Sunday, October 25, 2020

Stillman's Dog

 I've gotten into the habit each year around this time of trying to conjure up an appropriate story for Halloween. This particular one was written a year or two back. While the connection between felines and witchcraft has a long history, Tinker Bell thought it was a little insulting that canines (excepting, of course, wolves) have been largely excluded from tales of the supernatural. At which point it dawned on me that I'd never really read a story specifically about a Hell Hound. So, with the help and inspiration of my own miniature hell hound, who is this moment ferociously licking my toes under the desk, I give you Stillman's Dog. Enjoy and have a happy and safe Halloween.


Stillman’s Dog

When I’ve got time to wait here, sitting on the old log carved up with more initials, prayers, promises and foul language than could fill a volume, I think back to my grandpa. If I had the inclination I bet could find his initials somewhere on this log. Or maybe his first wife’s name, which I only ever heard him speak aloud but once.

Growing up my sisters and I thought he was a bit funny, quirky rather, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I added up all those pieces to see a very different picture. Like the bandage he always wore around the palm of his right hand. Over the summers when we would visit from out east, my sisters would spend more time with their grandmother, baking and doing whatever else it is that girls do when visiting grandmothers. Grandpa Stillman would take me fishing, or tell me stories about the Native Americans that lived in these parts centuries before. He claimed it was one of their old trails that led him to the very goldmine which would make our family a fortune, and later make him the first Mayor of Stillman, Montana.

I remember one time, I must have been about seven, and my sisters and I had just been to Disney World, so we brought all of our treasures and trinkets with us when we came to visit. I had one of those leashes for an invisible dog, and I must have walked the thing over every inch of every acre of the land around the estate. Grandpa pulled me aside one afternoon and confided to me that he had an invisible dog too. I can still taste the pipe tobacco from his mouth like a translucent wrapper around each word he spoke.

“Dogs can be a great friend to you or a vicious and terrifying beast, but all of em are loyal as hell, and I do mean that literally. But no matter what. You must always, always feed your dog. No. Matter. What.” That last part he highlighted with a swish of his long, bony and liver-spot speckled finger.

I’d never seen him with a dog, or with any animal for that matter, so I thought he was just being strange. I filed that information away in my head along some of the other peculiar things he did, like filling a watering can each night with earth from the large glass jars he kept in the shed, and pouring out a fine line under each windowsill and doorway. Always it was gone by the time I woke up, well after sunrise, but I saw him come creep into my room at night and pour out that dirt. I pretended to be asleep, but if, as I pretty well suspect, he knew I was awake, it didn’t bother him a lick. One time I could have sworn he looked back at me over his shoulder and gave me a funny little grin that parted his mustache like a white curtain and made his dark eyes twinkle under his bushy white brows.

Still got another twenty minutes, so sayeth the old silver pocket watch he left for me. Kronos, he called it. Doesn’t need any winding, any maintenance at all he said. Had some special jeweler in New York make it for him, and just to be extra sure he would keep his weekly appointment, he had it inscribed with a phrase in his inimitable script. “You must always feed your dog.”

Always on Thursday nights, around ten at night, while my sisters and I were supposed to be sleeping, I would see from my window as light from the house spilled out onto the back porch and path, and then vanished as the door shut. And grandpa would walk out a few steps, flip open his silver pocket watch, and then stride off into the darkness, moving quietly but with purpose. He was always back in the morning as if nothing had happened. The only difference was on Friday mornings, he always had a fresh bandage around his right hand. I asked him a dozen times where he went and each time he would respond with something vague – that he had been to a place that was betwixt and between, or that he had to go feed his dog, or sure up his investments for the future.

It was the summer I was eleven that I finally mustered the courage to follow him. While he’d never strictly forbidden me or my sisters from doing so, the look that came across his face when he asked if we could go with him always made us think twice about asking again. It wasn’t that he was angry about it, which would have probably been less odd. It was an expression we only ever saw on those few occasions when we asked. I can’t speak for my sisters, but for me, it was like suddenly a mask had slid off of his face and beneath was someone I’d never seen before.

I know now, of course, that it was fear.

Ten minutes left, so it’s time to prepare for my weekly rendezvous. Give me just a moment, while I unwrap the bandage around my right hand and remove the wickedly curved blade from the sheath hanging from my belt. Moon’s out tonight and I catch a near perfect reflection of it on the cool metal, pocked with little tick marks that a professor once told me was a long dead language called cuneiform. I could tell he was impressed because he’d whispered the words like he was nervous that the blade might hear him talking about it.

But I want to finish up before my friend arrives. Where was I… Eleven. It was the summer I was eleven that I decided to sneak out after my grandpa and see what he was up to. It was the last night that my sisters and I were staying there before returning home to our folks to start the school year. I gave him a good ten minute head start on me and wore all black, with bootblack smeared all over my face. Thought I was all smart and stealthy like a ninja. I trailed him up about three quarters of a mile to the intersection where, for reasons I have never understood, Road Street becomes Street Road (although both are no more than glorified dirt paths). I ducked into the woods and the shadows the few times grandpa Stillman stopped and made as if to turn around. But he didn’t.

So I hid there. And I waited. And I watched. Grandpa Stillman, he just sat there on this same log I’m sitting on now, staring out into the dark. It felt like I waited there for an eternity with every manner of insect buzzing in my ears and biting me, and my legs starting to cramp up from being in an awkward crouch, but just as I was about to leave, everything got quiet. The crickets and birds and who all knows what else all went dead silent. Grandpa noticed it too – he stood up, dusted off his pants and went out to the center of the intersection. With his hands out in an “I mean you no harm” sort of position.

I heard a sound like the rumble of a low engine and what sounded like two sets of footfalls, one right behind the other, crunching on the dirt and gravel road. But no one was there. I peered closer, and watched Grandpa unwind the bandage from his hand, and then raise the blade, the one I hold now, up over his head. The crunching sound got closer, right up next to me, and I smelled something foul, but I stayed put. Then the crunching stopped – I could feel every nerve in my body screaming, the hair on my neck stood up and I watched as two puffs of steam hit me square in the face from the nostrils of an animal that wasn’t there. I was looking right at, right through it, and I knew it was there. I could feel its menace. The smell of its breath, like the very worst kind of rot, made me gag, but still I remained frozen. And then the foot falls resumed.

“Well, let’s get on with it then,” Grandpa said as he drew the blade across his palm, reopening the gash that his bandages concealed. He held out his hand and it seemed to disappear into the creature’s invisible maw, accompanied by a sickening slurping sound.

This went on for some minutes, grandpa going white as a sheet, until finally the sounds died out and he withdrew his hand. He wrapped back up his hand and things would have been fine, except that a twig snapped under me and I shifted my weight, rattling a branch. Grandpa turned towards me and so did the beast, which let out a terrifying growl.

“Stay, boy. Let it go.” Grandpa commanded.

It turned it’s eyes on me, two hot coals, glowing red in the center, emanating heat, and darkening towards the edges. Like looking into two twin pits to the burning core of the earth.

