Category Archives: Narrative

Jimmy Buffett, My Dad, and Florida Road Trips

A man in glasses and a woman in glasses. They are father and daughter, down by the water, like in the Jimmy Buffett song

Jimmy Buffett died last night.

This isn’t a post about that, not really.

While I’ll miss hearing new music from him, I don’t mourn him. I didn’t know him; I have no illusions that I had a clue about the man behind the legend. Few similarities exist between the Gulf and Western icon father and my own dad, but I feel a heartbreaking kinship of mourning with his daughters.

A few weeks ago, my dad died unexpectedly.

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my father. His death was so unexpected, and still so raw, that those memories still assault me at odd times. Grief is like, my friend Tamara says, a ball banging around inside a box. Sometimes it slams into the side of the box, and other times, it doesn’t, and you never know what it’s going to be.

In Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about my earliest experience with Florida’s salt water, with my dad, as we made our way to what would be our forever home in Clearwater:

“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” My father still made the sign of the cross on himself when we passed Catholic churches, but not until this moment had I heard such hushed worship in his voice.

I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar inside my chest as I gazed at the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this, much later, as the sense of coming to where I needed to be.

I figure today y’all will see a lot of “Margaritaville” tributes to Jimmy Buffett on social media, but I never had much use for that song. I’ve always been a bigger fan of his B-sides (so much so I wrote this review about his concert a few years ago.)

One song in particular, “Delaney Talks to Statues” has a special place in my heart. Since the day I first heard it, made me think of every wonderful thing about my dad.

Father, daughter/Down by the water

We moved to Florida when I was 7. I loved going to the beach with my dad. Some weekend mornings, we’d get up early and go to Clearwater Beach. Early mornings at the beach — before the crowds — is when you might find shells. I still have some of those shells we collected down by the water so many years ago.

Shells sink, dreams float

There’s a lot more to say about my dad — a lot that doesn’t have anything at all to do with Jimmy Buffett — but one giant takeaway is that he instilled in me a love of road trips.

Shortly after we moved to Florida, my dad had surgery, and he couldn’t work for a few months. Once he recovered enough to drive, though, we’d go on long drives and talk.

This continued for years. As an angsty teen, I’d go for drives with him, and he’d let me talk. He always treated me like an adult in those conversations, those wonderful, rambling conversations that unfolded and went in different directions, much as the roadways we traveled. We never set out with a destination; we simply drove and talked, talked and drove. I saw a lot of Florida’s central west coast on those drives with my father. I remember a lot of trees on those drives, and a lot of love.

Life’s good on our boat

While I won’t paint everything as sunshine and roses in our home growing up — I hate how people deify the dead — I will say that yes, overall, life was good on our (metaphorical) boat. I had two parents who loved each other, loved me, and made sure I knew it. We didn’t have lots of money for big cross-country or international vacations, but we took road trips. My mom and dad both embraced Florida life, never once looking backwards to what they’d left behind in New York. I credit them both with a lot: Instilling in me a love for Florida, for facing life head-on, even when it hurts to do so, and for all the good parts of me.

The Captain and The Kid

My dad and I had a wonderful relationship. Oh, sure, we fought. More than once he left my home in a fit of anger, but he always came back, and there was always a hug and “I love you” after the fight. There’s not a day I’ve been alive when I ever doubted my father’s love.

And in my memories, my love for Florida is tangled up with my parents and their love for it. My passion for road trips is forever linked to those drives I’d take with my dad.

The last drive we took was in 2019, shortly after I’d left full-time work at a local alt weekly. We drove south over the Skyway, out to Anna Maria (another beach we’d visited as a family when I was younger). We drove as far south as we could along the barrier islands, then turned around and headed north along US 41.

That would be our last road trip together.

My dad and I talked about when we could go again, but then… the pandemic came. After that, my dad had some health issues that made longer road trips unpleasant for him. Finally, a few weeks ago, when he was the healthiest he’d been in decades and at the cusp of being able to take a longer drive with me once more, a freak set of circumstances meant we’d never take a road trip together again.

And so this morning when my husband read me the news of Jimmy Buffett’s death, my first thought was of my father — and then of Buffett’s daughters. Because I didn’t know the man, but I knew a man a lot like the man who sang about his daughters.

And so I close with this thought from another Jimmy Buffett song I love; one that also evokes images of my dad, and also my grandfathers: And though I cried, I was so proud/To love a man so rare.

Not How We Do It Up North: Publix Bakery Edition

Last night, a friend made a comment about a new pizza place in St. Pete. This friend was born Somewhere Else (read: not Florida) and made a snarky comment about Floridians shouldn’t rank local pizza because pizza gets ranked by borough.

This led to my suggesting that perhaps people don’t move to Florida for the pizza. The exchange brought to mind a wonderful Florida memory.

