Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Door Into Summer

For some, April 30 means Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht). It's a traditional religious holiday of pre-Christian origin, celebrated by Christian as well as non-Christian communities, past the stroke of midnight and through "The Door Into Summer", also known as "May Day". It's probably the one day of the year that Catholics, pagans, witches, Satanists, and anarchists all almost see eye-to-eye. The phrase "The Door Into Summer" also turns up as, of all things, the title of one of my favorite Monkees songs.

Walpurgisnacht is named for Saint Walpurga. The earliest representation of Walpurga, from the early 11th century, depicts her holding stylized stalks of grain. The grain attribute has been interpreted as identifying Walpurga as a Christianized protectress of the grain, the Grain Mother. Farmers fashioned her image in a corn dolly at harvest time, and from this tradition also comes the real origin of the Scarecrow figure in the fields - scaring birds was never its original intention.

Other traditions call this time, midpoint between the vernal equinox and summer solstice, Beltane. And still others - such as the Vikings - called it "The Feast of Valbörg". In ancient Mesopotamia, this orgiastic fertility rite was known as "Zagmuku", while in ancient Egypt, this Spring fertility festival was known as "The Festival of the Joyous Union." According to Janet and Stewart Farrar, in their book Eight Sabbats for Witches, this time has historically been, and I'm quoting here, "a festival of unashamed human sexuality and fertility." This is probably why Anton LaVey chose this date for the founding of his Church of Satan, and possibly why Adolf Hitler chose it as the day he committed suicide (that is, if you believe everything you read in history books and I'm not entirely sure I do.)

I've seen it said elsewhere that May Day customs include walking the boundaries of one's property, repairing fences, and boundary markers, performing chimney sweeps, participating in archery tournaments, dancing, feasting, music, drinking, and indulgence. Hunh. Okay. I dunno about archery and chimneys, but I got those last five items down cold.

"The Door Into Summer" just happens to be the name of a 1956 novel by Robert Heinlein. It's a peculiar story of an engineer and an 11-year-old girl who, thanks to the magic of time travel, end up marrying after jumping around in space and time to a point where their ages match up. Heinlein apparently was unaware of his title's relevance to Beltane, because as he tells the story of its origin, his wife made an offhand comment about the family cat at wintertime "looking for a door into summer." (Did his wife know the real meaning of the phrase? I suspect so.)

Unfortunately, any such calendar date that is fetishized by occult and occult-wannabe types is going to attract bad mojo. I find there's a rather high quotient of unsolved "cold case file" murders and disappearances that took place on April 30/May 1, and especially in Florida.

Stay frosty out there tonight, y'all.

(Illustration above by Stefan Eggeler, for the 1922 edition of Gustav Meyrink's Walpurgisnacht.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Walking Catfish

When I was a kid in school, I always had trouble swallowing the notion that life on Earth evolved in part from fish just spontaneously walking out of the ocean. Didn't seem terribly plausible to me. That was before I saw the walking catfish.

They really do just pick up and leave a pond when they feel like it, traipse down the street, and go to the next pond. If a pond starts to dry out in a drought, no problem, they'll just pack their bags and walk away. If they were just a little smarter, they'd be walking to the store to get cigarettes.

Some picky types say they don't truly "walk" but whatever, man, they're using their pectoral fins to propel themselves across the ground like the zombie on The Walking Dead that's missing the lower half of its body and crawling along using its hands while Rick gawks in awe. You wanna change the name to "The Crawling Catfish", be my guest; it sounds just as cool.

They apparently started out in Thailand, and over time made their way across Asia, then the Middle East, and then somehow wound up in Florida. (How do all these invasive species find out that Florida's the place to migrate? Do they have a newsletter?) Some have theorized that someone must have imported them for a home aquarium and then released them into the environment, but no one really knows for sure and the fish ain't sayin'. Wikipedia speculates, without source, that some say the infestation occurred when specimens somehow escaped from a truck transporting brood fish between Dade and Broward Counties. Perhaps when the truck driver pulled over to pee, a few of them saw their chance and made a break for freedom.

Tilapia farms used to keep their fisheries relatively open to the elements until they saw with horror that walking catfish were strolling out of the woods and marching right into their fish farms, saying "Hi guys!" and proceeding to eat their hosts. Now the farms have extensive fences erected to keep the walkers out, and possibly for good measure some signs reading "No catfish allowed."

(Tilapia, ironically enough, are also an invasive species in Florida that wildlife rangers dearly wish they could eradicate from the wild. Good luck with that.)

