I’m New in Town

NAPLES, Fla., Winter 1995––I’m new in town and I haven’t adjusted to being here, yet. It’s hard to adjust to living anywhere else when you’ve lived in Los Angeles for any length of time, I think. I lived in L.A. for twenty-five years. L.A. has a lot of things Naples doesn’t have—stress, smog, earthquakes, lighter air and mountains, for instance. Naples has a slow pace, clean air, hurricanes, soft southern breezes, and it’s flat. Earthquakes aside, things have happened to me here, which just about bowled me over, things unimaginable to ever occur in L.A.

I walked into a supermarket and several employees ran up to me, arms extended in greeting, “Hi! How are you today? Anything we can help you find?” I was taken aback. Like, “What’d I do?” But I quickly recovered and accepted their gracious welcome. They welcomed my second visit to the store with an upgraded greeting: “Hi, Samantha! How are you today? Anything we can help you find?” When I checked out, they carefully packed my items (how refreshing not to find the Tide on top of the bananas) and wished me a pleasant afternoon. Pleasant—who has time to have a pleasant afternoon these days? A happy afternoon, a good afternoon, but pleasant? You have to be over a certain age to have a pleasant afternoon, or even a pleasant day. Like people who say “Yoo-hoo,” you have to be old enough. Pleasant comes coupled with the idea of a long broad afternoon, the kind where from your lawn chair you watch the sun glint off a silver airplane overhead while the bees and butterflies busy themselves around the blue and yellow flowers in the garden you planted in the spring. The box boy had white hair. All the box boys had white hair. So did all the stock boys. And it wasn’t a product of bleach manufactured by surfing. These guys were retirees returned to the job market. In L.A. a supermarket box or stock person over the age of twenty would be considered ready to retire—well, overage for that position. Out in the parking lot a 74-year-old woman was rounding up the carts and offered to help me wield my groceries. She said this was her last day on her job at the supermarket and that she was looking forward to starting her new job at Wendy’s. As I drove out of the parking lot I stopped to let some people cross in front of me. They were so grateful they actually bowed to me. I didn’t think I was doing anything unusual since in California it’s the law to stop for pedestrians. In Florida there’s no such law. Apparently, you’re free to run them down, if you must. And in L.A. pedestrians take full advantage of that law, families of seven or eight sauntering across in front of your car. It’s probably the only instance Angelenos move slowly.

Next I drove to the post office. As I entered the parking lot I saw something strange in the near distance strolling among the cars. It looked like a turkey. “That’s it,” I thought, “someone’s holiday turkey has gotten loose and is pecking at the pebbles in the post office parking lot. “Why,” I wondered, “is no one else paying it much mind? How close can I get before this thing flies at me, flapping its wings and pecking at my head?” Pretty close. I walked right up to it, closer than I could get to a pigeon. It paid me no heed, just kept pecking the ground. It wasn’t a turkey, after all. It was a great, big, fat, waddling duck. A Muscovy duck, I learned later, and apparently Muscovy ducks wandering in parking lots are common around here. All right, so L.A. has peacocks parading the streets in some areas, but they do it in somewhat remote residential areas, not public parking lots.

The post office is located on Goodlette-Frank Road. Many of the streets here have two names, like Airport-Pulling Road, Rattlesnake Hammock Road. I guess that’s par for the South, like John Boy, Suellen and so on. Why didn’t they just call it Jim-Bob Road? It would have been easier. So what if L.A. has named a few things Sepulveda? Everyone knows that’s just the newcomers’ initiation. If you learn to pronounce and spell it within three years you’re in.

After the post office I went to the bank. I completed my transaction and remembered I had to call someone. “Is there a pay phone nearby?” I asked an employee. “Is it a local call?” she asked. “Yes.” “Just use this phone here at this empty desk,” she offered. Wow! In L.A. they’d think I was going to spend forty-five minutes chatting with my girlfriend in Katmandu and when I was finished, run off with the phone.

I made my call, left the bank and headed east or south or both, along U.S. 41. It’s the East Trail (formally the Tamiami Trail East), but it heads kind of south. It’s also known in downtown Naples as Fifth Avenue South. There it makes a bend and becomes the North Trail (Tamiami Trail North), also known as Ninth Street North or Ninth Street South, depending on your location along the route. I saw hurricane warnings posted all along the road: big orange signs picturing what looked like someone struggling with an umbrella blown inside out in a storm. On second glance they were “Men Working” signs. All motorists drive as if they’ve spent the summer on an Iowa corn farm (they have), arbitrarily pulling out in front of you whenever they feel the urge, not because their actions were motivated by common sense.

