One fine day
"In every out-thrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth." - Rachel Carson, biologist, writer and ecologist (1907-1964)
By JADE JACKSON LLOYD and PAUL SWIDER
Published April 17, 2005
Along more than 20 miles of sand, a day at the beach takes on many connotations for people who are drawn there. Neighborhood Times staff writer Jade Jackson Lloyd and correspondent Paul Swider spent a day traveling through as many beach towns as they could in 12 hours. Jackson Lloyd's adventure began in Belleair Beach and went south, while Swider made his way north from Fort De Soto Park. From sunrise to sunset, they offer snapshots of the people who live, work and visit the shorelines by chronicling "A Day in the Life" of the beaches.
6:24 a.m., Belleair Beach Marina
The day dawns gray and blue, the clouds like wads of cotton drifting north in the sky. A streetlight blinks out as the day breaks above the pier.
Here, in the northernmost point of the city limits, 22 powerboats and yachts nearly rub against one another in dry docks and boat slips. The bow of the Bah Humbug juts toward Gulf Boulevard.
Life is evident in the sounds of gulls squawking overhead, the occasional car driving along Gulf Boulevard to the west and the lights of four condominiums illuminating the otherwise gloomy morning. The condos, in three high-rise buildings, are in Clearwater Beach to the north. Once cars cross into this smaller city, condos top out at just a few stories.
6:33 a.m., Fort De Soto
A pair of fishermen drag a canoe in the predawn low tide off the eastern shore of Fort De Soto Park, painting an impressionist sunrise as waves lap against the ankles of pipers out for a morning feed. The birds are the show at this spot, where birder Ruth Richards would rather gaze at the scampering creatures than talk about them.
"I don't want to say this is the best birding place I've seen," says Richards, of Columbus, Ohio, after a clockwise coastal tour around Florida, "because then everyone will want to come out here and it will be ruined."
She lifts her binoculars to see if she can spy another new species for her records. She was amazed to find godwits and curlews on this trip - strange, ungainly, improbable animals.
"God's creation is wonderful," she says, taking the binoculars down and scanning her field guide. "I don't want to say this is the best place, but it most definitely is."
6:36 a.m., 200 Howard Drive, Belleair Beach
Nicholas Leounes pulls dollar weeds from his immaculately landscaped front yard. Among the flowers and the shrubs, he waits for the woman he still calls his fiancee, even after 54 years of marriage.
He describes his wife as the talker of the two, more colorful. Venetia Leounes - who's quick to sound out her name for you, vin-eh-TEE-a - doesn't disappoint. She's a canvas of color this morning, wearing rouged cheeks and lipstick for the couple's daily walk with their Yorkshire terrier, Teddy Bear.
"When we came, we could see the water," she says.
"Sand Key was empty, period," he adds. "Now it's starting to get populated. It's getting too expensive."
She walks quickly, despite her cane, on his left, Teddy Bear impatient and pulling her along by his red leash.
7:19 a.m., 100 block of 23rd Street, Belleair Beach
Drive. Stop. Watch for traffic. Drive a bit more. Stop.
Vernon Williams repeats this series of tasks countless times on a typical day. From 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 or 4 p.m., the Trinidad native drives Waste Management truck No. 337 from the streets of Belleair Beach to east and west Seminole. He has been driving the green and white trucks for nine years.
At 71, his Hershey's-hued skin, milky blue eyes and trim physique seem that of a man in his 40s. His secret? Activity, he says.
"I keep myself fit," he says in his melodic island accent. "I keep working and that makes me strong. I'll do it as long as the Lord gives me strength."
7:27 a.m., Seaside Grill, Pass-a-Grille
Like many others, Linda Brinton knows what it's like to spend the day staring at a little screen, only to go home and stare at a larger one to unwind. She spent 30 years as a computer analyst before retiring and moving to St. Pete Beach. This morning, her gaze is fixed on a rectangle of light, but this one is the frame of a window facing the Gulf of Mexico.
"I consider this relaxation," she says from behind the counter of the Seaside Grill as she serves coffee in an ad hoc assortment of mugs. "This is the perfect view.
