Saturday, November 30, 2013

Tube Dude

When I first started hanging around Siesta Key a couple years ago, I noticed this nice metal stick-figure guy posing with the Turtle Beach sign. Then I saw another one, and another. And now the damn things are everywhere you look in this part of the Gulf.

At first I was disappointed that the first one wasn't unique, and thought "oh, it must be some generic store-bought thing that's everywhere like those horrifying air dancers that give me nightmares."

Well, it's true they are from a store now, but it wasn't always so. Scott Gerber was in the yacht business but went under in the 2008 recession. Just for something to do, he whipped up one of these metal tube people and placed it on his dock. Next thing you know, other people are asking him to make one for them too, and they began spreading around the area so fast, it became a local "what the heck is up with these things?" mystery. Now he has an actual thriving business selling them and a gallery displaying them on St. Armand's Key - and they're catching on nationwide! To date more than 15% of all Tube Dude production has gone to support fundraisers, golf tournaments, and other charitable events.


I've never eaten at the Bridgetender Inn on Anna Maria Island, but I have often been intrigued by this crudely painted sign outside.

Peeking through the window, however, provided nary a glimpse of any of these purported Molly products.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

John D. MacDonald

There's a lot of Florida-based crime/detective fiction out there, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it seemingly written by people who've never set foot in the Sunshine State in their life. Some of it bends over backwards to make Florida seem like an insanely dangerous hell-hole, which I obviously can't get behind. Others simply hint at the wackiness that makes our state so great without making the sensationalist tail wag the dog.

In fact, "Florida Crime Fiction" has literally become a genre unto itself, and I must plead this isn't what I had in mind when I wrote The Bartender and then subsequently moved to Florida, but hey, who am I to argue with the way the Matrix is programmed?

This genre of Florida detective-noir goes back to the grandfather of it all, John D. MacDonald, who penned twenty-one Travis McGee novels for two golden decades between 1964 and 1984, as well as a slew of other novels and stories including some science fiction and even westerns. Like the best of the classic "quantity is quality" pulp fiction authors, ol' J.D. was all over the place with his all-seeing eye.

His literary career began when his wife, unbeknownst to him, submitted a story he wrote to a magazine and it was published. MacDonald then threw himself into writing, conjuring up a word-hoard of 800,000 words, typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months straight. In the process, he lost 20 pounds and probably much of his sanity as well. But in the fifth month, he made a sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective and so began a long career in the pulps which led to an even longer career in the paperbacks. Perhaps his biggest inroad into popular culture came when his novel The Executioners was made into the classic film Cape Fear starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck.

MacDonald's real literary claim to fame, though, is Travis McGee. He's a private investigator who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, on a houseboat called The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. Unlike some hard-boiled detectives who are bored, bitter, callous and world-weary, McGee is very outspoken about his own philosophical ideals and causes - especially preservation of the environment. An example of McGee's ahead-of-his-time thinking, from the 1965 novel Bright Orange for the Shroud:

"Now, of course, having failed in every attempt to subdue the Glades by frontal attack, we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into drag-lined canals that give him "waterfront" lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying. All the area north of Copeland had been logged out, and will never come back. As the glades dry, the big fires come with increasing frequency. The ecology is changing with egret colonies dwindling, mullet getting scarce, mangrove dying of new diseases born of dryness."

Carl Hiassen, another notable Florida writer who followed in JDMD's footprints in the sand, said MacDonald was "the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty."

The Crescent Club, located on the southern end of Siesta Key near Stickney Point, was an especially beloved joint of MacDonald's, to the extent that almost every Florida dive-bar depicted in his books was a thinly veiled variation of it. It's dark, it has no theme or gimmick, it's neither seedy nor straight-laced. It's not filthy but it's not spotless either. It's not aimed at raucous youth, nor is it aiming to be an "old man bar". It's just.... a bar. But MacDonald saw in the Crescent Club a certain archetypal specialness that continues to resonate today.

