It’s been a long few months and I’m not about to apologize for not posting. Instead of posting, I’ve put the final (I mean it this time) on my travel narrative about Florida’s backroads, due out from the University Press of Florida in October, and I started working at Creative Loafing, editing the Arts & Entertainment section.
I’ve kept busy, OK? But I miss writing (I always come back to it) and our most recent road trip reminded me that posting on Facebook doesn’t tell the whole story. And so I’ll jump right in without further apology, except to say this post is more flexing a muscle than making a grand point.
We went to Louisville this week and roamed around. On our last day — the day we checked out of the hotel in Indiana, which was a weird thing where I accidentally reserved a hotel on the Indiana side of the Ohio River (it’s too many states, OK? I can’t be expected to keep them all straight) — we debated a few options: Check out the Jim Beam distillery, head to Mammoth Caves, or take the long way through Alabama. Bonus with Option Number Three: The Coon Dog Cemetery.
I’ll give you three guesses which option we took.
I will never regret not going to a distillery, and I’m not sure, after a gas stop at the exit by the national park and all its carnie glory, I’ll regret not seeing the caves. I am, however, so glad we took a lengthy detour through northwest Alabama to see this cemetery.
We don’t road trip like a lot of people, I know. We drove through pouring rain, way, way, way off the beaten path, not sure what to expect. Finally, we found the cemetery — about eight miles off the main(ish) road and on the edge of a hill, tiny gravestones — some makeshift, some clearly done professionally — marking the final resting place of people’s trusted companions.
I’m not much for burying dead humans, but this place touched me. You have to prove your dog was a coon hound — and papers don’t suffice, someone associated with the cemetery has to attest to the breed — and they will not bend on this. The Coon Dog Cemetery sits on the edge of a hill, with a picnic shelter, guest book, and a spring. What a perfect place to bring your best friend for their final rest. The raw emotion on th
e headstones, even when the only emotion came from a weathered collar looped around a cross crudely fashioned from pieces of rough wood, overcame me.
I spent the whole of our time there crying, the kind of crying you do because something makes you sad (why do dogs have to die, anyway?) but also feels good. It was a catharsis, because along with all the good things that have happened over the past few months, some things have been tough. Now’s not the place to discuss what those were, or why. The point is, our visit here reminded me that it’s OK to cry and be sad and I don’t have to keep pushing forward all the time, I can stop and reflect and if I collapse into tears the world won’t end and things will push ever on.
And here’s the point of the post: I want to talk (OK, rant, really) about the South and how people like to make fun. I’m sure at least one of you rolled your eyes at the idea of a cemetery for a specific breed of dog.
There’s some debate as to whether Kentucky is part of the South. Well, not for me, because, um, no, but for others. It’s pretty (because apparently places other than the South can be pretty) but it isn’t the South. Cave Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of Colonel Sanders (not a real colonel, by the way), has a Union cemetery and a smaller… area… for Confederate veterans.
The South proper, though, gets made fun of — a lot. It has a tough history, because for some, it’s the only time America lost a war (I guess we still count Vietnam as a draw, eh?) and that’s kind of embarrassing for us. How can we be an awesome superpower if we lost a war? Slavery didn’t help, either, because what legacy that leaves the South is a black population historically disenfranchised and still trying to catch up. And, of course, we have a different terrain, different food, and we talk funny.
That’s OK. Life is different down here — in the Deep South and Florida. We all talk funny, unless we’re from Somewhere Else. We do have different terrain, and also, humidity. It changes how you look at life. I can’t explain it, but it does. We move slower; it’s hard to get excited when it’s 95º in April and awful damn moist out there to boot. We have a connectedness to the land (or the sea) you don’t see in, say, Indiana. That’s no disrespect to Indiana, but please, until you’ve been wholly and completely at the mercy of a hurricane or watched the sun break over the Everglades, you don’t get us.
And then we have to deal with you making fun of us. We’re funny, right? We eat grits, Florida has all these weird-ass criminals, you’ll see rebel flags flying and what the hell does that “Forget, hell!” bumper sticker mean, anyway? We’re backwards bigots, right? Just a bunch of Southern assholes who all vote for Donald Trump and aren’t smart enough to fight our way out of a paper bag.
