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.


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. 


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. 


A geranium and a blood lily.


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


Beautiful orchids, here and below…



Ropy donkey tail, a sedum.


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.


And the chapel…


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.


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.

Yarn Bombing Rollins College

As most of you know, one of my gainful gigs involves working with owner Anne Jones and staffers Donna, Mary, Shirley and Laura at The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop on 17-92 in the Virginia Mills District of Orlando. It’s a great gig, a fun gig– I handle their eCommerce sales and assist in the shop when needed; e.g., on Thursdays when it is time to decant the large, full garbage bag into the dumpster,  I am elected. Or if it’s opening time and therefore the moment to bring our mascotress Woolamena outside, I’m the guy. Other than that, I’m ensconced in the Rear Annex, quietly listing and selling and packing and shipping our wares.

Anne bombed the museum’s banisters…

Today, however, was an extra special treat. I was entreated to come up front (unshaven, wrinkled) and pose for pre-event photographs which Rollins College photographer Scott was needing to shoot prior to a yarn bombing which The Black Sheep was going to be involved in later that day. Even though, at that point, I hadn’t been expecting to touch any yarn, let alone do any bombing, I gamely sat at the table with Donna  and Mary and allowed myself to be photographed as if I were a vital part of stitching together the crocheted and knitted panels that were going to be wrapped around trees at Rollins College.

Marty, Donna and Laura prepping the giant dueling oak…

If you know me well enough, you are telling yourself right now that you can’t just believe that I would sit there idly posing with a needle and not actually be doing any work. And I actually did: I whip-stitched my way along numerous panels and then, when a needlework class began arriving at the shop for a 1 PM tutorial and needed our work table, I hied myself to the Rear Annex so that I could stitch at a table which had enough room for me and my panels.

Laura made these diaphanous and ethereal yarn constructions…

I now know what Betsy Ross must have felt like while the revolution was going on around her. She probably sat alone in a stifling attic, sweating through her farthingale, stitching together the banner for what were then known as The Thirteen Original States. Ask yourself: was she looking forward to a Fourteenth state? Who knew?

Anne, Laura, Donna, Jim and Mary.

But I digress. When we were done stitching together our panels of assorted projects which had been donated, The Black Sheep contingent drove to Rollins in Anne’s truck, which she actually spoke to while driving, by the way– and it answered her. Politely. It even made phone calls for her! If I even ask my car– BEG it– to make a right turn, I am given grief and an eventual argument, neither of which help when I’m trying to blend onto the East-West Expressway from Semoran Boulevard.

Donna… bombing!

We attracted a lot of attention as we stitched away at Rollins, and the slowly setting sun gave our yarns myriad hues and textures as the light changed. It was magical. The weather was perfect this evening– it had rained an hour or so ago, and the air was cool and crisp and verdant. You could smell the grass under the trees we were bombing, every step sending up a puff of green.

This tree I bombed looks like a candle being lit…

Rollins is hosting an installation at its Cornell Museum called The Mysterious Content of Softness, featuring exhibits by many talented fiber artists. It’s amazing and provocative and, though I normally hate the overused adjective “amazing,” in this instance it fits. The exhibits are jaw dropping and inspirational. You should go.

Mary… wrapping!

This was a very special day– a nice blend of nature, fiber arts, good people, great weather, and a chance to invade Rollins College. The installation will be there for you to enjoy for a short time, so get down there and see what’s up. You might even be creatively inspired… and who knows? Maybe we’ll invite you to help us yarn bomb the Brooklyn Bridge!

PhotoBike Tour 16– Knowles Avenue in Winter Park (and Offsides)

I have all these negatives of photos I took back in the late 70s and early 80s of a Winter Park that’s largely vanished. I’m still trying to identify some of the sites, but occasionally something “clicks” and I remember exactly where the photo had been taken.

