Life in Florida

The Case of the Disappearing Neighbors

First my next-door neighbor, Bill, disappears. His health has been precarious for some time, but one could generally catch him early in the morning, picking up his newspaper at the bottom of his driveway, or checking his mail that he knows darn well never arrives before 3 p.m. After Mom’s death I canceled my newspaper delivery and found I could sleep in a bit longer each day, so I would generally miss Bill’s walks down the driveway, which was fine by me because he was a garrulous, well-meaning, but exceedingly tedious fellow who never understood the immense value of a brief “good morning” (with no follow-up conversation) between neighbors.

He put his house on the market about two months after the housing bubble burst. And he had priced it too high even for a strong market. Needless to say, the house was taken off the market six months later. Bill had hoped to move to a nursing home, but decided to stay around for a while longer. He’d have weekly doctor visits and occasional hospital visits, and not-infrequent falls. Tony, the neighbor directly across from him, tended his lawn and looked in on him daily.

First I see that Bill’s mailbox is taped up. The outside lights come on with a timer, so they gave no indication of Bill’s presence or absence. Then Bill’s lawn starts looking shaggy. The Florida growing season begins sometime in April, but weekly cuttings aren’t generally needed until May, especially since it’s been a dry year. Why isn’t Tony cutting his lawn? Wait a minute, where is Tony, anyway?

You may remember my telling you about Tony some time ago. His blue diesel pick-up is still in the driveway. I’m sure I heard him start it up and let it idle for a half-hour sometime last week, didn’t I? But then I notice that I never see him around. His garage door, usually open and the scene of activity, is always closed. Tony has likewise disappeared. His wife hasn’t been around for a couple of years now; I wonder, briefly, if she made one final appearance and, in a fit of rage, killed him.

Did Bill die? Did he go into a nursing home? If so, why isn’t his house on the market again, and why has he left no provision for cutting his lawn? When the weeds became chest-high, I paid my lawn guy $40 to bring Bill’s yard back into the land of respectability.

Then there’s the Corner House I told you about. The place has gone into foreclosure, and its crazy and/or criminal residents have relocated, thank goodness. That’s three houses shuttered and vacant in the same month.

The folks across the street, the ones who plowed down my mailbox, have been extremely quiet. Maybe absent, I don’t know. I never see them. And my next-door neighbor, Felix, is disappearing in a different way: he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He and his wife went up to Long Island for a family reunion last month, and I fed their cat in exchange for swimming in their pool. Good people. Felix is at the stage when he’s really upset at how his faculties are slipping away, and he’s becoming increasingly frustrated and bad-tempered. He mentions that he thinks Tony must be in prison, though he has no basis for his opinion. His wife is the personification of patience and long-suffering, but I can see the strain it’s putting on her.

So yesterday I’m getting acupuncture and discover that I’m missing my wallet. I hope it dropped out of my pocket in my car, but it’s not there. It’s possible I lost it on the brief walks to and from my car, and someone quickly grabbed it, but it’s more likely that I left it at home. I rarely do, since I tend to double- and triple-check my pockets before leaving, a habit I’ve had for decades. I was meeting a friend for dinner, and I’m grumbling because of how much more this is making me drive out of my way, and I’m hungry.

And there, in front of his house, is Tony. “Where have you been?!” I shout, gleefully. He’s happy to see me too. He explains that he’s getting married. (Apparently the bad-tempered woman is now his ex.) He and this woman dated some 30 years ago, and they’ve recently reconnected, and he’s been in Connecticut with her, and they’re getting married next month. He’ll go where the work is: Connecticut if it’s there, down here if the jobs are more plentiful here. She’ll stay in CT, where her comfortable career is. He says it’s an ideal arrangement for both of them.

Tony clears up the mystery: He too had been bothered by the denizens of the Corner House, especially the tall, bald, crazy-eyed fellow who kept asking for rides, and didn’t want anyone to know that he was leaving for fear they’d break into his house and become squatters. He was similarly afraid for Bill, so when Bill went into a home — an actual home owned by an LPN who takes care of a handful of seniors there, forming a pleasant little community — Tony didn’t think it would be good for the news to circulate through the neighborhood while the Corner House people were still there. Now they’re gone, so the news can spread freely. And Tony will make sure Bill’s lawn is tended, even if he’s living in Connecticut at the time. I mention, as a joke, that we wondered if he had been carted off to jail or something, and he replied, “No, those days are far behind me!” Another little surprise.

