Hard Candy: Save The Beach Theatre

By Cathy Salustri

Save the Beach Theatre.

I love a feel-good movie, a bag of popcorn with fake butter and a glass of wine.

The wine part is weird, I admit, but blame my misguided youth: for a brief while in college I fancied myself a film student, which meant going to see a lot of art films at the Enzian theatre, where they served Gardenburgers and cheap wine. I love Gardenburgers but hate art films as much as I cannot abide the patchouli-scented men who make them, so I failed at the whole film student endeavor, traded my black cords in for some sundresses, and happened upon this cool beach community. With only two “art houses” in the area I could catch Tom Hanks films without ever bumping up against a serious young man in black jeans and wire-rimmed glasses who wanted to show me his claymation documentary. Despite its artsy films I preferred the Beach Theatre to others, because when it did show popular movies instead of brooding subtitled affairs, I’d get popcorn and a cheap mini-bottle of red wine and pretend I was in college again, only this time I could watch a movie I actually enjoyed.

But then something changed: movies started to suck. Computer-generated explosions replaced plot, and the dark, Quentin-Tarantino-on-barbituate, brooding characters replaced George Clooney and Harrison Ford as on-screen idols. When I realized that Pulp Fiction wasn’t a fluke, I took to watching my Goonies and As Good As It Gets DVDs.

The critics promised me Super 8 was different. I walked over to the Beach Theatre, which, as it fell on hard times, started (much to my relief) pandering to the lowest common denominator of the moviegoing public: me. I bought my beloved artery-clogging buttery popcorn and requested my cheap mini-bottle of wine.

Save the Beach Theatre, which was out of wine. In fact, their cooler’s kind of bare. The registers don’t have receipt tape. The seat arms wobble in what I choose not to view as an allegory for the entire place.

Save the Beach Theatre, owned by St. Pete Beach resident Michael France. He’s made public his struggles with the classic movie house, and he says he’s trying to convert the theatre to a non-profit to keep it going. After last night, I do not know if he can hold on that long. Rumor has it he’s going through a wicked divorce, and I can’t imagine he’s got a lot of energy left in him to keep fighting this fight.

Save the Beach Theatre, a grand palace once. To me, it still is. But its glory days have passed and those of us who still love it are probably more in love with what it stands for than what it has become.

Save the Beach Theatre, where you can go see Super 8. I loved that, as the critics promise, it’s a Goonies-meets-Stand-By-Me movie not outpaced by special effects. It’s set in the summer of 1979, complete with My Sharona on the soundtrack. Glittery, polished effects and computer-generated images would have ruined this movie.

Save the Beach Theatre, because it occurred to me as I watched the film in my seen-better-days seat and tried not to resent the flat Pepsi that, even though the theatre may be fading, it’s a lot like Super 8: proof that the simple things are grander than the glitzy.

How do you save the Beach Theatre? I have no clue. I do know this: people always tell me that had they known that this restaurant or this business was having trouble, they would have done their part and patronized them more. Well, I’m telling you: the Beach Theatre needs you. Until the theatre gets its nonprofit status, you can’t donate money, but you can buy a ticket. Don’t want to see a movie right today? I’m not suggesting you see a movie: I’m suggesting you buy a ticket.

Save the Beach Theatre because if it goes under we’ll have to head over to the vacuum that is
the Baywalk Muvico. We will buy tickets online, listen to a nifty sound system, and probably order popcorn shrimp.

Save the Beach Theatre because you can’t buy tickets online, and no one’s accusing them of deafening you with their massive sound system, and other than the old-fashioned fake butter on the popcorn, your food choices are limited.

Save the Beach Theatre and keep your money local when you buy your cheap wine, popcorn buttered all the way down to the bottom of the bag, and tickets to a movie that reminds us that you can find the amazing in the unsophisticated.

Save the Beach Theatre, because, like Super 8, some things, including our communities, do better without the glitz.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com, or leave your comments here.

Grandma Mermaids (The Florida Sisterhood)

Thou rememberest since
Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music?
-Midsummer’s Night Dream

I freely admit I have a fascination with mermaids that goes beyond the ordinary. I have no idea if I believe in them or not, but I want to believe. (I feel the same way about the Skunk Ape, so maybe it’s a Florida thing. I believe in Skink, too, but that’s another blog post entirely.)

