“People just tell you stuff.”
This is what Michael is saying to me as we’re leaving Starz Pizzeria last Saturday night. Starz, despite the fact that it’s pluralized with a “z,” is actually a nice Italian restaurant that is literally right across the street. We can throw a stone into the dipstey-dumpster it’s that close.
For biological reasons involving the moon and twenty-eight days, I needed double chocolate ice cream on Saturday night, and I needed it stat or something was going to burn. There’s a woman here named Queenie who makes her own ice cream, and they sell it at Starz for a whopping 3.62 a pint.
“Queenie’s going up a dollar next year,” the man behind the counter says to me.
“Wow,” I go.
“Yeah. YEAH. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. He’s got arching eyebrows and clearly he owns Starz because he’s talking about buying the ice cream and he looks Italian. “Can you believe that?”
“No.” This is what I say.
“Oh, yeah. And I find out by accident. ACCIDENT.”
I nod. This happens to me regularly, and I promise you it’s happened to me every single day I’ve lived in Florida: people just start talking and I listen and nod and make a few noises and they keep talking until I walk away. I don’t mind it; it’s been like this my whole life, so I have no idea what it’s like to not have consistent random encounters with strangers. A lot of times I will hear stories and factoids that either border on too much information or they tip way over the fence line. This type of exchange happens to my mom, too; I can blame her, right?
The owner of Starz is still going: “…so I get my order receipt and I look at it and I say ‘what the hell?’ because I’m looking at it, right, and I’m like ‘how in the hell am I paying that much for ice cream?’ but it turns out that’s what they’re charging them for a pint of Queenie’s on Captiva Island. SEVEN DOLLARS A PINT. I’d gotten the wrong bill. Yeah.”
“Oh my God,” I say.
“That’s right. So we’re going up a dollar starting next year.” He takes my five and makes change. “Gotta do it,” he says as he’s rooting out the pennies with his forefinger like men do, not like women, who can slide or pluck coins from a till with some kind of finesse. Men handle cash registers like they’re extracting ore.
“So, get used to it,” he’s saying to me, handing back change. Michael has already walked out of the take out part and is holding the door open for me. “It’s gonna cost ya.”
“Well, we’ll really try to enjoy this, then,” I say. He stands behind the register looking into my eyes. I walk out. “Happy New Year!” I call out over my shoulder.
That’s when Michael mentioned it: People just tell you stuff.
“Yeah,” I said, “I suppose they do.”
My job right now is a lot of talking. I talk from about 7:45 a.m. until about 5:30 p.m. I talk about the Everglades, about it’s history, about South Florida, and I tell some of my favorite tales from the wacky, wild, bloody, greedy, ingenious, and suspicious history of this last American frontier. One of my faves is about a man named Barron Gift Collier.
Collier was one of those enterprising and visionary American industrialists who could quit school at 16 and be a millionaire by 26. He left his Tennessee home and moved to New York City where he invented trolley car signage and revolutionized advertising forever. Now a man of money and action and ideas, he had time for wealthy recreation and vacationed to a small island near Fort Myers. There, he fell in love with the Everglades. This was 1911.
Collier pledged his fortune and his name to south Florida, and it was his money, his workers, and his ambition that finished the famous Tamiami Trail that opened the Everglades to the automobile–and the tourists, traders, snowbirds, outlaws, entrepreneurs, and pioneers who came with it. In exchange for completing the Trail, the State of Florida (at Collier’s request, of course) named a county after him. Today, Collier County is the 4th largest in Florida, right behind (Miami) Dade and Palm Beach.
Collier, as I am told, envisioned an empire in South Florida with Everglades City at the center of it. In Collier’s time, Everglades City was the county seat. Collier put a bank there, printed his own money to give to his workers, and installed a laundry facility so the men could stay looking clean and sharp while they were working. He was, after all, a man of New York City. You have to look good there if you’re somebody, and Barron Gift Collier was definitely somebody. Even if by now he was in the backwater paradise of the Everglades.
The Tamiami Trail was completed in 1927, and Collier seemed to be achieving his dream. But then 1929 happened, and Collier got hit hard. He died in 1939 in Manhattan believing that he never saw the fruition of his dream for southwest Florida. He believed this even though he owned over 1 million acres and was the largest landowner in southwest Florida. Naples, now the county seat, is home to the most millionaires per capita than any city in the United States.
So, it’s not like Collier failed, okay.
Oh, and he helped found the Boy Scouts. And INTERPOL.
Today, he has a facebook page although only one person has liked it. Oh, wait. 20 people have liked this page: El Barron.
