(Non)Cover of the Week 26 Florida

Florida (mp3)

Out on Highway 41, the Tamiami, he pulled into off at a McDonald’s because the boy saw the giant colorful play structure, an arching series of caterpillar-like tubes and slides that made it a human Habitrail. The 4-year-old boy inquired about the “playground at Mickeh Donalz,” as they slowed for the red light, and negotiations with the mother started. He fancied himself as more spontaneous and whimsical than most fathers settling into middle age — comfortably or not — so he decided and then quickly announced, “why not” and pulled into the lot, listing, as he negotiated the other cars, the requisite details of this hour’s parent-child deal being hammered out and finalized as he pulled into a faintly diagonally striped non-spot near the entrance and the second drive-thru window; No burgers or fries would be purchased; some drinks OK, the subsequent specifics would be laid out by their mother. These kids are pretty much as happy as can be 8 hours a day in their grandparents pool, with a short break at the McDonald’s playground. Sure, Disney World is more fun, but that much more fun? Like, hundreds of dollars more?

After a 30-minute period during which the parents sat at a built-in table on the exterior of the shabby stucco pre-fab building in need of a new paint job, enjoying their gamboling children who were generally very well behaved and were enjoying this impromptu triumph of the will, they all lumbered back through the dining room itself, past the scattered diners, mostly elderly couples sipping coffee and having a snack or early dinner. Passing the final couple before the registers and, then, the exit, he looked down to the woman who was positively beaming with a genuine smile as the children passed before her, her eyes coming up to meet his as he smiled back, feeling a vague warm acceptance and resignation in the context of this whole trip to Florida. Each subsequent visit made him, naturally, reflect more on mortality, cycle of life and the human condition.

Out again from the air conditioning into the pleasant Florida heat coming from the midday sun and from the blacktop below. After considering potential lawsuits that might arise from possible mishaps over on the play structure — after all, people sue over spilling hot cups of coffee on their own genital regions — it did not take long for his imagination to run away from him. Here, in this balmy parking lot as cars speed by on a 6-lane highway flanked by never-ending plazas of Publix Supermarkets, CVS Pharmacies, strip-mall taverns and thrift shops and bric-a-brac shops and Mexican and Olive Gardens restaurants. In this failing economy, with another swine flu outbreak, wars and global warming, it was not a far stretch to envision pretty much the unraveling of civilization as we know it, starting maybe with some perceived slight or misunderstanding and escalating into a crisis as in a novel by Russell Banks, perhaps such a spark getting picked up in the wind and burning faster and closer to threatening neighborhoods like the constantly burning brush fires miles away that were at this moment filling the air with the acrid smell of smoke all the way to the coast, reminding one of the “white noise” of constant threats to illusory peace and prosperity in Don DeLillo novels. Or maybe like a Cormac McCarthy observation of society starting to come undone when people stop being polite. It would not take much more than 30 seconds to feel he could easily reach out and rip back the cheap facade of this tenuous civilization, as flimsy as this stucco McDonald’s or the boarded-up amorphous-shaped commercial place across the street, a mauve-colored stucco place that was most likely another fast food joint or gas station in its better days. This did not take some sort of Matrix-level complicated method to catch a glimpse of some alternate reality; it was simpler than that. He thought that most of what we know and see and depend on is simply too flimsy and in the hands of people no more mentally developed than children. It could all be pushed over with one, maybe two hands.

His reverie started by remembering he was parked in that “illegal” spot. Was there someone to enforce this fast-food legal structure? It was not a handicap spot. Was there some private police force that was going to jump out at him. He had a vision of a flabby man in an ill-fitting manager’s uniform shirt and baseball cap who could have been 20 or 40 was chatting with a tow truck operator as the rig was being hooked up to his father’s Buick Regal.

“What are you doing?” he would ask rhetorically. “This is a mistake. This is our car.”

