Monday, January 31, 2011

Florida Trip - 1/14-19/11: PART THREE

TAMPA, Fl. - With day breaking and still no sign of the crime lab, we packed the car and checked out of the Howard Johnson in search of a palatable cup of coffee. It had been shortly before 11:00 p.m. when the Boy awoke, crying, complaining that his legs were hurting. Figuring it to be a case of growing pains, I got dressed and headed back out in search of children's Tylenol. Every supermarket and pharmacy I passed had closed by nine or ten, and it was nearly an hour later that I finally found a 24-hour CVS a few miles down Dale Mabry Highway, named for a celebrated World War I Navy pilot from Tampa who subsequently died in an airship disaster in 1922.

Needless to say, I needed a stiff dose of caffeine. In the interest of saving time, we headed straight for an Einstein Bros. a few miles down the road that I had noticed during my jaunt the night before. With hot coffee in hand, we determined the day’s first destination: the Fun-Lan Flea Market, a weekly fixture at a nearby drive-in. As we sat at a red light while en route to the freeway, my eye was drawn to a frilly boutique in a still-sleeping strip mall, its display windows full of pastel-colored sleeveless dresses. But what really drew my attention was the name of the place: The Pink Palm.

I pointed it out to my special lady friend. "God," she laughed as the light turned green and the little Ford sprang forward. "Everything just sounds dirtier here, even if it isn't."


One of the few fixtures along Hillsborough Avenue, it seems, that isn't a pawn shop, the vast Fun-Lan Flea Market reminded me of the now-defunct North Point Flea Market in southeast Baltimore: an early-morning, blue-collar marketplace for everything practical, from produce and underwear to used toys and televisions. Like North Point, Fun-Lan is held on the grounds of a drive-in theatre; however, unlike North Point, the Fun-Lan Drive-In also remains operational – a more feasible business model in a climate offering year-round drive-in weather. We picked up a few small, inexpensive toys to keep the Boy entertained in the car.

As the sun climbed higher still, we drove on, farther down Hillsborough Avenue, bound for Lettuce Lake Park, a county park that promised cypress swamps and good wildlife viewing. Along the way, we passed even more pawn shops touting cash for gold and paycheck advances. Indeed, while driving by the Easy Living Trailer Park, I couldn't help thinking that life there is probably anything but.

Lettuce Lake, with its observation tower and winding wooden boardwalk sandwiched between water-logged cypress knees and low-hanging Spanish moss, greatly reminded me of the Okefenokee, which we'd visited a year earlier. The place was rife with birds like the white ibis and wood stork, not to mention large apple snails. Given more time, I'd have gladly taken advantage of the park's very reasonable half-day canoe rentals. But there were many more places to go, more things to do, in precious little time. So, after an hour or so wandering through the swamp, we headed out.

We gassed up the Ford at a nearby Shell station sporting an attached Circle K that, inside, was quite possibly the cleanest, most modern convenience store I've ever seen. On the way out, we spied a noteworthy poster:

And with that we were back on the road – destination: St. Petersburg...

To be continued...


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SMILE, HON contributor throws down at Literary Death Match this Thursday!

BALTIMORE, Md. - Literary Death Match (LDM) returns to one of its favorite cities, this time pairing with the masterminds at Creative Alliance to put on a talent-soaked episode in what could stand as the LDM Event of the Year, beginning at 8:00 p.m. this Thursday, January 27, 2011, at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21224.

The panel of all-star arbiters will feature playwright and Nommo Theatre cofounder Bashi Rose, The Stoop Storytelling co-producer/host Jessica Henkin, and brain-bending artist Joyce J. Scott (a.k.a. "The Queen of Beadwork").

The three judges will preside over four scribes reading seven minutes or less as they battle for the LDM crown, including: war-zone hopping author Dan Fesperman (Lie in the Dark, Layover in Dubai), poet-performing powerhouse Leonard Gontarek (author of Déjà Vu Diner), minimalist master Joe Young (author of Easter Rabbit — Publishing Genius 2009) and must-see Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore! rep Davida Gypsy Breier (contributor to Ninety-Five: Meeting America's Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs).

Hosted by LDM creator Todd Zuniga & LDM producer Ann Heatherington.

Preorder tickets now at under "Buy Tickets"!


Monday, January 24, 2011

Florida Trip - 1/14-19/11: PART TWO

JACKSONVILLE, Fl. - Late Friday morning, we landed in sunny Jacksonville, Florida, after a punctual, uneventful flight from BWI. Even with a 4-year-old along for the trip, we follow our longstanding practice of traveling as lightly as possible, packing everything in carryon luggage. Having no checked bags, we headed straight from the gate to the car rental counter, where, thanks to my lady friend’s online reservation, we were on the road in record time.

