Several weeks had passed since we had received the two shots. Winter seemed longer than usual since this Covid one had not been broken up with a trip, so I agreed when the spouse said, “Let’s go somewhere.” We, of course, wanted some place warm and not too crowded. The spouse is enamored with “old Florida,” places that look like the towns she remembers from her youth – big trees, Spanish moss, water of some kind. Each of us came across an internet article that listed the “ten best small towns in Florida.” Both thought Crystal River might suit the bill, even though neither of us had ever heard of it before. That is not especially surprising for me, but the spouse has lived in many places in Florida and has visited relatives in even more—Gainesville, Leesburg, Lakeland, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Ft. Lauderdale, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Boca Raton, Sarasota, Bradenton, Vero Beach, Sebring, Marathon, Punta Gorda. You get the idea.
The spouse had one major concern. Crystal River is eighty miles north of Tampa in an area that the Florida PR people now bill as the Nature Coast, and she wondered whether it would be warm enough in late March for her to go swimming, which was an essential requisite for the trip. Internet research convinced her that while it was not guaranteed, the odds were that temperatures would be high enough to Australian crawl about. And then two other discoveries clinched the deal. An apparently nice resort within our budget had an available room, and Crystal River offered manatees. We read that the waters around Crystal River had many freshwater springs where the water bubbled up at a constant 72 degrees, that manatees collected at these spots, and that one could go swimming amongst those mammoth creatures. This seemed to be a real come-on for her. Me…not so much. Nevertheless, the spouse did her magic and booked us into the Plantation at Crystal River for a week and got us convenient flights and a car.
The trip going was uneventful as was the return journey. We drove from Tampa International up to the Plantation (no one seemed the least embarrassed by this name that carries unfortunate echoes of more than just the gracious Old South of mint juleps, which were not on offer at the resort) in our Alamo Altima (a better car than we own) in the late afternoon. A rather ornate and large fountain graced the front of the entrance, but it was under repair. By the end of our stay, however, it had been put back together and delighted with water-spraying manatees and onlooking putti. We were disappointed that it did not have lights on it at night, but during the day, it was quite a sight.
The resort had a collection of buildings, none taller than two stories, which had it fitting nicely into Crystal River, for the town is a low-rise place. One of the many reasons Crystal River felt different from other places in Florida is that there were no high-rise buildings. We had a first floor “room with a water view”; the water being a canal. The Crystal River area is punctuated with bays, streams, and protected marshes and wetlands that have access to the Gulf but are nine miles from the shore. But, as elsewhere in Florida, there are canals. This canal was about thirty yards from our backdoor (yes, we had a backdoor opening onto a miniscule patio) and featured a steady stream of boats, mostly pontoons and kayaks. Almost all the waters around Crystal River are no-wake zones, so the boats were blissfully quiet.
We spent many happy hours sitting outside this door, which overlooked a croquet court. I learned that many people have no idea how to play that game, but they seem to have a good time trying. Two horseshoe pits were wedged between the court and the canal. A flawed beach volleyball court was off to our right. The flaw was not in the court itself, but in its placement. We saw many people hitting a ball over the net, but sooner or later, the ball would inevitably escape into the canal. Most often the players could retrieve it, but we also saw people walking along the canal frantically, but unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve a floating ball. Perhaps a collection of Plantation balls ends up on a Honduras beach. To the left of us was a shuffleboard court, and beyond that was the swimming pool, a hot tub, and a Tiki bar. A popular route from guest rooms to the well-utilized pool went outside our door, and each day we gave greeting to a large sampling of our fellow guests.
On an early morning walk on our first day, I saw a trailer with “Royal Order of Jesters” on its side, and later that day I saw a goodly collection of men on the path and at the pool with “Jesters” on their shirts. On the second day, I asked a man about the Jesters. He explained that they are a subset of the Shriners, which are, of course, a subset of the Freemasons. Each year, Jesters from the Southeast come to the Plantation to initiate new members, and a mild form of hazing was going on. The initiates had to wear jester costumes and wait on the established members. To the spouse’s chagrin, some smoked cigars…at the pool(!). (The smoke smelled good to me.) Much laughter came from the group, but although they were drinking, no one was drunk, not at least in the late afternoon. However, I can’t swear that that remained true at night when the Jesters hung around a meeting room at one edge of the resort far from our room.
