A Gorgeous Sunday West Orange Trail Group Bike Tour

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There was a chill in the air this morning when I went outside to load my bicycle onto the car’s bike rack, but the sky was a brilliant blue and the weather radar showed an absence of those rough-edged yellow and red and black things which look, lately, like remnants of burnt fried eggs roaming across my iMac’s screen.

West Orange Bikes and Blades  hired me to give a two-hour guided bike tour of the Trail from the Killarney Trailhead five miles east to the Winter Garden Heritage Museum and Ms Bee’s Popcorn and Candy Store, and the weather was perfect. I always jump at the chance to share West Orange County’s history with new people, and these conventioneers were a great group to work with

 

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Here’s the gang, laden with popcorn and candy after their long haul.

Their bikes are parked across Plant Street at the Heritage Museum.

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They got to see the new History Research and Education Center (our new offices) going up on Plant Street…

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… our eastern gateway to the downtown Area…

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…the beautifully preserved Edgewater Hotel…

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…Centennial Fountain…

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… the Garden Theatre, where Carol Lee is starring in Hairspray…

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…Splash Park on Plant Street…

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…City Hall…

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…Brayton, an old community just west of downtown Winter Garden, where a former fertilizer company has been repurposed as Roundtable Productions, a multimedia production company…

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…the former South lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association offices in Tildenville…

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…the old SLACGA water tower…

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…the Luther Willis Tilden home (c.1910) on Tildenville School Road…

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…Lake Brim behind the Tilden home…

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…mile marker 801 from Richmond, Virginia, which stood along the old Orange Belt / ACL railroad tracks…

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…a home on Oakland’s Tubb Street which began life as boarding house for railroad men when it was built in the late 1880s…

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…Historic Town Hall in Oakland, which started out as a bank in 1912…

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…and one of the views south of Oakland, former grove land stretching towards Lake Apopka’s south shore. It was a great ride and a great experience and, after I sent them off on their bus and back to the Portofino, I went exploring through some of the groves which still stand between Oakland and Tildenville…

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Along the old Tildenville-Oakland Road, you pass through some very old properties…

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…and the old road pops you out through here onto Oakland’s Starr Street.

SO… anybody up for a bike tour? There’s so much to see in West Orange County!

The Art of Shopping Locally

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I’d heard that Se7en Bites Bakery / Cafe / Caterer was opening this week, and I was so glad to have a free Saturday to go down to their shop at 207 North Primrose and surround myself with freshly-baked goods. It’s a charming shop- bright and airy and energetic- its counter loaded with colorful and tempting delicacies.

In the picture are one slice of chocolate chip pumpkin spice cheesecake (Kirk ate the other slice well before its photo opportunity), an orange chocolate chip scone, and a hazelnut coffee cake with brown butter glaze.

They were all excellent, and what struck me is that you can taste and experience INGREDIENTS, not globs of overly-sweetened mushiness. This is true baking! You can really tell that Trina and Kevin, who I met today, love what they’re accomplishing here. “A Sweet and Savory Bakeshop” is an apt tagline for their fledgling enterprise!

They’ll also be featuring a Cookies and Milk Happy Hour from 230-330, and a culinary enticement called “Name Your Cookie of the Day.” 

Their hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 730-330, and Saturdays from 9 to3.   Yes- there are breakfast items, and beverages, making this a special little place to pause in before getting on the expressway. Find out all about them on Facebook at Se7en Bites, and you can phone them at 407-203-0727.

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At the Finds On Shine Parisian Flea at Maxine’s, I picked up an exquisite hanging ornament by Crawford, an artist whose work I have enjoyed for many years. Today’s purchase features Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. My other pieces by Crawford feature Norma Shearer…

When I managed Urban Think! Bookstore in downtown Orlando Crawford was responsible for running our popular Canvas and Cocktails art nights,and helped give many local artists their initial exposure. And he’s still working hard as ever!

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The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola

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I haven’t blogged much lately. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in writing; my job at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation involves a lot of writing, and I still take tons of photos as I wander and document West Orange County. Working as much as I do now has me staring fleetingly at my bicycle as I pass it where it stands perched in our living room, and I wonder when I’m going to go on another PhotoBike Tour. I’ve walked, though; downtown Winter Garden is just a few miles east of the area I’ve been documenting lately– Oakland and Tildenville and an area informally known as Brayton, which used to be a railroad stop where Brayton Road meets the railroad tracks. There were fertilizer plants here, and a packing house; if you’ve ridden the West Orange Trail and seen the building with the Seminoles logo on its roof- that’s Brayton; that building was once the Diamond R (Roper family) fertilizer plant. Cater corner to that, across the trail, is where the Bray packing house stood (the 1914 piers are still in the woods), which later became the Hall family fertilizer plant; if you peer closely at the picture below, you’ll see two of the piers. They sleep quietly in what looks very much like a jungle today, though this area was hopping with activity for many decades.