So all’s well with our neighborhood, except for Felix. I wish I had a magic wand. Or a miracle cure. For now, all I have is friendship and support. And the knowledge that we all disappear from time to time, sometimes forever, and always for good. Nothing is permanent, the Buddha tells us, except change.

Categories: Buddhism, Life in Florida, Relationships | 4 Comments

Wings of Desire

April may be the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain, as Mr. Eliot put it. But surely May is sadder still, at least in southern Brevard County, Florida, where each day dozens of star-crossed lovers, tiny, tragic Romeos and Juliets, fling themselves to their deaths on my car’s windshield. It’s lovebug season.

I have no idea whether the Ais and the Timucuans who lived here before the Europeans moved in named their months as other native peoples did, but “Planting Moon” or “Full Flower Moon” or “Moon When the Horses Get Fat” just doesn’t cut it down here. So I named last night’s full moon the Lovebug Moon in honor of our doomed flying libertines, locked forever in coital embrace. I hope their loving petits morts will coincide with the Big Death being dealt them by my mammoth of glass and steel. That way I catch them coming and going.

Categories: Life in Florida, Nature | 5 Comments

The Doorbell

The original doorbell of this house was particularly anemic. It could be heard from the living room and the kitchen, but almost nowhere else. So I replaced it with one of those annoyingly loud electronic versions which can be heard in the farthest bedrooms. (Despite this, one of my friends steadfastly refuses to use it, preferring to knock instead. Softly. Even if his arms are full and he would much rather come inside quickly. He has an alarm dog, which I grant is much more fun than a doorbell, but I really, really wish he would use the doorbell. But he won’t. He lives to annoy.)

Ours is a quiet neighborhood, most of the time. Remarkably safe and peaceful. The only worrisome aspect in the past year has been the home two houses away. It is supposedly a sort of church-based halfway house for people trying to turn their lives around, and I see a church van there once a month or so, but there is apparently very, very little oversight. Last year, in the middle of a rainstorm, a drenched young man rang the doorbell. He identified himself as a resident of that home, and said that he was on parole and there were drugs and firearms there (which alarmed me no end), and asked if he could use my phone to call the police. I let him use my land line, not wanting to hand over my iPhone to someone who, frankly, made me nervous.

He called the police, but he didn’t know his street address, and was reluctant to give his name since he was on parole. They asked to speak to me, and since I sounded reasonable, they agreed to send a car out. The fellow left. The police came here before going to the house in question. They came back to me, telling me that no one with this fellow’s name (which I finally had wormed out of him) or description lived at that home.

The guy returns a couple of weeks later. He had his street address in his hand, and says he’s really trying to go straight but he’s afraid his parole will be violated because he can’t be near drugs or weapons and his brother, also an ex-con, is causing trouble over there, and could we please call the police again? I told him he needed to stay here until the police came so I wouldn’t have to deal with them. He agreed, and we made the call. While we waited he was so jumpy and nervous that I became very uncomfortable. Finally he said he’d go sit on his porch and wait for them.

The police came, they spoke to me, they went to his house, they found no one matching his description, and certainly no one sitting on his porch. Then they came back to tell me all about it.

A few days later I saw him while I was driving by. I stopped and had a few stern words with him. Actually, I believe said stern words were, “Not cool, dude!” He said he had been in the house waiting for the police, but they never showed up. Hah!

He never returned. Whether he judged (rightly) that I would be in no mood to help him in the future, or he moved out or was re-jailed, I have no idea. I haven’t lost too many hours of sleep over it.

The doorbell rang last week, and a tall, balding man with several teeth missing, who said he was from The House In Question — which, he told me (oh joy oh rapture) has been foreclosed upon, so everyone will soon be moving out — and asked to use my phone. Alas, I have disconnected my land line, so I had to lend him my iPhone. Torn between not wanting him in the house (when did I become so frightened of strangers?) and not wishing him the freedom of the outdoors should he want to make a break for it, I stood with him on the stoop while he phoned. He had locked himself out of the house and was trying to find one of the other tenants who could come home and let him in. No luck. Then he asked me if I could help him break in. I demurred. I suggested he just sit on his porch for a few hours until someone came home.