And it would unravel from there, in front of his wife and children. A fight to the death. Fighting a tow truck operator and a sweaty, greasy McDonalds manager on the hot blacktop and likely getting his ass kicked. He was not able to predict how he would behave in this situation. Would he find the humor in it, as Richard Ford did in Independence Day, when his hero was confronted by a teenage private security “officer” in his ex-wife’s new gated community? Or would he go off it some sort of base-level self-protective violent episode as one of McCarthy’s characters might? Most likely, he would throw up his hands and find some melancholy jokiness in it, pissed off, sure, that he had to explain to his father what had happened and deal with his still-caustic asides as he, once again, had to be rescued by the grown-up, even if he himself was now 42 and his father in his upper 60s.

I had this little daydream in the span of about 20 seconds during our vacation to Naples, Forida this past week. The city has a ritzy old part with a vital downtown center near the ocean and extreme amounts of money on display in $25 million beachfront compounds, and Bentleys and Ferraris everywhere you turn. Then one crosses a bridge and drives through strip-mall land peppered with gated golf communities for another 30 or 40 miles north toward Ft. Myers and also southeast, until one hits the Everglades. These communities vary slightly in their level of luxury, filled with retirees from all over the US and Europe. The real money may be out on the coast, but many of these people in the other highway-side communities worked hard, saved their good chunks of money, and pulled most of their nest egg out of the market before it went belly up.

My folks live in one such place and we are thankful they do. First of all and most importantly, they are extremely happy. It is not where I could see myself when I am that age, but we enjoy seeing them and luxuriate in their largess at having us share their great house, with a pool and a lanai, on a pond with a gator lurking in eye shot. They can’t get enough of the kids at this age. I don’t golf, as my dad does, but if I did, it would be heavenly. Our kids can spend all day in the pool, until we drag them out for lunch at a sidewalk cafe and a few hours at the beach. It is a really nice cheap vacation for us. It is not a completely soulless development; the houses are fairly modest, close together and lushly landscaped with tropical fauna, lending the place a certain terra firma and neighborhood permanence. The neighbors all seem genuinely happy and satisfied, they are all out chatting, taking walks, riding bikes, waving to each other. At night, they might drive the 20 minutes or so into downtown Naples to have a meal at some of the top-notch restaurants or, closer to home, drive a minute down to the clubhouse restaurant or bar & grill. It’s a pretty great way to go out. By the look at the bar scene at one of these restaurants, with all the expensive but futile plastic surgery on display by those trying to pick each other up, some were not going gracefully, but go we all must.

And this is what retirement is. When my friend’s parents told the adult children that they were retiring to Florida, the father did not cite any of the usual — golf, beach, pool, or even weather; he bluntly announced, “we’re goin’ down there to die.” And that is, in a nutshell, what my song “Florida” is about. I grew up going to visit my grandparents in the decidedly less-swanky retirement community called — I kid you not — Leisureville, in Pompano Beach. These were little cinder block houses with 2 or 3 bedrooms, screened porches, a community pool and club house built for the same families that post-war suburbs like Levittown were, only now they were nearing retirement. My grandfather was one of those returning G.I.’s, who retired fairly early after working for the New York City Department of Sanitation. When we visited, though it was a far more modest version of the situation my parents have, we were as much in heaven as our kids are when they visit. The whole deal– grandparents, sun, pool, family togetherness, vacation time in general.

My grandfather died in 1986 and my grandmother was never the same. Her mood darkened. He was everything, her whole world. She never even learned to drive. She eventually sold her house in New York. Her body was very strong and she was in great physical health, but as the years went on, her mind started to go, and then she started to lose sight. Along the lines, she had to sell the house in Leisureville and my parents and mother’s brother moved her close to my uncle, who looked after her final years. She lived along time. She’s buried in the cemetery directly across the street from the big yellow cursive Leisureville sign at the development’s entrance.

We left my parents Tuesday. Dad is recovering from a quadruple bypass. Mom successfully battled cancer last year. The kids sobbed as we left them. And the pool, and vacation time, and family togetherness. We’re very conscious of time passing and the fact that the kids won’t likely always cherish this sort of thing.