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It was beautiful enough this morning to visit downtown Orlando, where Kirk usually goes every weekend for a walk with friends. Occasionally join them, though not always; I like to retain my air of exclusivity, feeling that my rare appearances will only be that much more appreciated. This morning, after a snack at the very delightful Le Gourmet Break on Magnolia Avenue (perfect French pastries), we headed to Lake Eola to have a walk and to tour the remaining house on Washington Street- you’ll recall the recent imbroglio regarding the demolition of homes in the block across the street from the park’s playground. The house at the head of this blog post was saved, and rehabilitated for a few hundred thousand dollars. It will serve as a community center and event rental facility. It was built in 1930 according to the OCPA site, and we’re very glad that it’s been saved. Here are a few shots of the mansion:

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This window located at a landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor brightens up the center of the house.

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Here’s a view of the park from an upstairs porch.

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On a wall inside, a large postcard blow-up depicts the original Lake Eola bandshell.

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Another view of the exterior.

The floors have all been refinished, and everything is fresh and clean and ready to receive guests in its new incarnation. There were lots of visitors, and plenty of city guides to answer questions and hand out literature. What would be a welcome addition, however: some sort of researched handout that details the lives of the families who built and occupied the house over the years. I love finding out about all that!

We followed our tour of the house with a turn around the lake, noting the remarkable rise in the swan population. I tell you, there are more than ever. When we exited the house, they handed us bags of swan food, and it’s like they’d been alerted to the fact: dozens of them were congregating at the water’s edge, waiting for us to sprinkle pellets into the water. They would nudge one another, sometimes lashing out with their beaks, as they vied for diving space. How come swans portrayed in movies and on greeting cards are always so benign? They’re actually snappish, impatient creatures. As I sprinkled my pellets like some latter-day version of St. Francis with his sparrows,I imagined myself starring in a movie called “The Swans,” in which I am pursued across hill and dale by these birds. They don’t move that quickly, and neither do I anymore, so picture endless sequences featuring this tableaux in slow motion, filmed with a lens shrouded in gossamer fabric. (Sort of like Lucy in “Mame.”)

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As you walk around the lake, you might find yourself stepping in time with these guys… that’s daniel at the right,  entrepreneur at Kombucha!

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And, finally, a stop for rye and ciabatta from Denny at the Sweet Traditions Bakery table at the Farmer’s Market.

What I like about the park is that so many different groups of people use it comfortably with one another. It’s a great urban space, made even more accessible by the intelligent use of a house that could just as easily have been demolished.

Winter Park’s Rollins College Greenhouse

Today after breakfast at the new branch of First Watch on Aloma Avenue, we went with our buddies Alan and Mark to visit the greenhouse at Rollins College; it was a nice antidote to all the yelling I’ve been doing this week thanks to the imminent destruction of the pioneer Capen House.

Alan is the greenhouse manager, and this morning he gave us a tour.  According to the Rollins website, The Susan O. and Frederick A. Hauck Botanical Research Center, or what is commonly referred to as “The Greenhouse,” is conveniently located next to the Alfond Boathouse on the shores of beautiful Lake Virginia. The Greenhouse opened on October 20, 1983, to facilitate student and faculty research, provide plant material for study and to permanently house a diverse collection of plant species, some of which are indigenous to Florida. During the Summer of 1998, a student designed and installed a butterfly garden. A book which describes each plant in the butterfly garden in detail is available to the public as a reference during normal hours.

It was very warm inside, what with all this weather we’ve been having, but I managed to photograph some of the inmates before the camera’s lens fogged over.

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This is a chenille plant, though I first knew it as “Love Lies Bleeding” when I planted seeds years ago. “Love Lies Bleeding” sounds like the name of one of those bodice-ripper romance novels featuring Fabio on the cover. 

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I’d ask to live in here if it was air-conditioned, but then I would survive and most of the plants wouldn’t. Besides, there might be bugs. I can imagine waking up at night and, in a panic, breaking through the glass panes because I discovered that I was covered with ants. It’s very nice inside, steamy and tropical and there are hundreds and hundreds of unusual plants growing and blooming. 

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A geranium and a blood lily.

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Pitcher plants. These things are big, over six inches long in some cases, and have been known to entice and digest things like mice. 

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Beautiful orchids, here and below…

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Ropy donkey tail, a sedum.

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A nut from a cacao tree. Inside there is Swiss chocolate!

