It’s Getting Kind of Weird

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Last week I watched the news and followed the ongoing disaster in Texas.  I didn’t really know what it felt like to be there, but I’ve been through several hurricanes since I moved to Orlando in 1991.  Last year a major storm ran up the length of the east coast and sent tropical storm force winds our way.  A tree branch fell on our power line.  I removed it while the wind still gusted in the 50s as the line bent down several feet and looked ready to break.  I didn’t want my wife to suffer through several powerless days.

Now I’m waking up early to look at the latest forecasts for Irma.  Yesterday the spaghetti models tracked the hurricane to the northwest edge of Cuba.  After that the paths diverged, but a lot of them sent the storm straight up the peninsula.  My stomach flipped.  We’re probably going to get hit.  My daughter and her husband live in Miami, and they’re in the target zone too.

This morning I checked again and saw no improvement.  I knew that drifts and shifts can still occur in Irma’s path, but my sense of dread deepened.  I flipped to other sites and turned on the local news, but nothing gave me any real reassurance.  I gave up when I heard a garbage truck lumbering around a curve in our neighborhood.  I had been lazy the night before–the kitchen bin was still full.

I hauled a can to the curb and saw butterflies flitting around flowering bushes in our front yard.  Two grasshoppers mated in the driveway.  Nature seemed intent on going about its business regardless of impending doom.

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I decided to do the same.  I washed dishes, got breakfast and read from Terry Pratchett’s, Hogfather.  Then I went outside and raked magnolia seed pods and twigs off the front lawn.  In back I picked up dead branches fallen near the east fence.  I climbed on the roof and pull more branches off the roof.  I came inside, took a shower, and got lunch ready.  All fairly normal activities for a Tuesday morning.

My daughter called at noon, and we cancelled her upcoming visit.  She told me about her hurricane preparations in Miami, and we wished each other good luck.  I passed the phone to my wife and went about my business.  Time to run errands and get ready to teach a class tonight.  Such an average day.

Publix was a mixed bag.  A man in the parking lot gave me his empty cart and said, “Better take it, man.  There’s none left in the store.”  The aisles were crowded, and I grew impatient when shoppers parked their carts, stood next to them in the middle, and blocked traffic while they contemplated the selection of can goods left on the shelves. Some were so intent on studying their lists that near collisions were a constant threat.  Two woman slowly pushed their carts side by side in the main aisle leading to the cash registers.  They engaged in a leisurely conversation as I silently walked behind them, but one finally stopped and stood aside to let me by.  She said sarcastically, “There, now you can pass me.”  And when I did with some difficulty (her cart still partially blocked my way) she called after me, “Have a nice day!”  A Publix worker stood with her arms crossed in front of the egg shelves.  She surveyed the crowds of customers weaving from aisle to aisle with a look of grim disdain.  I gingerly picked a carton off the shelf behind her as I wasn’t sure if she was there to guard them.  Another employee came up and said, “There was this lady who filled her cart with water, and then another one next to her got the bright idea and started to do the same…”

The weatherman in the latest forecast hopes that a cold front will arrive in time to push Irma off the east coast.  His expression looks a bit desperate, and I take no comfort.

But for now my kitchen garden is blooming, the butterflies are darting around the blue porter weed in the backyard, the bee balm attracts bees near my front porch, and the grasshoppers are mating.  Judy is listening to an audio book, and I’m writing this post.  A relatively ordinary day.

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But it’s getting kind of weird.

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Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”

 

 

Seasons and Time

I recently saw a cartoon of a calendar for Florida.  The seasons were Bearable, Hell and Total Hell.  They referred to late fall to early spring, summer and early fall, and August respectively.  My family moved from central Pennsylvania to Orlando in August, 1991.  Hell, total hell.  The highs in PA had been in the mid 80s, while the thermometer down here consistently read 94-96 degrees.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone would voluntarily move to Florida until Thanksgiving came around.  A cold front passed through the night before, and the air was crisp and cool on the day of.  The humidity dropped too, and for the next four months I woke up in the morning dry and comfortable instead of basting in my sweat.

