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Last days of lounging?

As condos sprout and property values soar, true beach bums - like Sunset Beach's Jay Crawford - are becoming harder to find.

Published May 1, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Ten years ago, Jay Crawford moved to Sunset Beach and began living the carefree life as a beach bum. But the changing character of beach communities is pushing people like Crawford into extinction.

TREASURE ISLAND - Jay Crawford has the credentials, the looks and the demeanor, which is somewhere between mellow and dozing off.

All of that, of course, is meaningless.

Because to define a beach bum, he says, would be to defeat the purpose of being one.

But if there were an ideal beach bum - not some romantic version of one, but a real one - Crawford, 58, would be one of the last remaining. He gave up his cell phone, has no job, and most importantly, has lived on the beach long enough to be able to walk into any local bar and have his beer in front of him before he sits down.

He still has the article from a local newspaper that named him Beach Bum of the Week and listed his occupation as "professional shark's tooth hunter."

Even outsiders recognize his craft. When he went to a casting call for a beach bar scene in the movie Forever Mine, Crawford was chosen immediately. And when he showed up for wardrobe, they took one look at him and said, "Wear what you have on."

He can be found most afternoons honing his skills on a wooden stool at the Ka'Tiki, a thatched roof Sunset Beach bar that's across the street from the Gulf and straight out of a Hemingway novel. He'll be the one wearing shorts, sandals, a T-shirt and usually a green St. Pete Grand Prix baseball cap. His back will be toward the sun, and a pack of Dorals and a can of Bud will be joining him at the bar.

The sad truth, he said late one recent afternoon at the Ka'Tiki, is that beach bums in Pinellas County are an endangered species.

Habitat destruction mostly.

"It's really not affordable out here anymore," he said. "They're tearing down the cute little houses and putting in condos."

Most rental units in the mom-and-pop motels are at least $150 a week. And they're getting more scarce every year. A house? Bungalows that need work start around $200,000.

But that's not to say a form of beach bum isn't still entrenched out here. There are pockets of resistance.

Qualifications for living to the right of the slow lane aren't listed anywhere, but it helps to bring some life experiences to the table.

And Crawford has plenty of those. He went to high school in Alexandria, Va. with the late Doors frontman Jim Morrison ("He was just another guy on the smoking lot, the place we went to smoke cigarettes.")

A few years later, Crawford moved to St. Petersburg, and after serving in the Army for two years, he moved to Pass-A-Grille. He eventually returned to Virginia and raised a family. He flew airplanes, worked for Xerox and the Veterans Administration, and was half owner of a weekly newspaper in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

"Lasted one edition," he said. "My partner took off for San Francisco."

He has four adult children, including a son who recently returned from Iraq. "I always took care of my kids," he said. "That's an obligation I took seriously."

But ever since he was a teenager, he fought a running battle with addiction. He has been in rehab three times for alcohol and drug abuse, did six months in jail on a marijuana possession charge, and has been married three times. His last marriage hit a snag one night in an incident involving his wife, a pitcher of beer and the family's Chevette.

"It was in Baltimore. June 26, 1986. I dumped a pitcher of beer on her head. We were drunk at a bar and I wanted to leave. She didn't. So I was walking across the parking lot and here she comes.

"When I was laying on the ground with a compound fracture of my leg, my friend ran out of the bar and said, "Wait here.' "

He smiled and shook his head.

"He came back with two double shots of Wild Turkey.

"I didn't prosecute because it was kind of half my fault."

Taking what money he had left, Crawford moved to Sunset Beach 10 years ago and began his apprenticeship. He lived in an efficiency apartment at Volpe's Villas, paid $400 a month and was happy. He helped people fix their computers, did a few other odd jobs, and added to his shark's tooth collection. When his mother died two years ago, he inherited enough to buy a small house off the beach. That's where he lives now with his girlfriend, Linda Grabus.

Crawford was diagnosed with lung cancer last May and after undergoing chemotherapy, he's slowing down. He'll have a beer or two at the Ka'Tiki, Philthy Phil's or Lana's in the afternoon and then head home.

"We used to have more options," he said of the beach bars.

Jimmy Buffett, Sheryl Crow and Kenny Chesney have sung about being a beach bum. But none of them are. There have been countless beach bum-related movies, including the classic Endless Summer. But even that was about finding the perfect wave.

Beach bums don't do perfection.

In truth, anyone can claim to be a beach bum. Bill Christiansen, 38, describes himself on the Internet as a "beach bum who grew up with salt water in my nose." Christiansen is now executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.

Communities can do the same thing. The first weekend in October, Panama City Beach will hold its 20th annual Beach Bum Reunion. But the festival is primarily a tribute to the people who made that beach famous. And it's organized by the city with help from the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Beach bums also don't do Convention and Visitors Bureau events.

A Buddy Guy song came on the stereo system at the Ka'Tiki. It was from a blues collection Crawford recorded and had given to the bar.

"We all call him Jay Bird," said Nanci Reitmann, who has lived in Sunset Beach for 30 years and manages the Ka'Tiki. "He's one of the last, true beach bums."

Not so much because of his lifestyle, she said, but because of his outlook on life. His vibe.

"He's helped out with the Lupus Foundation events we had here and the beach cleanups ... he's someone we call a keeper," Reitmann said. "He'll give you the shirt off his back."

Or the space under this house.

Crawford has a friend named Mike who used to keep his clothes stored under a boat in somebody's back yard, until Crawford told him he could stash them in his shed. The man works as a gardener, but refuses to have a permanent address.

"He stayed with me four or five nights ago," Crawford said. "He asked if he could sleep underneath my house. I said okay, but for one night only. I can't make a habit of it.

"He's a good guy, but he can't find a place. I see people all the time hustling for a place to live out here. But housing is at a premium."

He doffed his cap, rubbed the top of his head and smiled. His salt and pepper finally is starting to return.

He traveled a long way to get here, and circumstances may change tomorrow, but on this sleepy afternoon at the Ka'Tiki, a beach bum is happy.

"Sometimes," he said, "people just need a second chance."

[Last modified May 1, 2004, 01:10:35]

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