I’ve got a foam mustache so I fit right in, a Big Gulp sized draft cupped in two hands, while the ancient ferris wheel and the Tilt-a-whirl wheeze and groan behind us. Bright lights blink ‘Funnel Cakes’, ‘Candy Floss’, ‘Saltwater Taffy’, while the sirens, bleeps and rings of the arcade games serenade us. Just beyond the boardwalk where throngs of people wander and pose and stroll, the beach stretches on forever, lined with hotels, motels, Holiday Inns…
We are in Daytona Beach, the main beach strip and this is America on a Saturday night. T-shirts in the trinket shops exclaim, “Redneck Paradise – Daytona Beach” and they don’t lie.
Just a few blocks away, off the beach that brings the Atlantic ocean to America’s shores, and away from the flashing attractions, there are city blocks of gun and pawn shops, many of them offering both services together.I don't know where the beautiful teens of Daytona's Spring Break infamy are, but they are not here.
Daytona is our second stop in our new adventure of cruising the ‘ICW’ – Intercoastal Waterway that winds it’s way just inland on America’s east coast. We made landfall just a few days ago at Cape Canaveral, an industrial port, world famous for the rocket launches that help the USA’s image as the world’s most powerful country. A few miles north and south of the Launchpad however, lie the neighborhoods that give away the secrets of financial ruin and despair. Offices, gas stations, houses, abandoned, decaying... Apparently with cut backs in the space program, 12,000 jobs have been lost in recent years and it shows.
We anchored at Titusville on our first day and ventured inland to get ourselves ‘hooked up’ with a phone and a high speed Internet package. What we got was a full day of frustration with the many providers and their convoluted communication ‘plans’ and hours of riding the public buses. The bus trips provided the most entertainment.
|Our tour guide Mr James - out front of the far far away mall|
Everyone is friendly. Beyond friendly. On our first bus we met Mr. James, a retired Vietnam Vet who offered to ‘show us around’. And just like that, without provocation we had a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer tour guide who dropped whatever it was he was doing for the whole day to show us the struggling communities of Titusville and Cocoa. The mall he suggested we visit, turned out to be nearly 30 miles and 4 bus transfers away. Past the local jail where the prisoners board the bus during their day passes, past the meth clinic where the meth amphetamine addicts board the bus coming to and from out-patient treatment. The ‘faces of meth’ are not pretty.
On one bus we met Tammy and her friend coming from the beach. They were not pretty either. Tammy explained to us, through smudged mascara, greasy auburn hair that fell over her eyes and her child-like freckles, that she was 20, she was five months pregnant and she was ‘high class homeless’. By that she meant that she lived in the woods just outside of town in a 3 room tent with a generator and a TV. Until last week. Recently she and her fiancée had rented an ‘efficiency’, a room in an old motel. Her friend piped in that it was just a hole in the wall. Tammy retorted that at least she had gotten an engagement ring, even if it was a $45 ring and necklace set from Walmart. They laughed. The friend, tall and blond and at least 50 lbs overweight looked Dutch or Swedish but to clear up any confusion she had a faded and very roughly home-etched tattoo on her chest that boasted “MADE IN USA”. JW asked them if they worked, and they laughed again. Tammy explained that she dropped out of school in grade 9. So, no jobs for a homeless pregnant drop out. Friend was also out of work and her excuse was that she had to babysit. Beside the two sat a little blond boy and girl, the friend’s nephew and niece. JW asked the boy how old he was and what he wanted to do when he finished school. He said he was four. He just wanted to finish school. Everyone laughed. Then JW asked Tammy if she was looking forward to having her baby. She looked down. “No! Being around these two (pokes her stubby finger toward the little ones) has made me dread it”.
At the transfer point, where we’d all piled off the bus into the stagnant Florida heat to wait for another, Tammy and her friends headed off toward their motel room/home, but she turned back to wave as she lit a brown cigarette and inhaled deeply. I sighed for her and the next generation. Our self appointed tour guide Mr. James shook his head and said he sees it all the time.
On the next bus a woman in front of us twirled her greasy thinning curls and swayed gently as she sang Hallelujah, a defense mechanism perhaps, as the world around her threatens to implode. To her right a toothless man with an uneven afro shoved a hunk of chewing tobacco into his cheek. I sat pondering where he would then spit, only to discover what I did not actually want to know, as he spit neatly into some sort of pouch in his backpack.
The characters were too many to recall here. Not a one will be forgotten though. Like it or not, they are etched in my brain now for a very long time.
Daytona’s main strip only provided more and more. The Harley Davidson crowd took over the street party, toothless ladies in their 60’s in tight leather and denim, hubbies with ample beer bellies and skull imprinted head scarves. Bodies of all shapes and sizes stuffed into lycra, creating lumps and bumps and crevices that no one should see. T-shirts that exclaim ‘Eat Shit and Die Motherfucker’ greeted us as we strolled along. And street mobs doing the Electric Slide. You can’t make this stuff up. It was a people watching frenzy. It was bizarre and depressing, but fun and festive at the same time.
I have no idea what the rest of America’s east coast will offer. But at this stage, having been used to remote and deserted islands, blue waters and fishes as friends, this is all a bit of a sensory overload. I find solace in knowing we can still head 20 miles out to sea and pick up the Gulf Stream, no lycra, no meth clinics, just the fresh breezes of deep ocean waters.