Seeing the Jester logos, I was reminded how many people (out of proportion they are men) are attracted to organizations that have elements of secrecy, rituals, and initiations, and wonder why I don’t fall into this group. Instead, I am simultaneously amused and repulsed by them. I felt that in particular when the spouse reported the snippets of a conversation of three Jesters she overheard at the pool one morning. The men seemed to be planning next year’s initiations. She heard: “Can you see flashing lights through a hood?” “We can put plastic on the floor. Is syrup too sticky? We could use flour instead.” “We could use colored water. The audience won’t be able to tell what it is.” “We need to decide on costumes. How about transvestites? Yeah, they can be ladyboys.” Hmmm.
Another conversation, however, reminded me that organizations with these sorts of initiation rites can serve more purposes than providing some sort of unappealing (to me) male comraderie. I asked a man sporting a Jester logo how long after becoming a Mason it took him to decide to become a Shriner and then a Jester. He immediately corrected me. “Freemason,” he said, but continued by saying that when he was a young man, he accompanied his then father-in-law who took ice across a lake to a camp. He learned then that the camp was for what he described as “Shriner kids”—children with disabilities or under treatment for serious illnesses. He told me that he realized he wanted to be part of a group that sought to help these kids, and the Shriners did that through their hospitals and programs. He told me that he had not decided to become a Shriner after joining the Freemasons but became a Freemason in order to become a Shriner.
In my usual life, I don’t intersect with Freemasons or Shriners often, and I don’t believe I have ever met a Jester before. Thomas Fuller said, “Travel makes a wise man better but a fool worse.” Of course, I would like to think I fall under that first heading, but perhaps my status really is somewhere between those two categories. Even so, I would like to think that my conversations with these men at the resort made me a bit more understanding of a part of society from which I am normally separated.
The resort had another group of guests outside my usual social realm, and my observations of them definitely challenged some of my preconceptions and prejudices and perhaps made me a bit wiser.
On our first morning in Crystal River, Florida, we went to breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, a small diner open from six in the morning to two in the afternoon, and, not surprisingly, known for its biscuits (they were delicious!). A line of what seemed to be only a few tourists and mostly locals was waiting outside, and after giving our name inside, we joined those waiting in a (very) sunny spot a few feet from parking spaces. Vehicles came and went but few cars. The correct way to come, apparently, was in one of those four-door pickup trucks that seem huge to those of us who do not own one. We saw these pickups at this diner and other restaurants, in the resort parking lot, at the supermarket, and on the roads. They were ubiquitous, but their utility was not clear. (In my Citrus County week, I did not see one Prius. However, I did see some hybrid pickups.) Citrus County, unlike some parts of Florida, is not saturated with cattle ranches, and in spite of the area’s name, we saw no orange, grapefruit, or lemon groves where those vehicles would have a utilitarian use. Indeed, I never saw anything being transported in any of the truck beds. Since the median family income in Citrus County is well below the national and statewide figures and the trucks are pricey, they must put a strain on the budgets of many who drive them in Crystal River. I expected to see a lot of Trump and Confederate flag bumper and window stickers on the trucks, but few of the vehicles had them. The trucks were almost all shiny and pristine, and apparently their drivers wanted to keep them that way.
An aside: The relatively low county income may explain the wide variety of dollar stores we saw. This was great because the spouse and I love dollar stores. We seldom pass one up, and we went into one a couple times during our Crystal River stay.
Every visible person in the Biscuit Barn was white. That was not surprising. Citrus County has about a two percent Black and a two percent Hispanic population, with a smattering of Asians. Patrons wore Trump caps, and many of the items in the restaurant indicated that we were in deeply conservative country. I was not surprised to learn that 70% of the Citrus County vote in the last election went to Trump. Florida does not have a mask mandate, and only a minority of the diner’s customers wore one. I could not tell if one of those who did was being ironic. He had on a close-fitting face covering that said, “Trump 2020.” I wondered if whoever made them had registered a profit.