I’ve been here for 25 years and have gotten used to the oddities of the Florida climate such as maple trees shedding leaves in March while simultaneously budding. Trees overloaded with ripe citrus at Christmas and pollen allergies in February no longer surprise me.  Mowing the lawn from March to November no longer strikes me as an unreasonable burden.  But the seasons still don’t feel right.

Northerners grow accustomed to the passage of Time marked out by the metronome of distinct seasons.  Years pass by in an orderly parade.  And each season carries its own emotional tone.  Spring releases weary sufferers from cold and gloom into a carnival of warmth and color.  Summer is a long celebration of sun worship, an extended opportunity for outdoor revels.  Fall starts as a welcome relief from August’s heat, but ends on a down note as the trees shed leaves, the sky turns somber, and the colors of the landscape fade and darken to brown, gray and black.  Nature slowly dies, and once winter truly arrives the long, cold, dark vigil begins. Many sink into deep depressions come February.  The yearly cycle brings change and suffering, but its consistency provides certainty in the form of a familiar ritual  of progression.

In Florida there really isn’t a spring.  Bushes and trees bud and blossom at their own pace year round.  Time slides by almost unmarked by any dramatic changes in the landscape. One intensely hot and bright day drifts into another from March to October.  And time appears to stand still when cool air finally filters down from Canada in November.  Days of blue skies and golden light follow one another in a monotonous procession until the first heat wave creeps up from the Caribbean in March.

I’ve learned to mark the passing of years less by seasons and more by the creaking of my joints and the thickening of my waist.  The fat pouches on the sides of my jaw and wrinkles on my forehead tell me that Florida and its seasons are liars.  My bathroom mirror is my reality check if I choose to look in it.  (I’m starting to hate that bastard.)

And perhaps that’s the attraction that brings retirees from Ontario and the Midwest down here.  It must be a comfort, when the end grows ever near, to live in a world where time slows down and sometimes stops.  The rushing by of a limited supply of years may seem less relentless in a land where things change slightly for better or worse, but nothing really seems to happen.

Welcome to Florida (Initial Impressions of the Sunshine State)

1. A Slice of Heaven

Christmas on Park AvenueJudy got a job interview at Rollins College in 1991for an assistant professorship. I flew down with her to help take care of Alan. He was five months old, hadn’t been weaned yet and stubbornly refused to take bottles from me or anyone else. When we landed in Orlando Judy took Alan to the ladies’ restroom to change him while I guarded our bags. I looked around idly and saw a portly, middle aged man with a thick head of graying hair talking on a pay phone. He had a rich, rolling tone that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn without all the hesitations, and I realized that I was staring at Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority televangelist. When he glanced in my direction and noticed the stunned look on my face he swelled with pride and boomed a little more loudly into the phone. Our ride, a professor from Rollins, pulled up to the curb after Judy and Alan returned, and I said when we got into the car, “You’ll never believe who I just saw.” When I told the professor about encountering Falwell her face pinched tight in disapproval and she said, “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?” I responded, “It was like seeing the devil,” and Dr. Coleman relaxed. I lived in fear of saying something that would mess up Judy’s chances, and I knew that I had passed my first test. I resolved to keep my mouth shut after that.

We drove through the south end of town and I noticed that the sun baked ranch houses were mostly made of cinder block. Some of them needed paint jobs, and there were occasional trash strewn yards with high grass and weeds. Cluttered strip malls crowded against both sides of Semoran Blvd. with gaudy signs for nail boutiques and pawn shops clamoring for attention. We drove further north into Winter Park and the houses became larger with better groomed lots. Large oak trees shaded the road, and the yards of the two story mini-mansions near the college sloped gently down to Lake Virginia. Some homes had boat docks at water’s edge.

They put us up at the Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast, and as I hauled our bags into the lobby several professors arrived and greeted Judy. They planned to take her out for supper, but seemed confused by the presence of Alan and me even though Judy had forewarned them that we would be coming along. A professor in her thirties who spoke rapidly and non stop made it clear that Alan and I were not invited to come along. When I asked where I could find a restaurant nearby Professor Kleeman volunteered to take me to a place he recommended on Park Ave.

I pushed Alan in a stroller after stripping him down to a thin t-shirt and shorts. The temperature in Pennsylvania that morning had been in the thirties, and the cold rain kept flirting with the possibility of becoming snow and sleet. It was March, but central Florida was sunny and warm with temperatures in the mid eighties. Alan slept on my shoulder at first when we walked into the restaurant and sat down. The tables were crowded tightly together, and I had trouble handling the folded up stroller and diaper bag I hauled along with one arm.  But I managed to avoid whacking diners on the head as I struggled to a booth. Dr. Kleeman and I ordered, and when our food arrived Alan woke up. He blearily turned around and faced Kleeman across the table from us, and he began to cry. The professor had long hair in a pony tail and a beard trimmed into a Van Dyke point, and he terrified my baby. I got up and walked Alan up and down the aisle until he calmed down. I hoped that he would get accustomed to the foreign surroundings and be fine when we sat down again, but when he turned off my shoulder and gazed upon Kleeman his face squinched into a tight bunch of distressed muscles and he wailed. I didn’t know what to do, and I was worried about the professor’s reaction. But Kleeman was quietly amused by Alan and suggested that I take my meal back to the Fortnightly and eat it there.

Judy came back around 10 and Alan was already asleep. Our room was actually two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting room with a sofa and a decanter of brandy on a small, round, antique table covered with a lace doily. The staff had put a play pen in the sitting room, and when I sneaked in for a night cap I tip toed around Alan as he snoozed peacefully. Judy was exhausted but managed to relax a bit before we went to bed.

We met a business man on holiday and a woman in town for a conference at breakfast. She was especially helpful when Alan lunged forward and upset a glass of orange juice onto his mother’s lap. Judy was gone the rest of the day except for short breaks around lunch time and mid afternoon. She had to nurse Alan at regular intervals, and she used her breaks to center her thoughts and let go some of her tension. That day she was interviewed by more faculty members and gave a lecture to a class. I took Alan on walks in the surrounding blocks and was impressed by the manicured shops and homes around Park Ave. Men and women wearing business suits, and small groups of ladies at their leisure strolled up and down and sat at tables outside of restaurants and bistros. Flowers hung from baskets from the sides of the buildings, and the exterior of every establishment looked shiny clean and freshly painted. I naively assumed that all of Winter Park was wealthy. I pushed Alan past Central Park and crossed railroad tracks into West Winter Park. The houses became simple wooden cottages on small lots marked off by chain link fences, and I realized that I had wandered into a very poor neighborhood just two blocks away from stores selling expensive jewelry, French wines and fancy chocolates. The disparity seemed odd.

Judy and I had a few moments together in the late afternoon before she was whisked away again. While she was gone that evening I read the Orlando Sentinel while Alan napped, and late that night I opened the window of our room and watched the traffic flow by on Fairbanks. I could smell jasmine on the balmy air, and I thought that Winter Park was a slice of heaven.

Professor Small drove us to the airport the next day, and he was cautiously encouraging about Judy’s chances. Her lecture had gone over well and the faculty she met had felt comfortable with her. Our hopes ran high.

We boarded a plane at Orlando International Airport and waited for take off. The pilot mumbled something unintelligible over the intercom, and the air flow was shut off in the cabin. We continued to wait at on the baking tarmac and the interior began to get hot. Alan gradually got cranky. He twisted and leaned in Judy’s arms, and decided to cry. Two stewardesses descended on us, and one of them picked up Alan and began to walk him around the cabin. He was surprised by being held by an unfamiliar woman and quieted down. When he started to crank up again she scurried up the aisle and took him into the pilots’ cabin. We could hear her cooing to him, “Look at all the pretty lights!” as she showed him a control panel with dials, buttons and glowing lights.

The pressurized air system was repaired after we sat for twenty minutes, and the stewardess handed Alan back to Judy before we took off. Judy nursed him and he fell asleep for the two hour flight to Pittsburgh. We had to catch a connecting flight for Allentown, and discovered that the Pittsburgh airport was something of a maze. It was apparent as we dashed from building to building taking multiple turns off of branching corridors that the airport had been built piece by piece with no architect in charge of making the over all plan coherent and navigable. We reached the gate just before the end of the boarding call. Judy had carried Alan, and I had hauled the stroller, diaper bag and a carry on bag, and we were both out of breath as we trotted up the jet way and boarded the plane.

