Table of Contents

St Petersburg to Tallahassee

Miao miao. I went to college in St Petersburg and got to love the place for its funky old Florida vibe. Just east of my school there's a curvy street subdivision from the twenties called Pink Streets because… you guessed it. Warm seashell pink, nicer looking than you'd think. Ed's house and neighborhood exuded that vibe in a less manicured way. Vines ran out into the street. Trees dropped dates and oranges on the ground. There were no curbs, no steps or changes in elevation. When Ed wanted to work on his hog he just rolled it into his living room, which also served as my classroom. His neighbor Suzy had a big old gray cat she called by some ridiculous name, Miao Miao or Frou Frou or god knows what. We dated. Suzy was hot in a dreamy hippie chick kind of way. I was crazy about her. She broke my heart when she moved away. To California, no doubt. Ed took in the abandoned Miao Miao, in real life a scarred old tomcat and renamed him Dick the Bruiser. They became inseparable. Soulmates.

Like ya do. But when I graduated in 1973 job prospects in St Petersburg sucked. So I went to Tallahassee, got a good paying professional job and brought it back to St Petersburg with me. That way I could have one more year in the subtropics, make up with my girlfriend Linda and get serious about meditation. And love, what it's all about.

Janet. Tim was living in Tallahassee with his wife Janet, so I stayed with them at first. It's always good to have an initial place to crash when you move somewhere new. Janet was the coolest person I'd ever met. She was funny, whip smart and kind. I could never see what she saw in Tim, and eventually neither could she. His second wife Alice was much more his speed. The three of us enjoyed each other's company. That was the time I felt closest to my brother. Needing a place to stay helped me set aside how he tortured me as a child, writing it off as normal sibling rivalry, which is was. And Janet had a great influence on Tim: some of her qualities rubbed off on him, temporarily. The three of us got along like a house on fire. Tim had a job at the Greyhound Bus station managing the snack bar. It was supposed to be a two man show, TJ and a cook, but Tim ended up cooking a lot. What Saki said about cooks applies to mediocre ones as well. So I got a glimpse of life as a cook, and it cured me of my chef dreams. Thank you Tim. We were sitting around drinking beers about a week after I landed. I was contemplating how the hell to parlay a degree in comparative mythology into a job. Out of nowhere Tim said Hey you should talk to Rick, he has some kinda high-powered job with the state now.

Bureau. I tracked our old buddy Rick down and made an appointment. His office was in a strip mall. Not impressive. That was about to change. I blathered on about college until he fixed me with a look and said, But what can you do? I said I can write. He said You're hired. I started the next day. Three dollars an hour. That was good solid pay in 1973, almost twice the minimum wage. Glory hallelujah I wasn't working at the carwash after all. Not to mention some grimy cutthroat kitchen. Chef? Me? What a dope I was in college. Rick was Bureau Chief for the Bureau of Evaluation, Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. The Bureau's job was to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of DHRS programs, from end-stage renal care for children to Meals on Wheels for seniors. My job was to write technical reports that weren't so painfully boring obtuse and contradictory. I was actually pretty good at that mistake I needed to make.

Trailers. A paycheck on the way, I rented a trailer on the outskirts of town and settled in. It smelled like a trailer but it was home. There was a big hulking AC unit on a little concrete pad near my front door, but the only way I could cool off was to lie on the floor in the eighteen inches of cooler air that accumulated there. Not the best insulation. It was the first time I had ever lived alone. The next time was also in Tallahassee, on East Park Avenue. And now the third, here on Capitol Hill.

Farmstead. Soon after I moved out Tim lost his job at the snack bar. Discouraged, he and Janet moved to Marianna and put a trailer on the farmstead of the 45-acre tree farm we all planted back the late 1950s. Only this was no ordinary trailer trash trailer like mine, it was a DWMH: double wide mobile home. I didn't know anyone in Tallahassee and I'd been having a great time with them so I drove to Marianna every weekend to hang out and and drink beers and go snorkeling in Spring Creek. I even struggled into a wetsuit once to try scuba diving. My perforated eardrums let me go about ten feet down. When I was a kid I used to get bad earaches, and the witch doctor cure of the day was to lance the eardrum to relieve the pressure. It worked, and dashed my nonexistent hope of becoming a pilot. Struggling with the wetsuit convinced me to restrict my snorkeling to times and places it's warm enough for skin. I lost interest in playing in the water anyway, long ago. It's interesting how my interests have evolved over the years. All part of the ongoing process of reinvention, I suppose. The farmstead was one of those areas of scrubby woodland we planted slowly, working a few slash and loblolly pine seedlings in around some handsome older trees, live oak, sweet gum, native dogwood. There was an old house and a couple of sheds. Those all filled up with Tim's collections over the years.

