Monday, July 28, 2014


Since 1968, Tarpon Springs' Sponge-O-Rama Museum has welcomed visitors from all over the world to come and gawk and learn all about our friend the sea sponge and its many household uses. The building apparently has changed very little since 1968, and the orientation film hasn't either. Wait, orientation film? Yep. A man who used to run the gift shop next door (but doesn't anymore) appears on screen and says thoughtfully, "If a few of you were thinking about buying a sponge today, and I sure hope you are, there are a few things that we think are so important for you to understand about the natural sponge...." And it only gets better from there.

Snarkiness aside, though, it really is a fact and not mere PR hype that Tarpon Springs is the sea sponge capital of the world. I had never given the topic much thought, but had I done so, I might have previously presumed it to have been someplace like Madagascar, Okinawa, Australia, or something.

Technically, the name of the place is spelled "Spongeorama" but since their cruise ship renders it with hyphens, I'm going with that. Hyphens around O's make everything better.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Florida Dogwood Little People

The flowering Florida dogwood (Cornus florida) brings bright white sepals/bracts to the fields, lasting for two to three weeks. It isn't actually the white petals that constitute the bloom, but the tiny yellow flowers in the center, almost unseen. Dogwood season in America always starts in Florida and works its way up north.

The Cherokee have a legend that "The Little People" - also known as Yunwi Tsunsdi - a miniscule race, believed by many to be absolutely real, live among the Florida dogwood trees. The Yunwi Tsunsdi are miniature beings described in ancient Cherokee lore as sometimes being spirits and sometimes being diminutive humanoids about two feet tall. According to the legends, these beings may have different types of appearances and may be of three or four different types. Descriptions of them range from kindly but mischievous to somewhat more malicious tricksters. They reportedly have the power to confuse humans' minds, and to turn invisible at will.

Perhaps this is one of those.

I also find it interesting that my own Irish ancestors who came to America had "little people" legends of their own - the Leprechaun, the Clurichaun, and the Faerie. Not to mention Sprites, Hobs, Korrigans, Pixies, Elves, Imps, Brownies, Goblins, Gremlins, Boggarts, and Lubber Fiends.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Marjorie Kinnan was born in 1896 in Washington, D.C., and was a precocious writer, publishing short stories in newspapers in elementary school, and winning a literary prize for her story The Reincarnation of Miss Hetty at the age of 15.

She married Charles Rawlings in 1919, and the couple moved to Louisville, KY, where they both worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal. By 1928, they'd relocated to Cross Creek, Florida, where they lived on a 72 acre orange ranch. Mr. Rawlings did not take to Florida living, but Marjorie fell in love with the area and its "Florida Cracker" culture, which transformed her writing. But the crackers weren't so in love with Marjorie and didnt know what to make of this big-city girl who was suddenly writing about them. In 1930, Scribner's accepted two of her stories, "Cracker Chidlings" and "Jacob's Ladder," with characters based on her neighbors at Cross Creek. Locals became paranoid and uppity, in a textbook example of one of a writer's worst problems - the "Hey, is that character supposed to be ME?" syndrome. One mother reportedly recognized, or claimed to recognize, her son as the subject of a story and threatened to whip Rawlings until she was dead.

(Oh, those Florida crackers! They're a little funny in their ways, but you gotta get to know 'em. Oh, they may threaten to kill you, but that's just their way. Marjorie should have just thanked her lucky stars she wasn't yet living in the age of meth, "bath salts" and oxycontin.)

Marjorie's first novel, all about the lives of Florida Moonshiners, was called South Moon Under, published in 1933. To get the necessary realism for the story, she actually lived with a moonshiner in Ocala for several weeks. I wonder what hubby thought of that? Apparently not much, for in that same year he left her and moved back north.

Her three most popular books then followed: The Yearling, When the Whipporwill, and Cross Creek. In particular, The Yearling was her true claim to fame, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and was subsequently made into a very successful Hollywood movie. Suddenly she found herself deluged with offers, deals, fan mail and friends, but chose to continue living the simple life in the swamplands.

