Author Archives: sammozart

Sprinkling Strawberries

Here in SoFlo we were still in the post Civil War Reconstruction era, embodied in the young woman who strolled into the store one day as if she had just stepped out of a scene from Gone with the Wind. She came up to me and said, with her syrupy Southern drawl, “Can you tell me, d’y’all sprinkle your strawberries with something…?”

Before leaping to say “Try dry mustard,” I realized, largely due to my long association with Brad, a third generation Floridian, that she was speaking Southern for pesticide.

“Wash ’em well,” I said.

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip, the Spick lived, a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip, the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Highpockets

Let me tell you about Highpockets. One unbearably hot and humid summer, when my regular farm market was closed, I still needed a job, so I worked at a farm stand up the way. This one was surrounded by marshy fields of high weeds. I was in the outdoor stand with the chikee roof, that sat down in a hollow off the road, alone. It was off-season and all the snowbirds had flown north.

This man used to come in all the time. And every time, he’d complain about the prices. Then, a day later, he’d come back and want to return what he’d bought, usually a melon, uncut, saying it was rotten. Then he started coming into the other farm market, the one where I worked every winter. He’d buy vegetables, fruit, and, yes, the usual melon. Consistently, he’d come back the next day or the day after and want to return the melon saying it was rotten.

My boss, Brad, got tired of it and, after the way this man, of medium build, wore his pants, the waistband hiked up to his ears, started calling him Highpockets. I knew our produce was high quality and had been picked fresh, right there, off the farm. I remembered nearly every item that went out of that store, when it went out, what it looked like when it went out and who took it out. Yet, often people would come back with a carton of strawberries declaring, “Just look at these! They’re all mushy and rotten.” I know how long fresh strawberries hold up, and how to keep them fresh. These invariably looked like they’d been riding around in a car trunk since the night before, in baking sun and humidity, secured in a sweaty plastic bag, with a bag of supermarket canned goods stashed on top.

Brad, always the Southern gentleman, inclined to the thought that the customer is always right, finally had had enough of Highpockets. One day Highpockets brought back one too many melons. Brad said, “Get out! Get out! Get out now and stay out!” Incredulous, Highpockets decreed he would tell some lawyer or something. I feared that one day he’d show up, but he never came back.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

Gringo Stories: Introduction

A customer in the farm stand where I worked held a pineapple, bottom up, to his ear and told me, “If it beeps, it’s ripe.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in Cross Creek Cookery, “Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings packed up her sophisticated northern city life in 1928 and moved down to Florida to write. She drew stories from the people she met there in Cross Creek, a community out in “Big Scrub.” That’s where she wrote The Yearling, published in 1938.

In 1994 I needed a break from living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, and I wanted to write, so I closed my catering business and drove to Southwest Florida for a winter’s working vacation. My daughter, 27, stood on the curb, waving goodbye. I drove off into the sunrise. “I’ll be back in a few months,” I said.

“You’re not gonna like that humidity,” my L.A. friends told me. I didn’t. Living on the Gulf coast in July felt like locking myself in a bathroom submerged in a tub full of steaming hot water. I stayed with my mother, who had a villa there. I got a job cashiering at a farm stand on 30 acres of strawberries, corn, tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, peppers, eggplant, squashes and melons. I loved the job, so I stayed much longer than I had foreseen – seven years, in fact.

My job had barely sprouted when the older, 60-something, string bean of a woman I cashiered with, a graying former model who’d grown up on a Michigan farm, declared to my boss, a tall, witty 40-something guy with strawberry blond hair who could imitate the geezers and snowbirds with perfect ripeness, “Hey, Brad, we’ve got ourselves a real city slicker here.”

I am called Carolina Gringo in Florida. I am a city slicker, right down to my shiny, black boots. So when I left the city and went to work on the farm, for a boss a good decade younger than I, I knew little about pulling fresh vegetables right out of the field, why the skin of Florida oranges is completely stuck to the pulp while that of California oranges peels right off (the former are juicier, therefore nearly impossible to peel), and I had yet to have a close encounter with a living, breathing watermelon of the Hindenburg variety.

Tree frogs on my toothbrush, snakes slithering among the potato display, hissing lizard fights, large, black mosquitoes that spring back when you slap them, Southerners who never do anything yet get everything done, all of these were new to my variety of cultivation in the cultures of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, I adapted quickly to the porta john, brushed up on my Spanish so I could converse with my Mexican co-workers—did he really say he ate his horse for lunch?—and learned all about citrus and that if you whack an unshucked ear of corn against a table all the worms fly off.

