Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
I love summers in the Keys, the heat, the bright sun, the drama of thunderstorms, the empty streets and unlimited highway travel. And because I like it so much I also greatly enjoy taking road trips out of the Keys. The best trips are when the children are in school and their harassed parents are too busy to be clogging freeways and rest areas and back road access to interesting places. Unfortunately my wife is a teacher and her free time coincides with the little dears and their families' vacations so there is a certain amount of inevitable cross over.
Celo, North Carolina
My schedule allows many more spontaneous weeks off here and there in the year because I work a peculiar schedule, somewhat lopsided, a week of almost all work and a week of almost all off and I love it. Exhaustion followed by tons of time spent with my camera and my dog, the perfect schedule. So sometimes I get to go for a ride by myself and sometimes I get to take my dog to Pennsylvania to get my scooter rebuilt. So the long and the short of it is I have a lot more experience of being on the road than you might expect from someone who lives in a community pervasively opposed to taking a trip more than five miles from their homes.
The joy of travel here in the US is the natural grandeur, the simplicity of a uniform language and currency and a largely amalgamated culture. No passports, no language barriers and perfect freedom to drive uninterrupted, unquestioned and free from interference. The European Union has done a lot to break down barriers but they aren't the United States of Europe by a long chalk, which is great for us who visit. Also if you find a dish you like in Italy once you cross the Alps get your taste buds ready for everything to change. And in my opinion no one makes uniformly delicious food like the Italians. You may prefer French cooking and someone somewhere prefers German cooking to Italian cooking but that's not me.
Latitudes Cubano sandwich with sweet potato salad.
It used to be that tourist traps could survive based on one time customers and I'm sure there are still many dives that can continue to pull that off but as today's youngsters become middle aged and hopefully have money to spend, restaurants will have to survive in a Trip Advisor/Facebook world and that is already happening and destined to become the norm.
World class Thai food in a Brunswick strip mall, Georgia
On our recent journey to Asheville we took off on Highway 301 to take a break from the freeway and we stopped at a local restaurant filling with locals who had, judging by their formal dress, just finished with church. Oh good we thought, this place looks popular. It was but it wasn't terribly good, bland, unseasoned and apparently serving a crowd of hungry locals with no choice. Everywhere else was closed as we discovered after lunch and drove away through a somnolent southern town shuttered for a Sunday. We'd have done better to have stuck to Interstate 26 and looked for somewhere to eat in Columbia. Oh well, live and learn.
And the lesson learned is that in order to eat well, and sensibly and to support worthwhile local businesses we use our phones. Think about the power of the phone, not only is it a web search tool! It is also a reservation agent the old fashioned way with a call placed to the business, and then it is a guide that will lead us directly to the restaurant no matter how much it is hidden away in a suburban strip mall. Local five star secrets are exposed by smart phones and smart users. It amazes me.
Flakowitz Jewish Deli Boynton Beach,Florida
I know I am probably at the back of a long line of people who have already figured this out well ahead of me, but this new way of travel has the potential to make huge changes across the landscape of America. I hop we will move past the tired image of crappy food mass produced and uniform in every respect as the sole source of roadside eating. I'm not saying fast food has no place, because God knows when I travel alone...! But what I am saying is that we can support and sustain local kitchens in a landscape that has been overrun by uniformity. I know it's a quixotic thought considering how many visitors to Key West demand chain food, this in a town filled with quirky local stuff and pretensions to local ethnic cuisine (imagine that America!) so it's not going to be easy to change eating habits bit it's no longer required to live in New York Chicago or Los Angeles to find world class food.
And what the smart phone means is that interstates no longer need to be viewed as the road to hell. They aren't involving or even interesting but they are fast and efficient and can even be tasty. A friend of mine used to say you have to drive more than a mile from the freeways to find decent food to eat. That may still be true, technically, but you can find your way to a good lunch with no trouble at all these days and a twenty minute detour can be well worth your while. Especially as people you've never met will be giving you their advice over the Internet and like good neighbors, directing you well. What an amazing world we live in. Lucky us.
