Paradise Found

Discover what the snowbirds already know.

In good movies, when a character runs away from life or some horrible, cataclysmic mistake, he goes to Morocco or the mountains of Tibet or an outpost on the edge of some African jungle or desert — a harsh, remote, alien landscape that will punish him and provide adequate distance from anything reminiscent of a former existence.

In bad movies, he goes to Costa Rica or Acapulco or the fuckin' Bahamas.

Maybe the idyllic backdrop is supposed to heighten the protagonist's loneliness and misery by way of contrast. But usually, you don't see that. What you see is some douche bag sitting at or standing behind a tiki bar, ignoring beautiful almost-naked women and feeling sorry for himself. There's no sense that the guy's trying to atone for something. It's not torment or self-imposed exile; it's escape. And by the time one of the hot, almost-naked women comes over and tells him to quit moping, can't he see he's in paradise, you're hoping a plate of bad langostino kills him. Preferably before he regains the intestinal fortitude to return to Chicago and fight for the girl he loves or confront his mob-boss father or whatever.

But our real lives would probably make pretty bad movies, and everybody needs an escape.

That's why 50 million to 75 million people who can't afford to go to Costa Rica or Acapulco or the fuckin' Bahamas come to Florida every year. I'm going to go out on a limb and say most of them don't even have a girl to fight for or a mob-boss father. You could argue endlessly about whether they're running away from things at home (snow, the cubicle, relatives) or toward things they don't have at home (warm sun in the winter; saltwater fishing; oversized, anthropomorphized animal characters for their kids to be photographed with, then punch in the crotch), but it boils down to the same thing.

I love to bitch about the tourists. I love to wish non-fatal shark attacks and jellyfish stings and torrential rains and epic lines at Busch Gardens and rumrunner hangovers upon them. I love to hope their most recent Bay area vacation or winter-residency experience is so completely disillusioning that they check out of their hotel early or sell their condo and write a scathing, damning account to the Letters page of AARP The Magazine as soon as they get home.

But sitting at beloved St. Pete Beach watering hole The Undertow last night, drinking an icy lager and watching the Gulf drown the last, lingering rays of sunlight out past the volleyball net, I could clearly see why they come. It didn't matter that I was eight minutes from the cops-vs.-community tensions of Midtown, or that my buddy had been jumped by two cretins last Friday in a Tampa neighborhood I could call from where I sat without paying long-distance charges, or that, if I wanted, I could be sitting at my desk at work within an hour's time. I had a sunset and a seabreeze and a beautiful almost-naked woman bringing me a shot of Captain Morgan.

I could see that I was in paradise.

And all I could think was: Why don't I come out here more often?

Think about your friends. How many of them get out to the beach on a regular basis? Of mine, I can think of only two who've even uttered the phrase "No, I can't, I'm going to the beach tomorrow" in the past year. I don't know if we've just been here so long that we've come to take what's quite possibly the area's biggest and most beautiful attraction for granted or if some part of us just subconsciously thinks of land's end as the snowbirds' turf. Whatever it is, we just don't go there very often, if at all.

Which, on an occasion like gorgeous, breezy, peaceful last night, struck me as a criminal waste. Long ago, I came here for the cheap college tuition and the friends, and I stayed for the friends and the freaks and the fishing. But I also came for the natural beauty of the place, and it's weird to think I only very rarely experience it firsthand.

Everybody needs an escape, even folks who live next door to paradise.

Driving down Gulf Boulevard, past all the amazingly retro and not-yet-solidly-booked mom-and-pop motels, my buddy mentioned in a relaxed tone that he could easily see himself moving out there, getting some low-profile job that just barely paid the bills and hardly setting foot back in the city again.

It probably wouldn't make a very good movie. Hell, it wouldn't even make a halfway decent daily-paper human-interest story: "Network Administrator Abandons Post for Beach Bum Lifestyle."

But at the moment, it seemed like a pretty damn fine idea.

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