But reality just wouldn't stand for Marjorie's reportage. In 1943, she faced a libel suit over Cross Creek by her friend Zelma Cason. Ironically, Cason had been the one who helped to smooth over the fracas with the woman wanting to kill her for writing about her son. Now Cason was the one who was furious over Marjorie's depiction of her:

"Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed, or guided through their troubles."

Though Marjorie and Zelma eventually mended their friendship, she moved away and never wrote about Cross Creek again. She bought a beach cottage ten miles south of St. Augustine, and married Ocala hotelier Norton Baskin (who remodeled an old St. Aug mansion into the Castle Warden Hotel, which is now the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum).

Marjorie was vociferously about rural and beach living, and harbored an intense hatred of cities. She wrote a sonnet titled, "Having Left Cities Behind Me", a portion of which states:

"Now, having left cities behind me, turned away forever from the strange, gregarious huddling of men by stones, I find those various great towns I knew fused into one, burned together in the fire of my despising..."

She died in 1953 in St. Augustine, and is buried in Antioch Cemetery near Island Grove, FL.

Neptune Grill

It's not easy running a restaurant near the beach in Gulfport. With O'Maddy's completely ruling the scene and serving up some of the most delicious eats on the peninsula, the other places seem to be at a loss on how to compete. Sadly, some of them don't even try. Neptune Grill, like most of the other places near O'Maddy's, was nearly empty the night my party dropped in... while O'Maddy's was bustling like always.

The food was good. I had a grouper sandwich. Of course. But as you can see in the picture, it doesn't even come close to comparing to O'Maddy's in size or luscious-lookingness. In all fairness, and lest you begin to think I'm a shill for O'Maddy's, I haven't eaten there in two months - because amazing as their food and service is, there's always a long wait and I don't like to wait. Conversely, there's always a seat available at Neptune. Factor these facts by any method that suits you.

The french fries sucked. But french fries suck almost everywhere nowadays. Sad but true.

My biggest problem with the place is that the waitress was spacey-acting, unfriendly and seriously needs to read the rules on how to be a good waitress. I didn't do my usual walking out routine this time, because a friend was starving and just wanted something, anything, edible right here, right now.

But I'd actually eat here again. The food was good, for what it was. Maybe I'll get a different server next time. But appearances are everything, and I would prefer that my food be handled by people who can at least fake being happy, sane, clear-headed and sociable.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jimbo's Joint

Located on Central Avenue in the heart of St. Petersburg's bohemian strip, Jimbo's Joint is a peculiar little grubshack offering, as its specialty, chicken sausage.

Honestly, I didn't love their chicken sausage, man. I had a dish called "The Chinaman" (which is making a reference to The Big Lebowski, and, perhaps a bit too hipsterly, assumes everyone will get it). But that's okay, because everything else here rocked my uvula. First and foremost, there's the Philly cheesesteak, which makes my list of Top Five Philly Cheesesteaks In Florida. That list doesn't actually exist, but if it did, this place and The Pizza Joint in Pinellas Park would be running neck and neck for the finish line.

They have handmade waffle fries which are so clean-tasting and refreshing and real you'll never get 'em at Chick-fil-A again. Okay, you probably will and I will too, because they're there. But Jimbo's is the greatest.

What else have I had here? Let's see, there's the cheeseburger, the pulled pork melt, and a root beer float that comes with the option of containing alcohol. Hel-lo!

Toilet Seat Spider Hoax

An internet email hoax has making the rounds for years now, regarding the Telamonia dimidiata spider being found under toilet seats in Olive Garden restaurants in north Florida and fatally biting people where the sun doesn't shine. But the spider in question is found only in Asia, and it isn't venomous.

This message was in itself a recycling of an older email hoax circulated in 1999, except under the name "South American Blush Spider (arachnius gluteus)". Nothing mentioned in the story is genuine; there is no such spider, no such airport ("Blare Airport"), no such medical association, no such doctor, no such restaurant ("Big Chappies"), and no such aeronautics board.