None of these things are true of every Southerner or every Floridian. But I will grant you this: We live life different down here. You don’t get it. That’s cool. We’re a bit off. I get that. What you may not realize is that the South was settled by a different sort of European. I could get all history on you about how different European migrations found different parts of America, and I could tell you to read David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which details in beautiful, excruciatingly exacting language, why the South is different than, say, Pennsylvania, and why it has hunting dogs and Pennsylvania has Quakers (I know, I know, people in Pennsylvania have hunting dogs, but it isn’t quite the same, now, is it?)… but I won’t. The least you need to know is this: Like the rest of America, Southerners are not like everyone else. Southerners are flawed and exquisite people, and they have their own cultural history.
And that history is why Southerners have a coon dog cemetery. So you can make all the jokes you want, but until you can understand the beauty of a special cemetery for their (sometimes) hunting dogs, you don’t get the South. #EndRant
If anyone out there reading this ever dated me, I’d suggest you get down on your knees and thank the deity of your choosing things didn’t shake out between us. I am, indeed, the worst girlfriend ever.
I love the Florida Keys and have a tradition of going there every year. El Cap, too, loves the Keys and from day one has enthusiastically joined me on my annual pilgrimage. This year I wanted to see the coral spawn, which happens on the reefs during the August full moon. As I no longer receive a regular paycheck, I had the (I thought) brilliant idea to go camping at Bahia Honda State Park.
Friday morning, we packed the RoadTrek with meals, reading material, cameras, and swimsuits. Friday evening, we arrived at the park, which – thanks to not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Tropical Storm Erika, remained relatively empty. Friday night, we used a touch of bug repellant and had no real issues when we took Calypso and Banyan for a walk to the beach by the marina. We swam, frolicked, gazed at a summer moon from the transparent water… basically, it was paradise.
And then we woke up Saturday morning. El Cap stepped outside to walk Banyan, and when I opened the camper door to go outside, he looked frantic.
“Get back inside!”
The look on his face was sheer alarm, so I did. My first thought – because this is where my mind goes first – was that he’d found a dead body behind our camper. My second thought – because this is also where my mind goes – was how shitty it was of him to hog a dead body all to himself. My third thought was that he loved me enough that he would never not let me share in the moment of finding a dead body. This last thought gave me enough peace that I stayed put until he returned inside.
“Mosquitoes!” he said, opening the camper door and ushering Banyan inside – along with a small colony of the Florida state insect.
“I’m sure once the sun’s up they’ll dissipate,” I tell him, and walk outside and cover myself in DEET. We take a bike ride, hang out in the camper, but the one thing El Cap is noticing (and I am not) is the way the mosquitoes don’t seem to abate. We are both covered in chemicals, but the chemicals only seem to work for me. (I should note that even when I don’t wear eau de DEET, I get bit less than most people.)
Saturday night, I want to repeat Friday night and suggest such. El Cap, at this point thoroughly not amused by the mosquitoes that he swears continue to plague him, dons his rain gear (yes, rain pants and jacket, and yes, it’s the Keys in August, so you can imagine how pleasant that was for him) and we walk down to the beach. Except, unlike the night before, the walk is punctuated by El Cap’s staccato swatting and slapping and puffing as he bats at what I am starting to suspect are imaginary mosquitoes. He is dressed like the Gorton’s Fisherman and I am wearing a sheer sundress. I think all of four mosquitoes approach me, which leads me to believe these mosquitoes have somehow heard of me, or El Cap may be overreacting. I grow steadily more irritated at what I’m perceiving to be some made-up trauma, and I tell him in short, clipped words that once we get in the water, the mosquitoes will abate.
They do not. He removes the Gorton Fisherman gear and runs, screaming, into the water. This is a man, I’d like to remind you, who has been bitten by a rattlesnake. The mosquitoes, he said, chased him in the water and stayed there. He keeps dunking under the water to relieve their apparent biting, but he tells me, “I can only hold my breath for so long.”
We shower and return back to then camper, with El Cap’s self-flagellation growing increasingly more frenzied. The mosquitoes still show almost no interest in me. All I keep thinking on the way back to the camper is “He needs help, because he’s imagining things. Therapy can help him. He’s so stubborn. He’ll never admit the mosquitoes aren’t real.”
We get back to the camper. He removes his rain gear.
