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St Pete to Tallahassee

Miao miao. I went to college in St Petersburg and got to love the place for its funky old-Florida vibe. East of my school was 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, and 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 his garage and my classroom. His neighbor Suzy had a big ol' gray cat she called by some ridiculous name, Miao Miao or Frou Frou or god knows what. I dated her. She was hot, in a dreamy hippie chick kinda way and I was crazy about her. After she broke my heart by moving away, Ed took in the abandoned Miao Miao, in real life a scarred old tomcat. Ed renamed him Dick the Bruiser and they became inseparable.

Like ya do. But when I graduated in 73, job prospects in St Pete really sucked. So I went to Tallahassee, got a good-paying professional job, and brought it back to St Pete with me so 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.

Anne. Tim was living in Tallahassee with his wife Anne, so I stayed with them at first. It's always good to have an initial place to crash when you move somewhere new. Anne was the coolest person I'd ever met back then. She was funny, whip smart, and kind. I could never see what she saw in Tim, and eventually neither could she. His second wife Deborah was much more his speed. Anne had a great influence on my brother; some of her qualities rubbed off on him, temporarily. We were sitting around drinking beers a few days later. I was contemplating how the hell to parlay a degree in Comparative Mythology into a job, when he 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. $3/hr, good solid pay. 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, Fla Dept of Health and Rehab. The Bureau's job was to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of state programs, from end-stage renal care for kids to Meals on Wheels. My job was to make technical reports that weren't boring, obtuse and contradictory. When pigs fly.

Trailer. A paycheck on the way, I rented a trailer on the outskirts of town and settled in, briefly. My trailer had a big hulking AC unit, but the only way I could cool off was to lie on the floor in the 18 inches of cooler air that accumulated there. Don't live in a trailer. That was the first time I had ever lived alone; the next was also in Tallahassee, on East Park Avenue. And the next is now, here at home in Seattle.

Teeth. My mom lost all her teeth in her 40s because of bone loss from periodontal disease. So I did not grow up in an oral hygiene positive environment. 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 and was taking very few appointments; I think I was his last new patient. 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; it was a bloody mess. In the follow up appointment he spent ninety minutes 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. 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 said don't use toothpaste. People get a mouth full of foam, spit it out and think they're done. He taught me to brush for much longer with no foam. He taught me to tie floss in a loop rather than wrapping it around my fingers. People fail to floss or cut it short because floss hurts their 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 translating for had backgrounds in planning, public admin, and statistics. Once I saw what they were doing I realized I could do it too, except statistics, and we had statisticians for that. I quickly graduated from just editing their words to writing up results sections, then whole reports for them.

Made it. An experimental program was 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.

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 when it was full of 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 bare sheet rock they'd hung, leaving plenty of half moons from lousy hammer work. Linda and I tried our hand at spackling, 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. Again I am reminded of homelessness. But it was a good place to live for a while. I took a couple of pix 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 work I ever did.

Swinging. We landed in the turret of the house of a guy I knew from work, a local business leader. 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 did for Dad. 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.

Chattaway. Living in a beach town had lost its charm. Linda and I moved into an apartment on 6th St 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 that 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 later, in Tallahassee. In St Pete 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.

Lake house. When the money for my evaluator position ran out, Linda, Marty and I all caravaned to Tallahassee, where we rented my boss Rick's lake house. It had a dock on Lake Bradford and grand style: a two-story great room with a limestone fireplace at one end and an internal balcony. An old vacation house on a giant wooded lot. Marty and Linda had spacious rooms downstairs. I lived upstairs in a smaller room with a private bath that was drafty in the winter. We were all happy with our choices. My balcony overlooked the great room. It was the scene of a memorable tryst. Linda and I had drifted apart; we were no longer lovers but stayed good friends. 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.

Cucumbering. My time in the lake house was the time I started to get deeper with meditation. The lake house was where my wisdom gave me the clue. I found a book that 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. I conceived a great love of haiku. I soon got 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.

Jennifer. A more successful crafter lived across the street from the lake house. Jennifer was a weaver, with several big old Leclerc looms, and I had a crush on her. The crush never went away, but we became friends anyway. She offered to weave me a coverlet as a gift; I would just buy the yarn. I had already been attracted to boucle yarns she was using for shawls, so that was a start. I was into earth colors in those far-off days, so I picked 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. Jennifer 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 Jennifer led me to a more fruitful one on Anna. Anna had just opened a little shop specializing in what she called precious fiber: 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 like that Greek food in London.

Theo and Elizabeth were interested in meditation too. 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, and community meetings. 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.

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.