It's illegal to possess a walking catfish nowadays, thanks to overzealous lawmakers who don't seem to understand that Floridians don't possess walking catfish, walking catfish possess Florida. They walk among us. At this point you might as well just start issuing them driver's licenses.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Orchid Shop Altar

This Thai Buddhist minature temple altar can be seen on display at Thai-Riffic Orchids in Gulfport.

Perhaps you have wondered, as I have, about where places like the St. Armand's Tommy Bahama get those beautiful edible orchids to garnish their Mai Tais with. Well, places like this, evidently.

Snell Isle Panther Statue

Among the many pleasant examples of statuary on Snell Isle, there's a series of panthers that stand guard at street corners and intersections.

Fork and Spoon Tree

Noticed this in Gulfport today. Is it art?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Tomato Talk

Really, I came to Interzone for the tomatoes, and boy, don't I wish I hadn't.

Someone - I forget who now or else I'd call him up and cuss him out - once told me that Ruskin, Florida is the nation's tomato capital. He lied.

Only a third of America's tomatoes come from Florida, and they're usually the worst ones. I hate to say that since this is supposed to be a very Florida-positive blog, but this is a lily that can't be gilded. Florida is the one of the worst possible places to grow tomatoes - wrong climate, wrong soil, and pesticides galore to fight off fungi, rust and insects. Citrus plants like oranges grow fine in sand, but tomatoes grown in it are bland-tasting and sickly.

But it gets worse. As Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, told NPR:

Up until recently, workers on many of Florida's vast industrial tomato farms were basically slaves. "People being bought and sold like animals," Estabrook says. "People being shackled in chains. People being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough, or being too weak or sick to work. People actually being shot and killed for trying to escape. That sounds like 1850's slavery to me, and that, in fact, is going on, or has gone on." Estabrook adds that there have been seven successful slavery prosecutions in Florida in the past 15 years. The situation is beginning to improve, he adds. It began with a group of tomato pickers called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the Florida town where they live and work.

I no longer purchase tomatoes from the west coast (where the other two thirds of America's tomatoes come from) because of Fukushima, so each day's grocery-foraging out into the world is tricky. Just as with my beloved cigars, I'm subject to the erratic whims of local vendors and must scurry around hustlin' each day or two to find the good 'maters.

There's a booth at the St. Petersburg Farmers Market that has the most serious heirlooms I've seen - even Mr. Stripey, one of my favorites - but you have get there early before the masses have plucked them all. The Gulfport Tuesday Market, on the other hand, usually has only one tomato vendor and I'm pretty sure their wares are just ordinary boring supermarket tomatoes. Spiro's Pasadena Produce & Deli keeps a very uneven collection of red round things in stock; you never know. They tend to have more Romas than anything else, and I don't really care for Romas. But I'm in the process of growing my own tomatoes now, and doing things my way - except I'll probably become emotionally attached to each of them and keep them as pets.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Plane or Drone?

Thanks to the magic of Google Maps, I was tootling around the Ten Thousand Islands just now, and noticed that right about here you can see a plane that was captured by the satellite cameras.

Or is it a drone? Drones have frequently been spotted in Florida, and some have been described as having no cockpit and looking like an upside down plane, which is a fair assessment of what we see on the Google maps.

On the other hand, it just might be an old biplane. Without being able to judge its size by gauging its distance, we may never know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Disappearance of D.P. Davis

Florida real estate developer D.P. Davis, the man who created Tampa's Davis Islands resort and started St. Augustine's Davis Shores, set sail on the luxury liner Majestic in October 1926.

The transatlantic voyage, from the United States to France, had an unhappy ending for Davis. On the night of October 12, Davis went overboard and was lost at sea. And ever since then, speculation continually churns: did he commit suicide, did he accidentally fall, or was he pushed?

The suicide theory is plausible. Davis had just been forced to sell out his shares of the Davis Islands. He'd hoped to turn Davis Shores into a cash cow but was facing setbacks at the fade of the Florida land boom. His marriage was failing, and his wife had fled to France. Some say chasing after her was apparently the entire reason for Davis' ill-fated voyage - Cherchez la femme? - except then it would seem rather strange that he brought along his girlfriend Lucille Zehring.

Was he murdered? A steward claims to have overheard a fight between Davis and Zehring, followed by Davis shouting, "I can go on living or end it. I can make money or spend it. It all depends on you," followed by a loud splash. The steward's story is not very believable, however - when you're inside a giant cruise ship several stories high, you could throw an elephant overboard and not hear the splash.

Could his death really have been an accident? Zehring insisted she didn't push him. According to her version of the story, Davis had been sitting in an open porthole and accidentally fell. Davis was a raging alcoholic and was probably drunk at the time of the incident, whatever that incident was.

