Chasing Homestead


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A few things for themselves,
Convolvulus and coral,
Buzzards and live-moss,
Tiestas from the keys,
A few things for themselves,
Florida, venereal soil,
Disclose to the lover. …

–  Wallace Stevens, “O Florida, Venereal Soil”

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1. A Chase in earnest

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There was something about Sunday’s Sylvania 300 race in New Hampshire that was different: a fresh vibe, a wilder undercurrent — a new kind of racin’. It was fevered, dangerous, all-out, caution-ridden, exciting. And fateful, the indiscretions of others and fuel spelled doom for some – leader Tony Stewart running out of gas on the white flag lap, Jimmie Johnson getting caught up several times in wrecks and got a loose rear tire as result and spluttered to a 25th-place finish, just behind Stewart—while triumphal for others, especially Clint Bower.

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Clint Bowyer wins in New Hampshire, gets of to a great start. (Until Thursday, when NASCAR announced that Bowyer had been docked 150 points due to “chassis violations.”

Forget the typically lousy attendance; it was one helluva race. We saw the boys in earnest, driving like they meant it, and none more than winner Clint Bowyer, who broke an 88-race win drought and had announced, prior to the race, that he was going to race exactly as a man in his near-hopeless position of twelfth place in the Chase –- all-out, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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The stands at New Hampshire were lighter than the contents of what’s between Linday Lohan’s ears.

Bowyer started second and led for 177 laps, daunted by a car which slipped on restarts and made its way back on pure testosterone. On the final lap, with leader Stewart suddenly out of gas, his own reserves close to empty and Denny Hamlin charging from second place, Bowyer put full petal to the metal coming out of the final turn and raced “like a thoroughbred” to the finish, beating Hamlin by .477 seconds.

It was a finish—-and a result–which redeemed so many bad storylines of the season, giving the sense that the Chase could really re-start racing dreams and return it to some pristine era, Florida before all the developers bought, clear-cut, built like hell and then sold it as high-priced paradise.

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2. Surf’s Up

Again I walk this small white shore
Amazed at all the blue. In love
My sins are legion: I never
Get it right. Dozing on the couch
On a wan drear Saturday, I
Rolled the tapes again, of years of
Nights fulcrummed by seconds where She
Smiled and bid me in. I never could
Keep her though, not the way I dreamed.
My words could never trance that smile
Back. I’m still at it in this my
Fifth decade, inside a marriage
And much in love. Still trying to

Sing loves’ hour back to that beach dawn
When eternal sands turned upside down.

“Love’s History” (2004)

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A race for the ages? It was for me. But maybe beauty—-and the beast–is always in the eye of the beholder. Mine had been freshly drenched earlier that Sunday in a view of Atlantic waters at full boil. Driven by some surging need to witness a local immensity, I had driven over to Cocoa Beach to watch the sun come up and spent a few hours immersed in the sight and sound of a surf ripped to frenzy by the passing of Hurricane Igor, some 900 miles to the east.

For years I’ve become an inland creature, 50 miles distant from the salt particulars of beach in the raw. Since my wife isn’t a beach person, I rarely making the trip any more. Settled life dries you that way. But I’d heard of the big surf and wanted to sink my senses in it, even if just for a morning. Hell, I didn’t even plan to swim, what with rip currents so menacing of late. And I couldn’t stay long — Lord knows I had plenty of work still to get done on that day, plus my 83-year-old mother who lives in South Orlando had fallen in a Whole Foods parking lot on Saturday and I wanted to check in on her.

So it was just a 3-hour stay-—sunup till around 10 a.m. But, as Blake said, one thought fills immensity, and so even a short savor of that wild oceanfront moment was enough to water me down past my soles.

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Swells were coming in around six feet at sunrise, big for Cocoa Beach, the sun harshly brilliant and hot for September, even with clouds about (it was raining further up the beach). As I walked the mile or so toward the pier, the sound of the surf overtook me, harsh and mashing. Sixty people had to be rescued out of the water by lifeguards on Saturday, and there was a general plea for people to stay out of the water. But conditions were too much of a tease for surfers. Dozens of ‘em were already in the drink, trying to get through tough shoreline breakers to make it out to the big ‘uns much further out.

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By the time I’d reached the pier the waves were much larger, eight to ten feet, smashing into the pier footers in fusillades of brilliant spray and sullen foam. I took lots of pictures, trying to capture that certain magnitude which has nothing to do my life and everything to do with the aesthetic by which I write, big night music expressed in smashing waves and hot sunlight and young bodies abloom in that element in away my aging body will never experience again.

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– Long gone was the day in May of 1980 when I first walked that very beach, fresh-arrived in Florida, my eyes full of expectation. I fully believed that Venus herself was going to emerge from one of those cerulean-bright waves breaking gently offshore; she’d shake her hair and come to me exactly as my long-wintered heart so needed to believe, her eyes full of blue invitation, her mouth opening with a smile.

That Bob Marley tune “Is This Love?” was playing in my head, my senses exhilarant to be soaking almost naked in that element, my foolish, 23-year-old brain fully expecting that if I would just come to the beach, love would come to me.