According to Sarasota P.I. Bill Warner:

Nobody understood a place like the Crescent Club better than famed mystery writer John D. MacDonald; and, indeed, he used some version of it over and over again. It appears most prominently in his great Sarasota novel "Condominium". Here's his description of the Crescent Club: "Inside the ceiling was hung with nets, with glass and cork floats. Harpoons were chained to the walls. The low-power wall sconces held orange bulbs with orange shades. Overhead prisms shone puddles of white light down on the black Formica bar. The front edge of the bar and the barstools were upholstered in red Naugahyde, spotted with cigarette burns and old stains." With just a few minor changes, MacDonald's description still fits. The nets have been replaced with banners from various colleges, but they still hang from the ceiling. During the day two shafts of lights stream in from the open doors -- to me that's always been the mark of a real, old Florida place: doors open with the air-conditioning on -- and there's a drive-up window to purchase liquor, another old-timely touch.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sugarloaf Key Bat House

One mile northwest of U.S. 1 on Lower Sugarloaf Key (mile marker 17) is where you'll find this kooky old structure. It's the Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower, built in 1929 by fish camp owner Richter Clyde Perky. Perky's idea was to raise bats in hopes they'd help control the problematic mosquito problem there. He purchased the plans from a Texas bat enthusiast named Charles Campbell, but unfortunately the tower didn't work - as soon as Perky installed the live bats he had shipped in, they flew away and never returned.

According to Wikipedia:

There are three Campbell bat towers still standing (out of an original fourteen world-wide) in the United States: the Perky Tower; one in Comfort, Texas; and one at the Shangri-La Gardens in Orange, Texas. At least one of the Texas towers has been internally reconstructed so that bats currently roost in it. The ruins of a fourth Campbell tower, in Temple Terrace, Florida, burned in 1979 and now consists of the concrete base/legs. Temple Terrace is in the process of rebuilding their 1924 tower.

Perky intended to found a city named after himself, but gave up after his inability to cope with the swarms of mosquitos. It's a shame his bat population program didn't work out - bats love pineapple and back then, the predominant pineapple was the "sugarloaf" variety from which the island gets its name. The sugarloaf pineapples are soft and easily broken into, and the fruit inside (white, not yellow) is said to be so tender you can eat them with a spoon, like watermelon. Sadly, the sugarloaf was almost entirely phased out of modern agriculture in favor of today's firmer-fleshed types that are more durable for travel. (It's making a comeback though, and can be easily ordered from African and Hawaiian sources!)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hand of Death

Most everyone in America, especially from my generation, knows about the horrific disappearance and death of Adam Walsh, a little boy who was abducted from a Sears store in Hollywood, Florida on July 27, 1981. His head was subsequently found by fishermen in a canal in Vero Beach. A serial killer, arsonist and pervert from Jacksonville named Ottis Toole repeatedly confessed to Walsh's kidnapping and murder, then would retract his story, then re-confess all over again. He finally confessed again to the murder on his deathbed in prison.

Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't bother covering a downer of a story like the Walsh murder here on this blog - I have very little tolerance for lurid "true crime" news for its own sake. But it's where else the story leads that makes for some fascinating strangeness...

Toole was the gay lover and partner-in-crime of another serial killer - Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas and Toole met at a Jacksonville soup kitchen, and they soon developed a sexual relationship which led to a cross-country crime spree together. Both were caught up with by law enforcement agents separately - Toole in April 1983 for arson in Jacksonville, and Lucas two months later for the killing of an 82-year-old woman - but both told the story that they were members of a cannibalistic cult based in the Everglades called "The Hand of Death".

According to the book Hand of Death by Max Call:

Henry tells of his indoctrination into a nationwide Satanic cult, and says that he was trained by the cult in a mobile paramilitary camp in the Florida Everglades in the fine art of killing. Other training involved abduction and arson techniques. The first task he was given was the murder of one of the "students," a young black homosexual who had betrayed his oath to the Devil. He slit the man's throat and later that same evening, a Satanic ritual was performed in which the dead man's heart was cut out, his blood drained, and his body dismembered. All of the initiated members of the Hand drank the dead man's blood and ate pieces of his flesh. The remains of the body were then burned at an altar.