A few days later we went to Grannie’s, a restaurant similar to the Biscuit Barn, for lunch. As we waited to be seated (another line), a customer at the counter who had rotated his seat to face the booths behind him was holding forth: “In my experience [he did not elaborate on that experience and I could not tell whether his listeners in the booth, who seemed to be listening attentively, even knew him], Biden is sick, very sick. They are injecting him with steroids, probably in the thigh, but soon that won’t work any longer. Biden is a socialist, but he is not liked by other socialists on twitter and stuff like that. An Asian will take over after Biden, someone born in Asia. But Biden is beholden to the Russians. The socialists will disregard the Constitution and not leave after four years, just like Pol Pot. Remember him? When socialists take over, they will disappear all sorts of people, including all the gays.” Some of the customers, including a man wearing a “Trump 2024: The Sequel” cap, gave express words of assent, but no one challenged or differed with the counter-sitting crackpot. His rant, given as far as I could tell without a hint of irony, continued as we were seated out of earshot at the other end of the diner.
In some significant ways this “lecture” was different from similar ones I have heard. First of all, he didn’t mention Trump or any other nut-job conservative. While he railed against “socialists,” and while he made comments about “Asians” and “Russians,” his was neither the usual diatribe against “illegals” nor, using racial code words, about Blacks or Jews.
The ranter may have overlooked including Blacks and Jews in his tirade since few from those communities reside in Citrus County (see above). In our driving about, we saw many varieties of Protestant churches — Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, and Methodist. There was even an Episcopal church that described itself as Anglican. Roman Catholic Churches were not abundant, but there were one or two. On the other hand, we never saw a synagogue. While I did see a sign for a Bahai institution, not surprisingly, there was not a hint of a mosque.
The rant quieted as the man ate his lunch, so we settled down to ordering. Although we had lunch at Grannie’s and breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, our meals had strong similarities. We were not eating food prepared in a chain restaurant, such is IHOP, Denny’s, or Applebees. The food may not have been distinctive enough to attract Guy Fieri, but neither place had cookie-cutter food. In both places, the prices were cheap, and copious helpings were served. I got biscuits and gravy at the Biscuit Barn. Something covering the entire plate and three or four inches high came out of the kitchen. People at the next table, who had had one of the largest pancakes I had ever seen, asked if I was going to eat what had been served. I responded that my cardiologist, for whom I was paying his children’s college tuition, was hoping I would. Grannie’s had several lunch specials that tempted me. I asked a server which she preferred between two choices. She drily replied, “I don’t know. I don’t eat chicken livers.” However, I do and got them, and they came with two sides. Enough food was served to feed three people, and I carted out enough chicken livers for a lunch with leftovers the next day. The biscuit and gravy cost $4.99; the chicken livers were $6.99.
I invariably chose fried okra as one of the sides. The spouse proudly proclaims her southern heritage at the merest provocation and will then lapse easily into a southern drawl. Even though I know her family’s Alabama roots, I have been somewhat dubious of the strength of her ties since she adamantly avoids okra. We were in the Seafood Seller & Cafe our first night out. I ordered blackened Mahi-mahi, although I remember when that fish in Florida was labeled dolphin or dolphinfish. Apparently, someone in the fishing industry decided that selling this species would be easier if the Hawaiian moniker was used and servers did not have to explain, “No, not that kind of dolphin.” (Which are you more likely to order: Chilean sea bass or Patagonian toothfish?) Our dinner came with the standard two sides. I chose fried okra as one of mine. The fish was perfectly cooked with a delicious rub. The okra was as lightly breaded as any version I had ever had and perfectly fried. With some insistence on my part, the spouse tried the southern vegetable and pronounced it not just good but delicious. At other restaurant meals we also got fried okra, and while that first night’s may have been the best, the spouse liked all but one, which she criticized for “tasting too much like okra.”
Inexpensive, large quantities, and fried food is a recipe for being overweight. At the resort where we were staying, we found that many guests, both men and women, were grossly overweight. Too many smoked or vaped, and many were blanketed in tattoos. I presumed that few held down a job that required a college degree. I do not know where these tattooed tubbies came from, but I assumed it was reasonably nearby because they blended well into the Crystal River milieu.
