Posted by: facetothewind | November 23, 2013

Can We Ever Go Back?

DSC03196

Some Dance to Remember. Some Dance to Forget.

There I am at 16 — a skinny wisp of a thing — all nose and legs. If I turned sideways I would disappear, or so they said. I tried it but couldn’t quite manage to disappear entirely. Beanpole, Twiggy, Skinny Bones Jones, The Nose Knows, I was called. I was not a popular kid in my hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, a backwater town choking on its gene pool somewhere up the warm, root beer waters of the Calooshatchee River. My high school was mostly about football and unhooking the bras of cheerleaders, two disciplines I failed in. But there was something I excelled at. It was seeing. Photographing. Capturing the essence of a place in imagery. See that blue ribbon behind me? It’s tacked to a photograph I shot of a leaf on wet pavement that brought home Best of Show and a $100 prize in a county-wide juried art show sponsored by the Junior Welfare League. It was 1980 and this was to be the last vote of confidence bestowed on me as a kid in Fort Myers, a place that valued the power of your monster truck rather than the power of your brain.

DSC06731

Thirty-four years later I have returned with a camera still in my hands to retrace my past, to see what’s left — what’s left worth remembering and what must be forgotten. Yesterday I mounted my brother’s bicycle and headed east up the Caloosahatchee River. For reference, Sean and his family live in the nicest neighborhood of Fort Myers. It is the neighborhood of doctors, lawyers, and business owners — far from the east side of the Seaboard train tracks that cut through this sprawling subtropical city in Southwest Florida.

East-Fort-Myers

This is East Fort Myers. It is The Great Gatsby’s valley of the ashes  — an exurban wasteland of abandoned shopping centers and used car lots. It’s the unsightly place where used furniture and clothes go when the wealthier part of the town discards them for an upgrade. This is where I spent my sweaty childhood festering beneath the Spanish moss clinging to the live oak trees. It was tough ground for a sensitive, artistic, gay boy to grow up with any sense of dignity or belonging.

East-Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore

The year was 1972. My father took a job as an art teacher in the newly built Riverdale High School set amid the quarter horse farms of East Fort Myers. We left Timothy Leary and the hot tubbing hippies of Laguna Beach, California, for this new life in the deep south. I was terribly excited to have my first jet trip not fully knowing what lay ahead. We exited the National Airlines 727 into pouring rains and chirping frogs. The drinkable humidity hanging in the air was something I’d never experienced having spent my first 8 years in the dry climes of Southern California. We retrieved our soaked luggage from the carts on the tarmac of Page Field and headed to our new home.

This is the house my folks rented the first few months of our new life in Florida. It was an efficiency apartment at 3353 E. Riverside Drive. My few memories of it were the sound of falling palm fronds whacking the ground, the flying cockroaches, and the masked terrorists at the summer olympics. My mother called them guerillas. (I thought they were gorillas who wore masks and were taking over the Olympics.)

IMG_4217

My first day in my new environs I climbed a mango tree unwittingly covering myself with a toxic tree sap that would seal my eyes shut and cause my whole body to swell up. I lay in bed that night swollen and freaked out by the gorillas with guns. When I recovered, my older brother Michael showed Sean and me how to catch crabs at the river.

Tarpon Street Pier David Gilmore

He led us to the Tarpon Street pier (above) just around the corner from the house. We walked the length in the searing sun all the way to the end. Mom supplied us with frozen turkey necks which we tied to a string and tossed into the dark waters with anticipation. We waited a few minutes until the string snapped taut as a crab took the bait. We slowly pulled the string with extreme care to not lose the crab. We hauled them up toward the surface and marveled at the size and color of the blue crabs and then scooped them into a net. Mom threw the angry critters into a boiling pot for dinner. We dipped the claws in butter and made a big mess feeling so satisfied for having caught our meal.

muddy-waters

Mom befriended a woman named Christina who lived across the street and down a spell in an old Florida bungalow (now remodeled below). I think we all were shocked at the friendship offerings having come from California but we made the best of it. This was my first experience with “white trash” and widespread racism. My high school was known for its race riots that forced the school into lockdown while the rednecks and the blacks bussed in from Anderson Avenue duked it out in the lunch room. Growing up in Orange County, I might have seen a Hispanic person but I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a black person before Florida. And I certainly had not seen poor white folk living the way they lived in East Fort Myers. For some, fishing that river was not an afternoon’s amusement, it was sustenance. Squirrels were not cute creatures that could walk gingerly on power lines, they were dinner.

