If home is where your heart is, then my heart is in Endwell, New York instead of Ormond Beach, Florida. I spent nearly ten years in Endwell and they were during my prime developmental years: ages six through 15. No wonder I feel bonded to the area and its climate. In contrast, I spent only three years in Ormond Beach, at least if you are counting continuously. I spent nearly seven years in Florida altogether, but about as many of them were spent going to the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando. By mid 1978, degree in hand, I was out of Florida and glad to put the state in my rear view mirror.
Florida and Ormond Beach never quite felt like home. My friends were seven hundred miles away and there were few prospects at my public school in Daytona Beach that looked friend-worthy, as they struck me as a class to be vacant and intellectually incurious. Florida’s climate was completely different, as was its terrain. For months I felt the need to wear sunglasses; Florida was just so darn bright all the time. In general things felt sticky, hot and harsh in Florida. For most of the year going outside meant being smothered in a hot and wet blanket of air that only blessed air conditioning could relieve. Giant armored rats (okay, armadillos) lived in the woods and were occasionally pancaked on the highways. In New York State I rarely saw a cockroach. In Florida even the nicest houses had them and they were huge, black and hiding pretty much everywhere. I had a visceral loathing for them. They showed up in the least expected and grosses places, like inside my shoes. Even the grass felt unnatural. Bermuda grass, if you were brave enough to walk on it, felt like walking on razor blades. Yes there were palm trees and beaches but there were also flying roaches, snakes, alligators, fire ants and love bugs.
So perhaps it was fitting that as my rental car pulled into Ormond Beach, after a lapse of twenty-six years between visits, that I would be greeted by lovebugs. Plecia nearctica is their official title and these insects only join together for a few weeks at a time, at most. They must really love their mates, so much so that when they join they fly together glued at their butts. This and their black bodies make them easy to distinguish. They hang in the air and are generally harmless, but they become a huge nuisance to drivers. They smash into windshields, die messily and clog radiator vents. Getting their carcasses off the windshield is a challenge too. Ordinary windshield washer fluid and wiper blades won’t do it. Coca-Cola works, but that got expensive. Anyhow, September must be their mating season because they were out in force when I exited my rental car in Ormond Beach to visit the local Catholic church where we prayed for a few years.
Visiting Endwell, as I did last month, was an easy decision. I could easily spend a week getting reacquainted with my hometown. For Ormond Beach, a few hours were plenty. I never stayed in the city long enough to feel rooted to it. Curiously, I had stayed long enough to find my way around easily. I didn’t need a map and always knew just where to turn. Unlike Endwell and its surrounding towns and villages long in decline, the same was not true in Ormond Beach.
The good news: Ormond Beach was looking up: much prettier than it was in the 1970s, and starting to look kind of quaint. The City of Ormond Beach agrees. South Ridgewood Avenue, which I knew well from innumerable bike trips to school and work across the Halifax River on the peninsula, now has signs calling the neighborhood historic. That’s pushing it for an area where the houses were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, but even forty years earlier when I first arrived there, tourism was its cash crop. In the intervening years the city simply has gotten better at presenting a good image. The strategy has largely worked, although the U.S. 1 corridor on South Yonge Street still looks a bit stressed, as does my old neighborhood and the house we lived in.
Where had the blacks had gone? There used to be a clear color line nearby between Ridgewood Avenue and South Washington Street. Perhaps the neighborhood got too pricey for most blacks. Lots of places in Ormond Beach now looked upscale. The old Bowman’s Care nursing home down the street where a couple of my sisters worked is still there, but is now a spiffy managed care facility with a new name and likely corporate overlords. The nearby recreation center is new to me too, and looks like a mini water park.
I had no desire to hang out on its beach, or the more famous Daytona Beach to its south, although I did drive on it, which is still possible in 2012. Even if I had wanted to, the weather was not cooperative. Oversaturated clouds periodically spat rain at me. I ended up taking pictures of our old house on Capri Drive from inside my car. By the time I made it across the peninsula to Seabreeze Senior High School I just had the oppressive humidity to deal with. My alma mater also looked spiffier and modernized. The signs told me to register at the visitors’ desk, but as it was after school hours when I arrived and the campus was empty, I felt empowered to tour the campus without official permission. No one stopped me and I walked the vacant hallways alone.
In the 1970s most of the school had no air conditioning. The school was amply named because you generally stayed cool from the sea breeze, if it deigned to come into your classroom. Back then half the students dozed at their desks, the women wore halter tops (no bras) so thin the outline of their nipples were clearly visible, and students actually brought surf boards to school, the beach being a short walk across Route A1A. Now there is a chain link fence with no easy way to get to the beach or the nearby McDonalds. Nor is there a whiff of marijuana in the outdoor hallways and I am sure the lockers are now inspected regularly for contraband. The 1970s was a much more laid back decade, at least in Daytona Beach.
The tall condos and hotels along the beach have not lost any of their impressive heights, but nearby Belair Plaza where I used to work is stressed. The location of the Winn Dixie supermarket in the plaza where I had my first job is now vacant, although a Publix supermarket has moved in on the south side of the Plaza. The bookstore now contains a Walgreens. The other Winn Dixie where I worked closer to home is gone as well and contains a furniture outlet. I spoke briefly with a lady who runs a consignment shop there. I remembered that part of the supermarket as the stocking area. I remember unloading trucks in the evenings to the sound of blaring rock and roll on the radio. According to the woman sweeping debris near the back of the store, homeless men can often be found behind her store in the morning. That at least is new.
In general, the retail in Ormond Beach is a notch or two higher than when I lived there. Starbucks saw no reason to skip Ormond Beach, in spite of its heat and humidity. I dined, if you can call it that, at a Moes Southwest Grill with all the conveniences of home, including a WiFi for my iPad. The most surprising find in Ormond Beach was the Cheaters Gentleman’s Club that I passed on my way out of town back to St. Augustine. I guess its location makes short work for local private detectives.
I said in my last post that if I had to retire to Florida, I could retire to St. Augustine. Ormond Beach simply does not have its allure. Being forty miles from the city made it easy to visit. There was a reason I had avoided it for more than a quarter of a century: it was nothing special to me. In 2012 it is still nothing that special, just looking nicer.