When you couple that fascination with my obsession with Floridana tourism, it’s really not  shocking that I managed to wriggle my way backstage to meet the Weeki Wachee mermaids. Of course, Because This Is Florida (thank you, Campbell McGrath), it isn’t enough to have a city of live mermaids. No, we do it one better – in addition to the regular, garden-variety mermaids who exude youth and fitness, Because This Is Florida we have a former mermaids show.

If the idea of older mermaids, battle-scarred with wrinkles and weight, doesn’t appeal to you, well, I beg your indulgence, although I understand: These ladies are not today’s lithe young sirens. As one Former puts it (that’s how I think of them, the Formers and the Currents), they are “Grandma Mermaids.” The eldest of them lived in Indian Rocks Beach retired from the Former show in her 80th year because, as the Formers put it, “the drive got to be too much.”


So, no, they aren’t young, and they aren’t traditional mermaids. But man, oh man. Get these ladies in the water, and they outshine the Currents by far. 


Which makes sense, really. They are the mermaids of yesteryear; they were vintage Florida kitsch, before you could find it on every street corner. They were the forerunners of Weird Florida; they were the metric by which every non-alligator-related tourist attraction would be measured. No mermaids? Well, you better have one hell of a parade or gimmick to match these ladies. I’m talking six-foot-tall talking dog gimmicks, because once you had seen these sirens of the deep, what was next?





Even in their sixties and seventies, these ladies are the queens of the deep, and watching their reunion shows sandwiched between the Current shows, I can’t help but want to be part of their world. Because their watery world beneath the glassy spring isn’t just a mermaid world, it is their world, their sisterhood. And that sisterhood is Florida, in a big way. 


They tickle the turtles that come to eat their banana (if you’ve never seen the show I’m not even going to try to explain that; suffice to say, turtles like bananas–A LOT) and they have a free and easy fun in the water that seems just out of reach of the Currents’ grasp. They are the best parts of Florida, tails and all. They move with a grace and elegance that belies their age and proves that no matter how much some things change, some things never can. Just like Florida remains immutable in the face of its constant metamorphosis, these ladies prove that indeed, once a mermaid, no matter how you age or change, you are, at your core, always a mermaid.

Welcome to Ebro

So one of my writing clients, Demand Media, often has travel-themed guides about Florida I can write quickly. Sometimes I get lucky and find one like “Best Nude Beaches in Florida” which, at a minimum, is a lot of fun to write and – this is crucial for a freelancer- I can do it easily and quickly and up my hourly average.

Other guides are not so easy. This morning, I started writing about hotels in Ebro. Never heard of Ebro? It’s a small town in Washington county, which is in the panhandle. The problem with these little places is that I get carried away with the details. Because of their narrow scope, I should be able to focus these guides quickly and ship them off to the client. Instead I find myself getting carried away on the details, getting caught up in the minutiae, and writing pointless blog entries about them.

Here’s what I know so far:

Ebro, Florida, which has a population of 269 people and, of the 133 men there, no reported gays. 60% of the town’s population is Southern Baptist, 10%, Assembly of God, and the were overwhelmingly red for the last two presidential races. Most residents never receive education past high school, if they even graduate. They have 16 gas stations, 15 restaurants, and apparently, only one hotel. Their adult obesity and diabetes rates are above the state average.

Kind of paints a mental picture of the town, doesn’t it?
I love the panhandle. God help me, I do.

Hard Candy: Thanksgiving — That’s Not How We Do Things Down Here

I am supposed to be putting a turkey in the oven, and I will, in a minute. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, but my family rarely eats turkey on Thanksgiving. Which is fine, because I don’t like turkey. I like the leftovers, in the middle of the night, with a cold glass of milk and the refrigerator door leaking yellow light into the kitchen. That’s when it’s good; that’s my real Thanksgiving. One year, during that brief period where I made turkey to make others happy, I sent my Thanksgiving guests home with leftovers and slices of bread. That way they could have turkey sandwiches. That’s why I’m making a turkey today: for those lovely sandwiches, with cornbread dressing, gravy, slabs of turkey, and some cranberries on each slice of bread.

So it’s fitting that this column comes the week after Thanksgiving, when the only turkey in sight comes on a sandwich.

