photo by leah koss

photo by leah koss


rip torn

the flight is so smooth i take my first sky nap ever. the gangly central park dentist next to me knocks his knee into mine every few minutes, but i slip in and out of my delicious dream state unperturbed.

restless leg syndrome is a thing. i remember when my father first referred to himself as a sufferer of rls. i laughed through “you’re making that up right?” he was not. the acronym means it’s real. i’d soon be frantically searching for the remote to mute the pharmaceutical commercial advertising the miracle pill that alleviates it but may cause rectal bleeding and suicidal ideation.

eventually the dentist’s moderate to severe knee knocking rolls me into consciousness. as he places in his earplugs, he assures me, “i’m not a weirdo. i just need these for take-off and landing.” i ease his worried mind. “my wife and i never sleep without ‘em.”

do i smoke pot he asks.
“sort of,” i respond, halfheartedly committing to a stranger in the age of imminent legalization.
“rip torn does too. constantly. he’s my patient.”
“love rip torn. so good in larry sanders.”
“yeah he smokes a lot with willie nelson. for me it was qualudes. i’m actually on my way to visit the the king of colorado legal weed. he’s all in.”
“nice, we’re headed to swim with manatees and watch some tigers’ spring training games.’

we land in tampa and rent a jeep renegade, a fun little suv that apparently bruce wayne thinks is so nondescript, you won’t guess he’s batman. there’s way too much branding on this thing. “since 1941” is etched into the plastic above the radio. i think of the small rectangular sticker i’d need to cover it up as i notice with horror the jeep logo embroidered multiple times into the seat fabric. A full on logo-phobic attack ensues. cvs, take me away. we nab some sunblock, chardonnay and a cooler bag, let’s do this.

little boxes

my wife and i love to visit diners when we travel. she keeps one eye on the road, watching for my inevitable lapses of attention, and another on the phone, where she locates bonnie’s.

framed quilts of myriad shapes and sizes hang next to multiple american flags. aaaah, booth life.

we order the patty melt and the hash and cheddar omelette. two mini rectangles of cheese, that would perfectly cover that “since 1941” on the Jeep dashboard lay atop a magically fluffy omelette with small chunks of hash layered throughout. the grits. oh the grits…..

a leathery local gal of the senior citizen variety, gray hair in a ponytail, face filled with lines so deep they’d make voluptuous white canals of anti-wrinkle cream, sidles up to our table and asks us where we’re from.
“new york.”
she frowns disapprovingly, as if we just said we came to buy up her town and turn it into times square.
“isis, you have to watch out for isis. they’re everywhere now. especially in the big cities. that’s what the news says. be careful.”
“are you here for long?”
“no just the weekend.”
another disapproving frown.
“well be safe kids.”
i share my noticing of said judgmental frown and my wife thinks it's just the shape of her mouth. i’m skeptical. her husband departs. she returns to her table and begins rifling through the napkins and salt and pepper shaker.
she triumphantly returns to hand us a 1/2 off breakfast coupon.
"thank you," we say in unison, flabbergasted.
it must’ve been the shape of her mouth. my wife is always right, this i know, but where’s the fun in that?

our waiter, toby, tells me to bring the check up to chris. i walk towards the back where a 4 year old sits, bopping about to the tune in his headphones, and reach for my money.
“don’t give my child that money,” says chris, behind me.
“or course,” I say. “he did not seem ready for the exchange.”

as we exit, i spy auggie’s antiques just next door, and cajole my wife into a post breakfast stroll through vintage wonderland. i nab a $3 tin box displaying the hershey’s logo. that is a logo i can get behind. i do love my little boxes.

sun kiss

we’re staying at beso del sol. i drop my wife off at the hotel tiki bar, slather on the sunblock to protect myself from said sunkiss, and drive a mile to the blue jays tigers game.

the strip on the way to the ballpark features multiple dive bars offering $10 parking and a free beer. i nab the last spot at bauser’s, named for a boxer mutt whose picture is featured on every possible piece of visual real estate in the joint. he’s slightly more handsome than his baritone namesake in sha na na. and looks perfect in a black velvet painting.

the blue jays play at florida auto exchange stadium. old school. like the station wagon you’re exchanging. but i’m here to see my tigers, who used to own the central division and are recovering from a nightmare last place season riddled with injuries and arguably the worst dumpster fire of a bullpen in major league history. former manager, jim leyland, strolls through the crowd and greets the common men and women with mid-western aplomb. i briefly consider dropping to my knees and spontaneously genuflecting before him as I beg for his return, but he seems to enjoy his new semi-retired role as team advisor/diplomat who comes and goes as he pleases, so i just walk by him and get a beer.

game on. i talk tigers with the random stranger fan seated next to me. we ever so briefly bask in the hope that this season will lead us to the promised land. then the 6th inning arrives…no name land. no matter how hard core the fan, you don’t recognize half the players on the field. guys who don’t even have numbers on their uniform enter for their chance to break out of total obscurity.

we lose. oh well.

as i stroll back to bauser’s, i fantasize about upgrading my free beer to a bloody mary. i ask the career bartender gal if this is a possibility. i’m willing to pay the difference.

