Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Florida, Sans Stevieling

Sunday dawned, and got underway without us because we were kidless and undriven Disneywards1.

We arose and had a leisurely breakfast. The weather was clear but cool for Florida, and a quick check on the local news showed that further north the weather was giving it some stick and showing the people of the Eastern Seaboard a thing or two in the line of freezing their lugnuts off. I felt sorry for them, but it wore off over eggs and toast.

We decided to waste the day just driving around in each other's company for the hell of it, because we both had distant memories of that being pleasurable rather than the mobile argument of recent years. So that's what we did, driving way up 192 to see what happened when Where It's All At moves to somewhere else.

When we first bought into the Orange Lake Cash Cow that end of state route 192 (which is shaped like a hog-leg) was well in the country and all the motels, hotels and timeshares were miles away on the other side of I4 (which sort of bisects 192). As time has run on the land around OLCC has been bought up (for fabulous prices) and developed into gifte shoppes, restaurants, and (you guessed it) hotels, motels and timeshares. This, in turn, required the installation of a spaghetti nest of roads and the flyovers which provided shelter from the elements and a dousing in filth during the last visit.

Now the foot traffic through this area has increased, which would necessitate the development of new places for those weary feet to rest a bit, but offsetting that is that some if not most of the parks and attractions have en-suite accommodations now. Disney, still (I would hazard a guess) the major draw of the area, has themed hotels and timeshares in the various parks or adjacent to them. The monorail passes through one hotel on its way to Epcot (yes, through, via a huge atrium) and that one is one of the oldest on the property. Costs have risen generally too, which makes a stay inside Disney not as unattractive price-wise as it once was.

The upshot of all this is that while once the hotels and motels around Oldtown were once in the thick of the visiting population, we've noticed that they look a bit run down and money-starved of late, and Mrs Stevie wondered aloud what Kissimmee would look like west of that, and where the real people of the area lived and shopped. So we went for a look.

Personally I think there is nothing so depressing as passing through a town or a neighborhood where the money has gone away. I used to spend days walking the Welsh countryside around the village of Corris2, and in those hills stand numerous tiny abandoned hamlets, shells of buildings that lost their purpose with the collapse of the slate mining industry somewhere around the beginning of the last century.

Mrs Stevie and I had once had to pull off the main drag on our way to Florida so we could get some supplies for the baby Stevieling, and had driven a few miles on the pre-interstate road that had once carried traffic south. The town we stopped in was a couple of languid businesses barely hanging onto life and a bunch of collapsed abandoned structures. It was appalling to see the damage the arrival of I-95 and the departure of the traffic had wrought. In those ruins and the slate shells of those buildings hidden in the foothills of Cader Idris were the unspoken ruins of people's lives. I've been busted flat three times in my life. The thought of having it happen again at my current time of life is, to put it mildly, terrifying.

And so we drove into a mild version of the same as we motored west along interminable strip malls. The abandoned properties began to outnumber the viable businesses until there was a noticeable change and we were in Normal People Land. The strip malls didn't stop, they just changed in emphasis from sneaker factory outlets and Ye Crappe Shoppes to Chinese Takeaway restaurants and less flamboyant supermarkets and a comic book store, which we decided to stop and look in as it sold board games too.

I tootled around in the store and picked up a couple of things that looked intriguing3 and we set off back toward Touristville. We also stopped at a Walmart so I could buy cheap sneakers. My old ones were falling apart and Would Not Do.

It was in the car park of the Walmart that Mrs Stevie spotted a flock of birds infesting a small tree and became irrationally enthused on the subject of wildlife photography at the exact same time as I was putting all the non-sneaker things Mrs Stevie had found to buy in the back of the van.

Mrs Stevie is an inveterate photo-ditherer, buggering about needlessly in front of some ephemeral thing she wants to immortalize until whatever it is gets fed-up with the whole business and departs for somewhere less annoying. The canonical example is the time she took The Stevieling in her christening dress and attempted to photograph the happy, smiling and laughing child. The Stevieling was still too young to have developed any strength in her tiny legs and so needed propping up in any seat. Mrs Stevie did not want cushions in the shot, and so what transpired was a comedy of ditheration and needless sodding about worthy of Buster Keaton.

Mrs Stevie propped up The Stevieling and retired to the spot she judged best for the photo point-of-view. The Stevieling sat balanced precariously on her little bottom, smiling and being cooperative. Mrs Stevie dithered, and dithered some more until The Stevieling's small motions upset her balance and she began slowly to tip sideways onto the cushions of the chair. Once she was at an angle of about ten degrees she began, not unreasonably, to cry, and Mrs Stevie leaped over to sit her up again and play with her until she cheered up, which seeing as how The Stevieling was such a happy child she did almost immediately, whereupon Mrs Stevie repeated the exercise.

About ten times.

Each time The Stevieling's tolerance for the whole tedious affair got shorter until she was crying inconsolably in her chair, at which point Mrs Stevie snarled “Why won't she stop crying?” which induced me – in a fit of sympathy-induced madness – to tell the woman exactly why and all thoughts of photography were forgotten so that a frank exchange of views could take place.


Mrs Stevie was pointing her camera at the birds but not doing any of the other things necessary to capturing an image of them, least of all alerting me to what she was doing. And so, when I slammed the tailgate closed, all the birds flew away.

I turned around to see what she was doing and was subjected to a stream of the most virulent hate-speech on the subject of the size of my brain. She was not moved by arguments predicated on my not having eyes in the back of my head, nor on my suggestion that if she was waiting for the birds to line up in a given way she was on a hiding to nowhere since we were in a car park and if not me, someone else was bound to slam a door or two before they did scaring the annoying little sods.