"We've got a great group of regulars," she says as she pours cup after cup for people who don't even need to order. Pausing between customers, she stops again to look west. "I love just standing here."
7:58 a.m., Sandy's Restaurant, Indian Rocks Beach
Three cars occupy the nine spaces in front of the diner that lays claim to "the best breakfast on the beach." Two waiters serve 10 customers as a Simon & Garfunkel song melds into Barbra Streisand on the radio, somewhere behind the front counter.
Just outside, the Standard Oil Co. sells regular unleaded gas for $2.14 a gallon. Customers walk and ride their bikes to the restaurant, which competes with the Cafe de Paris Bakery two doors down for morning business.
A graying man in Bermuda shorts emerges from the bakery with a white bag. He places it on the handlebars of his 10-speed and looks north, waiting for a break on now-bustling Gulf Boulevard.
8:33 a.m., Internet cafe, Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach
Even at the beach, there is e-mail.
"A lot of people on vacation want to get away from their computers, but others just have to check their e-mail," says Robert Czyszczon, part of the family that owns the Plaza Beach Hotel.
The hotel opened the Internet cafe with three computers a couple of years ago, not as a moneymaker but an amenity, Czyszczon says. It's not even a real cafe, doesn't serve any food or drinks, just bits and bytes in the lobby.
8:55 a.m., BATS Taxi, St. Pete Beach
For Larry Vaughan, a day at the beach means sitting inside a dingy, smoke-filled office talking on the phone.
"I love dispatching," he says of his work at BATS Taxi, the ubiquitous service in beach communities, complete with a bat insignia on its cabs. BATS, which stands for Bay Area Taxi Service, is the only cab company on the beach - not unusual when you consider property values. Vaughan has been dispatching cabs for 20 years; drove one for a while, too.
He says that most of the business comes at night when people have partied too much to drive, or in the day from people who didn't use a taxi when they should have and are no longer allowed to drive.
As the Indiana native lights another cigarette, a driver walks into the office grinning with incomplete dentition. He said he got a call to take a gallon of milk to a pancake restaurant because it had run out. Holding the sweating plastic bottle, he says he took it from his own refrigerator.
"How's that for service," he says with a chuckle. "What is that, a $10 delivery charge?"
9:05 a.m., Bluff View Drive, Belleair Bluffs
Jeff James rides his bike down Bluff View Drive, empty save for the occasional construction or city worker. He keeps Caine, his 1-year-old pit bull, on a short lease.
The 18-year-old comes to this community, between Belleair and the Intracoastal Waterway east of the Belleair Causeway, to visit his uncle. Residents in this tiny town live in a handful of aging condo towers like Harbour Club or a pretty row of houses with large lawns and the water a short drop from their back yards.
When asked if he enjoys it here, he shakes his head, then shrugs.
"I'm not from Florida," he says.
9:41 a.m., Sunset Park, St. Pete Beach
Around the corner from Woody's, a gaggle of people cling to rocks at the mouth of Blind Pass, tossing baited hooks into the froth. Down within the pass, almost all alone, is Matt Gibson, entrepreneur from Circleville, Ohio.
"That's the best fishing, out there on the point, if you want to sit on a rock," he says, lighting a cigarette and perching himself comfortably on the smooth seawall.
A first-time vacationer to the bay area after years of renting on the east coast, Gibson says his favorite places had hurricane damage, so he stuck a pen in the map and came up with St. Pete Beach. As he fishes, he says his wife is probably asleep on the beach while his two teenage sons are no doubt "chasing girls."
Gibson says he likes this area but can't believe how expensive it is. The owner of convenience stores, sports bars and a trucking company, Gibson says he and his family want for little. But condo prices - even boat rentals - are out of his league.
"I live pretty well back home," he says, "but I ain't s-- compared to these people."
10:05 a.m., Gayle's Restaurant, St. Pete Beach
This place has a historical feel - with hints that it's probably waterproofed from the inside out after 50 years of frying. Enjoying breakfast at the counter, so organic to the scene that the counter couldn't exist without him, is Tom Kilpatrick, who has owned Gayle's from the beginning.