This song, from my solo record with Crown Victoria Fireworks on TV, is sort of my poor-man’s “Veronica.” It’s about a few things, but is focused on my grandmother. At the time that I wrote it, at the end of her life, it felt appropriate to attack the song as I did in that original recording, i.e. thrashing and raging away sort of helplessly, careening out of control, screeching at the very limits of my vocal range. In reflection of this recent trip, I am picking it as one of my own to reinterpret for a Cover of the Week, giving it a more spacious and quiet reading. That opening riff actually reminds me of one of Buffalo Tom’s first, if not the first cover we recorded, a song called “Blue” by the Rain Parade.

Florida (mp3)

19 thoughts on “(Non)Cover of the Week 26 Florida”

  1. My parents both retired and moved down to Palm Bay a few years ago and your writing describes their surroundings almost to a tee, including the alligator. “Florida” is one of my personal favorites off the Fireworks album. It was great to find out where the inspiration for came from. Great writing Bill.

  2. Not wanting to blow smoke up your ass Bill, but having followed your posts/blogs online for the best part of 5 years, your writing always hits home and I’m always impressed by how much thought and feeling (as well as humour) goes in to whatever you write. Seriously, you are one of the most articulate rock stars (if I may call you such a thing) out there. I’d love to see a kind of indie-rock ‘Chronicles’ from you some day – judging from what I’ve seen of your writing, it would be a great thing indeed.

  3. Leisureville brings back memories. I visited my grandparents at Leisureville as a kid during winter vacations. You and I are about the same age so I probably swam past you in the pool during the small amounts of time that kids were allowed. I remember having to wear little bracelets with my grandparents house number on it to signify it was okay to be in the pool. I also remember having to be quite early in the evenings because those were the rules. The place wasn’t exactly kid friendly.

    Thanks for reminding me how much fun I had and how much I miss my grandparents.

  4. When I was 11 I went to the same school my mother taught at. I would ride to school with my mom which was cool but this always left me with about 45 minutes to kill before the other kids arrived. One day in my wanderings I stumbled upon the office Coach O.

    Coach was famous/infamous around town. He was a huge man and he was louder than life. People either were drawn to him or repulsed by him. He was brash. He was funny. He always had a story. He also owned the only local hockey shop capitalizing on the post-Orr hockey boom so I had already spent a decent amount of time hanging around coach.

    Coach taught me a lot without lecturing me. A kid who just lost his dad likes that. I learned by listening to him talk to other people. One constant theme was home ownership and your home. But he also dabbled in dreams of Florida. It was a short 13 years away for him but seemed an eternity to me and was a thought that made an 11 year old sad. One day as I got to the office Coach was holding court for the crumugeon math teacher who was riding out the days until his retirement in not as pleasant a manner as O. This man didn’t teach kids. He labored. Coach was beaming today as he had just made his last mortgage payment and Capt. Happy was in his cross hairs.

    “It’s all mine baby. All mine. Now I can sock those payments away until I retire in 13. I will be 20 minutes from the beach for my wife and I can golf every day on the nice links. No more public cow pastures.”

    The attendance taker wasn’t impressed. Despite being a massive douche he was known as a pretty astute guy.

    “Coach you love this town. The kids. The rinks. Your store. You will be back here in 6 months or you will drop dead with a bunch of money in the bank.”

    Two days after Coach began his dream he dropped dead on the golf course while his wife was 20 minutes away at the beach. I kept remembering this moment like it was yesterday when I was going through the process of buying my house and when I added another 6 months in a refi. I unfortunately like all of us I have learned 29 years isn’t a long time. I also sadly learned I don’t want to spend most of my life looking forward to a day that I might leave my wife all alone in Florida.

    Lately I’ve been trying to get better at living in the day living by a philosophy of “wherever you go is where you’re at”. I now have a new appreciation for the song Florida and another reminder of the lesson now that I actualy know what it is about. I guess I’m just a guy who misses and needs liner notes (or a blogger).

    Thanks again Bill.

  5. Nice post, and I knew there was a reason I always liked that song. Like you my GP’s moved down to FLA in 78, slightly north of yours in a place called Boynton Beach. 30 years later my parents are now down there too, along with everyone else. I would say me and my brother’s fondest childhood memories are from those trips down to see Nana and Pop.
    I’m sure they will be some of your children’s too.

