Hound country and health food: Tales from coastal Georgia

This morning we’re in St. Simon’s, because I’m writing about the War of Jenkin’s Ear for my monthly “Road Trip” in Creative Loafing Tampa and apparently there’s a world outside Florida (who knew?) and, well, something to do with protecting Florida from the Brits. Or protecting the rest of the country from Florida. I’m a little foggy on the details and also, I’ve recently switched to decaf. I’ll have it all worked out by the time the article runs.

I do love the South. Florida, as many Floridians know, is not the South. Oh, it’s south — with a lower case “s” — but not South, as in Deep South. There’s a story there, but it’s not for here, at least not right now. Point is, the South does things different than Florida. Every time we come up here I notice something new. I’ve started compiling a list; feel free to add your own.

Calypso at King and Prince
The lighting could be better but you can still tell that’s a dog outraged at how much people love her sister up here.
  1. Coon hounds. Or any hounds, really. While we tend to have every sort of dog down in Florida — with an emphasis, oddly, on boxy-headed dogs and dachshunds, go figure — the preferred dog of the South has “hound” in its name. Now, I know what you’re going to say, dachshund is a hound and yes, you’re correct, but people in Florida own dachshunds for their affable cuteness, while up here, it’s because they hunt rabbits or other small prey. This is the one place we can go where Banyan gets more attention than Calypso.
  2. Dog beaches. The coastal south — at least, the parts I’ve seen, meaning the Golden Isles of Georgia and Hilton Head — allow dogs on the beach. The rules vary (for example, in St. Simon’s, you can’t let your dog on the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day) but result remains the same: people with dogs come here. Also, despite what I’ve heard as an argument against this in Florida, no, the dogs aren’t littered with poop bags and dog waste.
  3. Harris Teeter. I’m supposed to be a Publix fan; I grew up in Florida and I worked at Publix twice, once in high school and again in college (true story: Florida teenagers by law must work at a Publix). Doesn’t matter. Harris Teeter beats them, hands-down for customer service, value and Starbucks inside the store.
  4. Low country. I’ve yet to figure out the difference between most of Florida and the low country, but I suspect it’s marketing. Low country sounds better than swamp. It is, also, what it sounds like: the low part of the country. But it’s more than geography; it’s food and a state of mind.
King and Prince dog bowls
This is close as we get to health food. The dog treats had carob in them. Not pictured: coffee toffee left for me in the room.

The food was my focus this morning; I had to decide between a low country omelet (andouille, shrimp, potatoes, corn and cheddar, with a side of potatoes) and low country eggs (the same, sans corn and cheddar).

I went with the omelet. The only reason to go with the eggs was to avoid the cheese, and really, when you’re in the South, health food isn’t really a thing. I mean, it is. I could have gotten an egg white frittata, but really, why bother?

It’s not like I’m in Florida anymore.


Coon Dogs and the South

No, she's not a coon dog, but she still paid her respects,
No, she’s not a coon dog, but she still paid her respects.

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.

Established 1937.
Established 1937.

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 the 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 I was glad to see all veterans honored.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. DSCF5920#EndRant

Vacation Conversations

For those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook, good for you. It’s a huge time suck. Your reward is that this will be all new for you. Those of you who do follow me, well, what can I say? Think of this as an Internet rerun, a sort of “Inrun”, if you will.

I should patent that.

Anyway, as I was saying… El Cap and I spent the week in the Florida Keys, at an awesome one-bedroom oceanfront cottage, La Siesta, in Islamorada. It was awesome, not just because we had the ocean outside our door and we did things like snorkeling Cheeca Rocks, laying in hammocks, and testing out the effects of coconut rum on the decision making abilities of middle aged women (spoiler alert: don’t try this at home. Or do. Evs. It’s the Keys, y’all), but because somewhere around the 25th latitude, our conversation (blissfully!) turned from talk about paint colors, flooring materials, and work, to things like this:

(These are actual conversations; do not try this at home. We are trained professionals.)