Teeth. My mom lost all her teeth in her 40s because of bone loss from periodontal disease. I think she thought is was normal, and so it was back then. I don't recall even hearing about flossing as a child, and brushing was perfuctory at best. My dentist in St Pete was concerned about my oral health, so he referred me to a periodontist in Tallahassee as I was leaving.

The periodontist was about to retire. He was taking very few appointments. I think I was his last new patient. I suspect that was a gesture of professional courtesy. He said my mouth was in terrible shape due to lousy brushing and never flossing. I needed root planing and periodontal scaling in all four quadrants. He did the job in two appointments. Diagonal quadrants to make it a little easier on me. It was a bloody mess. In the follow up appointment he spent an hour and a half teaching me how to take care of my mouth. He was thorough. I was lucky to catch him right before retirement when he was so relaxed and expansive. I had bone loss and would soon lose my teeth if I didn't stabilize my mouth and take excellent care. I was listening. He had practical wisdom for me, in addition to technical info. He advised me not to use toothpaste. He said people load up their toothbrush like it shows in commercials, get a mouthful of foam, and spit it all out way too soon.

He advised using unwaxed floss so I could hear when my tooth got squeaky clean. He taught me to tie my floss in a loop instead of wrapping it around my fingers. He said people don't floss or cut it short because the floss hurts their fingers. The loop lets me keep the floss moving and not cut off blood supply to my fingers. I still brush and floss like he taught me. My dentist here in Seattle is impressed with the health of my mouth more than fifty years later, especially given my bone loss.

Fake it till you make it. The evaluators I was editing for had backgrounds in planning, public administration and statistics. Once I saw what they were doing I realized I could do it too. It wasn't rocket surgery as we used to joke. The heavy lifting parts of statistics were just getting computerized in those days. I made friends with the guys who worked the punch card machine and got them to print out some SPSS crosstabulations no one else had thought of. That report was a hit. I quickly graduated from editing to writing reports full time, doing the work of a professional evaluator.

Made it. An experimental program called IN-STEP was just getting underway in Florida: Integrated Nutritional-Social Services to Elderly People. The idea was to keep people out of nursing homes by strategically helping them out at home. There was money for full-time independent evaluators in three Florida cities: St Augustine, Miami Beach, and St Petersburg. It was a contract job, not career service, but it had the same professional requirements and pay. I was now a contract Planner and Evaluator I back in St Petersburg, my old stomping grounds.

St Pete Beach. I'd always wanted to live on the beach, so I rented a cabana in back of a house on St Petersburg Beach. This was also intentionally close to FPC, but not because I wanted to hang out there. Sheesh, people who hung out at FPC after graduation were such losers. Because Linda, my ex, was still there, now in her senior year. I left her for a mad affair with Liz, whose most lasting contribution to my life was her accent. I collected southern accents. I could speak four or five in addition to my own North Florida Cracker. She spoke Augusta Blueblood: aristocratic, but with dark vowels that sounded Polish, or Arabic. Velarized! Anyway, I wanted to make up with Linda, and after a while she forgave me and lived off-campus with me part time. St Pete Beach was a fussy little town. I once got a ticket for parking in front of my own house, well, the house in front of my cabana because my car was facing the wrong way. Not a small ticket either. Stick up the butt. There was a big red tide that year. I used to scoff at people who complained about red tide but living on the beach it got to me. I had an ugly cough the whole time the tide was in. Other sea critters were fun. One night when Linda and I were playing in the bathtub warm Gulf water it was alive with phosphorescent plankton. Wave your arm through the water and watch the pretty streamers. Splash each other with living color. But it got cold that winter, and like most older homes in Florida there was no insulation. None in my room at the lake house either. One night I woke up and all the heat had left my body. I don't know why I got so cold. I was lying in bed under the covers and Linda was beside me. Shivering I snuggled over to her. Her eyes flew open when she felt how cold I was. She held me there in bed until the heat came back. I never had hypothermia that bad until my adventure in homelessness in 2021, forty-seven years later. A young couple lived in the house in front, and they hatched a plan to go away for an extended vacation. They approached me about house sitting while they were gone, and we worked out a deal. I could live in the main house for free if I helped out with the DIY remodel they had in progress. I just needed to prep the walls in the living room for painting. I didn't know anything about painting, but I said sure. The walls were inexpertly hung sheet rock with plenty of half moons from their lousy hammer work. Linda and I tried spackling it, but we just couldn't get it. Whatever we worked on ended up just as bad or worse after our attempts. We didn't have the skill. It was painfully frustrating. I wanted to do the work, and I had made a deal, but I couldn't pull it off. I was incapable. It was an ugly scene when they got back. I got kicked out of my home, cabana and all. But it was a good place to live for a while. I took a couple of pictures of Linda there. She was sitting reading on the stairs leading up to the back deck of the house in front. She was looking over her glasses at me, like Elaine did but way sexier. Those two pix and another of her holding up her diploma at graduation the next summer were among the best color photos I ever took.