This morning the bell rang at 9 a.m. I was in bed asleep. I’ve been ill for the past few days, and haven’t been sleeping well. I ignored it. If it’s the UPS guy, he’s just ringing out of courtesy. It can’t be the mail lady needing me to sign for something, since she’s never been seen in our neighborhood before noon. If it’s a Jehovah’s Witness (they ring the bell several times a year), I’m not interested, thank you, go away. If it’s a friend, they’d have called first. If it’s a neighbor in need, they’ll call out my name. So I ignore the bell.

It rings again. In my head I shout at the person on the stoop. “I don’t want any Girl Scout Cookies! I don’t want a free lawn insect assessment! I don’t want to hear how ADT Monitoring can me me feel safe! I don’t want to donate money for your elementary school’s soccer program! I’m in the shower! I’m on my deathbed! I can’t deal with you now!” I roll over with a scowl.

By now I’m irritated, so I can’t get back to sleep. I finally get up and get dressed, check the front stoop and see no UPS packages, see no one lurking on the front lawn, so I sit down and try to wake up. Ding-dong! The peephole tells me it’s my tall, balding man with the crazy eyes. I open the door, and immediately start coughing on his cigarette smoke. Before I can recover, he asks if he can pay me to take him to his job up on Route 192. Could be a 15 minute drive each way, could be 30, depending where he wants to go. But I decide in a flash to use my illness, and say, “Absolutely not! I’ve got the flu, and can’t even consider it. And [as I fan away the smoke] your cigarette would kill me. Sorry!” and shut the door. I have never been quite so rude to a visitor in my life. And yet, somehow, I don’t regret it.

Maybe my doorbell-eschewing friend is on to something. If I disconnect the doorbell and make everyone knock, I will not hear anyone. I can train myself to check the stoop once a day for packages. My friends can just let themselves in. And I’ll be well on my way to being the neighborhood curmudgeon.

Who am I kidding? I’m already there.

Categories: Humor, Life in Florida | 8 Comments

Cuckoos in Florida

This morning I was awakened from one of the most comfortable sleeps I have had in recent memory to the sound of a cuckoo clock. Problem is, the cuckoo clock in my house ran down weeks ago and I stopped bothering to rewind it. And with the windows shut tight, I can’t hear anything from the neighbors unless they’re standing in their yard screaming; I certainly couldn’t hear a clock from inside their houses.

21290778.thmIt was so faint, I thought I might have been dreaming, so I struggled to full wakefulness. Nope, still there. Then I thought that since it seemed to coincide with the tail end of my exhalings, I might be hearing a wheeze from my lungs or something. So I held my breath. Nope, still heard the cuckoo. Could it be the ceiling fan, a ball bearing that is grating on something internal? No, it’s clearly outside the window somewhere.

A real cuckooing cuckoo? In Florida?? Impossible. By the time I was upright, the sound had stopped. A quick Internet search was instructive, though not conclusive: Continue reading

Categories: Birds, Life in Florida | 5 Comments

The India Blue

Somewhere around 1986, when Mom was considering the move to Florida, she and I came down to look for a house. The real estate agent took us to a home painted a chocolate brown—not the prettiest shade compared to its pastel Floridian neighbors. Once inside, we found it had very low ceilings, again rather usual after the cathedral ceilings we had been touring. But the owner, an older gent, a widower, had the windows and doors open, and a lovely breeze was blowing gauzy curtains around rather romantically.

We walked out to the small deck, and were startled to hear the high-pitched and very distinctive call of a peacock. We looked up, and saw one perched in the tree overhanging the yard.

Delighted, we asked if it was his pet. He looked like he wanted to spit. “Damn nuisances,” he growled. “They’re all over this neighborhood. They crap in your yards and make the most godawful racket. I’d like to shoot ’em, but my neighbors would have my head.” As we talked, the bird flew down into his yard, and immediately put up his tail in a grand display. The man cursed again and went inside.

