A week before Thanksgiving at the Fort Walton Florida airport I was met by my sister-in-law Robin, a retired public health nurse who now sits on the board of a local homeless organization. The Crestview organization is a necessarily modest affair due to the recent cut off of a state grant. Instead of multipurpose homeless centers like the ones in San Francisco, here there’s one small brick building with a kitchen, conference room, clothes washer, and a living room with two couches. And a “Thank you Jesus” sign out on the lawn. Clients are loaned bicycles (with locks) to go to job interviews. Donations of clothes and shoes and food, and rides by volunteers to get clients I.D.s and medical attention are the basics. The focus is on temporary feeding and reentry into the workforce, with a realistic understanding that some clients want temp jobs or part-time. Much more focused and personal than our giant cyclical S.F. drying-out machine. One of the first things Robin and I do is to take a client in her sixties to a few job interviews. Patty lives in a tent in a treed area in town and hasn’t worked officially for a number of years. But she’s upbeat facing uphill. We’re in a semi-rural part of Florida. Some real pinchers refer to it as South L.A. – meaning “Southern Alabama.” I like to call it the Redneck Riviera in recognition of its beautiful white sand beaches and churchiness, and my marinating teenage years after my family moved here from New York State.
In junior and senior years of high school in Crestview I had a job in the downtown Greyhound bus station. It was a huge building with a horseshoe-shaped counter in the center. In back was a small room with a window through which I served orders to black travelers in a separate waiting room On the white side was the kitchen in which I cooked grits and poached eggs in large pots, occasionally made chicken and dumplings and okra, and grilled burgers. The hamburgers were customarily served with mustard, mayo, and ketchup – in times past in rural Florida commercial meat was scarce, without refrigeration it spoiled. Squirrels, raccoons, and wild turkeys were hunted, but store bought meat required cold storage that was unavailable. Slathering the yellow, white, and red on a burger could cover up a lot of unlucky tastes.
I worked a part-time night shift and there was a rhythm to the influx of customers, determined by bus arrivals. In pre-dawn weekend hours I regularly served the crew from the Roundhouse, a whorehouse up by the Alabama border. The same four women would arrive, slightly unkempt, overweight, boisterous and oddly childlike, always accompanied by the same fat man who sometimes had one or two male companions with him. He did the ordering, behaving like an indulgent daddy – it was rumored he was the uncle of one of the girls. They were fussy, and my boss helped me serve them. She’d bring out platters of buttered white toast with gobs of golden butter on ice for the grits, while I carried a bowl of Cream of Wheat heaped with white sugar for one of the women. They got metal utensils. My boss brought them everything they wanted, including real cream in small pitchers – something we didn’t serve the bus customers. One of the girls always wore a buckskin-fringed jacket, a white Stetson, and was twitchy. Once she found her eggs too soft, the coffee watery, and she emptied grits, eggs, ham and all onto the table. I cleaned it up, and my boss told me to cook her a new breakfast, no charge. The Roundhouse crew traveled in a big RV through Alabama and northern Florida, according to my boss. She said the man with the women carried a pistol in the satchel he always put on the chair next to him. An aura of the criminal permeated the entire town, danger lurking under the surface; it felt to me like the Wild West. It wasn’t uncommon for corpses to be found in the Panhandle woods. Later on, I’d look at detective magazines at a newsstand and find stories based in that area. But as far as I was concerned back then the whorehouse crew were some of the nicer folks in town. The tips were generous, and nothing they did was ever seriously distracting, whereas the Ku Klux Klan had twice burnt crosses, one time across from the high school, and I’d gone home to cry more than once after hostile “Yankee” remarks were directed at me in class. My blouses would be drenched with underarm sweat, my concentration in class shattered. I felt as if I’d transferred to a foreign hostile country. Before Florida, I hadn’t any concept of what the Ku Klux Klan was, never thought about the Civil War, “Rebels,” or “Yankees” as pejoratives or for that matter had any concepts concerning Southern U.S.A. versus Northern. Now I wonder if that’s how it is with all civil wars – the victors don’t obsess over it in any way as the losers are inclined to do. Is it a perseverance of that particular bitterness of family disputes added to geographical memory that a civil war engenders? In Crestview High I was hit full force with a sense of “otherness,” and a puzzling enmity. Crestview festered on many levels then. Yet in public, social interactions demanded surface treacle. After a purchase of gas, say, the common parting was, “Y’all hurry on back now.”