I also took some video of Alan demonstrating how the Venus Fly Traps work, but they are .avi files and won’t upload on WordPress unless I buy an upgrade. 

And there’s so much to see on the college grounds. Pinehurst Cottage, erected in 1886, is a showplace. It was one of the school’s original two buildings.

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And the chapel…

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It’s a beautiful spot for a school, nestled along Lake Virginia. It deserves a trip back, by bicycle.

Historic Winter Park- A Driving Tour

Here’s a complete scan of the Junior League‘s 1980 project. This is an invaluable booklet documenting the historic architectural legacy of Winter Park, which– in more than a few cases– has been allowed to vanish. (A link to my article of a few days ago regarding the imminent demolition of the Capen house, which is featured on the tour.)

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Bulldozing Winter Park

CAPENThe Capen House, Winter Park, Florida. Photo by George Skene of The Orlando Sentinel.

The world is a volatile place: turn on NPR on the way to work and you might find yourself in a righteous rage by the time you set foot in the office. The human species, in reaction, tries to create places of refuge which will enable us to isolate ourselves from the outside fray, even if for just a few hours.

Winter Park is one of those places. Planned as a leafy retreat from cold, northern winters in the 19th. century, it’s always held a special cachet in the hearts of people who dream about living as ideally as possible. Though we all know that bad things lurk behind the front doors of our homes, and perfection is impossible, we still strive for utopia and we build with that in mind. On so many levels, our homes reflect the people we wish to be.

Winter Park was lucky in that its original settlers and earliest families built homes that truly reflected their idea of living beautifully. They decorated the landscape with representations of architecture from various periods, some practical, some fanciful, but so many of them memorable.

And so many: gone.

RussellAnnie Russell house in Winter Park. Gone.

I realize that, with no historic district in place, a house can still be marked notable… and still liable to being razed.

I realize that people can do what they want with their property, and can build what they want, and can tear down what they don’t like. This is America and, when a house is not on a protected list, it goes extinct.

I understand all that.

What I don’t understand is why people would move to a town because of its historic charm, and then proceed to obliterate one of the things that drew them to that town in the first place. It’s almost sacrilegious.

Sometimes, good things happen. Remember Casa Feliz, the beautiful home in Winter Park that was purchased and then threatened with demolition by its new owner? He was going to build a new house on the lot; apparently, the last I heard, he never did. The community got angry, however, and pitched in to have Casa Feliz moved slightly west, on the golf course… and it’s now a valuable, cherished part of Winter Park. It’s a piece of the past functioning as a vital part of the present-  ergo, the future.

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Oneonta Lodge, Winter Park. Gone.

I work in historic preservation out in west Orange County. My office is in a railroad shed that was built in about 1915, and what we do is collect family history, documents, photographs, and the like. We are well past halfway in our capital campaign to have a NEW preservation facility built; however, the old building will remain part of an expanded Central Florida Railroad Museum.

EdgewaterThe Edgewater Hotel. Three restaurants, shops… and history.

That’s the way they do things in Winter Garden. When the brick buildings that you see were built between 1912 and 1930, they were built mainly to replace rows of wooden businesses that had disappeared during the fires of 1909 and 1912. Winter Garden built their new edifices to last, and they still stand proudly– and are all occupied and put to good use. They stand next to the 1927 Edgewater Hotel, the 1934 Garden Theatre, and so much more.

Winter Garden couldn’t afford to tear everything down and build spanking new modern edifices in the 70s and 80s like so many other towns. The pollution of Lake Apopka, the decimation of the orange industry due to freezes, the shutting down of the railroads, and the construction of highways around the little city all conspired to keep the area overwhelmingly unable to dynamite the old and build the new. Granted, some unforgettable, iconic structures bit the dust, but early efforts by concerned townspeople led to the creation of organizations dedicated to the preservation of a world from the past; a world that continues to spin. People riding through Winter Garden, Oakland and Tildenville on the West Orange Trail are amazed at what the area looks like today.

The past is palp[able in Winter Garden– it’s appreciated, nurtured, catered to, and loved. Since I work out there but live in Winter Park, I get to see the latter city often, and I’m always dismayed at what I see happening in the name of progress where I live. It makes no sense, this bulldozing of what attracted people here. Why kill the reason why you came here?

But, it’s happening. And it will continue to happen. So many people want to live in Winter Park, but they want it to look like Palm Beach. (Notice the tall hedges now obscuring many previously-visible houses?)

Winter Park, with all its resources, should be ashamed of itself. And I wonder if there’s a corner in their history museum that keeps track of what continues to disappear? I’m almost afraid to find out.