Usually, we never ever learn the origins of these hoaxes, but in this case, its author has stepped forward. According to UC Riverside's entomology department:

The creator of the hoax contacted me and we have since kept in touch. The hoax was purposely filled with incorrect information such that if the reader checked into any bit of the information, a red flag would arise because there would be no credibility to the citation of information (no medical journal with that name, there is no spider named Arachnius, there is no Blare Airport, etc.) He wrote the hoax to show that 1) people are gullible, 2) that the internet is a frighteningly fast way to spread misinformation, 3) that people forward on information without checking the veracity of the information. He never expected this to spread so quickly and so widely.

It's interesting to see how the text of the email has changed drastically over the years, with other people altering it odd ways. Whoever changed the name of the restaurant from "Big Chappies" to the Olive Garden must have had an agenda for wanting to smear that place's reputation - someone from a competing chain, perhaps?

Gordan the Goat

I have no idea what this means.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Phantom Anesthetist

From the November 8, 1935 edition of the Florida Lake County Citizen, a story about a mysterious man who apparently sprays some weird gas into people's homes that puts them to sleep - after which he robs them. The article notes the police had been vexed by such incidents for the previous five months, with it all starting in May.

That is, unless, you want to go back to December 22, 1933, when the first of a series of bizarre incidents involving "The Phantom Anesthetist of Botetourt County, Virginia" began. Here, an unknown man - some say a man and a woman together - went on a similar spree of gassing people within their homes. This gas, however, had varying effects - some it subdued, some it merely nauseated. Others it nearly killed, and in others it induced temporary insanity and numbness. Why? How? No one knows. It caused a considerable stir in the area, with families in such fear of being the phantom's next victims that husbands would stand guard all night with shotguns, while wives stuffed rags in every possible nook and cranny to prevent anyone from spraying gas into the house. Citizens formed an armed posse to hunt the culprit down, and the local cop assigned to the case, Officer Lemon (I picture him as Ed Wood's recurring policeman, Kelso) had his hands full trying to keep everyone from turning the county into the wild wild west.

The last of the Virginia incidents took place in February 1934, followed by the spate of Eustis/Umatilla/Mount Dora/Leesburg (Lake County) Florida incidents in May 1935. Of these Florida incidents we know little, but hopefully researchers will eventually glean more details from old newspapers not yet archived online. (Regular readers of my dribblings may note that Mount Dora is also where the fictional-yet-also-not Keyhole Vortex concept originates.)

Then, in 1944, it happened again. In August and September of that year, a man (or a woman dressed as a man) began pumping a weird toxic chemical gas into people's homes in Mattoon, Illinois. There were over a dozen cases spotlighted in the media, but there were also dozens more that were not reported in detail. So numerous were these reports of "the Mad Gasser of Mattoon" that police had to stop giving priority to them over other crimes.

The most famous Mattoon case was a Mrs. Kearney, who reported smelling a strong, sweet odor around 11:00 pm. The odor continued to increase in pungency and Mrs. Kearney began to lose feeling in her legs. Her sister, who has also in the house at the time, determined that it was coming from outside, through the open bedroom window. Then, after midnight, Mrs. Kearney's husband Bert returned home from a late-night shift at his job as a cab driver. He witnessed an unidentified man, very tall, dressed in black clothing and a black tight-fitting skullcap, crouching outside one of the house's windows. Kearney chased the man away but was unable to catch him. The story got national attention when TIME magazine picked it up.

Another Mattoon case worth noting: a woman named Beulah Cordes noticed a white handkerchief-lke cloth sitting on their porch by the screen door. She - rather foolishly - picked up the cloth and smelled it, which made her violently ill. She described the effect as being similar to an electric shock, and experienced a burning sensation in her mouth and throat. Soon her face began to swell and she vomited uncontrollably. As with other " Mad Gasser" victims, she also reported feeling weakness, dizziness, and partial paralysis of both her legs. Mrs. Cordes suggested that the chemical-sokaed cloth must have been left on the porch in order to knock out the family dog which usually slept there, so that the prowler could gain access to the house unnoticed.