Judy’s parents picked us up in Allentown and drove us back to their home outside of Kutztown. The temperature was in the low thirties and there were traces of dirty snow in the yards of houses along the way. The subtropical flora and midsummer heat of Central Florida felt like a dream, a mirage that we had been allowed to have a glimpse of for a short while. And while we wanted to go back there and start a life with all sorts of new possibilities, we had no idea if that was going to happen. We retreated to State College the next day and waited for the phone to ring.

2.  Lowered Expectations

Judy got the job, but the dean of faculty low balled the salary offer. We had been living on soft grant money for the last five years at Penn State, and Judy and I decided that we had to take the opportunity. We assumed that the money would get better once she had been there for a while and had earned tenure.

We were set to move in mid August, but Judy got anxious for arrangements to be made and sent me down to Orlando in July to find a rental house. My car started to break down on the outskirts of Sanford, a mid sized town twenty miles north of Orlando. The car limped into the parking lot of a 7/11, and I went inside. I got permission to leave my car there over night until a service station across the intersection opened the next morning. A cop at the counter warned me to take my valuables out of the car. Sanford looked sleepy, run down and rural like farm towns in Ohio, but displayed a more sinister character after dark.

I had seen hotels along Lake Monroe three blocks away, and I huffed and puffed with two heavy suitcases in ninety degree heat to the nearest one. That night I studied the Orlando Sentinel for houses to rent, and tried to call a woman on staff at Rollins whose number I had been given in case of an emergency. I got her mother instead. She was babysitting at her daughter’s house, was very suspicious when I explained my situation, and offered hostility instead of help. She thought that I was trying to scam her. I slept fitfully that night not knowing how bad the car was and whether or not I would be stranded without transportation in an unfriendly town 1,200 miles from home.

I went down to the 7/11 early the next morning and managed to drive the car a few hundred feet to the garage. When I walked back to the hotel I saw a man standing on a dock in a marina off of Lake Monroe. He was looking down and talking to something in the water. There was a strange note of affection in his voice, one that might be used when talking to a persistent but familiar enemy who had become something of a friend. When I drew along side him I saw that he was speaking to a twelve foot alligator cruising semi-submerged between the small pleasure craft and fishing boats. The reptile stared at the man with shrewd eyes as if summing up the pros and cons of coming closer to shore for a quick lunge.

I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat in my room and smoked. I didn’t usually indulge, but the strangeness of my situation made me feel justified in doing a little damage to my lungs. I pored over a map of Orlando and the newspaper until the garage called and told me that a blocked fuel filter had been the problem. They replaced it and my car was fixed.

I drove from Sanford down through Longwood and Casselberry and was struck by the hodgepodge zoning plans of the cities along State Route 17/92. I passed car lots sitting next to residential neighborhoods next to decrepit motels next to a church next to a day care center next to a strip joint. I arrived at Rollins, dropped off a few things in Judy’s new office and asked for advice about Orlando neighborhoods from the lab technician in the biology department. Winter Park was too expensive for us when I factored in our monthly pay from Rollins. The rock bottom salary the college had offered would push us further south. She hinted that parts of Orange Blossom Trail could be a very scary, and seemed reluctant to comment when I mentioned that I had seen ads for very cheap houses in Pine Hills.

I began to drive around Orlando and noticed that the traffic was very busy and intense. Drivers were aggressive and took a lot of risks by changing lanes without signaling, running red lights, tailgating, cutting off other drivers and switching lanes in intersections. I felt like I was driving inside a hyperactive video game.

I decided to check out Pine Hills for myself. It didn’t look too bad until I saw a one legged man wearing nothing but torn, cut off shorts hopping in his front yard on his remaining leg while brandishing a crutch at someone who had apparently fled before I passed by. A car was up on blocks in the man’s driveway, and newspaper bundles were stacked in his carport. I saw similar yards with rundown houses in the adjacent blocks, and I understood why the rental prices were so low. I eventually came upon a fairly suitable house in Azalea Park on the east side of town. Some of the houses in the area looked poorly kept, but the streets around that location looked decent enough. The price was right, the ride to campus could be driven in twenty minutes, and there was a large park about ten minutes from the house. It met all the criteria that Judy had set for me.

