Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Other Florida

I don't know if Cheyenne was as taken with cowboy country as I was but she is always ready for a walk and we took off, she and I and my wife into the windy wilderness of cow pastures. When you think of cowboy country Hollywood has trained you to think of the deserts of the southwest or California high country, but cowboys live and work in Central Florida as well.

Lets's be honest here and note that in summer this would be the pasture from fiery hell but on the tail end of a the first mild cooling winds presaging winter it was actually quite pleasant. These fields lie more or less between Lake Okeechobee and Sarasota, liable to the chance of frost in winter and great searing heat in summer. Take your pick but the cows have no choice. I'm guessing they get frisky with the advent of cooler weather but lf friskiness there was no sign along Lily Road.

I haven't made a road trip through this part of Florida in a while but once I get back into the middle of nowhere I am reminded why I find Central Flatistan so alluring. These are wide open spaces, underpopulated, quiet and entirely otherworldly compared to the urban madness of southeast Florida which I had to drive through to get here.

I'm pretty sure living here would be tough for some fruity guy wearing pink Crocs but wandering through in white sneakers these fields have a certain rural charm.

I like being reminded of Florida's variety of landscapes despite the fact there are no mountains, just fields and hay bales and woods scattered here and there.

Cow country is big business in Florida.

You don't get to see these loads in the Florida Keys, 300 miles to the south. My wife likes to get out of the Keys from time to time and I too like to be reminded there is more to countryside than mangroves and salt water. I grew up around farmland and though I cannot say I miss the messy tedium of a farmer's life I miss seeing food grow. I miss the smells of life being lived, though from time to time the smells of rotting seaweed do a passable job of imitating a pig sty in need of a good clean.

The cows were living in proximity to FLorida's other great crop, oranges which are well known as a Sunshine State staple, though my wife did says she didn't recall seeing unripe oranges This close up before.

They look like green tennis balls this time of year.

This isn't the glitzy part of Florida, the Palm Beach world of Trump mansions, society scandals and massively watered golf courses. Though it's worth noting that Palm Beach County does stretch all the way to central Florida, land of agricultural workers, sugar cane fields and poverty. As we rolled past this little house I couldn't help but notice the chickens in the yard and a sturdy farmer's wife striding across the grass in a homestead as isolated as any little home on the prairie. Given a solid library and fast Internet connections I can't think it would too terrible to live here, far from any visible neighbors except of course that one would have to be constantly explaining a propensity for pink Crocs and left leaning politics. In this part of the world the rough hewn toilers in the fields mostly side with the one per centers in voting for the candidate with the magic underwear, at least according to the signage. They may all be secret Leninists, but that seems unlikely.

And this, let's not forget is where large trucks roam the long straight roads with bumper stickers exorting the populace to watch for motorcycles (not bloody likely, sez I) and to vote and stuff like that. Much as I'd like I think I'd look like a dork in a ten gallon hat and pointy boots with high heels. I know my place.

There are a few palmettos and weathered oak trees around here but it's not tropica any longer. North of the big lake Florida becomes markedly less sub tropical and a lot more temperate, a d one sign of that is the Spanish Moss dangling everywhere.

For those who have only traveled Florida's main arteries, I-75 from Motown and I-95 from The Big Apple the world of Highway 27 down the middle of the state deserves to be seen at least once. Drive the low rolling hills, orange groves and farmland and decide for yourself if this stuff is worth seeing. In the touristy winter months fruit juices go on sale roadside everywhere and natire's mosquito abatement program goes into effect, even if most days temperatures are above 70 degrees.

It's the Florida time forgot, at least as viewed by the passing motorist and that is no bad thing.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Consumerism Gone Mad - Again!

