November 27, 2014

My Place on the Gulfshore

My wife is a newspaper publisher, and, unfortunately, real estate agents have a preconceived idea of the type of house a publisher is supposed to live in. Ostentatious houses. Muscle-bound houses. Houses so oversized for their lots that they look like elephants sleeping on green bed sheets. Not knowing each new city we moved to, and anxious to feather a nest, we would settle for the agent's opinion, move in and begin the awesome task of trying to fill the damn thing with enough furnishings that our voices no longer sounded as if we were cave dwellers.

Whatever their size, we have always given our houses female names. There was Claudia, our modern, outer-ring-suburbia Minneapolis McMansion. Claudia was amply endowed, with a three-car garage and recessed oval bathtub big enough for two reclining adults with hardcover novels. With a great room that had a 20-foot ceiling and a plethora of oversized Andersen windows, she was well illuminated but vacuous.

There was Margaret, our inner-ring suburban Macon home. Brick and traditional, with boxwood hedges, a matching brick children's playhouse and a rolling green yard that backed up to a historic golf course. I felt very grown-up and English.

When we moved to the Gulfshore two years ago, we were not at the mercy of a real estate agent to show us the area. Having lived here before, we knew what we wanted, and what we wanted was Grace.

Older and comfortable in polyester, Grace is a 1954, sherbet-lime-green, ranch stucco home that sits beneath a canopy of mature live oaks on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. My wife, reluctant at first to buy her, said Grace looked more like a vacation home, less substantial ... less imposing ... less nice. ("There's even Formica in the living room," she pointed out.) It is true that Grace most certainly would not impress some of the parents at my daughter's private school, who shuttle their children from morphed-out, Schwarzenegger homes in the southern, suburban half of the county. Grace has low ceilings and aluminum jalousie windows that, from the inside, look as if they were salvaged from an old school bus. She has a watermelon-pink front door and an unusual, blue-glass Moroccan lamp that hangs from thin chains in her foyer. She has a bathtub and toilet the color of banana cream pie. Instead of a pool in the back, Grace has a simple brick patio beneath the oaks, just 10 feet from the water's edge. We chose Grace because she felt like an eccentric grandmother who might be able to reintroduce us to simple pleasures.

It was the river that first drew us to Grace. The Caloosahatchee is a fascinating, schizophrenic creature whose character changes throughout the year. In summer months, she is restless and swollen and brown from silt and mud stirred up by daily downpours. In winter, with little rain, the Gulf pushes upstream, changing our river into a relatively calm, quasi-bay. We know it is winter when the water clears and we see occasional manta rays and jellyfish and pelicans dive-bombing at schools of fish so plentiful and agitated they make the water look and sound as if it is boiling. In all seasons, in the darkness of early morning when the moon is full, I sometimes slip my kayak into the silvery-white water, and I paddle across to the mangrove reserve on the other side. All other boaters asleep at home, I stop in the middle of the Caloosahatchee, listening to the leaping mullet slap against the water.

Almost nightly, as if called to prayer, the people of the neighborhood trickle down the street, to water's edge, to witness the end of the day. Often, drivers pull off McGregor and join us. We are quiet, as if we are witnessing something spiritual; and when the oranges and pinks finally fade to gray we look at our empty beer or Coke bottles or wine glasses and silently acknowledge that it is time to go inside and finish our homework or make the salad for dinner.

Just a mile or so south of the heart of downtown Fort Myers, ours is a truly urban neighborhood; we are a mutt mix, my neighbors and I. By my estimate, the houses on my street range in price from under $100,000 up to nearly a million. On my single block we have an electrician and oncologist, a retired elementary school principal and a former Lee County commissioner, a university professor and an old woman who, I've heard, collects the used grease from Burger Kings across town so she can make suet balls for seemingly every bird in Florida. At the end of our block, across McGregor, is the local church for the gay and lesbian community.

Last year, when I was rollerblading without a helmet, I fell, broke open my head and passed out in a street not far from my house. Within seconds, a woman from the neighborhood stopped and helped me into her Lexus SUV. She not only brought me home to my wife but also stopped by to see how I was doing later that afternoon, after I returned from the hospital. Whenever my daughter and I pass by her house on our bikes, my daughter says, "Daddy, there's the woman who saved your life."