Many of the iconic old homes still stand, documented in a booklet I have called “Historic Winter Park– A Driving Tour,” published by the Junior League in 1980. I just hope this little treasure doesn’t end up becoming nothing more than a book of memories.

IKEA MADNESS: Comfort Food and… Comforters

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So, in the mail this past week arrived a brochure from IKEA promising comforters, Weight 3, any size… for $14.99, starting this morning at 10am.

$14.99!

Now, people who know me know that we’re not into possessions; we are the world’s worst consumers. When President Obama has to have an economy conference, we are not included in the equation. We just don’t buy stuff; in fact, we give away stuff, and I won’t be happy until the house is empty of things we never use anymore.

But a $14.99 comforter… everyone needs one of these, so we decided to buy two– only two to a customer, please!– and divide them between the two beds. But wait! Knowing that my sister Lois sniffs out bargains like bloodhounds sniff out dead bodies, I called her and told her about this once-in-a-lifetime offer, and of course she wanted one. “And couldja look for two shams too while you’re at it?” Certainly! So now we were up to THREE comforters, and decided to make it an even four– only two to a customer, please, so why not?

The Orlando IKEA opens at 10, and we decided that we’d better get there in case there was a huge rush. HA! A huge rush for comforters in Florida, the Sunshine State? But, you never know, so we checked the catalog to make sure the store really DID open at 10, and then discovered that they let the breakfast crowd in at 9:30. My God, this could turn out to practically be a holiday of international proportions!!

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I was awakened from a dream I was having (involving two parish priests and an outdoor Mass, with one of them asking if I was going to be attending, and ended with me lying and answering “Yes”) and given coffee, and, before I knew it, was in the car on the interstate heading to the Millennia Mall exit. We giddily planned on being there early, and so we parked and discovered that we were actually first in line when we arrived at 9:10. First! That’s never happened, and you could see the envy in the eyes of the other shoppers who arrived very soon after we did as they lined up Swedishly behind us. We wondered: could these people suddenly streaming out of their cars ALL be wanting $14.99 comforters? They came as if to Lourdes, afoot or with walkers, on crutches, in wheelchairs… and, just in case you’re wondering, the less ambulatory did not automatically move to the head of the line, which was us: this wasn’t Disney, after all– this was, essentially, Sweden, where everyone is equal. Just ask the King and Queen!

At one point I remarked that it seemed like we were all waiting anxiously in line to see the premiere of the newest Joan Crawford movie.

Because we have lived here for decades, we did meet someone we knew– a tall, nice-looking guy named Patrick who is always so bashfully polite and friendly that we let him stand with us. Guess what he was going to buy? Comforters! And it was a good thing that we met him– Patrick told us that to get FREE COFFEE and be eligible for the incredible discount on comforters, we would have to be Ikea Family members. If not, we could quickly register at a kiosk inside the store. WHAT?!?! We weren’t IKEA Family members!! How did we do that?! And would that result in a delay?! Suppose somebody got ahead of us!!

At 9:30 sharp (this WAS Sweden, after all) the doors opened and we streamed in politely to have breakfast, the two of us stopping to ask the greeter where the comforters were– and everyone stopped in place behind us!!  I almost started singing Kumbaya! The answer was given– they’d be located in the warehouse area– and then patrick deftly pointed out two kiosks to us so that we could register as IKEA Family members. Which we did, though Kirk had a spot of trouble with his terminal, lending me no end of angst, sighs and sweat. The problem was that he had to type in his birth year as 1951, not 51 (sorry, Kirk) but I corrected it and we were on our way. We weren’t first in line anymore, but we queued up in the food area and had a nice discussion with two women (yes, they were there to buy comforters), one of whom ran her hand along my sweater, leading to a detailed discussion about all the different kinds of wool there were in the world.

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We wolfed breakfast, and then some sort of secret signal went off, and we paying  breakfasters advanced to the rope at about 9:50 so that we could be let into the store proper. And that’s when we noticed a giant crowd of people waiting beyond the rope who were there for the 10am opening, but who had to patiently wait while we Paying Breakfasters (except for the coffee) were herded past them.

It was incredible– an IKEA staffer led the hundreds of us to a staircase that reached down to the main floor, and there we were given a speech. He basically told us that:

*     There were enough comforters for everyone.

*     There would be no pushing, shoving or running.

*     We would advance toe the area where the comforters were offered, and we would be handed the size we needed by staffers. There would be no diving into boxes. No jumping ahead. Non issues.

*     Finally, even though the ad said TWO to a customer, we could each buy up to FOUR. Not twenty-five… FOUR. Still, there was mass salivation at that point, which (I think) was a great way of making the crowd feel even MORE disposed toward buying even MORE.