SIDEBAR: I do regret NOT taking photos of the Alabama Hotel before it went condo; my friend Donald and I walked there from my apartment at the Plantation in Maitland, and wandered the halls, the lobbies, the public rooms, the library… it was for sale and everything was open to inspection. It was magical, like being in a time warp: Kleenex boxes in each bedroom, with one leaf of tissue popping from each and every box, just waiting for a sneeze. It was like we were walking through a dream. The Alabama is a condo now. and doesn’t seem to hold the same ambience. What can I say?

The venerable Alabama. It used to be a resort hotel– one of FOUR giant hotels that used to be located on the Winter Park chain of lakes.

After looking through negatives this past week, and tooling around on Google Earth and then looking up Winter Park history, I realized I’d never really explored Knowles Avenue from top to bottom. It just sort of slipped away under my radar while I was bicycling in the past, or else– while in the car– it’s byzantine system on one-way signs precluded any 4-wheel exploration. This morning, before I knew the humidity was going to soar, I set out to see what I’d missed.

I approach Winter Park from the east. I have to cross 436, go north to the light, and then thread my way through the Winter Woods subdivision; we call it “the Wilhelm’s” because of the grammatically-incorrect sign that fronted one of the houses. I always wanted to ring the bell and tell them “it should say ‘the Wilhelms,’ but I never did. I’m surprised.

Then I wend my way south along Lake Howell Road, checking to see if there’s a way to get across the watery culvert over to Arbor Park Drive (there still isn’t), and so I usually go west on Pine Avenue. Incidentally, the name Arbor park Drive is relatively new– we still know it as the southern extension of Lakemont Avenue, south of the cemetery. I’m just saying.

Palmer Avenue is just a few blocks away, the site of my second-favorite house in Winter Park:

It used to have a sign out front– Lulworth– and was built by a Mrs. Mizener ion the 1930s. She insisted that there be no shutters on the windows because she didn’t want to have to bother painting them. (A woman after my own heart.) The house was designed by James Gamble Rogers II, and believe me– he didn’t have those Greek columns up front; his were slimmer and fit the facade better. The new owners didn’t consult with me when they redid the place… can you imagine?

Before heading into downtown Winter Park I remembered that I wanted to photograph a neighborhood marker– specifically, one that noted the historic African-American west side of Winter Park known as Hannibal Square. It’s been yuppified and gentrified into something very NOT Hannibal Square, but I did find the marker on Denning Drive– inexplicably knocked over; I think I’ll let the city know that this needs to be righted.

Knowles Avenue branches from Chapman, which is a little street that branches off Fairbanks; you don’t see Chapman much because you are driving past Rollins College while, at the same trying, trying not to hit students (and professors) who decide to cross the road while checking their eMail. You go through a parking garage– wave hello to the ticket lady– and then you are on Knowles Avenue, which stretches all the way north from Lyman Avenue to Casa Feliz on Whipple Avenue. And it’s rife with architectural gems.

The first gem you encounter is the facade of the former Lincoln Apartments, now preserved and nicely incorporated into the First United Methodist Family Life Center. That was thoughtful! I always wanted to go into the Lincoln and knock on doors. Who would I encounter– former Ziegfeld girls? Forgotten chanteuses who headlined in smoky Omaha boites? Jimmy Hoffa? I’ll never know.

Okay. You have to go a block east, to Interlachen Avenue, to see Osceola Lodge, a beautiful home built by the Knowles family in 1888. But behind it– on Knowles– is a cottage that was used by visitors to the larger Knowles house. I don’t recall ever seeing this cottage, though I have tons of photos of Osceola Lodge.

Here’s the Lodge:

And here’s the cottage just to the west of it, on the same large lot, but facing Knowles Avenue:

Then I went down the path to the left of that cottage and took this shot of the Lodge’s rear; I can easily picture myself living upstairs right. You?