You see, the way I see Thanksgiving is the way I see Florida: that’s not how we do it down here. You’ve heard that before, right? “That’s not how we do it up north!” is a popular refrain in our Florida bakeries, pizzerias and grocery stores. Bagels are better in Manhattan, and Chicago and New York both beat Florida hands down in the pizza arena. Wisconsin cheese reigns as the Dairy King, and everyone knows that Philly has better… well, apparently, everything. Some people might try to tell you we’ve got it wrong down here. No matter what “it” is, it’s not how they do things up north.

To these people, I say: damn straight. Things in the Sunshine State are different. And that’s what I’m thankful for, not just today, or tomorrow, but every day that I wake up in this amazing, messed up, hanging-chad, environmentally compromised, criminally creative, wonderful, backwards, glorious state.

I am thankful that we don’t have bagels the size of a dinner plate. I love that finding a pizza that’s any good is only slightly less difficult than finding the Holy Grail. I’m so happy that our cheese steaks and hard rolls don’t compare to what you had up north. Because that clears the way for Cuban bread (invented by Cubans in Tampa, thank you very much), Gulf shrimp, oysters (yeah, those are all us, too) and key lime and sour orange pies.

I love that I’m sweating in November and that it’s been warm enough that I’ve had my kayak out three times this week. I am glad that you can’t stand the heat, because that means that as crowded as Florida gets, you will never live here in July and that is when we get our state back.

I think it’s fantastic that we have the tension between developers and – well, just about everybody else. It means that we understand that we have something of value, a treasure in this state’s natural bounty that some of us are willing to fight for, no matter the cost. Maybe you don’t have that kind of nonsense up north, but you also don’t have white sand beaches, the Everglades, or a thousand other reasons to spend winters here instead of there.

No, that’s not how we do it down here. You have your pilgrims; we have our Spaniards. Your Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims and the Indians, but, as Florida historian Michael Gannon says, “At the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.” What’s that now? Yup, St. Augustine predates your northern society by over a century- 1513, to be exact. Turkey and squash? Yeah, that’s not how we do it down here. Our meals with the natives consisted of trout, sheepshead, oyster, heart of palm and shrimp.

We can’t claim Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, but we have Ponce de Leon and Jaques LeMoyne. We have no Davey Crockett, but we have Totch Brown, Everglades pioneer and folk hero. We don’t have the founding fathers, but we do have founding mothers: the three Marjories- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Marjorie Carr, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. We don’t have Mount Rushmore, the Rockies, or the Appalachian Trail. We do have the Suwannee River, the Florida Keys, and the Everglades.

No, that’s not how you do things up north. You have Thanksgiving with winter coats and Indian corn. We have oyster dressing, cornbread, and, on occasion, deep-fried turkey. It’s Thanksgiving, Florida style, and it’s how we do things down here. Keep your cheese steaks. We can always visit.

Look, I know there’s a lot about Florida that’s messed up. I’m not blind. She’s got her problems – big ones – but I love her. I wouldn’t trade mosquitoes, tiny bagels, and crappy pizza for all the turkey dinners in the world. Because, to me, the way you do things up north is a fancy Thanksgiving dinner, and Florida?

She’s my turkey sandwich.

••
Contact Cathy Salustri at cathy@theGabber.com.

Headwaters

I first sat in a kayak in the Chassahowitzka just after my eighteenth birthday, heady with the airy irresponsible freedom of adulthood and giddy with the discovery of a Florida beyond reverse-cycle air conditioning. I drifted down the spring and paddled back up again (in hindsight, not a well thought-out launch), finding primeval Florida, one with giant cypress trees and their knobby knees, decaying tree trunks, tea-colored water, and an eerie yet oddly soothing stillness as the sun streamed through the canopy. I remember scooching my kayak over fallen spidery branches and learning how to paddle just enough to get me to the summit of a cabbage palm reaching across the water, getting swallowed up by a watery world I had to trust would let me leave. I had never heard of William Bartram or Archie Carr or even Jeff Klinkenberg, but in the midst of this world I wondered where others had first gone, how far into the swamp they had dared, and whether they emerged enchanted or horrified. This Florida- this watery brown Florida, marked by trees with strange roots that sprung out of the water far away from the tree, this watery green Florida that clogged its waterways with duckweed, this achingly blue Florida that stretched overhead, vast, cloudless, and perfect- who else had seen this Florida? What had they thought of it?

