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An oasis on the island in the city

A walk down Channel Drive on Davis Islands seems inconsequential, but opens the best of all worlds about Tampa.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2002


At least several times a week since I moved to Tampa four years ago, my daily walks have taken me down Channel Drive on Davis Islands.

By taken I don't mean that this is a planned event, just something instinctive that seems to happen when I'm out sweating and swinging my measly 2-pound purple weights.

Walking the concrete slab that ribbons the edge of the channel isn't much like exercising.

It's more like inspecting a painting, perhaps one by George Bellows, who drew his inspiration from the gritty landscape of the Battery in New York.

Often, a luxurious breeze lifts off the water, at times steering me along like a gentle hand.

I see Channel Drive itself, and the dark rectangle of water. Jagged edges of the port angle for attention alongside the manicured mansions of Harbour Island. On one end is the Tampa skyline; on the other, the invitation of an open bay.

The street itself is fairly inconsequential, bookended by Little League fields and a small airport, allowing for a logical starting and stopping point.

All kinds of things happen along Channel Drive, some unfolding more slowly than others.

Eight manatees loll in the warm water and watch me as I follow them so slowly and closely that I can hear their husky breathing. I notice propeller scars molded on the back of the one and imagine that he is the eldest, the patriarch.

On weekends the cruise ships nose regally into their journeys, tropical music tinkling and passengers waving from the decks.

There are rowers from the University of Tampa, who slice their oars in elegant synchronicity, and a tourist paddle-wheeler I look for at night, when it is illuminated by small white lights strung like stars around its pug shape.

On a Sunday morning, I happen upon something horrible, a crowd frowning across the water at a large dry dock where red lights flash and helicopters hover.

A young man on a bicycle stops with binoculars. He has seen the whole thing: a small plane taking off from the airport, sputtering and crashing.

"It didn't look good," he says, sounding sad.

Both pilot and passenger die.

A day earlier, I had lost a dear friend to another tragedy. As I walk, I thank God for my life and this place and all the people who come to Channel Drive, just like me, to think and walk and marvel at the ordinary.

The street is lined with modest houses that have, over time, become quite expensive, like everything else on Davis Islands. They sit on small lots that face the water. One man has devised a sort of observation tower on his roof with what appears to be a hot tub beneath a handsome white canopy.

On beautiful nights, I see small gatherings on the porches or in the front yards. Sometimes candles are lit. The guests are almost always gazing across the street at the quirky collage of dog walkers, men fishing from lawn chairs, and night-shift workers with sandwiches and Thermoses, who sit in silence in trucks, drinking the view.

Couples seek out Channel Drive as a stage for courting. Some seem to be in the throes of a marriage proposal, sipping champagne and swooning. Others, with tortured sighs and terse faces, seem to be parting.

People snap photographs, pick guitars, pray, practice yoga and smoke marijuana, though not necessarily in that order.

Sometimes, I peer into the water.

My eyes stop at the massive rocks that border the sea wall. Usually, there is an assortment of anthropological detritus snagged in the crevices: soggy shoes, sun-faded signs, empty bottles, baseballs.

Once, above the rocks on the grass, I spotted a fishing pole with flowers and a handwritten note sealed in a tiny, clear plastic bag.

Other days bring other treasures, among them a string of emerald green Gasparilla beads, just out of reach of revelers, probably concealed beneath the murky water for months.

In the beginning, when I walked this street late at night, I would see an old man gliding by on a silver bicycle. He wore an old-fashioned, floppy white tennis hat and listened to big band music from a radio balanced on his handlebars.

I suspected he wasn't real.

He was an angel. Maybe my guardian angel.

The old man hasn't crossed my path lately.

I still look, hoping I will see him again, pedaling along Channel Drive, where his face will appear among all the others in this painting that is my home.

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