Swinging. We landed in the turret of the house of a guy I knew from work, a local businessman. It wasn't really a turret, more like a fanciful upstairs hideaway, but you got there via a dizzying spiral staircase, so turret. He and his wife let us live there for free in exchange for helping out around the house. It didn't work out as well for us as it had for Dad. It turned out they wanted us to swing with them, trade partners.

Linda was mildly interested, and he was not bad looking, so what the hell. But, ahem, he held his looks better. After that awkwardness things were a little tense. We all got invited to a costume party. Linda wanted to go as Scheherazade and I was stumped. Then I remembered the dress. He had a djellaba he wore around the house. He called it his dress. I was looped when I had the idea. I spiraled down into their kitchen and asked him if I could borrow his dress. He said no, emphatically, then went into a tirade about our bad manners. I guess I hadn't maintained my poker face so well with his wife. We got outta there that week. A beginner's mistake: I tried taking one for the team.

Chattaway. Living in a beach town had lost its charm. Linda and I moved into an apartment on 6th Street South just north of Bartlett Park, an open space with tennis courts and a pond fed by Salt Creek. It was also close to The Chattaway. Established the same year I was, the Chattaway is a St Pete legend. The Chattaburger became a favorite weakness of mine. Their fries were skin-on, like at Dick's. They nestled greasily with the Chattaburger in a wax paper lined plastic basket. This was not helping me keep my girlish figure!

Deros. Linda was also interested in meditation, and we checked out various local meditation teachers and the like. In the 1970s there was no shortage of weirdos. One weirdo could rid my body of Deros: Destructive Robots from another planet. But it would take repeated visits. I thought it was weird interplanetary baddies would have an English name. Deros sound a lot like body thetans, just sayin'.

One good apple. Among all the charlatans, we found reverend Marty. She was founder/minister of a new age church. Linda and I both became ministers as well, after an eight-month ministerial training program. But that was after we all moved to Tallahassee. In St Petersburg she was a breath of fresh air in a nest of new age vipers.

Feed me Seymour. I learned about dangerous houseplants in that apartment. Not toxicity, competition. I went houseplant crazy, adding one here, another there. A sweet potato vine ran rampant around several windows. It was getting darker and darker in our apartment. The houseplants were shading us out! Once I realized it, I did a big cutback. Watch out for those plants, they're hungry.

The lake house. The funding for my onsite evaluator position in St Petersburg ran out about the same time as the reverend Marty's paralegal job petered out. So we all caravaned to Tallahassee where we rented my boss Rick's lake house. It had a dock on Lake Bradford, a canoe, and genteel style: a two-story great room with a limestone fireplace at one end and an internal balcony. A grand old vacation house on a huge wooded lot. My balcony overlooked the great room. Marty and Linda had snug spacious rooms downstairs. I lived upstairs in a smaller room that was drafty in winter but had a private bath. We were all happy with our choices. I preferred my airy aerie because Linda and I had drifted apart, no longer lovers but still friends. When I tried to put up some art in my room I discovered I couldn't pound a nail into the plank walls. Further research revealed the planks were ridiculously fine grained old growth pine, and fatwood at that. We were living in a house made of tinder. From trees of a size no longer found in Florida.

Lubrication problems. My balcony was the scene of a memorable tryst. An old friend that I'd almost but never quite been lovers with in school came through town on her way out west. She modestly rolled out her sleeping bag on my carpeted balcony, but when I got up in the morning I lay down beside her and we snuggled, which we'd done back in school. Just snuggled. This time one thing led to another and we had a lovely time up on the balcony. Once over the hump we settled into having a lovely time in general for several days. We even made love in the cypress dark waters of Lake Bradford, hanging onto the end of our dock, where we learned why you don't do that. Babes in the swampy Florida woods.

Cucumbering. At the lake house I started to get deeper with meditation. That's where Leela gave me the clue. I found a book I treasured for decades: Ten Ways to Meditate by Paul Reps, the man who brought haiku to the West. The cover of the book was unfinished mahogany. The bookmark was sandpaper. Paul Reps encouraged the reader to sand the cover as a meditative practice and I did. That planted a seed in me: meditation can be active, not just sitting there. Actually tai chi had been my first clue; this was my second. Leela was gently nudging me toward future dancing. I also fell in love with haiku. They express the spiritual quest in a way that has nothing to do with god or spiritual teachers. I found RH Blyth's four-volume set and read it and read it and read it. The haiku, Reps's book, and every Alan Watts book I could find conspired to open up a new space in me. That's when I took root spiritually and that rootedness won me my clue. One of Reps's poems is still my favorite haiku: cucumber / unaccountably / cucumbering.