As we waited those final minutes before 10am, we talked with the people around us. We learned from our staffer that comforter COVERS were going to be offered for sale on Monday, and a woman next to us said “great!,” to which I replied “awww, whatta you need covers for?” And she replied: “Men leave stains.” Laughter and commiseration followed, and then I told the story of how my grandmother was waiting outside Gimbel’s sometime in the 1940s for a huge sale, and the crush of women dressed in their winter coats and hats eventually surged too far forward, breaking the store windows. But they let the women in anyway because, after all, a sale is a sale.  (Eugene, was your mother there for that? Because every Brooklyn woman I know was there for that.)

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10am finally ticked, and we were led like hungry sheep to the warehouse area; you could feel the crowd hurrying up as we got closer. Even though we had been instructed to WALK, the people in front were definitely breaking into a trot, causing the rest of us to do so as well. (The Brazilians, I am happy to say, were easily outflanked by the Americans among us who chose to use their splayed elbows as shields.)

And you know? IKEA was true to its word– there were comforters galore, and we all got our allotment. We couldn’t find and shams– I even called Lois from my Jitterbug, in public, which I never do because that phone is big and red and looks like a shoe horn stuck to my face– but we did find a bath mat for the guest bath because the one in there looks like a leaf of tissue paper on the floor.

They must have sold sixty-five thousand comforters this morning, all of us high on breakfast carbs. There was a sort of World’s Fair pleasantry going on, what with people talking and laughing and feeling one another’s sweaters. We were Americans, lined up politely, spending money, improving the economy, and making the President happy. And it was good. And then loaded our comforters and bath mat into the trunk and, drunk with accomplishment, we headed to our next scintillating destination– something we’d been planning for weeks: to Sears Fashion Square for vacuum bags.

(Incidentally, we met at a party on February 16, 1985– 28 years ago exactly, and we call it Meeting Day– and so this is exactly how to celebrate such an auspicious occasion: comforters, bath mats and vacuum bags. I rest my case.)

The Dr. Doolittle of Winter Garden (Me)

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Regardless of my experiences with the quadrupeds (both wet and dry) referred to in my previous post, rest assured that I am really and truly a friend to animals, regardless of the extraordinary ways in which many of them have impacted my life. They’ve always fascinated me, beginning with the fabulous caged beasts I gazed upon at various zoos in New York City as a boy. Usually I was dressed in the distinctive blue-and-gold Cub Scout uniform, instantly marking me as a target of derision by your nastier, non-Scouting teenagers, but nevertheless I forged on, game as always.

(Query: why is it that caged beasts always seem to indulge in the most vivid of erotic encounters whenever a prepubescent audience lurks beyond the bars? Answer comes there none.)

My other experiences with animals took place on television, safely seated atop a Herculon-covered couch next to Mom as we egged one another on through countless episodes of Wild Kingdom. Who was that old guy? Oh, Marlin Perkins. Each week he, via the benevolence of the Mutual of Omaha insurance conglomerate, guided us through close-up vignettes of wasps paralyzing weaker insects (think Hugh Auchincloss doing a number of Mickey Spillane); lions surrounding graceful gazelles and turning them into mincemeat; hundreds of millions of lemmings jumping off the White Cliffs of Dover; and ants observed deep within their burrows as they printed their own currency, played bridge, and enslaved aphids. Fascinating! And then you turned off the television and went to bed, knowing that you’d fall asleep without scratching.

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I haven’t had much to do with animals since, other than finding myself surrounded by a herd of chickens in Key West seconds after stepping off a city bus, laden with luggage. I stood stock still, afraid to move lest I excite their avian anger. (Come on– we’ve all heard stories about farmers found pecked to death by the very creatures they worked hard to keep in feed. (Imagine showing something off at a 4-H Fair, winning a ribbon, bringing it home, and being killed by it?) Other than that, animals have usually been encountered in my grocer’s freezer.

Today in Winter Garden, however, I made up for my years of animal ignorance, all within the space of five minutes.

Down from my office at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation History Research Center, where I happily spend my days looking up “Judge” James Gamble Speer’s third cousin twice removed, is a feed store called Winter Garden Feed and Seed. It’s located in a building that’s been there for many years, and we have a lot of clippings on file regarding its history. I like to shop locally wherever I find myself working, and it means a lot to me to patronize a business whose previous antecedents have stretched back many decades. Winter Garden Feed and Seed sells things for horses and cows and chickens, and I’ve gotten Blueie’s bird food there once before; Karen Grimes and staff are friendly and down to earth, and very helpful. Blueie is finicky about what he eats, flapping and screaming and rubbing his beak dramatically on his perch after he’s tasted something he decides he’ll never try again, but he’s decided that he likes the bird seed at Winter Garden Feed and Seed. And, since he’s trained me so well, there I take myself.

