Preserving Funky Old Florida

About 15 years ago, when my mother was alive, Barry and I were helping move some furniture in a new condo my parents bought in Sebastian, Florida. My mother sat on the bed and looked out the window at the Indian River view.

“We need to move the bed over this way,” she said, frowning. “Then I won’t see those dreadful shacks when I wake up in the morning.”

Puzzled, Dad walked over to the window and peered out at the small houses next door. “What’s wrong with those?” he asked. “That’s Old Florida!”

In my family, Old Florida is a catch-all term for everything about Florida that is charming, funky, and more than 10 years old. It is the antithesis of condos, mega-houses, shopping malls, and new construction. A moldy pink house with jalousie windows — that’s Old Florida. A restaurant where the waitress calls you “Hon” — that’s Old Florida. Funny little towns like Pahokee, on Lake Okeechobee — that’s Old Florida.

My Dad is an expert on Old Florida. He was telling me about a restaurant the other day, a place where they serve frog legs and swamp palm soup. “It’s Old Florida,” he said. It was enough of a description for me.

Actually, my Dad, himself, is Old Florida. Despite his distinguished career and the journalism textbooks he’s published, he wears shoes with holes in them and sweatstained floppy hats. Sometimes, he calls waitresses “Sweetie.” He tells stories about growing up in Miami without any shoes or shirt, shinnying up trees to get coconuts, and climbing neighbor’s fences to steal avocadoes. He used to swim off the Million Dollar pier, wearing a homemade snorkel and a mask made from an inner tube and a piece of round window glass.

Dad had a list of errands to run the other day, normally something I’d try to avoid. But my ears pricked up when I heard he was going out to Peterson’s Groves to “buy some citrus.” I wasn’t the only one. When Dad headed out to run his errands, Barry and Joy and I all piled into the car.

Peterson’s is Old Florida.

Drive out to the edge of rapidly-growing Vero Beach, past the shopping mall and the stark new developments hidden behind long concrete fences. On 66th Avenue, look for the hand-painted sign in the old wagon. When you turn down the sandy drive, you’ll be transported to another place and time.

In the center of the property is a cluster of ramshackle barns and chicken houses, a packing house, and a ton of kitsch. Before he’d even parked, Dad fell in love with a lifelike plastic goose perched on a piece of rusty farm equipment. I hopped out of the car and immediately went to say hello to the goats and pigs. “Look who made it through Thanksgiving,” said Dad, pointing at a huge turkey. We wandered through the chicken house and took pictures of the peacocks. “Guinea fowl!” called Barry, upon hearing the rusty pump squeak of one of his favorite critters.

We walked along the edge of the orange grove, next to a little fenced pond full of waterfowl. An obnoxious goose scolded us at the top of his lungs, but the ducks who shared the pen ignored him. On our right hand were the orange trees, not too tall, their branches laden with green citrus fruit.

On the store’s long covered porch, we found our goal: Wooden bins of oranges and grapefruits and bushel bags to pack them in. Prices were marked on blackboards or cardboard signs. A nearby galvanized bucket offered sunflowers for sale. Two cats lounged at our feet, got into a brief catfight, and streaked off in different directions.

We went inside, where juicy samples sat on the counter next to coconut candies, pralines, and candied orange peel. A broad-shouldered older man behind the counter was eating fruitcake out of a cardboard box, and he offered us a piece. Despite my love of fruitcake, I declined. I had just picked up a sample piece of grapefruit, and I was busy getting grapefruit juice all over his merchandise. A long-time customer, Dad addressed the man as “Mr. Peterson.”

I drifted towards the back of the store, past shelves of marmalade and jam and orange air freshener. The further back I went, the dustier the merchandise became. There were alligator heads and glass frogs and cheap plastic magnets that said Vero Beach, Florida. Seashell windchimes dangled from the ceiling. My favorite items were the starfish wearing tiny sunglasses, painted with polka-dotted bikinis.

Whenever I go into Peterson’s, I think I should buy a lot of stuff, because that will help preserve this bastion of Old Florida. Then I look more closely at the tawdry merchandise and decide the best thing to buy is oranges and grapefruits, and maybe a jar or two of jam. Luckily, Mr. Peterson has been expanding into some vegetables, and on this trip, we picked up some cherry tomatoes and a lovely kohlrabi. When we commended him for his lovely eggplant, he said, gruffly, “I have to diversify.”

I’m sure Mr. Peterson has been invited to sell his property to developers for lots of money. I’m glad he’s holding out, and I tell myself it’s practical: Somebody in the United States has to grow oranges and tomatoes and kohlrabi; we can’t import all our food from Chile and New Zealand. But baby goats and peacocks and ramshackle buildings are not practical. They’re the last vestiges of Old Florida, and thank goodness someone, not just Dad, is preserving it.

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