Another minute passed and it slunk off in the other direction, it’s invisible paws crunching the dirt and gravel, and Grandpa turned and made his way home, walking right past my hiding place. I sat there for a good long while, until the critters all started back up with their night time noises. And then I waited a bit longer for my pants to dry. It was well after midnight when I got back to find the door unlocked. I beat it up to my bed and hid under the covers, shaking the whole rest of the night.

When I came down to breakfast the next morning, there was Grandpa, all smiles as he wolfed down his pancake and sausage links. He looked over at me and smiled, “you look like you seen a ghost, boy.”

I shrugged it off and told him I’d had a bad dream.

“Did you now?” he inquired. “Why, I used to have one myself. I’d wake up thinkin I’d been face to face with some terrible beast that wanted my blood.”

“What, what did it look like?” I stammered.

“Funny thing, that” he said. “It didn’t look like anything at all. Completely invisible to the human eye.” He winked at me, and if I didn’t before, at that moment I knew he knew that I’d been out there watching.

I didn’t come back the next summer – joined a friend at an overnight camp. And the summer after that I played possum, prolonging my flu for months. Grandpa never traveled far, so I didn’t have to face up to him. But the summer I was fourteen, my parents were dead set on sending me. And it was fine – Grandpa and I didn’t talk about the beast. We took back up our fishing and hiking and I didn’t dare follow him out to the crossroads on Thursday nights. At the end of that Summer though, he took me for a long hike to a part of the property I’d never been to, where alongside a stream was a stone bench and a statue of a young woman. Over the years, the elements had worn down and chipped her long hair and dark pools under her eyes made it look like she was forever crying. 

“Know why I’ve taken you here?” he asked me.

I shook my head no, even though I did.

“This is where I laid to rest my first wife, Lizbeth.”

And there in the shadow of the monument to his lost love, he told it to me straight, that what I’d seen him do that one night was real and that one day, hopefully not for a long time yet, but one day I’d have to do as he did. That it was a deal he made that we needed to keep and so long as we fed the dog once a week our family would prosper.

“And if I don’t?” I asked.

He just pointed to the statue, his eyes shining and wet, and he shook his head. “Once we thought as you do, that maybe we could outrun it or escape it. But that thing, I suspect, is a lot older and a lot smarter than any of us. It’s bound to us by our own blood now, and there’s no getting away from that. When I didn’t show up that once, I could feel it watching me every night, just waiting to get at me. And when my darling stepped out for a minute, just one minute, after sunset, she never came back. Snatched right off the porch. Took me more the better part of a week to gather up enough of her to bury.” He didn’t have to say anything else. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

On the way back to the house he told me to go and enjoy my life. Go to college somewhere nice. Travel the world, as far and wide as I could, for one day I’d be bound to this land as he was.

And I did. I worked at all manner of jobs and lived in more places than I can almost recall. I got a degree in business, but also studied plenty of literature and history, always looking to understand the terms and nature of the bargain my grandpa had struck, looking for some way to escape what I knew was inescapable. My research into the occult just left me with more questions than answers. Churchill’s black dog, for instance. That one always intrigued me. Maybe he was talking about something more literal than depression. I wonder about that, I wonder what you’d have to offer up to win a world war.

I still came to see Grandpa for the summers. My sisters were older – two were in college and one was already married, so it was just me the summer I turned eighteen. That summer took me back with him to feed the dog again. He showed me how to sharpen the blade till its edge is so keen you don’t even feel it slice your hand. He taught me to tell when the beast was done feeding, and to keep your hand steady before it for just a moment afterward so that its fiery hot breath would cauterize the wound.

You hear that? Nothing, right? All of a sudden, all the buzzing and humming and rustling in the woods has ceased, which means it will be here in just a few moments. I can just about hear it now.

That’s fine, my story’s mostly come to an end. There isn’t much more to tell – my Grandpa passed, ten years ago this month, and left me the house, the business, the blade and the beast. And the past ten years have seen my family and our business prosper. The same land that yielded veins of pure gold for my grandpa offered up to me a pool of rich, dark oil. So much good luck as to be nearly impossible. And we’ve expanded our operations, preparing for a public offering some time next year if the market’s right for it.

Of course, I run things mostly from right here these days. Skype, zoom, twitter, email, they bring the world to me. I drive the two hours to Bozeman once or twice a week, but mostly I prefer to stay close by. Call it risk management if you like.

For my part I just try to stay focused on making smart deals. 

And paying off the old ones.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Signed by the Author

It's such a small, trifling thing - that reflective circular gold sticker on the front of the book you got signed. But to bibliophiles, collectors and aspiring writers, it means something much more. It means that your copy has been marked (in a good way), and set apart from all the other copies ever printed in that it contains a message written specifically for you. Words of gratitude, a reference to some snippet of conversation that took place between you and the writer, a message of encouragement, perhaps. It means that this particular book is every bit as unique to you as your own fingerprints. 


It's the reason that drives many of us stand in lines at ComiCons for hours on end to have an actor or icon like Stan Lee, lock eyes with us and affix their signature to our personal item. It documents our encounter with them, it's proof of an experience, an interaction, we had with someone we admire.

Having had the good fortune and privilege of knowing more than a few other published authors, you might think that when I receive a copy of their newest work with a personal message or a note in the acknowledgements, my giddiness would diminish over time. But it never does. It hasn't yet, anyhow, and seeing as I'm now smack in the middle of middle age, I'm not expecting it to change much in the second half of my journey.

I was already becoming an Atlas Obscura superfan, but this made it inevitable. 

Now I find myself on the other side of the table, and I get to be the one placing that magical seal on the cover of a signed book for someone else. I get to come up with some potentially meaningful or clever personalized message. As I do so, I think about that stack of autographed books on my own shelf, and it reminds me to take care with my words as the message I scribble in my marginally legible handwriting may very well mean more to the reader than any carefully planned, edited and properly typeset line in the book. Maybe I'm writing for a kindred spirit looking to uncover the secret face of their own hometown. Maybe it's a future creator, for whom just a little bit of support can be enough to change their trajectory towards the pursuit of their own visions.

Look, I'm not trying to overstate my own importance or impact. I'm just the latest guppy in a vast and unfathomable ocean. Every day before me and every day that comes after there have been and will continue to be others, trying to provide readers with the unique fulfillment that comes from gifting them with the right words at the right time. Peeling off those stickers and placing them on the glossy covers of their own books. 

A small selection of books written and signed by authors I've known or met.

I know, I know, it's maybe the silliest, tiniest little thing that comes with being a published author. But as long as waiting in line or at the mailbox to receive a book with that little sticker on the cover matters to others, putting it there will matter to me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Gardens, Ghosts and Gator Guardians


This is another chapter from Secret Tampa Bay that didn't make it into the final draft. It was right on the far southern edge of what I could legitimately consider the Tampa Bay Area. But it's well worth visiting for the amazing gardens, the native american burial mounds, and, for me at least, its unexpected connection to Chicago.