There were several hundred students at the Hand of Death training camp, coming from six different countries; over half of them were women. The camp provided unlimited access to all kinds of drug taking, which was encouraged recreational activity.

This would sound like absolute pure-D-baloney if not for the fact that both men told the same story separately, in different prisons to different interrogators. They claimed to have met a man calling himself Don Meteric who invited them to come to Miami and do "contract killings" for the Hand of Death. Meteric and Toole eventually admitted to Lucas that Toole had already been working for Meteric for years. According to Court TV, Lucas later said that at the time, he’d felt betrayed by Ottis and manipulated by him into joining the cult. Be that as it may, Lucas happily stayed a member and committed many more murders at their behest.

The group allegedly operated on remote swamp islands deep in the Everglades, accessible only by airboat. Police helicopters surveyed the Everglades and reported no sign of the encampments. Lucas told interviewers that the Hand of Death has connections to elements within the U.S. Government, so they were no doubt tipped off in advance to hide.

From David McGowan's Programmed to Kill:

Lucas claimed that he was trained by a nationwide satanic cult in a mobile paramilitary training camp in the Florida Everglades.... Henry further claimed the leaders of the camp were so impressed with his handling of a knife that he was allowed to serve as an instructor. Following his training, Henry claimed that he served the cult in various ways, including as a contract killer and as an abductor of children , whom he delivered to a ranch in Mexico near Juarez.

Three days before Lucas was scheduled to be executed, then-Governor George W. Bush (infamous for refusing to grant stays of execution to any Death Row inmate) did something he had never done before or since: he saved Henry Lee Lucas from the electric chair and commuted his sentence to life in prison instead. Of all the inmates he sent to death, many far more deserving of leniency than Lucas (he even sent to death a great-grandmother who killed her abusive husband in self defense) Bush chose to spare the life of one of America's most notorious serial killers.

Does that seem odd to you? If not quite, then perhaps this will - McGowan again:

And it could just be a coincidence that Toole, who was convicted in the state of Florida, shared with Henry the fate of having his death sentence commuted. Florida is, of course, a state that is also overly zealous in its application of the death penalty. Not zealous enough to execute the likes of Ottis Toole, however. In any event, it's interesting that both of these men had their death sentences set aside in states run by a member of the Bush family.

Toole died in prison in 1996, and Lucas in 2001. But the story doesn't end with their passing. In 2007, rumors began swirling that yet another serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, was also a member of the Hand of Death. Though he lived in Wisconsin in 1991 when arrested, Dahmer had actually been living in Miami Beach at the time Adam Walsh was murdered, and two eyewitnesses placed Dahmer at the Sears in Hollywood on the day Adam was abducted.

Dahmer preyed on young men and boys, and his modus operandi included severing his victims' heads. Dahmer denied any involvement with the Walsh case or with the Hand of Death group, but we'll never know for sure now because he was somehow killed in a maximum security prison by another inmate.

All of this is something to ponder on while you're driving down the long, lonely U.S. 41 in the Everglades, or the scary stretch of I-75 known as Alligator Alley there, connecting Naples to Miami for two hours of mind-numbing nothingness; dark swamps extending in all directions to the vanishing point.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Decorated House in Bradenton

Back home in Louisville, if you try to make your home a garishly decorated paradise, the city leans on you to get with the program and keep your house boring and normal like everybody's else's. Fortunately, in many areas of Florida, you can just let your architectural freak flag fly. We've given a previous example with this artist's home in Atlantic Beach and now here's a goodly one I've always enjoyed driving by in Bradenton.

Key Deer

The Florida Keys have their very own species of deer that exists only there: the Key Deer, Odocoileus virginianus clavium, originally roamed all of the lower Florida Keys but is now limited to a stretch from about Sugarloaf Key to Bahia Honda Key. How did they get here in the first place? Well, deer can swim, but it's been surmised by scientific sorts that they got here over a land bridge that must have existed towards the end of Wisconsin Glaciation period, roughly 10,000 years ago.