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No one arrived that day, and though there were brief personal carriers for Her seas-deep embrace, She has never shown herself, not in those ways. That Marley song had so faded in my head and aging heart that I could barely hear it as I walked Cocoa beach on Sunday, the faintest traces of an old happiness salted in the present roar of an indifferent, brutal tide.

– Long gone that morning I walked Cocoa Beach with my younger brother Timm, still in high school at the time, the two of us physically identical -– tall and lanky, mud-blonde hair, hazel-blue eyes—–and finding each other of very similar temperament. He was getting ready to bust out of Florida just as I was trying to bust in; neither of us reached our goal, though I’m still alive to say there still may be hope of finding the Florida I dream. I looked behind me as I walked to see trails of footsteps heading the other way, as we walked off that day so long ago, narrowing to a single row of steps after my brother died a few years ago.

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– Long gone was that morning in 1982 when I walked this beach with a gorgeous, full-bodied woman I’d screwed all night, she standing for a moment smiling at me with the ocean behind her and the rising sun giving her lavish, fucked-beyond-satiation body the fullest amplitude of early sexual love (gone just a few weeks later, taking her out on the heart’s ebbing, fickle tide, that tide which the young helplessly sate and remit, which the aging have learned to build sea-walls against, safer but infinitely dryer, too). Saw that woman in the surfer girl in the one-piece bathing suit, sitting and waxing her board, tying her blonde hair back in a ponytail, walking out into the brilliant mashing water like Venus heading back into her element, leaving all us boys behind to ogle and feel pierced by something that will never be ours, no matter how many women we go through in search of what that woman embodied as she disappeared paddling over a wave and diminished as she swam further and further out, perhaps forever.

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Gone. And by 10 a.m. I was done, feeling the burn, sated enough on big surf (though it would have been fun to vigil the entire day, watched the waves get bigger, catch a few lifeguard rescues, maybe see something big wash up on the beach, a body, a whale, an old chunk of the long-exploded Challenger, the jellyfish which were promised to come in, a selkie, a dead sea-turtle, a bounty of doubloons finally come ashore from the wreck of a Spanish galleon, sunk in a hurricane some 500 years ago–something).

But I’ve learned to tune back the sea’s siren voices, like a schizophrenic who manages a return learns to ignore all the barking in their head.  I packed up and headed back towards town, to call on my aging mother and then get home to finish weekend chores (vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, changing the litter boxes, cooking dinner while my wife was over at her mother’s house cleaning, preparing the place for her mother’s return from a third hospital visit in the past month.

That surfer girl disappeared into the brilliance of the morning and the smash of distant waves: I’ve learned that’s Her business, as the sea is only peripherally mine, sucking on the Florida peninsula at the same time opening wide to its penetrating length, subsuming the land and pulling back over the eons. Where I sit and write as usual every morning was, at one time, many fathoms beneath the surface of the sea. There are relic reefs and beaches as far inland as the sand ridges just outside of this town.

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The ocean is as much here as over there: yet it is good to confirm its presence now and then with an infrequent vigil like Sunday’s. So here I sit in a $5 rented lounge chair taking pictures and dozing, not many yards from the pier which over the years has been a spiritual if not particularly religious monument to my misguided yet essential longings.

Why do I consider the beach such a spiritual home that I have only to imagine it to feel blessed by ocean nurtuer? Nigel Pennick writes in Celtic Spiritual Landscapes,

… the creation of sanctity is more than mere acknowledgment or reproduction of some specific perception of a place. It is a unique presentation of its inner qualities that does not act as an intermediate filter, interpretation or representation. Rather, nothing comes between: there is total transparency. Pilgrims can experience the influence of souls without interposing intellectual concepts; the sacred place serves an an accessible gateway to the divine. A truly empowered sacred place transcends space and time, preserving timeless existence. Empowerment is most effective when the essences of the subtle world are brought into tangible form, promoting the evolution of the hitherto unmanifested qualities of the anima loci. When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities, then these qualities are enhanced and increased. These acts include the performance of ceremonies, the creation of pleasing and harmonious artifacts – anything that elicits in humans a comparable response.

A comparable response, yes … Thus I write about that day twenty five years lost to the past which I spent drinking in a bar on the Cocoa Beach pier, listening to Otis Redding sing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” on the jukebox and pouring down Myers rum-and-pineapple-juice concoctions which billowed in my head in rhythm to the ocean billows which rocked the pier as they rose and fell all day, all of us –me, the booze and the ocean and my fantasy of love – with absolutely nothing to do but languish there waiting for Her to come to me until I ran out of time, money, or consciousness. Another day in the eternal round of the drunk, sotted as much upon the sound and shape of the sea as I was with the spirit in the bottle.

Who knew back then I was initiate of this?

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…So I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

Look like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
It’s two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home

Now, I’m just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Oooo-wee, sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

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And what has this to do with racin’? If you’ve followed this blog for any length (before giving up at its obscene, un-cyberspeacean-friendly length—long as Florida’s ding-dong, dipping far and deep into the sea), then you know that only marginal tie-ins to the sport are required. Like the fact that NASCAR’s season begins, hits its midpoint, and then finishes its 36-race course Florida, at tracks located in Old and New Florida. While NASCAR’s drivers may have had their roots in Appalachian moonshine-running, the sport itself began as beach racin’, tearing up a stretch of beach and then returning back along adjacent highway A-1-A, the road which drops off every beach-souled penitent at the sea.