So, without consciously thinking about it, I found myself judging these people by their appearance, assuming that they were somewhat ignorant folks who didn’t take care of themselves or their families. One day, however, I realized that I needed to reassess those assumptions. Most of the adults at the resort were part of a wholesome nuclear family. A mother and father were routinely accompanied by two, three, or four children. One white couple had what appeared to be four children – two of them black. I had been looking down on these people, but then I realized that I had heard no unpleasantness between any couple. The kids were uniformly well-behaved as they laughed and splashed in the pool or played volleyball and shuffleboard. Parents patiently tried to teach kids how to use an unfamiliar croquet mallet. Parents did not find it necessary to yell at children to keep them in line, and siblings regularly looked out for each other. I heard no child cry. My biases about the way they looked presumed a bad family life, but my observations had proven me wrong. And I felt a bit wiser, for I am always a bit wiser whenever I recognize and adjust my prejudices.
I live in a bubble. I was reminded of that again on our trip to Crystal River, Florida. We were enticed there by the possibility of swimming with manatees, but while in Citrus County we also set off to kayak on the Rainbow River. We did not kayak. I was not sure how my poor ol’ damaged and robotic knees would do in a kayak, so the outfitter’s proprietor suggested that we use a canoe with a kayak paddle.
We had a great couple of hours. We were driven upstream in a decrepit ex-school bus that still bore signs telling students to be silent when approaching a railroad crossing. A couple of the outfitter’s men got us comfortably into the canoe and pushed us out into the stream, which flowed gently. We could paddle, but even when we did not, we drifted softly towards our landing place four miles away. We did not exactly feel like explorers, but the weather was nice, the river beautiful, and we were in a canoe in country not traversed by us before.
Rainbow River is spring-fed and crystal clear. We could see straight through eight or ten feet to the bottom. Strict rules are in place to keep the river pristine. Nothing disposable can be brought onto the river, or as one restriction put it, every container had to be something that could be put into a dishwasher. The strictures were working. We did not see one can or baggie or any other trash on or in the river.
The river is a “no-wake” zone, and the few power boats were compliant. We got close to birds and turtles. The stream was lined with many interesting-looking houses. This was the one place in Citrus County where I did fantasize about buying property. (The spouse spoke to a man at the river’s edge to compliment him on his house with a wrap-around porch. He thanked her and said that the only thing wrong with it is that he had to clear the seaweed that collected around the pilings of his dock. I asked how long he had lived there. He replied, “Twenty years.” I indicated that that was not all that long, and he laughed and said that at his age—he looked younger than me—it was “a blink of an eye.” His pleasantness made the thought of moving nearby even more desirable.) We saw kids playing in the water and the always-enticing rope swing that went out over the water. Peaceful.
After two hours or so, we pulled into the outfitter company’s landing place. The owner was there. And here began the realization of my bubbledom. He helped us out of the canoe, and while doing so indicated that he had lived in many places in Florida and elsewhere. It was because he was an army brat. His father was now retired and living in Key West. A bit later, as I waited for the spouse to complete some ablutions, one of the young members of the outfitter’s staff said to me, “Did you like the trip, sir?” I indicated that I had, and he asked, “Did the kayak paddles work out, sir?” After I answered, he said, “Mention us on Tripadvisor, sir.” I said, “Which branch of the services was your Dad in?” He asked, “How did you know that?” “All the ‘sirs’” I said. “Oh,” he said, “that was drilled into me at an early age.” I asked about the places that he had lived, and he said, “Not many. My father retired shortly after I was born and became a corrections officer.” He named several incarceration facilities that meant nothing to me, but I did think to myself that there was something oxymoronic about a Sunshine State prison.
I then realized that I don’t often speak to children of the military. I have friends and relatives, mostly my age, who have been in the military, but they did not make a career out of it. They put in their two, three, or four years and got on with their lives. I have lived in small-town Wisconsin, Brooklyn, and Northeast Pennsylvania, places where the military has little presence. Of course, in some areas of the country and in some social strata, the military and the ex-military are ever-present and an important part of the society and the local economies. I know that these military people have had different experiences from me and others in my circles. I am also aware that they comprise a large chunk of this country, but I seldom interact with them or their children. Without that intercourse, it is easy for me to assume that I know what their attitudes and outlooks will be. For example, I told the young man whose father had become a corrections officer that I had done some work as a Florida public defender. I said that I was not very familiar with the Florida prisons but that I had worked on a capital case where the jury had voted for death, but the judge had overruled the jury. He replied, “Bummer.” This response fit my preconceptions of the son of a military man who went on to become a corrections officer. A couple other interactions on the Florida trip, however, showed me that my snap judgments might not always be right.
