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July 1, 1980
My grandfather’s sun-honed face twisted and paled as we turned off I-10 and entered the final leg of our southwest journey down US 301. As we passed bleached wood, cracker houses and dingy brown cedar sheds, his tanned forehead furrowed, drawing his coarse eyebrows tighter and tighter until the bushy lines above his dark eyes seemed a thin ridge of curly dark hair.
Perched on stilts, houses sat, no shutters or covering save grime and webs. Underneath and alongside them, a ragtag fleet of pickup trucks with rusted wheel wells, oxidized roofs, and dented fenders shared weed patches with Jon boats, the only difference the boats’ marginally better maintenance and the occasional trailer elevating them off dirt patches. Washing machines, sun-bleached farm equipment, and a mise-en-scene of auto parts greeted us anew at each home.
My grandfather sucked in air, his silence crowding our 1976 maroon Buick Regal. “This,” I can only imagine him thinking, “is worse than what I left in Italy. This is what I have worked my whole life to give my son? That they move to a slum in the South?”
“This” referred to Florida, the interior parts of the state detailed along US 301, the parts of the Sunshine State not photographed by the Florida Tourism Board. “They” referred to my father, my mother, and me, a seven-year-old whose greatest field trip in life, prior to the three-day journey to Florida from New York, was a dead heat between the Bronx Zoo (where a goat ate my coat) and seeing Peter Pan on Broadway (my mom and I rode the train into the city and I ate a pretzel from a street vendor).
In a chain of events too complex for a young brain to comprehend, my parents decided to leave Westchester County, New York and move to Clearwater, Florida. While they knew the drive’s end result – a small two bedroom just miles from then-pristine Clearwater Beach – my grandfather, who had come along to help, did not.
Eventually we turned our cruise-ship sized car onto Interstate 275, where the landscape grew noticeably tidier and steadily more sanitized. Our orange-striped Jar-Tran moving truck dutifully followed the car as we made our way to Clearwater.
I had visited before – our new home was my other grandparents’ vacation home – but the moment I saw the sparkling teal water of Tampa Bay, it eclipsed every other memory in my as-of-yet fully formed brain.
The aquamarine-studded water of Tampa Bay bounced the sparkling sun into our car and the salt formed diamond crystals on my grubby, sweaty cheeks.
“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 that hushed worship in his voice.
I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar in the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this later – much later – as that I had come to where I needed to be.
I fell in love with the water that day, but as I got older I felt the inexorable pull of the other parts of Florida, too. I love SCUBA diving, low tide is a sacred time, and, most surprisingly, I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida.
These corners don’t fit with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s image: they are our skeletons. The chambers and tourism boards want quite keenly to present a fresh and clean land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn we have convinced ourselves that we need to make sure our guests never see that side of Florida – that schmaltzy, chintzy, broken-down, rusted-out Florida.
But I love that Florida just as much as I love the one where crabs scurry around the intertidal zone, where skimming my fingers just beneath the sand yields handfuls of sand dollars. My parents, New York natives both, didn’t behave as the typical “carpetbaggers,” as my grandfather later referred to everyone who came to Florida after us. My parents didn’t travel 1,300 miles to turn a fast buck or recreate a slice of Little Italy or Whatever County, Michigan. They moved here because of what Florida offered them, not what they thought they could get her to surrender.
I, like my parents and countless settlers before them, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let the state claim me. Almost thirty years later I travel Florida still, looking for parts I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the heavy blight of strip malls and jet skis.
Today I seek Florida on roads that parallel the Interstates, rattling along with the same excitement I felt at age seven. My beaches have changed and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll the back roads, I remain forever in search of that secret, schmaltzy, backwoods, state, where the sun-bleached roadside shacks remain constant. I feel the quickening inside me as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is the same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt as the salt water opened itself before me.
It is the feeling of coming home.