By BOB VICKREY (aka NICK CARRAWAY)
As I walked through our village center the other day, I couldn’t help but notice a distinguished-looking, well-dressed gentleman holding court on the patio at Hank’s restaurant on Swarthmore.
I knew at once it was Rick Caruso, the billionaire developer who opened our Palisades Village shopping center three years ago. As usual, he sat with a half-dozen attentive, stylishly attired associates of his firm. The men were all decked out in distinctive dark suits, which was in contrast to the typical apparel worn in this beach community. The two women at the table were both regally clad and predictably beautiful.
Personally, I’ve always called it “formal-attire” when I leave my house wearing socks. I still have a dark suit somewhere in the back of my closet that I bought long before adding a generous steel-belted radial tire to my midsection. It’s probably in my own best interest to leave that suit hidden away for the moths to munch on.
I live directly across the street from Caruso’s center, so I’ve had the opportunity to watch this contrasting lifestyle story develop from the beginning. It has become apparent the short distance from my house to Rick’s table at Hank’s is like a galaxy away from the world of affluence he lives in.
If you recall, in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Nick Carraway rents a house in an aristocratic neighborhood in Long Island in the 1920s, and his neighbor Jay Gatsby lives in an exotic mansion where he is famous for throwing extravagant parties on Saturday nights. Nick immediately becomes enthralled as he watches the scene at Gatsby’s from afar.
Caruso owns a posh mansion in nearby Brentwood, has an oceanfront beach home in Malibu, owns a private jet, and often entertains his guests on his 216-ft. yacht. He’s mentioned frequently as a Los Angeles mayoral candidate, while some observers predict that he could be a future governor of California. Did I mention he’s also handsome and sports a perennial tan?
Other than the mansions, yachts, private jets—and the handsome-and-tanned part, I’m sure that Rick and I have lots in common. So, after growing up in rather modest surroundings, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m the “Nick Carraway” character observing Jay Gatsby’s lifestyle from afar. I’m neither jealous nor resentful of him; I’m simply fascinated by the novelty of the scene playing out across the street as I watch from my front window.
But much like Nick, I had always hoped to receive an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties, so I could more closely see how the other half lives.
Rick Caruso grew up as a fan of all things Walt Disney, including his movies and theme parks like Disneyland. That background likely inspired some of the more fanciful aspects featured in Caruso’s shopping centers across Southern California.
During the holiday season, a perfectly manicured 50-ft. Christmas tree adorns the small grassy area along Monument Street. It is accompanied by an ornate Santa’s cottage, where St. Nick receives lines of eager children each year. Musicians dressed in colorful toy soldiers’ outfits parade around the complex playing holiday music, while artificial snow falls from above the rooftops of retail buildings—which is in stark contrast with the ever-so-mild winter temperatures of our region.
In the beginning, there was considerable backlash when Caruso announced plans for his project. Many longtime residents felt they would be losing the small-town feel of our community if an upscale shopping complex was built in the center of town.
Now, three years after the opening, some of the locals still quietly grumble about the changes Palisades Village has made upon our town, while some of us have adjusted and made our “peace” with the center and have even incorporated portions of it into our daily lives—especially places where food is involved.
When the shopping center had its grand opening festivities in 2018, I did indeed receive an invitation to Caruso’s splashy outdoor party. In true Gatsby fashion, everyone was decked out in their finest attire, and I even cobbled together a faux-tuxedo in an attempt to blend in with town dignitaries and celebrities attending the gala.
I was accompanied by my own beautiful versions of “Daisy Buchanan” and “Jordan Baker,” who happen to be my next-door neighbors. The scene we encountered that night had an awards-show atmosphere, complete with the red-carpet runway and dozens of paparazzi snapping pictures of pretty young actresses whose names I didn’t know.
The glittering lights twinkling above us created a surreal environment that I found somewhat disorienting, but at the same time, strangely exhilarating. After dinner, party attendees began leaving their tables and making their way toward the band performing on the outdoor stage. As the night wore on, many in the crowd danced and swayed with the music as dazzling fireworks lit up the sky.
For one bright-shining evening, I was allowed to taste a lifestyle that was both glitzy and seductive, but ultimately foreign to my native sensibilities. But I savored it anyway.
Our town’s own Jay Gatsby has created a fanciful world for himself, which by all outward appearances brings him a great deal of joy. In any event, he certainly smiles a lot, but always stops short of publicly proclaiming, “It’s good to be the King.”
Recently, I found myself standing atop the 10-ft. knoll in front of my Spanish bungalow, which ironically, was built during Fitzgerald’s roaring 1920s, and spotted Gatsby staring back at me from across the street below. As usual, we exchanged friendly lingering waves and smiled at one another, as I turned to climb the steps of my very own Palisades “mini-mansion.”
As for me, Nick Carraway, I’m quite comfortable with the lifestyle I’ve chosen here, but I must admit that I’ve been thinking about getting one of those yachts like Gatsby has. But I realized that his may be about 200 feet longer than my immediate needs require.
Maybe Gatsby and friends would be interested in a weekend outing after I buy my new 16-foot luxury yacht. Who knows? We could set sail up the coast and party at Dick Van Dyke’s house near the beach. I’d even bring the beer and chips.
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. His long-running “Lunch Club” series was published by the Palisades News. You can find more columns on his website: bobvickrey.net