My sepia river brightened with age, soft leaves sharpening as brown water faded to emerald in my mind’s heart. A decade of my life ebbed, spent in a suburban drought, on the edge of Chex Mix and soccer motherhood. When the rain finally fell, it carved rivers through my life, washing away minivans to reveal headwaters. I rediscovered the rivers of my youth but couldn’t stop there; I wanted to see what the river saw. Cinnamon rivers turn clear when a branch breaks the water’s run, but I could never pinpoint the moment when cedar-colored water fogged to clear. I coveted the mixing; I wanted water deeper and blacker and shallow and clearer and muddled together and swirling and running and still. A swamp is a river that cloaks itself in secrecy; the stillness belies the wild life seething within. The palpable tranquility, soothing the whispering fury threatening to burst through the river’s seams, binds its serenity to me, affixing itself as I seek out the path of the ancients.

I want to find the Everglades. I have no interest in a Douglas-meets-Disney “river of grass” or state-sanctioned canoe trails; instead I seek the foamy headwaters that birthed Aphrodite’s swamp, the raw water clothed solely in ignorance of its artlessness. I have only the memory of the Chassahowitzka’s serenity; I cannot find it on land. I need to have it forced upon me. I need to go to the river.

Did the ancient Calusa, Creek, and Osceola forget the serenity of the river or were they immutably tied to it by virtue of their technology? They belonged to a Florida rent by swamp; the everglades started at what is now Sea World, feeding a labyrinth that swept through most of the state: the Kissimmee River. For over 100 miles the maze of water twisted around itself and slowed the water as it tied itself into slippery knots reaching two miles across, whirling through the bends and curves, tightening and slackening through the Kissimmee’s braided confines. From central Florida the river sheeted over the land south to Lake Okeechobee, where it tangled over itself again and drained over the last bit of North America to perforate the surface.

Following the course of the Kissimmee’s history without sounding like an environmental renegade from a Carl Hiaasen novel proves almost impossible; the river’s story smacks of human arrogance. New arrivals to the state’s swampy interior protested the periodic flooding during the rainy season; a mid-twentieth century hurricane dumped enough water on central Florida to entice the state to develop a flood control plan that diverted water away from people. The Kissimmee redesign neatly straightened the river while almost halving its length and closing its banks to no more than 300 feet. The river born by gnarling its way through the chalky Florida crust now trickled into angular channels boasting draftsman-like precision. Locks along the river, coupled with the creation of reservoirs, ebbed water flowing into south Florida and helpfully reduced the amount of space the Everglades took up in South Florida, conveniently making room for subdivisions and shopping malls. It also drastically reduced the number of sandhill cranes, osprey, and bald eagles that lived by and because of the river.

Just over a decade ago, the federal government authorized the Water Resources Development Act, which included the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, a project intended to “fix” the river’s redesign. A bevy of governmental agencies have since started rechanneling the Kissimmee River so it will follow its original course. While work restoring the river will continue for several years and paddling the entirety of the Creek’s Kissimmee a practical impossibility, you can still put in along the river and at several rivers and creeks that feed the Kissimmee. In these watery corridors I sought my imposed serenity.

At the center of the state I made camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park. En route to the campsite I stopped several times for white-tailed deer, who alternately seemed indulgent and impatient at my efforts to take their photograph. My car didn’t scare them, and when I stepped out to get a closer look, I felt both humored and disdained. Humbled, I climbed back in the car.

The eclectic folk peopling the fishing villages drizzling the shores of inland Florida waterways remind me that every civilization initially develops around one body of water or another; in Lake Wales yesterday trapped these pockets in its mucky paw as the rest of the state zoomed past them to a drier, kinder future. These creeks and camps cannot possibly exist alongside Miami Beach’s cash-soaked art deco shores and Walt Disney World’s shimmering parades and thunderous laser shows, yet they do. Despite the lack of market studies or public relations plans – or perhaps because of it- men stream into the camps. Bass, sirens offering solitude and camaraderie, churl and swirl and quiet beneath the surface.

