The Uncanny Summertime Empire of Vera's White Sands
If summertime is all about memories, then Vera's White Sands knows no end to the season. It's a veritable storehouse of sunburned remembrances for two generations of Marylanders, a lockbox made of cement and bamboo. And like many of the memories that are salted away here, Vera's has a quality that can only be described as uncanny--at once surreal and all-too-real, possessed of a weird, internal logic that only those who are of it seem to really understand. As it now begins its 43rd season as a way station for weekend mariners and thirsty tourists, Vera's retains its claim as Maryland's most quizzical summertime empire. And yet, when you visit, you have to wonder how many seasons are left in this oasis of seemingly endless summer.
Dr. Effrus Freeman and his wife, Vera, first conceived this self-styled paradise in 1960 as White Sands Yacht Club, a tiki-themed roadhouse and marina, and today the one thing it still has going for it in force is its earnestness. Situated on a sleeve of land where St. Leonard's Creek meets John's Creek near the town of Lusby, it offers itself as a bit of Polynesia by the Chesapeake, and it asks you to take up this fantasy whole cloth. "Visit the Tropical Island of Vera's White Sands," crows one of its rose-pink flyers. "Why not keep your Boat in Tropical Splendor?"
It makes these offers without a trace of irony. This is not the retrograde prank of some twentysomething hipsters whose nearest notion of tiki comes from the episode of The Brady Bunch where everyone goes to Hawaii. This is the Genuine Article, hand-hewn by a generation who understood the permanent-vacation mentality that was South Pacific Swank. And the keeper of this cast of mind is Vera herself.
"My husband was so busy with real estate that I thought I'd start a snack bar here," Vera says of the venture. "At the time, this wasn't good for anything but a snack bar."
This is characteristic of the hollow modesty that Vera Freeman frequently uses to leaven her conversations, which on the whole are larded with references to the opulence that she--and those around her--see in White Sands. To put the lie to this humility, you need only see Vera herself, who sits seigneurially at a rosewood table in one of the three bamboo-lined rooms that make up her café. She wears a flowing saffron gown studded with rhinestones and a double-twist of pearl strands wrapped around her mane of white hair. She refuses to discuss either age or money with any hard figures, but it's safe to assume that she's in her 70s and wealthy. Her years are now such that she can't call out loud enough to order a gin martini from the bartender, but when she raises her ring-encrusted hand as high as eye level, one of the staff comes loping over to wait on her. She may describe White Sands as a backwater snack bar, but it becomes clear soon enough that this is her dominion.
It doesn't take much time, in fact, for her to begin sketching out the somewhat ritzy history of White Sands in full. She and Dr. Freeman, as she usually calls him, purchased 800 acres of this waterfront in 1953, as part of a series of real-estate deals that her husband made while working in Hollywood as an "optometrist to the stars." By 1960 they began spending part of the year back East, and their venture on the St. Leonard began as the White Sands Yacht Club, decorated in the tropical idiom that was the fashion of the day, with access restricted to registered members. "We were only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays," she says. "The menu was always steak, baked potato, and a vegetable. It was for boaters only."
The Freemans had built an 84-berth marina at the water's edge, under the brow of the club, and began selling the lots that surrounded what was becoming the heart of the White Sands Corp., of which Vera is still the principal. But as growth encroached and summertime towns became bedroom communities--"sometime in the '70s," she says--White Sands had to catch up with the times. "People stopped paying dues. I kept it open until there were only two members left. And finally they said, 'Don't keep it open for us.' Then I opened the doors to everybody."
It was around this time that Dr. Freeman died. "Soon," she says, "people started just calling it Vera's place." And it didn't take long for the once-exclusive yachtsman's refuge to reinvent itself as a roadside curiosity with Vera herself as its chief attraction.
Today, Vera's nets guests with a giant pink sign on Route 4, summoning visitors with a larger-than-life image of its hostess, in her flowing robe and trademark white tresses. Inside, bamboo trim and palm thatch suggest an accessible kind of exoticism that--while falling in and out of fashion elsewhere over the decades--has remained current here. Some of the furnishings are gifts from grateful visitors ("Ships come here from all around the world, you know," she notes), and some are souvenirs from her own extensive travels ("I've been around the world 21 times now. On cruises. I'll just have to look at my checkbook to make sure"). Authentic Polynesian idols teeter over tables. Carved wooden dragons from Thailand flank the side dining room, marked with brass plaques that label them as part of the Freeman Collection. And a giant gong hangs by the maître d's station, where a single alarum used to announce Vera's entrance in the evenings, during her more sprightly years.
These days, Vera tends to enter more discreetly--generally between 5 and 6, she says--when she settles at the end of the thatch-roofed bar to receive her guests and minister to her martinis. Vera is never without a kind word for a patron, each of whom she treats as a party guest--"Don't you look lovely tonight?" "You enjoy yourself now"--nor does anyone lack due respect in responding. This is especially true for the staff itself, which attends to her to the point of doting, and which uniformly refers to her as Miss Vera.
The newest among them is Larry Buck, the piano player now in his third week, whose workspace sits right beside Vera's perch at the end of the bar. ("It's the only grand piano in all of Calvert County," she intones, with a meaningful nod.) With a long, hollow-eyed face, Buck bears a striking resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson from his Hell's Angels days, but he's more into Billy Joel, whom he commends as "a strong songwriter." After playing "Just the Way You Are" and "New York State of Mind," he begins stepping away for a break, when Vera summons him to play her favorite tune. "Yes, Miss Vera," he says, and begins glancing out the opening notes of Gus Kahn and Isham Jones' "It Had to Be You."
"This is it," Vera says, tilting back and pressing her hands together. "He just walked in one day, heard that I was looking for a new piano player. And when Larry played 'It Had to Be You,' I said, 'OK, you got the job.' He was pure Hollywood." Larry Buck glances up to grin, and then returns his attention to the keyboard.
Ed, the undertoothed cook, is the nearest thing to an apostate in Vera's cult of personality. While his matron is out of the room, he scoffs at her Hollywood-maven air as a bunch of bunk. "The closest she ever came to the movies," he says sotto voce, leaning on the bar, "was working as an extra in a couple of Mickey Rooney pictures." No sooner is he done shaking his head, though, than he is scurrying back to the kitchen: An order just came in and, more importantly, so did Miss Vera.
Ed remains out of sight for the rest of the evening, as more guests file in and the orders start to pile up. Soon, Vera adds to the mix by ordering a plate of hors d'ouevres. She issues the request through a beautiful, raven-haired young waitress whose father is White Sands' official manager, Selvin Kumar. A native of India several decades Vera's junior, he describes himself as Vera's driver, companion, and restaurant supervisor. Kumar, as everyone calls him, spends most of his time rushing from one part of the compound to another, but he checks in frequently on Vera, whom he addresses as "dear." A one-time competitor who ran a pizza parlor nearby, Kumar began managing the restaurant three years ago and became so enamored of White Sands that now both of his daughters wait tables there. He characterizes Vera as a woman of "splendor and spectacular beauty," and expresses dismay at the prospect that White Sands might be nearing its waning years. Behind the bar he keeps a copy of John Sherwood's sentimental travelogue, Maryland's Vanishing Lives, in which Vera figures prominently. "I don't want this to be a vanishing life," he says. "I want this to be Maryland's victorious life." Not long after that, his daughter arrives with appetizers for Vera: Ritz crackers smeared with caviar, arranged on a silver tray.
Any mention of the pale glamour that surrounds Vera triggers another bout of false modesty. "Oh, I'm just a restaurateur," she says. "I'd much rather be here than Hollywood. I'd be lonely there." Plus, she says, this place needs her attention. The sun umbrellas need to be repaired, the handyman outside needs to be paid, and it's almost sunset and the pool still isn't open. But around here, you get the sense that it's not summer until Vera says so. "I can make it a short season, I can make it a big season," she says. "I can do what I want to do."
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