It may be that these kinds of display cases are to be seen all over the country offering freshly (really?) cooked food for...dogs. I mean really. What. The. Fuck? When they arrive here, south of reality I am forced to wonder whatever can they come up with next that will drive me off the deep end. I keep thinking I am inured to the madness of consumerism but today I popped into Winn Dixie on Big Pine to pick up a packet of milk safely packaged in food grade tetra packaging pasteurized for my safety (and convenience) and only almost four bucks for the organic model, when I stumbled across this embarrassment to the entire human race and our ostensible purpose in life, said to be reproduction.

Let's think about this for a minute and ponder the madness. We Americans spend billions on our companion animals and buying enslaved puppies from puppy mills is huge business so middle class well nourished people can the purchase the exact right dog with the exact right pedigree to display their discernment and good taste and wealth. Then we spend billions more spoiling them. Meanwhile we support growing food for fuel, buying third world farmland to grow our favorite foods while the former land owners who are actual human beings (albeit dark skinned foreigners) starve and usually this sort of madness is easy to mask by ignoring the whole mess and watching TV. I "save" a dog from the pound, I feed her mass produced dog food made from god-knows-what and walk the shit out of her to help work off my own share of mass produced food grade rubbish that has settled on my middle class midriff. Seeing this display case just reminds me how crazy this whole wide world really is. Thank you so much Winn Dixie for making it impossible for me to avoid seeing once again with a fresh perspective how utterly inexplicable life really is. What a fantastic mystery ride is this existence. Freshly prepared dog food. Had someone suggested that to me as a business plan I'd have choked on my processed packaged human food lunch and laughed them out of the house. Once again proving beyond a shadow of a doubt I know nothing about anything.

Hurricane Sandy Fights Riepe

The gargantuan Death struggle underway between Jack Riepe and the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy on the New Jersey coast continues. His pork chops have defrosted and gone off but he has caught two very lost wild Key West chickens that wandered into his house and are now headed for the pot. The only other injury reported is a falling toilet seat that hit Jack on the back of the neck as he was refreshing himself with a drink of running water. This photo is to cheer the lost scribe of Tom's River.

Keep ordering his new book Conversations with a Motorcycle from his Twisted Roads Website to keep him fighting the good fight. It's a great read especially if you are without electricity and reading by candlelight. No chocolate cupcakes have arrived yet to relieve the tedium of plucking chickens but reportedly his bosom buddy in Vancouver Canada where the Economic Depression has yet to strike, has a care package on the way. Contact Wet Coast Scootin' for ideas of what to send to help Jack.