At dinner:
Me: I want to taste hogfish.
El Cap: It’s an ugly fish…
Me: I’m not gonna sleep with it. I’m gonna eat it.

After El Cap makes a flattering remark about my new swimsuit:
Me: WAIT. Am I a trophy girlfriend? Because I aspire to that. 
El Cap: it’s nice to have goals.

El Cap and I just spent ten minutes pretending we knew what the ospreys were saying to one another. It ended with the female going to nest angry and the male thinking if he waited long enough, he could go out with the guys and skulk back in after she fell asleep. Of course, that’s El Cap’s perspective. I know damn well that she is still gonna be pissed when he shakes the beer off his tail feathers and stumbles back home. 

El Cap: Whatcha’ doin’?
Me: Watching lizard porn. I think. This one with the cut off tail has been trying to entice the little one. (I move closer; the mating dance- complete with the flaring of the brilliant orange dewlap- stops abruptly)
El Cap: Yeah?

Me: Well, I have to stop. Apparently I’m some sort of reptilian cockblock…
(About an hour later)
El Cap: Oh! There’s your little no-tailed lizard!
Me: I’ve been watching him. I kind of want to get a box and put them in it so he can have his way with her. 
Me: Is that wrong? Did I just promote lizard rape?
El Cap: No. He should just move on, find another lizard. Go to ‘GetALizardTonight.com’, you know?”

(Note: GetALizardTonight.com is apparently up for grabs. It’s nice to know that there are still some things too weird for the Internet.)

As we drive north on US 41 past a sign for the Naples Zoo:
El Cap: Naples has a zoo?
Me: I KNOW, I was just thinking that. 
El Cap: Maybe that’s what Gulfport needs. You know, as a tourist attraction. 
Me: We can’t even have a dog kennel inside city limits. I’m not sure how we get Planning to go for a zoo…
El Cap: Well, maybe it could be all video screens with stuff from the Internet, like a dachshund cleaning a lion’s teeth, stuff like that. Videos people send you from YouTube…

We maybe have been off the reservation too long. Or we have the most awesome conversations ever. It’s hard to tell…

Notes From the Road

With the weight of infinite yuppie-dom threatening like a starving wolf in winter, we decided instead to head off for a short road trip. Sunday morning we threw an overnight bag in the car and headed south and east to try and forget that we now own a black urinal with brass accents.

Turns out you can never escape the black urinal (sounds like a great book title, or perhaps a band), but here are a few observations from the road:

1. Know what you’re doing when you take travel advice from friends.

Our friend Andy suggested we make time for a trip down Indian River Drive. Andy, like me, graduated from the Florida Studies program at USF St. Petersburg, and he’s far more familiar with Florida’s shiny blue east coast than I am, so I asked him for suggestions. Our destination was Lauderdale By The Sea, so we planned to take 60 east to A1A and head south. Andy suggested Indian River Drive.

I should mention that Andy has great suggestions but, in this instance, cloaked those suggestions and vagaries. I couldn’t find Indian River Drive; a flawed Wikipedia entry didn’t help much, either. When Wikipedia disagrees with a Florida Studies grad, always trust the Florida Studies grad.

“You’ll see a sign,” Andy promised.

We did not see a sign. We had all but given up on the road when we found it, quite by chance, in my dog-eared Florida Gazetteer. We hopped off US 1 as quick as we could and found this lovely twisty, treed-in, lagoon-front road that had no stoplights, no businesses, and no waiting. So, OK, no signs, no reference online to help, but still totally worth it.

How do you get there? Uh, lessee… Take US 1 south of the Fort Pierce Inlet and then head east on Seaway Drive. Head south on Indian River Drive as far south as Hutchinson Island, if you’d like. It dead ends shortly after that. A1A also stops south of Hutchinson Island, picking up again south of the St. Lucie Inlet, so if you’re headed south, head west, then south, then east.