“bud, bud light, or yuengling,” is her response.

the beso del sol tiki bar beckons.

done eden

it took a few hours, but the knowledge that dunedin, florida is pronounced done-eden reaches our sensors.

did they serve iced coffee in eden? if they did, it wasn’t as good as “the best iced coffee in florida,” as christened by southern living magazine. mario assembles our coffee while he passionately extols the virtues of his secret ingredient, espresso ice cubes. “this is how the iced coffee never gets watered down. this is the key! no one else does it like this. you must see the 2,000 square feet of estate art i have for sale.” mario definitely drinks his product...often. my wife pulls on my arm, gently cajoling me to escort her on the art walk, but i can’t take my eyes and ears off the human work of american folk art before me. after our lazy jaunt through the farmer’s market, we return for another, floating above the sidewalk on mario’s caffeinated cloud. whoa, southern living magazine is on point.

hot tub socialism

i toast my wife from our balcony view of st. joseph sound. a giant hawk flies by with a catfish wiggling in its talons. a dolphin mother and her baby swim by while a small child runs out to the edge of the dock screaming like a hyena for his mother to come look. wild kingdom.

the beso del sol hot tub is hopping. we scan from above, waiting for our opportunity to pounce on empty.

victory is ours! oh no, i speak too soon. a young couple enters shortly after us, but thankfully keep to themselves. yes this must be what blue jays fans are like, canadian, quiet, respectful.

over the dulcet delirium that only results from sipping value sauvignon blanc while sniffing chlorinated bubbles, the gal unpretentiously reveals her pretentious role as a multi-instrumentalist indie folk rocker, the kind of hipster eye candy that helps a band named the rural alberta advantage perch gently, right above the fray. we discover we’ve both opened for canadian rock royal, sam roberts. nice.

i can’t resist ranting my socialist jealousy. “i couldn’t believe it when i found out your government funds rock records, touring, and promotion, while we’re left to slug it out in the capitalist jungle, begging our fans on kickstarter for a dime. even international megastars like feist and arcade fire get this money.”

“yeah, it’s pretty great. but some bands who would call it quits earlier end up needlessly carrying on through a kind of ambivalent twilight.”

my wife and i share the childlike zen we experience when swimming with the manatees and the canadians eagerly begin planning their next year’s vacation to include it. i gaze into the distance, my ambivalent twilight record ringing in my ears, a delightfully mediocre affair featuring 9 aimless ballads fueled by the warm flow of free government money, just like the jets soothing the small of my aching back..

hot tub national socialism

my american girl and i recently attended a mudcrutch concert, tom petty’s gainesville, florida hometown band before he became tom petty. i spent my freshman year there at uf, an hour and change from crystal river, which is the name of a mudcrutch song and also where we stay when we swim with the manatees. as tom serenaded us, i held my lady close and we shared a manatee loving smile, 1,000 miles away from our one ton friends.

the chorus features the phrase "nothing can touch me here on crystal river," which had been sublimely true on our previous trips, but on this one, we did unfortunately get touched by the long anti-semitic hand of national socialist germany, in of all places, another hot tub. but i guess we shouldn't have been surprised since the name of the place was the plantation inn. somehow our florida hot tub machine was taking us on an interactive tour of the wonders and ills of socialism.

this time, we had the tub to ourselves for a good 10 minutes before a 60 year old bald dude, slid right in and immediately launched into his entire resume of house flipping business dealings in upstate new york. these had led him to a posh florida retirement he seemed wholly mentally unprepared for. thus the plantation inn health club membership. "we're renters," i told him, doing my level best to slow his barrage of home ownership tall tales, but he rolled on, unabated.

suddenly, he changed the subject. "are you jewish?"

as i'd been focused on the bubbles instead of his blathering for a good five minutes, i didn't immediately respond affirmatively to this random question, so my wife chimed in with her truth. "no, but i work for a jewish foundation."