Living The Dream

This is the time of year that a person's thoughts turn to Key West, especially if they live Up North. The leaves are turning in the mountains of Appalachia and the yellows and reds that look so spectacular will soon fall away and be replaced by brown spiky branches and trunks and wind will blow the remains of the leaves away and cold and snow will replace the memories of summer. Love those change of seasons. But if you don't, and I don't, Key West is the place to be. This picture of Key West Bight between Turtle Kraals and the Half Shell Raw Bar could be taken any month of the year. It rains a bit more in summer and sometimes it gets cold enough in winter to require a sweater, but things don't change that much around here.
Florida is known as Flatistan to motorcycle riders, the place where roads vary almost not at all in elevation or in turns, where views are limited by the lack of that third dimension, where water not land is the attraction. Florida isn't known as the fountain of youth, even though young people do live here according to rumors I have heard. Florida is God's waiting room, the place people come to retire and die far from family friends and the lives they knew Up North. Florida is the land of the con, the quick buck, swamps sold as homesteads, the refuge of two bit South American dictators and their henchmen, a place to retire in the sun. And then there are the Fabulous Florida Keys.
Young people do come to Key West, even though there is no institute of upper learning outside of the community college. They come to live the Bohemian 21st century life, to work a job not a career, to be eccentric or artistic or to drop out for a while. They give Key West the feel of a town not of Florida. There are youthful cities in the Sunshine State but Gainesville or Deland have universities that give them the feel of centers of learning just like any other across the nation. But Key West is a different kind of small town at the end of the road, filled with high prices, low paid jobs and in every respect ends up a career dead end for most settlers. In a town of 23,000 there are plenty of people already here already working the best jobs. In a declining economy the musical chairs have stopped rotating.
I wonder why we live here in these islands. Deprived of all that makes the American dream a possibility- a job, a mall, chain shopping and a variety of outdoor excitements, yet we don't move away or seek out cheap dirt on which to make a home and build a career. Can it just be because the weather is so pleasant this time of year? Surely we seek more than just a mild winter climate? I like riding my motorcycle year round but that's not a reason to live in the Keys. Check this idiot out, idling across my single lane street blocking the roadway while he waits for whatever it is to release him to ride ... I sat in my car waiting, with my impateint dog on the back seat, both of us for him to figure out he was being a dick - but hey! This is Florida and no one's mother raised them to have good manners... And that is an issue in a state where people come and go on a whim. Why be considerate when they may not be your neighbors in a few weeks or months? Blocking the street mindlessly is not  a  big deal really. Especially when your neighbor is a stranger. 
The Florida Keys enjoy a reputation for eccentricity and apartness which sounds awesome and special. But that is mitigated by the painfully conventional approach to life in the other 67 counties in Florida. My wife went on a course a few years ago and ended up in an auditorium with hundreds of people and of them all only two were wearing bright colored Hawaiian style shirts, everyone else had on severe business attire. "You must be the two from Key West," the trainer announced. That's how Key West works it's magic on you. You live here and you are allowed to be odd. Consider this, on Trip Advisor I am told the restaurant pictured below called Garbo's is the number one best eatery in Key West. Really? Well okay then. I guess one could argue a case of wild ballot stuffing on Trip Advisor or possibly a stationary food truck could be considered the ne plus ultra of places to eat out in this peculiar town. You choose.
When friends in California heard I was moving to Florida their first reaction was why would I leave the Golden State and secondly what about the humidity and the insects? I countered that I was saying goodbye to fog, cold, earthquakes and traffic jams. Besides, I wasn't moving to Florida, I had gone sailing and had washed up accidentally in Key West. Big difference. I don't live in a land of strip malls and early bird specials but I do collect coconuts from my yard and my winter wardrobe consists of a sweat shirt and two light cardigans. With a sleeveless vest for inbetween days not quite considered cold. And there we are, weather matters, even though my teeth were chattering last night on the ride home in 65 degrees at 6am. It matters to me at any rate and in th weeks to come this page will be filled with pictures of greenery and sunshine and the same old shit. When the view outside your window is gray and snowy and cold you'll probably quite like my stupid pictures. It is all the weather isn't it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jack Riepe, Hurricane Sandy, And Canned Electricity

Jack Riepe has not had a chocolate cup cake since last May and he would kill for one now if you could slip him one amidst the devastation of Tom's River, New Jersey. It gets worse, members of the premier Motorcycle and Wrenching Chartered BMW club of Pennsylvania (its called some shit like that) have threatened to show up to help and he is desperate because they are holding out on bringing the chocolate cup cakes. Other than that the premier motorcycle scribe of New Jersey is doing fine. He has received mail, he has hot showers and he has a half gallon of rum he is keeping safe for a real emergency, he says.

The lights flickered around ten pm the night of the storm, the transformers in his neighborhood blew one by one and he knew things weren't going back to normal for a while. "A while" is the bare minimum and the stories of devastation from around the Garden State tell Jack he is doing better than most. His sister moved to the Big Apple for a taste of the Manhattan lifestyle and she is now living in a 27th floor walk up surviving off emergency rations she managed to buy at the last minute from her neighborhood grocery store. As she stood inline for two hours to buy her "supplies" one can hardly imagine the level of discomfort. No running water, no electricity and no way to move around in a city of eight million?

