July 26, 2014

My Place on the Gulfshore

Never mind the neighborhood; I never wanted to live in Florida period. I don't remember all the reasons now, but I had bunches. I practically freckled with reasons. But I was young-a child bride. Well, not really. But I was childish.

The neighborhood I moved into is just off what used to be called Old Kelly Road-just some long strip of road that sort of trailed off into the mangroves and then ended-nowhere, I guess. The road was bright-hot and gritty and sparkly with broken bottles, and the houses were cheap. I vaguely wondered who Old Kelly was, but didn't care enough to find out. The store at the crossroads sold hot food, cold beer, live bait. The Mini-Max Market sold fresh, steamy tamales, pano Cubano, fried plantanos and whole roast suckling pigs with crackly, salty skin. At a breakfast joint called the Shady Rest, the waitresses called you hon and served good, greasy eggs and coffee so strong they could have served it by the slice.

It was all very interesting and lively and I hated it.

You have to remember, I was still in college when my husband, Tim, bought the house. Well, now my husband; then he was just a fellow architecture student I was dating, so I had very little to say about it-whether he should buy the house, that is. You can bet I had plenty to say about the house itself.

It had, as we design-y people like to say, clean, modern lines-very "Califlorida." It didn't exactly fit in with the neighborhood, which was largely stucco Florida ranch-style houses with clumsily done garage additions and non-descript duplexes inhabited by a revolving cast of questionably legal tenants. But it was waterfront-on a canal-and he'd bought the house cheap, so it had the potential to build up, as realtors like to say, "sweat equity," which in this case was literal-no A/C.

It was three small rooms and a carport with a stack washer and dryer you had to fill up with the garden hose. The front yard was a barren, gritty minefield of fire ants and sandspurs. Brazilian peppers crowded in from one side, and a dense clump of pollen-dumping maleleuca advanced on the ancient septic tank from the other. Armadillos burrowed under the house at night, their freaky armor clacking like Tupperware bowls as they feasted on whatever it is they eat. The fireants colonized the bathroom and swarmed over the cough drops. Punk-faced opossums and palm rats dragged the garbage up into the trees, and pygmy rattlesnakes dozed on the door lintels and sometimes fell on your head. Actually, that only happened one time-which, really, is one time too many.

When I finally married Tim and moved to Florida, I was sick and tired, broke after struggling and shivering as an artist in Chicago. After I'd crashed my ancient VW on the Dan Ryan Expressway in a late March blizzard, Tim wore me down with the promise of my own studio and weather that would mean I wouldn't have to wear mittens in April. My last apartment had been in an up-and-coming artsy neighborhood on Chicago's north side. It was so hip and edgy, I'd slept on blankets on the floor because it seemed safer when I heard the neighbors yelling, "Put down the damn gun!" and "I've got the gun-I say what I do with it!" That, and I couldn't afford a bed. I wore a lot of black not only because I thought I looked cool in it but also-and this is notable-black things don't have to be washed so often and they're generally warmer.

So, I understood how he'd gotten the house so cheap.

Prostitutes worked up and down Bayshore Drive, merely a visible symptom of a whole bunch of other problems that breed that sort of sad desperation. Crackhouses were weeded out one week to spring up like sandspurs somewhere else the next. Petty crimes, small-time scams and garden-variety litter problems were more depressing than devastating.

On these little streets along the canals, however, people kept their yards mowed and neat, drove their white vans to work every morning. They owned towtruck businesses, upholstery-cleaning businesses, lock-smithing businesses, jewelry repair shops and car-repair companies. The hard-working folks who lived on these streets came home, mowed the lawn, cleaned their boats, did the laundry, made dinner for their families; the twilight air was filled with the scent of grilled meat, laundry softener and biodegradable boat soap. The respect-able niceness of it all made me itchy.

Still, I didn't have to sleep on the floor anymore (though sometimes we did because it was cooler). We had our little 911 dramas: the skinny, barefoot girls with their blurry tattoos and bad teeth screaming at their boyfriends or the cops; the Latino day-laborers with their penchant for cockfighting; the weird guy across the canal who liked to hang around the backyard in a loincloth and yell at his girlfriend after they'd tied one on down at the Ship's Inn-but really, it rarely affected us.

With the cheap rent and available space, it should have been an artsy neighborhood-it eventually would have been anywhere else. People made stabs at it occasionally, but it didn't really take. Naples is different that way: you can't really tell who's artsy and who's not in Naples by driving around. After all, it's harder to be existential and nihilistic in the sunshine.

Looking for an artsy connection, I once tried to get to know a young couple that lived in the neighborhood. They looked about my age and wore a lot of black and lived in cozily familiar-looking urban squalor. She was pregnant and so was I-our kids could be friends and play together! They had some pitbull puppies for sale in a cardboard box by the sidewalk, and they were cute with their squashy faces and soft puppy fur. She didn't seem as excited to meet me as I was about meeting her. Up close, the girl was in fact much, much younger than me, and bitter and foul-mouthed, too; and the drugs and the guy's dirty feet on the coffee table put me off. I realized this was not the house of young, struggling artists. They were simply very young and struggling just to stay alive. The puppies had worms.

When I started writing about the arts in Southwest Florida, I learned that Naples actually has a rich and diverse arts community, in spite of its cheerfully wealthy appearance. But young, struggling artists were generally very young-teenagers still living comfortably with their parents. Their main struggle was to fulfill their dream of moving away to awful, artsy neighborhoods in bigger cities.

