A winter morning in Panama City, but the temperature is hovering at around 90° Fahrenheit. I pass a pawnshop where a mink coat is for sale for $229. Mink?
An American flag woman is standing beside me: flag on the front of her t-shirt, flag on her baseball cap, flag trousers. In her arm is a large plant. “I’m originally from Mississippi,” she says apropos of nothing: “I’m here in town to see my son. He’s off to Koo–ate. Now I live in the Keys.”
“I knew the Keys years ago,” I say, a trifle unsure. Is she referring to the Florida Keys? “Back in the 1950s, they were quite wild and beautiful.”
“Now that’s all ruined,” she says. “Cause of all them tourists.”
“And malls, and roads, and developers,” I add.
“Yeah, we got some beautiful malls. It’s jus’ the crimes that’s bad. We people gotta be armed against the criminals. I got a permit for a concealed weapon in my car. All my friends do. We’re all of us widows.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” I say, as mildly as possible.
“We have a great time.”
“I’ll bet you do.”
In the 1500s, Spanish explorers arrived here on the lookout for gold, but there was none to be found. When hurricanes destroyed their colonies, and European-imported disease killed off so many natives that forced agricultural labour was impractical, they decided this was a backwater not worth developing. It was, however, a handy hidey-hole for pirates preying on ships traveling between Mexico and Spain. They buried their treasure deep in these sandy beaches, then forgot to come back or were killed off before they could. As late as the 1800s, there were still plenty of doubloons to be unearthed.
The French arrived, built Fort Crevecoeur (broken-hearted), then left. The British settled, developed a thriving trade network with local Chatot tribes and incoming Creeks pushed out of Alabama and Georgia, but left after the War of Independence. They were replaced by American settlers who decided the native population was unnecessary. Naturally, the natives disagreed. Only after the violent Seminole Wars lasting from 1816 to 1868 were they evicted and sent off to Oklahoma and Arkansas to die of starvation. A few, surviving as trappers, farmers, and lumbermen, hid in the forests and stayed on: only recently have some acknowledged their ancestry.
These days, Panama City is a holiday paradise where new condominiums, well-paved streets, flashy restaurants, extensive housing developments, and chic hotels all pay tribute to pelicans: Pelican Walk, Pelican’s Nest, Pelican Pointe, the Pelican Grill, the Pelican Ice Cream Bar, Pelican’s Peak. Enthusiastic tourist brochures also encourage folks to go pelican sighting.
Pelicans are gregarious birds, travelling in flocks, hunting together, breeding in colonies, and nesting on the ground. What the cheery brochures never mention is the rocky relationship between these birds and humans. Accused of competing with the fishing industry, pelicans have been clubbed to death and shot by “sportsmen” from ship decks. Their eggs have been deliberately destroyed, and young birds have been massacred. Feeding and nesting sites have been damaged by disastrous water management schemes and wetland drainage, and in the 1950s and 1960s, DDT pollution was a major cause of pelican death. In Louisiana, the decrease in their population was so drastic, 500 pelicans were imported from Florida: over 300 soon died from pesticide poisoning. In 1990 and 1991, 14,000 Californian pelicans perished from botulism and from eating fish contaminated with neurotoxic domoic acid. Today’s threats include oil spills, fish hooks that are swallowed or caught in their skin and webbed feet, fishing lines that wind around their necks, feet, bills, and cause crippling, starvation, and death.
I wander past condominiums, expensive homes, parking lots, and flashy hotels. Once upon a time, right along this road, there was a tiny cemetery with the graves of John Clark (1766-1832), his wife Nancy (1874-1832), and several of their descendants.
Clark, once governor of Georgia, had come here to protect the extensive oak forests used by the US navy for shipbuilding, but in this swampy mosquito-infested country, both he and his wife soon died of yellow fever. Their graves remained untouched for a hundred years until neighbours began complaining that they couldn’t sleep at night because of the ghostly horses’ hooves that clanked against the gravestones. Their protests increased, and the Daughters of the American Revolution finally raised enough money to have the gravestones and coffins sent back to Georgia. However, when excavated, only coffin handles and one silver coin were found.
Most interestingly (for me) is Clark’s long-forgotten romance: In his younger days, he fell passionately in love with an orphan, a Miss Chivers. It was a bad choice: she was the sister-in-law of Jesse Mercer, a fanatical born-again Christian pastor, and he disapproved of the match. Clark defied him and eloped with his beloved. The two rode for hours through a cold winter night looking for a preacher brave enough to defy the influential Mercer and marry them. They finally found refuge in a friend’s home, but Miss Chivers was feeling poorly. Shortly after, she died of pneumonia; Mercer held Clark responsible for her death.
These days, Harrison Avenue is just another nondescript shopping street with the usual stores and roaring traffic, but once it was lined with tall noble oaks. Local men despised these graceful giants, claimed they were a danger to cars and wagons. Town ladies protested that they provided both beauty and shade and rebelliously mounted a guard to protect them. But there was no foiling the men: meeting secretly at night when the ladies were safely tucked away, they cut down every single one.
Some back streets are still tree-lined and hint at paradise lost. One potentially lovely little stream stinks terribly, and pushed under tangled vegetation are Styrofoam cups, truck tires, used baby diapers, condoms, needles, and other horrors.
“Are you looking for a place to sleep?” asks an open-faced man in a cowboy hat. He has seen me poking around and decided I’m one of the homeless looking for a place in which to cosy down.
“You’ve missed the mission dinner,” says another in a baseball cap with a reflector light. He’s pushing a bicycle with myriad sacks hanging from the handlebars, and bundles piled high on the back. There are also a few protest signs, a compass, and a small electric guitar. He unpacks this last and plays a quiet little melody for my benefit.
I have met the one and only Jim Bikeman, homeless celebrity, self-declared activist, an enemy of police abuse, bad treatment of the homeless, and ugly noise. His office is the local library where he learns all he can, checks his email, prepares to fight cases in court, and keeps up his website (https://dirtycopperstopper.com/).
In his ‘Poor Man’s Bill of Rights’ he states: I will at all times treat people in a manner that I would want to be treated and will expect that I will get treated just as harshly as I treat others, especially those who are harmless, homeless, financially poor, and confused.
“Most people think I’m nuts, but here’s my main message.” He points to a sign strapped to the back of his bike: BE NICE.
He’s absolutely right, of course. All we have to do is be as nice as possible. That doesn’t sound nuts to me.
J. Arlene Culiner on Amazon:
Jill Culiner on Amazon: