Little City in the Everglades

Everglades City

I stood on the bottom coast of Florida, with the Gulf offshore, mangrove and grassy everglades in every other direction, two hours to Miami, but times away from big town currency and gloss. There are no big boxes, chain motels, or fast food franchises in Everglades City. It doesn’t look like Interstate Everyplace, USA. It looks like what it is: a tiny (pop. 513 in 2004), off-the-trail village that lives on fishing and just enough tourism.

birdgatorI did my part. I birded, reptiled, airboated, ate fried alligator, and gave back a Pobba concert at Florida’s only “isolated” school, so termed because it is further than a state-defined minimum distance from the nearest other school. There are a few nearby settlements, but beyond them, rural is an overstatement.airboat

Everglades City School (pre-K to 12) has 149 students, and I sang for Grade 4 down: about 40 children, only one African-American. The school, a handsome, well-equipped Collier County offering, is very near the Barron River. (The largest landowner in these parts when the county was formed? Barron Collier, natch.)

In the morning, in the narrow margin between school and river were two immobile, big-bellied men in a pickup, a surprisingly unconcerned conclave of buzzardsbuzzards on a dumpster, and the Triad Café, recommended as the best breakfast in town by our motel clerk, whose daughter, we learned at checkout, would be at my afternoon concert.

specialsOn a deck over the river, we were the Triad’s only patrons (I joked that this pelicanpaucity of clientele was the result of last night’s menu specials—see photo), but soon a pelican joined us on a piling a few feet away, alternately snoozing and eyeing our plates.

denny’sTriad’s food was far superior to the Denny’s specials we would have the following morning in Florida City: omelets, porcine selections prepared with a saline reduction, cottage fries with a brine infusion, and pancakes made with just enough salt in the batter to bring out the flavor of salt.

Route 29, Everglades City’s only exit to the rest of the world, leads in from the north. We had some time before my concert, so we drove a few miles south to its terminus on Chokoloskee Island (chuck-uh-LUS-key), a 400-person suburb and the home of the Smallwood Store Museum, an antique, barn-red longhouse raised five feet above the ground. Like a woman hiking up her skirt to cross a puddle, almost every building in these parts perches on supports to avoid what must be too-frequent flooding.

Smallwood StoreThe Smallwood Store is a rustic reminder of yesterday’s products (like Brylcreem and BAB-O Cleanser), equipment (like a hand-cranked sausage machine), and local legends (like the cane farmer who avoided paying his itinerant fieldworkers by murdering them and tossing their bodies to the gators). From the enthusiasm shown us by the third-generation owner, we were probably the day’s only visitors. She seemed prepared to expound on every curio, but I had a show to do, and her son, we learned at while buying postcards for grandkids, would be in my audience.

fingerLike most schools, ECS required a sign-in for visitors. While waiting for my escort, I was engaged by an articulate, fast-talking second grader with a heavily bandaged index finger.

“I caught it in a door and it ripped off my whole nail and the end of my finger, and it bled a lot. The bandage was unwrapping, so I’m here, that’s why. It doesn’t hurt so much now, but at the hospital my mother had to go into another room and put her fingers in her ears because when they gave me a shot with a needle right in my finger, I screamed so loud that she could hear me even from that far away. Pobba ConcertWhat are you singing today? My mother doesn’t like to hug me or kiss me. She says she loves me, but she says she doesn’t always have to show it so much. She works here at school, and she’ll probably be at your concert.”

I’ve done nearly a hundred Pobba shows. These kids were as enthusiastic and fun-loving as any.  Except for some of the ol’ boys, there is no southern accent here. To a Californian, almost no accent at all.

Afterwards, I got into a discussion with a warm and pleasant reading teacher…and she volunteered that she thinks global warming is a hoax. CO2I gently presented several scientific arguments, including my whiteboarding the “hockey stick” graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels showing the rapid increase.

She countered with her firmly held belief that:

• the earth is only 8,000 years old (first I’d ever heard that particular number)
• the Great Flood created the fossil record, and
• since Genesis mentions a race of giants, that explains the dinosaurs.

I hope she teaches reading well.

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