He has so many mosquito bites on him that his back, chest, scalp, fingers, toes, and legs look like the most severe case of the chicken pox you have ever seen. His face has so many bites on them it just looks like red, puffy skin with two nose holes, a slit for a mouth, and squinty eyes.
At this moment, I realize I am an asshole. I also realize we have anti-itch spray but not antihistamine. Why would we? I haven’t reacted to bites in years. I had no idea I lived with the human mosquito magnet.
“I know you didn’t believe me,” he says quietly, “but they really were biting me.” At least, I think that’s what he said. The puffy bites around his lips made it difficult for me to understand him.
Sunday morning, at El Cap’s gentle suggestion, I check Hotels.com to see if there are any reasonable hotels around. That’s where I discover the Islander, which is not only the first place I ever stayed in the Florida Keys but also a hotel I love dearly but rarely visit, has ridiculously low rates. It seems the same tropical storm that ruined my chances of a moonlit snorkel to watch coral reefs have sex also drove people away from the Keys, which may be why I snag us two nights at about half what I would expect to pay.
The Islander is atypical Keys lodging in that it has a hot tub, two pools, beach, restaurant, bar, screened patios, and – this is crucial – no mosquitoes. OK, so really, it’s the beach and the no mosquitoes thing that makes them stand out for us.
El Cap had a dream about mosquitoes chasing him last night.
This morning, though, the welts have started to fade, although the memory, I’m sure, will live forever.
I am not lucky, so don’t you dare say I am.
I had this thought last month while driving home from an almost-all-expenses-paid trip to the Florida Keys. TV5, from Quebec, had me down to talk about the nature of Florida tourist attractions. They paid for my room and my expenses there and back. I paid for my food, except a local historical society director bought my dinner.
For those of you playing the home game, this two-day trip is, in essence, my dream. So while driving home along the Tamiami trail, drunk on saltwater and high on sunshine, I had the passing thought, “I am a lucky son of a bitch.”
My next thought followed immediately, and it was supremely angered by the first thought: No, I’m not.
To be clear: I don’t have bad luck. I’m not unlucky, not by any means. But me being down in the Keys, or having a book deal, or being able to write for a living, has nothing whatsoever to do with luck.
Let’s be clear: I love my life. Every damn day I wake up, delirious with pleasure that I don’t sell insurance or work for a government agency (any more). But I didn’t stumble upon it; I gave up a lot. And I worked hard.
Which was not always the easiest choice. For those of you who think freelancers sit on their ass all day, cherry-picking the best assignments… um, no. It would be a much easier life if I went back to a nine-to-five job.
I’m not built that way. And that’s OK. I love my life, but not because it’s easy.
I’ve earned a master’s degree, and despite what some people say (“Oh, you have a master’s degree in Florida? What was your thesis, eating key lime pie?”) I worked hard to get it. I spent a lot of money and went without going out after work (because I had to read five hundred pages a week, on average), didn’t go on “regular” vacations because every trip was a field trip (yes, I loved them. That doesn’t make them less work), and had to find something new to say about Florida for my thesis (no, it couldn’t be on Florida Man).
As for the book? After having one publisher ignore me completely – and I mean completely, I didn’t even get the courtesy of a form rejection letter – I prepared a proposal package that was more research and writing than most people do to get a bachelor’s degree. And after THAT, after I had a contract, I had to rewrite, then edit, then deal with advance reviews and decide which parts of those were worthwhile and which weren’t, and edit again. And meanwhile – let’s not forget – I still had to work, because only about three people have ever made a living being an author with a conventional publishing company. One is Stephen King, one is the chick who wrote those fake bondage “shades of whatever” books, and one is a guy in Tacoma pretending to be James Patterson. That’s it. So on top of the idea I may never get more than a couple thousand dollars from this book which, by the way, has been my dream since I was nine, I still had to freelance, which means I still had to find work that would pay me.
And I did. But not because I have been lucky. I have worked when other people played, I have written about things that made me want to set fire to my eyeballs (incest, rape, murder, you know, your garden variety injustice), I have gone without the trips to wherever most people my age without children get to go.
To be clear, I don’t regret a moment of it, only that it took me so long to give up a conventional life to pursue this one. I am happier than I ever imagined. I do what I love, and it’s OK that I will never be wealthy or have a company-supplied pension. I am living my dream.
