by J.S. Holland
Sure, sure, everybody goes to Florida now and again, but can you really say you've done Florida when all you've done is visit Disney or get Spring-Break-silly in Ft. Lauderdale? I do love Jacksonville, Ocala and Miami, but for the most part when I say Florida, I especially mean the Gulf Coast - specifically the outlying islands and keys. On my most recent visit, I spent even less time on the mainland than ever before, choosing to seek my fortune on such exotic isles as Perico Island, Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, Lido Key, Leffis Key, St. Armand's Key, Siesta Key, etc., etc. That's where the real action is, for those who have eyes to see.
My visits to Florida mix business with pleasure to such a high degree that I can no longer discern one from the other, like trying to determine where indigo becomes violet on the spectrum. We're taking our little hillbilly operation into the Sunshine State big time now, and in the words of that great man with green hair, we're gonna take 'em out a whole new door.
But there's a war on, and it's the good Florida vs. the bad Florida. Whose side are you on?
Something about the idle Bonobo-ish nature of Florida living tends to heighten the allegedly natural human trait to gossip. I can't tell you how many times I sat wearing an Arthur Dent placid expression while someone I respect natters on and on and on about so-and-so's love life, such-and-such's police record, and whatshisname's personal problems. If these weren't people I care about and don't wish to royally piss off, I'd put up the international "talk to the hand" sign and politely say, "please, drama queen, I don't need to hear this, it's none of my business."
And the newspapers are just as negative and gossipy. First thing I always do when I hit Interzone soil is get the papers, get the papers. And I'm always amazed at how almost every story on the front pages are bad news, lurid crime reports, and partisan bickering. Here's a clue, Flo-boys: you're a tourist state. Stop scaring the damn tourists. No one cares who shot who in the Embarcadero - save it for the back pages, or better yet, leave it out. I'm not an Eagles fan by any means, but Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" tells it like it is, and the time for you to shut up and listen is now.
More ominous of all to me is the growing Floridian propensity for aggressive, obnoxious driving, especially on my beloved Longboat Key. Repeatedly I was subjected to angry Type-A personalities laying on the horn, giving me the finger, and flashing their brights in my eyes because I was going the speed limit. The speed limits on the islands are deliberately set to be what some would call agonizingly slow - 20-35 mph, and with darn good reason. You wanna live in paradise, Jack, you follow the rules. Get calm or go home. (This is, of course, a growing disturbing trend nationwide, and I'll be discussing that in more detail in an upcoming post, along with my typically elegant and proactive solution to the problem.)
Last but not least, I must sadly report that another issue near and dear to my heart, that of customer service, is at an all-time low here. My conviction that we are witnessing the end of one era and the birth of a new one is exemplified by the utter dysfunctionality of numerous restaurants and other businesses I frequented. Now that everybody's drinkin' the same Kool-Aid, it's time for an antidote - and we'll discuss that on the blog in the future as well.
But wait, isn't this a post about paradise? Oh yes.
Despite the aforementioned problems, I had the time of my life on the islands last week, and met some wonderful people who know a thing or two about a thing or two. I met all kinds of folks from other states - including Kentucky - many of whom were making their pilgrimmage to the FL Gulf for the very first time and instantly fell in love with the magic that is Pass-A-Grille, Clearwater Beach, Honeymoon Island, etc. We love Florida, and we're going to make it a better place, with or without Florida's help.
Two places that do rate five stars from me: Star Fish Co. in Cortez, and Columbia's at St. Armand's Key. Together as a set, these two places are a testament how to run a mom-and-pop joint and an upscale bistro. Star Fish Co. bombards you with signs as you come in, waggishly reminding you that you are now on Cortez Time, which moves very slow and very mellow-reenie (as a fervent observer of Creeps Time, I am so with them on this.) The service is friendly but the pace is laidback, and as long as you grok that's the rule as you go in, you'll have a fine time. And Columbia's gives the stellar opposite experience: lavish setting and swiftly fastidious personal attention. Cecelia, our lovely server, brought the salad materials quickly to our table and created our salads at tableside, right before our eyes. And the same happened when my date and I ordered a pitcher of Mojito: Cecilia set up a folding table beside us, and went through the process of conjuring up the elixir, muddling the mint and limes, while we watched. Not only was it the best Cuban food I've ever had (Columbia's originated in the historic Ybor district of Tampa) but the service was top-notch and the price jaw-droppingly reasonable. If I lived here year-round, I'd be a regular fixture at Columbia's.
I had some terrific grouper sandwiches too! Yeah, yeah, I know, the Corexit is bad stuff, but even as I don't cut any slack to BP for the ecological catastrophe they've unleashed, neither am I going to let anyone or anything change my lifestyle. If anything, it only magnifies my focus to live it up, and to achieve my goals before this body dissolves.
My quest for the ideal location to open a Tiki Bar - something that's been a back-burner plan for some time now - grows closer to fruition with each visit to Florida. I've also established connections to eventually set up a permanent JSH Outpost here to promote my peculiar little pulp-fiction books, primitive neo-expressionist paintings, and puzzling avant-garde lounge music.
Finally, I had a deep conversation with a cactus on Perico Island, who told me I was destined for greatness. Who am I to argue with a succulent?