Jack's new book Conversations with a Motorcycle was supposed to be shipping wildly this week, with 25 orders a day coming in but his publishers are underwater in Manhattan and offices are without electricity across the southern half of the island and no one has a clue when power might be restored. Two million people across New Jersey are without electricity. It gets dark at six, and today, Thursday afternoon it's starting to rain once again on the devastation and temperatures are dropping. Jack wraps himself in a sleeping bag, writes long hand by the light of a lantern and goes to sleep in the early evening in a house that is fortunately dry if not warm. It sounds utterly horrible. And he notes wryly he is the youngest resident on his street, and the most spry.


We've all read Jacks stories of riding and wrenching and wrenching across improbably named communities that for a California raised immigrant like me are just names, but for Jack his childhood and adolescence and perhaps most important the scenes of his varied (and quite possibly mythical) sexual conquests have washed away. The town he liked to called the Painted Whore of the Jersey Shore, Seaside Heights is no more and he waxed nostalgic at some length on the phone about the likelihood he will ever get to have a drink there again and look at pretty young women parading.

I've heard of Hoboken as a gritty urban community rather resembling On The Waterfront but Jack says recently the place was refurbished and it's most upscale streets are now lined with million dollar homes filled with four feet of sewage from backed up and ruined sewage lines. A river of shit was how he put it. Trees are down everywhere and salt water has invaded the infrastructure all round him. So far he says no one talks of looting and people are "taking it in stride." Personally I'd rather be in the Florida Keys in a disaster where people at least try to be prepared and the weather is far more comfortable when services fail. But I am not as hardy as residents of Up North.


I was never in any doubt he would survive this mess and he will survive into the future as things continue to be a mess, for hurricane clean up in my experience is far more sapping and dreary than the major event itself. He did have one other big item on his wish list even as he lamented the absence of chocolate in his life. "Boy," he moaned, " I sure wish they had electricity in a can. I'd buy a case right now."


A Day Off In Key West

Take Tuesday for instance. I had the day off because I swapped with Keith who wanted Wednesday off because he had a couple of high school buddies flying down from New York for a visit. Well, that didn't happen; the last he heard they we're doing that which we are expected to do- cope with the after effects of a hurricane. Still our swap had been planned a couple of weeks ago so there I was with Tuesday off, and it was a lovely day to take Cheyenne for a walk on No Name Key to look at the new power lines (essay to follow next week) and I came across a lovely bunch of worn out dried up coconuts. I should get creative I suppose and offer my garden castoffs at twenty five cents apiece. The sign said they make excellent gifts for grandchildren about which subject I know nothing. So I eat and drink mine, as many as I can (coconuts not grandchildren) and put the rest out with the garden waste.
The Big Pine Key Department of Motor Vehicles office is open midweek so I stopped by with my Iowa paperwork for my new-to-me 33 year old Vespa and $360 later I walked out with a blue license plate for my scooter which is still in Iowa getting a new cylinder installed. I am ready to get it shipped here from Green Tree Scooters who told me last week highs were in the 40s. Which is far too cold to be riding a motorcycle of any kind when they finish fixing it which should be soon. Riding it home is now out of the question, as my original purchase plan called for, so when it gets here the license plate will be ready, and very cool it is too in sky blue.

