Before Christmas / Boca Grande, Florida


Before Christmas, the only clue you’ll get that it’s a holiday, is the oversize Nativity scene on the grass across from the Pink Pony and a strand of Christmas lights on the gas station. And of course the handwritten sign in Hudson’s window, ‘We are now taking orders for Xmas turkeys.’

The rest is pure Florida. 80 degrees, you can’t decide to bike or swim or walk the beach, and if you do you are invariably the only person doing it. The sun is seductive; it relaxes you, makes you want to sleep. Some mornings, after my walk and my coffee on the screened in porch with my only companion the salamander, I give in and go right back to bed.

Then it rains. It comes up suddenly and the sky turns a putrid green, it is humid and I feel the electricity around me. “Lightning strikes causes 90% of the fatalities in Florida,” the lady at the bookstore informs me. I’ve ducked in there after lunch to avoid getting soaked. She steps back away from me as if in telling me her fact that I will be the next lightning statistic.

But I already know what it’s like to be struck by lightening, and when you are hit believe me you know. The buzzing electricity never leaves your body. You hum you vibrate and that energy never leaves you. You are the source, the energy is you. And somehow other people can almost smell it on you.

I stop in Hudson’s to get a chicken for dinner. “I bet you know what everyone is having for Christmas dinner?” I overhear one woman ask the manager. Why is it rich women never look relaxed? Dressed in gold chains and too bright pink lipstick, she’s with a guy in a blue blazer and white chinos. Pressed. These are the people that the year round residents must hate. And these too are the people that keep establishments like Hudson’s open. And it’s the only game in town, you have to go off island to Englewood to find a big supermarket and people do. I pick up a small jar of stale Taster’s choice coffee; cost 5 dollars.

I also wonder to myself why there are so many people in the store. “We close at 5:30,“the cashier motions to the clock, “and no one comes in until about 20 after 5.”

The birds love it here too. Now I know why birds fly south for the winter. It’s warm there is plenty of food and it’s quiet. I see egrets, loons and big pelicans. Today the osprey grandly swoops to its nest atop a pole right by where I sit after my morning swim. I wade in perfect lumpy green swells. The water is warm even swimming this early in the day. Little birds skitter up and down the beach to beat the incoming tide. Skittering to eat then to run, run, run, run. I wonder what happens if they misjudge the waves and run to close to the edge and get wet. They fly. They use their wings and lift themselves above the surf circle back to the beach, shake off the water then run, run, run again.

Every night the sun sets a different way. The clouds are big or the clouds are pink, pure blue, purple,with a red orange reflecting the sea the Gulf of Mexico in perfect green and turquoise slivers of light.

It’s December 17th. I walk up the beach in my bikini, a white New York t-shirt tied at my breasts, and my towel wrapped sarong style around my hips. There is no one else in sight.

I drop my gear by the entrance to our ‘path’ back to the house Dick and Dolores has lent me and I lay down in the sand. The sun has already gone down; pink-orange behind the horizon and big grey blue cumulous clouds thunder in to tell the afternoon goodbye. They hang there huge and lovely. I wriggle my feet in the sand. I could never paint anything so fierce or gloriously great as this. I see the entire sky and there is greatness in those clouds.

Three days later I go into town to get film I ask out loud where can I get a regular cup of coffee around here and the cashier, Rhonda says well that we have. She guides me into the Loose Caboose a sandwich, coffee, burger place. Floor to ceiling it is covered with license plates from visitors. “This used to be the train station for the island,” Maureen my waitress explains. The blacks would wait out there she points to what used to be the ticket window, and the whites would wait in the restaurant part. The train would come every day at 11:45. Everyone would come out to meet it.

They made the rail tracks into a bike trail. The last train? It came through in 1954. Do you roller blade? You should try it, it’s a beautiful trail.” Maureen lives off island like Rhonda and most everyone else who works here. The bridge to the island costs $3.20 and everyone I’ve talked to in Boca complains about the toll and or mentions it.

“We get a special pass card to go back and forth but it is still a rip off,” Rhonda explains. It is one of the last privately owned bridges in the country and both Rhonda and Maureen concede it keeps a lot of people off the island. Maureen pours me another cup of coffee. I stay because it is the longest conversation I’ve had since arriving. “Next week you’ll see a lot more people wandering around because it’s Christmas then for 15 days it will be busy, then a lull. After January 15th everyone starts coming back from where they’ve been and the season goes from January 15th until July.”

Maureen’ s thick New England accent betrays her and I ask her does she miss the cold. She’s only been here 6 months and notices like I do the lack of hustle and bustle in buying gifts and how at 84 degrees it doesn’t feel like Christmas. “It gives me a pang, Except for the occasional red ribbon on a palm tree, you’d never know it was December 20th.”

Painting I also meet Janet Italiano who’s lived full time on the island since she was 24. “A sense of community,” she shakes her head. ”We used to have that. It used to be you could pick up the phone and just dial the last 4 digits of anyone’s number. You didn’t even need to dial the full 964 exchange, that’s how small it was.” “We had this great group of people- we’d camp and play guitars and drink beer and look at the stars and play pranks and it was grand. We were all single and no one was attached. Then all the developers came and I was for it to build ‘Boca Bay’ and so on and I’ll never forget it. I still see this woman in town who spit on me when I tried to promote the growth. In this town they fight it. Like getting Sprint on the island and now they are fighting like cats and dogs about whether the town should go on line. It’s stupid shit.”

“Even that church, the Amory church way up by the lighthouse? There’s been a debate about whether it should be made into a historical museum. The state wants it to be a souvenir shop,” she rolls her eyes. “It used to be the church for the blacks.”

“There’s a fine line we’re walking here between the 5.1. Newhouse types and the Whyddens Marina, Old Florida types. And when Whydden’ s goes, there are some great old fishermen left, but when Whydden’s goes we’ll really lose our core. We’ll really lose what Boca is really about.”

Life is good. I have a case of cold Diet Pepsi, Cracker Jack in a big box, Tortilla chips and spaghetti, 80 degree weather, a house 400 yards from the Gulf of Mexico, a huge 48 inch Panasonic TV, my own chicken, music or silence if I want it. A solid rent a car, shorts and a bikini, clean clothes and Tootsie Pops. MTV and VH1 as much and as often as I want. Clean towels. I can sleep when I want, swim when I want, paint 6—8 hours a day if I want.

The only major decision I have to make daily is whether or not to get Cherry Coke instead of Regular Coke. At 50 cents it’s the best deal on the island. The only thing I can tell you when you are confronted with such a decision is, get the Cherry Coke.

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