In 2003, Scott Maruna published The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria, which posits that the Mad Gasser was a local alcoholic named Farley Llewellyn who had a history of mental illness but was also a genius at chemistry. I remain unconvinced, but you can read Maruna's book or check out a Fortean Times article here that breaks it all down nicely in a nutshell.

The problem with the Farley Llewellyn theory, of course, is that it doesn't explain the identical cases in Virginia over a year earlier, nor is it inclusive of the similar and possibly related cases in Lake County, Florida. Conspiracy theories about the mystery sprayer abound to this day, involving everyone from the Nazis to aliens, as if either would be commonly found in a small Illinois town. Dr. Donald M. Johnson, in the 1954 issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, dismissed the whole thing as "mass hysteria", much in the same way smug skeptics would do a decade later during the "Windshield Pox" flap. But in so doing, Johnson proferred a lovely Lovecraftian description of the phantom anesthetist: "a shadowy manifestation of some unimaginable unknown." I like that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tropical Depression

One from the official JSH writing blog:

What I learned after spending a year in Florida: I can't write in Florida.

Something about the nonstop permanent-yet-impermanent chaos of the Sunshine State, coupled with the biorhythm-altering utter lack of seasons, can make a man confused, spinning his wheels, distracted by shiny things, buttered all over, reaching out in the darkness for something stable amidst the whirlwind of data.

Of course, that's not to say it isn't a blast. If one must be distracted from the Great Work, at least it's by awesome piano bars, steak and absinthe, bubble tea, beachcombing, birdwatching, fine cigars, oysters and island-hopping. That, and keeping busier than ever with all those little things I quietly do in the background.

So, here I sit in paradise, thinking, ever thinking, about those four in-progress novels sitting on my desk. One of them - The Alternation of Night and Day, is technically finished but I keep tweaking on it. And tweaking. As I've noted before, though, I'm not one to rush these things, even if it is tawdry little Kindle pulp fiction novellas and not War And Peace we're talkin' about here. They'll be finished whenever they're finished, deadlines be damned. But it's my fondest hope, dear reader, that at least two of these will manifest before year's end:

The Alternation of Night and Day. I couldn't decide if I wanted to write a boxing novel or a voodoo novel next. So I did both. An Irish boxer living in Louisville in the 1930s decides to seek an occult solution to his personal and career woes.

Solar Station A. As mankind just starts to get to the point where ordinary citizens can get their own personal small crafts to go zipping around in space, one of the early adopters gets out there and discovers that we have not been told the truth about what's really going on in our solar system.

Matilda Heron. An actress with a 17th century theatre company becomes entangled with a strange secret society, and increasingly finds herself having difficulty differentiating the events of her life from the events her characters experience onstage.

The Tract of Blood. A sequel to The Moleskin Checklist, in which Jack has become a compulsive gambler and golf club hustler in an Arizona resort town. Jack is traumatized by the theft of his precious "Tract of Blood" notebook. Sappy and his mysterious new exotic mail-order girlfriend aid Jack's quest to get it back, whether he wants their help or not.

Ernest Hemingway did some of his finest work in Florida, and so I must ask myself how better to follow in his flip-flopped footsteps. I'm thinking I need to drink more rum. In an effort to better assume the beingness of ol' rockin' Ern, I plan to pack up stakes and head to a remote group of islands in the near future. Here, I believe, I will slap out my finest work.