"There was hardly anything out here in 1954," says Kilpatrick, an 86-year-old Tennessean who named the restaurant for his oldest daughter. "In those days, if you had a $20 bill, you were rich."
He says he has had a pretty good run on the beach, but not by fortune, more by grit.
Stirring up his heavily seasoned home fries with a jelly-covered English muffin, Kilpatrick says he believes anything is possible with enough hard work. He says he still washes dishes and mopped the floors just last night. He has seen the beaches change time and again, but he's still here, slinging hash.
"I got a hard head," he says. "I don't ask people for too much."
10:15 a.m., City Hall, Indian Rocks Beach
Beth McCuen came to City Hall to get a parking decal for her car. A second-generation resident, the 42-year-old talks with city staffers who knew her parents and her three children.
Her home is visible through the building's glass doors.
"See right through the trees, the baby seat?" she says, pointing. "That's me."
Her family moved here in 1964, when she was a baby. The housewife has never known anywhere else and really doesn't want to.
Time was when everybody knew everybody and the town felt more like one big neighborhood. Now, the mayor of 11 years just retired and developers are coming in.
"It was smaller: small businesses, small hotels," she says. "It's turning into Belleair Beach because of the condos. We like the dinky little hotels. We like we're a small town. It's getting too commercial."
But she still loves it here.
"If there was (another) hurricane, we've talked about moving," she says. "But I would have withdrawal symptoms."
10:40 a.m., 16th Avenue Beach Access, Indian Rocks Beach
The beach is full of spring breakers and snowbirds, all seeking to soak up the hide-and-seek sun.
Jan Smith meanders off the ramp toward the shower area and sits on a bench. The Chicago native, 63, finds being outside without risking frostbite refreshing.
Here for a week, her family has spent the time riding up and down Gulf, visiting the Dali Museum and eating at different restaurants.
"We haven't had great beach days," she says, but "just the idea you can sit on a bench with short sleeves is a treat."
Pointing to a black lizard lounging at the base of the beach ramp, she adds: "I'm just having a good time seeing how people spend their time. Just taking time to slow down and notice the geckos."
10:54 a.m., Treasure Island
Donald Trump doesn't sweat like this.
"There are people who are smart enough to sit in an air-conditioned office and make money," says John Volpe. "If you're not that smart, you do what I do."
Volpe is standing among a shambles of tools, projects, collectibles and miscellaneous materials. A Trump of sorts, he owns most of the block on which his house sits, including a kitschy motel bearing his name, Volpe's Villa. Along this section of Sunset Beach, the property is probably worth millions - and Volpe owns more in Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. Dressed in jeans, a grimy T-shirt and one of those workplace-safety lifting belts, he works on his properties himself, as he has since he started in real estate at age 18, the way he learned it in Illinois before he left 35 years ago. He furrows his brow at the Sisyphean jumble in his garage.
"Look at this mess," he says. "I'm just working every day trying to keep my head above water."
Sure, he could sell some property and relax, but Volpe says he wouldn't know how to live that way. Besides, he wants to leave the property to his children, though they are in real estate, too.
"Sometimes the work gets overwhelming," he puffs, moving some plumbing fixtures out of the way. "I'll never get it all done."
11:19 a.m., Beach Pavilion on Sunset Beach
A gentle wind hints of waves in the gulf, tempting surfers out of the woodwork. Their efforts are in vain today, though, because the waves never get above 3 feet and only run a pathetic 20 feet before boards are dragged to shore. Quintessential snowbirds Mary and Paul Kroczak of Michigan watch from the shelter of the pavilion.
Mary is chatty, friendly. Paul is the opposite, refusing to engage a stranger. His wife says she talks for him.
"We've been all over the state," she says of their 27 winter escapes from Detroit, culminating in a 20-year streak of coming to Treasure Island. "This is the best place. It's the most comfortable."
They're renters but have enjoyed enough security from Paul's construction pension to stay in Treasure Island from Christmas through March each year. When Mary looks around and sees small homes and motels being replaced by high-rises, though, she senses that the comfort she has always felt in an almost-forgotten finger of land like Sunset Beach is fading.
