Nuke the Snowbirds!

Posted on April 20, 2008
Filed Under Commentary, Travel | Leave a Comment

            So, I’m in the pool at the Gulfport, Florida, condo complex where I’m visiting Miramichi friends John and Joyce LeBlanc.

            A bunch of elderly women are gossiping and teasing each other. One of them says to another “So, you are leaving Monday?”

            “Yes, I think so,” is the reply.

            “No, no! I don’t want this ‘think so,’ ” says the first. “Last year we threw you the big going away party. Then I come down the next day and there you are in the pool.

            “I’m throwing you a party Sunday night. You’d better be gone Monday!”

            Then came the line that cracked me up.

            “I’m bringing my CD ‘If It Is Snowbird Season, Why Can’t We Shoot ‘Em?’ “

            Gulfport is a somewhat seedy old Florida community pretty much engulfed by St. Petersburg. It used to be a fishing port and a biker town. Now it is home for all or part of the year to a large number of geezers.

            It looks like I imagine Key West did 40 years ago. There are lots of funky little cafes, restaurants, bars and art shops on streets running up from the beach. There are entertainments almost every night. The city and chamber of commerce run a free trolley bus service on Friday and Saturday nights from six p.m. to 10 p.m.

            The local rec centre and library offer everything from free computer access to courses in computers, photography, yoga, tai chi, philosophical discussions on the six questions posed by Socrates to his students and just about anything some expert may have retired from.

            So far, I love it.

            I’m in one of many buildings in a complex known as Town Shores. Built in the early 1970’s they are rugged if not elegant. Nine of them look out onto Tampa Bay or to lagoons cut in from the bay.

            Each of the buildings has its own condo committee aka politburo. They each have their own rules that vary in number and degree of severity. In some, for example, you cannot replace carpet with tile or hardwood lest you disturb your downstairs neighbour. You cannot go into the pools at night after eight p.m.

            In the building John and Joyce are in, natural gas for cooking is included in the rent. Electricity has run from $19 to $25 per month. For less than $50 per month, tenants can have local and all North American long distance, dozens of TV and music channels, including a personal video recorder, and high speed internet access.

Buy or rent?

            The condos themselves vary tremendously in interior décor. Some owners have invested a lot, some very little. As a result, when they come on the market, as they regularly do given the average age of owners, they range in price from as little as $100,000 to perhaps $300,000.

            Currently, they are a lousy investment. After condo fees, insurance, taxes, repairs and maintenance, you could not rent out for enough to match what your investment would generate in a GIC. In other words, it is cheaper to rent than to own.

            Realtors, of course, are confident prices will soon resume their rise and rental costs will escalate along with them. Of course, realtors always feel that way. They are also, of course, usually right. The question always is money or property will generate the best return.

            The consensus among people I have spoken to is that prices have not yet bottomed.

City access  

            One of the very nice things about Gulfport is its proximity to St. Petersburg. It is roughly akin to living in Nelson and Douglastown being Halifax.

            Boomer favourite entertainers come to St. Petersburg regularly. Right now the radio stations are talking about Chicago, The Eagles, Santana, Steve Miller, Joe Cocker, Bruce Springstein and the like who are or just were or will be here.

            Moguls, tycoons and titans who retire here, came from here, or have vacation properties here have been stupendously generous in sponsoring galleries, theatres, auditoriums, symphonies and theatre companies.

            We went two and a half hours south, to Naples, to visit family and an old friend. The local art gallery had a magnificent Picasso exhibition curated by their own staff.

            A notable thing about the cultural scene is the number of expert volunteers. You have the sense that the tottery greeter at the gallery door may well have been a fine arts teacher before retiring to Florida.

            On the way back, we stopped at a huge outlet mall near Bradenton. I was in a golf store when, as always happens abroad, the Miramichi connection popped up. This time it was Murray Lepard.

Wildlife and wild life

          It is sexy spring here. I’ve already seen a family of ducks and have a picture of two brand new ducklings studying the giant John LeBlanc.

            A Muscovy duck mother hatched her eggs at the foot of the stairs we use. She is a member of an ugly tribe. Muscovies look a bit like overgrown gulls with mottled dark and white plumage, scruffy white heads and eyes ringed so red they always look like they are coming off the second week of deer camp or four consecutive Bay du Vin survival weekends.

            No one could give her lessons in maternal devotion though. She did not move from the nest from the time I arrived until we watched as the eggs hatched. Within hours, she and her chicks were gone. She must have been starving. She did accept a little water but very little food while she was on the nest. Perhaps, in the wild, they don’t want to attract any attention to their presence and we all know what eating leads to.