Instead of serenity I found stark wilderness at Lake Kissimmee; after an unremarkable half-mile paddle from the park’s launch, the canal banks fell away and revealed the lake. I inhaled, the thick watery muck arousing my nose. Few birds skimmed the sawgrass but I heard their warlike pleas in the distance. Clouds menaced and rumbled and threatened and something palpable yanked my heart towards the everglades; several hours north and many governmental agencies apart, this lake still strains to meet the surviving palustrine underworld.

A lone orange eye bubbled above black water, and we watched each other, certain ourselves of the harm the other could do. I glided in quiet, measured strokes, towards him; the eye blinked and waited. The water around the eye was a void of motion, a still witches brew awaiting its final ingredient. Ten feet away, I raised my camera. A snout swiveled towards me, then swiftly disappeared into a saurian cauldron, brewing a potion of predatory triumph.

As I pack up the next morning, a noise behind me alerted me to four sandhill cranes swinging their necks in my direction. Two teenagers stood about 30 inches high; two adults looked down to meet my gaze. The birds legged through my campsite, pausing at the picnic table and, well, craning their necks to get a better look at my camp supplies. I expected them to pull out breakfast ingredients at any moment, but after three humbling minutes the adults strolled off into the woods, family in tow.
I try to kayak part of the Kissimmee, but after two hours of C-38’s right angles the noise in my head thundered through my body, trembling my hands and numbing my feet, and I diverted to two rivers with allegiance to the St. Johns rather than the Everglades. The last time I paddled before prostrating myself before suburbia, I paddled the Wekiva, and the next day I find her again, her glassy headwaters peering up at me, remembering me. I turned my Dagger in endless circles over the spring, amusing myself with underwater limestone formations that make the water appear as glass of a Jurassic aquarium. When the deafening cacophony in my head and from other recreators threatened to overwhelm the moment, I paddled the narrow crossing into the Wekiva, and after a mile I shared the river with only two other kayakers who broke the silence just once.

“Did you see those gators back there?” the woman asked when we met south of a marina styled after a ramshackle fish camp. “There were three babies and a mother. I grew up in Florida, and this is the first time I’ve seen gators.” She seemed so pleased with herself, so overjoyed at finding a slice of something wild and real, that I forgave her breach of silence. I looked towards her gators and remembered my favorite gator advice, which I read on the national parks service web site: “Never get closer than 15 feet to an alligator. If it hisses or opens its mouth in defense, you should back away even further.”

In waters thick with yellow lotus and cypress, I spotted a juvenile gator on a log. He looked lean, but lazy. When I heard a splash behind me, I tensed up. I grew up with a dad who worked construction, and at night he’d regale us with tales of rattlesnake nests under his backhoe and the alligator tracks leading to freshly dug retention ponds. Over time the fear gave way to respect for this prehistoric thing that hadn’t needed to evolve in zillions of years, not even to exist sandwiched between swamps and suburbs. Alligators eat what they can. They like deer, but when white-tailed deer gave way to hogs, they decided that pork tasted pretty good, too. When the hogs gave way to poodles, the same thing happened. You don’t need to evolve if you can sense opportunity. Forget the 1950’s horror movies; if you want to scare someone, put them alone on a blackwater river and show them an alligator. Not a baby or a teenager or a malnourished retention pond resident feeding on Yorkies and Muscovies, but a true gator, a 12-foot reptilian symphony that sings of Darwin and Bartram and freedom and power with every sweep of his mighty tail.

Further down the river, I heard shrieking and rounded a curve to see two hawks involved in a debate so heated they didn’t notice me float by. Hopping amidst the cypress knees and the swamp lilies, they present and jump on one another, then back off and yell some more. Mating or fighting, I couldn’t tell, but I watched them for a long time, content in their discontent. When they finally forsook the fight for something unseen, I drifted along, stopping my kayak to get close to an orchid or look inside a hollow cypress stump, finding mostly spiders in the stumps, green stringy leaves by the orchids, and gambusia trailing my hand as it dragged through the dark water. I love this water; I love delicate beauty of the harsh banks that welcome anything but people. Unlike the Kissimmee, its beauty comes at eye level and blots out the cerulean sky that leads back home.