I write about Florida, and sometimes people pay me to come talk to them about Florida. I write about Florida, and, more and more, people pay me to write about Florida. This year, I’m also working on a series of fiction books about – here’s a shock – Florida. El Cap has offered this year to me as a gift to me, and I accepted.
This is my life, and I am blessed beyond measure. Blessed, happy, deserving, dedicated, determined… use almost any word you wish.
Any word but lucky, that is. Luck isn’t a factor. It never has been.
As of Friday, the United States Coast Guard officially ended the search for 14-year-old fishermen Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, the two boys whose capsized boat was found far north of where the boys were last seen. I cannot imagine the immensity of the pain ripping through their families and their community in Tequesta, not just today, but for years to come.
I’ve followed this story closely. El Cap and I have a life geared around Florida, boats, and the water. Everyone seems to have disdain for the parents and what they did wrong in regards to the boys in the boat. I’ve read and heard a lifetime’s worth of disdain and scorn about those parents. Perhaps you are one of those people who feels the parents may be partly to blame, that allowing two 14-year-old boys alone a boat was begging for this type of tragedy.
Please, Internet, hold your judgment. I know we’re Florida and the popular dog to kick right now, but odds are, you have no clue what you’re talking about. El Cap works for a tow boat company; I’ve worked for several different boat companies. Couple that with the time we spend on our own boat or kayaks, and rest assured, we’ve both seen more than our share of stupid boating tricks. I can tell you that I’ve seen teenagers on boats and I’ve seen adults on boats, and every stupid human trick I’ve seen on a boat involved grown-ass men.
Did Perry and Austin have good parents? I have no idea; I don’t know them. I do know this: Allowing two boys with local waterway knowledge and experience to take a boat they’d run many times into the Loxahatchee River and along the ICW doesn’t make their parents bad parents.
See, people in boats on rivers and in the ICW is what we’re about down here. People move here to offer their kids the kind of life Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos had from an early age. Unless you live in south Florida and know the water as they did, I’d bet money these boys would put you to shame in the water. Did they misbehave and venture out of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway)? Perhaps. Clearly, they left the ICW but why or under what circumstances remain unknown. No one knows what happened. But even if they did leave intentionally, it was misbehavior on par with a teenager from Oklahoma sneaking out after curfew to have some beers with a friend.
To those of you who don’t understand this, sending teenage boys like these two out in a boat on a Florida river or the ICW is absolutely no different than kids in Montana being able to go sledding or snowmobiling, or kids in Ohio being able to ride their bikes around town. Florida – south Florida especially – is a glorious tangle of rivers, lakes, bayous, and bays, a patchwork of dredged land held together with salty sinew. We have more water than land down there. To those boys, the water wasn’t a scary place. It wasn’t a dangerous place. It was as familiar to them as their own street. They knew the local waters; likely, they could read a chart better than most of you.
If they did intentionally leave the ICW – if they hadn’t lost steerage or had an incident that brought them there inadvertently – they were simply being teenagers, pushing the limit, testing boundaries. I’ve talked to a grown man who used to head over to the Loop Road, close to Miami off US 41, until his dad found out and put a stop to it, lest the young kid be killed. Odds are, every one of you reading this did something foolish, too, as a teenager. Drinking and driving? Jumping off the roof of your house? Showing your ass in your new car? Riding your bike in between traffic? Every one of those things could have killed you. Boys will be boys. Teenagers will be teenagers. Just because Florida boys play in boats and not on land doesn’t make their parents any worse than yours, or any worse than you are.
If you are a parent, I guarantee your kid will do something stupid that maybe could kill them one day, too. And I hope it ends better for you than it looks like it will for these two families. If it doesn’t, I hope you are shown compassion many of you are not showing these families today.
So how about you hold that judgment, eh, Internet?
Last night I read at a Lit Crawl in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District Association. With so many of the writers hailing from local media like the Tampa Bay Times and Creative Loafing, there was no small amount of Florida-related stories. For longtime followers of this blog, this may not be new information, as I drew heavily from both my blog and my reporting at the Gabber Newspaper. Here’s what I read, and yes, it is about ducks. #BecauseGulfport, right?
This weekend marks the one year anniversary of perhaps the best headline I ever had the privilege of writing.