I suggest that a fourth possibility, that Davis faked his own death could be even likelier. Davis knew the Florida land boom was ending. He had lost his wife and was squabbling with his new girlfriend. He reportedly was carrying $50,000 in cash on his person, which was unlike him. Just a few months prior, Victory National sold Davis a life insurance policy to the tune of $300,000. Additionally, Davis already held life insurance policies with other companies as well. It was the insurance agencies who first raised the possibility of a fake death, out of suspicion that his body was not recovered after a mysterious disappearance off a ship in the middle of the ocean on a cruise whose purpose no one was really sure of.

Failing finding a surprise confession tucked inside a dusty forgotten book beneath the floorboards in the locked basement of an abandoned building in Gainesville or something, we can't know what happened, and thus we must be left in a mystery forevermore.

The plots of the TV show Mad Men have an uncanny ability to key in on concerns of my own life great and small, and in ways ranging from symbolic to literal. In the current storyline, Pete Campbell's mother has vanished by falling off a ship on a cruise. I'm watching closely this season to see what their resolution is, as "divination by television" is my specialty. Hey, it's either that or ask the Magic 8-Ball.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mullet Key Hole

Sometimes when beachcombing, you find awesome seashells. Sometimes you find washed-up seaweed. Sometimes you even find dead sea monsters.

But sometimes you just find a big hole full of water.

You can't take it home with you, but I bet it would be swell to climb into and sit in on a hot day with a six pack of Bell's Two-Hearted, a Kindle, and some gator jerky.

Cthulhu Palm

If I'd seen this frightening straight-outta-H.R.-Giger alien palm tree while walking past Clam Bayou at night, I might have been startled. As it was, I saw it in the daylight and we got along splendidly. Be warned, though, fellow tree-huggers: those spikes aren't just for show, they really are sharp.

Plane Sculpture

Why there is a sculpture of a missile-bearing military fighter jet perched beside a hippied-out place like Gulfport's T and Me Tea Company, I couldn't begin to guess.

And there's no helpful plaque with an explanation.

But there you have it.

End of the Davis Islands

Look at the Davis Islands on a map and you'll see it has two peninsulas protruding from the very end of it. The one on the right is part of the Peter O. Knight Airport and not easily accessible, but the one on the left is.

And it's a spectacular spot. One can sit at the edge here and behold a view of Long Shoal, Pine Key, and two huge industrial islands that sadly have no names.

In case you're curious, the Davis Islands are twofold, although it feels like one big island when you're driving on it because you're crossing a bridge over a canal early on. There used to be three Davis Islands but the airport sealed up a dividing waterway to build a new runway. Bastards.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Bardin Booger

As mythological creatures go, the "Bardin Booger" is unfortunately at the bottom of the ladder of success. It has a stupid name - doesn't have a cool ring to it like "The Loch Ness Monster" or "The Abominable Snowman". And unlike Nessie, Yeti, and Sarasota's Skunk Ape, we don't even have an alleged photo of it. Sucks. Even the Weekly World News, who escalated "Bat Boy" into national fame, tried and failed to turn the Bardin Booger into a thing.

So what do we have? Well... some guy in Bardin, FL said he saw a Bigfoot-like creature, way too tall and huge to have been a misidentified macaque. It has been described as having nine toes on each foot, which is a bit improbable but I think I can flog my suspension of disbelief into accepting it.

Some versions of the story have the critter carrying a lantern, though.

Hunh. Well now. Hmmmm. *cough*

If that's the case, then this is likely not a cryptid but a feral human, perhaps. (The attentive reader may be aware I once toyed with authoring a book on the subject of feral humans, and may toy with it again one day, and was a guest on Art Bell's Coast To Coast show discussing said phenomenon.)

After the first sighting of the Bardin Booger became public, some other guy emerged and said he saw it too. And after the media picked up on the story, suddenly everybody and their brother popped up to get on the bandwagon and report a sighting. I can forgive denizens of the 70s and 80s for not having a camera on them, but in this modern space-age smartphone world, by now I would have expected some sort of blurry digital approximation of a blob that could be our man.

That hasn't stopped locals from merchandising the concept to death, of course. I applaud their efforts, but I'd rather have a Skunk Ape t-shirt instead, thanks.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ga Ga Boo

When Deidre Noel Buck was a little girl, she would accompany her parents to Royal Palm Cemetery and play around, in her boredom waiting for them to finish setting out flowers and such, on the grave adjacent to their family plot. That grave was for one Emma Dancer. (Although I've not been to the grave of my grandparents in Richmond, KY in many years, I, too, still recall the name on the grave next door - Pearl Shelton Ogle.)