Across the street on Knowles is yet another cottage built by Knowles, now the home of Architects Design Group– this is truly OLD Winter Park, ladies and gentlemen…

A third Knowles “cottage” has been transformed into a firm as well, but it’s unrecognizable as a cottage:

Near the north end of Knowles, just where it meets the golf course, the city has placed some old cement posts noting the names of streets. I don’t know ho wold these are, and they’re faded, but I did have some old negatives in my collection. These denote Something Road, Fitzwalter Drive, and Harmon Avenue; the last two denote streets at extreme opposite ends of one another.

Just off Knowles, actually at Interlachen Avenue, is a series of ancient-looking apartments which evoke Key West. This is my favorite…

Who lives here? An artist, a writer, a milkmaid? A woman with cats? A candlemaker, a surgeon, a bell-ringer?

At the very north end of Knowles, hugging the golf course, is Casa Feliz. It used to be on Interlachen Avenue, but was moved when the newest property owner decided he might tear it down. people rallied and had it moved to its present spot– a rarity in Winter Park, but enough people cared deeply to have this 1932 James Gamble Rogers II gem saved.

The front.

The rear.

Here are the Barbour Apartments on very north Knowles, built in 1933 and designed by our man james Gamble Rogers II. Everyone who moved to Winter Park used to want to live here. Of course, that was back in the 70s and 80s; now they want to live… where? I have no idea.

Leaving Knowles Avenue and returning home via Interlachen Avenue, I noticed this sign planted in the road.

The Red Pepper Garden Club… can you even?! It’s probably not as rollicking as the name would have you believe. I picture officious club women with pointy eyeglasses, prow-busted and powdered,  their sensible Enna Jetticks heavily decorated with rhinestones. They meet once a month at the Woman’s Club (sic) down on Interlachen Avenue, where cucumber-based refreshments bedeck a series of card tables situated at the front of the room. After an hour’s worth of apologies, explanations and general catching up, the ladies are called to order by Madame la President, who fixes them all with a gimlet eye, and intones:

“So… who is responsible for the dying aspidistra in front of the library?”

I began this trek at 10:30 in the morning and by 12:30 was blistered by heat. It was time to return, though I have a feeling I’ll be back: there are streets called Greentree, Bonita, Temple Grove and Elizabeth which deserve some prowling… join me!

PhotoBike Tour 12: Casselberry and Fern Park

HA! You’re laughing! Casselberry? Fern Park? Isn’t that all about 436 and 17-92, you’re asking? Well yes, in a way; 436 slices through the heart of the old farming communities east of old Winter Park, and 17-92 bisects the old fern nurseries of Fern Park. There IS old to be seen here.

Casselberry only became a city in 1965. It has a very picturesque “old” section centered around the Triplet lakes, and its old unincorporated Fern Park section features a lot of old motels and pre-Disney relics strung along 17-92. Casselberry stretches down to Howell Branch Road, and parts of it are still wild, mere seconds from crazy 436. (Remember that you can click on any picture to make it larger and more complete.)

On Lake Ann Lane, just south of Lake Howell. This is a little known street that leads to the big properties that border the lakes .

Here’s Lake Howell as seen from one of the condominiums that line the lake’s west edge. If I don’t see a guard house, I venture in; I’m fourteen years old and invisible, which is how I get many of these shots. While moseying along today, I got caught in a giant cloud of dryer exhaust coming from the condo’s laundry facility, and smelled nothing but fabric softener for a few minutes. Ecch!

This next shot is up near Semoran Skateway, where I and my little spent many evenings in the past rolling round and round and ROUND at Gay Skate. What exactly is Gay Skate? It’s cruising on little rubber wheels, trying to glide with aplomb without looking too ridiculous. For me, that was mostly impossible because I would go into these spastic convolutions rather than just crash merrily into a rail or onto the floor. And you just don’t do something like that in front of a group of gay people, because you will be socially ostracized for life.

Just past the Skateway is the southern entrance to the Kewanee trail, another rails-to-trails path that threads through Casselberry and into Fern Park. I never knew it was there until I looked at Google Maps one day, and there it was.