Gardens, Ghosts and Gator Guardians

Where in Florida can you enjoy a cup of tea among ancient earthworks and formal gardens?

There is truly an abundance to discover at the thirty-acre nature complex and museum situated at the southern end of Sarasota. Its history stretches back nearly six thousand years in the form of the Hill Cottage Midden, which is exceptionally well preserved and possibly one of the oldest in Florida. There are two more burial mounds created between 3,200 – 1,000 years ago. Atop each of these burial mounds, gator skeletons were discovered. Presumably they were placed there as guardians, but whether their function was to protect the dead from the living, or the living from the dead, remains a subject of speculation.


The prehistoric inhabitants were long gone by 1867, when John Greene Webb and his family settled on what he named Spanish Point. They set up a home; cultivated citrus, sugar cane, and vegetables; and built a packing house along with a ten-ton schooner called Vision. They invited friends and family to visit, thus establishing the area’s first tourist resort. In the early 1900's the family began selling off some of the land, which by this time also included a small pioneer cemetery and Mary’s Chapel.

One of those new landowners was none other than wealthy Chicago hotel heiress Bertha Palmer. In 1910 she purchased thousands of acres in Sarasota, including the Webb homestead, as part of her estate, Osprey Point. She preserved and connected the pioneer buildings with lavish formal gardens. The classical columns sprouting from the bougainvillea and the aqueduct, which winds through the tropical foliage, remain there today.


While the site is popular for private events and weddings, it also hosts a variety of other interesting activities, including a regular Tea with Bertha series, a moonlight ghost tour, a Victorian funeral reenactment, and the annual Fairy and Gnome House Festival.

In 1976 Historic Spanish Point became the first site in Sarasota County listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Deep Roots
What: Historic Spanish Point
Where: 337 N. Tamiami Tr., Osprey
Cost: Adults, $15; seniors, $12; children ages 5–12, $7; children ages 4 and under, free
Pro Tip: If you enjoy ghost tours and want a change of pace from the typical urban settings, give this one a try.

#SecretTampaBay


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Tupperware Confidence Center

(The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

A museum preserving one company's history of preserving food.


In 1946, grocery stores began stocking the patented “burping” plasticware that would come to revolutionize the world of leftovers. A polyethylene brainchild of Earl Tupper, the Tupperware Seal of Freshness has also become a seal of American ingenuity—and at the Tupperware Confidence Center, a statue of an actual seal.

“Tuppy” the Tupperware seal is just one of the many wonders of the museum housed at the company’s headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. Keen observers will note that the stone personification is, in fact, a sea lion and not a seal, but reality has never stood in the way of a good marketing campaign.


Under Tuppy’s watchful gaze, visitors can unlid the vast history of the durable container brand by perusing plastic porringers, vintage dining sets, an early molding machine, and even the company’s breakthrough product, the Wonderbowl. Alongside vintage machinery and products, there’s also a wide array of colorful, touchscreen displays, some of which demonstrate how lightweight, airtight storage has shaped dining, leftovers, and beyond.

Visitors might wonder why the space is called is called a “confidence center.” This is tied to the company’s “chain of confidence” campaign of empowering women, which is also celebrated in the museum. The entrance features a tribute to Brownie Wise, the woman behind the “Tupperware Party,” an event by and for women focused on selling the product. She eventually became Tupperware’s vice president of marketing, and the first woman to be featured on the cover of Businessweek. While Wise was essential to Tupperware’s success, she often clashed with Earl Tupper, and he forced her out of the company in 1958. Still, she left an indelible mark and inspired generations of businesswomen.


If, by the end of your journey through the museum, you’d like to find some functional containers of your own, swing by the Tupperware Gallery, connected to the museum. And if you’re feeling brave, the museum allegedly harbors a Tupperware casket, but you’ll have to request to see it, as they tend to keep a tight lid on it.

The museum is free and open to the public, Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 4 pm. They close at noon on Fridays during the summer, but the statue of Tuppy is behind the headquarters building and can be viewed anytime.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: The Scales of Justice

I wanted so badly to include this chapter in my book, Secret Tampa Bay, but it's more than two hours from downtown Tampa, which puts it well outside of the range I set. It's a great story though - one of my favorites of the many I've uncovered in my travels thus far. I will likely submit it to some of my favorite offbeat travel sites, but for now, you can find it here.

The Scales of Justice

Who was “Old Joe” and how did he lead the FBI to Ma Barker’s hideout?


Around the lake town of Ocklawaha in the 1930s, Old Joe had acquired a reputation for being vicious and fearless. The locals steered clear of him, but apparently no one told the family that rented a nearby two-story vacation home around January of 1935. That family was actually the notorious Barker–Karpis gang, which needed a place to lay low after their criminal activities in the Midwest had put them at the top of the most-wanted list. Arizona “Ma” Barker and her son Fred happened to run afoul of Old Joe and, not to be outdone in the meanness category, Fred shot at Old Joe with his Tommy gun. Old Joe was wounded but survived the encounter—and he’d have his revenge soon enough.

When Arthur Barker was arrested in Chicago that same month, the FBI discovered a letter describing the place that Ma and Fred had rented along with a map that wasn’t specific enough to give away their exact location … until they read the part detailing Fred’s encounter with Old Joe. That was just the sort of detail that the feds needed to narrow down their search.

On January 16 agents surrounded the lake house and demanded that the gang surrender. Fred replied with gunfire, and what ensued was the longest gunfight in FBI history, lasting over four hours. Curious neighbors are alleged to have set up lawn chairs and picnic blankets to watch.


Following the shootout, both Fred and Ma were found dead inside the bullet-riddled second-floor bedroom. The shootout also strengthened FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s resolve to legitimize and empower the nascent FBI.

The story doesn’t end there though. There’s still one final twist that makes this story bizarrely and uniquely Floridian: Old Joe, if you haven’t already guessed it, was a fifteen-foot-long alligator.

Just a few minutes from the house where Ma and Fred Barker made their last stand is the eponymous Gator Joe’s Beach Bar and Grill, which proudly displays one of Old Joe’s massive reptilian feet.


The Barker Gang’s Last Stand
What: Ma Barker House Museum
Where: 13279 SE 115th Ave., Ocklawaha
Cost: There is a $7 fee per vehicle to enter the Carney Island Conservation & Recreation Area.
Pro Tip: Tours of the house are available, but due to the popularity of the site, you’ll want to book it in advance at mabarkerhouse.org.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Metaphysics of Storytelling, Part 2


“We become what we behold.” – William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

The nearer I get to the publication of “Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure,” the less certain, in some ways, I am of exactly what it is that I’ve created. Before I delve deeper into what I mean by that, I first need to explain the sort of storyteller I’ve become. As a professional writer, I have focused on telling a certain type of niche story over the past decade – specifically those stories which effect change in the world. This falls into two primary categories: business proposals and resumes.