2. Dollar General Sucks

I said this, more academically (although not much more) in my thesis. Dollar Generals dot Florida, and they’re eating up more space every day. I do not object to the idea of the store, in terms of bargains or whatever. I object to their super-sanitized, ultra homogenized, uninviting appearance that does not vary from city to city. East of Tampa and west of Vero Beach on SR 60, we spotted only three and I counted that a small victory. Bear in mind you won’t find much more than three CITIES between those places, though.

So, OK, Dollar General doesn’t “suck,” exactly, but do me a favor: the next time you’re traveling, count the Dollar Generals you see. Then count the mom-and-pop five-and-dimes. You’ll quickly get my point. Also, these guys build their own buildings every time (and they all look pretty much the same), and I wonder what will happen to all these buildings when Dollar General no longer loves them.

3. Spring Break… Worse on the East Coast

A just-over-five-hour drive turned to a seven-hour excursion (I’m glad we packed food) when I decided to take the last few miles on A1A.

4. Still totally worth it

No point to this other than the trip still worth it. No point to this blog post, either, except to tell you about Indian River Drive and whine about Dollar General’s eating the landscape.

Day Three: “Fun” Day at Sea

There is nothing fun about a boat full of drunk people. Nothing. Thank god for our balcony and every other corner of this monstrous ship where they aren’t playing music or letting passengers sing. I love being at sea, but for some reason this cruise seems ridiculously louder than any other I’ve been on. The “Serenity Deck” for adults only, with its plush lounge chairs and sea grass furniture, isn’t aft on this ship as it is the others, so I’m treated to the full regalia of cruise line entertainment if I want to venture up. My balcony, however, is quiet and private and I finish my book there, because I am apparently 85. Which is fine. I have knitting for later…
Seriously, though, once I avoid the drunk singers top side, this is not unpleasant. Room service, the sea moving past our chairs, and nothing I have to do or see.
Except maybe find the people singing and kill them. 
I wonder if this is what sea madness looks like…

Day Two: St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

My father likes to remind me I was likely conceived in either San Juan or St. Thomas. I endeavor not to think about this for the two days we are in these ports. Instead I focus on pirates and mountains. St. Thomas is a wee bit crowded for my taste, not just at the god-awful cruise port but pretty much everywhere. The poverty would get to me if I stayed. More precisely, the lack of a middle class would start to work on my nerves. 
Despite that, the people are friendly, the vistas are stunning, and Blackbeard’s “castle” is a delight. It’s a stone tower with molasses used as mortar. My summiting the three-story spiral metal staircase is a personal triumph of sorts: in addition to my fear of dying in a fiery plane crash, I also have a strange paranoia about metal stairways giving way. I am, as you may imagine, tons of fun at lighthouses. And by “tons of fun” I mean “not fun at all.”
Nevertheless, I summited Blackbeard’s Castle and saw what he saw, with a small addition: our cruise ship. I mean, if Blackbeard ever saw a ship of this size in his harbor, he would have freaked the hell out. Now, they lick their lips in greedy anticipation. I don’t blame them, but still, it makes you think… have pirates changed all that much, or have we just legalized the practice?

One man’s stone and molasses tower is another man’s castle.
Back on the boat, we meet our midwestern table mates, Mike and Sandy. I manage to put my foot in my mouth more than once, which I know shocks all of you. One: they live in Michigan. I ask if they hunt. Apparently they not only do not hunt, it’s something Sandy hates passionately. I shut up, except to babble on about gators and hog hunting in Florida, seemingly not realizing that this is, I am certain now, no different than deer hunting to her, and my rhapsodizing about the taste of wild hog is not winning me any points. Thank god I’m not playing for points. Also, responding to her comments about how horrible hunting is with comments about it being more humane than the cattle raised in stockyards? Another reason I was really glad not to playing for points. I am officially the worst liberal ever. 
Mike and Sandy, trying to be good midwesterners, gamely plow on. They ask if I have children, and I respond with my usual “none that I know of” which is usually good to stop the conversation. I realize too late that El Cap is sitting next to me, I’m wearing my grandmother’s gold ring, and since my right hand is swollen, I’ve moved it to my left hand. My left ring finger, to be precise. I gather from their masked expressions of bewildered shock they thing that I’m speaking for El Cap and myself as a couple, which makes a feeble attempt at humor a kind of bitchy statement. He hurries in with, “no, no children” and we leave it at that. I am now also the worst girlfriend ever. 
At this point, I have the good sense to shut up. Honestly, there was more tasting of the foot, but I think I’ve blocked it out. They really are very nice people. El Cap and I head to the comedy club, then to a great piano bar – Irish Seas, and appropriately named judging by the amount of booze flowing – where I am the only person who can correctly identify strains of “Sweet Home Alabama” when our odd little piano man plucks it out. 
We stay there until about midnight, mostly because the piano man rocks, even if he has one of those half-mustache things where he shaves the top half of his upper lip only. Also, I’m 97% certain the guy in the Stetson hat two bar stools down is Wade from “Hart of Dixie.”