Then again, Hemingway died depressed and blew his brains out. Maybe I should be more like Fitzgerald and just go back to guzzling gin rickeys at Louisville's haunted Seelbach Hotel?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yeehaw Junction

Yeehaw Junction, fabled in biker story and song, spoken in letters writ large in legendary terms by hushed whispers of awe, isn't a myth, it's real. It's approximately 30 miles west of Vero Beach and 30 miles north of Lake Okeechobee, at a great crossroads of the sort which Robert Johnson would surely find worthy of offering himself. (It's also a hellacious speed trap, unfortunately, so watch for cops and watch your speed.)

The "Yeehaw" supposedly comes from the Seminole word for "wolf" but I don't believe anything anyone tells me about the origins of place names in America and neither should you. The town was originally named Jackass Crossing - allegedly dating to the days when local ranchers rode on burros to visit the local house of prostitution, the Desert Inn. But I'm not sure I believe that story either.

In the 1950s they changed the name to Yeehaw Junction, ostensibly so doing in honor of the nearby Yeehaw railroad station several miles to the east, at Standard Oil's behest. As the story is told, when they moved operations into the area they were embarassed at the idea of having "Jackass Crossing" on their official letterhead. It all smells sketchy and reverse-engineered to me; add these datums to your doctorate thesis at your peril.

The earliest records of Yeehaw Junction state it was started by the Consolidated Land Company in the 1880s, a mere 40-some years after Florida became a state. At this time, central Florida was even more of a swampy, lakey mess than it is even now, and considerable effort was made to reclaim the wetlands into usable solid ground. According to the Desert Inn's website:

Between 1917 and 1930 history was made with the cowboys moving cattle from Kissimmee River, Orlando and places north down to the Indian reservations and places south in which Yeehaw was the only watering hole!!! The Desert Inn patrons at that time included Indians as well as cowboys, business people, moonshiners, traders (trading goods and lumber), and lumber men. Cowboys remember ox teams and Model T's.

In the 1930's Dad Wilson bought the property and fixed it up a little so it was more than a shack. It now had gas pumps, according to stories. Also, from the stories, Dad Wilson was a railroad hobo who was 'kicked off' in yeehaw... then borrowed lumber from the railroad! Somewhere in this time period, a man named Boree has a going sawmill a stone's throw from the restaurant. Supposedly, Dad Wilson and Boree had several squabbles~ Also, this was about the time that roads were paved.

The Desert Inn, though no longer a brothel, is still a fine motel and restaurant. Okay, I haven't actually stayed in the motel, but it looks pretty fine from the outside. I can report qualitatively, however, that their cheeseburgers are five-star.

In typical laidback "Living on Florida Time" tradition, their stated opening hours are "Open 8:30-ish daily...maybe 9 on Sunday".

Exploding Sinkholes

According to a story from ABC, a 120-foot wide and 30-foot deep sinkhole appeared on July 19th in Spring Hill. Sinkholes happen in Florida with alarming regularity, but what makes this one special to me is the way an eyewitness described it:

"Out of nowhere the earth just went straight up in the air and exploded up in the air," said Margaret Helmick, who lives in the neighborhood.

This makes it sound much less like a mere incidence of subsidence, and much more like bottled-up methane or hydrogen sulfide underground. I'm also reminded of another recent incident, the Yamal Crater in Russia, which has baffled scientists by its abrupt appearance.

No one's sure when the giant chasm occurred, but it was first noticed on July 11. That its location is near a natural gas field has caused some concern, and though it was originally thought to be a meteor impact site, it is now apparent that whatever happened, it happened from inside and exploded outward.

The Yamato Colony

The Yamato Colony was a community of Japanese-American farmers, located in what is now Boca Raton. It began in 1903 when Jo Sakai obtained land from Henry Flagler's Model Land Company. Things started off well enough, but the colony was first plagued by pineapple blight, then by competition from Cuba where the fruits matured earlier.

The advent of World War II spelled the end of the colony. As George Takei has chronicled in his new musical Allegiance, the rights of Japanese-American citizens were stripped away across the nation. A judge in Florida ordered the Japanese out and awarded immediate possession of 6,000 acres of their property to the federal government for the creation of an Army Air Corps technical training facility.