Flash forward to 1971. Buck purchased a home at 2920 53rd Street South in Gulfport, Florida. The house is full of peculiar architectural quirks, such as pink walls (this before it was learned that pink walls can actually have a psychoactive effect on humans) and closets with, for no good reason, windows in them. And as it turns out, it was previously the home of... Emma Dancer. The synchronicity of this stunned Buck and her mother.

But that's not the weird part.

Buck and her mother set out to do some historical research, and learned more about Emma. She was one of Gulfport's great eccentrics, playing the part of an old-timey southern-belle society lady in an era when such mannerisms were already an anachromism. She wore gloves when she called upon neighbors, and she still carried on the antiquated tradition of "calling cards" - fancy engraved ones, no less.

Her niece, Emmie Kienast, came from Switzerland and moved in with her, and inherited the home after Dancer passed away in 1961. Kienast, in turn, lived in the house for awhile, and then was abruptly gone, having purportedly moved back to Switzerland. But she left all her belongings in the house, right down to the clothes in the closet and the medicine in the bathroom cabinet. The realtor actually showed the house to Buck in this state, and Kienast's furniture and belongings came along with it as a bonus. Buck reports finding weird little notes Kienast wrote to herself hidden in the strangest places, including inside the candelabra!

Buck and her mother delved further into the history of the home and discovered it had another interesting feature: it was originally built by none other than Alvah C. Roebuck, the co-founder of Sears-Roebuck! (That would be "Sears" today if you're too young to remember when they scraped Mr. Roebuck's name off the logo.)

But that's still not the weird part.

The weird part is this: soon after settling in, Buck realized this was no ordinary house in yet another way - it was haunted. Like really haunted. Like, I don't mean hearing spooky sounds in the basement and feeling cold spots in the air sometimes, I mean actually seeing ghostly apparitions (is there any other kind?) creeping around the place. Buck estimates there were at least nine different spirit entities in the house, and said with a shrug, "I have resigned myself to the fact that I must live in some sort of portal."

According to their mother, the children began communicating with a female spirit they called "Ga Ga Boo". And it's not just an "imaginary friend" apparently, because Buck heard it speak. From a 2006 article on Poynter:

She began appearing to Justin when he was sick. Later, when Justin was older and moved into a different bedroom, the spirit would appear to Kimberly. “They would tell me about how she would sing to them and talk to them, and do all of this grandmotherly stuff,” Buck said.

Buck sometimes heard the voice of Ga-Ga-Boo. By the time she would arrive at the bedroom door, though, the spirit was gone. Buck was never frightened by what she heard. “She would start out with saying, ‘How’s my precious boy?’ ” Buck said. “When I would hear her, it was funny because her voice was so melodic, it was almost trancelike … the voice was like something you’ve never heard before.”

Each child eventually disinvited Ga-Ga-Boo from their lives.

My question is, where is Ga-Ga-Boo now?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Skyway Jack's

Skyway Jack's is a primitive old roadside diner on 34th street in St. Petersburg. It doesn't sound like my kind of place - especially after reading Urbanspoon - but their strange menagerie of decorative figures out front gives me a chuckle. So does the policeman pig painted on their window!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tobacco Talk

I don't put much stock in cigar reviews. Including my own. Having spent much time researching the topic from the top down and the bottom up, I am now convinced that no two men are experiencing the same things when they smoke a cigar, so there's little point in talking the subject to death, then, is there? But here I go again.

Significantly, just as quantum physics suggests to us that we are not completely the same person from moment to moment, neither are our cigars. Quantum relativity applies to the pursuit of cigar tasting, and therefore, there can never be a general description of a cigar but only a description of someone's perception of a specific cigar at a certain moment. Take Nish Patel's XEN for example. It remains one of my all time favorite sticks, and yet sometimes - not often, often enough that I would remark on it - I get one that just doesn't do for me. Most of the time XEN is a suprememly satisfying hot blast of white pepper, but other times I just feel like I'm suddenly smoking cereal, you know what I mean? I used to blame the stick itself, as do a lot of people that like to criticize Rocky Patel products for perceived inconsistency.

But then I realized - it's not Rocky and Nish, it's not the stick, it's me. My perception of a cigar differs greatly depending on the state of my metabolism and a score of variables, and I'm sure it does for you, too. Think of this next time you complain that you "got a bad stick" or when you try a cigar only once and then make big sweeping declarations about how the entire brand sucks.

I'm gradually teaching myself to better gauge what is the right cigar for the right moment. And I'm also learning to know when to let go, and just throw a cigar away that isn't working out. Easy come, easy go, baby.