–Samantha Mozart for Carolina Gringo

 

CXXXIV. Snow Comes Softly II

Sunday, December 10, 2017 —Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of Christmas shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated Santa Claus’s coming to town.

It began to snow. The purity of the white is centering. Snow falling is quiet, peaceful. I think I will decorate for Christmas this year simply with only a few greens and bows and candlelight. It will be a quiet observance, the halls of my home dressed in a raiment of soft, warm light.

It is Sunday. The bell in the little Episcopal church across the street rang this morning, as it does every Sunday. It is a real bell, in the steeple, that somebody rings. This little historic church recalls all the chapels in all the English villages, meadows and dales that I see in all the British dramas I watch. They don’t ring the bell long in this Episcopal church – eight times for the eight o’clock service and ten for the ten o’clock service.

One Sunday morning, I was walking in front of the Methodist church down the street when suddenly the bell tolled. I rose several feet off the sidewalk and I suspect not lifted on angel wings. In fact, I exclaimed, “Holy [expletive].” This is a real bell, too, and apparently a good sized one; it is loud, and it goes on ringing for eons. It’s a big church and the congregation continues arriving for ages.

Snowflakes alight briefly in flurries or waltz in endless patterns bending, swirling, reaching and touching everything all the dull gray day and into the deep blue night, well beyond three o’clock in the morning.

Prose arabesques from the pens of writers ornament the characteristics and romance of snowflakes. Each snowflake is uniquely shaped. The flakes fall softly, individually, in pairs and in gatherings. Yet they all come from the same source and are composed of the same matter. Snowflakes have a mission: they fall out of the clouds and they land on black slick streets, red-brick sidewalks, brown winter grass, mounds of dried leaves blown into corners of flower beds and on the bare dogwood branches outside my window. Sometimes the snowflakes melt on contact, sometimes they pile up. And then everything turns white. Watching them fall, we become quiet, meditative, nostalgic, always a little awestruck. We watch snow fall with anticipation: snowfall shatters our routines, like a snowball walloped against the surface of a frozen pond, makes us turn to something new, view life with a fresh perspective. Sometimes each snowflake makes a light ticking sound as it touches down. The birds get quiet when it snows. I watch the squirrels and the birds and I can predict the weather. The squirrels bustle gathering nuts in advance of the coming cold. Birds flock and chatter and then get quiet. Birds have different songs for different types of weather and different times of day. They have their cheery morning song, their spring song for temperatures mounting on soft southern breezes; they have their evensong.

Mothers bring their young children outside to witness the first snowfall of the season. I observe one child extend her arm to watch the snow accumulate in her pink mittened palm.

I like driving in a car when it is snowing. I love being in the magic of the snow flying at me, the cypress and cedars and oaks lining the road, their branches laden with snow, the padding of the car tires on the snow, the few other cars on the road all traveling slowly as in a dream, and the tire tracks of an unseen car gone before me.

Snow fulfills its own purpose. Snow comes softly; it piles on tree limbs, bushes, holly berries and cars. Snow comes softly, like a gentle soul, filling in the footprints on our paths. It stays for a while, and then it is gone.

—Samantha Mozart

Everglades City … or, The Idiot Who Wore Shorts

EVERGLADES CITY, FLA., Sept. 11, 2017 — Yesterday, Hurricane Irma, a category four tempest, stormed into Everglades City, devastating and flooding the residents’ homes, roads, lands and adjacent, exposed Chokoloskee Island. To inhabit this place, vulnerable to the capricious winds of change — of nature and government — you must be of a sturdy breed, like the salt marsh mosquitoes that densely populate the area. Nevertheless, once you visit Everglades City, it makes you want to come back. The place lingers in the bowers of my mind like the presence of a ghost of a lover. So, I repost here the account of my impressions during my 1998 visit.

The Everglades Rod and Gun Club on the Barron River, Everglades City. Photo, Bonnie Glover

NAPLES, FLA., June 11, 1998 – Ten miles southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the heart of Naples, Florida, I passed the last strip mall and golf course and crossed through the last busy intersection where the highway narrowed to two lanes and I plunged alone into the Everglades. The fierce June sun seared like the eye of a panther set on the flank of a deer. The rainy season hadn’t begun. I drove my little, unairconditioned Hyundai east across the Tamiami Trail, through the oppressive heat and humidity, palmetto palms and cypress trees, and the zzizzing of a zillion insects. The dense brush and trees thickened, grew taller and closer to the edge of the road, the zzizzing intensified. I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand and took another tepid swig from my bottle of water.