The Gabber Newspaper, for those of you who don’t exist within the realm of the small-town nirvana that is Gulfport, is the weekly paper that serves the roughly 12,527 people who live in town. That paper was my home for almost 13 years, and even though I don’t write for them anymore, I still live in Gulfport. I love my town; nevertheless, Gulfportians – and that’s what they call themselves, Gulfportians – Gulfportians seem to have this “live every day like it’s a full moon” mentality.
Now don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you with Weird Florida” stories. I’m not going to tell you how weird or wacky or oddball we are in the Sunshine State. I’m going to tell you about news stories I had the, uh, opportunity to cover in Gulfport. And we aren’t so much weird as we are – well, we’re a small town. I believe these sorts of things happen in larger towns, too, but there’s more room to ignore them. Here, we all just sort of bump into each other over and over again, and so it seems like we have more unusual things than, say, Baltimore.
Because the Gabber is a small paper, I had the wonderful task (and ethical dilemma) of covering news and penning an opinion column called Hard Candy. What Gulfportians now call either “Duckopalypse” or “WaterFowlGate” started with a Hard Candy column I wrote called “The Duck Snatcher”. In it, I wrote about the Pekin ducks and a cute duckling that had taken up residence at the pond by my house. The ducks had disappeared and locals were murmuring that someone had stolen them.
Cute, right? I mean, the alleged duck snatching aside, ducklings make for a warm and fuzzy topic.
That’s what I thought, until I found myself writing a headline Hefty Bill For Duck Theft not soon after.
Seriously. Bigger papers – papers with budgets for things like more than one editor and newsrooms with doors and things like that – bigger papers make the copy editors write the headlines. I wrote my own headlines, and I’ll be honest with you, it was fun. Sometimes I’d come up with them on my own; other times, I’d post a one-sentence synopsis of the story on Facebook and let my Facebook friends decide. I wish I could claim this one as mine, but it was someone on Facebook who suggested it.
So, OK, I had written the column and thought to myself, well, that’s a damn shame about the ducks but we’ll never know what happened. But then my phone rang and it was our chief of police, Rob Vincent.
“Hey, uh, I just want to let you know, we caught a duck-napper last night” he says.
I remember this so clearly: It was a Friday afternoon and I was looking forward to the end of the workday. I was standing in the kitchen and I just stopped and said, “Are you fucking with me?”
He was not fucking with me. One of the other cops told me later, “I read your Hard Candy and thought, ‘these people are high.’ And then Parks” – that’s another officer – “catches somebody stealing ducks the next night.”
So I write the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft story and the Chief Vincent contacts me again, but not because they’ve caught more duck-nappers but because he wants to let me know technically, it wasn’t duck theft because – and I quote – “that would imply the ducks belong to somebody.
I realize that sounds all “born free” and very drum circle-esque for a police officer, but remember that in Gulfport, we’re now into week three of Duckapolypse and the duck nappers – excuse me, at this point they’re alleged duck nappers – are threatening to sue, and everyone’s a little uptight about the charges against them.
Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention that? 13 years with that local paper and the only time I ever wrote anything that made someone get a lawyer and threaten to sue was the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft article. They ultimately dropped the case, but for a while there I was pretty sure I was going to have to testify in court about ducks. And duck thefts.
WaterfowlGate – and trust me, this is one of many stories I loved writing – only got weirder from there. One time and one time only in my career have I promised to protect the identity of a source from the police. A source who feared legal prosecution because he –or she– previously harbored ducks and knows the locations of other ducks currently in what I can only call “protective custody.”
See, in Gulfport, it’s illegal to keep ducks in captivity, and this person was part of an underground duck network.
Ah, but first? The headline: Gulfport’s Duck Underground Fears Prosecution
Here’s my lede:
“Apparently in response to recent press about duck activity at Gulfport’s Tomlinson Park, local duck sympathizers, fearing legal repercussions, have returned a raft of Pekin ducks to the pond.”
That’s what you call a group of ducks, by the way – a raft.
This duck sympathizer was one of three “safe houses” – you know what? I’m just going to quote the article:
“This duck sympathizer is one of at least three home who provide assistance, nourishment and shelter to orphaned, injured or malnourished Pekin ducks.
“The duck sympathizer tells the Gabber that the unorganized underground network of duck rescuers takes in orphaned ducks … This unofficial group of duck guardians keeps the ducks safe and well fed until such time as the ducks can survive on their own at the pond.”