That night I stayed in Professor Kleeman’s house. He and his family were out of town for the summer and they offered its use to me. Although the kitchen was clean I saw ants and cockroaches as long as my thumb cavorting around the sink and counters when I went to get a glass of water late at night.

I started out late the next day for Pennsylvania and had to stop in South Carolina for the night. When I walked into the motel office a woman was having a rant with the night clerk. She wasn’t mad at him, however. She told him a story about an evil woman in her church who had done her wrong. The clerk nodded along and offered comforting words whenever she paused for breath. The woman concluded by saying, “I’m a Christian woman and I know that I’m supposed to forgive and forget and that our Lord says that ‘vengeance is mine’ but I do hope that I live to see the day when Doris gets her righteous punishment for her sins against me.” The clerk said, “I’m sure you will. The Lord takes care of His little lambs.” The woman smiled at him and left. I escaped as quickly as I could from the office with a key to a ratty motel room featuring worn carpets, chipped furniture and a wall unit air conditioner that rumbled and complained as it struggled to remain in operation. The booming sound of the clerk’s voice echoed in my ears for several minutes after I closed the door and lay down on my bed.

I got back home to State College late the next day and collapsed. I waited until the next morning to tell Judy that Orlando was a big, noisy, difficult place, and that the idyllic conditions at the comfortable and genteel Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast were the exception to the rule. The City Beautiful, home to Disney, palm trees, orchids and gators, was going to be a challenging place to live.

3. A Hostile Landscape

Judy and I took the kids out to a buffet restaurant a month after we moved into our rental house on Sage Drive in Azalea Park. Alan had enjoyed putting his chocolate pudding in his mouth, hair and nose. By the time we had wiped him, the high chair and the table down it was a bit later than we expected. When we walked out of the restaurant the sky had turned an ominous, bluish black, and a violent bolt of lightning streaked down to earth in a pink, crooked flash accompanied almost simultaneously by an alarming BOOM. We piled the kids into the car, strapped them into their car seats and sped home. The sky opened up just before we got the kids inside, and we were all soaked. After we toweled them off and they settled down, I sneaked away and sat on the steps of our Florida porch and watched the dark clouds roll by. A cool wind blew through the viburnum hedge along the driveway and the crape myrtles in the yard.

That night I took the garbage out to the curb after dark. When I reached the bottom of the driveway my face ran into something sticky and elastic, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something the size of the palm of my hand suspended in mid air. I yelped and hopped backward, and then stepped forward for a closer look. The suspended object was a banana spider, and it was sitting in a web that it had strung from foliage on either side of my driveway, a span of at least fifteen feet. That was a bit terrifying to contemplate, but the thing that bothered me more was trying to imagine what a spider that big in a web that huge hoped to catch and eat.

A few days later I bought a kit and assembled a small lawn mower. Our yard was a half acre of muddy looking sand and struggling patches of St. Augustine grass. Sand spurs grew in great abundance, however, and I discovered their presence when I tried to walk barefoot across the lawn to reach a hose. The round stickers lodged into the soles of my feet and sent me hopping back to the carport. My toes felt like they were on fire.

I got the mower started and began to cut grass and throw up spurts of black sand into the air. I soon was choking and wheezing and decided to take a break. I happened to look down at a ragged tuft of grass and saw something odd poking out of the ground. I bent down. A dull gray creature the size of an overgrown grasshopper stared back at me. Its head looked like the monster’s head in the movie, “Alien”. I took a step toward it and it reluctantly retreated into the hole it had dug into the ground. I later found out that the insect was a mole cricket and that he and all his friends and acquaintances were eating the grass in the lawn from the roots up.

An older couple next to us and a widower across the street were friendly. They gave us advice about gardening in Florida and shopping and navigating in Orlando. But the rest of our neighbors seemed suspicious of strangers and reluctant to show any interest in newcomers. When we took the kids to the park several blocks away we encountered a little boy. He came up to Annie and Alan with a smile on his face and began to play nicely with them. An old woman with a lined and tanned face wearing a shawl sprang up out of nowhere. I gave her a friendly look, but she scowled at me as she snatched the boy by the arm and dragged him away from us. Her eyes were hostile when they met mine, and I could see that she thought that I had evil intentions concerning her grandson. We were used to meeting young parents with children in parks in State College, and Judy and I were surprised that we were considered a threat for being friendly to a child.