But most artists were older and done with the struggling part and the neighborhoods that went with it. They'd achieved success and security; they didn't need the cheap rents, the black clothes, the existential ennui. They wanted warm weather and pink flip-flops and cold margaritas. My husband and I were somewhere in the middle. Which is where we've stayed-although we're not so young anymore, naturally.

Somewhere in between the death of our baby daughter and the birth of our first son, Tim and I decided to build a life where we were. Bayshore Drive was changing, but we realized it was not enough for us to watch that process unfold. We had to be committed, however marginally, to discussing barbecue recipes, lawn maintenance, fabric softener and deals on fresh bread; that's how you'll find what's really going on in a neighborhood-and become a part of it yourself.

And somewhere in making that commitment, Tim and I became Floridians. Not, you know, white-shoes-and-belt-wearing Floridians, but that singular breed of Sunbelt transplant determined to build a place for ourselves from nothing but a bit of waterfront sand, a low-interest mortgage and a flexible imagination. Like Walt Disney. Or the guys who thought up Weeki-Watchee. Or Naples, for that matter.

But even in Florida, where a forest can grow almost overnight, inventing a community, building a neighborhood or even a decent house where you can raise a family, takes a certain amount of patience-never my strong suit. It took years, but sometime between our first and second sons, Bayshore Drive finally changed. Voila, instant tropical summer! Then the Naples Botanical Garden announced it would put down roots and grow on the vast, vacant corner across from the live-bait joint. The changes were often discussed as if they had happened by magic; but in reality, the trees and shrubs and cute little winding sidewalks were the fruit of a long, ardent civic process fed by a self-imposed hike in neighborhood taxes. And if you look closely, you can see that pretty landscaping hides a lot of beer bottles. And now they want to change the name of Bayshore Drive to "Botanical Garden Parkway."

The homeless guys who used to camp on the Botanical Garden's vacant lot had to move on. Most of the prostitutes seem to be gone, too. The Latino day-laborers still ride their bikes up and down the newly tree-lined streets, waving to each other and whistling through impossibly white teeth at the pretty girls; you can still get fresh Cuban bread and tamales at the Mini-Max Mart; and the air still fills with the smell of grilled meat, laundry softener and fresh-cut grass. Tim doesn't practice architecture anymore, though, except on our house. He owns a couple of restaurants in town and drives a white van to work.

There's been talk for a while about making Bayshore an "arts community," which still seems strange, knowing what I know about artsy neighborhoods and the Naples arts community. A glass artist I know bought the old plumbing supply warehouse down the street, though he hasn't moved in yet. Another acquaintance, a talented, established potter, has been looking for a new studio and gallery in the area, but hasn't been able to find anything she can afford. There's a groovy coffee house opening across from the Mexican taqueria that used to serve an okay menudo, but now they're closed and the building is for sale. It looks like it could be a cool gallery for a potter, but they're asking so much she'd have to be at the potter's wheel 24/7 just to keep up with the mortgage.

Our own house looks so different as to be nearly unrecognizable. There's not a clean, modern line anywhere to be found. But it's definitely modern, in a perpetually unfinished, never-happy-with-the-status-quo sort of way. Which actually suits the neighborhood very well.

After one particularly dull day of fixing deep fryers, Tim came home and declared we were selling the house, moving to Chicago and going back into architecture. Which is what I'd always said I hoped for. The boys were playing on the porch with some stray electrical wire and rusty nails; one of the cats was proudly carrying a palm rat she'd caught into the house; the spaniel, wet and muddy from swimming in the canal, was rolling on a dead fish. But it was February. Doors and windows were open-open, I tell you, in February-and there was sunshine and the smell of jasmine, or maybe it was gardenias. I could see the neighbor across the canal hosing off his boat, and someone was playing music. It might have been Jimmy Buffett- that would be a good bet-but remember, this was years ago so maybe it was somone else. I thought: Hang on, fryer boy! Move now? And give up all this?

Not long after that, a young couple, two artists who own their own faux-finish business, stopped by and said they'd just moved into the neighborhood and wanted a house like ours-colorful and tropical and open. Did we know the architect? "Before I tell you that," I surprised myself by saying, "how deep is your commitment to our neighborhood?"

I have a whole lot more freckles these days than reasons why I don't want to live in Florida. I'm sure those reasons are still around somewhere-probably lost under the heap of little-boy jeans and dirty socks in the laundry room or the pile of half-finished sculptures and costume designs in my studio. But why think about it when it's such a nice day outside, and the neighbors down the street are playing mariachi music and the air smells of barbecued goat and spent fireworks?

There are fewer white vans on our street and more Mercedes and Cadillac Escalades these days. The little ranchstyle houses have been mowed down like weeds to be replaced by bigger houses that push the boundaries of the building setback lines, built for younger families that work long hours so we really rarely see them. But then, of course, we're older now, so maybe they just seem younger.

Someone bought the stilt house down my street and painted it green and hot pink. The neighbors say she's an artist, but none of us have actually met her yet. We all know she paid an absolute ton of money for it, so I do find myself wondering about her artistic integrity-which I know is unfair.

I haven't seen any armadillos or pygmy rattlesnakes for a long time, which is sort of sad and yet-frankly-a relief. The owners of the locksmith business, the jewelry repair business and the foreign car repair business sold their houses for increasingly incredible amounts of money and moved away. I miss them; but I must confess, I'm curious to see who or what comes next.

The sad house across the street where I'd once hoped to find another young artist is long gone; one night some years ago, it was raided by police and then it was empty. Later, the fire department burned the house down as a training exercise. Now, five pretty expensive little townhouses meant to look artsy in a Key West kind of way are being built on that lot. They look okay-too expensive for young artists, probably.

But then again, you never can tell by just looking. 

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