Old Florida Found

A lifetime of memories of shell hunting in Panama City Beach and eating stone crabs in Siesta Key keeps onetime local Rick Bragg longing to return

Photo: Gately Williams

Tubing in a spring along the Santa Fe River.

We had just three nights and four days in the Castaway Cottages, not near enough time in paradise if you consider the six-hundred-mile round trip to Panama City from northeast Alabama, getting lost twice in Montgomery, and the motoring power of a six-cylinder ’62 Chevrolet Biscayne. By the time we got there, we were just turning around.

My mother, aunt, two brothers, grandma, cousin, and a dog named Barnabas all squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment with a pool in the parking lot and a black-and-white TV with a slow horizontal roll, and it was still about the most fun we ever had. We tumbled down dunes and got sand in our ears, and caught a crab in a bucket, and saw a dolphin, honest to God. We played miniature golf in a garden of cement dinosaurs, and would have had a beer-smoked hot dog at a joint called Lum’s, but figured it was probably a sin.

But who would ever believe me up there in the red dirt where we started out, with just some cold fried chicken and tomato sandwiches and a frozen Clorox jug of drinking water? Who would believe these dunes and emerald water, if I couldn’t bring a piece or two of Florida home with me?They would say I had just been to Leesburg, and got my glowing sunburn on the muddy Coosa backwater.

Then, on our last day, I stood in front of a giant, blinking sign that screamed SOUVENIRS!!! And I knew I was saved. The parking lot was so hot it stuck to the bottoms of my dime-store flip-flops, but looking back, it seemed as if I were about to enter Disney World, or what Disney World would be one day, when they drained enough swamp and got around to it. The store was as big as Walmart.

It was the summer of ’69. I had a handful of damp white sand in one pocket of my cutoff jeans, clumped around a dozen perfect shells I culled from a million lesser ones on beautiful Panama City Beach. In the other pocket I had three wet, crumpled dollar bills, which meant I could afford almost anything in that place. They didn’t mind at all that the money in my pockets was wet; the whole economy of coastal Florida would come tumbling down if they had to wait on money to dry.

I cannot remember the souvenir shop’s name, but it was just like the one in Destin, and in Pensacola, and in Daytona, and in Cocoa Beach, and, well, any place where blue-green water and glimmering asphalt were held apart by hurricane-whipped palms, iridescent green Putt-Putt carpets, and restaurants that promised the best scampi or mullet or daiquiris in Florida. But I was ten years old then, and I didn’t believe there was another place like it on this earth. I had not yet seen the rest of this dangling participle of a state, this wonderland, and to me this was Florida, a treasure trove of Budweiser beach towels, Styrofoam floats, leaky beach balls, and bottomless bowls of pinkie rings carved from abalone shell.

There were also hermit crabs painted with tiny flags, baby hammerheads and octopuses in bubbles of what seemed to be formaldehyde, and sand dollars, sea biscuits, and sharks’ teeth strung on leather cords, the coolest things I had ever seen. There were puka shell chokers, ceramic dolphins mounted on clumps of coral, shellacked turtle shells, grapefruit spoons, chocolate-coated piña colada candy, Grateful Dead and Harley-Davidson do-rags, monkey heads carved out of coconuts, starfish, and an impressive array of conch shells, so you could always hear the Gulf of Mexico, even three hundred miles away. I could buy a miniature outhouse carved out of cedar, a desiccated piranha, an alligator foot key chain, a tiny Spanish galleon with matchstick masts, and a muscle shirt that identified me as LIFEGUARD, or CAPTAIN, or just BIKINI INSPECTOR.

But what grabbed me, what puzzled me, mostly, was a snow globe, in a place where the car hoods radiated enough heat on a summer day to send you to the emergency room. But I guess they were popular, because there was only one left. I picked it up and shook it, and watched the tiny plastic snowflakes drift down onto a tiny plastic beach with a single tiny plastic palm. And I thought how silly it was. That’s not what Florida is. And I set it down and bought a shark’s tooth on a string and a rubber alligator; that’s what Florida is. I would spend a good lifetime discovering the rest, a kind of perpetual tourist in the state, on vacation even when I lived there, because the place just does that to you, somehow—just kind of frees you, even in a crawling traffic jam.

Margaret Houston

Maybe it’s the palms, or the aquamarine water, or the sand, or how they all come together to make something that not even a century of concrete, climbing ever higher and wider, can ruin.