Today, the Morikami Museum stands as a tribute to the forgotten days of the Yamato Colony and the people who kept it going.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paradise Island

Paradise Island is another one of those "blink and you'll miss it" causeway islands, appearing on your way out of Pasadena towards Treasure Island. On your way you also pass two other islands called, somewhat unsatisyingly, the South Causeway Isles. (Or, if you prefer, "Yacht Club Estates", which is the name of the gated community that occupies them.)

I've never actually gotten out of the car and walked around here. I don't even know if there are parking places for an uncouth outsider like me anyway. But it's enough to drive around on it, or even just to pass it by quickly on my way to Sunset Beach.


Thank goodness all Florida eateries aren't as awful as that French restaurant. On the other side of the coin, here's a joint that's doing everything right. Siri's in Gulfport offers gourmet burgers (try the jalapeno-laden Fireburger!) and fine, fine pizza that reminds me of good ol' Spinelli's back home. Their greasy oily gooey yummy toasty garlic knots are pretty special too. And their french fries are real, handcut from honest-to-gosh potatoes.

Now if they'd just switch to Coke products instead of Pepsi I'd marry them. (It is legal to marry a restaurant now, right?)

Who is "Siri"? I do not know. But the owner seems to get around - there's a wall dedicated to autographed photos of him with various celebrities over the years, including Jay Leno and John Lee Hooker.

Gulfport Charging Station

I'd love to get one of those electric cars, but the issue of where to find a charging station has always bugged me. Mind you, I haven't actually investigated the matter closely - there may in fact be charging stations all over the place, but I sure never see them. And so it was a rather special event for me to actually see one by the shore in Gulfport.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

That French Restaurant

It wasn't my idea to visit this crazy French restaurant, but these things get arranged. Though I am a Francophile as far as its mythic resonance goes (or gestalt, if that term makes any more sense to you) I'm not a fan of French cuisine. But that's okay, because as it turned out, this place (that I will refrain from naming out of abject pity) wasn't even close to being an authentic French restaurant. Even though their sign out front says - wait, let me doublecheck, yes, that's right - "French restaurant." But half the menu was German food.

The soupe au fromage seemed little more than a handful of melted Swiss cheese in a colloidal suspension of some sort of hyper-salty MSG-laden gunk that tasted like Dollar Tree bouillon. In other words, it was bad French onion soup without the onions. There was only one steak on the menu, count it, one. A filet mignon, they called it, though it didn't resemble any I've ever eaten. I liked it. It was meat. Believe it or not, I really am easy to please. However, someone else sent their lamb rack back, said it tasted "uncooked and disgusting".

Every expensive wine we ordered from the wine list turned out to be not available. It got almost humorous, like, "well, do you have any good wines?" Finally we found one the waiter would admit to having in stock, but when he brought it, the foil was already suspiciously removed even though it was a full and allegedly unopened bottle. The cork came out effortlessly even though the server made an exaggerated show of acting like he was struggling to remove it. The wine was, shall we say, adequate but disappointing. I love you, Florida, but science has proven that only one in ten of your restaurants is worth a damn.

And after all of that, the bottle he brought wasn't even the bottle I ordered. When I called him out on this, he said defensively and mysteriously, "oh yes, we had to adjust that." I minded my manners since this was a business meeting, but had I been alone I would have asked him WTF that even means, and why he didn't bother to tell me he'd pulled a bait and switch before "opening" the bottle.

(Well, no, actually, if I'd been there alone I would have already walked out fifteen minutes earlier.)

Were there any positives? Hang on, I'm thinking, I'm thinking. The apple strudel was okay. The after-dinner coffee was very, very good. The decor (which looked like someone's grandma furnished it entirely from yard sales) and the music were so mind-blowingly bad it was actually entertaining. It was an interesting experience if for no other reason than the surrealism of it.

There was hardly anyone in the place but us, and I can see why. On evenings like this, it's enough to make a Kentucky boy homesick.... or want to start his own restaurant.