Encouraged by the Wekiva, I forestalled my quest for the headwaters of the swamp for another day and opted instead to paddle the Econlockhatchee. Because of low water, I put in at the Snow Hill Bridge and pushed off along what seemed a lazy river. After a few hundred yards, though, I had to squeeze between submerged trees and duck under both fallen trees and ones that had grown across the river, adding a bizarre real-life video game feel: turn here, avoid the oak, go through the palm tree tunnel, and come out the other side. Two strokes, then pivot, duck, and do it all again.
In parts, low water levels exposed so much sandy bank that the river trickled to little more than a misty leak, fallen trees and live ones blocking the water completely in some areas. I finally surrendered my scooch-over technique; as I stepped onto the sand to port my kayak, thousands of tiny spiders scurried into their sand burrows. Huge leather ferns rose from decaying palm trunks arched low over the river. The banks towered on either side of the river, and cypress knees met me at eye level. The clear muddy water waited only for the giant mosquitoes and dragonflies.
At different points along the river, pine trees, then oaks, dominated the forest above. At every juncture cabbage palms lined the riversides and stretched over the water. In several places I abandoned all hopes of paddling as I flattened myself against my boat, held my paddle alongside me, and fervently hoped to make it through the hole without stalling on a sunken tree trunk. At high water, these trees make fascinating underwater viewing and obstacles, but until the rains come they force the constant question: duck under or port?

Moving deeper into the forest I saw again my maiden waters, the Chassahowitzka, but this time I saw it clearly: the blues and greens and yellows faded to their proper colors of brown and tan and sand. My vibrant memories that called me back here could not hold me; the moment’s power claimed me instead. I began paddling a state river, but the similarities of this river to my pristine Chassahowitzka revealed a prehistoric swamp of secrets and truths and disappointments and triumphs. Memories washed over me as I paddled further, and even that night as I transcribed the day I couldn’t distinguish what I saw that day on the Econ and what I saw years ago on the Chassahowitzka.

I am ready to find the headwaters; the disgust of the narrow Kissimmee canals fell away and I saw the rivers and swamps I craved once more. I approach Shingle Creek with a light heart and high hopes.

I welcome the narrow blackwater creek that originates by Sea World and quietly curls south through the theme park and the 3-for-$10 t-shirt capital of the world: Kissimmee, Orlando’s tourist-swollen little sister. In delicious juxtaposition to the dinner and show explosion here, I find my path to the everglades’ genesis, sandwiched between Pirate’s Island mini-golf and Gator Alley gift shop. US 192 crosses Shingle Creek, although no sign marked the waterway. At an airboat rental stand touts the “Real Florida!”; I pay my dollar ramp fee and push off.

This tiny creek starkly contrasts with the Kissimmee floodplain and relatively flat banks. It flows south to Lake Tohopekaliga and drains to Cypress Lake, where it will rendezvous with other tiny blackwater creeks as it pushes south. Paddling Shingle Creek reveals Florida’s “scrub”, a desert with water, prickly pear cactus, and patches of sand beyond oversized muddy emerald leather ferns and reedy plump pine trees. Here lives an estimated 2000 scrub jays, birds resembling a blue jay that has spent a week in a central Florida fishing camp- a little scrubbier, a little wilder looking, and a lot calmer. Think of them as the blue jay’s redneck cousin, a blue jay with serenity thrust upon him. If for no other reason than I envy their quiet toughness and rumpled feathery dreads, I want to see a scrub jay.

For a half mile I contend with sunburned tourists powering tiny airboats, but at the half-mile mark the creek closes and shallows, and while markers warn power boaters away, I am free to paddle under, over, and into this world. I glide past a submerged tree, wiggling my boat around its wrinkled skin as a hawk lights on one of its arcing branches, a wriggling fish in his beak.

The creek closes in, trying to choke me out, and I grunt and pole my way around deadwood and cloying weeds, bumping over things and hitting my paddle on branches above. I can’t paddle; I have no room. Dry season. The downed trees and underwater obstacles test my agility and maneuvering skills and I surrender what I know to just keep going. I scooch and pole and sweat and breathe. Oak and pine and I don’t even notice what else scrape my head and the tops of my hands. Spider webs tangle in my hair and glistening blue bugs find my cockpit. I can’t push myself forward more than a foot or two at a time; I tuck my paddle under my arm and develop a plodding rhythm of lurching forward a couple of feet, then turning my boat by sticking one hand in the loam to curl it around an unseen log and using the other to pivot off the nearest upright branch, then reversing over the underwater obstruction for about a foot, catching my breath, and going forward again. Muck and bark coat my hands, mixing with blood and ragged ripped nails and scraped flaps of skin. I twist around branches and follow the water and almost despair and fight the squishy mud and detritus and huff and all at once it opens again. I find myself in a patch of water at least a foot deep and clear and moving just enough for me to know it moves. Little bits of pickerel move around the deadwood and caress my hull. I sit for a moment; ahead of me, deadfall blocks the way.

