Gary is pretty docile for the most part, but after a day of solid cheerleading at 37,000 feet and long lines for baggage claim and car rental, we were both very tired and on the verge of all out crankiness. We had arranged a special rate on the rental car for the few days we were to be in the Orlando area. After we signed all the paperwork, we were directed to the lot to pick up our car. No one at the pickup window seemed to speak any language clearly, but the attendant told us that the cars for our special rate were on Row E. All we had to do was select the one we wanted. As we approached Row D, another attendant looked at our paperwork and pointed us toward the cars down Row E and said to choose the one we wanted, so we selected a nice SUV, as it was the only thing parked there that was not a fleet Crown Victoria. The SUV was unlocked with the keys in the floorboard, so we photographed all the dents and dings and headed for the exit after loading our luggage in, adjusting the seats, the mirrors, the air-conditioning, the vents, and the radio. All of this was done under the watchful eye of the Row D attendant.
That didn’t prevent our being stopped at the gate because the car we had selected was not available at our special rate. We were not in a position to back up, and the gate manager wouldn’t let us move forward. He insisted we were eligible for only a Crown Victoria, at which point, Gary said rather firmly (this is putting it mildly), “Do you think I look sixty-five?” I quipped that you shouldn’t ask someone under the age of thirty or you might get an answer you don’t like.
For just a few seconds, I thought we might end up stealing the SUV because we had the keys, the gate had been opened and there was no stopping us. However, the gate attendant maneuvered the traffic and we reversed only after we compromised on a higher end SUV that had just been returned and was in our special rate category. I don’t know why they had us switch because what we ended up with was way nicer than what we’d first selected. We got in and all was well.
That is until a mile down the road when we reached the Florida highway system. Toll roads everywhere. The hotel was not that far, but we paid over four tolls in less than 15 miles. At one point, the GPS sent us on the scenic tour, which meant two more tolls that could’ve been avoided. I don’t want to do it, but someone should investigate to find out if Florida’s highway department is in cahoots with the GPS manufacturers.
The one great thing on this trip was that the resort hotel was actually a furnished two-bedroom apartment. With daily maid service, I could’ve stayed a month, especially since the balcony was screened in. We unloaded the car, went for Cuban food and decided what we’d do for the next two days. That’s how I ended up at Gator Land on Saturday.
I suspect that Gator Land is where those who can’t or won’t afford Disney take their kids. The ticket price is unbelievably affordable, a nice way of saying downright cheap. Gary had been there twenty years before, so he thought it would be a fun diversion. One thing I can say about Gator Land is that the place is filled with more reptiles than I could imagine actually inhabiting Florida. The place began as a refuge when the critters were on the endangered species list. After successful breeding, the place is swarming with creatures that would make the nicest pieces of luggage.
There is even a swamp attached where you can stroll along a boardwalk through cypress trees and look at their very own wetland. I’d been to a similar swamp almost 30 years ago on my last Florida trip. That swamp, my first, had seemed exotic, as I’d never visited one. This marshy mire, however, had the feel of that much-neglected house down the street. The one where a reclusive neighbor has let the yard go for some reason like a paralyzing case of chronic depression mixed with agoraphobia and garnished with apathy’s cherry. After seeing a baby water moccasin lounging on a rock near the boardwalk, we returned to Gator Land proper.
Gary told me how wonderful the place had been back in the day. The gators he had seen had literally jumped out of the water to get a whole chicken dangling from a wire during shows that take place throughout the day. Due to our early afternoon arrival and an eagerness to see the sights, we ended up at the day’s final performance. Perhaps the trainers have not realized they should rotate alligators for each show, or perhaps captivity has dramatically reduced the need to stalk prey, but the scaly actors we saw performed with the same zeal as a refugee cast member from one of the nearly 7,400 performances of Cats on Broadway. You get more action from those 700-pound people on talk shows that have to be cut out of their houses.
Having once seen an airboat driver on a Louisiana bayou actually get his hand bitten by a younger alligator in the wild, I was not impressed by the various domesticated gators being played with while their mouths were taped shut. We didn’t even get to see one of the youngsters petting them get knocked down with the swipe of a tail.