Rocky Patel's Royale is like the XEN's deeper, more complex brother, like The Motorcycle Boy to Rusty James. They even look and feel the same - super silky, slightly squishy, and shaped probably from the same box press. I'm enjoying these more and more lately in the mornings. As with the XEN, it's a fine "breakfast cigar" with a flawless draw. It's all about the draw to me, but evidently that's the last thing on some people's minds. (Probably because they're frantically herfing their sticks down so hard anyway that such sensitive considerations are irrelevant.)

A recent new surprise for me was Don Pepin Garcia's Tabacos Baez. I selected it at random from the humidor at Habana Cafe & Cigar Factory, but figured it to be a sort of middle-of-the-road Oliva-ish type affair. Nope. It's very flavorful, packs quite a buzz for such a mellow stick, and honestly I didn't even know it was a Don Pepin Garcia product until I got it home. Not sure what he's trying to do with this line, but I approve regardless.

I first tried Ventura's Project 805 back in Clearwater, but on recent road trips to Ocala have become reacquainted with its style. It's a complex, nutty, peppery favorite, and is made with andullo tobacco. I'll let Ventura explain:

Andullo has been enjoyed by the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean for at least 500 years. Traditionally users carve a pipe out of petrified Andullo, sprinkle fresh Andullo flakes into the pipe and smoke it.

Though the tobacco is colloquially referred to as Andullo, it is the process not the leaf that makes the Andullo tobacco unique. Typical cigar tobacco leaf processing includes tying together freshly picked tobacco leaves and hanging these bunches in a barn to cure, after which leaf is placed into 1-ton stacks (Pilons) to ferment. The Andullo process is different. Tobacco leaf from the Rabito and Quin Diaz tobacco plants is harvested and piled into a series of palm seed pods called Yagua. When filled, the palm seed pods are wrapped in a thick, natural rope compressing the Andullo into a dense, rigid, 6-foot long bar nearly 5-inches in diameter. Stacked in a barn, and rotated at regular intervals, the Andullo ferments in the yagua for up to 2 years. When fermentation is finally complete, the resulting product is a leathery, dark, aromatic, earthy sweet all-natural tobacco leaf.

The moisture content and natural aromas make it perfect tobacco for cigars, though it has never been used in premium cigars until now.

Alec Bradley's Nica Puro, the cigar that could do no wrong last year, is suddenly for me the cigar that can do no right. I'm just not feelin' 'em lately, and wonder why I don't get the same joy from them that I once did. But again, this serves to illustrate that it's not the cigar's fault, it's me who's changed. Having said that, the Nica Puros I get at Cigar Factory are toros, and they were always robustos and torpedos that I used to obtain elsewhere. So the vitola really does matter. Some cigar makers even make a slightly different blend for each vitola, which can be maddening. I'm currently taking a breather from Nica Puro but will return to it at a later date (especially if I can zip back to Sarasota and pick up the robustos.)

But the real big news in cigarland for me is the discovery of Gulfport's handrolled customs - particularly the barberpoles. I had some decent barberpoles in Ybor a couple months ago, but the ones from Cigar Factory are brilliant and the Tamayo ones I get at La Habana Cigar Club are almost as good but slightly smaller. I'm in talks with local rollers and distributors for the long-awaited JSH Cigar, and I just might do a barberpole design for one of the products. As soon as I know more, of course, you'll see me babbling about it here and on Twitter...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Flamingo Sculptures

I love these bright red flamingo sculptures at the Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy in Sarasota.

(Were they intended to be pink, though? They're red.)

The Beach Haus

There are numerous eat-and-drink places along the beach in Gulfport, but I just keep going to back to O'Maddy's again and again and again. So amazing is O'Maddy's, I can't even bring myself to write a blog post about it because, like Columbia's, it's just overwhelming thinking about its splendor and then I just wanna start the car and go eat there.

And then I finally tried someplace different, and it was disappointing. Serves me right. (Except this place didn't.)

Actually, it's a beautiful place, both the downstairs and the outdoor upstairs. And the beer cheese pretzel plate was so good, I will return here if only for that. But when I ordered a Pina Colada with a dark rum float (as promised on their menu) it arrived white as snow, white as Christmas, white as Pee-Wee Herman. When I politely reminded the waitress that it was supposed to have a dark Myers float on top, she took the drink back without apology and returned moments later - with only the faintest smidgen of brown on top.

The world is quickly approaching the point where I can order a pie and be brought, say, a shoe instead, and somehow I'm the dickhead for complaining about it.

The caipirinha was better. It wasn't great. But it was tolerable. Its enjoyability may have been colored somewhat by the disaster of the previous cocktail.