Daily encounters with workmen and service people could become unexpectedly hostile. One postman said rude things to me if he saw me working on a landscape painting in the front yard. Another seemed affronted when he saw me playing with my kids in the carport. He questioned my intelligence when he found out that I stayed home with the kids while Judy went to work. He thought that I was foolish for having stuck around for the hard work of raising children when any man with half a brain knew that women were just for pleasure. The garbage men hated their work, and one took intense pleasure in ramming our can against the edge of the truck until he broke off the handles. The bags had stuck inside, and I guess he felt justified in doing some damage to get them out. The customers and store keepers in the strip mall nearest to our house spoke to me first in Spanish, and when I didn’t answer in kind they looked at me with guarded expressions. My tanned skin had fooled them at first, but they had figured out my ‘deception’.

We saved and borrowed money and moved out of Azalea Park at the end of one year. We bought a house in a working class neighborhood in Seminole County on the outskirts of Winter Park. The neighbors on either side of us were a lot friendlier, and we soon made friends with a family down the block who had kids about the same age as ours. We felt a lot more relaxed, and the postman wasn’t interested in making rude and personal comments. He just delivered the mail. Our garbage cans were not further molested.

A heroin epidemic swept through our old neighborhood a year after we left, and the park where we met the little boy and his grandmother was no longer safe for children. Used needles littered the ground around the swings and the picnic shelters. Judy and I felt that we had escaped just in time.

Palm at Chilean Dr

Black Birds (A Short Story)

She had planned it poorly when she agreed to let Tony pick her up for lunch. Linda had a nagging feeling when they sat down to eat that she would soon be dumping him. But she was more surprised than he was when she blurted, “I wanna break up with you,” right after their bony young waitress laid their meal on the table and walked away.

Linda got up and left him sitting there staring at their food: her taco salad, his giant beef and bean burrito, her sweet tea and his Dr. Pepper. She briefly returned to the table to grab her sweet tea, but walked away quickly before he had a chance to argue with her or plead. She hated when he did that.

Her glow of satisfaction faded quickly when she stepped outside into a sauna of damp heat. The August sun bore down with vindictive energy on her particular spot in Winter Park, Florida, and she squinted as she struggled to pull her shades from the bulky, white purse slung on her arm. She realized that she would have to call her sister for a ride, and saw that her sense of timing had been exquisitely poor.

Her cell phone pulsed and throbbed in her hand before she had a chance to flick it open. It was a text from Tony: “Want a ride?” Linda glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t see past the reflections on the plate glass window of the restaurant into the interior. She assumed that he was staring at her smugly from the coolness inside, and she texted “No!” She wandered down the length of the shopping strip and decided to hide inside Whole Foods. She wasn’t going to discuss anything with Tony, and certainly wouldn’t ride with him in his car. He might trick her.

Tony closed his phone and put it back into his coat pocket. He wanted to track her down and make her explain, but decided to let her go. If this latest episode in their series of break ups was just a product of one of her moods, then it would be smarter to let her work her way through it without any guidance (“interference” was her term) from him. If she really wanted to break up, then he’d let her. He was tired of making the effort to keep her happy.

He glumly ate a few taco chips and started on the burrito. He put too much hot sauce on it and had to ask Melissa, the waitress, for an extra soda. He mopped his forehead and watched his server’s hips sway as she walked away. She swiveled around and smiled at him as if she knew that he was studying her curves in action, and he turned away in embarrassment and looked out the window. He picked just the right moment to see Linda pass by. She was wearing heels and looked hot and uncomfortable as she impatiently walked back and forth on the sidewalk.

Linda’s torso was shaped like a pear with narrow shoulders and a wide ass, and her short, floral print dress with loud, tropical colors did little to hide the fat accumulating on the back of her thighs just above her knees. Today she had pulled her frizzy, brown hair into a pony tail on one side of her head, and she looked like a refugee from the eighties, an aging material girl who was getting too old to “just wanna have fun”. Tony finished his burrito and burped. He began to eye her taco salad. Break ups with Linda always made him hungry.