Along the Kewanee Trail.

Pausing along the Kewanee Trail, with a culvert managing to look picturesque.

Kewanee Park is in here, situated deep inside the suburban spread. Who knew that this place existed so close to 436? Shirley Jackson would have a field day with this isolated little wetland: “and no one can hear you scream, in the night, in the dark… “

Back to Lake Howell Lane, which branches off east and west from Lake Ann Lane, is this imposing set of gates; I think I know of the people who live here. No bikes allowed! Do you think I need to fill my white basket with yellow jonquils?

No Bikes Allowed.

The eastern end of Lake Howell Lane borders on the western edge of the San Pedro Retreat Center. This is a grazing area for local cows, who tend to move to this part of the property at night. I’m told by a San Pedro employee that it’s creepy hearing the cows lowing in the dark late at night…

Florida Stuff From My Bulging Files

FLORIDA! In 1978, it was a dream come true for me to move down here, on a lot of levels. I can’t believe that was 33 years ago, and now I’m almost as old as the people I saw driving at a snail’s pace on the highways when I arrived- I first experienced Florida in 1970, as a raw fourteen-year-old, and those memories seem to have seared themselves onto my brain pan.

Enamored with my newly-adopted home, I began collecting things (no surprise to anyone who knows me). Here, for your entertainment, are some odd items from my FLORIDA folder…

NOTE: Click on each picture for a larger, more detailed version.

The Florida Department of Citrus handed out postcards of their product for a few years, and friends of mine handed me a batch of them. I mailed them  to antagonize my family in the frozen tundra of Brooklyn.

Winter Park was where I settled, though I’ve never actually lived within the city limits. My first address was Maitland 32751, in Orange County; my second was Winter park 32792, in Seminole County; and my current is Winter Park 32792, also in Seminole County, though I am actually located within the city limits of Casselberry.

Yes… your social standing all depends on the post office which delivers your mail, which is why I don’t own a dinner jacket.

The fabled Langford Hotel was THE place to be seen in Winter Park at one time– the real Winter Park of 32789 fame. Here, women with beehives and barrel curls would sit at the bar talking with men wearing blue polyester suits. It’s true! Just look at the brochure below. Afterwards, everyone would jump in the pool and sober up, hoping that that string of electric lanterns wouldn’t fall in and suddenly render everyone redundant.

I have  a Winter Park Chamber of Commerce booklet from the 1960s– the telephone exchanges in the ads are all MIdway. Here are a couple of pages describing home life. “There is no snobbishness here, and you are judged not by what you have, but by what you are.”  “Houses are constructed here to conform to the casual, informal mode of living, and range in price from $13,500 to $100,000.”

I was introduced in 1978 to a Mrs. Anna Jillson, an assistant VP at the Barnett Bank on Park Avenue. A very nice lady, she sometimes manned a teller station. One day I brought my visiting grandmother in so that she could cash her social security check. The young teller asked, very condescendingly, ‘ohhh? Does SHE have an account here?’ What?! Excuse me?! In response, I name-dropped: ‘Maybe I should go upstairs and ask Mrs. Jillson to come down and see if SHE can handle this professionally?’  Instead, the teller said nicely to my grandmother, ‘how would you like that, in fifties and twenties?’

I eventually traveled further afield, sometimes taking the bus to visit relatives in Sarasota. (I still have the ticket stubs.) This spread in SEE Sarasota, a magazine I treasured from when I first visited the state in 1970, gives the impression that Sarasota was home to women in beehives and barrel curls, barmaids from California, and underground films. I wanted to see underground films, desperately, but what I mostly did with my relatives was play miniature golf and eat pizza.

We went fishing one time in Sarasota (1970), casting off from a place called Uncle Bob’s Fishing Place, “where fishermen meet.” I helped push the boat into the water, and even baited my own hooks– with nicely comatose shrimp one day, and maniacally wriggling shrimp the next day. And I’ll never forget a little black girl asking for some ice at the marina. When she walked away, the middle-aged white man who gave her the ice referred to her with a racial slur that I thought you only heard in movies about the Klan. Boy was I shocked! If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked him: ‘What exactly do you mean by “where fisherman meet.” ‘

Have you ever heard of Xanadu? It was a futuristic house built on a plot of land on Highway 192 going through Kissimmee. It promised all sorts of delights– ‘experience 2001 technology today!’– but it failed to deliver. The place was hot and stuffy; the Robutler stood dusty and broken in a corner, and the bathroom ‘with its waterfall and spa and solar sauna’ wasn’t anything to write home about; in fact, I never did. ‘Every room reveals a futuristic surprise,’ the brochure promised– yes, it was very surprising that each room looked like 1955’s idea of the future. That sculptural tree was supposed to keep the interior climate-controlled, but when you got to the top floor you broke out in a sweat and stopped breathing. And the clerk in the gift shop could NOT have been more bored!

When I got my car, I drove up to Deland and happened to take this photo just before the sky yawned and poured all over me and my camera… and now that I think of it, I know an Igou family.

Citrus crate labels are colorful and beautiful; you can get a lot of nice ones at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation museums. And the Battaglia family owned a big house on Palmer Avenue in Winter Park.

Time flew… soon it was time for Disney to expand…

I still enjoy going to Epcot. It’s Xanadu in a way, but they do update it every once in a while. I wish they’d get more countries, though.

And here is a map of Orlando from before Interstate 4 was built through the city, which permanently ruined it when it bisected it into eastern and western halves.

And, finally, a page from The Orlando Sentinel, 1965…

I hope you’ve enjoyed your little foray into my filing cabinet. Now I’ve got to put all this stuff back…

Cousin Nico in Paradise– Key West 2010

Can you hear that sound of stampeding feet? Welcome Lufthansa Flight 464 from Frankfurt am Main to Orlando International Airport!

As scheduled, and after looking forward to it for many months, Nicola– my 19-year-old Italian second cousin once removed– arrived for two weeks of relaxation before starting his sophomore year at the University of Pisa. Though he did bring his geography text to study for a September 20th. exam, I only saw it brought out on a couple of occasions. Good for him! He’s going to ace it anyway– he’s riding a 100% average after his first year. [He did.]

“Where do you want to go in Florida?” I asked him prior to his visit. The theme parks didn’t figure into his equation; he wanted nature, and giant bridges spanning endless expanses of ocean, and alligators; but no sharks and– of course– a visit to Miami. But not necessarily Miami Beach. And he wanted to see some American Protestant churches– not that he’s shopping for a new religion but, after living in Catholic-saturated Italy, he wanted to see how the other half worshiped. And if we could have gotten into the Mormon temple in Orlando, I’m sure it would have been on his list as well.

Once we had a travel agenda in place, I was able to start worrying about what to feed him. I knew what Italians generally ate after spending time there in the past, but I naturally worried about what he might find unappetizing. We did well, however; corn stayed untouched on his plate, either cobbed or loose, but most vegetables and poultry and meat were duly appreciated. Corn, it seems, is fed to livestock. Polenta? Don’t get me started; that’s what peasants ate if there was any corn left over after throwing it to the pigs. And one night I hand-made pappardelle noodles and a wonderful pesto, which was actually a bonus because the women in his family don’t make pasta by hand anymore. (“The ones that do are all dead.”) And he enjoyed the Mexican fare we had in South Florida, as well as a Chinese meal here at Jum Bo in Winter Park. But Italian fare in Key West was not entirely authentic, he decided. Sorry! And they mispronounced bruschetta.  It’s broo-SKET-ta, not broo-SHET-ta. (Note to self: load car with prosciutto e melone prior to any long drives involving Italian relatives. And keep a ready baked ziti warming on the manifold, just in case. A translating dictionary, too.)

