Florida Last Year
I AM ON MY WAY TO FLORIDA after years of professing I was not interested in making the trek again. I had frequented Florida quite a bit in my earlier years and thought it was relegated to a former period in my life. It was a quick decision, made two months ago, right in the middle of January. My longtime friend and landlord Steve lives year-round in Florida and invited me and his former girlfriend down for a week’s visit. We’re all friends, most of the time.
We had been drinking and it sounded so good at the time. We chatted on the phone about the details and got the ball rolling by ordering plane tickets on Expedia the next day. Winters can be dreadfully long in northern Michigan so there was true delight in his invitation and surprise in our swift actions booking the flight. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. Looking forward to an adventure is healthy in and of itself both Peg and I reasoned.
Over the years, I had spent time in many places all over Florida and as I looked forward to the trip I began reminiscing about my previous visits. Key West, on the southern tip of the peninsula, became a fun and funky spot for me for about five years in the late 1980s when my children were very small. My former father-in-law owned a second-floor condo near the end of the airport’s runway. Odd you say? The saving grace, no planes could land after 10 PM but you also better enjoy a 6 AM wake-up call. I remember the windows of the condo rattling as the planes took off.
As my father-in-law became acquainted with the town he began to unearth the best Cuban eateries. His devotion to the cuisine was mostly because the price was right, just like his condo. He hated tourists and high prices which were prevalent on the main attractions in Key West. The little Cuban cafes fit his comfort zone, helped by the presence of live chickens pecking around the floor walking amongst the tables. He loved those feathered wonders. The alley eateries flew under the radar of the health department, the police, and most importantly, the tourist. It took me a little while to see the attraction. The cafes were always staffed by an entire family, headed by Grandma, who knew how to put a scrumptious meal together with slow-cooked pork, black beans, and yellow rice. Great flavors were found in every bite. Such fond memories of Key West, ending our days at Mallory Square where we all gathered to celebrate the sunset.
A game of golf was usually high on my list during other Florida excursions. In the past, you could check golf clubs and suitcases on airlines for no additional charge. Not so today. Orlando trade shows brought me to courses at Bay Hill, Lake Wales, and Mission Inn. Other years my travels were on the Gulf which took me to golf courses around Marco Island and Naples. All the trips produced fond memories. There were always new housing developments, mostly around golf courses and beach high-rises that brought the snowbirds in droves. Florida has always bustled with new construction, that is a fact.
Peg and I chose the flights that were at reasonable hours of the day both agreeing that red-eye flights were a thing from our past. The day of the scheduled flight brought a blizzard that grounded 6,000 flights in the Midwest and out east. It backed up everything, even in little Traverse City where it was bright and sunny. Go figure. An hour delay for the only available agent brought new bookings two days later. You guessed it, late evening and early morning flights became our new routing. Ah, the famous red-eyes were back. The joy of traveling after a major weather disruption.
The week introduced me again to Venice where I hadn’t been in years. A St. Patty’s Day party with old high school friends sent us to nearly six bars, the last ending on a balcony with a large flat screen TV showing the second half of a Michigan State basketball game in the NCAA March Madness. The downtown was quaint, and the live oaks were decorated in Spanish moss draped from their massive outstretched limbs. The town displayed these specimens, along with palms in medians and town squares lighted at night. It was just as I remembered forty years earlier. It is my favorite old-fashioned Florida city. It has a diverse population and maintains a charm that is unique. Oh, Chapter 12 lives there, which added to its appeal.
I was introduced during the remainder of the trip to a twenty-five year old development north of Orlando called, The Villages. The population has exploded to over 150,000 residents with plans to double this number in the next ten years. Golf courses, shopping malls, miniature dogs, and security gates were everywhere. I was lost the entire time I was there as we drove in fancy golf carts past white picket fenced homes and streets that all looked the same. Clean and manicured residences appearing like a Disney dream world. My saving grace was a pink stucco dive bar in the old town of Wildwood called O’Shucks, located three miles outside the compound's gates. It had great prices, stray cats, and excellent seafood on half wiped tables which also featured inch worms and draft beer. The only thing missing were the chickens, and perhaps, my ex-father-in-law.
As my trip winds-down, I have a newer view of Florida that is a bit troubling, especially when contrasted from my historical perspective. Florida is full of aging people and the newer communities seem bent on creating a cookie-cutter experience for the inhabitants. There is repetition in everything, and herd behavior reigns. The activities are delivered by daily announcements at clubhouse welcome centers. The many men I met joked about their own cognitive decline and often of their female partners’ big behinds, a repetitive theme throughout the week, all thinking it was some new revelation.
If there is a next time, I will drive in the middle of the night. It beats flying and avoids the bumper to bumper daytime traffic. I will dine frequently at O’Shuck’s, or perhaps sit on a bench under a live oak in Venice and watch the world go by.