“One duck rescuer says that the two ducks that disappeared the first week of June are still missing from the raft, and the Gabber could not match photos of the missing ducks with any current ducks in Tomlinson Park. The fate of these two ducks remains unknown. The Gabber’s duck source says they do not believe the people accused of duck snatching (who could not be reached for comment) have a history of duck rescuing.
“The rescuers have released the majority of the ducks back into the pond, the duck sympathizer says, because in light of recent coverage in the Gabber, they feared the city would charge them with illegally keeping ducks.
“Whereas Gulfport changed its laws a few years ago to allow for chicken ownership, it does not allow for duck husbandry.”
In about 15 years, there’s going to be a young lady in therapy because her mom had to release the ducks because of me.
That was, I thought, pretty much the end of WaterFowlGate, but some time later, I was in the Horse & Jockey, which is actually not a Gulfport bar – and I’m talking to a friend, and I make an offhanded joke about Gulfport’s sewers being on the brink of collapse but as long as there weren’t ducks trapped in them, no one cared. Half-joking, she responds that Gulfportians don’t notice city issues that aren’t duck-related.
I start to laugh, but mid-chortle, a woman I’d never met before approached our table and interrupted with, “You’re talking about ducks. You must be with the Gabber.”
We spent the next seven minutes discussing duck-related issues. I finally asked her about the sewers and how she felt about their current state of disrepair, and she developed a pressing need to be elsewhere.
It’s not all bad, though. I love my town, even if I don’t write for the small-town paper anymore. A local restaurant put duck breast on the specials menu in my honor, and when a goat was kidnapped – you like what I did there – a year later, there was no question who was covering the story.
That headline, by the way, was So This Goat Walks Into a Bar, but that’s another story for another lit crawl.
Karma, man. What a bitch that chick is.
So here’s what happened: A friend of mine – Joanne* – has a duck, and this duck is becoming a man, so to speak. To help protect another animal in her household who is the current object of this duck’s affection, she says she’s going to find a girl duck.
For many reasons, I oppose this. Namely because it’s the equivalent of getting your teenage boy a prostitute, but also because ducks are against the law in Gulfport and at some point she’s going to get in trouble. She, of course, knows about the illegalities, and she’s a smart lady who understands the risk. However, she’s a soft touch. That’s how she ended up with damn duck in the first place. This morning, I tried to beat her into submission about this whole “duck sex worker” scenario.
“You’re going to be the crazy duck lady,” I said. “It started with a chicken. Now you have multiple chickens, a parrot, and a duck, and you want a second duck to help relieve the urges of the first. I can see how this is going to go down if Larry dies first. You’re going to become a collector. We’re going to have to have a damn intervention. That won’t work, so next thing you know, I’ll come home one day and see the NewsChannel 8 truck outside your house as county workers carry out the ducks. You can’t let this happen. You can’t be the crazy duck lady.”
It’s important to note here I referred to Joanne as “crazy” in the way her love of animals translates into an extreme behavior. Keep reading.
We had some rain today, by which I mean we had a deluge. In between rain storms, El Cap looked up from his computer and said, “there’s a fish in the street.” I was mildly alarmed until I remembered we lived in Gulfport and went to take a closer look.
Sure enough, our neighborhood was lousy with catfish. Apparently the flooded storm sewers had washed freshwater catfish from Tomlinson pond and into the streets. When the water went down, the fish had nowhere to go.
At first, I shooed them away, because it’s way easier to catch a catfish with a fishing pole than it is with my hands. They kept squirting out of my hand. Once I figured out that by grasping them firmly with my fingers in front of one fin but not the other I could keep a hold on them, I was able to start tossing them back in the flooded swale (which has a storm sewer drain.)
I freely admit I may just be prolonging the inevitable – I don’t know if the fish will make it to the drain when the water recedes – after all, fish are known for their tastiness, not their intelligence – but I couldn’t stand to see scores of fish suffocating on the street.
And that is how my neighbors and passers-by came to see me, standing in a sundress in the rain, grabbing fish out the street and tossing them back into a flooded storm ditch.
Like calls to like, I suppose. Crazy is as crazy does. Pick your platitude. I brought this on myself, I know.
Bonus moment: About an hour after what El Cap calls “the Catfish Brigade”, the rain broke and he and I took the dogs for a walk, where we returned three more catfish to water. Best moment was when El Cap was trying to catch a catfish who had flip-walked into the middle of the street and a guy pedaled past us.