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There was a line today Yes– people were busily making purchases for various animals, speaking a language I’d never heard before; not having spent much time near farms, or even spacious backyards, I had no idea what the customers were talking about. All I knew as that I wanted a bag of bird food, no complications, and so I wandered over to the area where you could dispense seed into plastic bags; they would weigh it at the register, charge you accordingly, and then send you back to Tara. Simple, right?

Only I couldn’t find the plastic bags, though I knew they had to be nearby. I turned to search a close-at-hand shelf, and found myself confronted in the shins by something large and kind of soft. I looked down and a very large pig was looking up at me as if to say “what the heck? Excuse me?!” As I considered this, I stepped back to give him room in case he decided to scamper away, squealing, like in the cartoons,  and I stepped on something that sort of squeaked in a snarling sort of way. I looked behind me and saw a rabbit running off in the direction of a tub full of shavings.

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Pigs. Rabbits. While the woman at the counter instructed the pig to not eat her shoe, I took advantage of the lull in commerce to ask where the plastic bags were. Finding them, I filled one with what I’d hoped would be a financially beneficial amount of bird seed (I like to shop locally) and went up to the counter. I pulled out a credit card, checking above me for swooping albatross, and saw the woman at the counter removing a chicken from atop the credit card machine. And this wasn’t just a chicken– it was a glorious chicken made, it seemed, from a white feather boa. “She’s up there because the rabbit keeps nipping at her,” I was told, and it all made sense because I was in a place that sold animal feed and farm equipment. When in Rome…

Always be open to new experiences. A pig could eat your shoe, a rabbit could bite your ankle, and a chicken could compromise your credit card.

And this is why I love working where I do.

Blueie the Lovebird Makes the News!

I just had a piece published in The Orlando Weekly, Central Florida’s alternative newspaper.

Their Pets issue features a lot of local pets… and Blueie!

Here’s the online link:

http://orlandoweekly.com/news/bonding-with-blueie-1.1440063

And be sure to check out all the items in the Pets issue!

 

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Christmas 2012 in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights

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Well, the Mayans didn’t get me, but some sort of flu-like ague that settled into my chest and sinuses on the 15th. of December decided to stick around (literally) through the week that I was in Brooklyn. It hadn’t been debilitating; my energy never flagged, the worst of the attack usually only lasting a day or so, but then I get to slog through a couple of weeks with a stuffed head, ears and chest. It could be worse, so I’m not complaining.

It was cold in Brooklyn, like in the 30s– just this side of freezing, but cold enough to erase all the green from the Bay Ridge / Dyker Heights landscape, rendering everything bleak. You know it’s temporary, though, and soon the gardens on the block (that haven’t yet been replaced with garages or parking slabs) will erupt again with bushes and flowers, the trees leafy and full.

Cold weather used to send me into asthmatic paroxysms, but that didn’t happen this Christmas. Mom and I took a walk over to Fifth Avenue to have burgers and fries at a little diner-y place, and I felt good enough to go for yet another walk after we got back home. I didn’t have to use my puffer at all, though a shot of generic Dayquil every few hours was keeping me feeling pretty good. The puffer, incidentally, has been taken off the market because it employs fluorocarbons to blast the life-saving medicine into my lungs. And we have learned that fluorocarbons erode the atmosphere. My position is: the fluorocarbons don’t leave my body– I can FEEL them– so what’s the nag? The nag is that the drug companies want asthmatics to have to troop to their doctors for (expensive) consultations and (expensive) prescriptions. The screwing of the wheezing public continues, step by step. Anyway.

I walked southeast of our neighborhood, which is situated at the very edge of Bay Ridge, and into Dyker Heights. (If you go slightly more east, into the 60s near 7th. and 8th. Avenues, skirting the interstate which raped and defaced this section of Brooklyn, you’re in an area that’s not Bay Ridge or Sunset Park or Dyker Heights. Years ago my friend Donald decided to name this no-man’s-land Peacrest.)

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Dyker Heights is still very Italian, and, except for a couple of shopping streets, composed mainly of single or duplex houses. Some of the single homes are very, very grand. This is because the owners of these houses, who are now mostly well-to-do but still desiring to live near their business interests, have invested their money in their immediate property. Italians being Italians, the more grand a home is, the better chance you have of showing the world that you’ve Made It Big. Corinthian columns, gardens, statues, fountains, pergolas, ornate dentilled cornices and elaborate porticos can often ALL be found gracing ONE dwelling, often half of a duplex. The Puttanescas may be content with their gray shingled two-story, but the attached Cazzolungho home will be seen erupting with the stylistic architectural excesses of at least seven historic periods.