Mom and I were thrilled. The house was not particularly suited to our needs, but the peacock was a definite draw. As we left, we saw several others in the neighborhood, both peacocks and peahens, walking in the streets, nestled under trees, perched on rooftops. Continue reading

Categories: Birds, Life in Florida | 9 Comments

A Note to the Red-bellied Woodpecker Out Back

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the absurdity of your name. It’s your head that’s red; your belly only has a slight tinge of color, and it’s down low and very hard to see. Even Wikipedia calls your name “somewhat misleading.”

But that’s not your fault. This, however, is:

No matter how hard or how long you hammer at the downspout outside my bedroom window, it will never yield up the tasty insects you’re looking for.

Your drilling is giving me a headache. Move on, please.

Categories: Birds, Life in Florida | 9 Comments

The Mailbox

Today’s thunderstorm came a bit earlier than usual, around lunchtime, and it was particularly violent for a while. I looked out the front door—just to enjoy the spectacle, really—and saw (to my great dismay) my mailbox, which stands on the side of the road by the driveway entrance, on the ground, in the swail that holds the runoff from the rain.

Someone had vandalized it. While it’s possible someone took a bat to it, it’s more likely that someone hit it with their car.

This is the second time that’s happened. Directly across the street from the mailbox is a neighbor’s driveway. A year or so after I moved back from Vermont, the friendly neighbors who had lived there sold the house to some faceless investor. The first set of tenants were two young women who, shall we say, Liked To Party. The parties weren’t especially loud, but there were many young men in and out, and anytime I saw people emerge from the house, they were happy and usually drunk. One day my mailbox was smashed, and the tire marks in the grass pointed directly toward their driveway. Some inebriated fool backed out too far or too fast.

So I installed a nice new mailbox. Well, the mailbox itself wasn’t quite as nice as the old one, but it came with a nice sturdy metal post, which I had a handyman set in concrete.

This mailbox saw the young women go, and the house lie dormant for a good six months. Then came an older couple—he was a church deacon and a house painter, very nice fellow—and they stayed for a year and a half. When they moved, they left rather quickly, and I never knew why, or where they were going. There was another period of dormancy, and at last the current tenants moved in.

I don’t know if they have a very large family, or a very large group of friends, but there are frequently four cars in the driveway and one parked just off the street, with lots of people coming and going. Cordial when you say hello, but clearly not folks who are inviting friendship.

Last week there were a series of arguments. Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Death, Life in Florida | 3 Comments

Return of the Storks

The change of seasons brings a number of different birds to Florida. My favorite of these seasonal visitors is the Mycteria americana, the still-endangered Wood Stork. They live year-round in South America, and come to central Florida to breed. Winter is our dry season, and its prey (fish and frogs and crabs and such) become concentrated in the shrinking pools.

It catches them in a unique way: by feel. They wade patiently through muddy water with its beak submerged and partially open, and when they feel a fish touch their bill, they instantly snap it shut and the poor creature is history. The closing of a Wood Stork’s beak is supposedly one of the swiftest moves in the animal world.

The stork is one seriously Big Bird. Continue reading

Categories: Birds, Life in Florida | 6 Comments

Strange Days

Jim Morrison wrote “Strange Days,” the song, for The Doors’ album of the same name, in 1967. The album was considered an artistic triumph but a commercial failure. The cover depicts circus performers (acrobats, a juggling mime, a strongman, a trumpet player, and two dwarves) in a quiet NYC residential mews.

Most carnivals were out on summer tours so it was a struggle for the album’s cover photographer, Joel Brodsky, to find professional circus performers. The acrobats were the only ones he could find; the dwarf, Lester Janus, and his younger brother Stanley were hired from an acting firm; the juggler was Brodsky’s own assistant; the trumpet player was a taxi driver; and the strongman was a doorman at a nightclub.

Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down . . .
Strange days have found us
And through their strange hours
We linger alone
Bodies confused
Memories misused
As we run from the day
To a strange night of stone

My sleep these days isn’t terribly comfortable. I dream constantly, but the dreams are confusing, jumbled, elusive. I wake early—I’ve always awakened many times during the night—but now for some reason, by 6 a.m. or so, I no longer go back to sleep. I’m finished. It’s not like I’m driven from my bed with lots of happy energy, ready to tackle the day. It’s just that I’m done. I’m finished. This is something I have never done in fifty-three years, at least not with any regularity.

I get up, turn the TV for some companionship, and fire up the Internet. The news is decidedly odd. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Dreams, Life in Florida, Movies and Television, Politics | 3 Comments

Change of Seasons

You know it’s fall when the Gala apples are better than sex and the cinnamon brooms are back in stock at the grocery store. Now, it’s important to have such cues here in Florida because we generally don’t get autumn temperatures until January, and then only for a month or so. Maybe the last week in December, but I can recall a number of Christmases spent around my brother’s pool, sweltering and unhappy.

Mom and I loved autumn best of the seasons. Perhaps it was because the cool, dry air felt so invigorating and freeing; perhaps it was because we were born less than a month apart at this time of year.

Today I told Tanya, the young woman who cuts my hair and used to cut Mom’s, that we had lost her. She began to cry. “I really loved her,” she said. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Great Quotes, Life in Florida, Nature | 4 Comments

Cross-dressing thief leaves fake breast behind

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Police in Port St. Lucie are on the lookout for a cross-dressing man who snatched a 74-year-old woman’s purse. As if that weren’t odd enough, they’re depending on a strange clue. The suspect left behind a condom filled with water he had been using as a fake breast. Continue reading

Categories: Life in Florida | 5 Comments

Still Raining

Fay has stalled once again. And she’s dumping water on us like crazy. Not as much wind as they expected by any means, but rain, rain, and more rain. The weatherfolk say we’ve gotten over 30 inches in the last couple of days, which is two-thirds the amount of rain we usually get for an entire year.

Mom’s doctor, who makes house calls, called to say he’s not making house calls today. He got stuck on a flooded road.

There are tadpoles swimming in the little pool that has formed at the bottom of our driveway. Newspapers haven’t been delivered in two days. Nor has the mail. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” indeed!

Categories: Life in Florida | 1 Comment

911 Calling

For days, every local television broadcast and radio program, and every newspaper article, has been describing with increasing hysteria how we’re going to be wiped off the map by Hurricane Fay. Every little zig-zag of its path was documented and debated, and on-location reporters in rain slickers stood there (even when there was no rain and they looked ridiculous) shrilly but passionately repeating the same shreds of non-information over and over. You’d have thought it was the end of the world and the Rapture was upon us.

Ever since Hurricane Andrew in 2002, and the trifecta of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne in 2004, every tropical depression been a disaster-in-the-making. A tropical storm required hourly break-ins with news of shelters that would accept pets, the elderly, and people in manufactured homes, and details about closures and where to pick up sand bags, and the latest high-tech radars showing the storm’s path. And if, perchance, one developed into a hurricane (as three did in 2005: Katrina, which missed us but devastated New Orleans, and Dennis and Wilma, both of which hit us), it was All Weather Panic, All The Time. Continue reading

Categories: Life in Florida | 11 Comments

Just Sayin’

I know I badmouth Florida. A lot. The endless heat, the exhausting humidity, the whitebread “culture,” etc. I’ve said that one of the few pleasures down here is the wildlife, especially the birds.

But the thunder that moments ago shook our house and rattled our windows reminded me what a sincere pleasure it is to live so close (relatively speaking) to Cape Canaveral.

I get to watch every NASA launch from my front yard. The shuttle rises above the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and curves to the northeast. Occasional night launches are particularly spectacular.

Just now, the returning shuttle created a lovely sonic boom. We turned on the TV and watched it land. Landings aren’t nearly as spectacular, but they are . . . satisfying, somehow.

Categories: Life in Florida | 2 Comments

This Guy Has Been Singing All Night Long

No, this isn’t my video, but this fellow’s song is remarkably similar to the one my little friend has been singing outside my window since 2 a.m.

And he’s still singing, eight hours later!

One of the few real joys of living in Florida.

Categories: Animals, Life in Florida, Nature | 2 Comments

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