An adult brother and sister were with their mother on the swim-with-the-manatees boat. The man, Jim, told me that his “partner was in the Navy.” He and the partner had been together for fifteen years and been married for three. They got hitched when the partner was stationed in North Carolina and soon after single-sex marriage became legal there. I asked if they had had to hide their relationship from the Navy when the two first got together. Jim said that they hadn’t, and the partner’s coworkers had been accepting of their relationship.
Jim and his partner were currently living apart. The partner was stationed in Virginia while Jim was living in Birmingham, but in six months, the Navy partner was going to get a new post in Tampa, and Jim was going to move to Florida to join him. I said, with a smile, that sometimes it was good to be apart, and Jim laughed. He said that he was neat while his partner could not go from the couch to the bathroom “without leaving a trail.”
I asked Jim what he was going to do in Tampa. He had few worries about finding a job. He was a bartender, he said, and experienced bartenders could always find work. Later in the trip, he said that he was comfortable in the water because his mother had been a bartender at a beachfront place in Florida, and he had grown up swimming in the Gulf. His husband was going to retire in two years, after twenty-three years of service, when he would get his next promotion. I asked what the partner was then going to do, and Jim replied that he was going to do the same kind of work as a civilian that he did in the Navy. I asked if the civilians got paid more, and Jim, to my surprise, told me that his partner now made $110,000 and would get $80,000 as a civilian but, of course, the partner would also then be getting a Navy pension.
His sister and mother listened to our conversation, and it was clear that they were completely accepting of Jim and his marriage. I saw that the mother had tattooed on her foot, “Love never fails.” I made a lame joke about the truth of this saying, and she said that she liked the whole passage, which she said came from one of the Corinthians. I did not recognize it, and I assumed that either the slenderness of my biblical knowledge or the increasing fallibility of my memory had let me down. When I checked on the passage after returning to Brooklyn, however, I felt better. “Love never fails” comes from I Corinthians 8, which is part of the famous Corinthian “love” chapter, but in the Bible I was given by my parents to me more than a blink of an eye ago on my tenth birthday (and which the spouse has recently rebound because it was falling apart), the passage is translated slightly differently: “Love never ends.”
When I saw the mother’s tattoo, I wanted to ask her about her religious beliefs and about her reaction to the conservatives who now insist that their constitutional religious liberty allows them to discriminate against her son and his husband, but I decided that a boat trip whose purpose was to go swimming with manatees was not exactly the right time for such a discussion. (I do have SOME sense of decorum.) On the other hand, until I talked by happenstance with Jim, my assumptions were that gay people still had difficulties being in the military. (When I told the NBP about this encounter, they laughed at my naïvete: “Dad, it’s the Navy!”) And I would have assumed that it was the Navy spouse who was the neat one.
Another encounter also taught me to question my unconscious assumptions about military people. The spouse and I had just come from lunch at a funky little tea house with a slight feel of Californian New Age-ism (it was a tea house, after all). On the way to our rental car, we stopped to look at the many decals and stickers on the back of an SUV in the parking lot. A woman behind me said, “It’s like a library.” I soon learned that the attractive woman who owned the SUV was a retired army veteran of over twenty years’ service; her car did sport a veteran’s decal. I saw other ones consistent with my assumptions about a former military person: “Support Your Local Police” and “Protect our Flag.” Others, however, did not necessarily fit my preconceptions of what I might read on a veteran’s car: “Don’t Abuse Animals.” And I would not have assumed that the car belonged to a twenty-year armed services veteran if all I had seen was the decal that indicated the owner was a Sierra Club member. I should learn by now that people are not always so easy to type.
I had seen them before in other Florida places. The one I saw from a few feet above was cruising the byways of a marina. Tapered at the front with a squashed-in face and tapered in the back with one fin that propelled it soundlessly, the manatee had a girth that would have required holding hands with several others to encircle it. It was huge, but maybe because it moved slowly and seemingly effortlessly, it seemed loveable, huggable. Crystal River, Florida, however, offered more than the opportunity of standing on a dock and looking down at one; it promised the chance to swim with manatees.
