Fear And Loathing In Paradise.

I sit here in St. Petersburg.
Two miles from the beach.
Two miles from what some deem paradise.

I sit at a desk, behind warehouse walls, in a factory manufacturing bike parts.
Behind our building, a couple meters from my desk, sits a marina. One that specializes in the capturing of blue crabs.
Cages stack over the fence line, hundreds of them where, during summer, the attached barnacles simmer in the sun.
At season’s peak, our industrial block often emanates a salty, metallic stench where, on gusty afternoons, the wind blows the overwhelming smell through every crack in our building.
This is a constant reminder of the Gulf, a stone’s throw away.
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When young, riding bikes was my ‘rescue’ from family life.
That is how, in a very round about way, I ended up here, in this warehouse, writing this specific entry on my lunch break.

But I don’t want to fool you, being ‘rescued’ was what I thought of my situation as an angst ridden child.

In reality, my adolescence wasn’t bad by any means.
It was actually quite good.
But we’re American, so if its too much of a pain in the ass to deal with family, you wander off into the neighborhood and plan your own damn life.
And that was what I did, eventually.

But until that point, I was subjected to parental dictates.
And as a middle class, suburban, and spoiled kid, this was the worst thing that could happen to me.
Or so I thought.
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My step dad was hip to the decade. He had a Hobie-Cat sailboat.
He loved stadium rock and would often blast REO Speedwagon in our early 80’s luxury van.
He had a Journey shirt, from the Escape Tour.

Once my younger brother was born, my step-dad retired the Hobie Cat for a family friendly fishing boat. In it, a couple times a month, we’d cruise out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Through the course of the summer, we’d cruise out even more frequently, when the sun was unbearable, when the humidity was so incredibly thick that dehydration (and in turn, heat exhaustion) was the most tangible, life threatening situation to prepare against.
And I never thought to drink water: there was plenty of it in the sea.
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They say that living by the ocean makes for a more content, much happier life.
It makes sense with all the retirees tucked away down here.
The sea breeze, the limitless blue, the sound of the ocean slapping the white sand beaches that cover the coasts of Florida.
To retire into a muted, slow moving existence in the sub-tropics?
Sounds like heaven.

If you’re a landlubber that is.
And I was.
As a child I would rather have stayed at the marina, people watching, doing my best to avoid the white-booters prepping the daily catch.
Those tons of fish, dumped out onto the docks, thrown on ice and shipped around the world, next day air, to end up on some rich guy’s plate in Milwaukee.

I was afraid of them. The white-booters were like a biker gang, but from the ocean. Smelling of a fishy death. Leathery from the relentless sun. They refracted an absolute anger.**
And I didn’t blame them.
The ocean, their modus operandi, terrifying and uncompromising underneath a relentless sun.
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I hated to fish. I hated to catch them, I hated having to handle them, and more so, hated smelling their innards frying on a pan, a smoke cloud of edible rot filling every room in our house.

I’d leave during those late afternoons and head over to a shallow pond tucked away in the corner of our neighborhood. It was our refuge away from family. Away from the cranky retirees that enveloped our streets, ready to report anything remotely indecent.

What we didn’t realize was that our pond was filled with runoff.
The oil from lawn mowers, the phosphate from car washing soaps, the gas dripping from every car, two to each household.
On really warm days, we’d take a dip in the water, sometimes fully clothed. You could touch the bottom, and if you wanted, wade from end to end.
The pond stunk of rotten eggs, but the haggard combination of all of this, to me, was a much better alternative to being bored at home.

There were fish hidden in the murk. Stunted ones. About as big as your hand.
The kids from my street would catch one once in awhile. The ones floating at the top, the ones dazed, on the verge of entering an aquatic death bed.
And with a match and a can of hairspray, the kids would blow torch them to a golden brown.
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On those dreaded weekend outings, I’d huddle in the most stable bench seat on the boat, preparing for the long cruise out into the Gulf.
Past John’s Pass: an old pirate enclave.
Past the chain of bridges that connect the western coast of Florida’s barrier islands, under which, rumors often spread of shark attacks.
Of bulls, whitetips, and tigers. But, most threatening, the ‘Hitler’ Hammerhead. A supposed, 20 foot long, mallet headed fish, lurking near the pylons, ready to consume whole boats.

Out in open water the turbulence from heavy seas caused our boat to skip against giant waves. I’d brace up, both my arms outstretched in front of me, yet somehow I’d suffer the inevitable hitting of my head on the fiberglass hull.

The sea sickness. The motion sickness. The sickness from simply not wanting to be there, out of boredom, out of fear, as land, like water spiraling down a drain, disappeared in the distance.

We’d post up, way out, twenty miles from shore.
My parents’ fishing poles, slung over the deck in four different quadrants. My brother, still a toddler, bumping along inside the boat, a whirlwind too small to climb up and out into open water, wearing himself into a stupor.

Huddled in a corner, I’d lay underneath a wet towel, eventually falling asleep.
Inside that darkness, I’d feel the sweet utopia.
Away from the sun.
Away from my family.
The white booters.
The ocean, ominous, ebbing and flowing just underneath the shell of our boat,
harboring stinging jellyfish, squid, Manta rays, and bull sharks: the bullshit I was scared of, in a life lived too easy.

Knocked out, my brother and I were of no consequence to our parents.
We had unknowingly awarded them a break from their monotonous lives.
From their jobs. A house too big to maintain. From the pressures of being providers.
And from the two kids who, unaware to us, were an utter pain in their asses.

This, these dreaded weekends spent in open water, in quiet desolation, was really what we all needed.

**In 2002, near Madeira Beach within miles of where I work, two commercial fisherman got into a bar room brawl where one stabbed the other in the chest with a swordfish. The victim lived.

Matt Coplon

Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.