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Daytona International Speedway, built in the 1950’s, is a cathedral to the racin’ which Big Bill France believed was NASCAR’s–and Florida’s–future: an steel and asphalt metaphor for speed. Just down the road from Cape Canaveral, which was then readying to fly us into space, Daytona’s 2-1/2 mile round became an ungrounded hurl in that direction, dizzy in the bright Florida sunshine. A developer’s dream of the profitable infinite.

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By the 1960’s beach racin’ was had become Old Florida, a lost thing of its past, the way Old Florida is composed not of relics but disappearances. Gone was beach racin’, except in the eyes of oldtimers who remembered steel behemoths lumber up a strand wedged between fan-filed dunes and water’s immensity.

Both the old sand track and the new one of girders and steel are competing visions of Florida. Taken together, they make for a tart, sweet juice, like fresh-squeezed citrus. And so I make my visit into the swamp-swank Interior in which I make my home …

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2. Zellwood (Sequel to the Prequel)

Zellwood is the first and last town I pass through on my 25-mile commute to and from Orlando, a trip I’ve been making five times a week for 14 years. Population barely 2,000, Zellwood doesn’t have much to it-—a busy truck stop where semis have room to park the night, an auto parts store, two Mexican restaraunts, two bars (until a week ago),a half-dozen empty stores, a building supply company, grounds of an auction house where you’ll see fleets of old police cars or school buses or small trucks getting ready for the monthly sale. The posted speed is 45 mph but most commuters like myself whiz on through, pausing briefly at the only stoplight where Jones Avenue intersects.

(Trying to avoid a long snarl-up on 441 one afternoon, I turned left on Jones to find an alternate way home and, though it took me almost 45 minutes as the road revealed the vast agricultural underbelly of what’s left of rural Orange and Lake Counties– miles and miles of stunned-looking fields of sweet corn and tomatoes, idyllic and flat and endless beneath a scrolling tide of clouds.)

Though small—-the tiniest burg I pass through in my commute—-Zellwood as its distinctions. Annually the town hosts the Zellwood Corn Festivial, dishing up tons of the sweet corn local farms are famous for (although all but one has been bought up by the state in an attempt to clean up fertilizer-fouled Lake Apopka). Big Bertha, a 6-ton, 350 gallon cooker, can serve up 1,650 ears of steaming white sweetness in nine minutes. It’s country all the way, with 2d- and 3d tier acts like Jim Van Fleet and Johnny Bulford, Patrick Gibson and April Phillips playing all day. Last year The Bellamy Brothers headlined the Memorial Day Weekend event.

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Famous Zellwood alums include NASCAR legend Fireball Roberts (he purportedly earned his nickname Fireball while pitching for the Zellwood Mud Hens American Legion team back in the ‘40s, before his family moved to Daytona Beach—oddly making his legend his destiny, as he would die in a fireball at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964), actor Pauly Shore and punk rocker Keith Baine.

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Glenn “Fireball” Roberts after wrecking a Modfied car at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, early 1950s.

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Mushroom compost: stanky yet fertile.

You know you’re driving through Zellwood when you catch that occasional odor that smells like marsh-rot and unwashed pussy at once—a thick, pungent pall which wafts, in part, from the Monterey Mushroom farm complex just off 441. The 30-year old complex, originally built by Ralston Purina, produces some 15 million pounds of grocery mushrooms every year, and maintains a compost pile which is the best natural fertilizer you can find in this area. (One year my wife and I loaded up a neighbor’s pickup truck with a quarter ton stuff for $15 and spread it over the freshly tilled soil of what would become the garden which replaced our front yard.)

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The Zellwood Mushroom Smell usually emerges after soaking rains and can waft as far as the outskirts of our town some five miles to the north. But in the past decade a stronger, darker odor has gotten mixed in, and no one’s sure where it’s coming from. There are serveral pet cemeteries in the area that burn about 20,000 animal carasses every week. A second landfill has been added nearby. Strange thing is, this Bad Zellwood Smell has no apparent cause or calendar – it’s just there on some days, forming overnight somewhere in the pitch of rural darkness, knocking on people’s trailer doors at 5 a.m. or insinuating itself in the dreams of locals who leave their windows open.

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Zellwood’s truck stop has its notoriety. US-441—-the Orange Blossom Trail of my daily commute–is still a favorite byway for trucks en route from Kissimmee through Orlando up through Apopka and Zellwood into Tavares and Leesburg and then joining US 301 for the northern hike to Ocala and Gainesville then up into Georgia. It was the old tourist artery into Florida before the interstates were built -– you can still find many relic motels still open along the way –- but now the old highway traveled mostly by commuters (in this neck) and truckers.

The truckstop in Zellwood is the only one of its kind for miles, busy day and night as truckers gas up, eat greasy food in the diner, snooze some in their parked semis, and sometimes, on those loneliest of nights, do business with the truckstop hookers who are sometimes in the vicinity. I’ve seen them walking solo as far as mile outside of town, eyeing the eyes of every passing driver, getting in or out of pickup trucks, wiping their mouths and rearranging clothes which try to make their sagging aging addict bodies resemble barely legal vintage. Not that it matters, ‘cause its pussy the drunken horny boys are paying for, pussy and its receipts, pussy which need no face, providing a futile stay in the night’s mercury-lamped abandonments which never stop the next damn day from getting underway.

