I always love arriving in Florida. Flying in everything is so sunny and bright, with the light reflecting off the water making it a shade of blue not found in other parts of the world. Step off the plane and the heat hits you – whoosh! – and suddenly the world is full of palm trees, parakeets and tiny lizards bobbing their heads up and down.
But it must be said that I am always happy to leave Florida. My family are here, and I’m sad to leave them behind. Still, my life is elsewhere and I’m happy to get back to it. Before I do that, though, it was necessary to complete the nostalgic tour of unique things that I miss when I’m not in Florida. Some of them, anyway. The tour is getting pretty long now, so I have to limit myself to a few every time I depart.
Yesterday we visited a few of my favorite places in Saint Petersburg. We stopped at Haslam’s, Florida’s largest bookstore. I love bookstores of all kinds but especially independent bookstores, and especially great big ones that you can spend hours in, and especially when they have a friendly bookstore cat.
We then went on to the Coney Island hot dog place which has been operating continuously and with very little change in menu for eighty years. They must be doing something right. It’s a real old-timey diner of a place, complete with a counter behind swivelly stools, booths upholstered with old pleather, and a big old fifties-style refrigerator. The guys that work the grill actually wear the paper hats you see in those old Norman Rockwell paintings. If you ever go, get one with everything and a chocolate shake. You won’t be doing your arteries any favors but that’s a small price to pay for a piece of edible history. For my dad in particular, the Coney Island Grill is special because the small coal town of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather grew up and Dad returned for many extended family gatherings, also had a Coney Island hot dog joint. They are so similar that if you’ve been in both you’d swear there was some sort of space-time continuum breach centered around Coney Island grills. I’ve only been in the Shamokin Coney Island once, but I’ve had it confirmed by reliable sources that the resemblance is no figment of my imagination.
Not many people can say they live down the street from a giant pink sandcastle, but so far this is the best way I’ve found to describe the Don Cesar hotelnear our home. I’m always excited to see its towers on the horizon when I first arrive home from the airport, but the longer I stay the more its pink bulk fades from my notice, becoming just another everyday building as I go about my daily travels. But of course, it actually is an extraordinary building: originally built as a hotel it was used for a time as a convalescent home for soldiers in World War II. After falling on some hard times and almost getting demolished, it’s now experiencing a revival. It is such a unique and special building that it almost pains me to think of people trying to knock it down.
We were fortunate enough to dine in the pink sandcastle to mark the very special occasion of my mother’s 60th birthday. This whole week has been full of celebrations, organized and gleefully participated in by dozens of participants. There were garden parties and secret ceremonies, visits from relatives and dinner at the Don. I feel that my mom’s birthday was like ripples on a pond: the celebration centered around her, but sent a wave of delight shooting out far beyond its origin. I am so glad that I stayed long enough to be a part of it.
(But if you’re my supervisor reading this, ha ha! Just kidding! I’ve been working very hard. Seriously. Never a spare moment to myself because I can’t stop researching. My research is like the red shoes, I just can’t take it off. Research, research, research. My middle initial is R. My nickname is Research McResearchy Pants. In fact I think I’ll stop writing now and, um, cross-reference some articles by Karin van Nieuwkerk.)