The earliest known written reference to Key Deer comes from the diary of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spanish sailor shipwrecked at the age of 13 in the Florida Keys in the 1550s. The Calusa captured and enslaved the ship's crew, eventually killing them all except for Fontaneda. He spent the next seventeen years living among them, learning several native American languages in the process and traveling extensively through Florida. In 1566 he was rescued by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida's first Spanish governor and founder of St. Augustine.

Estimates of Key Deer population are put as high as 800 nowadays, a far cry from the days when they numbered in the tens of thousands but certainly a step up from 1955 when it was feared that only as few as 25 specimens existed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alligator Wrestling

Florida's already been a pioneer in the dubious fields of bear wrestling and coleslaw wrestling, so it shouldn't really surprise anyone that at some point, some crackers would gaze upon a gator and say, "let's rassle it."

You can observe alligator wrestling matches in all its puzzling glory at Gatorland in Orlando and you can even, for a ten dollar fee, jump in the ring and wrestle one yourself. Me, I can't imagine paying money to watch such a thing or even to partake in such a thing, but on the other hand I suppose some of these rasslers can't imagine paying money to put a rolled-up handful of tobacco leaves in your mouth and set fire to it. To each their own.

But even kids are allowed to wrestle at some of these places, and that's definitely not cool. Parents, hypnotized by the dazzling circus-like atmosphere, apparently convince themselves that it's not that dangerous to let junior go out there and risk being eaten.

Don't let anyone convince you otherwise: it is dangerous, quite dangerous. A few years back, an article in Garden & Gun laid bare the insanity of the pursuit, mostly without judging but by letting the words of the wrestlers hang themselves:

Williams has “sat on more gators than you’ve ever seen in your life” and been bitten “too many times to count,” including once, during a show, when the gator’s teeth came straight through his hand. “The gator did what we call a lockup,” he explains. “He grabbed my hand and wouldn’t release. I told my backup guy, ‘We have a problem here,’ and he laughed and said, ‘What do you mean we?’” ...The force exerted by a twelve-foot alligator’s jaws is more than two thousand pounds per square inch, which is akin to having a Chrysler dropped on your wrist bone. Wrestlers have lost hands, had their heads crushed. Stitches numbering into the hundreds are not uncommon.

Despite the dwindling numbers of its hardcore practitioners, the art of gator wrestling has been "a thing" in Florida since at least the turn of the last century, and doesn't seem to be disappearing anytime soon. I'm surprised PETA hasn't made a bigger deal out of this, since they'll harass just about every other business on Earth that doesn't use animals in a way they approve of. But what with the popularity of dog racing here as well, may I propose alligator racing as a safer, saner, kinder-to-the-critter exploit? (At least no one here's thought of dog wrestling.)

Interestingly, according to Florida Memory, this most American of entertainments was actually introduced by the Seminoles. Somehow, there was a myth going around among the white man back then that Seminoles wrestled gators. When the Seminoles started marketing themselves as a tourist attraction in the early 20th century, they appropriated that misconception and played it up, staging alligator wrestling matches for the curious rubes from Minnesota to gawk at. And in so doing, they actually made the myth come true. Other manufactured "traditions" employed by the Seminole tourist traps include Totem Poles, Western-tribe-style costumes, and the Seminole Doll, which has actually now morphed into a bonafide cultural tradition with the passage of time.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Clear Sky

To paraphrase Brian Wilson, I've been all around this great big world and I've eaten all kinds of pancakes. But none beat the offerings at one of my very dearest favorite mess halls, Clear Sky in - where else? - Clearwater.

Oh, to be sure, their lunch specials are mighty tasty - such as the lobster roll pictured below - and I had some scintillating cocktails here. Most notably, one happy afternoon was spent tossing back Mudslides on the patio while waiting for the hand of fate to tap me on the shoulder.

But really, I came to Interzone for the pancakes, and more often than not, whenever I'm in CW I come to Clear Sky to get a steamin' platter of big round mapley things before adjourning next door to Havana Cigars and getting a stogie to stroll on the beach with.