She couldn’t get Bobbi to answer the phone. Her sister was forever hauling her brats back and forth from the doctor, the supermarket and school, and she never picked up when she was driving. Linda debated between waiting at the bus stop at Lakemont and Aloma and walking home. The bus service was notoriously bad, and she didn’t know if she’d have to circle down town Orlando twice before finally traveling in the right direction to get home. It had to be 95 degrees out and her feet were already killing her. She needed a ride.

And she was getting hungry–she had been too nervous to drink her diet shake at breakfast–and now she felt a little woozy. She began to long for the taco salad waiting at Tony’s table for her to devour, but resisted the urge to go inside. She went back to the Whole Foods to buy something to nibble.

Linda wandered through the narrow aisles amongst aging hippies and New Age wannabes, and couldn’t seem to find anything appealing. She got trapped between two grocery carts blocking her path at the meat counter. A 30 year old blonde couldn’t decide between ground buffalo and free-range beefsteaks. She had a baby in a papoose slung across her chest and wore Birkenstock sandals. Earth Mama asked the clerk whether the methane emissions of cattle were more detrimental to the environment than buffaloes’, and Linda forced her way past when the clerk began a long winded spiel about bovine digestion. She was accosted at the grain bins by a sixty year old man wearing a golf cap and sporting a white goatee. He asked her if she like to bake bread while he stared at her breasts.

Her phone lit up as she backed away from the creep, and she told him that her fiancée was calling. She snapped the phone open and cried, “Hi, Tony!”

Tony was surprised when she answered, and her tone of voice sounded too friendly even for a good day when they were getting along. It usually took at least a week for her to respond after a break up, and he had expected his call to go straight to voice mail.

Linda said, “Sit tight. I’ll be right there!” and hung up before he could say a word. Tony raised two fingers to get Melissa’s attention, and he ordered another taco salad for Linda and a beer for himself. He knew that the drink would make his belly feel more bloated than it all ready did, but the restaurant didn’t serve hard liquor.

She breezed in a few minutes later and sat down across from him. She picked at the scraps of the first salad left on the plate in the middle of the table, and seemed surprised when Melissa arrived with a fresh order. Tony waited in silence as she chattered about her sister, the hot weather and a shopping trip that she planned to take with her mother. When she had chewed and talked her way through her meal she wiped the grease off her lips, paused, and nervously smiled at him without making eye contact. He decided to show her some mercy and said, “Do you need a ride home?”

“Would you give me a lift? Thank you, Tony.”

“No problem.”

He went up to the cashier and paid, and they walked together in silence to his car. He didn’t open up her door for her, and drove faster than usual down Aloma toward Semoran.

They got stuck at a light. A sunburned, homeless man with dirty pants and the scraggly beginnings of a beard stood on the curb next to them and held a cardboard sign. The letters were too small to read, and when she stared too long as she tried to decipher the message, the man came over with a tentatively hopeful look on his face. She rolled down her window and gave him two quarters she hurriedly dug out of the bottom of her purse. And when he took them and said, “God Bless,” she was too flustered to notice the sarcastic note in his voice.

They pulled up to her house, and Tony didn’t respond when she leaned against and kissed him on the cheek. She no longer knew whether or not they had broken up, but he had made up his mind about something. He seemed to be made of stone as he sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

She got out of the car and walked to her door, but she didn’t hear him start the motor and drive away. She looked back and saw him staring straight ahead. Nothing remarkable caught her eye when she surveyed her neighborhood. There were parked cars, puddles in the curbs, cinder block, ranch houses and trees. Her neighbor, an anorexic twenty year old named Tammi, wasn’t out sunbathing in her pink bikini. Tony kept staring.  Her curiosity was piqued.

Linda got back into the car. He glanced at her long enough to register her return, and went back to staring straight ahead. She said, “What are you looking at?”

“The black birds,” he said.

She squinted up past the rear view mirror and saw a row of bedraggled starlings perched on a telephone line. They crowded against each other, rustled their wings and looked wet and miserable. There must have been a sun shower in the neighborhood while they were at the restaurant. A black bird occasionally took off to stretch its wings, but soon returned. His spot might be taken, and if it was the prodigal just shouldered his way back into the line at another spot. The starlings mostly ignored each other, but made sure that they remained huddled together with wings touching.

