The woman who opens the bodega down the street each morning is too little to open the steel anti-theft shutters by herself. So she arrives at work on time and then stands there and waits for someone to help her. Sometimes that someone is my wife, Michelle, as she passes by while walking our dog to a neighborhood park. She knows Michelle now; she knows to bring out a loaf of bread on her return trip from the park so Andi the dog doesn’t have to be tied up outside the store. The woman sees Michelle, she brings out the bread, Michelle gives her a dollar and then it will all happen all over again in a few days.
For being part of one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, Jersey City is a strange place. I never once imagined living here. I thought New Jersey was nothing more than chemical factories and refineries separated by crazy freeways, mobsters and guys with strange accents and an obsession with heavy gold jewelry.
I haven’t seen a mobster yet, at least not that I know of. Nor have I heard any unusual accents, or noticed a strange abundance of heavy gold jewelry. There are chemical factories, but none are nearby or visible from where we live on some high bluffs overlooking the Emerald City of Manhattan. People are almost crazy friendly here. I needed a bolt for a microphone stand, so I walked down to the local hardware store just a block away. The owner wasn’t sure what screw was the correct one, so he just gave me a few to try, told me to take them home and come back to buy the one I needed. Who does that anymore? Jersey City isn’t exactly Mayberry, but sometimes it acts like it. At least in our neighborhood.
Of course, not everyone is friendly. Certainly not the guy who tried to pry off the passenger door handle of our car with a screwdriver one night while we slept.
I first arrived in Florida by airplane, sometime in the early ’90s. I was working in Minneapolis and had a project that involved my giving a presentation at a large company facility in southern Georgia. I really did work hard on it, and as a result, I was told that I could pick anywhere I wanted to go and make a three-day weekend of it. Having never been to Florida, and since it was close by, I chose Sanibel Island. I flew into Fort Myers, happily discovered the company had rented a convertible sports car, and drove to the island and to one of the most mind-opening experiences I have ever had. Here I was a guy just out of Minneapolis — in February, no less — and suddenly finding myself standing on the most beautiful beach in the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. It was probably 25 below zero back in Minneapolis.
Until that moment, I had no idea that people could actually live that way; being warm … in February. It was an absolute revelation to me. Before that trip, all of my vacations had taken place in summer or, if winter, to various ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains — not exactly Florida weather. Before that visit, I thought Florida was nothing but nursing homes, swamps and mosquitoes.
The people in the shops seemed so happy and so laid-back. Everyone was friendly. I immediately fell in love — with absolutely everything. When it came time to leave, I kept stopping and turning around before crossing the bridge. I would park and look out at the water and drive off, then turn around and pick up some seashells. And then a small palm frond that had fallen near the road. Everything felt so exotic … and I felt brand-new.
Now in fairness, going from Minneapolis to Sanibel Island — as I said, in February — didn’t exactly make for a fair analysis about my newly found love of the Sunshine State. Had I really been motivated, I would have flown down in August to spend a few hours in a laundromat in Tampa. But I knew nothing of that. I made a few more trips down, and then, less than two years after first setting foot on that Sanibel beach, my little sailboat was being loaded aboard a truck, just barely escaping a frigid winter at its former home port of Duluth on Lake Superior.
After 20 years, I’ve seen a lot, but Sanibel is still paradise to me. It is my favorite place in Florida, it’s my happy place — a place I think about when I need to chase darker thoughts from my mind. But most people can’t live there. I’m not sure I’d want to.
Going through life means gaining knowledge — and not all of it is pleasant. In reality, there isn’t a pure paradise for commoners like me. Every place has its good and its bad, and perhaps that’s how things should be. Sometimes we are called to help with the bad, and that provides us with a purpose. A purpose is a good thing.
Yes, most definitely some have it better than others, but it turns out that we are called to help; it is not demanded of us. It’s up to each of us to decide if we want to answer the call. Whether that call comes in the form of a happy but short woman who needs help with steel shutters, or if it’s kids needing gifts on Christmas in a rundown corner of Florida, or a family needing help with the electric bill, or simply to put food on the table that evening. Perhaps it’s to save some of the remaining wild places. Calls come in many forms.
Over the years, I’ve seen killer snakes, ginormous flying cockroaches, tropical storms, searing heat and drowning humidity. I’ve seen crime, a little bit of mayhem, and some stuff that I simply can’t understand. (Who calls 911 over being shorted a few Chicken McNuggets?) But the bottom line is: Paradise, or whatever passes for it, is what you make of it. Even in February, Florida isn’t always what you might think.
But I still have that beach on Sanibel Island. It’s a good place, a good memory. But it’s time to answer some calls again. This time, the area code is 201. To me, it’s a little slice of paradise.