“What’s that?” Random Bicyclist asked me.
“Freshwater catfish,” I answered. (I don’t know why I felt the need to explain the “freshwater” part, but just chalk it up to “this day is surreal as shit” and leave it at that, shall we?)
“Oh,” he said, and nodded. “OK.”
*Names have been changed to protect the illegal ducks.
Believe it or not, my voice is not the loudest and my post about some horrible things a (now former) member of a Gulfport Crime Watch page posted – and a (now former) admin refused to delete is not what spurred the city to act. My voice is but one of many in this instance, because Gulfport city management and police heard from several residents and business owners who were shocked and scared by the statement and – more importantly – the (now former) admin’s assertion that he “saw nothing” that warranted action.
Responding to complaints from members of a local crime watch Facebook page – I can’t share the link because the page has gone “underground” and more on that in a bit – the chief took some steps to fix the problem. I encourage you to read his latest blog post. If you really, truly can’t be bothered to read it, just know this: He reiterated that while GPD tries to help any crime watch type of group as resources allow, this group is not a city group. He also added that, in light of recent events, the city required the group sign a standard agreement (well, it’s standard in Gulfport) that includes agreeing they won’t violate the city’s human rights ordinance. Effectively, the next time this happens, this group can’t use city facilities anymore.
I also found the last paragraph quite interesting:
“While I cannot speak to the status of the ‘Gulfport Community Crime Watch’, it is important to note that this is not the only such group in town. Crime watch is, at its very heart, a simple and informal arrangement between neighbors. If anyone is interested in forming a crime watch organization anywhere in Gulfport, please feel welcome to contact us for information on how to get started.”
If I had to guess, I would guess our chief perhaps wants to start a real crime watch, possibly one with trained volunteers and ongoing education. If I’m correct, it’s about damn time. Gulfport does have one other Facebook group that has less bickering, casting aspersions and placing blame and more “be on the lookout” type of neighborhood watch bulletins, and while it’s not run the police department or partnered with them in any way, you may want to hop over and like the page. I mean, it isn’t nearly as entertaining a read as the other crime watch page, but it does seem to post more actual information about crime and safety (and lost dog) related occurrences, so that’s kind of useful.
I suggest this because Gulfport Crime Watch may not let you join their group if you can’t prove yourself. Before I continue, let me be clear: Many of my neighbors and friends and acquaintances belong to that group, and when I refer to Gulfport Crime Watch, I refer to the people managing the page, not the entire group. Which is now a “closed” Facebook group that has apparently decided to conduct interviews before allowing people to join the group. Now, I’m no longer in the group – apparently I’m part of the problem, which I’ve heard before from better – but from screen shots I’ve seen of the discussion taking place over there, the entire group gets to vote on every new member. That’s 218 people as of this afternoon, and before the admin will approve your request to join, you have to state why you want to join, whether you live in Gulfport, and so forth. If they determine your interest is, in essence, pure, then they will allow you to join.
They are currently debating whether or not to allow the editor of the local paper and the local reporter “in” to the group. I would suggest to them that they probably go ahead and give those two a pass, even though neither lives in Gulfport and even though one of them is a good friend. One of the former group administrators wrote “I remember a reporter. Kinda iffy” and I’m pretty sure he meant me, which is funny, because some of the posts in this group tell me the leadership fails to realize that had the admin deleted the first comment, there would have been no blog post, no city action, no cadre of angry and fearful citizens calling the city… in short, their lack of accountability hurt them, not my pulling back the sheet.
Making a crime watch group a “members-only” scenario smacks a little bit of a good ol’ boys club, and I’m not sure they aren’t making a whole lot more trouble for themselves. The new admin – who really does seem to want to get things refocused and under control but some of the inmates aren’t having any of that nonsense now that he’s giving them a voice in how they run the asylum – is so busy making rules and voting people on or off the island, it doesn’t seem there’s much crime watch going on over there anymore.
I hope fervently someone takes Chief Vincent up on his offer to start a legitimate crime watch program, one he feels confident supporting.
Some days I can’t believe humans actually managed to put a man on the moon, I really can’t.
Here’s a cute picture of a tiny opossum Scuppers brought me as a gift (don’t worry, the opossum was safely returned to nature.)