IMG_4216

One day our neighbor Christina called my mother from jail in tears. She was using her one call to tell my mother she had been arrested for killing her husband Gary with a butcher’s knife. She pleaded with my mother not to abandon her as she said it was in self defense. There would be no more screaming matches coming from their house down the road. Decades later after I had left town and started a national radio show, the Ft. Myers News Press ran a big feature article about me. A classmate from my high school got in touch with me by email to say he’d seen some things as a kid that one should never have to see and that he’d been harboring a grisly secret his whole life. That was all he said. I didn’t inquire further into this or any other dark stories of the backwoods of inland Florida believing that the less I knew about such things the better off I would be.

angel-of-concrete-screen-block

Nothing says Fort Myers like Christianity and concrete screen block.

My first days at school I was introduced to some new words like “ya’ll” and “ain’t.” I questioned some kid about the words and he said his mother told him to repeat this: “I ain’t gonna say ain’t cuz ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” And then there were the southern accents I’d of course never heard. Some black girls with cornrows were talking about the price of something and it sounded like this, “Nan nanny nan and nanny nan sayent.” That would be $9.99 for those of you unacquainted with this dialect of English. I was puzzled just before the judgments set in. I began to feel like a stranger in a strange world and retreated inside my mind to a world where everything was beautiful, the cowboys had good manners and would hold me at the end of the day while we lay amid the night blooming jasmine. My waking world became ruder and ruder. I photographed everything as a way to hide while observing. It was rare to be seen without my camera and even rarer to be seen in front of one. Somehow if I was photographing this strange place, I could stay one step removed from it.

East-Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore-2

Stairway to heaven — an abandoned trailer park in East Fort Myers.

Our neighbor across the street called black people “jigaboos” and “porch monkeys.” I was too young to stand up to the old white guy in Bermuda shorts but something felt really wrong about it. Dirty even. Black people lived then (and still do), in a specific part of town set aside for them. “Ghetto” was a new word for me.

Felton Kinchen, a black kid in my school got assigned to me for the Christmas gift exchange two years in a row. Each year I was given a pair of black socks from him with a card that said, “Merry Christmas from the Kinchen family.” Crestfallen I went home crying to Mom that I got another pair of socks when everyone else was getting cool gifts. Mom said that was a good practical gift and that it was probably all they had. Who wants practical when you’re a kid? Of course I couldn’t picture the whole story having never been to his house in the ghetto. Anderson Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Ave.) was what you raced through to avoid traffic on the way downtown. When we did, I’d hear Dad double clicking the automatic locks on the car.

IMG_4215

Site of the original Blarney Stone gay bar.

On my bike ride through memory lane yesterday, I passed the site of the first gay bar I ever visited, the Blarney Stone. It was alluringly positioned right across from the TV station where I worked for years. It had a reputation in town as THE FAG BAR. Kids bragged about waiting for guys to come out and beating them up. Tales were told about what went on inside: sodomy on the pool tables, perverts, baby killing. (Maybe I made up the part about baby killing.) Sounded like a good time so I had to go see for myself.

One night when I was 18, I parked my distinctive 1980 Toyota Corolla in the back so no passersby would see I was there. (I had at last admitted to myself that I was gay but knew full well that my life would be in danger if I went public about it.) So I sneaked in the back door. No one checked my ID. I was fresh meat to them and besides I think even the police were afraid to go there to check IDs lest they be sodomized on the pool table. The place was dark and smelled like cigarettes and mildew. It was strangely quiet. All I heard was the sound of water dripping from the roof. I saw the notorious pool table but no one was being sacrificed on it. There were a couple of old guys sitting at the bar in tight jeans smoking. They turned to stare at me and I turned and ran out the door panting, my heart racing. I never went back. Eventually it was abandoned and then torn down.