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Maybe The Zellwood Smell is brewed to a reek by the sum of the previous night’s sins of the town. I haven’t seen the hookers in the past six months or so, either because Orange County cops are cracking down (doubtful, in this unincorporated area – that’s why everyone speeds through town) or because times are hard for independent truckers, with the price of diesel still high and the recession putting a hurt on everyone’s income, discretionary or not. Where the used to be at least a dozen 18-wheeled behemoths parked in the murky lot with the single streetlamp off from the truckstop diner, now I see only two or three when I drive by around 7 a.m.

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Times are changing.

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The other bit of local color is, or was, the roadhouse at the corner of Jones Avenue and 441, in one failed earlier incarnation called Cornhuskers, was shut down for some years, then reopened as Jalopy Joe’s, offering food and drink and karaoke and country music with a special welcome to the bikers en route to Lake County’s rural byways every weekend. Jalopy Joe’s definitely looked cleaner than its predecessors, though if I were a still a drinking man I would certainly have hesitated before attempting to cross its doors in search of a remedy for the soul’s profaner thirst. Something about the establishments over the years looked creepy and dangerous, as if the Zellwood Smell was brewed there every night in sordid country excess.

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Well, God must have dispatched a smiting angel, because the other morning I drove by and there were a dozen firetrucks around Jalopy Joe’s, which by then was mostly fuming rubble. Seems a fire had started in the kitchen area after everyone had left for the night in spontaneous combustion of grease and torched the joint.

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Interior of  Joe’s, after the fall.

I wonder how long the ruins will just sit there, they way failed enterprises do in this area, no one interested in developing the property again, perhaps a chain-link fence getting erected around the perimeter, like the cage at the zoo, while the charred remains slowly degrade and crumble with each next thunderstorm down the decades. As I said, there are a half-dozen or so shuttered businesses along the Zellwood corridor of US-441, some for as long as I have been driving through, others seeing an evolution of failed businesses—-first a convenience store, then a refrigeration supply depot, then a thrift store, then a locked-up nothing, like a mausoleum of bad business dreams.

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Perhaps the cache of smell and hell which mixes with the buttery sugar of sweet corn and the town’s time-resistant corn-pone setting inspired some local Hollywood wannabees  to film a horror movie in and around Zellwood about a year ago. Zellwood is about two young couples taking a relaxing trip in the country before moving on to different cities. Only something Goes Wrong, out there, as the four get drunk around the campfire and Secrets emerge—secrets and then ultraviolence. (“Nothing supernatural,” Orlando Setninel movie columinist wrote in his blog, “just ego and psychosis and violence.” (Local color.)

Shot for “well under $100,000,” bartender-turned-director Jason Venture using a Red Camera –- a video camera which produces high-end, celluloid-looking results. One of the producer’s parents let the crew use their property in Zellwood, and she also used her connections to get 2007 Playmate Sara Jean Underwood to appear in the film along with Patricia Rosales, a contestant in Miss Cuba International 2009 (Hacienda Heights).

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“Zellwood” girls Rosales and Underwood.

Moore wrote about the filming of one scene:

I watched as Underwood contorted herself into a brand-new yoga position to try and line one real leg up against a fake one that had a screwdriver jammed through it. The debate in this shot was whether the screwdriver should be yanked out “fast” or “slowly.” That depends, of course, on whether it was flathead (wider) or Philips Head, doesn’t it?

“People really cringe when they see something happen to the Achilles tendon. I wanted to take it further,” jokes Venture. “I just want to torture the audience, just a little.”

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So far, only a trailer for the movie has been released  (a link to the trailer is at the end of this post) and who knows if it will see theatrical release. Not that the film won’t make money – direct-to-DVD releases have grossed more than $3 billion in the past few years. No doubt with its Playmate factor, “Zellwood” will be a hit with horror aficionados, the most popular DVD market, with unrated versions free to indulge in the greatest excesses.

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The Playmate factor of Sarah Jean Underwood …

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…plus Zellwood’s raunchy rural night … Should be enough to make “Zellwood” — The Movie — a hit on DVD players in  dark living rooms around the country.

Remember, The Blair Witch Project was filmed by two University of Central Florida students on a shoestring (principal photography cost $25,000) and grossed nearly $250 million worldwide.

Movie or no, Zellwood earns a special place in my Florida heart, tiny, poor, rural, dangerous, and ripe–plenty of cracker color. A fallen innocence, which I guess is better than a risen decadence.

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3. Snookie Duz Da Wiz

Zellwood fades against the bigger, richer, urban, silly and sterile lunacies of the other, more visible Florida, the one which infects the sleep of freezing folk everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and turns the state into a beckoining Finger, crooking all to come, old folks in need of warmer digs, tourists in need of blowing their wad on infantile excesses, and crooks and grifters of every stripe and spleen, developers and meth-labbers, grifters and politicians, plundering the state from the Keys to the Panhandle.