Hulk Hogan lives in Clearwater, by the way, and has a surf shop right across the street. From your vantage point at Clear Sky you can often see him coming and going from his store, and I even bumped into him (not literally) shopping for groceries at Nature's Food Patch.

Easy Street

You've heard the phrase "living on Easy Street", but maybe you didn't know where to find it. Now it can be told: it's in Port Charlotte, FL. (And if you were looking for someone to tell you how to get to Sesame Street, it's in Opa-Locka.)

I hope you appreciate this picture, because as I was taking it, I looked down to see a huge black snake - probably a black racer - wrigglng beside my foot. If you were driving on the Tamiami last week and saw some guy in a fedora leap six feet in the air for seemingly no visible reason, yeah, that was me.

Slimer's Value Center

And then there's Slimer's Value Center in St. Pete Beach. Me, I would have played up the Ghostbusters angle on my logo but I guess they weren't feeling it. Never went in here. They sell women's clothing and I don't buy a lot of that. Well, except on special occasions. Anyway, there you have it.

I just checked and I see they've gone out of business. I guess it's up to me to preserve the legacy of Slimer. And his/her center. And its value.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Haslam's Book Store

There's a lot of websites - you know, those kind of websites - that claim Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg is haunted. And it could well be. There's certainly no shortage of weird mojo around St. Pete. Problem is, some of those kind of websites seem to think practically everyplace is haunted.

Which, come to think of it, could well be too.

Be that as it may, my interest in Haslam's is not for its haunting legends but for, firstly, the simple fact that it's just a darned fine bookstore. Surprisingly, though, for a place with so many books, there's a lot of certain subjects and certain authors I found lacking in their stock; maybe I'll sneak some in and just place them on their shelves as a little gift from me to them.

Secondly, their sign says they have every kind of book from "A" to "Izzard". What the hell is that about?

Thirdly and most significantly, Haslam's was regularly frequented by Jack Kerouac during the final period of his life when he lived at 5169 10th Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Stories are oft told that Kerouac was always getting in trouble with the owner for rearranging the books in a manner that suited him, especially his own books, which he would constantly sneak and place on prime display at eye-level.

You'd think the mere act of being Jack Kerouac would have earned him certain indulgences.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


If you, like me, are interested in everything and have a tendency to focus on little details that the common man routinely misses, you probably, also like me, love beachcombing. With every passing moment, the ocean waves bring new fragments of flotsam and jetsam ashore from the sea, and you never know what you'll find.

Shells, of course, are the most common treasures. It never ceases to amaze me how many seaside locations have stores selling bags of seashells, not even especially dazzling ones. I just want to shake both the vendors and the customers and shout, "You're at the freaking OCEAN! You don't have to BUY SEASHELLS!!"

Sea glass is particularly fun to collect, for both ornamental and historic value. As broken glass finds its way into the ocean, what was the pollution of our ancestors becomes, over time, perfectly polished and frosted smooth nuggets of color. You can easily identify the source of many pieces - the recognizable "Coke bottle green" from old Coca-Cola bottles, for instance, and the tell-tale cobalt blue that almost always means Milk of Magnesia. Extremely rare colors include pink (often from Depression-era glass like Carnival Glass), teal (often from Mateus wine bottles), yellow (often from old Vaseline containers), and red (often from old beer bottles or nautical lights.) Orange is the rarest color of all, reportedly showing up only once per 10,000 pieces. Black sea glass is usually from very ancient pirate-era bottles that had iron slag added during production.

I haven't heard of anyone fetishizing "sea plastic" in same manner, but while surveying the area approaching the North Atlantic Garbage Gyre, I retrieved a staggering amount of tiny bits of colorful plastic, similarly buffeted by the elements.

Pottery shards are more common than you'd expect, and it's awe-inspiring to gaze on a piece of an ornate china plate and imagine the events that transpired on the track of time that led it to be held in your hand, right where you are sitting now.