When I lived in suburbia, I always feared that, should such an incident ever occur and I found myself crawling my way onto someone's front porch, they would call the police and hide behind their front doors out of fear.

It is my belief that people who live in the urban core of a city-and that is what Fort Myers proper has become in this hyper-sprawling metropolis-have a different relationship with fear. I remember last Halloween, shortly after the September 11 attacks. Though the suburban streets were eerily empty of trick-or-treaters, our part of town experienced only a slight dip in goblin activity.

The fact is, people here are not easily spooked by the unknown. They have chosen not to isolate themselves from society's problems or people unlike themselves because they appreciate diversity. And any fears they may have of prostitutes or drug dealers just blocks away are outweighed by those magnificent, towering royal palms and downtown's art galleries and fusion restaurants and an essence of neighborhood that can only exist with a network of well-worn sidewalks that connect us all.

We are amused and intrigued, not frightened, by the Vietnamese family who parks their battered white van on the street, then harvests the coconuts from all the palms, with one young man shimmying up to the top with a machete, the other catching the nuts with a couch cushion below. I know this because I go outside to watch them. People do not hide in their homes here, and they are not trapped in pool cages behind them. Incidentally, since our homes are older, many of us do not have pools. We swim at the Fort Myers Country Club, where parents sit beneath umbrellas, sharing stories of their children as well as their sections of The News-Press and The New York Times.

I have heard my part of town-called "Off McGregor" by locals- compared to Seaside, the master-planned community in Florida's panhandle. Like Seaside, our homes are more properly scaled to humans, and we are one of those rare parts of the Gulfshore where pedestrians are considered equals with cars. At the base of drinking fountains along McGregor you will find Tupperware bowls with "Please leave here for dogs" written on them in black marker. Drivers in this neighborhood actually yield for walkers, rollerbladers, joggers and bicyclists. I ride my bike to the post office, to the little Jamaican restaurant at Braman and U.S. 41, and downtown to buy organically grown eggplant at the farmers' market beneath the overpass every Thursday.

I invite you to stop by our spot in paradise. Pull off McGregor- Get out of that car!-and walk our streets: Caloosa. Avocado. Hibiscus. Stuart. Harold. Barcelona. Alcazar. Our banyans and live oaks and poincianas are the biggest for miles around. Our mango trees are so tall and voluminous they are considered shade trees.

Enjoy the diversity of architecture, the historic homes (Barbara B. Mann's childhood home is on our street) that range from brick and stucco, Mediterranean and Art Deco to Ranch and Prairie style. Yes, we do have an occasional trampoline in the front yard or junker car in the driveway, but we also have lemonade stands and friendly older people who sit beneath their carports in aluminum folding chairs, waving to passersby.

If someone tries to engage you in conversation, do not be afraid. Instead, be afraid of that house under construction on the river, at the end of the block. The one installing the high steel fence with electric gate. It appears to be two stories high ... or will it be three? There is a temporary sign on the driveway, which used to be a cut-through between blocks that our children used on their bikes. It says No Trespassing.

Not long ago, I was speaking with a neighbor when he looked over at the sign, hanging from a chain that blocked the road. "What does that say about a neighborhood?" he asked me. "It just gives a bad feel to a place." Silent, he looked at me, waiting for a reply. I felt uneasy and a little ashamed; I was certain he was obliquely referring to my own sign. Earlier in the year, I'd had trouble keeping teenage boys from fishing in my backyard. It's not that I didn't want them to fish; it's just that we have no window treatments on our windows that face the water, and I don't like the idea of everyone seeing me pick at my toenails while I read at night. Hoping to regain some privacy, I put up a trellis with some vines and a sign that I bought at Home Depot. It said: No Trespassing Under Penalty of Law. No fishing, no hunting, no swimming.

After a few weeks, my sign disappeared, the wires snipped with cutters in the middle of the night. I am certain it is somewhere on the sandy bottom of that beautiful river. And there it will lie.

Ad Hudler is the author of Househusband, a novel published by Ballantine Books. He lives with his wife and daughter in Fort Myers, where they have a trampoline in their front yard.