Crystal River is dotted with companies that offer the manatee experience. The spouse had booked us with one in advance over the internet, which was fortunate since many of the time slots were already filled. Eight or ten of us adventurers congregated in a little building a few blocks from the water’s edge at the appointed time for an introductory lecture and film about manatees and how to behave in the water with them, lessons that continued on the boat from the boat captain John and the in-water guide Shelley.
The half-ton mammals had once nearly disappeared from the Florida habitat. The full-grown ones have few natural predators in the sea, but humans have harvested them for food and run over them with their motor boats. Now, thankfully, Florida is working to preserve them, and their numbers are increasing.
In spite of their blubbery appearance, the half-ton animals have little fat. Instead, their digestive system is large and takes up a large part of their body cavity. The animals eat up to 15% of their weight each day, feeding on sea grasses and other vegetation on the bottom of coastal waters and brackish streams. Manatees do not see well, and they generally move slowly. As a result, they do not easily get out of the way of fast-moving boats. It is too common to see a manatee back scarred by a boat propeller.
We were cautioned not to attempt to touch one, but that we could put out a hand and a manatee might swim up and touch it. We also were cautioned not to stir up sediment on the bay’s bottom so that the water’s visibility would be as good as possible.
Without layers of fat, manatees are not well insulated. They physically deteriorate in water below sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The streams and bays of Crystal River have many springs whose waters flow at a constant seventy-two degrees throughout the year, and the manatees are drawn to these life-affirming springs when other nearby waters are colder. We were there in March, which was the end of the Crystal River manatee season because the Gulf and inland waters were warming up. We were told that we would no doubt see a few of the creatures, but in cooler months dozens or more would congregate in one of the fresh-water springs that surround the bay.
After our introductory lessons, we were all handed a wetsuit and shooed off to dressing rooms. After getting into swimming gear, which was hard when zippers were in back, we, feeling a bit conspicuous in our new attire, trundled into a van for a short ride to a dock where we clambered onto a pontoon boat. As we slowly (“no wake zone”) went out into the bay, we did that tourist thing of announcing where we were from. I don’t remember all the travelers, just the bartender and his sister and mother, a mother and two high school girls from a small town in northern Wisconsin, and surprisingly, a sixtyish couple from… Hawaii. She explained why they were vacationing in Florida—perhaps relatives. It did seem odd. When the spouse or I announced that we were from Brooklyn, we both felt that the captain tensed, became hostile and a bit snide about New York City. But charm (the spouse), wit (both of us), and self-deprecatory humor (me) won him over so he treated us just as if we were normal tourists from, for example, one of the Greenvilles.
Shelley and John told us that manatees swimming near the surface made a distinctive swirl that could be spotted on the water. Okay, if you say so. They could discern this a whole lot better than the rest of us, but they would direct our gaze, and we could pretend to see a few of the animals as they surfaced. Finally the engine was cut and an anchor was gently placed in the water. Our guides had spotted a several manatees nearby. We were to quietly get out of the boat with mask, snorkel and supporting float (“the noodle”) and arrange ourselves on the noodle in a “dead man’s float,” so as not to disturb the creatures nearby. Here is where I confess my ineptitude. It turns out I can’t negotiate breathing with a snorkel. Had I continued trying, it was clear that I was going to drown. So I mostly stood quietly in the water (it was quite shallow), and one manatee swam soundlessly past my leg. The spouse assumed the dead man’s position easily but couldn’t seem to find a beast. Shelley, however, took her by the hand and brought her to several of them, including a mother and calf. The spouse held out her hand as instructed, and, after a questioning look to Shelley, touched one. She said it felt like an elephant. After seeing the manatees, the guides took us to two springs where the water bubbled up through the sand from some subterranean source creating crystalline pools so clear that you could see twenty feet to the bottom. After our adventures, we went back to the dock and then to change back into our civvies. I was happy to have seen a manatee a few feet from me, but mostly I was embarrassed by my ineptitude. The spouse, on the other hand, who had been unsure whether she wanted to do this adventure, was high from the experience. I was pleased at her smile and her happy babbling about the manatees as we went back to the hotel.