Day One: San Juan, Puerto Rico

I am not a fan of large airplanes. I have a ritual: book a trip, book the flight, get excited, and then, as the tip grows near, get increasingly nervous about the plane ride. Call Leah and beg her for a Klonopin. The night before, talk myself off the ledge, mostly by reminding myself what an asinine fear the fear of flying is. Sleep fitfully. Get up. Take aforementioned Klonopin. Get to airport. Get ill in bathroom. Squeeze El Cap’s hand with a crushing force until we take off. Relax. 
JetBlue does make this marginally better with the TVs at your seat, and I like to think I’m getting better. I like to think that, but ask me again the hour before our return flight at the end of the week and I’ll likely give you another story. Nevertheless…
We land in San Juan and I am impressed with the warmth. We get through what seems an interminable line at the cruise port and end up not having the time we’d hoped to see the fort in Old San Juan. I make a note to come back with Maricris. I also make a note to spend more time with my Rosetta software, because my lack of Spanish is just damn embarrassing at this point. I can say mujeres, llave, and bebe, which are not terribly helpful in any combination. Ella bebe llave? I don’t think so. 
Anyway, we board the boat, find our room, and do all the usual cruise things. I forgot to pack socks, so the pair I put on at 4 a.m. will just have to do for another eight days. Fortunately, it’s about 90º, so I think I’m good. I love the heat. I hate the crowds on the ship. I booked this week because it had a substantially lower rate than the others, and my buddy at Carnival, David, assured me there was no reason for the low price except that the week after Thanksgiving was a wildly unpopular week for travel, and it seems that the low price and the possibility of a not-so-crowded ship lured in roughly 2,000 other people. The ship, it seems, is packed. Thank god we booked the balcony; we can sit and watch the beryl and cobalt water turn to aquamarine as the days pass without leaving our room if we so desire. 
Things I love about cruise ships: unpacking once, seeing new places with relative efficiency, and being on the water. The shows and the little piano-type bars aren’t bad, either. I also like being one of the most fit people on the boat.
Things I hate about cruise ships: The crowds, the drunks, and the noise. Also, I am one of the most fit people on the boat. Think about what that means.
San Juan, though, is beautiful, even from our cruise ship balcony. 

Destination Clearwater: Börek

*Originally published by the Clearwater Patch on November 17, 2012*

Looking for coffee, I find something even more wonderful.

Every year I do something called “NaNoWriMo” in November. November is National Novel Writing Month, hence the catchy title. The goal – and you can visit the web site if you want more information – is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. There are no prizes and no one else reads your book; it’s something I do just for me.

Everyone knows, of course, you need coffee to write, so that’s why I find myself seeking out a coffee shop. I’m ready to write, and my editor has told me about a nifty little coffee shop by Westshore Pizza on Hercules and Druid. I found a little coffee shop called Manos right where I expected to find a coffee shop.

There’s something about chilly weather that makes me want to curl up with a steaming cup of coffee and something oozing chocolate, so everything about this place was my crack. The smell of cinnamon and espresso wrapped around me like a cashmere throw, and it didn’t take long for me to start pointing at things and asking them to box them up.