I was on a roll getting things done so I went by the garden center and paid for the recent tree planting I had done and that was $460 which was well below what I had expected so I was doubly pleased. Plus I got some ideas for future plantings. Well, this was my day for getting things done so I knuckled down and went to the Big Pine library to face a four page, doubled-sided ballot. I guess when President Obama wins a second term by one measly vote in Florida you can blame me. I cast my vote in protest more than anything, as I can't stand the idea of a President who Believes In Magic Underwear. President Obama has been a major disappointment but he has the backing of the one percent so how could be anything else? On the social issues at least he has some slight grasp of daily reality so better him than Romney, who seems to have the sort of attitude toward women that led him to take his dog on vacation strapped to the roof of his car. Anyone who suggests I treat Cheyenne that way won't get my vote. On local issues I struggled through reams of amendments and propositions as best I could, wishing lawmakers could remember how to make laws instead of asking me to help them. After all, no one lobbies/bribes me for my vote, so clearly I don't rate in the world of political wrangling. The funny thing was there was quite the line at the library so voters are involved this year, I guess. I'm an immigrant so I vote every chance I get just because I can.
And that pretty much is an average day in the Fabulous Florida Keys for me. It's funny sometimes to think that people imagine every day is a vacation for regular people here. When I was a child I used to spend vacations in Italy playing all summer with my buddies and then I went back to boarding school in England in September. As I left I envied my friends and their endless summer, but it wasn't until I was almost an adult and I spent winters in Italy as well, that I discovered that the endless summer ended abruptly for everyone as cold weather and school work struck all Europe at once. It's the same thing in Key West I find. Many people come on vacation, have a great time and bugger off home wishing they could stay on and find a job. The reality is daily living is as routine here as it is where you live, except it doesn't snow or get frosty. Plus you do have to navigate around a lot of people who are on vacation and they expect you to feel their joy all the time. So on that note this is an excellent time to go downtown when not too many people are crowding the streets. As my wife got off work early down I went to Duval Street yesterday.
The first thing I noticed was the roof of the former bank building at Front and Duval which has lost some tiles to the winds. I have long said that Mediterranean architecture, and particularly roofs with tiles are a bad idea in the Keys. I grew up with the tile roofing popular in Italy and it was a pain as every spring we had to walk the roof and check for frost cracked tiles. Down here tiles fly in hurricanes and a metal roof properly anchored is what you want on your home. The photo above backs my argument I think.

So I was in town after a night off, to meet my wife for lunch and as it actually was my birthday I got to choose where we ate, so I chose Alonzo's as I had a hankering for fish. We usually eat at Alonzo's for an early dinner when appetizers are half price but I wanted to enjoy fish on the water yesterday so we did. The tourists above were peering into the depths from the boardwalk and I suppose they were looking for live fish swimming about. We had a quick look and all we could see was what appeared to be a grayish snapper type of fish and a lot of aquamarine colored saltwater. I was far more interested in my cold glass of Key West Amber (brewed in Tampa).

The funny thing was we both ordered exactly the same thing so my review of the lunch time menu at Alonzo's is necessarily restricted in scope. I wasn't interested in sandwiches or salads so I skipped those and went straight to the meals and the "Snapper New Orleans" looked good to both of us, fish in a cream sauce, as I wasn't in the mood for tomato based sauces either. I was feeling particular yesterday for some reason. Anyway the plate came with enough food for two so we could have cut the final bill, $48 with tax and tip, by quite a bit had we thought ahead. What you are seeing is a pile of mashed potatoes with carrots and beans scattered throughout, lots of fish and onion rings on top. No wonder obesity is a national issue with these sized portions. It was delicious.
And still people stopped to peer over the side looking for ...tarpon? As a general rule I don't find the antics of fish particularly fascinating but there again I am not especially interested in birds either. I am decidedly owned by my Labrador who was at home snoring massively the last I saw of her before I came to town. And let's face it, she's not that interesting either, because when she's not snoring she's walking or eating or eyeing me speculatively. She rarely talks politics, I have no idea if she believes there is a Dog, and she has never betrayed an interest in sports. So at some level my Labrador is as interesting as a tarpon as far as her stimulating company goes.

To prove my point that this is a good time of year to be downtown check out the motorcycle and scooter parking lot at the end of Front Street. In winter this vehicle lot is guarded by a man as vicious as Cerberus the three headed dog that guarded Hades in mythology. He steps out of the hut a d demands to know your business and sets a time limit on how long cars of motorcycles can park. This time of year no one challenged us as we rode in on the Bonneville and sauntered across the boardwalk to lunch.

Key West in November, an excellent time to ride a motorcycle in shirt sleeves, eat lunch downtown, and enjoy pretending to be on vacation for a day.