Projects. The lake house was a great place for projects. I always wanted to grow watermelons, and the lake house property had plenty of space. The lake house property also had plenty of squirrels. They love watermelon too, who knew? Before any of my melons could get ripe, I found a hole in it. They burrowed in and chowed down. I'd also always wanted to try throwing pots, so I bought a used kickwheel. No electricity for me, Ima do this all authentic. It was touted as a meditative practice: to center the lump of clay one must first center oneself. But I'm hopelessly eccentric. So were my lumps of clay. I had more success with photography.

Joy. A more successful crafter lived across the street from the end of our long driveway. Joy was a weaver, with several big old Leclerc looms. I had a big old crush on her. The crush never went away, but we became friends anyway. She generously offered to weave me a coverlet for my bed as a gift. I would just buy the yarn. Such a sweetheart. I had already been drawn to boucle yarns she was using for shawls, so that was a start. I picked a rich warm brown for the base color. Into that she wove a plaid of green, umber and terra cotta. It made my drafty room feel snugger in the winter. I carried it around for years, but all the places I lived after leaving Tallahassee were colder, and it didn't offer much warmth. Eventually I donated it. Joy moved to San Francisco to be in a better market for weavers. A couple years later I flew out to visit her. I still had a big crush. She'd rented a warehouse loft in the Mission District with plenty of room for big old looms. It was less than a block from Taqueria La Cumbre. I thought I'd tasted a real burrito before. The burritos at La Cumbre are heavenly. Not to mention huge. I had a great time in San Francisco, and I finally got to taste a real burrito.

Anna. My crush on Joy led to a more successful one on Anna. Anna had just opened a little shop specializing in precious fibers: pashmina and other exotic wools, plus luxury rayons. I stumbled on her shop by accident. It was in with a few other shops next to a big office plaza I went to for a meeting. Not the right location for her niche, and she closed soon after. But not before we had our fling. I went over to check out her shop after my meeting. Her yarns were gorgeous but not like her. I was having a hard time keeping my cool. Voluptuous hardly did her justice. Just a touch, the right touch zaftig. Cascading dark hair in ringlets. I was not being a cool dude but I managed to stammer an invitation for drinks after work as I was leaving. She graciously accepted. She'd be closing in an hour. Why didn't I just meet her here? There's a fern bar across the way. That was a busy hour. The lake house was across town, in traffic, and I was determined to look my best. I made it back just in time. We sat in a circular booth. I ordered a rusty nail, my old college favorite. She was intrigued, took a sip, and switched from gin and tonic to nails. We ordered appetizers and another round, edging closer to each other on the semicircular bench. The third round was the charm. We were making out in the booth. I followed her home and we fell into a sexy dream that lasted almost six months.

Entrepreneurs. There was also a smaller house on the big wooded lot, home to Theo and Elizabeth, new age entrepreneurs. Theo was big, Greek, and bearded. Elizabeth was drop-dead gorgeous. They were go-getters. They ran a sandwich shop in a relatively nice strip mall near the FSU campus, just down the street from the pizza joint where I later met Sally. The sandwich was a sesame pita stuffed with lettuce, Greek salad, alfalfa sprouts and hummus, dressed with garlicky tzatziki, add avo for a quarter. Not bad for hippie grub. But not a patch on that Greek food in London.

Theo and Elizabeth were interested in meditation too. Marty's new age church was of the Yogananda alignment, chanting and devotion and kriya yoga. We started having weekly chanting + meditation sessions down at their sandwich shop, which had a room next door that was unfurnished except for pillows and a nice wood floor. They had live music there sometimes, now meditation. We'd chant for a half hour then do a half-hour sit. The new age church had a stylized lotus logo. I got t-shirts made that combined the logo with the name of the church. They were popular among the faithful. Sally got one. I was an old hand at t-shirts, having designed one for the Fishfarm that made the word Fishfarm into the body of a fish propelled by a big wagging fishtail.

Fat cat. I was able to wiggle my way over onto the career track, kind of like a walking catfish crossing the highway, one of Florida's more memorable exotic pests. I eventually made Planner and Evaluator II, with my eye on a coming P&E III vacancy that I actually had a reasonable chance of getting. I was now making about $17k. A princely sum in those days. I could easily afford a nice house in the suburbs. I started shopping around. I could see myself settling into the P&E III position and riding it to the top of the payscale. P&E III was as far as you could go without becoming managerial, something I wanted no part of. I was settling into a miserable ease, buffered, anesthetized and stultified by my cushy state job.

Like I said, I steal wisdom wherever I find it. Swap in all of us for millennials and swap in wisdom or love and the spiritual quest for Challies's evangelical god and this hits home. Entitled, narcissistic, disconnected. Yup, he has us all nailed.