The subcompact Ford's exterior thermometer quickly climbed into the 50s – already hell and gone better than Baltimore's subfreezing projected highs – as we left the covered garage for the sun-warmed Interstate. We had arrived in conjunction with a high pressure front, and the temperatures would likely continue to climb.

My special lady friend being vegan, dining options – particularly in some of the farther-flung locales – tend to be few and far between. Consequently, we often stay in efficiencies, or hotel rooms that offer a microwave and mini-fridge, rendering possible at least some rudimentary food preparation. This frequently saves money, too, as dining out for every meal while traveling can get kind of pricey. Same goes for booze: nursing a bottle of the good stuff over the course of several days is a hell of a lot cheaper than drinking at the bar (and, dollar for dollar, a lot better quality).

The previous year, we'd found a good Whole Foods in Jacksonville where we stocked up on supplies at the start of our trip, and though our research had turned up WF locations in Tampa and Orlando, we once again opted to buy what we needed up front. It would also give us an opportunity to stretch our legs after so much sitting.

Forty minutes later we were back on the road, our tentative plan being to follow I-95 south for a hundred-odd miles, where we'd take up overnight residence somewhere in or around Daytona Beach. By then, we figured, we'd all need a break from moving. First thing Saturday morning, we’d head west on I-4, which connects Daytona and Tampa.

But as morning gave way to afternoon, I began to rethink this strategy. The Boy had fallen asleep in the back seat. Traffic was light, and we were making better time than expected. Besides, when it came down to it, I hadn’t turned up anything of genuine interest in Daytona Beach. Neither one of us gives two shits about NASCAR, and there was nothing so unique to the beaches there, so far as I could tell, that we couldn't as easily find elsewhere.

"What do you say we just run the whole way to Tampa?" I asked.

"Fine by me," she said, admitting she'd been thinking along the same lines.

"Plus, it will give us a leg up on Saturday morning as we'll already be there."

"Good idea," she said. "And..." – she nodded toward the back seat – "maybe we can make it past the Mouse before our friend wakes up."

Disney World holds no appeal for either of us. I was there once, when I was 6 or 7, and never have I felt the urge to return. But we hold no illusions: as parents of a small child, we realize it's a matter nearly as inevitable as having to explain the origins of babies. If, someday, he campaigns hard for it...well, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, we'd rather he know that Disney and Florida are not synonymous, that he see the real Sunshine State that exists beyond the make-believe walls of the Magic Kingdom.


The Boy awoke just as the hard-worn stretch of I-4 that cuts through Orlando disappeared in the rear-view mirror. My lady friend and I sighed with relief.

A sign for an upcoming rest area suggested a much-needed break from the road. I took the exit and parked the car. Walking toward the restrooms, I noted several black-and-gold signs that read: CAUTION – VENOMOUS SNAKES IN AREA. Having grown up in Miami, my lady friend wasn't particularly impressed. But for a natural-born Yankee unaccustomed to dodging poisonous reptiles in highway rest stops, the sign demanded photo documentation.

By 3:00 p.m. we had reached the Tampa area. With no particular destination in mind and eager to escape the confines of the Ford, we decided to simply book a basic motel room. With the help of a coupon book acquired from the rest stop we located a nearby Howard Johnson that turned out to be in a somewhat sketchy-looking commercial stretch of pawn shops and fast-food joints. Though not particularly difficult to please, we concluded that in getting enough Baltimore at home we didn’t want to spend our vacation in someone else's.

A few miles down the line we found another HoJo – the classic swimming pool surrounded on three sides by a parking lot and a two-story building. I parked in a space near the office while my lady friend went in to inquire about a room. I killed the engine.

Before long, I noticed a man staring at us from the window of a second-story room. He looked to be about 40. He wore a sleeveless muscle-tee and baseball cap and repeatedly sipped from a ceramic coffee cup. He looked nervous, on edge. Evidently, I wasn't the only one who noticed him.

"Dada," said the Boy, "why does that man keep looking at us?"

"No idea, kiddo. He's probably waiting for someone."

My lady friend returned to the car. "Got us a room," she said, indicating the one at the top of the steps – right next door to Mr. Nervous.

We carried the bags upstairs and took a moment to relax.

"Did you see that guy in the next room?" asked my lady friend.