It would be as if you were in L.A. and you come to Hawthorne Boulevard1. You wait seven minutes for the light to turn green, but no matter, no one’s in a hurry anyway. The pace is so slow here that if you speak rapidly no one understands what you’ve said. On your way again, you notice a large sign: “CRENSHAW1 BLVD NEXT LIGHT.” Cross streets are labeled like coming attractions. That’s so the senior citizens can read them. Oh, and in every parking lot you’ve been in, there are about ten handicapped spaces all in a row. That’s for all the senior citizens. There are one or two regular spaces back in the far corner. You remember a conversation you’ve overheard in Lucky’s1. Two store employees had rushed up to a senior citizen who had just arrived inside the store riding his electric cart. The three were discussing the advantages of shopping in this kind of cart vs. another type. (Like younger guys discussing dune buggies—here, though, they ride swamp buggies.)

Finally you turn into your own street, but you have to drive slowly, because every so many feet is a sign cautioning “20 mph, golf cart crossing.”

To get from the store to home you could have taken the alternate route, a two-lane road through white sandy pine forest and intriguing, sultry mangrove swamp (the Everglades) where long-necked gray or blue herons and white egrets look for fish in the open trenches along the sides of the road. Along your street, papayas the size of footballs hang from trees, mango trees and orange trees drape the sidewalks from front yards, and banana trees and orchids grow everywhere. As you saunter (believe me, it’s too hot and sultry to move any faster) up the walk to your front door, lizards, lazing in the sun, scatter, scurrying out from beneath your feet and into the bushes. Inside the house, you put your groceries away and decide to take a swim. So, you step outside the rear door and jump into your pool, which is enclosed inside your large, screened lanai. The screen prevents mosquitoes the size of F-14s from landing poolside. (Yes, everything does grow bigger down here. If it has wings or feet, it makes a home here.) Another mosquito deterrent is spraying. Nearly nightly, around two or three in the morning, small planes fly right between the houses, practically, spraying their needle-nosed targets.

After dinner you sit out on the lanai again, chatting with friends late into the evening. In the spaces between conversations you hear an occasional thack, a tree toad leaping from one place on the screen to another, you discover when you get up and walk over to investigate the sound. The toad, perfectly still, stares at you wide-eyed. Smiling.

Your friends leave. You sit out on the lanai alone in the dark. A strange sound comes from the lake a few feet away. What is it? You sit perfectly still, staring wide-eyed into the misty slate-gray half-light over the lake. Too dark to see. Ssswishh … ssswishh … lap … lap … ssswishh. THE LELY LAKE2 MONSTER!!! The ALLIGATOR!! They said there was an alligator in the lake. You dare not move, not even to escape indoors. Who knows what lurks out there in the steamy swampy night? Then, another sound, evil laughter, first one, then a whole creepy chorus, on the banks of the lake loudly laughing evilly. Then from the far bank a periodic “YUP” punctuates their evil laughter. “Oooahahahahahuhuh … YUP … oooahahahahahuhuh … YUP … ssswishh … oooahahahahahuhuh … ssswish … oooahahahahahuhuh … YUP … lap … YUP …ssswish … oooahahahahahuhuh … YUP. Who or, more accurately, what are these yuppies? The antiphonal cacaphony resounds louder and louder with the rising steamy mist. You make a run for it, slide open the door and leap through into the silence of your air-conditioned sanctuary.

The next morning you arise, step out onto the lanai to drink your morning coffee. The sun is up. It’s burning off the mist. Across the lake the sprinklers are on, watering the golf course. The water sprays from the sprinklers as from high, dancing fountains. Ssswishh … ssswishh … lap … lap … ssswishh. The fountains spray across the broad green, momentarily tapping across a palm frond and then dancing down the shallow edge of the lake. Small, duck-like birds which swim under water occasionally pop their heads up and chatter to one another. “Oooahahahahuhuh … oooahahahahahuhuh …” And across the lake a large, long-necked bird answers “YUP.” In the shadow of a tall palm a great blue heron stands surveying the lake, wings tucked at his sides, looking much like a hunch-shouldered man with hands folded behind his back standing on shore surveying his abundantly sufficient fishing fleet. Not too far down the bank, a large brown, snake-necked, underwater bird (an anhinga) stands in the sun alternately vigorously flapping his wings then swaying them from side to side, shaking them to dry the water out of his feathers.

1Hawthorne and Crenshaw are major north-south boulevards in Los Angeles County; Lucky’s was Lucky Stores supermarket chain, since bought out by Albertsons, and, as of this printing, SUPERVALU.

2Lely Lake is the manmade lake we lived on.

The sound of the “yuppies”, I was told after I left Florida, was actually the sound of alligators. {{{  }}}

–Samantha Mozart, Revised 11/29/10