When I was 15, I had a summer job at the Publix bakery (if you grew up in Florida in the ’80s, I believe it was the law you had to work at a Publix). In the 1980s, Publix didn’t simply have bakeries; they had Danish bakeries, where women wore orange and brown bell-bottomed polyester uniforms and appeased the customer at all costs. I answered to a stern lady, Lucy, who I estimated as 60-something (of course, I was 15, so she could have been 35 for all I knew; I thought 25 was old). She had short, salt-and-pepper hair she wore in tight pin curls, and everything about her radiated her unwillingness to truck in foolishness. I can’t imagine she loved managing a bunch of giggly teenage girls, because honestly? We were the worst.

One morning, a man came in and asked for a few Chicago hard rolls. I bagged them for him, he took them from me, and proceeded to loudly berate Florida, Publix, the baker and probably the man who harvested the wheat. Why? Because – say it with me – that’s not how they did it up north. This meant, of course (since he hadn’t tasted them), that the Chicago hard rolls weren’t hard enough.

Lucy heard his tirade and approached the counter. Now, she was an old-school Publix customer service type of woman, so I braced myself for a scolding. Although I’d apologized to the customer about the rolls not being like they were up north (let’s put a pin in EVERYTHING that’s wrong with that, just for a moment), I figured I’d done something wrong.

That’s not what happened, What happened next has inspired me pretty much every day since.

She stood next to me and folded her hands on the top of the glass counter. She inquired as to the problem, and the man went into the second verse of his tirade. She listened, nodding here and there. When he wound down, she cleared her throat and spoke clearly, but very softly.

“That’s the beautiful thing about our interstates, sir. They work both ways.”

That’s all she said. The man gaped at her, grabbed his bag of rolls, and walked away.

I have no idea if he complained to the store manager, but if so, I never heard about it. After that, I worked harder for Lucy than I ever had before.

Lucy, I know it’s been 34 years, but you’re still one of my Florida heroes.

RIP: The Tevas That Helped Me Reclaim My Life

Last month, my beloved Teva water shoes turned old enough to drink.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to them.

This is harder than it should be. After all, they’re just shoes and, if you know me, you know that I’m not particularly attached to shoes. I’ll never be the fashionista in the TJ Maxx commercial, and I am 100% OK with that.

But still, these shoes… they were magic. They served me well, but more than that, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without these shoes.

Hand holding sandy Teva Proton shoes over saltwater
I love these shoes.
Cathy Salustri

Let me explain.

If more than five people reading this (hi, mom!) knew me in 2001, I’d be shocked. I was a different person then, and – if we’re being honest – not one I liked. I’d gotten so far away from who I wanted to be when I was 18, and so far from the things I loved that I didn’t recognize myself. I had an 8-to-5 job working in public relations. I wore pantyhose and pantsuits. I never went to the beach. I didn’t own a kayak. I lived in a homogenous suburb in a homogenous city in a state that, while brimming with life and vibrancy, had sort of overlooked my neighborhood. I’d last been to the Florida Keys before I met my first husband, who promised to take me every year for a decade and then, for a decade, didn’t.

He didn’t like the Keys, and the fact that I stayed with him for 10 years tells you everything you need to know about how far I’d gotten from the 19-year-old me who delighted in snorkeling the reefs and sitting watching the sunset.

Everything about my life was wrong.

But then… then came the Tevas.

In June 2001, I’d convinced my future ex-husband to make reservations – for real this time – at a place on Conch Key called the Bay View Inn. We planned several days there, and Conch Key had spotty cell phone service (it was 2001, so internet access wasn’t really a thing) and no restaurants. The hotel was on the water, and it sounded like paradise to me.

My future ex-husband, however, thought it was hell, and he had other ideas. The night before we left (it’s been 21 years so the timeline may not be 100%, but the spirit is true), he told me he didn’t think it was a good idea for him to take his vacation time and leave work.

To recap: I met this man in 1993, moved in with him the same year, married him in 1995, and, since 1993, had been promised and subsequently denied trips to the Keys every year. Eight years after he first promised to take me to the Keys, I’d had enough.

“That’s fine,” I told him, then added, “but I’m going with or without you.”

It was a watershed moment for me. I got engaged to this man when I was 20 (not old enough to rent a car, but sure, pledge your life to another person, no problem), married him when I was 22, and I simply believed you went along with your spouse. At the ripe old age of 28, though, I’d hit my limit. I wanted to go to the Keys, and I was going to go – with or without him.

You’re probably wondering about the Tevas. Stay with me.

That evening, he decided he could go to the Keys after all, and I realized I could have called his bluff on not going eight years prior. We went to the Sports Authority in Clearwater for water shoes, where I looked for a sturdy water shoe suitable for navigating rocky beaches and fitting into fins.

Now, I’d sold shoes – twice, in fact. I’d even gotten a degree from Shoe University (thank you, Dillard’s!) and I knew the logic behind buying pricier shoes. They last longer, the ones geared towards function over fashion are easier on your ankles and hips, and – this matters – if you pay a decent price for shoes, there’s a better chance the company that makes them pays the workers a living wage. (Not always, but trust me, those $13 sneakers are not fair trade.)