Nico got to meet my mother and sisters and brother-in-law for the first time, immersing himself in a saturation dose of my family. When together, we’re loud… and he loved it. Here we are– yours truly, Nico, and Kirk, posing dutifully by Lois and Mike’s pool in Port St. Lucie, a small fishing village wedged between the Atlantic and the Everglades.

Nico was VERY taken by how wide and far everything is here in America. We drove down through the center of the state along US-27 when we headed to Key West; I love that route because it’s wide and empty and scenic. By the time we got to the Everglades entrance in Homestead, which is about 209 miles from my house here in Winter Park, we could have driven from his house in Lucca all the way to Rome– a whole other region and a whole other dialect. And we STILL had hours to go until we reached Key West.

I’d never been to the Everglades, and we were both impressed. An alligator showed up, as anticipated, and we posed my cousin next to a sign fraught with warnings:


A primeval killer.

We drove further into the park after spending some time at this hammock, but the road grew grungier and the sky blacker, convincing us to head back to town and some Mexican food. There’s such a sense of vastness in the Everglades. The sky and the flatness stretch out before you, and when you’re the only ones on the road like we were it feels like Earth has been evacuated. Where are the souvenir stands, your mind cries out!  There’s nothing but swamp! “It’s all very green,” Nico said. “From Orlando to here has been nothing but green.” “We are one of the nation’s vegetable baskets,” I replied, sounding like my third grade nun. “See all those plants that look like corn? That’s sugar cane! This is where we get the sugar for all those Snickers bars we ate on the way down here.”


The next morning we headed for Key West along U.S. Highway 1, which is the only road into the Keys. There are some stretches where you just don’t drive faster than ten miles above the posted speed limit, yet there is always one bozo behind you who wants to go even faster. “Bozo,” I explained to Nicola, “was a television clown here in America.”  “I hate clowns… I am afraid of them!”  “Me too.”

He was very taken with the palette of blues and greens which color the water on the way down through the island chain. And even though it was six thousand degrees outside the car, he gamely posed in the sun while wearing his mosquito suit. (Jeans and long sleeves.)

“I think I’ll sleep,” he said at one point while I drove us through the endless miles of azure and teal. “Please do,” I replied, which he interpreted ironically, a Tuscan trait which, incidentally, had the both of us raising amused eyebrows for the two weeks he was in Florida. As when I attempted to tell him, in Italian, something about bringing along a duffel bag:  “Don’t even try,” he replied. Had there been a dueling oak in Winter Park, I’m sure we would have met beneath it one fine morning– linguistically, of course.  Neapolitans or Sicilians would simply throw knives at one another and be done with it but, being Tuscans, we duel with eyebrows. (Admittedly, I am half Neapolitan, and Nico and I are both descended from a Sicilian woman. But that’s a state secret) And I had the pleasure of explaining to him the subtle differences among underneathunder, and below.  Being a scholar of languages, his fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek allows him to grasp the subtleties of our barbaric language in a trice; it was like driving with Homer.

We stopped at this church on Key Largo just to prowl around inside and visit the Sacrament. Nico was impressed by how modern and suburban most Florida churches are.

After a few hours, we arrived in Key West. To me, it always feels like I’ve come home. To Nico, it was his first slice of urban paradise, and he loved it immediately. We drove in via the southern entrance, past the forts along the Atlantic, and he could not get over the fact that here was this vast, spreading ocean nestled against this charming little city. And the air is always so fresh… it was a pleasure to see the look on his face: another convert!

Here’s Nico on Elizabeth Street, which we decided was named for Jack’s male secretary on Will & Grace. Remember?  “Elizabeth!!!”  He loves that show, and we watched a lot of episodes in Italian on my computer. They are just as crazy, Karen even more so.