This Florida is most keenly imagined and best captured in the novels of Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.

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I’m just finishing Star Island, his latest, and it’s a hoot—soaked in the dimwit megawattage of the culture of celebrity excess, South Florida style. Monied beyond any mortal usefulness, we’re talking about those rare denizens of the stratosphere who are fawned endlessly and mindlessly over by fans who as much fantasize about living the dream themselves as taking immense pleasure in watching their stars tumble to earth in cometary sniper fire.

The gilded center of Star Island’s moronic inferno is an Orlando girl named Cheryl Bunterman who is transformed into the mega million-selling pop star Cherry Pye with pitch-control machinery in the studio and a marketing machine bigger than Microsoft’s.

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Around ditzy, dangerously addicted Cherry are her blood-sucking relatives, a stalking paparazzi with the instincts of a barracuda, a towering Raiford alum named Chemo hired on for no-nonsense bodyguard duty (one arm ripped off by barracuda during a hit job, he has it fitted with a battery-powered weed whacker which he uses to trim the noses and ass-lard of the guilty), a body double who double-crosses her employers when they decide she’s better off dead and an avenging eco-militant who dropped out of the Governor’s office years ago to haunt the mangrove swamps along Florida’s southwest coast, taking his revenge against criminal developers in harrowlingly unique ways (one gets fitted with a sea-urchin jockstrap; another finds the man taking a dump in his washing machine). Star Island is a cobalt-blue pool of guilty pleasures, brimming with Florida at its tragi-comic best.

Hiaasen has said about Florida,

The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you’d be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office.

His Florida—-or, I should say, the Florida which has grown like kudzu over the old–is all about the paradise which can only be purchased, built over the a pristine beauty with the same savagery exhibited by Dutch settlers of the island of Mauritius in the 17th century, who hunted the native “useless” Dodo into extinction. He is comic moralist, where every good joke band-aids a broken heart.

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Columnist and author Carl Hiaasen.

South Florida has become so over-developed that folks are relocating from there into our little town. One of our occasional next-door neighbors lives in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea and says that she thinks of our town as somewhere in south Georgia—-that different from the monied suburban miamas of her primary residence.

But you don’t have to go as far as South Florida to find top-dollar Edens for the 350,000 millionaires who live in Florida. Gated communities are everywhere. There are more than 2,000 miles of developed ocean coastline. There are more than 7,000 lakes for cozy lakefront properties.

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Tiger’s den.

In Orlando, Tiger Woods (net worth $600 million) made his little community of Isleworth in Orlando (where fellow sports stars Shaquille O’Neal, Mark O’Meara, Ken Griffey and Vince Carter also own multi-million dollar houses) uncomfortably infamous last November when he crashed his Cadillac Escalade at the end of his driveway. Two days previous, news had leaked of his affair with a New York nightclub manager, and something obviously was up that night. Tiger suffered minor lacerations to the face, but it was never confirmed whether the injury was from the accident or from a bitch-slapping from enraged wife Elin.

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Tiger’s woodies showed a thirst for women which drove him way beyond the boundaries of real love.

The media frenzy which followed grew to fantastical proportions, with news emerging of dozens of illicit encounters between the world’s best, richest and most famous golfer and women ranging from porn stars to a Perkins waitress working a store just outside Isleworth in Windemere. Tiger quit golf for a while, entered treatment for sexual addiction, lost a load of sponsors and eventually was divorced by Elin, who got a reported $100 million settlement and returned to her native Sweden. When he’s not nursing his wounds in Isleworth, Woods retires to his $20 million, 155-foot-yacht Privacy, berthed in South Florida.

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The most visible Privacy you can buy.

But new money is more comfortable with notoriety than old – we aren’t talking old world Boston here. Property values around Woods’ house will probably increase in the wake of the infamous celebrity of Tiger’s woodies.

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Star Island.

On Hiaasen’s Star Island, celebrity does more to inflate the value of a house than beach footage:

The estate had been on the market for three years, despite the listing agent’s dogged efforts. On Star Island the principal selling point for property was the celebrity of its previous owners, so realtors were skilled at name-dropping. Every house that came up for sale was presented as the former residence of Capone, Sly, Shaq, Cher, Johnny, Rosie, Julio, Diddy or Madonna. Occasionally an inexperienced agent would toss in Mickey Rourke or the Bee Gees. Prospective buyers seldom checked the veracity of these glamorous claims because they preferred not to deflate a good story.

The house where the novel has its climax is not on the market for $17 million dollars because it has “six bedrooms, two pools, a dock, (and) a cheese cellar” but because it has a wet bar upon which Cindy Crawford might or might not have simulated a pole dance.”

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South Beach is Ground Zero for South Florida’s specie of money gone bad in the tropics. Originally started as a coconut farm in 1870 by Charles and Henry Lum, Charles built a house on what he called “South Beach” in 1886. In 1912, a developer (of course) purchased 400 acres of the land to build small houses. In 1926 a hurricane leveled the area, giving way to (of course) a boom later in the decade of rich-folks-housing. The area’s famous Art Deco style came in the ‘30s. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the Army Air Corps took over the beach. For decades afterward, South Beach was a retirement community, with the elderly living in on fixed incomes in the ocean-front hotels and apartment buildings. By the 1970s the area was going to seed, with cocaine cowboys moving into dilapidated buildings to conduct their trade.