"We're still in love with Treasure Island," she says, as much to convince herself as anyone listening.
12:16 p.m., the Pub Waterfront Restaurant and Lounge, Indian Rocks Beach
Richard and Margie Greif eat here at least once a week. They like it because they can access it by boat, and the staff treats them like the regulars they are.
Richard, 68, and Margie, 63, moved to Clearwater in September but have been visiting the area since the 1970s. They've noticed considerable change along the beach.
"Access to it has changed," she says.
"There isn't any," her husband adds. "We can't even get to the beach now."
Jon Pierson, 42, walks past their table into the dining room inside. He has been the manager here for six years but has worked at the Pub for 10 more.
He loves working near the water, but he can't afford to live here. Owning a home in Seminole makes more sense to him than paying several hundred thousand for a condo.
Pierson glances at the clock.
"What is it, 12:30? Another 30, 45 minutes, we'll probably have a line."
1 p.m., Double D's, Madeira Beach
Part of Gulf Boulevard resembles one long tunnel of construction as buildings go up along either side. Just a block east are quiet residential neighborhoods. Some homes are on the water, but it's hard to see unless you glimpse a little blue between fences. Then around one corner at 137 Avenue Circle is the unmistakable signal of the sea: the smell of rotting fish.
Amid modest homes sits Double D's Seafood, a packinghouse that has been processing grouper, snapper, swordfish, shark, you name it, for more than 40 years. The block structure, flanked by a towering icemaker, exudes the scent of every fish that has passed its halls. Fish stink doesn't usually evoke nostalgia, but Double D's is going the way of the dodo ... to condo.
"It's just a matter of time before everything here sells out," says Bill White, the third generation of the Crabby Bill's clan, which owned Double D's for five years before selling it to make room for 21 waterfront townhomes.
Where will the fish come from?
"Six percent of all the grouper caught in the gulf comes through John's Pass," White says. Double D's was one of three processing plants, another of which sits across a small inlet and fronts Gulf Boulevard, making it at least as much of a target.
"Commercial fishing is going to have to relocate. I hate to see it go."
2 p.m., North Redington Beach Hilton
View from the Veranda, the hotel's patio restaurant: A group of girls in bikinis saunter along the beach below. Three people on water scooters cut white lines of surf in the water. Blue beach umbrellas line the sand, sheltering patrons from the sun. Swimmers wade near shore, the sun's heat bouncing off the cool gulf waters.
3:54 p.m., 400 block of Bath Club Boulevard N, North Redington Beach
Dirt covers Dave Elliott's jeans and cutoff Flintstones T-shirt. Black marks streak his tanned arms and his face - telltale signs of having conquered the front lawn.
"I just got finished putting in a yard," he says, pride evident in his Northeastern accent. As Elliott's 13-year-old nephew, Derek, sweeps the driveway behind him, Elliott points back toward the house owned by his father.
"We just put in this addition, almost 3,000 square feet," he says. "For whatever reason, the grass has a life span and it just dies."
So Elliott replaced it with Derek's help. "He got paid seven or eight bucks an hour," Elliott says. "For a 13-year-old, I think that's pretty good."
In the time his father has lived here, Elliott hasn't noticed real changes.
"It's pretty much stayed the same," he says. "The only thing that really changes is politics. Stupid things, that's the only things you really see."
4 p.m., Redington Shores
The potential for condo canyons along the beach becomes apparent the farther north one travels. In Redington Shores, the high-rises far outnumber the small buildings and businesses that provided fodder for development. A few hang tight, despite the odds.
Outside Bob's Auto Service sits a shiny 1973 Nova, fiery red with a black vinyl roof and gleaming wheels. Bob Owens, the owner, hunches over the right front wheel. Despite the incongruity of a car mechanic on rapidly gentrifying coastal property, Owens feels no urgency to go anywhere.
"I've been here 27 years and I'm still making a living," Owens says of his small shop that specializes in vintage muscle cars. Camaros and Corvettes loiter nearby, poised to pounce on the street once Bob sets them back to purring. He says people come from as far away as Sarasota for his special touches.