A bakery visit offers sacred ritual: the smells of sugar and gluten mix with the heat from ovens while cakes and breads travel home in white boxes and waxed bags. The last time I spent any time at all in the New York suburbs, I fell absolutely head over heels in love with Cassone’s. They have these pignoli cookies that have no match.

Bakeries, though, don’t always subscribe to the dogma I think they should. A certain local supermarket puts its bread in plastic bags, and the white bakery box is now as rare as a Catholic mass spoken in Latin. Some “bakeries” don’t actually bake much of what they sell; they ship in frozen dough and use their ovens to finish the job.

The walls at Manos have menu boards and shelves filled with muffins and pastry. Baskets overflow with bread by the cash register, a symphony of beige and brown and honey and gold dotted with tiny sesame teardrops. Glass cases hold chocolate and sugared treasures. Beyond the cash register, dough paddles, oversized whips and whisks, and beaters hang from the wall, metal art for the dough aficionado.

I see the owner just as I see the spanakopita, and I realize this bakery is run by a Greek man. I catch his eye and he smiles.

“Do you have börek?” I ask. Instead of answering, he asks a question of his own:

“Where are you from?”

It’s my turn to smile. I know why he asks.

“I’m Italian.”

His dark eyebrows knit together.

“How do you know of börek?” he asks me.

Börek, I should explain, is pastry filled with minced meat or feta cheese. Turkish in origin, many Greek, Albanian and Bosnian bakers can make it, although rarely does it show up on a menu. I discovered it when I worked part time for a Turkish hotelier who employed many Albanians and Bosnians. One such employee, after watching me inhale a piece of veal, introduced me to börek. I was smitten.
I don’t tell him all this. All I say is, “I used to know a man from Albania…” and he smiles and nods.

“I can make börek,” he tells me. “But I don’t have any right now.”

That’s OK. I’ll be back.

Destination Clearwater: The Case of the Vanishing Skull

•Originally this article appeared on October 27, 2012 on the Clearwater Patch•

This house is real, right?

When I was a kid at JFK Middle (now benignly renamed Clearwater Fundamental Middle School), I rode the bus to and from school most days. Oh, sure, some days I would luck out and my grandmother or grandfather would come get me, but by and large I lugged my purple backpack and super-cool purple barrel-shaped purse (Hey, I was 11 and it was 1983. Give me a break!) to the big yellow bus.
The school bus situation being what it was in Pinellas at the time, we left the school and wound our way through Clearwater. What was a 10 minute ride to school in my mom and dad’s spiffy green Volkswagen Rabbit took, as I recall, roughly four days. Along the way we went through Harbor Oaks, where I desperately pretended not to care that several of my schoolmates disembarked and went inside homes that were larger than most Italian-American halls. I loved driving through the stately oaks, the houses built with an eye toward pleasant living as opposed to the sardine theory of real estate espoused in less affluent communuties, and, really, the houses themselves.

I didn’t live there, of course. Now, I was never ashamed of not living in a big house with a sprawling yard, and to this day I look at those houses and think “Sweet lord, that’s a lot of upkeep” rather than “I want that”, but the disparity between that neighborhood and mine (where most of my bus-mates lived, by the way) was laid out in sharp relief as we transitioned from one to the next.

Separating our neighborhoods was the Clearwater Municipal Cemetery. In truth, the cemetery excited me more than the daily tour of Harbor Oaks, even though we never did anything more than drive by it. I just like cemeteries (Truth: when I visited New Orleans for the first time, the best part for me was a dead heat between the beignets at Cafe du Monde and the cemetery tours. If they served that coffee and those little sugared bits of heaven in the cemetery, I would still be there).

