.T., but more on that later), so getting anywhere on time means leaving early. And we had to be at brunch at Aunt Cathy’s.

Well, we were late. Motivating eleven New Yorkers (by this point we’d met housemates Wes, Kelsey, Ivan, and Ed, and woken colleagues Dee, Chris, and Akshai from their hung-over slumbers as well) to drive 45 minutes to brunch in lieu of walking on the beach or laying by the pool ends up being not so easy. But it is pretty fun. Chris regaled us with tales of his long and fiscally-challenged trip from New York (in which our hero finds himself negotiating with the manager of a Winn-Dixie to “turn the other cheek” as he passes a faulty check), and Dee and Akshai pieced together the beer-soaked fragments of the previous evening.

We walked onto Aunt Cathy’s riverfront estate feeling quite the United Colors of Benetton. It’s not that we were fashionable (though we were), it’s that we (and yes, I except myself from the “we”) were the most racially and ethnically diverse group in the place. Not that the band stopped and people stared, but we noticed. And we laughed. And we considered walking hand-in-hand into the church later.

Fast forward to the wedding itself. We arrive in our Hustle Cab, a pink and white minivan Vanessa secured from the evening to keep us Yanks safe from the clutches of John Law. J.T., out cabbie, pulls up in front of the church. There’s a line of Souther burgoise strecched down the block. I paused and considered our options:

1) Have J.T. pull around the block and drop us out of sight
2) Quietly slip out of the minivan avoiding eye contact
3) Make a bold exit

So I pulled on my sunglasses, put on a big smile, ripped the door wide, and waved to the gawking crowd. Which pretty much set the bar for the rest of the night.

The wedding, in a nutshell (and my objection to the Biblical passage about woman being a creation of man notwithstanding), was beautiful. The sun was setting directly behind the stained glass over the alter, casting warm, colorful light over the parishners. Casey and his groomsmen were J. Crew cool in blue blazers, pink ties, searsuckers and white bucks. And Langhorne never looked more beautiful, or more at ease — even when the priest dropped the rings.

The reception was held in a light-strewn tent in the Stoneburner’s back yard there on the edge of the St. John’s River. The MTV Crew and assorted hangers-on grabbed a table by the bar, and commenced celebrating. It was perhaps the first wedding ceremony in my life that woman came right up and introduced themselves to me. Maybe that’s what Southern women do, or maybe I’d never been to a wedding without a date before. Either way, it was fun. I love talking about my job, and New York City, which I did in abundance. The highlight, without fail, was Casey’s barn burning version of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Not only was he pitch perfect and in full command of the stage (the back porch, really), but he extemporized and rocked the song with a joy and confidence even Frank would approve. (And he answered my long standing question as to whether it’s cool to perform at one’s own wedding. It is. Big time.)

The afterparty, ends up, was at the beach house. The MTV Crew made it back first (with stops at Wendy’s for Frosties and Circle K for non-Anheuser Bush beer), followed by the singer/songwriter crew (Amy, Ivan, Jeff, Ed, Wes and Kelsey) who had motivated a Papa John pizza delivery. I threw the doors open to the ocean breeze, started a fire, lit every candle in the place, and tried (in vain) to find a non-classic rock radio station. Before long, the place was crawling with seersucker and the weekend took on a “Sixteen Candles” vibe. You know, that whole pizza on the turtable party at Jake’s house?

There was, to put it mildly, a disconnect between many of the young Southerners and the United Colors of Benneton. One seriously wasted young fella’ interrupted Ed, Ivan and my late-night discussion on the best REM tunes ever with a monologue on the music industry, at which point I found myself at a crossroads: engage? Or ignore? I chose the former, and he wandered off, still babbling to himself.

Later, with fully-dressed frat boys passed out on every available horizontal surface, Ivan, Ed and I stood out by the pool scanning the constellation-strewn sky for shooting stars. I looked down at my watch to find that I had passed the 24 hour mark, and called it a day.

There’s more: building birdhouses (“Hey, do you have any extra tools?”), dancing by the pool, brunching at Ruby Tuesdays, excerpting Chris’ forthcoming novel, “Tips from the Hart,” but you get the idea. It was a full weekend. And though we danced and drank and did sufficient liver damage, it wasn’t really all about that. In fact, you’ll notice from the photos that there’s nearly none of that. No, I think it’s fair to say that for The United Colors of Benetton, and The Singer/Songwriters, the conversation, starlight, and laughter made for far more intoxication than all of the booze combined.

Leaving Jackonsville last night was a little like leaving summer camp. There were no tears, but there were plenty of hugs, and promises to write when we all got home. We’d witnessed some things, endured some things, and seen a little something different in each other, and in ourselves. All that and a fish sandwhiche makes for a happy and grateful me.

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