Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Siesta Key--Part 1

I’ve been coming to Siesta Key for more than 25 years, and tonight will be the last one I spend as owner of a small and pretty apartment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Like many people, the economy got me. I had to sell this place at contre-coeur, as the French would say. Much against my heart. Actually, this is not true. What I did wrong was not take care of business myself; instead I entrusted a battalion of brokers, bankers and lawyers to look after my investments and best interests. This was not wise. One broker, in particular, bled me dry over a couple of years and by the time I came to my senses, it was too late.

Siesta Key, despite its hokey name, is lovely. Only a few hundred yards wide, it rests southeast of Sarasota between the Gulf and the Intercoastal Waterway. There are pelicans and egrets, wild parrots, willets, sandpipers and laughing gulls, mergansers, ospreys and sanderlings that run along the shoreline like panicked accountants. Black-necked stilts and double-crested cormorants fish here, and I once saw an anhinga. Small lizards are everywhere and manatees too, giant sea cows that swim around the mangroves; sharks, sting rays, dolphins and barracudas abound. One time, many years ago, I was neck deep in the water when something large bumped me twice, like a rude subway rider trying to beat me to the turnstile. I spoke to a local guy at an AA meeting about it and he said it was probably a nurse shark.

In the early morning, I can see porpoise from my living from window. There have been less pleasant sights. In 1999 a large woman was taken by the riptide. She was so covered with suntan lotion that rescuers could not grab her. When she was finally wrestled to shore, the EMTs parked their ambulance beneath my window and tried to resuscitate her. They hit her with the electric paddles a dozen times before they gave up, and each time her body shook and quivered, but she was gone. It made the evening news.

I’ve been through two hurricanes here, the first time drunk, the second sober. The latter was a lot more frightening. I was evacuated once, with the rest of the island. The winds reached 100 miles per hour and the rain was horizontal. The hardcore—people too stupid or inebriated to leave—weathered the storm inside Captain Jack’s restaurant and drank the bar dry. One guy who went to his car to get cigarettes was never seen again.

Siesta is not a babe-magnet island. The men are mostly overweight and over sixty. The women are roughly the same. Only once did I see someone wearing a thong at the beach and, putting it as kindly as I can, she really should not have. Neither are there 350-pound German grandfathers wearing Speedos, a common and unfortunate occurrence on the beaches of the south of France. The young people of Siesta serve tables and wait on the old people. They work at the Daiquiri Deck, the fake-British pub, the pizzeria down the street, or they clerk at the local tourist stores. Last time I counted, Siesta had two cops, both on bicycles.

The island appears to have gone through the financial crisis without too much damage. Both video rental stores are gone, as is the sole Japanese restaurant. On the mainland, thing are worse; every tenth store on Rte. 41, the Tamiami Trail, is shuttered. Restaurants, fast-food emporiums, mom-and-pop rental places, specialty stores, all have suffered greatly. The people still making money cater to the old and he dying. There are two cancer clinics, more chiropractors than a human has bones, innumerable vision and hearing aid dealerships, and, my personal favorite, a White Tower hamburger place that now advertises oxygen and wheelchairs. The National Cremation Society is on Rte. 41. And so, incidentally, is the porn movie house where a decade ago poor Pee Wee Herman was arrested for practicing self-abuse while seated in a dirty crushed velvet chair in the darkened theater.

I love this place.

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