So I tell you all this about Barron Gift Collier because it was in his county today with one of the fine members of the Sheriff’s Department that I found out about Suzi Wong’s panasian restaurant and topless bar in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
I’m jaywalking across Tamiami Trail–which you have to do because no one put crosswalks in the Everglades except for the panthers–and a cop sees me. He pulls into the gravel parking lot where I’m waiting for my tour group to get finished with their swamp buggy ride, and I’m pretending to look for alligators in the canal because I know the cop has pulled into the parking lot specifically to address me. Because all of my formative experiences with the cops involved underage drinking and possible drug possession, I still have some irrational reactions to cops pulling up to where I’m standing. Just in case you’re wondering, I do believe in conditioned behavior.
And I wore really short shorts to work today. I feel like owning up to that.
So he pulls up behind me. “Gator in there?”
“Ah, no,” I say. “But he was like 10 or so minutes ago maybe.” I’m waiting for him to persecute me.
Instead, he talks about crocodiles. I tell him I don’t think crocs come up this far north because “they stay further south where the salinity is greater.” I use this phrase on purpose to prove I am scientific and therefore unlikely to break the law.
“Where you from?”
I point to my van. “I work for Everglades Adventure Tours.”
“No. I mean, where are you from to get an accent like that. You ain’t from Florida.”
“Oh, yeah. Wilmington. Wilmington, North Carolina.” And then he starts typing it into his cop computer, but he can’t spell it properly, which causes me to go over to his window and spell it so he can pull up the Google map.
“There it is.”
And there we are. Staring at my old town on a cop car computer map in the middle of Collier County. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that the law enforcement here have green uniforms.
“I was stationed for awhile in Fayetteville. MP.”
“Oh shit,” I say, because I know about that area. Marines from Jacksonville used to go to Wilmington to look at the pretty college girls and get drunk. He laughs. He knows I know what it means to be a young man in Fayetteville, NC. But honestly, I had no idea. Because when this guy was young, it was 1979, the legal drinking age was 18, and there was a section of Fayetteville called Hay Street that was full of prostitutes, bars, strip clubs, and bars. And strip clubs.
I know this because this information is now what the kind officer is sharing with me. Then he tells me about Suzie Wong’s.
“And then….” he looks out the side passenger window as if he’s not supposed to talk about it anymore, “there was Suzie Wong’s.” He said Suzie Wong’s as if he was saying a lewd secret password. Suzie Wong’s. I could picture it perfectly in my mind.
“We used to go there and eat,” he said, “but it was…” and here he drifted off into quiet laughter, looking at me in my eyes and hoping I could get his drift without him having to go into detail. “We spent a lot of time there, let me just say that.”
I say, “oh, I bet you did,” in an equally lewd-password-type-voice because I’m no dummy and I know we’re talking about sex and drugs and fighting and alcohol and who knows what all else. By now I’m loving this dude and this conversation, and I’m recalling my beloved outside of the Starz: people just tell you stuff.
And they do.
In 1980, this officer worked as an MP, and he and his buddies used to frequent the establishments on Hay Street: “and it was wild, I tell you. And I don’t just mean wild. I mean wild. We did stuff that. Well. Anyway.” Fayetteville was called FayetteNam then, and by some folks it still is today, but a lot of vets hung around then, and Hay Street was a perfect place for returning VietNam veterans who were young and hurting and crazy as shit. “We saw a lot of fights. I mean, alotta fights.”
So Suzie’s was the place to be. And it was the place they went. Well, they’re leaving Suzie’s one night and one of the officer’s buddies gets back home and realizes–shock of all shocks–that he’d been ripped off at Suzie Wong’s. “I know. You’d kind of expect that, right? But this guy was mad, and in them days, they trained GI’s with CS gas. You know, CS gas. Like tear gas. But it came in tablets about like yay” and the officer uses his forefinger to mark off how long a tablet of CS gas is: about two inches.
“And he pockets a bunch of them tablets the next night we go up in Suzie’s. And we go early ’cause so he can go around and put them little ol’tablets in all the ashtrays, see. And the night goes on and them guys in there is smoking and putting out their cigarettes, and they up and lit them CS tablets.” The officer and his friends, of course, weren’t there anymore. “And sure enough, Suzie’s get full of that gas and out goes everybody. They never knew who did it. Shit!”
Here he pauses, remembering. “Today that’d about be a terrorist attack!” Then he smiles again and rolls his forefinger–the one he’d used to measure out a CS tablet for me–around the steering wheel. “But, hell. Back then it was just getting even. That was all.”
“Yep, you right!” That’s what I say because I’m into the conversation and I’m talking like a North Carolina redneck because sometimes it feels good. I wink at him and punch him in the shoulder lightly. There are moments in my life where I swear I’m just a good old boy. It’s weird.
My group came back then, and the cop was still chatting up when I said goodbye and walked away. I didn’t get his name, but I can almost guarantee you I will see him again. Either that or I had one heck of an encounter with a profane angel today. Which I believe is entirely possible.
night night, beloveds. Enjoy the stories that come your way.