Gazing out over the steel grey, silent sky of Puget Sound, trapping fog between the Olympic and the Cascade Mountain ranges, I packed up my Subaru with eight boxes and a couple of suitcases. The job offer was secondary to the experience, in terms of why I moved. I thought a new state, a new school, and a new climate would be the next perfect challenge, and Florida sounded just sunny and exotic enough to haul out. After 6 days on the road, I stopped at the Florida visitor center over the Georgia border where I caught sight of the first palm trees swaying fronds in a warm breeze. A song bird trilled out the joys of a mid October Sunday. I changed into a sundress in the bathroom.
During a three day layover in Tampa with friends, I drove down to Naples to attend to administrative tasks and procure an apartment. Finding none to my liking, I reverted to a response I received on a roommate website. I met J. at Jason’s deli where we got to know each other over a couple of dripping, succulent reuben sandwiches, perhaps making the arrangement that much more appealing to both of us. I followed her to her house, she showed me around; it all looked good to me and I seemed to have garnered her trust, so she wrote up a lease and I wrote her a check. I moved in two days later, set up my new room and went exploring. What draws people to Naples is not just the endless sky, the copious light, sun dresses and shorts, but an attitude such a climate and location not only encourages from you but expects of you. Endless summer! Happy hours! No sales tax! I had a weekend before starting work on Monday, so I crammed as much in as I could. I found a Whole Foods, a library, a beach, a 5 pm mass, a downtown that reminded me of a city on the French riviera, and a bar with live music afterwards. I attended to all of it, and since then, am slowly meeting the boulevards, places, and people that lead to more discovery.
A deceivingly small town on a map of Southwest Florida, Naples stretches its avenues and malls and pastel-painted, cinderblock-built communities, the ramparts against the hurricanes, far into what were once farm fields and swamps. Distances are far greater than they appear to be on a map. Perhaps the flat land and large sky have something to do with the perception of space. Extending 20 miles in length and 15 miles wide to the east, Naples still finds more land to develop and widen, naming these places North Naples, East Naples, and Golden Gate. As a migrant state – a wildly diverse, constant fluctuation of creeds and colors – Naples nevertheless maintains its ever burgeoning bulge of cash and class distinct from crops and croppers. Although the immigrants and hispanics run the machines’ underbellies as cleaners, cooks, service, and landscapers in restaurants, resorts, hotels, and mansions along Gulf Shore – the self-made men and women who found Naples to retire to, who found Naples in the 70s when beach front land was going for $1000 an acre, who intuitively know the stock market and how to play it – these benefactors of capitalism are enjoying a lifestyle bolstered by the labor of the immigrants, of a young Jay Gatz who can see a remade vision of himself on the deck of a yacht, promenading with Hugo Boss tote bags along 5th Avenue, dining at the Capitol Grill, bathing at Vanderbilt Beach and later entertaining scores of people in mansions whose yard space is given over to breeze ways, Roman courtyards, pillared porticos, verandas, fountains, circular drives, and butlers’ quarters. From these outposts live the clients who keep the doctors booked for a full year, the church coffers weighted, the humane society a resort rather than a mere shelter, the airport private, and concierge services available for the health of both body and portfolio (on-call, ready-at-the-asking medical and financial services). Yet the iron gates that separate the classes of Naples open out to broad avenues that accommodate access to a lifestyle for everyone, effusing happiness, health, and wellbeing.
People arrive in Florida with the capital they have and set up a homesteads; as anywhere, there’s a community for everyone: RVs, manufactured houses, rentals, condos, ranch houses and palatial houses. Prices range from less to high from the eastern side of Naples towards the beach. Ambition might catapult those so driven over the hedges and into one of the mansions along Gulf Shore Avenue. Besides the major sources of state income from tourism, sugar, citrus, watermelons, and tomatoes, medical practices, clinics, and surgeries are on every street; investment houses sit comfortably next door to them, golf courses hide behind avenues and palm trees and restaurants…. According to the Naples Daily News, in 2015 there were 950 restaurants in Naples, so today there are at least 1000. Whether this number includes fast food joints is insignificant, because you may never venture in one ever again. On the menu of restaurants in Naples, an ethnic selection exists representing nearly every country in the world, yet in order to survive here it needs to be out of this world good. And they are. Fish, steak, vegan, vegetarian; Cuban, Lebanese, Greek, African, German, French, Italian, Korean. Walk into a Greek restaurant and walk onto a Greek island; the octopus is grilled with a hint of lemon, olive oil and sunshine. Enter a German restaurant and feel the sway of an Oktoberfest underway as the jaeger and zigeuner schnitzel sing alpine glories.