“Until the 1980s, Miami Beach was a peculiar mix of criminals, Cubans, and little old ladies,” Natalie O’Neil of the Miami New Times wrote in 2009. “Then the beautiful people moved in.” In the late 1980s, a renaissance began in South Beach, with an influx of fashion industry professionals moving into the area. Today, South Beach is a day-and-night entertainment destination, with hundreds of nightclubs, boutiques and hotels. It’s popular with both American and international tourists. The European influence can be seen in South Beach’s acceptance of the monokini for topless sunbathing.

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For a bite of the Beach’s rum-mango-sea-hootchie savor, here’s a recent post from Lesley Ambravanel’s blog “Scene in the Tropics” at The Miami Herald:

The other night, The Real Housewives of New York City’s Jill Zarin showed up at Caffe Abbracci in Coral Gables with an entourage of 10. The night before, actual (albeit ubiquitous, almost played out) celebrity with real talent LeBron James was there, quietly, with no entourage, no pomp, no circumstance, just having dinner almost like a normal person would. Hear that, Jill?

Then came E! reality show enigma Kendra Wilkinson, in town with a friend and assistant (because no reality show specimen is legit without an assistant to take care of important biz like texting and arranging where and when to pick up free crap). Wilkinson, who is 25 years old and has a ghost written memoir out already–eat it,  Justin Bieber, was reportedly “sent” down here by her baller hubby Hank Baskett so she could “unwind” before the rigorous filming of the new season of her PBS after school special E! show.

And unwind she did, first at LIV Sunday night, where those who cared enough to recognize her amidst a sea of LIV’s usual crowd of nuclear scientists and brain surgeons told us she was “raging.” On Monday, Wilkinson had dinner at STK and then partied at Mokai with—wait for it—the equally stellar Kevin Federline and beleaguered music producer Scott Storch. Snooki? Forget about it. She’s too A-list to join the mix. Even the Kardashians have packed up and left, trading Miami for NYC.  Ah, Miami. The reality show cesspool formerly known as Heaven’s Waiting Room has now become D-List heaven. Or hell, depending on how you look at it. As for us? We consider it celebrity Ambien. Thanks to Kathy Griffin, the D-List is the new A-List. As for some of these folks, well, they belong on the Zzzzzzzz-List.

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South Beach has gotten plenty of tantalizing exposure in the media, beginning with weekly tapings of the “The Jackie Gleason Show” in the ‘60’s, “Miami Vice” (with a nod to “Scarface”) in the ‘80s, the short-lived 1993 TV drama “South Beach,” the 2006 prime-time soap “South Beach” which ran for 44 episodes, and current reality-show hauntings by the Kardashian sisters and the wayward crew of Jersey Shore. South Beach is the omphalos of high-livin’, fuck-poverty abandonment, Florida’s Oz, a place constructed of sapphire waters and emeralds as big as kiwis swinging between grapefruit-sized silicone breasts tanning freestyle beneath the ever-warm South Florida sun.

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Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas played the mood-mannequins of “Miami Vice,” a show which back in the 80’s always put a big thirst in me on Friday nights.

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Al Pacino as Scarface, soaking up the spoils of cocaine addiction.

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Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian kavort, Miami-style.

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The “Jersey Shore” mob — Paul Del Vecchio aka ‘DJ Pauly D’, Michael Sorrentino aka The Situation, Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki and Sammi Giancola, aka Sweatheart — pay homage to South Beach by kickin’ it Jersey-style, aka Class My Freakin’ Ass.

Which brings us to Homestead-Miami Speedway, last stop on NASCAR’s season (also for the IndyCar Series), the track where champions are crowned. It was built in 1995 after Hurricane Andrew scoured the area clean with its Cat-5 winds. (Why do people rebuild over areas of certain future devastation? Lighting may not strike twice in the same spot, but hurricanes certainly can.) The track was built with the area’s art-deco style in mind and it is a beaut, no doubt.

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But it wasn’t a great track for racing, not originally. Several subsequent reconfigurations, including transforming mostly-flat turns into variably steep-banked ones, have made it more exciting, and there have been several exciting last-lap finishes, notably the 2005 battle between Greg Biffle and Mark Martin.

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Greg Biffle edged out Mark Martin in the final race at Homestead, losing the championship to Tony Stewart by a mere 35 points.

(We have neighbors who built their house in an empty lot behind ours about ten years ago who survived Andrew. They were living in Homestead and decided to wait out the storm in their house -– bad move. 225-mph winds sheared off their roof like a hooker’s thong by a drunken sailor on shore leave, leaving the man and his wife clinging to each other in the tub in the bathroom, shouting for God’s mercy. Then he spent three days on his porch with a shotgun, fending off looters till Authority finally moved in. Our town is 50 miles inland – safe enough, he says.)

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Hurricane Andrew and his discontents in Homestead, FL, 18 years back of this currently-becalmed, -bewitched hurricane season.