Thirty miles in, nearly halfway to Miami, I turned south on Highway 29 towards Everglades City. Zzizzing insects made the only sound. The eight miles of mangroves pressing in on both sides of the shoulderless two-lane county road finally surrendered to the river banks offering a sparse catch of houses on stilts, occasional net-casting fishermen, a Circle K and a café; and at the head, a New England-style town circle embracing a small green. Anchoring the circumference, commanding broad, green lawns from beneath the cool shadows of ancient live oaks, palmetto palms and cypress, stood an abandoned jail, the jagged, broken windowpanes gaping hopelessly; a functioning 1880s white, pillared courthouse; and the 1864 Rod & Gun Club, a restaurant–an Old-Florida style building, polished brown wood inside, white shingled outside, a series of broad steps up the front to the deep veranda complementing three sides and screened on the back overlooking the river, where you can dock your boat and come in and eat. This is Everglades City. The town natives, perhaps sixth-generation locals, all 800 of them, like things the way they are. That’s the way things have always been. They’re not fixin’ for Yankees to jump in and rock their boat. Sure, the boat leaks, but they plug it. In 1947 the establishment of Everglades National Park there banned commercial fishing from local waters. The sudden uncongenial climate snapped the anchor chain of their subsistence. Townsfolk tell that after that many of the locals went away to “college” for a few years. It’s where they were sent when they got caught ferrying “square grouper” imported from South America to drop points in the Gulf. Their unprecipitated flurry of fine new homes and fancy cars shot up a flare to the Feds. It’s rumored that some of the locals have money buried somewhere there, and that when the statute of limitations expires, they’ll dig it up and spend it.

This is Everglades City, founded more than a century ago as a fishing village and established as a city in the 1920s when the railroad came, bringing in tourist fishermen and taking out fish to sell on the commercial market. Barron Collier, a New York millionaire, arrived in 1923 and bought up the land. He bought the Rod & Gun Club, too. There he hosted foreign dignitaries and U.S. presidents. The newly arrived traveled a lot between Tampa and Miami and they soon realized they needed more than a couple of sand ruts upon which to drive. So, federal funds in tow, they set up their supply depot at Everglades City and, beating their way through the jungle with machetes, shovels and fly swatters, set to work building a road connecting the two cities. When the federal government ran into a snag, Collier offered to finish the road in return for the new county being named after him. He made Everglades City the Collier County seat. The new road, the Tamiami Trail, opened to great fanfare in 1928.

Everglades City is Ernest Hemingway’s Florida. It is Key West and the Keys fifty years ago. Hurricane Donna struck in 1960, ripping out the torso of Everglades City, older than Naples and too weak financially to rebuild. Everybody conceded that Naples, just up the Gulf, also begun as a fishing village, was the more important trade location at which to build. Coursing the same trail of blood, in 1993 Hurricane Andrew rose from the sea, and brandishing a weapon like some spiteful Spartan warrior rising out of the Gulf of Corinth in the Peloponnesian wars, raged across the southern peninsula of Florida, shredding the land, devouring the crops. Everglades City lay a skeletal carcass lashed to the Gulf of Mexico. Now they don’t grow anything there. Except …

My arrival at Everglades City unfortunately coincided with the hatching of the season’s first clutches of salt marsh mosquito eggs. As I climbed out of my car tens of thousands of mosquitoes attacked me – big sturdy, black mosquitoes, the kind that when you swat them don’t stay flat, they spring back. I swore the conflict in the former Yugoslavia had escalated, spreading to Transylvania and I had entered the midst of an insect warfare unleashed by none other than Count Dracula, found frozen after all these years, moved to the Everglades and thawed out. Blood suckers are why people living in the Everglades wear long pants and long sleeves even when it’s 98 degrees and 98 percent humidity. Clouds of mosquitoes mounted to near thunderhead status and swarmed outside screen doors, waiting to storm in with me as I entered stores and homes. Inside they’d swarm all over my arms and legs and especially my neck, following me all around boring into me with their extra-wide-gauge stingers holes big enough to build tunnels. Everywhere, people had placed mosquito coils and incense sticks in desperate attempts to deter the blood-sucking monsters.

I had driven down there to see about a job as the reporter for the local, weekly newspaper. The newspaper was one among a string of weeklies, put out by a publisher in Naples. I left my car at the Circle K and rode around all day with Jillian, the current reporter, in her air-conditioned Nissan SUV. The mosquitoes swarmed into her car with me. They didn’t bother her. In fact, I was more or less introduced as The-Idiot-Who-Wore-Shorts-on-Her-First-Trip-Ever to Everglades City. “She’s new. The mosquitoes love her.” I was merely on an exploratory mission to see if I’d take to the job, not the first day of my job. I didn’t get paid for this. But the mosquitoes took to me, and they feasted.

