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.
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 see 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.