However, weekdays provide the necessary temperance from the abundance of Naples. I get up at 5, leave the house by 5:45 to drive the 40 minutes east and north to Immokalee, a small farm town, where I work at the high school. The three lane streets leading east and out of Naples are bare; the traffic lights at intersections blink yellow. In only ten minutes Immokalee Road narrows its lanes to one in each direction, street lights complete their mission, leaving vision to headlights and the moon. Soft silence and patches of hovering fog blanket farm land and fields. Old white and blue painted busses pass by, bringing the migrants in from Immokalee to pick and harvest the fields. The cooks, the cleaners, the service drive west into Naples from Immokalee to start their day as the sky lightens. Palm trees and cypress trees stand black against the horizon that gradually turns orange. I open the window to catch a cool breeze, turn off NPR, and think my thoughts as I head into farm country. As of today, 21,989 residents plunder the space in Naples. In a state that will be one of the first to experience sea levels rise, drowning wetlands and sinking communities, inhabitants still buy and use plastic everywhere – from drinking water to shoring up groceries. Developers are digging into swamps and soil – building above, around, through, slowly eating away at the extensive fertile land, demanding more concrete for the current average of 845 new residents every day arriving from all directions. Despite this astronomical number, I haven’t yet heard of any initiatives in keeping Florida sustainable. A statewide green movement is slow to take and an engineering plan to accommodate this convoy curiously absent from readily available media. World problems and world temperatures exist only in an abstract definition, leaving these conundrums for other states and countries to figure out. A retired person might finally feel released from thinking about such heady matters, and a conglomeration of policy makers might only see the green in development rather than in the natural habitat. The farm lands that I drive through to reach Immokalee might be gobbled up within ten years, and similar to what happened in East Naples, a whole ethnic community dislodged to make way for million dollar homes and communities.
Returning my attention to my drive east and inland, I pass lemon and orange groves, fields of fruit. The sky is layered in color now, from deep red, to orange, pink, varying shades of dark blue. Still early, by 6:30 I am entering Immokalee, indicated with a sign for the Immokalee jail down to the right. After that a billboard announces “Let the games begin!” – an advertisement for the Immokalee Casino; followed by a “Welcome to Immokalee, my home” sign (Immokalee means “my home” in Seminole language); followed by the imposing structure of the Immokalee Casino, dwarfing all the cottages and shacks around town and into where several of my road companions turn. After the casino, the next big sign shouts out “Jail Bonds” on a stone building which sits on the corner of Immokalee Road and Main Street, where I pull up to a red light, roll down a window to hear the roosters crow good morning. A bunch of them, some hens and newly born chicks wander around a small public square across the street on the left next to the piñata gift store. Also across Main Street and down just a half mile position the promise to Immokalee’s youngsters: the grade school, the public library, and the high school. A church also nestles somewhere close by, and everyday towards noon and while I eat lunch I hear the bells peel. Together with the roosters that greet me at the corner of Main and Immokalee Road, these are two sounds I look forward to every day.
My return trip is meditatively serene. With windows open and sun and warm air billowing around, the fields are now open to view, released from the cool air fog of the morning, drenched in heat and open sky. The pickers in the white and blue busses return to Immokalee, passing me by. The space of openness fills me with joy and calmness. The simple one road back west towards Naples can be maneuvered going 60 mph, but often a produce truck, full of tomatoes, watermelons, or lemons will slow my speed, and so the return trip will often take 55 minutes, including the doubling of time getting back into Naples once the road opens back up to three lanes. This is especially true during the most notoriously dense “seasons” of Florida.
The “in season”- mid November through April – flood the streets with cars from northern states whose traffic vies for space on the three lane boulevards slicing through the city north and south, east and west. This is the winter traffic, driven by a hunger for sun, warmth, golf, beach, outdoor eating, Monday night dancing, flip flops to the bank. Winter residents buy up tickets to the opera, symphony, concerts, art fairs, rotary club bonanzas, outdoor cover band concerts, food fests, foreign films, lectures, wellness seminars, and museums, each providing exhibits and shows to keep consumers entertained and coming back. Why simply attend a Beethoven quartet when you can enjoy a Beethoven quartet followed by wine and cheese and a discussion of Beethoven’s love of wine? Why not meander through the weekly Sunday farmers market or art fair beneath a big band blowing out brass classics from the 50s? Distinguish this from the “high season” – January to March – when parking spots at malls, restaurants, shopping centers and public garages become products of prized entitlements, when patience among drivers becomes just as squeezed, when coordinating errands becomes a manic competition with street lights, U turns, left turns, Maseratis, and Google’s inaccurate ETA. But eventually one arrives at the intended rendezvous point, a point that is both flush with fame of some kind, promising a market for everyone, for anyone, for every taste, vying for attention and recognition from the people who are secured by connections and collateral. “Off season” – summer – is when the year-round residents reclaim their city – although the heat keeps most people indoors, insulated against the heat and humidity, whether in home, car, restaurant, or fitness center, usually all four in that order.
As a result of the wide boulevards and immense traffic that weaves from lane to lane like knitting needles, walking around Naples for pleasure is quite unpleasant if not impossible. A bus runs the length of Naples on Tamiami Road, US 41, the spine of the city, paved in the early 1930s linking Tampa to Miami, and hence its name. Although there are other bus routes, most everyone would rather drive. So out they come from their communities to eat, to work, to play. Several parks offer walking trails and boardwalks through mangrove trees and over swamps; North Collier Nature Preserve in North Naples, Gordon River Greenway centrally located by the zoo, and Sugden Regional Park at the south end of the city. For barefoot walking, many beach access points welcome an unobstructed 20 mile walk along the sandy coast whose warm gulf water rolls up to about a hundred yards of sand inland before the hotels and single family homes stand sentinel, watching the pelicans dive, the sandpipers scurry and gulls waiting patiently for a chip.
Today I am on Spring break. I will rent a kayak and paddle along the Gordon River, winding through Naples. Mangrove trees line the river, their roots pulling out only the fresh from the salt water, but further in, the southern pine trees take root, the ones with long needles and scruffy trunks that remind me of the camping grounds in Oregon and of the dry, sunny sides of the Olympics, and they still remain my favorite.