Under the unkept canopy of oaks and the winding maze of scrub palm, my grandmother would step up to pay the couple dollars for zoo entry.
We’d walk by the cement pens inlaid into the Florida sugar sand, where lizards bask in the dirt, where alligators were separated from the rare Florida crocodile, and the exotic birds stood idle on rows of wooden perches.
Stuffed together, in close quarters, with their stimulation absorbed from outside, they picked up cuss words from the droves of tourists that walked past.
It was a frenzy of avian vocalizations, piercing to the ears.
A dozen blue and gold macaws screaming “shit! “ass!” followed by an almost instant lull.
In that silence, a lone bird would screech “I’m a pretty bird.”
As if a palette cleanser, a coy apology for inappropriate behavior.
Worse off than the birds were the mixed batch of monkeys, their little harry hands outstretched, begging for a handout: peanuts, shiny bubble gum wrappers, and cigarettes.
After the tourists let their cigs burn down to the quick, they’d get tossed into the pen.
The monkeys would snatch them up to feed their mimicked, human supported addiction.
Or, so the rumors went.
My grandmother didn’t care to cover our ears from the filthy mouthed birds, nor protect our eyes from the debaucherous gang of monkeys.
She was too preoccupied with getting to the games: the ring toss, shooting gallery, but most of all, skee ball.
I’d watch the wrinkled, loose skin hang from her tricep as she underhanded the clay ball down the wooden lane. It’d hit the ramp and consistently end up in the highest prized hole. She’d rack up rolls of tickets, and even though she’d pounce me in points, I always got to choose the prize.
Usually, the most unwieldy stuffed animal. The life size black bears, the giant, hunched dolphins.
We’d take them back to the house where my younger brother would teethe on their fur. The smell of his dried saliva would eventually make them un-play-with-able.
Come Monday, their odd, furry shapes would end up crammed into the garbage.
And as the games would change on each visit, manned by a different carny, standing in front of a different prize, the animals remained the same.
Always idle in the unfavorable florida heat, resting in their pens tucked amongst the thick, unruly scrub palm.
That scrub palm, ubiquitous and impenetrable ground cover.
A vegetable plague enveloping every inch of undeveloped old world Florida.
This simple, often overlooked, indigenous and natural aesthetic was what I loved.
About six years ago, I got a hankering to visit The Sunken Gardens.
Lured in by their massive neon sign, it stood as a beacon: one of the last hurrah’s of the historic, Florida roadside tourist attraction. Taken up by the city of St. Pete in the new Millenium, the Gardens were resurrected into a tableau of the exotic, incorporating cuban royal palms, Polynesian screw pines, and a single, massive queen sago.
How the founder got a hold of that sago’s Madagascan seed remains a mystery.
Once inside the Gardens, you’re enveloped by tropical foliage. Here, amidst downtown, the city visuals, the sounds, and gridlock become mute.
I’d find myself visiting at off peak times when the gardens remained practically empty. Walking off the paved path, I’d creep into the canopy to smell the all spice, to pay my respects to the crotons, so old they transformed from hip high brush into fifteen foot trees.
Tucked into a corner, angel’s trumpet grew so thick they created a natural grotto.
A fibrous cave.
Or an addict’s dream: prepared as tea, it becomes a hallucinogen.
The Gardens were still partially a zoo. Their pits held onto that old guard of bizarre animals as cash cows. And of the dozens of decommissioned displays, two were still occupied. One by an alligator snapping turtle as big as a truck tire. The other, by a stand of flamingos, always basking in the sun, their bright pink plumes contrasting against brackish water.
I found myself going once a week, to sit and meditate amongst the canopy.
I’d try to explain the experience to friends, but the Gardens had a stigma.
A haunt for the blue haired retirees.
Always packed, loud with overzealous snowbirds.
But above all, most found it simply boring.
To the Florida natives, it was a subtle punishment to us as kids: to be dragged along on weekends by our parents wanting to escape the city’s chaos.
I’d get made fun of for my animated narrative. My subconscious selling of the Garden’s paradisiacal allure.
It was as if I were peddling snake oil.
The local’s aversion made it even more important to me, as if I were the embassador to its greatness.
And as an absurd justification, I began to research its history.
Delving into microfiche, I picked out old newspaper articles from the tens, the teens, up into the forties when the Second World War pumped car loads of wintry escapees into the state.
My grandparents included.
Their exodus, over time, legitimized living on this peninsula of sand and heat.
And I began to write.
For hours at a time.
Over the course of a couple weeks.
And on finishing, flipping through the twenty typed, transcribed pages, I calculated my time in putting pen to paper.
“Fifty two hours,” I inked into the margin.
Of time spent recording, reminiscing, and reflecting on why I was so enamored with the Gardens.
Deeper even, why I have felt such a bizarre love for those contrived representations of an unreal Florida.
In rereading the unnecessarily detailed tome, I realized that I had simply solidified what I already knew: my affinity for the grey area between what Florida actually is, and what we, as Floridians, wish it to be.
To this odd and oft times miserable state, I love you.