And naturally, pirate treasure is what we all really want to find accidentally while walking our schnauzers, don't we? It really does happen. Spanish doubloons, antique buttons and bullets, and ancient salt-encrusted nautical bric-a-brac frequently washes up along Florida's "Treasure Coast". Some define the "Treasure Coast" as being Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin, and Palm Beach counties, but I would logically extend the definition all the way up the coast to include St. Augustine.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cigar Store Safari

There's a lot of things I miss about Kentucky, but most of all I miss the days of life in St. Matthews when I had a house with a wine cellar and a walk-in humidor for that most Floridian of fancies: cigars. Talk about your "man caves"; I camped out down there literally for days at a time, like a Franciscan in a monastery studying illuminated manuscripts. (Except my manuscripts were moldy old pulp fiction and the dusty old dregs of comicdom.)

After I moved from there to the JSH Plantation in Anchorage (Kentucky), I tried to set up a primitive cellar and humidor in the unfinished basement, but it just wasn't the same. And from there, I entered into a still-ongoing period where I constantly go out and forage for a few cigars at a time, rather than keep them hoarded at home. I don't do those little-bitty desk humidors; they're a pain in the ass to fiddle with and it's strangely far easier to keep a whole room properly humidified than a small cedar box on your desk.

In Louisville, hustlin' sticks was easy, for the most part. With Riverside Cigars just over the puddle in Jeffersonville, Indiana (Where I scored Nat Sherman, Drew Estate Undercrown and the Riverside Cigars Casa Especial), J. Shepherd's in the Highlands (where I got my Leccia Black, Jaime Garcia, Tatuaje, La Duena and Tarazona 305), Kremer's downtown (Kristoff, Ashton VSG, Quesada Tributo), Oxmoor Smoke Shop in Oxmoor Mall (Perdomo Lot 23, CAO Sopranos) and - if I was really desperate enough to pay inflated prices for poorly-kept sticks - several Cox's and Liquor Barn locations. I even came to know all the lesser-known little nooks and crannies where cigars could be found, like a place on Bardstown Road that sold glass pipes and crap like that, but also had a small walk-in stocked with goodies like the LFD Airbender. And Claudia Sanders Dinner House, of all places, had an innocuous little humidor of stogies quietly sitting off to the side in their little-used upstairs.

But now that I'm in constantly on the go in Florida, traveling for work (the great work), I continually have to re-suss the lay of the land wherever I go and try to let my nervous system's cigar-detecting antenna reach its invisible tentacles out, sniffing, feeling, searching for those elusive boxed beauties until, like a dowsing rod, something begins to twitch and quiver in recognition of its goal.

My tour of duty in Jacksonville started off with a bad omen - a great cigar store had long existed in San Marco Square, just moments walk from my house - but had recently closed down. Fortunately, I soon sought out Tobacco Cove, a great place with a bunch of great old guys loungin' around and talkin' trash. Here is where I got turned on to a lot of this year's faves, like my current all-time #1 stick, Alec Bradley Nica Puro. I got in such a groove on those, I actually had to stop tweeting my cigars for awhile because it was Nica Puro every day and got just plain redundant.

Espinosa is another brand that was new to me until Tobacco Cove, as was the Esteban Carerras Chupa Cabra.

Meanwhile, I discovered four other great places - Island Girl Cigar Bar (with three locations!), Art of Cigars, Aromas and Smoke City. I mostly played it safe at Island Girl and propped up the bar with old standbys like Alec Bradley Black Market (I still worship this cigar for some reason, even though they're often too tight and have a real vegetal quality at the very end) and Drew Estate Liga Privada No. 9. Smoke City, whose dinosaur we've already discussed, provided me with stuff like Revolution, Upper Cut, Gurkha Ninja, and Gurkha Evil. At Aromas I got a little more experimental with oddball stuff like Pura Sangre, a Ventura offering which initially smelled like a cage at the zoo but once lit, honestly was a delicious, powerful and tantalyzing spicy smoke. I miss it. Good times.