I stop paddling; the water here runs so shallow that it will not take me upstream or down. This is it; the end of the line, close to the beginning. In higher water I could reach the end of the beginning, roughly across the street from Discovery Cove, channelized in proper Florida fashion. It starts behind a Chevron and parallels a tidy apartment community. The end of the beginning looks no different than a drainage ditch lined with the verdigris of St. Augustine grass and ornamental assortments of ecology.

But I am not there; I am here. I see nothing I knew for so long and everything I wanted to remember while I didn’t know it. I close my eyes and feel the kiwi-skin water and ripe air and the green mossy decay of effervescent life. From this point springs everything that matters, closing in on me, pushing me down to the muck and raising me up with each breeze. Fullness and satiation and unsolicited happiness bubble up and push out the keening. I arch my back against the seat of my kayak and close my eyes, drawing in breath through my nose and letting my grip on the paddle go slack. The air swells in my lungs and I hold it there, finally releasing my old world. As the pressure builds in my chest, I feel it again, not imposed as before but found, as though it has been waiting for me to see and feel and touch and taste and smell and know it: serenity, rediscovered in this boggy enclave; forgotten and unattainable yet somehow omniscient in this closeted palustrine world. It whispers to me now, echoing its winding tale of waiting and joining, weaving its story around me as the wind caresses my elbows and tickles my arms. The air in my chest crescendos and I force it out over my teeth and between my moist, cracked lips. I open my eyes and look skyward.

The lush canopy blocks the translucent pearl blue reach that would lead me back. It doesn’t matter; I no longer need it. I can find my own way.

