My grandfather’s sun honed face twisted and paled as we turned off I-10 and entered the final leg of our southwest journey, down 301. As we passed bleached wood cracker houses and dingy brown cedar sheds, his brown forehead furrowed, drawing his coarse eyebrows tighter and tighter until the bushy lines above his dark eyes seemed a thin ridge of curly dark hair.
Up on stilts they sat, no shutters or covering save grime and webs. Underneath and along side sat rusted pickup trucks with dented fenders colored to match the decay of the vehicles. Flats boats shared weed patches with the trucks, the only difference their marginally better maintenance and the occasional trailer elevating the vessels. Washing machines, derelict farm equipment, and a mise en scene of auto parts awaited us anew as we passed each home.
My grandfather sucked in air, his silence crowding our 1976 maroon Buick Regal. “This,” I can only imagine him thinking “is worse than what I left in Italy. This is what I have worked my whole life to give my son? A slum in the south?”
“This” referred to Florida, the interior parts of the state detailed along 301, the parts of the Sunshine State not photographed by the Florida Tourism Board or local Chambers of Commerce. “They” referred to my father (his son), my mother, and me, a seven year old whose greatest field trip in life, prior to the three day journey to Florida from New York, was a dead heat between the Bronx Zoo (where a goat ate my coat) and seeing Peter Pan on Broadway (I got a pretzel from a street vendor and got to ride on a train).
In a chain of events too complex for a seven-year-old brain to comprehend, my parents had decided to leave Westchester County and move to Pinellas. And while they knew the end result- a small two bedroom just miles from then-pristine Clearwater Beach- my grandfather, who had come along to help- did not.
Eventually we turned our cruise-ship sized car onto Interstate 275 South, where the landscape grew noticeably tidier and steadily more sanitized. Our orange-striped Jar-Tran moving truck followed the car as we made our way to Clearwater.
I had visited before- our new home was my other grandparents’ vacation home- but the moment I saw the sparkling teal water of Tampa Bay, it eclipsed every other memory in my as-of-yet fully formed brain. The teal water of Tampa Bay bounced the sparkling sun into our car and the salt formed diamond crystals on my grubby, sweaty cheeks.
“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice hushed and reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” Before we left New York my parents ensured that they filled my tiny mind with all the sights and sounds of New York. We saw the Twin Towers, a Broadway show, and the Statue of Liberty.
I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar in the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this later – much later – as that I had come to where I needed to be.
I fell in love with the water that day, but as I got older I felt the inexorable pull of the other parts of Florida. I love SCUBA diving, low tide is a sacred time of day, and, most surprisingly, I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida.
These corners don’t fit with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s image, they’re our “secret squirrel”, our skeletons. The chambers and tourism boards want us very badly to be a fresh, clean, homogenized land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn we have convinced ourselves that we want to, need to, make our “guests” feel so much at home that they never see that side of Florida- that schmaltzy, chintzy, broken-down, rusted out Florida.
But that’s the Florida I love, just as much as I love the crabs scurrying around the intertidal zone and skimming my hands just beneath the sand to find a handful of sand dollars. My parents, New York natives both, didn’t behave as the typical “carpetbaggers”, as my grandfather later referred to everyone who came to Florida after us. My parents didn’t travel 1300 miles to turn a fast buck or recreate a slice of Little Italy or Whatever County, Michigan. They had visited, succumbed to the pace and the life, and fallen in love with what the state was, not what they wanted it to be or what they thought they could make it. They moved here because of what Florida offered them, not what they thought they could get her to surrender.
I, like my parents before more and countless other settlers, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let her claim me. Almost 30 years later I’m traveling Florida still, looking for parts of her I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the blight of strip malls and jet skis.
Today I’m seeking out Florida on roads that parallel the interstates, rattling along once again without air conditioning. My beaches have changed and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll her back roads in a Volkswagen Vanagon, forever in search of that secret, schmaltzy, backwoods, wonderful Florida, the sun-bleached roadside shacks remain. I feel the quickening inside me as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is the same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt as the salt water opened itself before me.
It is the feeling of coming home.