  6. I always liked that song, perhaps because it reminded me of the BT song “souvenir” one of my all time faves.

    similar to your trip to fla with the fam, each year we do a “free trip” to Buffalo to see the inlaws. Really maybe Florida or the place may be irrelevant- we have the same crying when we leave, the same good time.

    The song, the heartfelt angle of the story and the insight into inspiration make it one of your best posts to date…

  7. I’m not 100% certain, but this may be the most thoughtful and sadly beautiful series of posts (the piece and the replies) in great wasteland of blogdom. “I don’t want to spend most of my life looking forward to a day…”

    It’s kind of funny (not in a haha way) that my folks recently purchased a St. Pete condo from my grandparents. The beat goes on.

    I had been wondering if you were going to try and cover something of Chris’s, but re-framing one of your own this way is really, really cool. I might have to buy a 2nd t-shirt.

  8. Nice mention of Souvenir,” hot pink plastic dinosaur” always reminded me of those machines you’d find at lion country safari that would make wax figures.

  9. Greg — Very astute, indeed. I think that is exactly nailed. Same sort of song from a more humorous standpoint.

    Great feedback on the post, all. Nice work, Mike!

  10. Oops, just checked the lyrics, it’s “hot mold plastic”, makes more sense now.

    Oh and spoke to my brother, those machines are gone now. Bummer.

  11. Nah, he lives in FLA now, and makes it to Lion Country Safari about once a year.

    That place was so off the beaten path, that running into anyone outside of FLA that knows about it is always a trip.

    Although I guess I’m making a big assumption that LCS was the place you actually saw those machines.

    And for anybody reading this and not knowing what these machines are, find a worm hole and get yourself back to FLA in the 70’s. Oh and buy land.

  12. Bill, you always find a way to reel me back in. I can see how you’d relate this song to “Veronica” after you explained what it’s about. “Veronica” is my favorite Elvis Costello songs and it’d be great if you covered it too at some point.

    Great post and song Bill. I think most of your readers/listeners can truly relate.

  13. I am late responding, but as always, your articulate posts pull me in and engulf me in story. I agree with what Neil wrote, and have said this before, but I think you should considering publishing a book of essays and observations sometime soon. While reading this post, I actually thought the part in italics was something you were quoting from elsewhere in order to reference it, but was not surprised to learn it was your own words. Not surprised at all.

    I don’t know if it’s different for our older parents in Canada. My folks are 82 and 76, and like you Bill, my mother successfully battled cancer last year. I’m very grateful that they are still alive and functional and active (both are on Facebook all the time and always emailing and messaging me), but I am aware that time is short.

    My parents have lived their entire life in Winnipeg, through decades of hard winters and hot summers, and they intend to stay there until their time is over. Many Canadian seniors live six months in Florida or Arizona, and then return to Canada for the April-September time period. Very few of my friends’ parents do this – most just stay in Canada and deal with the cold and snow in winter.

    I love the CV album, and appreciate knowing more about Florida, that the song is about your grandmother. My parents have a very symbiotic relationship, and I worry about how either will react when one of them passes. At the same time, it’s nothing I can do about now, so why worry?

    I like the stripped-down version, and as always, am grateful for these CotW offerings. You are way, way too kind to those of us fortunate enough to be following you on the project. Thank you so much, Bill.

  14. wow…just catching up on a few weeks of these covers….the song works on a whole new level, but your BLOG about it really hit me the most….I had to read it twice to get a clear head on it…

    My Mom passed away in '97 and my Father was pretty lost until he eventually found another widower, they eventually moved down to North Port (Charlotte) and have the Lanai and pool, we've been down to visit and the kids have a good time, there is even an old fashioned amusement park that may as well be Disney Land to my kids (ages 4 and 6 now)

    For many reason's it's a hassle getting down there, but reading your Blog here reminds me very much of how important and magical it is for the kids…and how fleeting these opportunities can be…

    so, thanks for sharing, I've learned something about myself.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top