Stacia, a server in the resort’s restaurant, was named after her grandmother, who lived in New Jersey but was born in Poland. The grandmother married a Native American of the Leni Lenape nation. Their son, Stacia’s father, was, thus, half Polish and half Indian. He married a woman who Stacia said “was Italian on both sides,” and thus Stacia is a quarter Polish and a quarter Native American and half Italian. Her maiden name, Grover, reflected little of this heritage. Instead, she said that other kids made fun of her name because of that Muppet. “Kids are cruel,” she said almost under her breath. Stacia’s now married, and her last name is O’Connell. This makes her son . . . an American, completely American.
“It’s as tall as the Empire State Building.” “It’s as big as a football field.” These are familiar phrases for describing something large, but in a Florida parking lot a man used a phrase to describe a capacity I had not heard before. He was pointing to the space in an SUV and told two other men, “There is enough space in there for three dead people.”
At a nearby table at the Biscuit Barn in Homosassa, Florida, a woman at the next table was explaining to her breakfast companion, “It was in Minnesota.” Her husband quietly muttered something to her, and she said, “It was in Minnesota or Montana. Montana. One of those states.” Provincial New Yorkers are not alone in knowing little of American geography of places that do not have a saltwater coastline.
The guest came up to the front desk and without preface explained to the clerk that he knew of a remedy for cancer, apparently any kind of cancer. It was a medicine or an herb that could be obtained online. He continued, “A woman was about to die of breast cancer. She took it and went home from the hospital cured in two weeks. Do you know anyone who has cancer?” Hesitantly, the clerk mentioned his mother, and the guest urged the clerk to get his mother this cancer cure. The guest’s parting salutation included calling the clerk, “Brother.”
As we were sitting outside our room near a path for guests to the pool, the spouse nudged me and whispered, “Look, a book.” A guest was carrying a book. After four days at the resort, this was the first time either of us had seen anyone besides ourselves with any reading material. In fact, I realized, I had seen few people staring at a phone. We were not in a center of reading. The resort seemed to have known its guests. Many hotels have some place for guests to exchange books. I asked a clerk if there were such a place in the Plantation at Crystal River, and I received a look of bewilderment. No books were on sale in the gift shop. On my last morning I was following my routine at the resort: I got a cup of coffee in my travel mug and looked for a place to read for a while. Every other day I went outside—to tables overlooking the golf course, a bench near the dock where fisherman departed for the day, a chair by the pool—but it was raining, and I wandered into an unoccupied room adjacent to the dining room. I had finally found the hotel’s “library.” On built-in shelves, thirteen Reader’s Digest condensed books were artfully arranged on the ends of four shelves. Stacked in the middle of one shelf were three legal books containing the reports of court decisions from the southeast United States. None of the books looked as if it had been touched since its placement.
We were in search of a book because the spouse had finished the Michael Connelly she was reading and was looking for something for the rest of our stay and the homeward journey. We went to the internet and were not surprised to learn that there was nothing other than a Christian bookstore in Crystal River. I said, “Let’s go to a CVS or Walgreens. They’ll have a rack of paperbacks.” We went to the more convenient CVS and inquired. The clerk with a bit of regret in her voice said, “They [left undefined] don’t give us as many as they used to.” She led us to a paltry selection of books. Luckily the spouse spotted one by Elizabeth George, which the spouse, saying it was not one of the author’s best, read. The internet also revealed a used bookstore further into Florida’s interior. When the spouse and I learn of a used bookstore on a trip, it warrants a field trip. We found it in a rundown, strangely-zoned neighborhood mixing residential homes and what appeared to be former residences now used as doctors’ offices and other businesses. The bookstore had a For Sale sign on its unkempt lawn, but, while not well organized, the store had used books of all sorts spilling off its many shelves. The owner said she had 35,000 volumes! We browsed for a half hour and bought a half dozen books which made our luggage going home needlessly heavy.
After we had bid our fond farewell to Crystal River and as we were driving to Tampa to catch the United flight to Newark, we spotted a truck sporting the sign, “Voted #1 Garage Door Company in Citrus County.” We pondered this. How many garage door companies were there in tiny Citrus County? If a company installs or repairs your garage door and does a good job, you probably would not see that company again for years, maybe even a decade or more. What information did those voters have about the present quality of the company? How was this referendum carried out? With these questions burning in our minds, we returned to our Brooklyn home where there are no garage doors.