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I got to see these homes up close because I had to go to “the Italian store” for Christmas Day comestibles. As the plans stood at the time, Christmas Eve was going to be me, Mom and my brother Tony at Colandrea’s New Corner Restaurant (just down the block from Mom’s house), while Christmas Day was going to be spent at my sister Gina’s house in Staten Island. We were going to bring our end of the bargain– pastries, and a stuffed escarole.

Do you know what a stuffed escarole is? You buy a bunch of escarole; you separate each leaf and wash it because dirt collects down near the base of the leaves; you arrange the leaves in an overlapping sunburst form in a pan; and then you place a large chunk of stuffing in the center of these leaves. Then you draw up all the leaves, creating a ball shape, and then, finally, you bind the whole thing with thread so that it can be cooked in its pan. Then you load it in your brother Tony’s car and bring it to Gina’s house on Staten Island.

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To Scaturro’s Italian grocery store I went, walking all the way in the bracing cold air, thanking God that it wasn’t windy. Mom lives between 8th. Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, a long block; Scaturro’s is on 11th. Avenue, and from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Eleventh Avenue is two long blocks, and then I had to turn left and go nine short blocks to 63rd. Street. It wasn’t bad. Walking gave me up-close glimpses of the neighborhood, and I realized that our latest crop of immigrants has decided that their front porches and area ways can be used as storage for all manner of plastic pails, cardboard boxes, hanks of rope, unidentifiable things made of metal, dead plants, and garbage pails. Incredible! All of these things used to be kept in the basement, but now Grandma is living in the basement. Hence the scenery.

Scaturro’s is great. It’s like an A&P of old, yet run and patronized exclusively by Italians, a few Asians, and the occasional Yuppie interloper. With ears poised like a lynx, you hear all sorts of things:

“When is the bread man getting here? I ain’t got all day and I want a bag of FRESH sandwich rolls, not stale from an hour ago”

“Now I gotta make a plate of sfingi to bring to her house, not that she always appears at mine man’ d’a bocc’… with the hands out expecting to be fed. “

“You can’t find a jar of pignoli nuts in this town if you don’t buy it six months before you need them. And then they’re stale.”

I found the produce section and noticed someone examining the offerings: tall, sandy-haired, be-scarved, WASPy. What was he doing in this neighborhood?

“Which ones are escarole?” I asked the Yuppie interloper, because really, I had no idea; all that greenery looked the same to me. And he shrugged because he hadn’t yet seen Martha Stewart’s episode about Italian vegetables, and then we both realized that wide rubber bands twisted around the bases of the greens happened to identify them. ESCAROLE. PARSLEY. BASIL. I took the largest bunch of ESCAROLE I could find and placed it in my basket. I also had a few other things to get, like the aforementioned rolls. “How long you staying with me? Seven days? Okay, get seven sandwich rolls with the seeds for lunch, but not sesame. And don’t get the long rolls, get the short ones” When I’m out of rolls, I guess I have to get back on the plane.

I got back home with my groceries, passing the same plastic pails and the same cardboard boxes. I loaded everything onto the butcher block table, scarred with the knife dents that my Dad made when he demanded order from us rotten children by banging his cutlery along its edge. Mom inspected the escarole minutely.

“Look at this, it’s so small. Didn’t they have bigger?”

“I got the biggest.”

“And it’s full of dirt. Look at this! It’s not your fault, I’m just saying.”

“I didn’t check. Already I was causing concern by rummaging for the biggest. Can I take a hot shower?”

“Hmm. I don’t know if I can serve this. Well… we’ll see. I shoulda sent you to C-Town. They always have big escarole. I’m not blaming YOU, of course, but I shoulda sent you to C-Town.””

Also on my list was an injunction to buy PASTRIES, but NOT NOW; GET THEM LATER WHEN TONY CAN DRIVE YOU. It so happens that there are no longer any Italian pastry shops on Fort Hamilton Parkway where you can buy large pastries. So, on Christmas Eve, as soon as Tony got to the house, we got back in his car and drove to the Mona Lisa bakery on 86th. street, just south of Dyker Beach Park and next to Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. We lined up with all the other Italians buying emergency Christmas Eve pastry. I listened in on the buyers’ conversations; mainly they were speaking in Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects, and so the Tuscan half of my being quivered and snickered with derision.

“So whaddya think? Six zhvoolyadell [sfogliatelle] and six ganool [cannoli] , and maybe some cream horns?”

