Thursday, December 17, 2009

End of the Year Musings – I

This has been a trying year. But it has also been a good year. And so, during this time of Advent quiet, I would like to lay out some of the things that I have been reflecting upon this very taxing but rewarding year. Here’s the first.

The End of Old Florida

Andy and I spent several years in Vero Beach back in the late 70s and 80s before and after my time in law school. For about a five year period, I considered Vero Beach home, even when I was far away in the arms of the jealous mistress of the law (school) in Gainesville. I have been fond of Vero ever since. Hence the reason my return to Vero for a weekend sojourn there this fall was so disappointing.

In all fairness, Vero has always been a town of extremes. As a wealthy piss-elegant queen decorator there once said, “You’ve got all the good people living on the beach, all the shit kickers in their pick-em-up trucks out on the west side of town and not much in between.”

Of course that “not much in between” included the two of us. Andy worked for Piper Aircraft out at the airport just down the road from Dodgertown where Tommy Lasorda and his LA Blue trained each spring, occasionally getting to take new models out for a spin. Meanwhile I taught emotionally disturbed kids up in Gifford, the little pocket of the third world just north of town that most of its white residents pretended did not exist.

Though I tried, I never fit in Gifford. I was too white, too well educated (at that time, with only my BA in History/Secondary Ed) and too middle class. These folks were desperately poor and most scratched out meager livings in the local citrus groves and packing houses, one of which bordered the middle school where I taught. It was always clear to me that while I could go into Gifford during the day, love my students (because, frankly, most of them had no one else to really love them, much less defend them from the brutal lives they were facing) and even party with my friend, the music teacher who lived on the edge of Gifford, at night, I always had the option - if not the obligation - to go home at the end of my time there.

I also never fit into the wealth ensconced on the beach, not that I ever particularly wanted to. The level of self-awareness and corresponding dismissal of those who were inevitably seen as NOCD (Not Our Class, Dearie) was palpable, even at the many dinner parties Andy and I were invited to attend over on the beach. The beachside was lovely as was much of the downtown areas of Vero Beach with streets lined with royal palms framing Florida boomtime stucco homes. But, as I’ve learned long ago, the beauty of a place must be matched by the internal beauty of its inhabitants to be a place I would consider truly habitable.

Since we left Vero Beach to move to Orlando in 1983, much has changed. Gigantic gated communities have consumed much of the former wetlands bordering the Indian River. The realm of the “shit kickers in their pick’em trucks” has been steadily pushed westward into the former grove land and south into blue collar St. Lucie County as gated communities have competed with retirees in trailer parks and strip malls for the remaining land. Vero has become a reflection of Florida at large with its out of control growth, its pampered retirees and its large group of peoples left behind.

I set out for Vero in the week I had off prior to the fall term, seeking some down time, some quiet and, hopefully, a little peace of mind before the onslaught of fall term. At heart, I hoped to reconnect with a little of the Vero I knew, to hopefully engage a piece of my past that I remembered rather fondly. What I found left me angry and grieving for a life – and a state – now gone.

I stayed at the Holiday Inn on the Beach, a decent 1960s era hotel with a large lounge and restaurant full of noise, smoke and tourists from the northeast. I walked down the beach as I often had to Waldo’s, the old hotel assembled in the early 1900s by Vero eccentric millionaire Waldo Sexton, and filled with antiques and historical artifacts from all over Florida. Waldo's has decent though overpriced drinks, mediocre food on a good night and a young crowd. But it also has an ocean side deck with a sweeping view of ocean complete with the wreckage of a turn of the century steamship which went down on the coral reefs offshore and which still appears at low tide, today an attraction for divers.

After a couple of drinks I decided I’d head down to one of my old haunts, Crustie’s Pizza, right on the beach by Humiston Park. I’ve spent a lot of nights in Crusties (nee Patricks Pizza when we lived there) comsuming copious quantities of cheap beer and eating so-so pizza, all the while listening to the ocean roaring right outside the window and screaming over the roar of football on the television monitors all over the restaurant. This pizza joint held a lot of memories for me. I’d hope to go relive them one more time.

But, alas. Crusties is no more. The one-two punch of Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in 1994 did the place in and, unlike the Ocean Grill, the social gathering place of beach elite similarly perched precariously over the beach on stilts such that the ocean comes roaring beneath it at high tide, Crusties was not to be rebuilt after the storms. In its place, a chain link fence stretching across the dune line to the beach below delineated a construction site where a new condominium would soon take its place. The last outpost of the locals across the bridges in mainland Vero was gone. Even that small spot would now go to the wealthy snowbirds who visit during “the season.” Old Vero was no more.

The final nail in the coffin came the next day as I was leaving town to catch I-95 north back to Orlando. I stopped at Starbucks at the Vero Mall just before the interstate to get some reinforcements for the long ride back up to Orlando after a long night at the Ocean Grill. All I wanted was a half-caf to go. Famous last words.

The woman ahead of me in line, a local retiree no doubt from one of the many gated communities squeezed between trailer parks and the Our Lady of the Corrugated Steel Building megachurches on the edge of town, had arrived in her Cadillac. As she gave her order to the young college boy home for the summer break, she let him know through her tone, affect and words that she clearly considered him hired help and below her status. After nearly 10 minutes of negotiating and renegotiating the temperature of her drink and the amount of foam (and I thought the undergrads were bad!), I finally was able to get to the counter, order my coffee and make my escape. The old coot actually scowled at me as I went out the door. "And also with you" ran across my mind but fortunately my Mother's voice reminding me "Don't be ugly, son" restrained me from verbalizing that thought.

As I headed out SR 60 to the Interstate that morning, I was very clear about one thing: the place I had loved and considered returning to in retirement no longer existed. What has taken its place is nothing I would ever wish to deal with again. The Vero I knew is dead and buried. May it rest in peace.

But all is not lost for this fifth generation Cracker.

Two weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, I went with my sister, her boys and my Dad over to Passe-a-Grille, an old beachside community on the south end of the Pinellas County peninsula jsut across the bay from Tampa. I had spent a couple years of my life in Clearwater, just a few miles to the north, during kintergarden and first grade. Having always grieved being taken from that place to grow up in rural Sumter County, I am always delighted to have a chance to be back to one the increasingly few places I consider my old Florida “homes.”

The hotel in which we stayed was an old 1950s era hotel which had been fairly recently revamped, with decking and a hot tub. It was across the street from the Gulf, a warm, salty bathtub on a good day and the place where the sun daily makes a hissing noise as sit drops into its waters (or so I’m told by the locals in Key West). The hotel is now operated by a middle aged, mixed race couple from New York. It was low key, simple but clean and comfortable. It was perfect.

Passe-a-Grille has prohibited building condos on the beach itself. All development is at least 50 years old or older and sits across the street from the Gulf, separated from the street by on-street parking, ramps over the dunes and a good 300 foot stretch of sand and sea oats. It was beautiful. Indeed, after my experience in Vero, it was heavenly.

Perhaps even more beautiful, from my perspective, were the locals. These were folks we’d have called Conchs had they lived in the Keys. MIddle aged to elderly, skin the color of your dog’s chew treat (and largely the same texture), wearing tie-dyed bikinis and shorts that looked like they had just barely escaped from the 60s, these folks had lived here much of their lives. Their modest homes brimmed over with tropical plants, a couple of seeds and cuttings of which made their way into my own yard at the end of this trip. (I wonder how that happened!) They often smiled and nodded hello as they passed. And the women at the corner store called me "honey" when I bought the overpriced six pack of wine there.

There was little traffic on the beachside streets and even less on the beach itself. We took a long walk on the beach after dinner, flashlights in hand, just like when I was a young boy there in Pinellas County. Within yards of our passing, fish and dolphins jumped in the inky Gulf waters while overhead a large pelican floated on the warm breeze, periodically diving into the sea for her dinner. We walked along the sand, flash lights in hand, periodically stepping over sand castles from the day past, a small, moving island of light and joyful laughter in a sea of darkness. Up the coast the lights of the condos and hotels shone brightly. Overhead, all the constellations visible in the early fall sky twinkled. It was magic.

My father, a second generation Floridian, and my sister and I, fifth generation Crackers (on our mother’s side) all remarked that this was the old Florida we remembered. It was a very happy weekend and a wonderful way to celebrate my 56th birthday.  I came away from our little weekend jaunt thankful to my sister for putting together a brief sojourn in a little corner of the state which still looks a lot like the Florida I once knew and loved.

As I left that Sunday, I noticed that down the beach, the city limits of Passe-a-Grille are strikingly evident by the sudden jump in permitted building heights to 20 story condos. Passe-a-Grille is a bubble of low key, old time Florida surrounded by the relentless forces of development. No doubt the bulldozers and draglines are in a parking lot nearby warming their engines as we speak. Even so, it's nice to know a little piece of old Florida still exists even as the local self-described "developers," temporarily deterred by the real estate bust, await their turn at destroying yet another corner of a beautiful state once known as…Florida.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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