            The Egrets, Herons, Ibises, Pelicans and dozens of birds I don’t know fish and fly and shriek in wonderful numbers. Dolphins patrol the lagoon outside the window where John, Joyce, and now I, sit in the morning and evening watching the sun rise and set. Cute little lizards scurry and freeze, scurry and freeze everywhere from hedges and poles to the walls of outdoor bars. 

            Even in geezer world, there are young people. In fact immigrants from all over the world flock here for tourism jobs. You see them on the beaches on the weekends making do with a couple of handkerchiefs for bathing attire.

            Still, most of the flesh you see most days is an excellent argument for seriously reconsidering any youthful affection for tattoos.

            Mind you, some of the people inside these sagging hides have delightful minds and attitudes.

            Bobby Watson rides his tricycle to the Gulfport beach each day to practice his saxophone. He plays gigs with bands all around the area. He says he plays rhythm and blues now because he doesn’t want to think enough for jazz.

            He has an apartment in Kentucky, near his family, a cottage on a lake in Maine and a trailer in Gulfport. He is having so much fun he can hardly stand it.

            The very tidy and sparkling woman who waits tables at the Water Witch café on the waterfront lives on a 27 foot Hunter sailboat in the harbour. She rows ashore with her little Peugot bike in her dingy. She sails up and down the coast to wherever the tourists are to pick up waiter work. With the season winding down here, she is ready to head north but her employer is pressing her to stay.

            On the local entertainment scene, with my usual stunning luck, we went to a local plaza (in the tiny village square meaning of the word) where there are different musicians playing and, or, jamming most nights.

            On Friday night, Chucky Love was playing for the very first time publicly with a new side woman, Brittany D. Friesen.

            Chucky is not the lounge lizard you might expect from the name. He is a political science major at the University of South Florida and writes almost all of the songs he performs. They are strong, literate social commentary delivered with powerful emotion and an aggressive acoustic guitar style that makes his thumb bleed.

            He has one song called “I Don’t Want Your Monkey,” that is about not wanting you to put your hang-ups on his back. It includes the brilliant term “Freudian flatulence.”

            Brittany is a gorgeous blond Rodin would have been compelled to sculpt sitting on her stool with angled legs and hair down over her closed eyes and expressive face as she improvises on her electric violin like The Rapids’ Ryan Keenan does on his guitar.

            Damn! I’d like to hear them together too!

            The pairing was so new, they didn’t even have a mike for her vocal accompaniments but their sound was superior to many groups I have heard with a techie at the controls.

            Her violin soared and reeled and writhed up and down with every emotion, tone and rising and falling volume in Love’s songs.

            One of the three songs he (they) did all night that was not his own was “Halleluhah,” which he knew from the Jeff Buckley version and said “he thought” was written by Leonard Cohen. We relieved of him of any future doubt as to that!

            I have several versions of “Hallelujah” including the Buckley, Cohen and k.d. laing versions. Now I ache to have a recording of it with Brittany D. Friesen’s haunting violin accompaniment.

            She was surrounded by friends and admirers during their break so I didn’t get much chance to talk to her. I did ask her what she likes to play for herself. She said she likes concertos I couldn’t hear her name and anything by Vivaldi and her own pieces.


          Florida is food heaven. Besides the absolutely scrumptious feed of salt cod and scrunchions we had courtesy of Anne Miller at the Irlam condo at Madeira Beach, just about every fruit and vegetable and cuisine imaginable is available here.

            At a Jules Verne “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” themed restaurant in Naples, I had the finest piece of fish I have ever had in a restaurant. It was Sea Bass seared black and slightly crispy top and bottom and glistening all the way through. It was surrounded by an amazing sauce.

            Delis and cafes abound with brilliant creations of sandwiches, killer breads and delectable items like cultured seaweed to which I am becoming addicted.

            The Saturday morning market in St. Petersburg is enough to make you weep. There are competing barbecue pits with grills larger than residential oil tanks back home. One booth had three of them.

            The competing smells make one ravenous and slavering.

            Very fresh fish sweat in their icy beds surrounded by large flowers.

            The tomatoes are huge and REAL! Not like cucumbers painted red.

            It is one of those places where you could go for a month without eating beef and not realize you had.

            The state is, of course, riddled with Bush Republicans, guns and ghettos. Apparently Tampa, just across the bay and Gulfport are a bit more dangerous than average.

            Maybe that is why everyone seems so polite and friendly although I gather the mood can change abruptly.

            I’m having a wonderful time although I miss Michelle so much I ache. She is the missing piece that would make every gallery, market, music and beach experience perfect. She wanted me out of the way so she could concentrate on gearing up for her busiest season without feeling pressured by thoughts of me feeling neglected.

            I’m supposed to be scouting out the territory here and up the Atlantic seaboard on the way home for future trips together.

            In the words of the perpetual martyr Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books, “It’s a thankless task but I’ll do it.”







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