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But racin’ isn’t happy with Homestead. The IRL has already announced that they’re moving their final race of the season to Vegas due to poor attendance at Homestead, and NASCAR is considering moving their last race to Vegas, too. Bruton Smith once said, “If you’re going to do a championship, you’ve got to do it at the proper place ((like his Kentucky Speedway, which hasn’t a Sprint Cup race yet)) and I don’t think North Cuba is the proper place.” Attendance at football and baseball games (pro and college) in Miami is dreary, and Homestead is an uncomfortable fit for the imaginations of die-hard, true-South NASCAR fans. (Imagine the ‘Dega infield mixing it up with Snookie and The Situation on the blazing white sands of Ka-Ching Beach.)

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Attendance at IRL races at Homestead has been awful.

One idea is to give Homestead the race after the Daytona 500, so that the season begins with two Florida races, but it might be even harder to sell out the Homestead track under those conditions. A lot of RVs aren’t going to drive so close to the froufrou neons of South Beach out of principle.

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Not that Vegas would be a kind fit for that crowd, either. I go with Bruton Smith and Kentucky Speedway as the proper venue for the Sprint Cup finale. Bobby and Donnie Allison left their native Miami in search of better racin’ up north in the Deep South, becoming the Alabama Gang; Denny Hamlin, my fear-and-loathing pick to beat the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and win the Sprint Cup this year, moved from Brandon, FL (near Tampa) to outside Richmond to find a proper name in racing.

But moving Homestead to Kentucky is probably too old-school NASCAR  to ever satisfy the billionaire France family. Their eyes are fixed on Oz, as does every party-whipped, celebrity-dazed, fame-gazin’ worshipper to bare their breasts to the South Beach dream, the Florida nightmare we can’t, or won’t wake from.

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4. On the road to Old Florida

Between Zellwood and South Florida is a whole lot of flat nothin’, hundreds of miles of saw palmetto and scrub forest, Lake Okochobbee and the Florida Everglades, all of its linked by trucker- and tourist-infested highways. That’s also where you would have found the Highwaymen, that cadre of African-American painters who sold their idyllic landscapes of Old Florida out of the trunks of their cars along South Florida highways. During the 1940’s and ‘50s, there were a few black men who decided to work their way out of the orange groves by teaching themselves to paint what became known “the Indian River Style,” mostly portraits of pristine Florida: lakes and seashores and rivers in early blue or late pink light, cypresses with ant moss hanging down toward serene waters, a strand of palm trees on a small island in a river, birds in formation floating on the air, marshes no white tourist would dare seek out, moons rising on lonely Florida nights.

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More than 200,000 of these paintings in all were created and sold which usually sold for between $15 and $25. Considered local velvet art –- disposable decorations for trailers and ranch-style white housing -– many of the paintings found their way into dumpsters over the years, or donated to Goodwill along with dead grandpa’s ties. Then in the 2000’s, such folk art was deemed by collectors as valuable remnant of Old Florida and prices for these paintings soared into the thousands and began being sold from the priciest South Beach galleries.

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Surely these paintings offer return passage home from LaLaLand –- back from bought-and-sold-and-now-bankrupt Florida to something pristine and probably lost forever except here, except inside this teeming swamp of a brain. When the waters rise and cover all this – South Florida, heh heh heh, will go first, since the head and foreskin of Florida is only about five feet above sea level – when the waters rise and cover all this, the condos and the freeways, the megaburbs and endless retail big-box parks, the Cocoa Beach pier and this little house I call paradise in this little town – when the waters rise and cover all this, then we may get the last Highwaymen painting, of nothing but the sea and moonlight and a few lonely gulls sweeping over nothing.

There’s hope for us, after all.

…Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown
And cloudy constellations,
Conceal yourself or disclose
Fewest things to the lover —
A hand that bears a thick-leaved fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.

— Wallace Stevens, “O Florida, Venereal Soil”

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Postscript

One morning about a week ago in Zellwood, two deputy cruisers were chasing a car when it veered dangerously close to some kids who were waiting for a school bus. The deputies pulled back and the car went on to crash into a light pole. A 48-year-old, one-legged man named George Bush climbed out of the car and hopped into the woods, somehow managing to elude capture. As of this writing, he’s still out there in the woods, a renegade with a proper name for both his primal habitat and half of something (the ex-President had half a brain, this George half his bipedal hardware.)

Maybe George Bush is now hovering in the back shadows of the Zellwood truck stop, praying for a hooker to wander back that way to pee. Or maybe he’s lurking about in the blackened ruins of Jalopy Joe’s, rummaging for some food among the blasted tins. The other George Bush is remembered for the monied bedmates he became the ultimate bitch of; this George Bush’s allure is his uncapturable wildness, a human extremity not unlike that of a mad shaman out in the wilderness that can’t be developed.

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Something about raw Florida turns South Beach’s more visible frivolities into comic jeremiads, as if there was something in the Everglades which refuses to allow the monied and flawless booboisie from doing much more than partying for a night, a winter, then passing on, part of its millennial sediment. The $17 million dollar mansions of Star Island are no match for hurricanes like Andrew, nor have they enough neon wattage to compare with real flamingoes at last light, pink on pink effusions which that surfer girl at Cocoa Beach is the purest vestal of. (But only a vestal, a Cup-bearer, there to remind, not remit, to assay, not sate.