Then came Clearwater. Not so good. Once again, I found there had recently been a cigar store - very close to where I was living - on Fort Harrison Avenue, but it had given up the ghost. I quickly determined there to be a number of cigar shops over the bridge in Clearwater Beach but they mostly specialized in hand-rolled stuff - and just between you and me and the microphone in the potted plant, dear reader, I'm a real snob about my hand-rolleds and hard to satisfy. Fusion Cigars carried a decent line of name brands but unfortunately they don't open until 3pm and I usually stepped out to fetch my fineries in the mornings. A little joint in a strip mall called Smoker's Paradise turned out to be my primary smoke source while in CW, and they got me obsessed with Nish Patel's XEN cigar, which is a creamy-tasting Connecticut-wrapper "breakfast cigar" that puts off a lot of billowy smoke with a real ass-kick to it.

Finally, my cigardian angel led me to a place way out Highway 19, called Smoker's Den who showed me the San Lotano love and the ways of Asylum 13 as well as stocking my XENs. But aside from a rack of My Uzi Weighs A Ton baitfish packs at Smoker's Paradise, there wasn't a serious Drew Estate to be had in the whole damn city. Mark my words, there's a real market void waiting for someone to fill it: there needs to be a serious cigar shop that sells the good high-end collector's stuff right in downtown Clearwater, preferably on Cleveland Street.

Now I'm on Siesta Key, that wacky party-island off the coast of Sarasota, learning the ropes all over again about where to find the rope-a-dope. For the third city in a row, I found a shut-down cigar store that had been right at the top of my street, practically. These are apparently tough times for the stick-store business; watch yourselves, boys, keep sharp.

As luck would have it, I soon found a hip liquor store called Siesta Spirits that has a goodly humidor full of can't-go-wrong crowd-pleasers like Arturo Fuente Hemingway and Drew Estate Natural Clean Robusto. Over on the mainland, I discovered Mardo's, a place run by a guy who was very knowledgeable in some ways (he could rattle off the entire history of many of the companies and knew the exact composition of every cigar he stocked, right down to the country of origin of the filler) but then said some baffling things too (like, regarding several new upstart companies I mentioned, he muttered dismissively, "Ehnh. All those places get their cigars from Oliva and put their own band on it, who needs it?")

Most recently, I was relieved to find Bennington's on St. Armand's Key (who also stocks my local snooty-grocery, Morton's, with their cigars) carries the XEN and a boatload of other good stuff including some new to me, such as Giacomo's and Flor de las Antillas. And then there's Norman's Liquors way out Clark Road - they have a way deep walk-in with an old favorite of mine from back in the Kentucky days, Perdomo Patriarch. But it's Sarasota's Maduro Cigar Bar that takes the prize for the place to go - crazy-complete selection of sticks and a dark cozy atmosphere, where a man can hibernate, drink craft beer, and ponder his sins. When I saw they had cans of Drew Estate's Papas Fritas I knew the hand of providence had placed me right where I belonged.

Papas Fritas are an exercise in audacity that not many other than Jonathan Drew might have attempted - selling an expensive product that is openly admitted to be a recycled short-filler amalgamation of leftover table sweepings from construction of Liga Privada cigars. But these Frankenstein french fries really are tasty.

Other cities I find myself often in include St. Petersburg, where I recently discovered the joys of Central Cigars, a really dark can't-see-my-cigar-till-I-light-it saloon with one whole wall of smokes going off practically into the vanishing point. In several visits to St. Augustine, I've learned where every cigar is to be had - but usually go to St. Augustine Tobacco, hidden deep in the labyrinth of the Colonial Quarter. Ybor City, of course, is such the cigar capital that you can't throw a rock without hitting a tobacconist.

And then there's Orlando. Well, the less said about Orlando, the better.

Sooner or later my Steampunk Tiki-Bar concept, the Pulcova Club, will be up and running and then once again I will have a wine cellar and walk-in humidor to lord over, like an evil genius in his doomsday fallout shelter. You're welcome to join me... until then, I'm out there on the hunt, constantly vigilant, searching the seaside for the sweetest sticks, day by day, hour by hour, to help serve the cause to which we all are so devoted.

Stay tuned; developing.