In 1982, Fred Greene was the president of the TV Station where I worked. Fred had a public affairs program that I used to run camera for. Rumors circulated that he was gay. He was a bit swishy — a “confirmed bachelor” — and had a mop of hair that might have been a toupee. He somehow got word that I was gay but I avoided public conversations with him for fear of losing the respect of my coworkers. Ironically and tragically, he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead in his own home by a group of young men whom he apparently had picked up. Fred was fired from WINK and the scandal hushed. Years later I saw that he was working as a travel agent for Geraci Travel. I walked past the travel agency downtown one day and saw him working at his desk bearing the scars of his ordeal as he booked cruises and flights for clients. I swore I would never have my life amount to that level of degradation and so when I was 21, I moved to New York City.

Edison Theater Ft Myers David Gilmore

D O W N T O W N

My brothers and I used to go the old Edison Theater (now a law firm) downtown to see 50 cent matinee movies like the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers. Mom would give us 35 cents for bus fare and we would ride downtown to see a movie or just go to McCrory’s five and dime for an orange soda and barbecue potato chips. I would break off a piece of potato chip and drizzle it with some soda and place it on the pavement near a crack and watch the ants go crazy for it. There wasn’t much to do downtown except see a second run movie in a moldy old theater and play with bugs on the sidewalk.

After our junk food indulgences, we would meet Mom, who worked for a downtown law firm, and hitch a ride back home with her. We would stop at “The Colonel” for dinner. That would be Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, aka “KFC” for those of you who don’t remember the origins of the acronym or the old guy with the bow tie in the logo. The bucket of extra crispy chicken handed to Mom from the drive through window sat in the front seat of the car driving us mad. The smell of fried chicken and gravy-soaked mashed potatoes filled the 1964 Chevrolet station wagon. We couldn’t wait to get home and tear through it.

David Gilmore Fort Myers downtown

Click panorama to enlarge.

Downtown Fort Myers in the 70s and 80s was no man’s land after 5 pm when all the city workers and lawyers left their offices. The Edison mall and subsequent strip malls put the downtown out of business. McCrory’s was abandoned and boarded up for years. Downtown was to be avoided at all cost. No one ever spoke of the beautiful, early 20th century American architecture that defined the look of the downtown. It was a sheer miracle that it didn’t get bulldozed for a hotel resort and shopping center.

mccrory

The town was built on the site of the original fort which was the hub of the U.S. Government’s brilliant Seminole Indian eradication program — another dark story in Fort Myers’ checkered past. With the building of the mile-long bridge over the Caloosahatchee River in 1924, Fort Myers boomed on a wave of snowbird tourism. Its gentle climes and soft, white sand beaches soothed the winter-worn northerners.

Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore-9

Click to enlarge panorama.

But when I was growing up here, the downtown languished as most American downtowns did in the white flight and mall-ification periods. And then something shifted about 10 years ago…the town wised up. Low slung, moderately fanciful brick buildings line First and Bay Streets. Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Georgian, Mediterranean, and Spanish Revival homes surround the city center which has a protected yacht basin with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Myers came back from the dead realizing what an architectural gem this town was and and the city invested in it.

Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore-6

Click to enlarge panorama.

They tore up the pavement, unearthing the underlying original bricks which were then used to repave the streets. They widened the sidewalks to calm traffic and make room for outdoor dining. They redid the Edison era lampposts and planted royal palm trees along First Street. The City bootstrapped itself and behold…

Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore-7

Click to enlarge panorama.

The downtown now has a nascent yet vibrant sidewalk cafe scene at night. There are at least two rooftop bars that I know offering sunset happy hour specials and views of the town and river. There’s even a boutique hotel and a rocking good arts center showing independent films, local art shows, fashion shows, and all housed in the fabulous neoclassical limestone post office built in 1933…

fullbuilding

Out of a dark and brutal past and a personally trying childhood comes a colorful and bright new town. It has now become a town with a lot of smile value and worthy of giving a second chance.

Fort-Myers-David-Gilmore-8

Click to enlarge panorama.

What I realized about my bike ride into my acrid childhood is that some things are surely worth remembering, and some things are better forgotten. The uglier memories have only served to keep me resentful, and sometimes a place deserves a little forgiveness. While racism and homophobia still exist here for sure, it’s not like it used to be. At the very least it’s considered impolite. And OK, I’ll take polite homophobia over violence. The plight of poor white people still exists here. I suppose I have a tad more compassion for them now knowing how poor choices, bad circumstance, and the need for an underclass ignorant and ready to serve got them where they are.