Regarding the former, I craft and assemble cohesive and (ideally) compelling stories from data, from bios, from case studies, and weave a tale of why the particular firm I’m writing for is best suited to conduct the type of work being sought. In my experience this has ranged from performing Phase I – IV clinical research studies to uncovering and increasing operational efficiency to conducting audits and tax compliance and financial advisory work. The desired outcome of these stories is that whatever company I’m writing on behalf of is selected for the next competitive round, typically a presentation or “bid defense” if you like. From this round usually a winner is selected. The story I craft is unlikely to close the deal on its own, but it is an essential step in reaching that eventual goal.  

Regarding the latter, in developing a resume for a client, I am similarly taking their experience and shaping it towards where they wish to be next, in terms of their career. As with the proposals I create, the resume usually represents just the first of several hoops or gates that an applicant or job seeker must pass through. Typically the next step is an interview, or series of interviews, in which the final determination of suitability will be made. I like to think that this makes me something of a “populist spin doctor,” accessible to all and using the same language I’ve learned in the corporate world to the benefit of single parents, veterans, recent graduates and others.

In both of these examples though, my stories become a step toward making tangible change. They escape the confines of their word documents or PowerPoint slide decks and drive decision-making among corporate executives and hiring managers. And they influence the fate of companies and individuals seeking to obtain new work.

With the book, I’ve now added a third type of non-traditional storytelling style to my bag of tricks. Strange, unusual and offbeat travel. But having over the last few years gathered a book’s worth of such content, I’m finding that what I’ve created has more layers to it than I first suspected. At the highest and most simple, obvious level, it’s a collection of detailed descriptions of odd, wondrous, memorable and sometimes hidden places that I’ve sought out so as to give residents and visitors to the area something to experience beyond the standard, manufactured vacation memories of the big theme parks and beaches (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with that type of travel or experience, only that some may find themselves seeking something more substantive and less predictable).

Peeling back the metaphorical onion skin reveals another level though. One that is much more personal. Even though I was careful to use the “business style of writing” in which everything is presented in third person, there’s no escaping that the collection of vignettes I’ve assembled is very much autobiographical. These are the places that I have sought out and visited and researched. These are the ones I chose to include over a great many others. And the underlying reason as to why I have chosen some in favor of others, is also deeply subjective. Namely, I searched for and wrote about and selected those places that seemed most infused with the sort of awe and childhood magic that I shared with my dear departed friend to whom the work is dedicated.

And now I find myself wondering if there isn’t, perhaps, a deeper layer still. Just as the other forms of storytelling have a tangible impact (however great or minuscule) on the world, is it possible that my work in chasing, documenting, capturing and preserving the otherworldly and magical in a lingual display case also alters, if not the world itself than at least our perception of it? Consider this – let’s say there is a certain manhole cover in the road that you pass as you go on a walk each day. Now, a manhole cover for most of us isn’t interesting in the least, just a circular disk of metal that, quite sensibly, prevents one from plummeting into the darkness and injuring themselves. But suppose I revealed to you that the manhole cover you scarcely notice as you walk past or over it, has a unique and amazing history. Maybe it was made of metal melted down from one of the cannons aboard a ship belonging to none other than Edward Teach. Suddenly that rather boring disk of metal is infused with meaning and history – connecting you directly to one of the most infamous pirate captains of all time. And when you pass by, you now take notice. Even though nothing about the physical object has changed in any discernible way, what you now see when you look at it has been forever altered by this new information you have become privy to… by a story.

If that is the case, than is this book I’ve been working to bring forth really just a collection of travel suggestions for curiosity seekers, or can it be viewed as something else entirely? There’s a term for stories or phrases that change the world around us (or our relationship to it). We call these invocations, incantations, spells. And so, a compendium of such arcane and esoteric tidbits, can that really be called merely a quirky local travel guide?

Or would it be just as accurate to call it a grimoire?





Friday, July 17, 2020

Exploring the Future: South by Southwaste


South by Southwaste

“Raiders again,” Amoz said as he put down the long-range monocular and quickly slid back down his dual-layered prosthetic eyelids to shield from the wind and sand that had joined forces to become a storm of stinging nettles. “Fifth one today – probably a big storm coming soon.”

Jeth nodded from his seat inside the mobile bunker. He’d been with Amoz’s team in the Southern part of the Great Southwaste for the better part of a week as they excavated the Peachtree Oasis sites number 5, 6 and 8. Desert storms and occasional raids by local nomadic tribesmen had slowed the team’s progress, but they were getting closer, layer by layer, to uncovering something that would be big news. An earlier team at a nearby site had recently uncovered skeletal remains of extinct animals including giraffes and elephants, none of which had ever been known to be indigenous to the region, so experts were speculating that these creatures had been imported from elsewhere.

“Could you make out which tribe?” Jeth asked as he scratched at what he hoped was just a badly sunburned patch on his elbow.

“Yallkumbak, maybe,” Amoz said. “Hard to tell them apart under the radiation suits. As long as they keep their distance from the supplies I can’t say that I really care.”

Two days ago they had uncovered some encrypted materials from a band of Neo Mormons or recolonists who had discovered only too late that what the heavens were showering them with was something far more malign than manna.

The news came in towards the end of the sixth afternoon as they all gathered around the most promising excavation site. A rusted metal sign was being hoisted from the depths – below almost 80 feet of sand. The wind and elements had faded most of the paint but the impression of some of the letters were still clear. 

“ATL N A   Z O”

“Welcome,” Amoz said as a triumphant smile spread across his face, “to the lost city of Atlanta.”

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Joe Ley Antiques

I think a lot about places and wonders lost to us - it happens all the more often now with the pandemic shuttering countless small businesses. Joe Ley Antiques in Louisville closed down prior to COVID-19, I'm just glad that Jen and I had a change to see it before it vanished. The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.

A curiosity-seeker's paradise set inside a three-story historic school house.


Are you in the market for a used carousel horse? Do you get excited by unusual signage, steamer trunks and vintage toys? Were you raised on flea markets and curio shops? Do you like clowns? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably come to the right place.


Joe Ley antiques have been a fixture in Louisville for over 50 years. After the collapse of the original location, it moved in the mid-1980s to its present location inside of a 2 acre, three-story 1890’s schoolhouse, making it the second largest individually-owned antique shop in the country.

From dining and glassware to 1950’s stoves, old doors and Prohibition-era whiskey labels to sculptures, Kentucky Derby memorabilia, musical instruments, furniture, and artwork; a list of what you can’t find here would actually be far shorter.


While Joe Ley Antiques happily serves the casual customer, it has also been the site of and supplied antiques for numerous music videos and photo shoots (including one for the Rolling Stones). And for the owner’s uncanny ability to procure the rare and unusual, Joe Ley Antiques has accrued an impressive list of awards, including Best of Louisville, Leo Reader’s Choice Award, Chicago Magazine Place to Travel Award and others.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Interdependence Day

"Troubled Times," was the title of my friend Steve's blog (as with so much else, he was far ahead of me in his adoption of the vehicle for communication), and while that may certainly have been apt while he was alive and writing it, in the years since his passing the phrase has only become more accurate, more poignant. Looking back on his writing, it means something different today than it did when the digital ink was fresh; nearly prophetic, perhaps. If he were here now, I would tell him so, before our discussion turned, as it always did, to matters at hand.

And so, on this July 4th, the day that we traditionally celebrate our nation's independence, I find myself thinking not of what sets us apart, but rather what binds us together, more tightly now than at any other time in living memory. The pandemic has been a catalyst, accelerant and backdrop for rethinking so much about our country, from our healthcare system to voting to the systemic racism and black bodies upon which our nation was established. We are at the beginning of what may be a long, contentious and overdue examination of all such matters, and as we reconsider what and whom we celebrate, from confederate monuments (which will be the topic of a future post) to holidays like Columbus Day, the 4th of July cannot be exempt from our inquiry. I would argue, in fact, that it should be central to such thinking.


Independence has historically been one of those characteristics that Americans value alongside freedom (for some), equality (for some) and the pursuit of happiness (for some). But COVID-19 has revealed, in the most devastating manner, that such a quality can be just as easily made an Achilles's heel. It has shown us, and continues to demonstrate daily, that the very notion that a country, or its individuals, can operate independent of one another is an antiquated illusion. A deadly illusion. The world we occupy in 2020 is one in which, to paraphrase, a bat flaps its wings in a wet market in China and people on the other side of the planet begin gasping for air. 

We are connected globally now in ways that would have been inconceivable to America's founders. Global economics mean that our own financial well being depends on the markets in Asia, Africa and Europe. News of emerging diseases and scientific discoveries travels as fast as a tweet, accompanied now always by its dark twin shadows of mis and disinformation. But it's not only the bonds between continents and countries and corporations that have become more inextricable, it applies equally to our connections at the individual level. Never have our actions more directly and profoundly impacted one another. Simple things that at other times we would have come together on and done without question for each other's health and safety (staying in, social distancing, wearing masks), have themselves become the flash-points in a cold civil war that has been smoldering now for decades. And it has ignited under the worst possible conditions. Every day now I see my state of Florida setting the most heartbreaking and grim records in terms of new cases, which will no doubt be followed by hospitalizations and deaths. Over 130,000 Americans are now dead, (more than any other country on earth) from something that could have been, and perhaps still could be, contained. For that to happen, for us to truly get a handle on the outbreaks here in the US, it will require coordination and sacrifice of some personal luxuries over and above our willingness to sacrifice the health and lives of others for our selfish comfort. It will require nothing short of us overcoming a collective addiction to the most self-serving interpretation of independence. Frankly, I'm not confident that we can do it, seeing as how we seem to have embraced cultural warfare and all that divides us over anything that unites us. We have consumed and are now being consumed by a very different type of independence than the sort that you could argue once made us great. And we all now watch as that singular quality that once elevated our country in the eyes of others around the world has made us a pariah - as Europe and the rest of the world begins to open their doors once again to travel, we in America find ourselves left conspicuously off the list of approved visitors. 

I don't know how to fix this, because I don't know how to get to the root cause, or even if there is just one root cause for that matter. Is it the drive to disregard and disbelieve empirical data in favor of anything that supports our opinions and convictions? Can we even agree on what constitutes facts? How can the overwhelming majority in the middle be held captive to the fringe on both ends of the spectrum? Put another way, how can so many be enslaved to so few? Isn't that the foundation upon which we declared our independence in another era, the idea that nowhere under heaven does the smaller body control or determine the destiny of the larger? And isn't that also intertwined with the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement requires us to ask when we read the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right..." and understand that such "rights" at the time applied exclusively to white men of European decent?

All of this I am considering today on July 4th. Shortly my wife will wake up from her nap and I'll begin cooking turkey burgers for us. I'll get my dog's thunder shirt ready for the inevitable explosions from the parking lot next to our apartment. And things might almost seem "normal," or like they did just last year. But when I go to the store, I will wear a mask to protect you and your loved ones from something I may not even realize I have, and I will hope that you care enough to do the same for me. I will observe social distancing, I will celebrate from home, with my immediate family even though I would much rather be among a crowd on the beach, and I will rely on you to exercise the same degree of caution and compassion. I will do all of these things because I love you, because I care about your safety, and I will say a silent prayer that the independence we celebrate collectively today is of the sort that unites us in pursuit of one common purpose, rather that the sort that gets us all buried together in one mass grave.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Onward and Inward


When I was young I was a bit of a loner. I generally felt like I was on the edge of the crowd, of any crowd, and the more I tried to fight my way into it, the more I ended up on the periphery. Even though I found others who felt the same, like Steve (and Jason, and Ben and Jake and many others) I came to believe that I was an introvert by nature. It wasn’t until much later, in my twenties, when I took a job in sales and moved to Chicago that I started to better understand the deep craving and need I had to connect with others. I honed that need into an asset. And it led me to realize that the whole time, I’d just been an introspective extrovert, by which I mean I like to talk to other people about myself.

I’m half kidding there.

But only half. The other part of it, well, it might hit closer to home. Couldn’t one argue, after all, that introspective extroversion is precisely what I’m practicing here? Open source diary keeping? A protracted public therapy session as art? Giving away front row seat tickets to a cage match between a writer and his demons?

That would probably be true if it were my story alone, but it isn’t. It’s also the story of the people and places I’ve interacted with along the way, especially those that are, for any number of reasons, unable to tell it for themselves.

I gather and recount their stories, and in doing so, bit by bit, I’m filling in those empty chairs around the table and illuminating the darkness once again. With funny stories. War stories. Love stories. Ghost stories. Entry after entry, until I’ve turned my memory inside out, for all to see. Until my own story becomes the sum of all the characters and curiosities and wonders I’ve chased down or crossed paths with.

I’m wandering this world, collecting myself in experiences like picking up pieces of some massive jigsaw puzzle. Once assembled, will it reveal itself to be a distorted fun house mirror? A postcard from a time and place that I can’t return to? Or will it form the frame of a doorway to something new and as of yet unimaginable?

The only way for us to know is to keep writing, to keep reading, keep searching, alone and together. We’ll get there when we get there and not a moment sooner.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Epicurious


Most people are familiar with the Cuban Sandwich, but as it turns out, that is just one of many unique dishes you can find in central Florida. I opted not to include this chapter in my upcoming book, Secret Tampa Bay, primarily for two reasons: it didn't really focus exclusively on Tampa Bay, and, unlike other chapters, it seemed like I was trying to combine too many separate things rather than focusing on just one. Having a limited number of pages and chapters required me to be selective in what I included - I'm still proud of the work I did on the chapter, even if it didn't make the final cut as part of the book. I hope you enjoy it.

Epicurious

Are there any other uniquely local dishes or secret recipes?

The Cuban Sandwich tends to hog the headlines as far as local cuisine goes, but it is far from the only thing that Tampa Bay has to offer for more adventurous eaters. Here’s a short list of other options guaranteed to sate your curiosity (if not your hunger):

Scachatta: What happens when a Sicilian-born version of tomato pie is adopted and raised by a Cuban family? The answer is magic. Like the tomato pie you may have had elsewhere, it is served as room temperature square slices. So what makes it Tampa-specific? Ground beef in the sauce, egg yolks in the bread and a unique blend of spices that give it an extra kick. You can find it at La Segunda, Moreno Bakery, Housewife Bakery and Alessi Bakery.

Swamp Cabbage: The name may sound less than appetizing to the uninitiated, but plenty of locals swear by it. Technically it’s hearts of Sabal Palmetto (aka Cabbage Palm) and has a taste described as being somewhat similar to artichokes. Finding it might require a trip to either the Cypress Inn in Cross City or to the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle.  

Sour Orange Pie: Long before Key Lime became Florida’s citrus pie of choice, the Spaniards are credited with having brought sour oranges from Seville, the juice of which were blended into a creamy custard. The absence of condensed milk in the filling further differentiates this tart pie from its more recent relatives. It awaits your discovery at the Yearling Restaurant in Hawthorne.

Island Hotel Heart of Palm Salad: This Gibb’s family recipe features hearts of palm, fruit, candied ginger and green ice cream (usually either pistachio or lime). There are now several variations, but if you want the original, you’re heading to Cedar Key.

If you would rather do your own cooking, you can find a wide variety of exotic meats at the Heights Meat Market, including gator, frog, wild boar, python and kangaroo.

More than a Mouthful
What: Little-known local delicacies
Where: Multiple locations
Cost: Variable
Pro Tip: “Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” – Anthony Bourdain




Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Young Summer Gibberish

On June 16th, 2012, eight years ago today, I married the woman I love. I was fortune to have found her and to have shared the past decade of my life with her. Our lives have changes significantly since we met - it seems like lifetimes ago that we exchanged our vows under an unexpected swarm of dragonflies (which we have since adopted as a symbol of our union), and in some ways it has been a lifetime. We don't live in the same small apartment or even the same state we started in and we've both changed jobs and industries multiple times. We've shared fantastic travel experiences and weathered challenges including recessions, snowstorms, hurricanes, protests and more recently a global pandemic. And through it all I could not hope to have found a more adaptable, genuine and supportive partner. I am constantly reminded that it takes a very special and patient kind of person to deal with me for ten minutes let alone a full decade, but she nods and smiles and shares the ride with me, even when my trajectory and train of thought go off the rails and crash through terrain that neither of us are familiar with. For that I am eternally grateful.

The piece below was previously published in my ebook of poetry, "Turning the Stars." It's every bit as relevant now as it was when I first wrote it. Having a true partner, I have learned, means having someone who accepts all of your quirks and oddities and history, even if it doesn't always make sense.

Young Summer Gibberish

We were kids
without fences,
without unlimited
text messaging -
who needed that, when
a magic eight ball
could tell us
all we needed to know -
to call someone or not.

Text-based computer games -
pale green glowing cursor
(a green you never see
anymore, except on
monitors in old movies),
awaiting our commands
while the high definition
wilderness behind
our friends' houses
stretched across the planet.

We learned
kabbalistic quack
Cracker Jack magic tricks
to cure migraines
in dust mote choked
sunbeams through the rafters
of a day camp barn loft –
one hand on the forehead
and one hand behind the head
palms facing each other
"visualize streams
of deep blue and green and
aqua."

Maybe when I tell you
all these things, like a deluge of
verbal pop cap candy fizz trivia, you'll
tilt your head to a cascade of dark hair;
your burnt umber eyes
hanging slightly ajar.
Baffled, both of us
for a moment until
you put your hand in mine,
letting me know
you don't mind
my gibberish.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ryman Alley

When I travel, I'm usually focused on going from one place to the next to the next, but sometimes the places between places have their own stories to tell. (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The alley connecting two of country music's most historic venues has a rich history of its own.

Walking from the gates of the Ryman Auditorium (which hosted the Grande Ole Opry for a time) to the back door of Tootsies Orchard Lounge is, for country music fans, akin to a short but holy pilgrimage.



It’s hard to fathom just how many country music superstars have passed between the Ryman Auditorium and Tootsies over the years. Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, and Hank Williams are just a few of the famous musicians to walk this alley. Nelson, in fact, immortalized the alley in a song line “seventeen steps to Tootsies and thirty-four back,” presumably alluding to having a few cocktails at the lounge and staggering out afterward.

 According to legends, the alley between the venues actually became a venue itself. During the 1950s, two young boys would sing and play guitar to Opry stars passing by in hopes of catching their attention. Night after night they played the alley, honing their craft and hoping for a break.

That break came when Chet Atkins happened to pass by and offered the boys a chance to perform with him on stage at the Opry that night. They were only too happy to do so, and went on to achieve stardom of their own as the Everly Brothers.

If you pass through the alley, you can follow, literally, in the footsteps of country music legends. A set of footprints have been inlaid on the ground.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Deeper South

I've lived in Tampa now for almost four years, and I've found acceptance here. It took plenty of salt water to wash all the layers of big northern cities from my skin, but I feel like I fit in now. Some of that has to do as much with the place as with me - Florida has been host to transplants for centuries - the Spanish, the English, Americans and more recently "northerners." In my travels though, I've found that some southern cities and towns are less accepting of this, and though they invite you in with a warm smile and a beer-battered meal, they subtly and politely remind you that their south and yours are not the same thing.


Deeper South

You can gawk and point fingers
At the monuments to those
Of cursed memory.
Snap pictures on the sly
Of the bones of the saints
And the Fiji Mermaids
That we keep shackled
In the vaults of our cathedrals.
Fumble your blunt tongue
Over the broken sidewalks
Of our quaint street names and sayings.

But it isn’t your blood
That once cut rivers through the
Fields coarse hands work.
Those names carved in the stones
Set atop that hill, they
Aren’t any relations of yours.

To you it’s a second language;
Rebranding our memories
With your Instagram photos.

You’re fashioned from data analytics,
Not shale or corn cob, or red clay
Bound in plastic, not kudzu, and
The deep delta mud under your fingernails
Wasn’t born there.

As a child, you never learned the rhymes
That teach you which path will grant you
Safe passage past the witch’s cave.

So occupy the outer rings of our circles
Sample our music and shine
Purchase a plot of land,

But know you well,
Not one or all
Of those things
Will ever make you

From here.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Exploring Central Florida: Hidden Black History

In my travels throughout Florida and the southeastern US as a whole, visiting various lesser known monuments and historical sites has revealed to me a stark and disheartening difference in the way some of them have been preserved. While removing or relocating confederate civil war monuments and statues has triggered outrage among some (especially and not surprisingly white supremacy groups), important historical reminders of black history such as cemeteries and, in at least one case, an entire town that was destroyed by racial violence, have been plowed over and erased from the map for decades with hardly any notice. In the wake of George Floyd's murder and the ongoing protests around the country over systemic racism and police brutality, it seemed like the right time to shine a spotlight on some of these little known spots. There are a great many other sites, including those along the Florida Black Heritage Trail, but this just reflects some of those with which I am most familiar.

1. The Harlem of the South
During segregation, roughly half of all black people living in Tampa occupied the area known as the Scrub. Central Avenue there became the black business and entertainment district, known as the Harlem of the South, with almost 100 shops and storefronts. Those businesses included a boarding house where "The St. Pete Blues" was recorded by a little known musician at the time named Ray Charles. That song would go on to be his first major hit. Today Central Ave is the site of Perry Harvey, Sr. Park and displays along the sidewalk illustrate the development, culture, history and key figures that made Central Avenue a success up until it's decline the sixties. The shooting of a 19-year-old black man named Martin Chambers by a white police officer in 1967 led to rioting and essentially closed the chapter on Central Avenue's many decades of prosperity.


2. Progress, One Step at a Time
In other posts I've mentioned my deep affection for St. Augustine, with it's centuries of history dating back to Spanish and English occupation. On a more recent trip there, I discovered that it also contains an important piece of much more recent, Civil Rights history, in the form of several bronze footprints near the corner of King Street and St. George Street. Known as Andrew Young's Crossing, the footprints terminate abruptly at the spot where the young activist was knocked unconscious by an angry white mob while leading a peaceful protest march on behalf of Dr. Martin Luther King. Young and his marchers remained true to the ideal of passive resistance and endured the brutal beatings. This has been cited as one of the events which led President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Bill on July 2nd, 1964. Young went on to become America's first African American U.N. Ambassador and subsequently Mayor of Atlanta. He has since returned to St. Augustine multiple times, completing the path from which he was once forcefully prevented.


3. Where is Rosewood?
If you've ever visited the quaint beach community of Cedar Key, you likely drove past a historical marker along Florida State Road 24. That marker is essentially all that remains of the town of Rosewood, which was torn apart and set ablaze when racial tensions erupted into a violent massacre. Rosewood was once a peaceful lumber town, but that all changed on January 1st,  1923 when a white woman accused a black man there of assaulting her. According to the marker, "In the search for her alleged attacker, whites terrorized and killed Rosewood residents. In the days of fear and violence that followed, many Rosewood citizens sought refuge in the nearby woods. White merchant John M. Wright and other courageous whites sheltered some of the fleeing men, women and children. Whites burned Rosewood and looted livestock and property; two were killed while attacking a home. Five blacks also lost their lives: Sam Carter, who was tortured for information and shot to death." The death toll is actually now believed to have much higher and that the female accuser was trying to cover up an affair. Though profoundly tragic and disturbing, many have not heard of the events that transpired in Rosewood, because for almost 60 years the massacre was a taboo subject, until former residents began reluctantly opening up about it in 1982. 

4. Green Benches, Invisible Bars
As far back as 1916, the city of St. Petersburg knew it was going to become a major tourist destination. Toward this end, Mayor Al Lang realized that amid the beaches, shopping and other attractions, visitors would appreciate a comfortable place to sit. So he began regulating the dimensions, size and color (green) of the benches around the city. Thousands of them sprung up - you can still see the smiling faces of people sitting on them in old postcards. Smiling, old, white faces, that is. According to Ray Arsenault – John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, "the black residents of St. Petersburg had their place, but that place was not on the green benches." They weren't expressly forbidden from them, but they didn't have to be - it was simply understood. Eventually, in the 1960's, the City realized the error they had made and removed the benches in an attempt to rebrand the city as younger as more diverse. But the damage was done and the connections between the green benches and systemic racism was inseparable. Today you can still find one of those few remaining green benches in the Florida Holocaust Museum.

5. Separate and Unequal... in Death as in Life
I dedicated a chapter to this subject in my upcoming book, "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure," and the story is unfolding in real time as more cemeteries are discovered, so I won't say too much about it. Suffice it to say that as many as a dozen of the Tampa Bay area's oldest black cemeteries very quietly slipped off the map and became lost. The oldest of these, Zion Cemetery, was recently discovered to have been underneath public housing for the last 70 years. In their haste to cash in on available land, the developers never even bothered to move the coffins. To compound the pain of those family members who are learning that the graves of their relatives were ignored and built over, many of the residents there have had to be relocated. More recently another black cemetery was discovered under a local high school and now it appears that a third may have been found in Clearwater. Still others will likely be rediscovered in the coming days - a painful reminder of how black history and bodies have been bulldozed, erased and forgotten.

As mentioned previously - these are just a very few of the vast number of historically and culturally significant black history sites in central Florida. There's the home of Zora Neale Hurston, Fort Mose, the Bing Rooming House Museum, school houses, churches, cemeteries and monuments. I plan to explore this topic further, and I look forward, as always, to sharing with you what I discover.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wonderloss

"Left," Jason says from the back seat.

I flip the turn signal and make the next left. The beams of the headlights of my Ford Taurus slice through the jet black darkness as the road bends and curves under a canopy of trees.

After we pass a half dozen intersections, Steve jumps in with a "right."

I flip on the turn signal again and we wind deeper into the unknown, my friends alternating in giving instructions.

We didn't do it that often and the three of us didn't spend a lot of time together. I was the shared friend between the two of them - Jason, with whom I went to the same high school and Steve with whom I had grown up. I seem to recall that the three of us had just finished a new issue of Dharmacation, which was the successor to Driftwood, the magazine that Steve and Geoff and I had had started together - a local zine/literary magazine (possibly one of the very first to include online submissions). Geoff had moved on to other projects and Steve and I had continued our endeavors under a new name, and brought Jason in. It didn't have the same dynamic, but it worked well enough, for a while.

Our goal that particular evening was just to get as far from what we knew as we could, while still being "responsible" enough to get back home at a reasonable time. I was living with my dad at that point and he may or may not have been traveling in some other state or country, so "a reasonable time" was pretty loosely defined. Generally I interpreted it to mean at least a couple hours before sunrise.

The few times we tried this activity/experiment or whatever you want to call it, we seemed to always end up in Morrisville out around New Hope and the New Jersey border. The challenge was to get to some place we had never been before, and then see if we could retrace our route back to those roads and streets that we knew like the back of our hands.

It was a weird bonding activity, but hey, we were weird kids. While some kids drank or smoked or played with drugs, our form of rebellion manifested itself in trying to get lost - something that each of us had been advised to do on a fairly frequent basis. And as we attempted to get lost and then unlost, we listened to punk rock and alternative music, or we just turned the radio on and listed to the Princeton college radio station. I think REM's album, Automatic for the People came out around that time - maybe that's what we were listening to.

There was a sense of satisfaction when we finally realized that we had achieved our goal and nothing looked familiar anymore. And there was an equal sense of accomplishment in getting back to our small known world. Manufactured stress and artificial relief - but to us it was real enough.

And now, nearly 30 years later, Steve is gone, Jason is somewhere, and I find that I'm doing something similar to what the three of us did together as teenagers. I go for long drives, hours some times, looking for something I haven't seen before. It's different now in that I always know where I'm going - I have a specific destination in mind. And you can't really get lost anymore - not with seemingly every point on earth now mapped out in a smartphone application. I don't have to stop and ask for directions, unless what I'm looking for is really hard to find - a miniature roadside monument, an abandoned cabin deep in a swamp, an enigmatic gravestone or something to that effect. It's never because I don't know where I am.

Having to pull into a gas station and have someone behind the counter pull out a map and puzzle over how the hell we ended up wherever the hell we did - that's probably not an experience that teenagers today or at any time in the future will be able to relate to. We've lost our ability to be lost, and with it, I think, something important, a kind of wonder. Or rather, the potential for wonder. We don't puzzle over what's around the next bend in the street - we can see it all on google maps. Where to stop for a snack, where to fill up with gas, where to take the best picture - it's all right there at our fingertips. But once known, once the route is planned and plotted and mapped, it cannot ever again be unknown. There are some things that can only be found when you're not looking for anything. And for all the big, ten dollar words I've so carefully accumulated and collected over the years, I have trouble articulating quite how that makes me feel - trying to hold onto a shared memory when those you shared it with and when even the very world in which you shared it have all vanished. Wonderloss, I guess; a very specific type of nostalgia heartache, and it's heavy on me tonight as I write this.

I feel rather than hear that familiar, silent voice whispering, "go on, get out of here. Get lost...

...if you remember how."



Saturday, May 16, 2020

Exploring the Future: Nuevo Rio Station


Nuevo Rio Station

As Jeth waited for his aqua martini to arrive and help take the edge off the grav lag, he scanned the small, crowded bar at the Nuevo Rio station. Diaz, the entrepreneur he had been assigned to cover, was sitting across from him sipping contentedly on bourbon plasma. The bio-luminescent algae garnish cast a spectrum of colored light through the murky fluid and refracted off the rapidly melting ice cubes. As Diaz tilted the glass to his lips, a miniature aurora borealis spread and swirled across his pinstriped grey suit.

It made Jeth contemplate luxury. Ice cubes.

From over Diaz's shoulder, he saw another table of two young men with shaved heads and tribal scaring, ragged, tilted hashtags on their right cheeks. Both clad in tightly fitting dark suits, they appeared to be twin Latino-Asian hybrids. Cloned, no doubt. The smaller one locked his glittering dark eyes with Jeth, smiled menacingly and nodded. Suddenly he reached up with his left hand and made a phone-shape. With his right hand he raised it in a reverse fist and turned it slightly, like he might use it to pound on the table.

"What's he doing?" Jeth asked.

"Hmm? Who?" Diaz turned to look and then turned back slowly and stared at the table. "Dammit. Better let me handle this." He turned back and nodded to the two men, making two phones out of his hands and then letting them go flat, palm up. Diaz's dexterous hands became a flurry of motion, making rapid chains of indistinguishable signs, several of which included pointing to his head, what looked like typing on a tablet keypad and raising a fist and rotating it back and forth. He finished with mock-typing and then a motion that looked like he was signing something.

The eyes of the two men at the other table widened. The smaller of the two, who had initiated the exchange showed his palms and bowed his bald head slightly. It seemed to Jeth that whatever had just happened, Diaz had clearly emerged as the Alpha.

Diaz shook his head and chuckled, then turned serious as he inspected Jeth. "Corporate gang signs," he said quietly. "Try not to make eye contact with anyone else until we reach the office compound."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Treasury Street

Since I recently  shared my St. Augustine Adventure List, I thought I would delve a bit deeper into one of the locations mentioned in that post (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here).

St. Augustine's record-setting narrow street was designed to protect against pirates.



Measuring just seven feet wide, St. Augustine's Treasury Street may be the narrowest street in the United States. And the lane is skinny by design. 

Treasury Street connects Bay Street on the waterfront with what used to be the Royal Spanish Treasury. Local legend says the street was built just wide enough for two men to carry a chest of gold to and from ships docked on the bay, but not wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage to squeeze through and ride off with the money. In the former Spanish port, piracy was a serious concern, especially in the walk between the bank and the bay.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Insectile Orgy of Death

When I started writing Secret Tampa Bay, I wasn't sure how I could possibly fill 206 pages. After several months of work though, I ended up not with too little content, but rather with far more than I could possibly include. Deciding what to omit was difficult as I'm proud of the research and writing I did on each chapter - consequently I'll be sharing here some of that extra content here with you.

This particular piece I decided not to include for two reasons: 1) with so many things that readers might want to explore in the Tampa Bay Area, I didn't think it was the right choice to include something that they would probably rather not experience, and 2) the phenomenon known as "lovebug season" isn't really specific to Tampa Bay - the nasty little things can be found in multiple states throughout the southeast and along the Gulf coast. They are presently out in force, so it seemed like the ideal time to share this with you.

Insectile Orgy of Death

What are all those nasty-looking little things stuck to everyone’s front fenders and windshields?

The subject of this chapter highlights not something you’ll likely want to rush out to experience for yourself, but rather something you might prefer to avoid, if you can. And it revolves around the two words that makes motorists, visitors and even long-time residents consider an indoors activity: lovebug season.

The first documented reference to lovebugs (Plecia Nearctica) along the Gulf Coast can be traced to Louisiana in the early 1900’s. At the time their known habitat included Florida, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Since then they have spread to Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere.
Most years see two lovebug seasons, each lasting a few weeks. Typically the first season occurs sometime in April and the second around late August. During these periods, millions of these sex-crazed insects will mate and remain conjoined, even after one of the pair has died, and take to the sky. Clouds of lovebugs will then hover lazily over any light colored or light-reflective surface (including highways and cars).

They don’t pose any threat to humans as far as bites or stings – although they do cause plenty of individuals to swat at the air and themselves as if suffering from a fit of the world’s worst dance moves. They are also a nuisance to drivers against whose windshields they tend to splatter, and due to the acidity of their body chemist, if not removed fairly quickly from automobiles, their remains become exceedingly difficult to wipe away.

Despite evidence of natural migration, there remains a persistent myth that lovebugs were genetically modified and introduced to the area (either accidentally or intentionally) by the University of Florida or some other research organization in a failed attempt to curb mosquito populations.


Lonely lovebugs: Why do we hate them? | Explore Beaufort SC

Know your amorous insects: Lovebugs are annoying but harmless. Kissing bugs, on the other hand, are nocturnal, bloodsucking parasites that carry an inflammatory infectious disease which can be deadly.

Public Display of Annihilation
What: Lovebugs
Where: Everywhere you least want them to be.
Cost: None, unless you factor in the cost of a good carwash
Pro Tip: Bug repellant won’t keep away lovebugs, but it will help with mosquitos and biting flies. Always keep some handy.