Reptiles are not the best thing to see at Gator Land. That would be the people who go there. It’s a collection of people who’ve made questionable choices in life. Faced with fewer and fewer areas of unmarked skin, where could they put just one more tattoo? Sure, kids are expensive, but what’s one more mouth to feed? Regular or menthol? Bra or braless? Coors or Miller Lite?
People-watching is not limited to Gator Land. That would be the entire state. Yes, as a Californian, I’m one to talk, but Sunday came all too quickly. I hadn’t had a chance to recover from my big dose of public at the reptile farm before we were off to Florida’s east coast. We had to dip into the Swiss bank account to afford the fortune in tolls it took to get there. It was obvious that Gary hadn’t been raised with toll roads because he placed his exact change in the basket one coin at a time. I wasn’t really paying attention to this amusing method until he dropped a quarter that ran under the car. Cars were lining up behind us, and he was tempted to get out to find it while I scrounged for another coin. It wasn’t until one of the last of nearly a dozen toll booths that he believed me when I said he could just throw it all in at once.
We had set out early and were ready for breakfast by the time we’d almost exhausted our wallets from paying for the Florida highway system. We didn’t realize how close we were to our destination so we surveyed what we thought were our only choices. The two places on that lonely road that appeared to have had a visit from the health inspector in the last decade were Denny’s and IHOP.
We selected Denny’s because I had yet to learn about the brioche French toast at IHOP, not that the brioche would resemble anything coming out of a real boulangerie. The breakfast didn’t matter because sometimes a seemingly insignificant choice turns out to pay big dividends. The floorshow of people-watching was the best so far. As we placed our order, I noticed a woman on the parking lot, right outside of our window, getting into her car. I’ll describe her, and you can decide for yourself what was going on.
Even in California, you don’t see a septuagenarian with burgundy hair in hot-pants and a t-shirt with cleavage so low that you felt you might see less at her mammogram. This ensemble was adorned with seven-inch turquoise heels, an oversized chartreuse handbag and cane. Yes, a cane. The cane was not your typical walking stick available from the drugstore or medical supply. No, her cane was more like something produced by a wood carver and sold at a Renaissance Faire. Our lady’s cane was a rough-hewn piece that coiled into a spiral near the top. It looked as though she might’ve have traded it for sex with an old wizard. Whoever this woman was, she hadn’t lost her tan since 1951, and the whole effect was brought together as she posed alongside her ’85 Olds Cutlass with the duct-taped passenger-side headlights and a toothpick dangling from her lips.
I have a bad habit of assigning nicknames to strangers who amuse me. It allows me to keep my emotional distance while observing, and I’m the first to admit that they’re not always kind. That’s why I don’t share them with the actual stranger. That said, I think our lady by the Cutlass would fittingly be called Rusty.
Rusty climbed into her car with very little effort considering that she had that cane, and she sat there from the time we ordered until we finished and the plates were cleared. I noticed that she had walked out of Denny’s with a plainly dressed woman with overly permed hair. That woman had gotten into a small pickup and had driven away, presumably to church somewhere. I was puzzled that these two very different women would be friends, as they were sort of a modern-day, poor-white version of Melanie Wilkes and Belle Watling from Gone With the Wind.
Of course, I was assuming that Rusty was some sort of eager old hooker. Rather than raising money for one of the plain woman’s notable causes as Belle had done for Melanie, maybe I’d misread the situation and the plain woman was some sort of wetland madam pimping out her most experienced worker.
The morning was growing late, and it made sense that Rusty was waiting on afternoon business to pick up once church let out. As she sat in her hot car, I could see her through the venetian blinds as she applied a new layer of lip-gloss. Then she reapplied mascara, then more lip-gloss, and then she lined her lips. She took a second look at the mascara in her rear-view mirror and applied still more, pausing ever so briefly to pull her reading specs off her head as she fumbled for something in the glove compartment or perhaps the floor of her car. I could never tell, but was so curious as to why she had vanished out of sight for those moments. I wanted a closer look, but worried she might have a rape whistle if I moved in her direction. We had places to be, so we drove away without ever learning the real truth about Rusty.
©2014 Patrick Brown