Monday, July 29, 2013
“Now remind me,” drawled the writer. “Was he the nun with the enormous plastic phallus? Or was he one of the dueling Joan Crawfords?”
What is the weirdest place in America's weirdest state? There is a strong argument to be made for the town frequently referred to as “Key Weird.” This is, after all, the home of a guy who routinely bikes around town wearing nothing but a G-string and a homemade stovepipe hat. It's a place where the U.S. Department of Agriculture got into a legal snit with the operator of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum over permitting for the home's many six-toed cats. And it's the place where a legal dispute developed over a cache of valuable emeralds that one treasure hunter testified he found in the Gulf of Mexico by following a map he bought for $500 from a guy in a bar.
Still, I have friends in South Florida who contend that Miami is far stranger than anywhere else in the state. They cite the case of the guys who carried a shark, bleeding and gasping for breath, onto the city's Metromover in the middle of the night, then ended up leaving it, dead, in the middle of a street. (A photo from the train wound up on Dave Barry's blog.) Believers in Santeria often leave dead chickens and dead goats on the courthouse steps in an effort to sway trials. So many have piled up that there's a voodoo squad of janitors assigned to cleanup. And then there's the Causeway Cannibal, aka Miami's face-eating zombie, Rudy Eugene. You may recall Eugene stripped naked and chewed on a homeless man's face while high on ... bath salts? LSD? Angel dust? No, just plain old Mary Jane. The victim's life was saved by a police officer who shot Eugene dead but also accidentally wounded the victim.
Central Florida produces its own brand of landlocked weird. Right now, for instance, about half the Lakeland Police Department is facing suspension in a huge sex scandal that involves, among other things, an officer requesting to drink a woman's urine. And let's not forget all the weirdness that goes along with Disney, such as allegations that both Donald Duck and Tigger groped female visitors.
You could also argue that the Florida Panhandle produces more weird news on a regular basis than anywhere else. Look at the stories that wind up on Fark with a Florida tag. At least half of them come from the police blotter of the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. And it was the Panhandle community of Vernon that became known as “Nub City” for all the rampant insurance-related self-maimings.
That said, I have to tell you that I think Ground Zero for Florida Weird is Pasco County, a semirural area just north of Tampa.
The cops in Pasco County are constantly dealing with strange cases—Tasering a runaway kangaroo, for instance. In Pasco County a first date—with a man wearing a red mohawk and a spider tattoo—may result in a stolen car. A gang of teenagers planning a burglary may huddle together like a football team and pray, "Hey, God, get us through this. We know you don't like this, but get us through." It's not unusual to see headlines like this: “Fetish Model Indicted in Pasco Sex Party Slaying.”
Part of Pasco's weirdness originates from the fact that it's home to a lot of people you wouldn’t expect to find grouped together in one spot. In the 1970s it was a hotbed of Mafia activity, as documented in the book and movie Donnie Brasco. Now, instead of the Mob, it's got nudist resorts. By some accounts, Pasco is the Nudist Capital of America. The nudist resorts produce a steady stream of stories, such as when a nude woman went swimming with her nude family and was attacked by an alligator. She was saved by her husband kicking the gator in the head. (Did I mention he was nude?)
The different cultures of Pasco County often don’t get along. In 1990, a coven of Wiccans got into a shootout with neighbors who contended they were Satanists conducting sacrifices. In 1993, the Ku Klux Klan joined the Adopt-A-Road litter patrol, kicking up a fuss among people who lived along the road they adopted—even though the Klan promised to wear safety vests, not white robes, while picking up trash on the roadside.
I admit the conclusion regarding Pasco County took me by surprise. I think a lot of Key West's weirdness these days is forced. Eccentricity feels more like a tourist attraction than an external expression of an internal need. It doesn't hurt to come to Key West, check it out and prove me wrong.