The Ocala Ritz Veterans Village gives about 50 homeless vets a place to live for two years. A faith-based organization called Volunteers of America bought the 90-year old Ritz Historic Inn and restored it with VA grants and federal and state funds, a two-million dollar and two-year renovation project. (The building cost $800,000 of that.) Thirteen percent of homeless adults are vets. HUD estimates there were 62,619 homeless Veterans on a single night in January in 2012, “a 7.2 percent decline since 2011 and a 17.2 percent decline since 2009…. Each year, VA provides health care to almost 150,000 homeless Veterans and other services to over 112,000 Veterans through its specialized homeless programs.”
The long ride down-peninsula, the special facility of the former soldier to amuse himself and others during downtimes, travel, etc., probably a result of the hurry-up-and-wait life of the army. Newspaper articles and even classifieds listings for cars, houses, a source of interest and amusement.
The Goodwill Donation and Retail Center the town north of Ft. Myers, the size of a small supermarket. Framed prints, clothing (geriatric pants in every shade of orange, yellow, magenta, pink, red), shoes, ironing boards, golf clubs, outdated phone chargers, answering machines, computer accessories, record albums, walkers, portable toilets, crutches, a birdcage, generic batteries and greeting cards, glassware, pots and pans, purses, bedraggled toys (a purple child’s 6-string guitar, steel strings, has painted gemstones and the word STAR on it), an aquarium, speakers, portable heaters, air purifier, lamps, some furniture, lawn furniture, vacuum cleaners, books (GRE Test for Dummies, Dan Brown), glass vases of plastic tulips (discolored), and a giant bottle of pickled kumquats (the bottle wearing a man’s vest made of fall foliage-patterned cloth: $4.99), a beauty chair with foot stirrup for pedicures. Someone might very well give birth in that chair with its black faux-leather upholstery. Expected more high-end goods from retirees, and pricing is inscrutable. A vacuum cleaner for $19.99, bed frames $9.99, but a Wal-Mart armoire for hundreds. Frenchy points out a Conan the Barbarian poster that’s been cheaply framed, has water damage. He says Conan was the favorite of a former diver we knew, the novels were the only thing BH ever read. Frenchy said, What do you do when you get to a word you don’t know? BH: I skip over it.
Cape Coral: the phrase "sunbaked" never so true, even the palms yellowing and wilting, and it’s not yet summer. (But the sun is ready: Stepping out of the car, feeling instantly the pressure of radiation not felt earlier on the trip, several layers beneath the surface of the skin, the headache-nausea of exposure waiting to happen.) Weird that I had no sense before of how large Cape Coral is, even when visiting two sets of parents in Ft. Myers. Solid for miles with subdivision housing, mostly little ranch houses, but also newer Florida-style architecture, even McMansions with Spanish tile roofs, stucco. Concrete dolphin statues holding up mailboxes. Solariums that are screened, not glassed--Florida rooms. Curve-beaked mini-ibises pecking in the lawns, cacti and big palms. Southeast tip of the Cape, laced with canals. Cape Coral Yacht Club, a public boat ramp and park with beach hedged with sea grapes. Far across the wide Caloosahatchee River, the higher-rent Gulf Harbor Yacht and Country Club of Ft. Myers. Leathery old men in tiny sagging trunks, one’s wife perfectly round, waist deep in the water, splashing herself as if taking the cure. Father with little boy, and their ambitious sandcastle. Restroom with stainless sinks and concrete floor. Snack shack sells beer. Nice pool. A canal, 150-feet wide, homes across from the marina. Empty house for sale, trashed, roof and flashing torn up, mermaid in a half-shell sculpture in the ruined lawn. Many of these around town, many boarded up, for-sale signs. Boats up to about 75 feet in the yacht basin. Look into price differences for marine and road diesel—taxed differently?
The realtor was having a slow day, was happy to talk. A master’s from Auburn in urban planning, hoped to get back to his field. SW Cape Coral the high end housing, but the SE area, around the yacht club, up and coming. Mixed housing, much of it older but also some new construction. People buy the old only to knock it down and build. He grimaces when I ask about the Times series on foreclosures, admits there are still foreclosure bus tours available and that this area was number five in the country for foreclosure, but things going better now.
The boat comes in from the Gulf, probably through Captiva or Redfish Passes, about three fathoms of water. Around the south tip of Pine Island, between it and Sanibel, up the river through the channel, eight fathoms in the deeper parts of the channel, then to shore, watching for shoaling, oyster beds, submerged pilings per chart.
By the recommendation of our realtor friend, a Matlacha Island bar that was a former bordello. “Good people,” he says, live on an island not a 100 yards wide that still, miraculously, has the old-Florida fishing village life. A diver bar if I ever saw one, Frenchy says when we get there, for rogues, raiders, scallywags, and scourges of the sea. His appreciation. Dinner at a seafood place just back across the mangroves on the Cape. Outdoor seating under a thatched roof, all the beach geedunk, surfboards, beer paraphernalia. Boat dock out back, people tie up their Chris Crafts and Boston Whalers and go have dinner or drinks. Frenchy says the women here share a trait—missing teeth –with those in Alaska, where he used to live. At least here, adds, it wouldn’t take 32 of them to make a full set. A man of retirement age in a beach shirt, playing a Yamaha synth and singing Johnny Mathis and Conway Twitty—anything on heartbreak. Another man in his late 60s, seated in front of us, with a young woman in her early 20s. He looks startlingly like Charles Durning, stuffed into his skin, tight white polo shirt, business pants. She relaxed in an off-the-shoulder sundress. He eats most of the raw oysters while she sits patiently; he drags the saltine packet from the melting ice and eats the crackers too. Salads, fish. She speaks to him in the direct manner of a young person who spends most of her time with older people, such as parents or grandparents. When she looks away, his eyes explore her body. She steps out to the dock to smoke, though the restaurant permits smoking; she’s texting, standing under a snapping American flag. When she returns, he pays the bill with a gold card and talks a lot about money, rubs his greasy reading glasses with his thumb to clean them. She smiles very large at Frenchy as she leaves, always on the job.
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