Raise your glass to the Calusa and Seminole

In preparation for the holiday season which is about to descend upon us like flies on a pile of warm dog excrement, I would like to suggest an alternative thanksgiving toast to all my friends this year.
I guess it started several years back, when I was a nubile fiancee and my ex-husband-to-be and I shared our first thanksgiving with his family. Now, I had celebrated many fall holidays with my own family, but, as I come from wildly Italian heritage, they resembled the average Sunday dinner. There was a lot of food, some people drank too much, somebody stormed out in a huff, and somebody else ended up in tears. You know, a typical family gathering. But I had never had a white thanksgiving before.
For those of you who may not understand this, many Italians don’t exactly feel like white people. Oh, we live in the same world and enjoy far less bigotry than people with brown or black skin or Hispanic surnames, but when your last name ends in a vowel, you are always a little different. Especially in Florida, where most of your friends don’t go to mass on thanksgiving and don’t understand why you would serve lasagne on thanksgiving. So when I say my first “white” thanksgiving, I mean what many of you would consider a “proper” fall holiday. My ex-mother-in-law-to-be had the squash and the pilgrim thing going on, and they actually- this was a new one on me- wanted to talk about what they were thankful for.
Now, even then, I didn’t have a bad life by anyone’s standards, and never in my life have I had to search too hard to find something to be thankful for. I have always had good food, a sturdy roof over my head, parents who love me, and all the friends I could ever manage. But in my family, in between the fighting, we tell each other how lucky we are all the time rather than just one day a year. Which is pretty wonderful when you think about it.
I don’t know what came over me that first thanksgiving. Maybe it was foreshadowing to come, maybe it was just that they served wine to me and I didn’t really come from a home that passed out alcohol to people under 21 (yes, I was a mere zygote when I got engaged). Over 21 it was a whole different ball game, but our parents did their level best to keep us all out of Betty Ford before we graduated college. So far it seems to have worked with all of us.
Whatever it was, I opened my mouth in what my family refers to as “typical Salustri fashion”. To wit, I didn’t really consider that I was trashing a very important tradition for the man I loved and his family, or that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need to express every feeling I had every moment I felt it. Yup, Salustri (You should see what the fam calls “the Salustri Stare of Death”, my cousin Michele actually patented it and has insured her eyes with Lloyd’s of London).
I told my future ex-relatives that I thought thanksgiving was a barbaric holiday and I never saw the point of celebrating the advent of us tricking many tribes of indiginous Americans into false treaties, the spread of alcoholism, STD’s, and Christianity. To me, I said, celebrating thanksgiving was simply celebrating the most evil things about America.
I should mention that I’m fairly certain the people I said this to had relatives who may have actually traveled to America on the Mayflower.
As you might imagine (and as often happens when I drink and talk, which is why I don’t do it much), this was not remarkably well received. My future ex-mother-in-law’s eyes got so big I swear I could see her cerebellum, and I’m pretty sure my ex-husband-to-be started running through his old black book in his head.
But, what is it, 13 years later, I still stand by that sentiment. THINK about thanksgiving. It’s one of those Hallmark holidays where we try to make up for grousing about being in the top 20% of the world’s wealth (instead of the top 10%) and treating our family offhandedly the OTHER 364 days of the year and talk about how great we have it. We all promptly forget that the next day when we bitch about taking grandma shopping or whine that we don’t have enough money to buy really good Christmas gifts, but for a few hours on the third Thursday of every November, we try to believe it.
And what are we really celebrating here? That we met with native Americans, convinced them to share their food with us because we couldn’t work out survival in this brave new world on our own, and then proceeded to thank them for it over the next several hundred years by wiping out entire tribes, exposing them to syphilis, convincing them that Christianity was the only way to go if they didn’t want to burn in hell forever after we brutally murdered them with our old world gunpowder, and, oh, yes, just have a little sip of the grogg off the ship and you won’t care anymore about what we’re doing to your whole way of life. We finally beat them down into postage-stamp size “nations” where they have our blessing to take our money gambling and sell cigarettes, and if they’re REALLY lucky we didn’t realize the development potential of the land we assigned them and they have a river or two where they can take the white man on little airboat rides.
What do you think the Calusa are thankful for this thanksgiving? Don’t think too hard; we wiped out the last Calusa by the late 1700’s. The ones we didn’t kill by gun, small pox, or measles we captured and sold as slaves. Every now and then you’ll find a Calusa shell mound somewhere, but that’s about it.
How about the Tequesta? Well, they didn’t like us much at first, but we won them over by giving them colored fabric, knives, and, oh yes, rum. Then we used warfare, slavery, and disease to all but eliminate them by the end of the 1800s.
And, of course, the Seminoles. Of the three tribes I mention (and Florida had more, but I think you’re getting my point here), they are the “luckiest”. We didn’t exterminate them completely. In 1823, we signed the treaty of Moultrie Creek with the Seminoles. WIthin the year, we built Fort Brooke to deal with “problems” between Seminoles and white settlers. By the 1830’s… well… our government decided the best way to solve those problems was to move ALL remaining natives to Oklahoma. In 1834, the government moved 3,824 Indians westward. In 1957, the Seminole tribe of Florida incorporated and less than 30 years later they founded the Tampa reservation. Today you can go there and gamble at the Hard Rock and buy tobacco.
Now, please understand, it was a war and the natives lost. I get it. I am all ABOUT survival of the fittest. But what makes my intestines itch is the way that we rewrote the past and then, to heap insult upon insult like we’ll heap those sweet potatoes on our plate next Thursday, celebrate the advent of our lying, killing, maiming, and diseasing. We have a holiday for it. We give thanks for the kindness we welcomed, abused, and turned against countless tribes. We conveniently ignore what we did, revising history so much that I doubt anyone reading this can name two other Florida tribes that once existed. We don’t even have the courtesy to remember those we lied to and destroyed on the holiday we created to celebrate the lies and destruction.
So I ask all of you… next week, celebrate thanksgiving. Eat too much, drink too much, do whatever you normally do. But at some point during the day, pour yourself a glass of firewater (rum is what I would suggest, simply for historical value, but I suppose a merlot would do the trick as well), and toast the Calusa, Seminole, Tequesta, and the others.
And, if you want to have a little fun with your in-laws, bring up the whole “barbaric holiday” thing. It’s highly entertaining.