One of my favorite spots in Key West is atop La Concha Hotel, where you have views of the entire town. Here’s my cousin backed by St. Paul’s Episcopal, which he was very impressed with. I am too– the figural stained glass alone is worth the trip. And it’s one of those Episcopal sanctuaries that is just a hair’s breadth away from being entirely Roman Catholic; sometimes they’ll tell you “we have everything but the Pope,” which doesn’t seem like such a bad idea these days.

And, of course, here’s Bonnie Albury’s house, which I’ve written about recently. I am ready to move in here. Where’s the contract?

We stayed at Oasis, one of those guest houses for men, which was a first for him. I felt like the old geezer trailing his young companion along with him: “This is my Italian cousin,” I felt compelled to tell the desk clerk and any guests we spoke with. And then I would get the gay male version of the raised eyebrows look. So what! Believe what you want.

We swam in the pool and were able to splash around at will, because the joint was deserted. “It’s the slow time of year,” everyone kept telling us, which was fine with me. We did notice a lot of lesbian couples strolling through town, holding hands, and then we realized it was Women’s Week, or close to it. Nico was amazed at the freedom, and stunned at the look of a housewife– there could be no other word– who shot THE filthiest look at a female couple as she passed by them on the sidewalk. Why even bother dragging your husband and kids to Key West if you’re going to come with THAT attitude? Honestly.

We stopped in at the 801 one night so Nico could get his first look at a gay club. Filled with carousing locals, it was a pleasant introduction. I had a beer, he had a soda, and we found ourselves seated next to a couple who happened to be staying at our guest house. When my cousin got up to find the facilities, I got the eyebrows from one of them, but then I entered into a conversation with the bartender and told him about Nico visiting from Italy. “He’s my cousin,” I said in their direction. “My second cousin once removed.” It turns out the bartender’s  people are from Italy as well, and so he and Nico had a chat about the old country when my cousin found his way back to his bar stool.

The gay community center on Truman Avenue was enlightening for him– there’s just nothing like it in rural Italy. Here was an entire structure devoted to tolerance, with a great display about Tennessee Williams. (Hi Susan!)

We stayed two days and then drove back to downtown Miami, where my second cousin Steven on my father’s side owns an Italian restaurant named Perricone’s. What a meal! We arrived halfway between lunch and dinner, and so had everyone’s attention. The place is amazing, and Steven was on the premises and able to hang out for a while. And Nico loved the food.

He had a great time here, and I truly miss his company. Now he’s back in Italy, totally immersed in his sophomore year at the University, and dying to come back to America. I’m dying to go back to Italy, so it’s been decided that Kirk and I will be visiting there next year, because Nico’s entire family wants to meet us as a couple. And that’s a whole other story. There were plenty of issues when my cousin came out to his people, and lots of eMails back and forth between him and Cousin Jimmy, beseeching advice and help during what turned out to be a rather emotional and trying time, but eventually everybody saw reason. I feel like I’ve accomplished something good and lasting in my life regarding HIS life, but I’m mostly thankful for his family’s understanding and support. It was a stretch for a gang of rural Italians to come to grips with such a concept as a gay son / grandson / nephew.

Now summer’s over, and we can all start looking forward to the next.




PhotoBike Tour 6: Winter Park in Black and White

Today was SO hot that I knew I should have started biking way earlier than I did. But I left the house at 11:45 and it was like walking into a wall of soup– and not gazpacho. More like boiling pea soup. So you go slow– two-wheeled ambling rather than racing, which is impossible to do in this town anyway what with the traffic and the thousands of parked landscaping and delivery trucks crowding the streets during the day. “How nice and quiet it must be when you bike ride,” people say to me. Wrong. I am serenaded by an orchestra composed of lawnmowers and those damned exhaust-belching, shrieking leaf blowers.