Talking to an old black guy with white hair on the Tarpon Street pier who has been fishing there since the 50s, he told me all the blue crabs are gone now. He was going after the mullet and stood silently poised at the railing with his net waiting and watching. He said they were good eating. I thought about how he and I have an unspoken common bond as gay man and black man in the old south — both so oppressed and reviled in our time, in our home. So reviled that I stopped feeling that this was my home and I took off for the big cities to do my part toward transforming attitudes from a safer place. But he stayed in the trenches here in Ft. Myers.

I thought it ironic that as I walked off the pier, I passed this man’s brand-spanking-new pickup truck and headed to my borrowed bicycle with rusty chain. Times have indeed changed.

Tarpon-Street-Pier-David-Gilmore-3

I think perhaps I have put my past in better perspective here on the turn of my own half century mark. Maybe it’s a good thing that creepy old gay bar is torn down. Maybe it was an improvement to take down the austere 1924 un-airconditioned Edgewood Elementary where I learned that ain’t ain’t a word. I hated writing my lessons there with sweaty hands trying to grip a slippery pencil while a giant fan ceaselessly beat the hot air. Now just the original doorway to the school stands and they renamed it Edgewood Academy — “where the arts grow in every child.” I couldn’t imagine such a slogan at the school where teachers still used corporal punishment when I was there. A smile came over me as I headed out on my bicycle, leaving my past behind me where it belongs.

There’s something gratifying about knowing that while you were away from a place, it got better instead of worse as you’d expect. Maybe now my resentments of 30 some years are worth rethinking and that should I need to, I could come back. It’s heartwarming to know that a place I never thought would grow up, did. And so did I.

And Felton Kinchen, if you are out there, I’m sorry I wasn’t rhapsodic with joy when you gave me yet another pair of socks for Christmas. But, man, I could use a nice pair of fashionable black socks now.

* * *

Here are some panoramic scenes from Fort Myers that I thought you’d enjoy for both their beauty and tackiness and sometimes both…

IMG_4134

Click to enlarge panorama.

IMG_4113

Click to enlarge panorama.

IMG_4108

Click to enlarge panorama.

IMG_4103

Click to enlarge panorama.

DSC06715

Click to enlarge panorama.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Terrific, David. This expresses much of how I feel about and see these Floridian coastal towns where you and I grew up, separated by only a few hundred miles, at the same time. Wish I’d known you then…but I do look forward to catching up soon and seeing some of the renovated Ft. Myers.

  2. Oh David, thank you for this- as usual your words are both sad and uplifting, both jaded and innocent…I couldn’t stop reading- this might deserve more…so many universals here…sending love

    • Thank you, January. Deserve more? I think it could definitely be printed in a local paper – with some editing out of names. My sister in law is a local reporter so I’ve asked her to shop it around. She might very well do it.

      Thinking of you. Did you say goodbye to Mari? 😦

      On 11/23/13 3:29 PM, “Field notes from a noticer”

  3. Wow. What a beautiful, poignant remembrance. And some of those panoramic shots — my god, they look like paintings. Bravo, David.

  4. As you know, I came about three inches from full time living in downtown Fort Myers and I am glad I did not embrace the offer. Winter season is fine; the rest of the year would have been miserable. What I miss most was the opportunity to have a tropical garden. Oh well.

  5. Thanks for this gripping memoir, superbly written, of course. Fab photos, again of course! It should be made available to be read more widely, definitely!

  6. I lived there from 1987 to 2003. I waitressed, went to college at Edison and then USF, taught school in the Fort Myers school system. No matter how I tried to change my situation….Fort Myers remained the same…..a small minded and bigoted community with little but warm weather in February to say for itself. I am now back where I originated…..and where I belong….Cambridge MA. Long live the the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” where you freely think.

    • Yep, I think you’re right. I think that while homophobia has become indecent, there’s still quite a few visible signs of racism here. And there’s a pervasive pride in being unrefined and uneducated. Gee, if I had missed the chance to have an education – for whatever reason – I’d be hanging my head about it, not being proud of it.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Florida is mostly just a dreadful network of highways and strip malls. I cleave to the downtown b/c it has charm. The rest is just soul-deadening and the people here are HAPPY to have their gated golf course retirement communities. I’d hang myself with bedsheets within a week if I had to live in one of those places.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: