Mr. Chatterbox

By: Robert Plunket

It’s great being a philanthropist in Sarasota these days—you pretty much have the field all to yourself. I’m kidding, of course, as many of the old-time patrons and do-gooders are keeping up with their donations even though it means cutting back on other stuff, like food. But if you are thinking of donating money to […]


It’s great being a philanthropist in Sarasota these days—you pretty much have the field all to yourself.

I’m kidding, of course, as many of the old-time patrons and do-gooders are keeping up with their donations even though it means cutting back on other stuff, like food. But if you are thinking of donating money to a worthy cause, now is the time. All the town’s nonprofits are willing to deal.

Take me, for example. I was treated to a recent Tom Jones concert at the Van Wezel, in a seat that was within panty-tossing distance of Tom himself, and then got a personal photo session with the star, all as a result of my donation—rather modest actually, under $1,000—resulting from my mystery series "Decorating Can Be Murder." Mine and Ken Shelin, Rob Dardas, Marsha Kramer, Janis Collier, Donald Geikie, Carolyn Michel, et al., that is. It will help pay for the programs where the hall buses in the school kids.

Tom appears in Chapter Three, which takes place during one of his concerts at the Van Wezel. He doesn’t get murdered, but he does—almost—get robbed. It’s odd to write about something before you see it, but I must say that I got Tom and his concert basically right.

I’m glad to report Tom is doing better than ever. He’s 68, you know, but looks great. He’s let his hair go gray, which suits him. The sexiness remains, but it is now set in another stage of life.

We had a pleasant meeting before the show, during which we discussed where each of us would stand during the photograph, and then it was back to his dressing room for Tom and out front for me, where a full house awaited him. He sang for an hour and a half non-stop, doing his famous Tom Jones dances and thrusts and swivels, the mike in his left hand, with air and piano guitar moves being played on his right, the ring finger being characteristically indented. He did drink a lot of water, but then, he kept his jacket on the whole time. When he finally took it off, he was drenched with sweat. The only hint of age was when he bent down to pick up a bouquet of flowers. That’s when you realized he wasn’t a kid any more.

And yes, the panties were tossed. I should know—one pair went whizzing past my ear and hit the back of a man in front of me. He looked around, like, "What was that?" But Tom bravely ignored them. I’m still trying to figure out why, since they are such a large part of the gestalt of his act. I think the reason must be that there is just something so compelling about a stage littered with balled-up panties—you must wad them to throw them—that to comment on it would trivialize it.

I personally think the panties need a comment from Tom. If he doesn’t acknowledge the joke, it transforms the women who do it into shameless hussies who go around throwing their underwear at men. But then, where would it stop? Jokes tend to escalate, particularly panty jokes. They’d start throwing other things, and then the whole show would turn into people throwing objects representing sexual metaphors at this poor guy who’s trying to sing. So I’m sure Tom knows what he’s doing with the panties, and besides it’s none of my business. From now on I’m staying entirely out of panties.

At any rate, there I am, watching Tom Jones, and he starts singing What’s New, Pussycat?, and I think, oh my God, I have to interview that cat tomorrow. You see, back in the old days at Sarasota Magazine, we had a whole Rolodex of free-lancers to do all the cat interviewing. Of course, that was long, long ago, back in magic times, when they had these things called "real estate developments."

Those days are long gone, and like most people in Sarasota I now have to do much more than I used to. Pam Daniel and I would once sit in the office all day, reading magazines and talking on the phone and calling our free-lancers and saying, "Do this, do that." Now we do not only do this and that ourselves, but Pam now makes phone solicitations and serves as assistant IT guy. I spell Bea, the receptionist, and clean the men’s room hourly. So at this point in my career I’m glad to have a cat to interview.

And what a cat. Her name is Ballantine (after Hemingway’s favorite beer), and she is the winner of our Best Pet Contest. She had some very tough competition. The finalists included a three-legged cat and a dog that helped out a dying woman. Ballantine injured her eye once out in the pool cage, but other than that, her life has been charmed. What’s her secret?

I think it’s her looks. I remember when the panel of judges was picking the finalists and her name kept coming up. She had a very unusual face, with asymmetrical markings that throw everything off kilter. You couldn’t figure out where her nose was. "Let’s throw her in the mix," the judges said. "She’s cute."

Sarasota’s Best Pet lives in the south part of town, right near the Oaks, with her owners Debra and Norman Morrow. Although "owners" isn’t really the right word. "Servants" might be more appropriate. You get the feeling that it’s really Ballantine’s house, and Debra and Norman take care of her, like you would a rich cat that inherited millions from its eccentric owner.

She has the run of the house, and there is a padded cube for her to snuggle in on cold days, plus a cushion carefully covered with a terrycloth towel that Norman moves from place to place, depending on Ballantine’s whims. The lanai is entirely hers, especially the hammock, where she often lies on her back and watches the lizards, hawks and bobcats. The Morrows have installed a fountain because Ballantine enjoys the sound of water, and they watch a lot of NASCAR, as Ballantine loves it when the cars go round and round. On the few occasions when she is boarded she gets two adjoining cages so she’ll have more room.

Like so many affluent Sarasotans, Ballantine didn’t always have it so easy. She was adopted from the Humane Society and was the last of her litter to go. Norman and Debra detect a feral streak in her. She’s afraid of big dogs and of black shoes, which hints at significant childhood trauma.

But that odd beauty remains. In the mirror, as Norman points out, she’s an entirely different cat. But either way she’s beautiful, enigmatic, part Audrey Hepburn, part Mona Lisa, part Sarasota’s Best Pet. And why? To quote Tom Jones at the emotional high point of his concert: "You and your pussycat. . . nose."

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