St. Petersburg, Fla., April 21 – We’ve been here more than a week now. We’re going nowhere fast. Soon our stay in St. Petersburg will eclipse our stay in St. Augustine.
Hard by the Gulf of Mexico, I can’t seem to get my head out of the Blue Ridge hills of Virginia. I have lost myself so completely in the Vias of the Shenandoah Valley I am starting to feel like a bit of a voyeur. I am so deep in I fear I’ll never get out.
Over the past two days I’ve spent 22 hours in this McDonald’s, at the intersection of 4th Street North and 38th Avenue North. Twenty-four now if you count today.
I don’t know if I am sane or otherwise. The gulf beaches lie only 10 miles away, yet I’ve spent my weekend writing and researching stories few may ever read and trying to block out the incessant caterwauling of a thousand screaming kids.
I awoke before 8. Becky and Max were still sleeping side by side. He’s quite the needy McUrchin. At some point during the night, he can be relied upon to call out for his mom and summon her to join him on the pull-out couch. He does not like the solitary life.
I hadn’t had a good walk in days, and I knew my chances of getting more sleep were slim, so I decided to set out on foot from our Walmart lodgings at 34th Street North, a walk that would take me a little more than 60 city blocks to my destination at the intersection at 4th Street North and 38th Avenue North.
If I was going to do an urban hike from one corporate leviathan to another, I would try to make it edifying in at least a small way. I grabbed an old, tattered collection of E. E. Cummings’ poems which I deign to pick up every couple years. It is so forlorn that it begins on page 25, midway through poem No. 20.
I had my nose in the little volume as I trudged along 5th Avenue. I crossed at 25th Street and lifted my head to behold St. Petersburg High School, a beguiling structure that rises from an otherwise forgettable landscape as if it had been dropped there by extraterrestrials.
Finished in 1926, the St. Petersburg High Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It was billed as the country’s first million-dollar high school. In 2012, a fire broke out on the roof above the auditorium. Before it was brought under control it caused more than $1 million in damages.
It’s all white stucco exterior, red-tile roof and old Spanish charm. The entrance at the front is framed by a trio of arches. In architecture, they call this an arcade. This I only just learned.
Long about 19th Street, I pass under a curving collection of steel and concrete roadways which provide access to and from Interstate 275. I look to the south and glimpse the white interstellar monstrosity that is Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
A few blocks later, I turn left on Martin Luther King Street. A man lies prone on the sidewalk outside a ragged thrift shop. I think it is a man, though I can’t be sure.
I think he, or she, is alive, though I can’t be sure. A blanket, or maybe an old piece of carpet, covers him, or her, from head to ankle. He, or she, does not move.
All I know for sure is he, or she, wears white Nike tennis shoes.
Recalls a man I read about a half hour ago,
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
Dressed in fifteenth rate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat
Less than two blocks ahead, chipper men and women sit beneath umbrellas on the sidewalk at the Banyan Cafe. They sip espresso out of ceramic mugs, eat breakfast sandwiches and check their email. What a difference a few blocks make.
I pass a marker which informs me I have entered historic uptown St. Petersburg. It is, they say, infused with an “urban pulse” and a “timeless charm.”
A group of white birds peck at the ground with downward-curving orange beaks.
They notice my intrusion and shuffle away warily on slender pink legs. Only later do I know them as ibises. American white ibises.
At Martin Luther King and 12th, an American flag flies at half-mast at the Flamingo Sports Bar. Well by jingo by josh by gee by gum, poetry is a terrible thing to waste but someone must mourn faraway losses with self-serving earnestness.
Freedom, whatever the hell it is, is never free.
A vaguely familiar young face stares across Martin Luther King from a window in the Flamingo. He was a man who was mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. He was desirous of everything at the same time. They like to claim Jack Kerouac took his last drink here. It’s a dubious claim, but it must be good for business. Like a flag at half-mast.
Across the street, caught in Kerouac’s unchanging gaze, an older couple sits at a wooden table. They drink coffee from styrofoam cups at the Dairy Inn, which promises to deliver good eats, cold treats and the champion hamburger of old St. Pete.
Around 23rd Avenue, things start to shape up. I walk past Spinnergy. And Jazzercise. At Tim’s, I might get a gentlemen’s haircut for only $4.95 if I were five years older. Just you wait, you gentleman barber you. Just you wait. I’ll be back for my $5 buzz.
On the sidewalk adjacent to the Tiger Mart, a man brandishes a copy of the Sunday Tampa Bay Times. He holds it above his head and silently hawks it to people driving by at 35 mph. It doesn’t look like lucrative work. Looking out from the cover are two men who were unknown a week ago but now are the scourge of a nation. The newspaper man reaches down to pick his cigarette out of the grass and then goes back to work.
I’m getting close, and my body is feeling its age. I hang a right on 34th Avenue North and am greeted on either side of the road by winsome trees adorned with sensational purple flowers. Their distinctive beauty makes them easy to find on the googlenets. They are jaracanda trees. They blossom with the intoxicating fragrance of lilacs in May.
I’m closing in now. It’s been a good walk, and I won’t spoil it by prattling any further.
I am here at home, positively 4th Street North.
I sit in the PlayPlace with Becky and the thousand screaming kids.
One of them is my son, Max.