She yelled at me some more and wondered out loud if she would ever have the chance to photograph such a large collection of such unusual birds in a tree small enough for them to be at just the right level. I said probably. She said Oh yeah, where? I pointed to the tree just behind her where a new flock of the same birds had gathered to watch the fun. She whipped up her camera. She dithered. Someone slammed a car door off in the distance and I ran for the safety of the wagon as the skies filled with birds and vile swear words.

Properly equipped with Cheap Sneakers and a picture of the Annoying Birds “we” decided I should also visit a sneaker outlet store to see what I was missing. These factory outlet stores used to be good deals with low prices for over-produced lines in the 1990s but they seem to be everywhere now and the prices have climbed quite steeply too. The first sneaker outlet store I went into was also the last (I vowed).

It seemed to be full of South American youth, loudly arguing with anyone who would stand still long enough, and sneakers running the gamut from bilious yellow through bilious green to bilious purple. To be sure, there were sneakers in the traditional white, but they seemed sized for giants or gnomes, or to be designed for feet of unearthly geometry. The South American youths seemed to feel blinding neon footwear was De Rigeur so I suppose I am somehow missing the point again (though I still can't imagine what manner of being would wear those other Non-Euclidean sneakers). A grand waste of time, and one in which it began to rain.

We headed back toward Oldtown, where we paused for a look to see what was left of the attraction. I think I've mentioned before that it used to actually be a place themed for "The Good Old Days", with a genuine antique carousel and various Olde Tyme Shoppes including a General Store in which you could buy 5 cent bottles of Coke in green bottles. But every year one of the old businesses closes down and is replaced by something less "Old Tyme".

All that is left of that Old Town ambiance as was is the photography business where a couple of times Mrs Stevie and I and whomever we were with had masqueraded as depression-era bandits or Persons from The Wild West (they have the biggest wardrobe and bestest props of any fake photo place I've seen and they don't use photoshop, they use scenery) and the ice cream parlor. The place is now filled with T-Shirt vendors, go-kart tracks and catapult-powered "rides" of the most idiotic sort.

It is, however, a favorite place for various motor clubs to meet and hold competitions, and that day there was a parking lot full of Corvettes on display, from fully loaded modern wedges of meh (sorry, Chevvy, I don't care for the boring look of the post-Stingray Corvette) to lovingly restored originals from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mrs Stevie was entranced for once in something I was interested in so we spent a while after the rain wandering around the display of American Motoring Might.

In the 1970s the conventional wisdom of the car modder was that the only American car worth having in England was the Stingray since once the hydraulic lifters had been pulled out and replaced with ordinary tappets the car could not only do an easy ton4, it would stay in a stright line while doing so5. The Stingray and the Mustang (which gave lie to the "only car worth having" mantra by being lethally fast6 if rather less stable at high speed and a tad on the ugly side; never was much of a fan of the 1970s "fastback" concept myself) were both very popular in the UK of my early driving years.

I'm told that a whole generation of American Airmen made quite a killing importing Stingrays and Mustangs (at U.S. taxpayer expense) and selling them to the local youth. You could see dozens of examples of both on the roads of Norwich of a Saturday night, as there were five US air bases within a 40 mile radius of the city in those days.

After buying a new teapot and a bag of humbugs, then sating ourselves on cars and ice cream we wandered home to discover The Git had parked his Escalade as far to the right as he could and the other side neighbor had parked as far to the left, gifting us with a nice long walk from car to front door in the pouring rain.

I made sure to check the wagon's doors were locked with a double press of the lock remote. I don't normally do that as it sounds a loud blast on the horn and Mrs Stevie apparently had done a deal with the Burlington Northern Railway on a surplus horn from a defunct SD45-2 diesel-electric freight locomotive when she selected the options for this wagon. It made the putty fall out of the villa's window frames and loosened the screws holding the little brass numbers to the front door when I blew it.

I was careful not to stand in front of the van when I did this because a previous experiment had induced a concussion and bleeding eardrums and Mrs Stevie had punched me hard in the face once she had been released from the Emergency Room. To judge by the screams coming from inside the villa, Mrs Stevie's choice of automotive accessories was appreciated.

We retired with a smorgasbord of fruit and wine and cheeses to while away the evening, and about half an hour later the front doorbell rang and a couple of security staff stood dripping outside. We invited them in and offered them towels and hot tea from our new teapot as they quizzed us about some disturbance next door involving a klaxon of some sort.

I said I'd not heard anything unusual, but perhaps an emergency vehicle needed to cross the lights at the entrance of the complex while they were on red and had sounded the klaxon in question. The trees that had originally screened this part of the property had been cut down and the highway noise was certainly more noticeable than when we first bought into this part of the club, so a fire truck needing to break the law in the interests of the community as a whole was my best guess. The officers apologized for disturbing us and went next door to talk to them about it all.

It certainly was a puzzle.

  1. Unkind souls might wonder why we bothered at all, then
  2. Yes I know there's two of them right next to each other. I'm abbreviating Upper Corris and Lower Corris for the sake of getting on with it and not getting bogged down in details most people would only experience through the wonder of the ordinance survey or Gogglemaps™
  3. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus Edition and book one of Y: The Last Man, though I somehow resisted the lure of the wardrobe-sized Ogre board game, possibly because they wanted a hunnerd bux for it
  4. 100 mph
  5. A boon on the comparatively very narrow English roads
  6. The lethal part is true; I had an acquaintance years ago who grew a beard to hide the frightful scars he won rolling one of these beasts at Warp Factor Argh!

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