Whenever I returned, I’d remember things, even though nearby Eglin Air Force base had turned the area into a new, cosmopolitan mix. Things like when whites walked down the sidewalk blacks had to step into the gutter; that had arrested me as much as the raccoon penis bones high school boys hung from the rearview mirrors in their cars. There were also the howls of hunting dogs, sounds of gabbling guinea hens that sat up in the trees, the layers of watermelon rinds buried in slushy mud in large pig sties in front yards. The holes in the roofs of some wooden houses, and the general ramshackle poverty; the fact that some classmates had false teeth, the yards were full of old car hulks and some classmates were married by senior year. Chewing tobacco spit into tin cans. How very long distances by car would be referred to by a carried passenger as “just over yonder.” Maybe it was all the result of the overworked natural resources in this part of Florida.
In the early 1900s this area was a big supplier of turpentine. Pine forests were in abundance, and convicts were used to do the work – hot, hard, dirty labor, done by men who lived in camps in the forests and worked for nothing. The pines were scarred, cups attached to the trees to collect the resin which was distilled to make pitch, used as ship caulking in wooden boats and on ship rigging to make it weather-resistant. When steel ships came along and the age of synthetic chemicals, the turpentine industry disappeared. It seemed, like those successive waves of real estate booms in Florida, one more way Northerners exploited the state’s irresistible resources. Reason enough for resentments. But none of that economic history was available to me in my high school years. I was educated only in that white noise pop-culture teenage slavishness common in America. As the end of the fifties segued into the sixties we lavished our crimped intellects on loving Elvis, becoming hound-dogs for the lindy and the beehive hair melt, saddle shoes, romance praxis and car culture.
I once explained to someone that Florida is a special version of America. With its white sand beaches and summer vacation atmosphere, Florida makes the most of its aquatic temperament. You can if you want visit 12 shipwrecks from Pensacola to Port St. Joe down south. When driving down to Tampa a year ago we passed the Weekee Wicki Aquarium, where road signs invited us to swim with the dolphins. Numerous other highway signs appealed for stops for Stuckee’s pecan praline, seafood, used cars, true southern fried chicken. When someone along our way stole my sis-in-law’s credit card number – they notified her of two unsuccessfully attempted charges for electronics when she attempted to charge our motel rooms — it seemed matter of course — it’s a Florida kind of thang. Scam artists abound, fantastic events seem like everyday happenings. Some years ago a man sleeping in his own bed was sucked irretrievably into a sinkhole in some town along the Gulf. I’ve read of two instances of women being pulled into the water by alligators while on shore merely looking. You can wrestle an alligator yourself or watch someone else do it, tour a waterway ecosystem in or outside of the python-polluted Everglades, ride on a river boat, encounter strange snakes, epiphytic Spanish Moss tinseling trees, and beetles that appear extraterrestrial with their bug eyes and crablike legs on their large torsos. And the hurricanes – they plagued the Spanish back in the centuries of attempted conquest in the 1500s along the southern parts of the U.S., where they’d gain a foothold, build a settlement of modest means only to have it disappeared by nature’s whims overnight. Nothing is a certainty on Florida shores, especially in these days of climate change. Maybe ultimately only Disneyland Orlando will prevail. Illusion has a long shelf-life. And it’s omnipresent. On a walk along the road at Bill and Robin’s I was about to pick up what I thought was the top left-hand corner of the black rubber edging of a truck windshield, when, bending down, at the last moment I saw tiny eyes and a slight iridescent green tint confirming it was a flat black snake.
“A common type,” Robin says.
“Not in San Francisco.”
Maybe it’s the nature of the Florida light, almost hallucinatory in its infiltration of the senses. Until sunset, when it produces a vast luscious restful melon pink and violet palette that even a postcard can’t cut down to size.
I tanned a little, and watched some anthropologically fascinating TV on the wide Sony. In San Francisco I never would’ve seen days-worth of dyed blonde women in crowds praising a child molester candidate for the U.S. Senate. They maintained he was their candidate because he would always “spread the knowledge of God,” code for being anti-abortion, for the death penalty, against blacks and anti-Muslim. Strange values of the natives. The ads said his Democrat rival was “soft on crime,” even though said candidate Doug Jones was the one who prosecuted successfully the case against the church bombers who killed four young black girls in the sixties – maybe it was because of that they opposed him. He “believes” in abortion. Allegedly Roy Moore had one of the young girls accusing him excused from her Trigonometry class to ask her for a date; he cruised the Gadsen mall on his off hours hunting his prey. I’d guess that any woman in Gadsen who lived there at the time knew of his predatory ways. Alabama is a very special population of Americans. Pedophilia, OK, just as long as you agree to infantilize women when it comes to their medical decisions. And love Jesus. But I’m a low brow gossipy type and I loved the news shows there. An entire week of prodigious and nuanced permutations of inter-sexual misconduct in the entertainment industries. Deep native customs. But, we asked, what about the law offices, medical institutions, the bakery industries, marine biology, and the plumbers?
Good vacation all around.
Copyright©2017 Penny Skillman