“I told her I would bring some zeppole but not if she’s gonna have that attitude she has. With that attitude she has I’m gonna bring her an empty box filled with my best wishes.”

“Did you put extra change in the parking meter? I ain’t got all day and I don’t need a ticket on Christmas Eve, Christ child or NO Christ child.”

Tony and I went to Mezcal’s after buying pastries, rebonding over a few straight shots of Sambuca. My brother is very funny; I love that guy. And then we drove back home.

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Tony and Mom and I celebrated our traditional Christmas Eve at Colandrea’s New Corner Italian Restaurant, conveniently located down the block from us; we didn’t even have to find a parking space, always a celebration in my house. We had the five o’clock seating, which is a good thing, believe me; by eight o’clock all the waiters are exhausted from having to deal with beehived aunts from Bensonhurst and Long Island. We chose from their very nice menu and then waited for my father’s cousins to appear. Like the Magi, they appear at New Corner annually, just after we do. Actually, they’re cousins-in-law: two of my father’s departed cousins’ husbands, a son of one of them, and one of the husband’s sisters. We’re very close; we see them once a year as long as we eat at New Corner.

At one point during our meal we noticed bright lights shining from their table. It turned out that Joe’s sister, who has big, beautiful, blue owl eyes like her brother Joe, was reading her menu with the aid of magnifying eyeglasses AND an LED flashlight. How dark could it be?! I had to go over and tell them that the resultant reflection was burning out my retinas– and what exactly were they doing, spotting planes?

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Christmas Day wasn’t spent with my sister Gina according to plan, as she had an emergency and spent a few days in the hospital. (She’s fine; she’s tough as nails and thick as oak.) And there we were, loaded down with a box of pastries AND a stuffed escarole. What to do? We decided we would await instructions from her family, but God forbid we miss a meal, so we ended up having Christmas dinner at– did you guess it?– Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. It was just about the only place open in that section of Brooklyn, and they made us reserve a table for two p.m. They were very nice. They played Christmas music over the speakers for us, delighting in repeating “Feliz Navidad”  until we memorized it. We were the only three people in the place until three p.m., when two more people showed up. “They must be the three o’clock seating!” I exclaimed, because I had had two Coronas already. We made fun of the travel posters– “See Puerta Vallarta and die!”– and the holiday lights strung with plastic green and red peppers, and finally headed back home in the quiet cold of Tony’s car.

The rest of the week, I ran errands, walked a bit in the cold, and kept tabs on Gina’s progress. I also watched a lot of TV that I normally wouldn’t watch, let alone know what it was that I was watching. I just don’t watch a lot of TV, but there I’d be in Mom’s living room, listening to her change channels with the clicker.

“Whaddyou wanna watch?”

“I don’t know what’s on. I don’t watch much TV.”

“You’re such a snob. Why can’t you just relax? Here, pick something.” And she would start clicking through the ten thousand cable stations she has on her state-of-the-art system.

“That looks good,” I would say when Bea Arthur or Norma Shearer ghosted across the screen.

“Nah. I saw those a hundred years ago.”

“Oh look, Lucy!”

“Nah. I saw them all a million times.”

She’d eventually settle on a gory movie or show which usually involved severed limbs, decapitated teenagers, Nazi zombies, exhumations of murder victims, or nature films with names like “Survival In the Wild” featuring close-ups of ants devouring one another. “I just like to figure out the special effects in the slasher movies,” she’d admit, “but those ants are pretty damned real, right?” In another life she would have made an excellent forensics expert or movie make-up artist.

I walked one day far afield, thirty-six blocks east and four avenues north to Green-Wood cemetery where my father is. He’s not in the hilly area where the big mausoleums and monuments are; he’s in an area that I refer to as “the Flats,” close to the landscapers’ buildings, in view of the side street brownstones and the traffic along Fourth Avenue. He probably loves it. I called Mom from the gravesite and told her that I was visiting Dad, and that he said hello. (You never know.) I brushed away some of the scattered leaves and bits of plastic shrubbery that had blown onto his stone from other sites, thinking, as always, how much he would have appreciated the Mexican restaurant, Joe’s sister’s flashlight, and the determined  people lined up for pastries. I thought of him the day I stopped in Regina Pacis on the way back from Scaturro’s, just to marvel at that mini-Vatican and say a small prayer. I know how much he would have appreciated all of this craziness, especially because he loved Christmas so much and everything that went along with it. Especially the stuffed escarole. And he helps me appreciate it all even more.

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The small Marian chapel at Regina Pacis (“Queen of Peace.”)

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The Manhattan skyline from Sunset park, just east of Green-Wood Cemetery.