"my mother in law was in the hitler youth."

don't get me wrong, none of this seemed to be overtly heading towards an invite to graffiti the walls of nearby synagogue, but it certainly wasn't stimulating hot tub chatter among strangers, so we vacated the tub, headed to the bar, and called it a night early. Tomorrow we would rise early and well rested for our swim with the embracer of all races, religions, and creeds, the florida manatee.

don’t stab the manatees

before donning your wet suit, you must submit to a short "training" on what's termed "passive observation." a concept the allies were very familiar with pre world war 2 when it came to dealing with hitler's final solution. this training comprises watching a ten minute video on what not to do when swimming amongst manatees. but instead of animating the thing, they have real florida wildlife authority divers show you exactly what not to do. as the voiceover in the video says, "don't kick the manatee," a diver actually kicks the manatee. "don't stab the manatee with a stick" was also expertly modeled for us. it was difficult not to laugh out loud or cry at the abject stupidity behind the production of this informational training film. at least captain gene provided free popcorn and coffee to cushion the blow. (captain gene was way too sunburned for a man who should know better, but he seemed happy, so who's to judge.)

driving the jeep in a wetsuit was fun as we caravanned to the homosassa river, and boarded the boat. as soon as we departed the dock, we passed by monkey island, home of five spider monkeys that are quite nutty. ralph, the alpha male, let's you know quickly who's in charge as he prowls the island's edges, hinting that he might jump off and attack you if you glance at him the wrong way. apparently these monkeys were originally polio research monkeys who caused a lot of trouble with their hijinks and this island was built on top of some rocks that used to consistently sink boats, so some elegant win win synergy was happened upon, as the island became their alcatraz, boats floated by unperturbed, and thousands of tourists a year were entertained. who says florida is dysfunctional?

it's always a crap shoot who else is on your tour, but this time, we were blessed with a member of the louisiana coast guard and his mother. "if you're from louisiana, don't travel to maryland for crabs off season because they ship 'em in from the gulf. i learned that the hard way," shared the coast guard. his mother sunnily chimed in with, "don't eat the shrimp more than once a month from the gulf unless you want cancer."

we thanked them kindly for their expert tutelage and proceeded to actively ignore them for the remainder of the tour.

the manatees swim a few miles into the homosassa river each winter to get away from the chilly winter waters of the gulf. and there, they just sleep, eat seagrass, and conserve their energy. but they also get curious about the humans passively observing them and approach from time to time. my wife gets a little hug from one of them, his flippers holding her arm. perhaps he got word from one of his cousins that she has the touch. the previous year in key largo, a few manatees came up the dock, and my wife rubbed one their bellies and he got a woodie. the little girl we were with said, look, he's making a doody. her parents did not correct her. i always enjoy seeing good parenting in action.

there is something magical when their tiny little eyes stare right through your soul. soooooo calming and healing. can't be described with klunky words, you must experience it.


continuing our theme of florida racial harmony, we dined at crackers and celebrated another successful manatee excursion with a few shots of patron anejo. at only $6.50 a shot, i really wanted to get drunk, but the jeep needed driving.

we awoke to a breakfast buffet that featured my all time favorite, eggs in a crate. something about eggs scrambled en masse that excites me. there were grits too. yum.

we rode on to the bookend of our trip, another tigers game, this time in their home park of lakeland. another fun loss featuring impending hall of fame legends and wannabe no names on the same field. america.

on to the tampa airport, where the pilot did something i hadn't heard before. he announced we would be experiencing severe turbulence the entire flight home and would have to divert as far west as colorado to avoid it, which wouldn't be happening. i turned to my wife, who does not like flying, and we got up and walked off the plane. a hysterical young woman in the midst of a panic attack also got off the plane and revealed that her mother was staying on the plane. my sweet wife channeled her manatee zen and gave this hysterical stranger a hug. all i could think about was the horror of the lifelong therapy bills this woman would be facing as she attempted to work through her mommy abandonment issues.

we hopped into a cab with a driver from transylvania who dropped us off at the airport radisson, where we were checked in by tanisha with a big gold tooth featuring a diamond and a sunny disposition that sparkled more than her mouth. the hotel had a blazing hot concrete inner courtyard, the purpose of which neither of us could figure out. i'm still thinking we could transform it into a greenhouse that grows the weed willie nelson and rip torn allegedly consume so steadily. the king of colorado legal weed needs to know about this airport radisson. it could be a green destination that attracts tourists the world over. tanisha could give tours.