You’re going to need all that cuteness to remind you sometimes good things happen and make you smile. Because, quite honestly, this post will upset you. It should upset you.
Sometimes it’s harder to stay silent than I would like. This is one of those times.
Gulfport has a crime watch group. It is not, I should note, sanctioned by the police in any way, something Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent has gone out of his way to stress to the media. However, they use city facilities rent free (they meet in a facility for which the city typically charges rental fees), and on-duty police officers attend the meetings and speak and answer questions. In addition, their Facebook group has a shot of the entire Gulfport Police Department as its cover photo.
Before you read any further, please hear this: The Gulfport, Florida police department consists of good and kind men and women, and in 13 years of working with them, both professionally as a journalist and personally as a resident, I’ve never found a shred of anything to suggest we have an institutional problem with race relations in our departments. Never. Our officers are not part of this problem.
This post appeared on the Crime Watch Facebook group last week. Wednesday, I believe.
Sundown signs, for those of you who neither enrolled in Southern History college courses nor grew up in a town that had, as we now call it, “racial issues”, warned black people that if they dared set foot in that town after the sun set, they’d… well, quite honestly, they’d be lynched. Except they didn’t say “black” if they mentioned black people. They used another word, which I will not post here.
I left this crime watch group several months back. I grew tired of hearing people complain about “those kids” from Childs Park (which means black kids, because apparently Gulfport has no black people, which comes as a huge shock to many of my neighbors who – spoiler alert – happen to be black.) I got so tired of being angry at the page admins for allowing this and citing “free speech” which (another spoiler alert) isn’t what that means at all, Mr. Tim Spencer* (Tim Spencer runs the Facebook page and, as far as I can tell, the physical group).
But staying silent isn’t working. These people aren’t 87-year-old grandfathers who might spew a racial belief from their childhood but not fully understand it. They know what they’re saying. They’re the new breed of racist. They’re the most dangerous kind, more dangerous than the Aryan Nation or people who walk around with swastikas inked on their arm, because unless they show their ass, we don’t know. They’re fostering hate and allowing hate speech and not giving a rat’s red ass about how the black people who read that post feel, not just about those people, but Gulfport and everyone who lives and loves here.
To my knowledge, the city seemed somehow unaware of this post until this weekend. A resident contacted the council, police chief, and city manager, and Ward Two councilperson Christine Brown contacted the city manager (by the terms of Gulfport’s charter, elected officials cannot talk to anyone but charter staff – the city manager, attorney and clerk – about city matters). I have high hopes the city will take appropriate action, although I’m uncertain what they can do.
As for you, you can email the city council, police chief and city manager and ask them to stop allowing this group to use city facilities for free. Ask them to stop providing on-the-clock officers to this group. Remind them Gulfport has a history of tolerance, not just that dark spot that every southern town seems to have. Tell them we want our past to stay past. You can email them all at once at this link.
Oh, yeah… one more thing: Mr. Dino Della Noce owns South Pinellas Bicycles, where El Cap and I bring our bikes for repair. He does excellent work. Unfortunately, now that I know he’s a crazy fucking racist, we need a new bike shop. I encourage no violence (of course) but if you patronize South Pinellas Bicycles, STOP. And tell everyone you know this is a dangerous man who wants to set our lovely town back in time 60 years.
Hate has no place in my town.
*”Free speech” means the government can’t throw you in jail for expressing an opinion, but even that has exceptions. The First Amendment to the US Constitution says:
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment refers to government only. Free speech does not mean any private venue must allow you to say what you want. It doesn’t mean you can incite violent acts, ever. It means when someone spews hate speech online, the page manager can delete it. In fact, if you don’t, I believe you can get sued.
This just became my new favorite judicial-type phrase ever.
You need to read this Supreme Court opinion on same-sex marriage. It is one of the most eloquent pieces of language I’ve ever read. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes of the opinion, which made me cry:
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
“The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person.”
“Respondents’ argument that allowing same- sex couples to wed will harm marriage as an institution rests on a counterintuitive view of opposite-sex couples’ decisions about marriage and parenthood.”
“…the petitioners, far from seeking to devalue marriage, seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities…”
“The marriage laws at issue thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.’
“It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage.”
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.”
“It is so ordered.”
I have nothing to add to this, except to say how proud I am to be an American this morning.