Hard Candy – Big Old Gecko World

I sometimes wonder if I would love this town as much as I do if I didn’t see most of it through the filter of a camera.

It’s weird, yeah, but I like it. When I first started taking pictures in earnest – which is to say, when I first started writing for the Gabber – it definitely felt awkward to hold a little bitty compact digital in hand. I didn’t feel like a real photographer. It didn’t matter that people paid me for my pictures; it didn’t feel real. Now, of course, I have a big heavy camera that makes me look utterly professional, which gives me one distinct advantage over a less expensive camera: I can disappear behind it. Sure, there’re a few of you who always know I’m taking your picture – yes, Mayor Sam, I’m talking to you – but for the most part, I’m nobody to those of you who don’t even notice I’m capturing your most private moments.

Saturday night at the GeckoBall, I did just that. If you were there, I was the one wearing the red hat, black dress and Nikon. That camera was the most important part of my outfit, because it hides me in plain sight. Oh, sure, there’re always those of you who ham it up for any camera – and please don’t stop; those are the shots I love to take for the paper – but there are those of you who remain (blissfully) oblivious. You are so involved in what you’re doing you forget to keep up your facade. It’s even more pronounced at parties like GeckoBall, because everyone feels protected in costume. Add in another layer – the camera – and that’s when you show me who you really are.

That sounds vaguely creepy, I know – Single White Female creepy – but actually, it’s quite sweet. I like you all the most when I’m taking your pictures, because that’s when I don’t see us as equals. You aren’t petty, like I know I can be, or cranky, as I know I am. No, when I’m taking your pictures, you’re better than that. Better than me. You don’t just show me you, you show me the very best of you.

Of course, everyone didn’t attend GeckoBall – you wouldn’t all fit – but I think most of Gulfport was pretty well represented. We had business owners and school teachers, liberals and conservatives, government workers and elected officials, and, in the end, no one really cared who did what for a living or thought what about healthcare. It wasn’t just a party: Gulfport’s ephemeral spirit kind of works its way to the surface at the Gecko Ball. There’s something about the costumes, I suppose – everyone thinks they’re being so outrageous when really, all I see is people being exactly themselves.

I wish I could tell you just what makes the night so great every year, or what makes Gulfport so special, but I really don’t have an explanation. All I can tell you is that, despite everything – those of us who get annoyed with each other, mock each other, and generally bitch about things – there must be some sort of Gulfport magic. Because, most every year, there comes the part of the night, usually as the band winds down, where “We Are Family” comes on, and the moment tends to overwhelm me. You all can’t see yourselves, but I can: relaxed, carefree, and totally in love with the moment.

On Saturday, everyone danced: men with men, women with women, men with women. And as the wood floors shook like they might collapse into the bay, the Casino morphed from dance hall into a surreal thrum of energy and love and community.

This is what I love about this town. I may feel removed yet, in spite of myself, I remain a part of everything. The camera lets me see what I coulda not- what I would it- without it: that we are all beautiful, and that, even if we are not all the same, when we aren’t paying attention, we are all one.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

Originally published in the Gabber Newspaper, online and in print, on August 28, 2014.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.