Oh, Old Florida took its hits. We used to eat good grilled amberjack and fried shrimp and stuffed crab at a place on Destin Harbor, till a hurricane wiped it from the landscape. In the reincarnation of the place, the hostess makes you swap your car keys for one of those blinking, buzzing pagers, as you wait in a perpetual line. It broke my heart, and it set me thinking about all that is gone and will never be again, and what is left and seems as if it always will be. I would like to see it all again, at least once, before I go off on a package tour to the Hereafter. Since I fear that will be someplace sparky and smoky, I think I would like to begin by bobbing in the water at least one more time.

I made my home in the best bobbing place on earth, as a young man, on skinny Anna Maria Island off of Bradenton and Sarasota, where you were only ever a block off the water in just about any direction. There, I lived on grouper sandwiches and piña coladas at the Sandbar Restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico. I remember pine needles in the white sand, and watching squadrons of brown pelicans hunt for fish in the flats of Tampa Bay. Nothing is prettier, at a distance; I’ve known people that way. 

I used to take a swim every day at twilight in the turquoise water near Bean Point, and watched it fade slowly into an inky dark pool. I was told the bull sharks fed at dusk, so I hid among a senior citizens’ exercise group. I am not proud of it, but now that I am old enough not to stand out quite so much, I would do it again if I had a chance. On the weekends I fished the same flats the pelicans did, and watched a hammerhead as long as the boat glide underneath, in water as clear as a mountain spring and three feet deep. I could see myself living there forever, see myself as an old man in a chair under a palm tree, how he would one day think he might retire soon, though that might just mean changing chairs.

Maybe, someday, I will do that, still.

Miami left a different impression. There, I always kind of felt that, if I ever stopped moving, a civil uprising from a conflict across the sea would just pull me into it, somehow, and I would be seen waving a placard or maybe a pistol. I don’t know; maybe it was just the Cuban coffee. I lived there for years and always felt like I was on the edge of something else, something greater and maybe just a bit dangerous, a weird and pleasant unease, if such a thing is possible. A hunk of concrete hit me in the head there one day, but the closest I ever came to dying was when I consumed too many croquetas de jamón.

I was there when Hurricane Andrew blew in, in a little house in Coconut Grove; I rolled up in a futon to ride it out, with a café con leche and a Cuban sandwich and a bag full of Haitian macaroons. On a second tour of Miami I bought a house in Coral Gables, not far from the iconic Biltmore Hotel; I saw a crab, once, backstroking through the swimming pool, and I went to have lunch under an explosion of orchids to think about it.   

I remember driving across the Glades and counting alligators, just lined up there, dozing; remember falling out of the boat on an alligator hunt in Lake Okeechobee on a night thick with raindrops and mosquitoes and glowing, orange eyes. I remember going to do a story on the saltwater crocodiles at Turkey Point, and seeing one, a massive female, beside the boat, big enough to eat that hammerhead in Tampa Bay, if she was inclined. I held a baby one in my hand; it felt like a boot.

I remember it was the last time I had a cat, a stray who lurked for lizards in the banyan trees, and I remember thinking how he could not have lived anywhere else; he was specific to this place.

I remember a burning Haitian rum called Barbancourt, but I do not remember it very well. And I remember bribing the front man at Joe’s Stone Crab, or trying to, till I realized that a twenty-dollar bill will not get you a seat one damn bit sooner. I got old, waiting on a plate of those claws.

But mostly I remember how I could go get some black beans and rice and tres leches at Versailles restaurant, and listen to people for whom revolution was not a feeling, but a memory. It may be I am too old for South Florida now, too old to stand on the edge of anything, lest I lose my balance and tumble off. Still, I go back every chance I get, tempting fate, one croqueta at a time.

Maybe I should stick to the west coast, where there seemed to be fewer high rollers. I sat on a dock most of one afternoon off Siesta Key, next to a one-eyed dolphin. I think his name was Sam. Then I went in and got me stone crabs, and I do not believe I bribed a soul. I’d like to go back there, but I reckon Sam is gone.

One memory rides easy, even easier than most. I was working down on Anna Maria in…well, I cannot recall, around ’91 or so, and a cold wave had penetrated deep into the state, killing the orange trees. I had to call my mother and tell her I would not be home for the holidays. The interstate was iced over, as far down as southern Georgia. I was, quite truly, marooned on an island.

The temperature dropped freakishly low, and I walked out to the beach, with nothing better to do. And I saw snow falling on the white sand, and on the fronds of a palm tree, and into the Gulf of Mexico, and I stood there a long time, shivering.

I remember thinking that, even after so much time, I still didn’t know what Florida was.

I guess I still don’t, but if I ever see another snow globe like that again, I will buy it, and set it on a shelf. You never know where this life will lead you, and one day it may lead me far, far from a beach.