Friday, April 8, 2011

Missing Sarasota - But Only Just A Little

The term "homesick" is a misnomer; sometimes the place you are yearning to revisit was left voluntarily, no tragedy involved, no drama. You like where you are, but you haven't quite settled in, you're still in a state of flux. "Home" is now both where you are and where you were.

I lived in Sarasota, Florida for 23 years, from 1986 to 2011. I arrived in Venice just as the Challenger disaster happened. I remember people clustered around the televisions in the Electronics Department of Kmart, wondering what the hell was going on. I moved to the city of Sarasota in October 1988, right after my first husband divorced me. I lived downtown until I left in February 2011.

My first place was in the Ringling Trailer Park. It's original intent was to help the circus performers find places to stay in town. Sarasota was the official Winter Quarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The land at that time was adjacent to a golf course, I think, and had been put aside for the circus folk to park their trailers when they weren't touring. They were close enough to downtown to have all the amenities, like electricity and indoor plumbing, yet far enough away so as not to bother the tourists and paying customers. The trailers are gone now, and the place is called Payne Park. It's a nice park, with a skateboard ramp on one side of it and fountains in the front. But I often thought how much more interesting it must have been back in the days of circus folk and their tales of the road.

I liked the circus-kitschy feel of Sarasota. I liked seeing hints of circus all over town, like the beautiful tiled mosaic of a circus parade on a building on Route 41 that last housed a bank, or the Sailor Circus, a yearly event of high schoolers who want to have their time under the Big Tent. There had been a big to-do about a huge statue of a sailor kissing a nurse, that famous photo from World War II, being displayed on the waterfront. But kitsch won out, and I was glad for it; some people take themselves FAR too seriously, and the concept of what is "art" is so subjective and deeply personal that who really can define what is "good' art or "bad" art? Many people enjoyed this particular statue; it became a local landmark and off-beat tourist destination with a steady stream of visitors taking pictures. But it wasn't all kitsch; Sarasota also has the wonderful Opera House, built at the height of the Roaring 20s, and the more modern Van Wezel Performing Hall, which some called the Purple Cow, it being painted purple and lavender, but I liked it: it looked like a giant shell that had washed up from the Gulf.

Make no mistake, this was no tropical paradise. The town was originally a mosquito-infested fishing village; speculators at the turn of the twentieth century inflated property values by calling it the "Riviera of the Gulf." When John Ringling bought hundreds of acres of Gulfside land, quartered his circus there and persuaded his rich friends that Sarasota was the place to be (at least in the wintertime), the land grab was on. By the time I got there, nothing had changed: on almost the entire Gulf coast of Sarasota, huge towering condo buildings, where many of the "mature" moneyed residents lived, lined the shore of Longboat Key like jagged teeth. The median age in Sarasota is about 85.

My second and last home in Sarasota was a house built in 1925. It had been a part of the original Gillespie Park, named for Colonel John Gillespie, leader of the original band of Scottish pioneers who were persuaded to emigrate to what was a brackish swamp in the 1880s. For all the history of the place, Gillespie Park was a shabby, working class neighborhood whose original residents were probably the servants of the people living in the expensive downtown hotels and beach houses, or they worked in the restaurants and salons where tourists drank and gambled. Oh yes, gambling was legal in Florida then. The old Lido Hotel, which doesn't exist anymore except in archival photographs, was a hotbed of sin and vice.

I lived in that old house on Tenth Street from 1992 through 2010. There were huge live oak trees around it that shaded it from the blazing Florida sun; I never used air conditioning the whole time I lived there, just fans: ceiling fans, floor fans, window fans. It had windows literally all the way around it, so there was always a cross-breeze. The building was made of cypress, the roof of lob lolly pine. It had withstood the powerful hurricanes of the 1930s and 40s, and I believed it could probably withstand any storm.

Any storm except the breakup of my second marriage, apparently. Economically, it couldn't have happened at a worse time; after everything dropped off a cliff in 2008, my ex was in prison, I had lost my job and my house was deteriorating badly due to lack of funds for maintenance. however, I was determined not to lose it to foreclosure, and managed to keep my head above water (barely!) by the time it sold in February 2010.

Unfortunately, the new owner had no intention of repairing the house. He had bought it mainly for the land, prime real estate in downtown Sarasota, and demolished the house soon after taking possession. I had moved into a little rental just down the street, and every day, twice a day, I drove by the now-empty lot on which once had stood one of the original Gillespie Park houses. Tabula rasa. My house too, now, is just an image in archival photos, some of which were taken by the talented photographer Brian David Braun, and also through Google Earth (enter 1632 10th St., Sarasota FL 34236: if you see a lavender house with purple trim and an antique Volkswagen in the driveway, that's it.) It could be said that my Sarasota house only exists in cyberspace anymore.

And the people - I cannot even begin to describe the incredible, talented folks I knew in Sarasota. I was honored to know some of the finest musicians anywhere, and was blessed that a few of them also called me a friend. The thought of leaving them made my stomach go into free-fall, but there I was, saying goodbye to them. But not goodbye, das vidanya - till we meet again. And crying on the drive home, knowing that that empty ache would not be going away soon, but still determined to leave.

I acquired as many CDs of their music that I could. Through Facebook I can even order the new CD from World Collision, a fabulous original soundtrack to "Nosferatu", recorded live when the movie was shown on the side of building in downtown Sarasota during Halloween of 2010. If I can listen to their music they don't seem so far away, and I remember them with joy and not sadness, and that's only what they deserve after everything they've given me.

Many things ended for me in Sarasota, but when it came to leave it still wrenched my insides out. I have not turned my back on it; instead, I have carried the best of it with me to this new place.

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