Old Florida passes at a peril which is insurance companies cannot estimate. They cannot jack their premiums high enough to pay back the loss of soul which happens when a 30-story condo is built on the ruins of an old mom-and-pop beach motel. There is no proper compensation for the loss of relic Florida to the asphalt deluge covering the state, perhaps because traces of it can still be found, like tiny veins of gold in an exhausted mine. Until those last bits are gone, we can’t help but remember. And memory is a terrorist in the forsaken state.

In Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Nigel Pennick retells a medieval Arthurian story which perfectly nails both the malaise and physic for Florida:

At certain stopping places, holy wells and hills called puis, there lived maidens who would refresh tired travellers with food and rink. One had only to go there and ask, and it would be brought out in a golden bowl. But then a king called Amagons abused the privilege. He raped one of the maidens and stole her bowl. At once, everything changed. Every stopping-place became deserted and the bounty ceased. But that was not all, for the whole land went to waste: nothing would brow or thrive and the bonds of human society were dissolved.

King Arthur’s knights took upon themselves the task to rediscover the vanished puis and to restore the land. They prayed to God to re-establish them and thereby revive the country, but it was useless. The land remained waste; nothing would grow or thrive. As its roots the destruction was spiritual, and the only way that the puis could be re-established was by rediscovering the Holy Grail, which, if brought to the right place, would through its divine power revivify the puis and hence restore the land and people to their former flourishing condition. (p.179)

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Today is the fall equinox –- a day of equal light and darkness. There’s also a full moon out tonight -– the Harvest or Corn Moon, the first time in 19 years the two events have coincided. Not since 1991 has Autumn begun on so brilliant and milky-blue a night. If there’s a Grail for Florida, surely it resides in that pale cup which rises from one sea and sets in another, pouring the full lucence of the ocean’s silvery womb-water over all, turning suburbia back into the wilderness, truck stop and beach and big box retailer and highways all transformed into eyes and smile, nipples and curved ass of the naked girl with a ruby hyacinth tucked behind her ear, waving to the longboats crammed with the armored Europeans who first approached, proclaiming this place Florida – land of flowers.

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Full moon and streetlight, taken from my front yard, 6:30 a.m. Thursday, September 23–the Autumn equinox.

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The Sprint Cup is waiting for the boys in Homestead, there on a simple altar (a stone sea turtle, or perhaps beach racer half buried in the sand),there in a vault of coquina shells with a single window through which moonlight and the sound of crashing surf eternally pours. They spiral their way south to it, roaring at full throttle on an oval quest through Dover and Texas and Fontana. That Cup is a grail of something which is only profanely equitable to the bragging rights of the biggest purse — championship of that register these days is a passing, forgettable thing, like Kim Kardashian sunning at South Beach long enough the paparazzi to get a good shot of her ass as she walks out into the ironed-flats waters of the sea.

There is a greater Cup inside that Cup, a redeeming, healing vessel which was cast in the womb of Mer, mother of all which hovers overhead tonight with the planet Jupiter as its Champion. The full moon of equinox tells us that all is needed is for a Champion –- just one – to take that Cup from Homestead and remit it to the sea, placing it on the sands where that surfer girl forever disappeared from and leave it there, its gold dull in moonlight, gleaming with something other than money’s profane, opiate thrill. That’s where Old Florida takes over, humming to itself in the moonlit, crashing waves, the sea’s tide slowly rising, eventually lapping at the cold gold of the Cup, rising slowly up its height until a Hand reaches from the water to take that Cup back to the place its needed most.

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So that I may begin again tomorrow, on the next post, the next quest, nourished by moonlight over wild Florida, home again as I make my way to Homestead.

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FULL MOON AT COCOA BEACH

Surf loud in the air as
we climbed out of my car,
hurling sea mist toward
a full moon now
breaking from clouds.

The pier was closing
early that night,
swarmed by high waves
from a hurricane’s
pass 300 miles
out to sea.

We leaned on a rail
halfway down the pier
and watched the
water night.

The horizon a wash of
foam and darkness.
Shards of moon
scattering like silver fish
in the glassy curl
of a wave before tumbling
into foam and thunder
and rocking the pier.

You leaned to watch
a wave pass under,
your dress fanning
wild in the breeze.
The wave I felt
curved that satin and
the mystery beneath
into moon and sea.

Later we walked on
the beach, found
a place to sit
and talked a long while,
telling our stories
as warming strangers do
who find the distance
between them narrowing
to less than tissue.

It was after midnight
and all the clouds
has flown north.

The beach, the sea,
the moon opened
wide to us, taking
us all the way out
on a silver stream.

It was a gift
that rose unhurried
from the depths of
some heart which must have
always known these things,

recalled from old loves
or the salt soundings of the womb
or perhaps the full store
of ineffable moments

a man and a woman
have ever stumbled on together,
a silver strand of DNA
pulsing and receiving
this tide.

Having forgotten joy
for so long on a road
of deaths small and large,
getting so lost amid
hurry and complication
and complacence,

that night slapped
me back to life.
Warmed by something
I can never name,
we opened our arms
to one embrace
and then walked away.

I sing now of that night
unlike any other again,
broken and grateful
and eternally surprised.

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Link to Zellwood trailer:  http://vimeo.com/14864068)

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