What made the drive by all the more exciting was the skull. Across the street from the cemetery was a two-story building with a second-floor porch. A cement wall formed the porch wall, and on the corner cement pillar sat a bleached white skull.
While, in all likelihood, it was a plaster or plastic toy, you can’t put that sort of thing out across from a cemetery and not have a whole busload of pre-teens not spouting theories. It was, we all knew (with the certainty kids know everything), from the cemetery. The questions we could never answer were, in no order of importance, was it from a corpse marked with a grave or did the owner of the home bury a body there after he killed someone (except, of course, the skull, which we assumed was his trophy)? Did the body come looking for the skull at night? Was the skull stolen? Was it a family member? Did a murderer live there?
This is what happens when a young child with an active imagination has to sit on a bus for extended periods. I always believed it was a murder victim and could not, for the life of me, understand why the owner of the house hadn’t been arrested for killing the skull’s owner.

For years, the skull fascinated me. Earlier this month, filled with the Halloween spirit, I went looking again. No such luck: the skull is gone, of course. Instead, I toured the cemetery across the street which, to my surprise, is chock full of names we all know. The Coachman family has a big ol’ tomb here, and the Ulmers are here, too (please note that I am not making the obvious joke about the rate of speed on their namesake road and the dead). The cemetery dates to the 1800s, and I would have stayed much longer if my tiny dog hadn’t gotten spooked.
I had a good time traipsing among the green headstones, at least until, for no reason, Calypso (safely in keeping with the “no dog” rule and waiting in an air conditioned car) started barking her tiny snout off when I crouched in front of one particular headstone.

Maybe it was the time of year or a superstition ingrained in our family based on generations of love of scary stories, but a shiver ran up my spine. My flesh goosepimpled. I felt a thousand eyes on me. I got out of there. Fast. I felt like a fool, but I left. It was starting to feel a little too much like a B-movie to me.
As I drove away, I made a note of the grey house that used to have the skull perched on its second floor: 921 Lakeview Road. I drove home, chiding myself for acting like a silly sixth grade girl. I flipped open my laptop and checked the Property Appraiser’s site for information about the home.

It doesn’t exist, according to public records.

I’m sure that’s just a clerical error. I mean, that house is there, so there must be some record of it. There’s no other explanation, unless I’ve been seeing a ghost house for the past 33 years.

Which is crazy.


Destination Clearwater: The Gray House

When I wrote about the grey house on the point last month, I knew I didn’t quite have the full story. I just didn’t know how much.
(Read the first part of this two-part Destination Clearwater here.)

The grey house still sits on the southern point of Clearwater Beach, but now I know more of the story. Actually, I’ve known one of them for over 20 years, as it turns out.

Let’s back up, to my 19th year. I attended Saint Petersburg Junior College and worked before and after school care for the Suncoast Family YMCA. In the mornings, I watched over our nation’s youth at Plumb Elementary, and one morning we were short staffed and we had a group leader from another before-care site. He told me he lived “on the only house at the south end of Clearwater Beach”, and I didn’t think about it at the time, but later I wondered what he meant, because anyone who cruised around the beach as a teenager knows that the south end of the beach has plenty of houses. Of course, I had never met him before and never saw him again, so I had no way of getting him to clarify.

“He meant on Clearwater Point,” his mother guesses as we sit on the porch of that very home. I know now that the guy from Plumb Elementary was John Mannion, one of the four Mannion boys who moved into the home as children. Their mother, Elizabeth, speaks with the beautifully measured lilt of her native Charleston. John, who still lives locally, contacted me after his brother (who lives in Atlanta) heard about the Destination piece from a friend in Minnesota. He no more remembered me than I did him. He just wanted to tell me he appreciated my trying to tell the truth about his family home. Soon, I’d contacted his mother and she graciously invited me to the home in question. We sit on the porch and watch the tour boats go by, and she tells me what she remembers of the home’s past before she and her husband Joe (watching the game upstairs while we speak) raised their passel of boys there.

First things first: That little old lady? Yeah, not so helpless.

“She was one of the southern bombshells,” Elizabeth laughs softly. “Mary was from Atlanta. If you were going to party with a good looking guy, you kept an eye on him.”