Today wasn’t so bad. I went west into Winter Park, mostly along the Aloma-Osceloa-Brewer-Fairbanks route, and then the little streets over in Hannibal Square. Here are some shots which I decided to post in black and white, just to see what some of my the sites look like when the hot sun bleaches all the color out of them. And then, some things still with us from the past are made to be seen in black and white…

This very old house is on Aloma Avenue, built in 1901. I hope I don’t jinx it by showing it because it seems like the sort of house that the town likes to tear down to replace with a little cement palazzo. (There are no historic districts in Winter Park.)


 I’ve always loved this house on the Aloma-Brewer curve. Built in 1926, it’s being gutted by the current owners; only a few exterior walls are standing.


 Here’s another ancient beauty. It’s at the south end of Bonita Drive. Originally called Eastbank, it was built in 1883– one of the oldest homes in town.

The central areas of Winter Park are laced with canals connecting the big lakes. The boat tour takes you along some of them.

A tiny gem from 1935 on Osceola Court.

All Saints Episcopal (1925).

A church in Hannibal Square, the traditionallyAfrican-American west side of Winter Park.

A house in Hannibal Square, from 1902.

Looking out across Lake Virginia from Dinky Dock at the south end of Ollie Avenue.

On Osceola Avenue, just near the end of the bike ramp that plunges off Brewer hill. From 1935.

Much more respectable these days, this beauty from 1899 was owned by a tax evader / drug smuggler sometime in the 1970s. To get this photo, one has to bike down a short stretch now marked “Private Drive.” One of these days I am going to be set upon by the hounds!

A view toward the chapel at Rollins College, from Lake Virginia.

When I returned home and started looking up the facts on some of these houses, I found a lot of brochures I’d been saving. A little booklet that the Junior League produced in 1980 features a lot of historical buildings that are no longer around. While I realize that the bulldozers of progress roll inexorably on, I also lament the permanent, irretrievable loss of those beautiful structures.

Cows: Ruminations

Today was beautiful– a deep blue sky, and towering white clouds which had not yet had a chance to form thunderheads, luckily for me because I decided to go out on a bike tour while the weather was good. I headed for the area just north of Howell Branch Road and south of Red Bug Road, in the vicinity of Dike and Dodd Roads. There are farms up in there, just a few minutes away from our house, and I never cease to be amazed when I see cows grazing, lapping water from the tiny ponds, and basically just standing under trees and doing nothing. (Something I aspire to.)

Today I wanted to get up close and personal to these cows, so as I was biking north on Dodd Road I stopped and took some pictures. They were doing their cow-like things in leafy glades, close to high grass– and the road. Amazing! Flimsy-looking barbed wire fences were all that separated these cows from the traffic.

I continued on up to Dike Road and eventually came to the San Pedro Retreat Center. The Diocese leases its pasture to an agribusiness that brings its cows there to graze– it certainly cuts down on mowing! Here, the cows were REALLY close– I actually felt like I might be intruding on their “space” even though we were staring at one another across a barbed wire fence. All sorts of thoughts entered my mind, by now made light by the hot sun:

  • We all know cows can jump over the moon, but can they jump over a fence?
  • We’ve seen the running of the bulls in Pamplona (at least on television), so it’s quite possible that one of these cows could decide to break through the fence and chase me down.
  • Do cows bite? I wondered… I’ve never heard of such a thing; I know they occasionally kick over milk pails, bringing no end of distress to those eight Maids, and they chew a lot. I could probably stand a little chewing, but not biting.
  • For as long as I stood there, I heard not a single “moo.” Cows also apparently “low,” but I heard no lowing either. And what, exactly, is a “low?” A basso profundo moo?
  • Cows give us lots of products: meatballs; shoes; upholstery; and milk. Do you drink a lot of milk? If I do, I experience intestinal woe.


And here’s a bovine bonus for my neighbors: up on Howell Branch Road is the Winter Park Dairy, which keeps its own herd of cows and produces its own brand of blue cheese. The latest batch is due out this month, and I anxiously await the eMail letting me know when I can come claim my share.

So there you have it: when I need to escape the four walls of my existence, I can always get on my bike and visit with the cows. I highly recommend it.