"I'll stay here until somebody offers me the right amount of money."
4:05 p.m., Suncoast Trolley stop, Gulf Boulevard, Redington Beach
Chris Flowers waits for a beach trolley to take him south to Madeira Beach. Friends in town for spring training have his 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue and are waiting for him at Bamboo Beer Garden.
The 28-year-old works three jobs, but it's not to pay for school or to make his bills in John's Pass.
He spends 80 hours a week bartending and waiting tables at Conch Republic, Captain Al's and the Pub to finance his best friend Ryan's tri-state bachelor party.
"Philly, Atlantic City and Vegas, hotel suites - it's expensive," he says, still dressed in the black shorts and Conch Republic T-shirt he wore during his last shift.
When the party's over, he plans to limit himself to one job at whichever restaurant pays the most.
"I'll return to normal life: fishing, golfing, reading and drinking," he says, smiling, smoking.
4:34 p.m., La Contessa Condominiums, Redington Beach
Mark Tearney pulls up in his silver Infiniti G35. As the blond in his passenger seat stays glued to her cell phone, the 36-year-old Hudson resident gets out and points to the burnt orange four-story building 30 feet away.
"Even for $1-million, it's hard to find a nice place," he says. He and his wife, who's at work, are looking to sell their $900,000 waterfront home in Pasco County to move here.
La Contessa might be the place. Today, he's looking at a 2,300-square-foot condo for $1.2-million.
His Realtor ends her call and the two of them walk toward the entrance.
5:10 p.m., Surfs Inn motel, Madeira Beach
Pam and Ron Lantz hate what's happening to their peers but love what it's doing for their business.
The couple have owned this 32-room motel since 1994. While they're sorry to see their friends sell to developers, they say it has given them a bona fide boom.
"It's wonderful for us because it's pushing all the business our way," says Pam, 49, a second-generation motel owner. "Our summer's looking fantastic."
Her husband says that some of their customers have been coming to the city for 30 years in search of budget- and family-friendly places like theirs. The Lantzes say their two-story property with a pool and beach access offers something big chains or fancy condos cannot: personalized service.
"A lot of people don't want condos," she says. "They want smaller places that feel like family."
6 p.m., Ink and Steel, Indian Rocks Beach
Gulf Boulevard gets almost leafy in spots, though the condos are ever-present. It turns into a narrow two-lane street that feels almost residential. Occasionally you see small strip malls with restaurants or beach shops, maybe a hair salon. Dan Morales says there's been a tattoo shop of one kind or another on the beach for at least five years. For the past three, it has been his, which also does piercings.
"It was slow the last couple years, but I'm getting a lot of business from spring break this year," says the husky artist with a New York accent to go along with his Yankees paraphernalia. "Otherwise, I get all my business during the summer."
6:55 p.m., Sunset Beach, Treasure Island
A woman and three little girls look on as the artist adds touches of brown to a painting of a blue octagonal building a few yards away. Smudges of sand grace the clouds he created, like those that hovered above the building, earlier today.
Typically people flock to this stretch of sand to revel in the beautiful sunsets. Tonight, they missed out: The sun faded behind thick gray clouds and a wall of wet fog rolled in from the north.
So Robert Dwelley, 50, and his work have become the main attraction.
The Boston native came to town to paint houses for a few months. When that job fell through, he took to bringing his turpentine and his canvases, his paints and his easel to the beach.
The building's shape and its fate drew Dwelley's attention: It's being torn down to make way for a parking lot.
A man carrying a red cup on his way to nearby Caddy's asks if the painting's for sale.
"Oh, we sell it," Dwelley says with a laugh.
Paper creations run $25 to $300. Canvas costs more, from $150 to $300. He has sold 20 or so in the two months he has been here, he says.
As the man walks on, darkness drapes around him and people fill the bars nearby. Neon lights pierce the darkening sky.
Dwelley starts packing up.
"Where I'm from, everything is beige," he says, looking at the sea-blue building that will soon be gone. "It's a piece of memory."