"The one drinking coffee and staring out the window?"

She nodded. "Yeah, out of a mug that he must have brought with him, since it doesn’t seem these rooms come with them."

We discussed possible scenarios, the most likely being that he was waiting to have a tryst.

"He looks like a Carl Hiaasen character," she said.

"Or Cormac McCarthy," I suggested. "No Country for Old Men. He stumbled on something big, and now he's in over his head, just waiting for the real Bad Guys to arrive."

After our respite, we decided to head out in search of a pizza place she had found online that makes a gluten-free crust (she has an allergy). As I backed the car out, I glanced upward at the window. Sure enough, there was Mr. Nervous, still watching, still sipping.

It had been a long day, and after dinner and a quick drive around Tampa, we decided to call it an early night. It was dark by the time we pulled up to the motel. Outside our door we noticed that the curtain at the window next door was now drawn shut. A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung from the doorknob.

"Guess she finally showed up,” said my lady friend.

"Yeah," I laughed, throwing the bolt on the door behind us. "That, or he's lying dead in the next room."

To be continued...


Friday, January 21, 2011

Florida Trip - 1/14-19/11: PART ONE

BALTIMORE, Md. - Every January, my special lady friend and I take a vacation. In the beginning, we took a couple of trips to the UK, each one an adventure, but also...well, cold.

A few years later we wised up and began heading for warmer climes this time of year: New Orleans, Grand Bahama, the Florida Keys. We've taken a special shine to the lattermost, having returned time and again, staying everywhere along the 120-mile archipelago from Key Largo to Key West. Usually on the fly, which has always been our modus operandi. That first trip to the UK, for example, involved a rental car, and in 12 days we drove from London to Brighton, Brighton to Dover (where we took a short respite from the car as foot passengers on the ferry to Calais), Dover to Whitby, Whitby to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Glasgow, Glasgow to Cardiff, and from there back to London. Staying with friends, friends of friends, in hotels, squats...even the car itself. All the while seeking out the lesser-known (and often morbid) sights, of course.

Indeed, our "vacations" would probably seem like too much work to many people – at least those whose idea of getting away is wiling away their time poolside at some pre-fab, all-inclusive resort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that's your idea of a good time...

But that's not us.

Many of our trips to the Keys have involved a night or two in Islamorada, then down to Marathon, then Big Pine Key, Key West, or anywhere in between. Always a tireless blend of outdoor activity (i.e., biking, hiking, kayaking or snorkeling) and nightlife – the last primarily in Key West: be it drinking or drag bars or simply wandering around the island.

However, for as many times as we’ve been to the Keys, and South Florida in general, neither of us had much experience with North/Central Florida, or the state’s Gulf coast. Florida is a bigger, and more varied, territory than many folks realize, not to mention filled with the kind of weird shit on which Carl Hiaasen has built himself a notable career as a novelist. Hence, looking for a change of pace (and with our then-4-year-old in tow), we flew to Jacksonville, FL, in January 2010 for a look-see at what Florida's more boreal reaches had to offer.

From JAX we drove approximately 30 miles south to St. Augustine, America’s oldest city (founded in 1565 by the Spanish). A few days there, then we were off across the state, through Ocala National Forest, for a stop at Silver Springs ("Nature's Theme Park"), and a night in Gainesville. After heading a few miles south, to Micanopy, and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (the best 'gator-viewing around), we shot up and across the Georgia border to fulfill her lifelong dream of visiting the Okefenokee Swamp. We closed out the trip with a final night in St. Augustine before flying home to Baltimore.

This year, we decided to give the Gulf coast a shot. Scheduling a flight to Tampa International proved problematic for us, however, and we once again found ourselves booking a flight into Jacksonville. No problem. Slight modifications to our original plan (which always includes several "Plan Bs" and a healthy dose of spontaneity, anyway; like Bruce Lee said, "Be water, my friends...").

This year's trip would take us from Jacksonville to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, from there up the coast to the tiny fishing village of Cedar Key, and from there we would once more close out our vacation with a night in St. Augustine – as much for the kid's sake as our own; he had asked if we could go back and stay at the colorful Pirate Haus Inn, as we had the previous year. But more on that later...

What will follow over the next few days (or weeks) is a loose travelogue of the trip – January 14-19,2011 – and our motley assortment of destinations. Stay tuned...

To be continued...

[Photo: Rest stop on I-4 westbound, Polk County, FL. Photo by WPT.]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start...

As the great Western philosophers Green Day once noted, "When masturbation's lost its fun..."