CLEARWATER BEACH — Most nights, while college students flip-flop by with burned skin and tank tops and booze breath, you'll find her sitting there.
Marla Winner sits in a high-back chair on the sidewalk of Mandalay Grill, her snowy hair combed into a perfect bob, her French manicure filed into perfect rounds, her bejeweled top glinting in the moon.
She cradles her true love, a poofball dog named Pooh Bear with a penchant for gnawing stuffed bunnies. She sips her drink of choice, vodka tonic. She offers to buy you one, too.
Marla counsels the sad, teases the frisky, patrols for the rude. She owns this bar, after all. Her two sons run it. She won't have a couple of foul-mouthed spring breakers subvert her time-tested standards and give a bad name to the bar's upstanding collegians who call her Grammy.
She's the house mother here, to the regulars, and to the college kids who invade the beach this time every year. She knows about young people.
She is 75.
She's had some time to learn.
• • •
Times were different when Marla got her education.
Stephens College, Missouri, 1952. No pants, only skirts and hose. For football games, they could wear ankle socks and sneakers, but only when not escorted by a gentleman.
"They taught you manners," she said. "You had to dress for dinner every night. "
She can't recall getting into trouble. The Stephens girls bowled Monday nights, but she didn't sneak drinks back then. It just wasn't done.
She married her first husband at 19 and grew up later. They had two children, Tad and Todd, who have managed the Mandalay Grill since it opened three years ago.
After she divorced, Marla met Don Winner. He was a handsome father of three, a skilled debater. He read six books a week. He was good to her kids.
"Well, you'll do just fine," she thought.
They moved to Clearwater Beach 38 years ago and opened Marla's Fashions on Mandalay Avenue. Don became a city commissioner. Marla was great at sales, brutally honest so nobody left her store looking like a fool. They stocked the beach's first string bikinis, she said.
From her storefront and apartment upstairs, she watched hotels pop up. She saw spring breakers trickle in more each year. She remembers the hippie phase, when they sat on the sidewalk high on God knows what.
She saw their respect taper. Maybe modern mothers were too busy to teach table manners and vocabulary that didn't start with an "F."
But she never forgot.
• • •
"Kat! Can I tell them your story?"
Kat Davis says sure.
She's 27 now, but she got pregnant young. She married the father, made it work, stayed happy. Marla says this is the positivity you can find in a bar.
"The young people love her," says Davis. "She's got that funny way. She runs off the hooligans."
Marla gets up for a refill and pauses to shimmy a bit in the bar. She prefers Sammy Davis Jr. and show tunes to rock 'n' roll. She keeps a bedside phone upstairs to call Tad and Todd when the guitar gets too loud. Turn it down, she bellows, or she'll unplug it herself.
"She seems really old school," said Ashley Martin, 20, a server with a stud in her tongue. "I don't mind."
Martin's shift ends, and she strolls away down the beach. Marla, who is at once conversing with two friends and a dog, stops mid word.
"That's Ashley. Just a darling girl. Such a hard worker. . . . "
• • •
Don Winner died of a heart attack almost 20 years ago. Afterward, Marla couldn't walk into their store without crying.
So, she got a big bottle of Zinfandel and wrote a resume with friends. She was hired as a house mother for Zeta Tau Alpha at Florida State University, where she stayed more than two years. One semester, she started a chapter at Rutgers.
The girls, she said, drank coffee to look mature. One girl clanked the sides with the spoon, left it in the cup, palmed the handleless side and guzzled. They all dumped in gallons of cream and sugar.
"They didn't really want coffee," Marla mused.
They could be rowdy.
"They'd come in half in the bag at night, and they wouldn't reset the alarm," she said. "They would upchuck right in the foyer."
Marla woke their roommates in the middle of the night to fetch a mop.
They learned not to mess with Marla.
She taught them to be ladies. To sit boy-girl-boy-girl at dinner parties and wait for gossip until the ride home. To pass food correctly. To write thank you notes.
Kids are just like everyone else, Marla said. There are good ones, bad ones, ones who need a little push in the right direction. Most adults could stand to have a house mother.
The sorority girls still call and invite "Mom" to their weddings. One ZTA sister recently visited for lunch and took a professional photo of Pooh Bear as a surprise gift to Marla.
Later, she wrote Mom a thank you note for the nice lunch.
• • •
"Mike! Can I tell them your story?"
Mike LaPointe says sure.
LaPointe, 24, worked at a car dealership until New Year's Eve, when he got laid off. That night, he came to Mandalay Grill, his favorite hangout.
He found Marla.
"He came up and put his arms around me and said, 'I got let go today.' "
Two days later, he had a job.
His new boss sits out front in a high-back chair keeping the house in order.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.