“Do you like the birds?” she asked.

“They’re okay,” he said, and then he took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

She wanted to remove it, but instead she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. When the car got too hot they went inside and made love in her bed. Their post coital drowsiness slid into a nap, and when she woke up Linda discovered that she was huddled tight against his hairy, sweaty body.

She gradually separated herself from him and rolled off the bed without waking him. He farted in his sleep, and she knew that she had made a timely escape. The faint whiff she got was familiar—she knew from ten years of experience that the man couldn’t handle beef, beer and beans at one go.

She padded in bare feet to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and as she shook ice cubes from a tray she made a mental note: the next time they went out on a date she would drive herself to their rendezvous.  He wouldn’t fool her again.

Gardening in Florida

I’m not much of a gardener, though I was able to raise a decent crop of green beans when we lived in Pennsylvania. Japanese beetles and weeds threatened my plants from time to time up there, and rabbits often nibbled shoots down to the ground, but their depredations seemed to be  reasonable. They ate and I ate.
Now that I live in central Florida there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason when trying to grow vegetables. Plants sicken and die at random moments; swarms of insects chew holes in leaves and any tender, young vegetable that shows an inclination to ripen; herbs succumb to fungi or wilt in the summer heat.  The only flora that seem impervious to the harsh environment are the vines that claw and wriggle their way out of the drainage canal abutting my back yard.  They cross any stretch of land that hasn’t felt their persistent, grasping touch and ensnare anything stationary in their path such as fence posts, trees, bromeliads, and sleeping dogs.  The only thing that temporarily slows their progress is a hard freeze.
The other problem with trying to intentionally grow flowers and vegetables here is that all sorts of weedy plants volunteer to grow right where they are least wanted. Bidens and ferns jump out of the ground and attempt take over any cultivated plot. Trees pop up along the edge of fences and grow at amazing rates. The laurel cherry and laurel oak are examples of trees that grow with reckless exuberance, but they pay for their imprudence by twisting and splitting near their bases just when they gain enough height to provide decent shade. Limbs fall and whole trees can come crashing down during a wind or rain storm. Hurricanes swing by every five or ten years, and when they come near I stare at the weather reports on my television and fear not only the onslaught of high winds and horizontal, slashing rain, but also harbor suspicious thoughts about every tree in my yard that has grown higher than the roof line of our one story house.
Two weeks ago I cut down two laurel cherry trees that had stealthily grown to twenty feet tall in the span of 3 or four years. They thought I wasn’t looking, but I had my eye on them for a couple months. As I wiped sweat from my eyes and scratched at a few mosquito bites on my calves, I reflected on a wise saying that an older, native resident told me years ago. He said that in Florida the goal wasn’t to plant things. The goal instead was to cut things down before they swallowed up your house and yard.
An idea occurred to me as I swung an axe and bundled  branches: perhaps misdirection could be used to fool the relentless green onslaught. What if I lovingly cleared an area of my yard, made it weed, vine and tree free, and lined up pots of defenseless  plants in the center of the plot?  What if I  ‘innocently’ placed stakes and string,  a hoe and a rake nearby as additional lures? In the meantime, while Mother Nature or the angry spirit of Osceola waited to spring upon my helpless square of turned earth, I could sneak a few plants into areas only partially overgrown and run to riot. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my carefully prepared garden would be attacked with full vigor while my little, partially hidden plants might be overlooked and spared. They would then have time to grow deeper roots and develop some resistance to aphids, giant grasshoppers, and hairy caterpillars.
But right after I finished cutting up the laurel cherries I spotted a third tree tucked behind and between a flowering bush and a viburnum tree that had long since exceeded its rightful state as a viburnum shrub. The partially hidden laurel cherry had slender, brittle branches  that had begun to curve toward my roof line. I realized that it might take a day to chop it down and cut it up, and that I’d better get to it soon. In another couple of weeks it might grow so large that I would have to call a tree company to remove it.
I saw that my plan to fool the Spirit of Florida Green was nothing but a silly diversionary tactic. General Custer must have tried to feint left and right when he realized he was surrounded at Little Big Horn. We all know how that ended.