Nevertheless, these $68 Teva Protons were a hard sell for me. They were water shoes, for Christ’s sake. I was going to plunge them into saltwater. I was going to abuse these shoes. Shouldn’t shoes you were going to tear the hell up cost less?

In the end, the $68 Tevas won. I was going the Keys, finally, and I needed decent water shoes. Plus, we could afford it. My PR job paid crap, but the future ex worked for an ISP before the crash, so, you know, gravy days.

Not shockingly, the shoes outlasted the marriage. While we were in the Keys and my future ex delayed a snorkel trip long enough that we missed it, he admitted – finally – that he hated the Keys and didn’t even really like Florida. He told me, “I think we just want different things out of life.”

It was our sixth anniversary that day.

At the time, those words devastated me (what twenty-something wants to be told the person they thought they would spend her life with had no interest in the things she loved?) but, in the way only a twenty-something can, recovered and told myself that once he died, I could go to the Keys as often as I liked. (It was only later that a coworker pointed out the heartbreaking stoicism of my plan.)

It took another 19 months, but I left him and found the life I wanted. The path out wasn’t pretty, but that’s a story for another time.

But after I left him? There was kayaking. And sailing,. And, of course, my beloved Florida Keys. I left my husband in December 2002, and by spring 2003, I was back in the Keys – by myself this time – with my kayak and bike.

Teva water shoes in the sand
These shoes are not unlike Dorothy’s slippers – they helped me find my way home.
Cathy Salustri

And my Tevas.

Together, we made memories. I climbed into my new kayak for the first time in my Tevas. I went snorkeling in the Florida Keys and slipped my Tevas into the fins. I worked as a kayak guide in Boca Ciega Bay in my Tevas. I paddle boarded in my Tevas. After countless tropical storms where I had to document things for the local weekly paper, I wore my Tevas. I used them for any sort of water adventure.

And now, life was an adventure. Everything was exciting and new and raw and I loved it all. Right before the pandemic – I’m talking days before lockdown – I went for a swamp walk in Big Cypress and almost stepped on a juvenile cottonmouth… in my Tevas. In 2011, I camped throughout the state and wrote a book about it and, for a great deal of it, I wore those same Tevas.

For the past 21 years (and one month), if I had an adventure, I had them in my Tevas. Eventually, I met a new, infinitely more wonderful man, and he takes every adventure with me, but it’s always been him, me, and my Tevas. We were a menage a Teva, really.

I knew they were getting older. The rubber by the toes cracked, but still, I slipped them on my feet. I watched the fabric start to get nubby and the pull tabs that helped me slip them on start to pull a bit, but still, I wore them.

And then, yesterday, 21 years, one month, and eight days after I bought them and declared my independence from a bad marriage and a bad husband, they would go no further.

I led an OLLI group to Caladesi Island. OLLI is a lifelong learning program, and the Explore Florida group focuses on Florida adventures. On the island, I gave a short talk about sea grass and beaches and bay health, and then I left them to a sandcastle contest and went into the water. As I walked out, I realize something wasn’t right with the shoes.

The cracks – after more than two decades, there were a few cracks – had let the sand leak in and ball up under my heel, and no amount of rinsing would get them back to how they once were. The fabric had worn clean through. The shoes were ready to say goodbye.

It was time to let them go.

This was harder than I wanted to admit. After all, these were shoes, right? Shoes. It wasn’t like a dog had died, or a marriage had ended. And yet, I felt the end of these shoes more keenly than I did the end of my first marriage. These Tevas knew me. They went where I wanted to go, loved what I loved, felt what I felt.

But yesterday, they would go no further. We’d reached the end of the road.

The end of these shoes cut so deep that I found myself, at 10 o’clock last night, talking to my (new and so much better) husband about them and what they meant to me. (This husband, I should note, will go to the Keys with me on a moment’s notice, which is not the only thing one should look for in a life partner but trust me, it’s a great start.) After listening to me for a minute, this man – who knows my turning-30-origin-story and yet listens to it every time like it’s brand new – simply said, “You should frame them.”

I paused, then asked, “You mean like a shadow box?”

“Yes,” he said. “They’re important. They mean something.”

He’s not wrong.

And so, my friends, tomorrow, I will take my sand-crusted, beloved water shoes to the frame shop, and I will get them framed. Because these shoes – these $68 dollar shoes that cost me a marriage and gave me so much – deserve a hero’s ending.

Today, I’m so much more than my water shoes. Of course I am. What woman describes her life in shoes? But still, I feel compelled to not let these shoes pass without paying homage to what they’ve meant me. They’ve been my freedom, my solace, and my salvation.

I realize this sounds like a Teva ad, but rest assured, it isn’t. What it is is a testament to the water shoes that watched me shed a life that didn’t fit me and rediscover the person I was meant to be.

I figured they would last five years, and that worked out to $13.60 per year, or a little more than a dollar every month.

In the end, they lasted 21 years and one month, which means they cost me 27¢ a month.

In the end, if they’d cost 100 times that, they would have been worth it.