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

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.