Jillian bought me lunch at the Rod & Gun Club. She said, “Let’s eat outside on the porch overlooking the river.” I said “Okay,” but quickly changed my mind when the giant, black marauders ambushed me the instant I stepped onto the screened porch. We chose to eat in the dining room where the mosquitoes weren’t quite so dense.

We entered a deep umber vastness of polished, rich paneling, boards and beams outfitting walls, floor and ceiling. The floor of the huge old room heaved and rolled, like a deck exposed to years of hot sun and floods and hurricanes. Bronzed arms of ceiling fans suspended above us silently slipped through the air, and even though the floor-to-ceiling glass doors forming the back wall overlooking the river were closed, the dining room was remarkably cool and I had drawn my iced tea to a low ebb before I realized there was no air conditioning. The great place sat up high, had high ceilings, as to raise a toast to tropical breezes. The doors to the spacious kitchen were open and no one was in there, nothing was cooking, reminding me of stately homes turned restaurants I had visited in Mexico: we’d hang out for an hour and a half when five waiters wearing wide grins in dark faces would appear at our table bearing a fantastical feast.

After lunch we stood at the huge hotel-type desk in the entrance hall where Jillian paid our bill. The owner took the cash depositing it into what must have been Barron Collier’s original cash register. On one side of the entrance hall a polished wood staircase beckoned as it gracefully arced to a closed door at the top. A draft grazed the back of my neck as it passed along the hall traversing from one screen door to the other at the opposite end. Something got dredged up. Just there at the desk a feeling of déjà vu washed over me. I was trying to remember something, but it slithered darkly out of reach. A scene from the movie Key Largo: I am waiting for the hurricane to blow in, the river to roil and the palm trees to bend and reach straight out, when we hustle to board up the row of glass doors, run up the sensually-curved staircase and down the hall and enter a back room to find Bacall poised on the edge of a bed, and Bogey, a short man casting a long shadow as he stands over her. Jillian said nobody she knew had ever been up there, that she thought the owner’s mother lived up there. I wondered. The feeling gripped me. I couldn’t shake it. I half saw Ernest Hemingway, once a guest there, rise from his fishing boat out of the dark river, saunter across the veranda and right past us to the bar, not knowing he’d been at sea more than a morning, the screen door banging shut as the wind wheeled and shot at his back.

We left the way we came, through the hallway, faded photographs casting sidelong glances at yellowed news clippings hanging about the walls, whispering stories of earlier days. We stepped outside the screen door and across the porch into a sun shower as we descended the broad front steps and crossed the wide lawn to the car.

We distributed newspapers and that evening went to the city council meeting in the old court house, where I nearly dozed off. The mosquitoes kept me awake. The council room was closed and air conditioned, yet was full of the dreaded creatures. “We set ’em free and now we can’t round ’em up and get ’em back,” said a town official, a white-haired man in his 50s who looked easily persuaded to bend an elbow, who looked more like the persuader, and who allegedly yanked out the asbestos from the old jail building, which he bought and was now trying to sell, and threw the asbestos into the river. Jillian was investigating him.

I got home about 10:30, driving through mosquitoes so thick in the Everglades I couldn’t tell whether it was raining or just bugs. I got home in the nick of time, because I could barely see out the windshield. The next morning I found the front of my car completely plastered in black with mosquitoes. I took it to the car wash.

The publisher called me and offered me a weekly wage to render even a mosquito searching empty pockets at the grocery checkout. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or what. His low valuation of my writing talent left me standing on bare sand at a new moon ebb tide. I said I’d think about it. I still am.

Jillian wanted out of the reporter job. She had bigger fish to fry. On my plate stood indefatigable mosquitoes, late nights and long drives, and low pay. On the side steamed a stew of small town politics and a river seasoned with asbestos served up in a smoking cannabis blind of good old boys. I sensed my journalism jaunt could cast a long shadow onto future tables, mainly my own. I liked a white cloth.

I’d sure like to stumble into Ernest at the bar, though. I’d pull up a stool next to him. Was he privy to what the walls whisper, what went on upstairs? A coupla drinks and he might tell.

Everglades City remains lurking in my veins; on my mind and in my senses: the old buildings that smell faintly of mildew and orange blossoms; the cast of the place, those scents mingling with the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, the soft air, the gentle breezes, linger with me, hauntingly, like a sweet refrain shared with a long-ago lover. From over my shoulder its shadow looms before me still.

The End . . .

–Samantha Mozart