The bulk of the legend, often repeated on the decks of just about every boat seeking dolphins and adventure in Elizabeth and Joe’s backyard, comes from a July 20, 1979 article that appeared in the daily paper when Joe, then the News Director for WFLA Channel 8, and Elizabeth bought the home. Yes, Miss Mary Ackert Wilkens did get intimidated when the bulldozers ran right up against her property line in “what she thought was a threatening manner”, Elizabeth recalls. Certainly, the Mannions had to convince Miss Wilkens that they weren’t fronting for developers.

“She did ask us if we would agree not to sell the property for two years,” Elizabeth says. Their attorney told them such a promise wouldn’t hold up in court, but the Mannions had every intention of living in the home.

As for the reason Miss Wilkens didn’t sell? Elizabeth who, in a just turn of events, practices condominium law, has her own ideas. While Miss Wilkens may have developed a fondness for the home and her parcel of paradise, Elizabeth wonders if the southern bombshell bought the home in hopes of flipping it.

“She never planned to do anything with it but make some quick money,” she says as the salt breeze washes over us in the early afternoon sunlight. “That’s just my opinion.”

Her opinion comes from something Miss Wilkens let slip to Elizabeth when the Mannions bought the home: she and the developer couldn’t agree on a price. Miss Wilkens, Elizabeth remembers, too, gave the appearance of a southern belle, but looks could be deceiving. At their closing, Elizabeth recalled that it seemed Miss Wilkens had to sign a lot more paperwork than usual. During this process, she looked over at Elizabeth and told her, “I was married four times, and I made money off each and every one of them.”

“She was like Scarlett O’Hara,” Elizabeth says.

If Elizabeth describes Wilkens as a fiery Scarlett, Elizabeth, with her calm, peaceful presence, could be Melanie. Her live in the Grey House, I learn, is filled with laughter and good times rather than struggle and adversity.

The home – especially viewed from the privacy of her porch, with the whole of Clearwater Harbor before us – offers its occupants a paradise cocooned inside an enclave of condominiums. It’s an odd member of the neighborhood, but for the Mannions, it was the perfect place to make a life.  “Nothing worked right about this [the house] except we wanted it.”

The neighbors – all living in condominiums – welcomed them, although Elizabeth didn’t expect them to. The Mannions arrived, with children and dogs and old furniture in tow.

“I could just hear the building shuddering, ‘My God, there goes the neighborhood!’,” she recalls. But that’s not what happened. “They were extraordinarily gracious to us. We did not fit in, but they took us in.”

When grandparents had grandchildren come visiting their condo, invariably they would grow bored with condo living and knock on the Mannions’ door, asking if there were any children with whom they could play.

She remembers that when her sons were young, the pirate boat would go by and the captain would tease them.

“Hey, little girls,” he would taunt the Mannion boys, “where are your bathing suit tops?” The boys, insulted at being called girls, would hurl handfuls of sand at the boat.

The boys are grown and married, with families of their own. Today, Joe and Elizabeth have the home to themselves, although occasional a visiting child knocks on the door and asks if there are any children home. Joe’s health could be better; he has cancer. They’ve been a team for 48 years, many at 887 South Gulfview Boulevard. They want to make it to their golden anniversary.

Elizabeth knows she won’t spend the rest of her life in this home. It’s too big, really, for just them, and houses need work. She has grandchildren to enjoy, a thriving law firm, and a lifetime of memories that will carry her. She’s glad, though, Miss Willkens never agreed on a price with the developers. She knows, though, that house will likely not stand after she and her husband sell it. She doesn’t like the idea, but admits “it’s not for everybody.”

It seems a sin, after all the house has stood through in legend and in real life, to let that happen. I say as much. She reminds me, in a gentle, southern manner, that the solitude of being the only house amidst a condo canyon, wears on people not prepared to live alone in a crowd.

For her family, though, it worked out just fine. I realize that, to her, the stories told by boat captains are amusing anecdotes, interesting urban legends, but the magic of the house comes not from those tales, but the real life she and her husband built in this tiny holdout patch of waterfront property. For the Mannions, the legends, however flashy, don’t hold a candle to their reality.

“I’ve got my own fairy tale,” she smiles.