‘What brings you here?’: The pandemic, time, and not letting the moments go | John L. Micek

Standing in the Gulf, the sun warm on my back, wrapped in memories and family. I had all the answer I needed

October 7, 2021 2:19 pm

The sign for St. Armands Key (Capital-Star photo).

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Lyft driver pulled up to the curb at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport early in the afternoon on a late September day. I’d only been standing there for a couple of minutes, and my shirt already clung to me in the Florida heat. I threw my bags in ahead of me, and piled into the backseat, where I was hit by an arctic blast of air conditioning.

“What brings you here?” Will, my driver, asked. He was a wiry, well-tanned man, probably somewhere in his 70s. And like every ride-share driver, he was chatty. Really chatty. But after nine hours of travel that had started at 4 a.m. that morning, several hours of masked confinement on a pair of flights, and one seemingly interminable layover, I didn’t really mind.

I was down there to visit my mother, who’s lived alone in Sarasota for the past decade since my father died. It was my visit since before the start of the pandemic, heck, since before we launched the Pennsylvania Capital-Star in February 2019. You always figure there’s going to be plenty of time, until there isn’t. It was a trip that was equal parts vacation, long overdue catch-up, and a tag-up with the roots I never knew I’d planted in southwestern Florida.

Will and I chatted some more. He was a widower, originally from New York, where he’d taught driver’s education. He moved to Sarasota about 20 years ago from the state’s east coast, and hadn’t looked back since. I’ve been coming to Florida for more than 20 years. And like nearly everyone else I’ve met here, he was from someplace else. Nearly 1,000 people move to Florida every day. Like Will, and like my mom and dad, they’re coming from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, according to some recent data.

The reunion was all that you might have expected it to be. Hugs. Laughter. Some tears. And because I’m Italian on my mother’s side — don’t let the Slavic surname fool you, I consider myself more Italian than anything else — plenty of food, and no small amount of wine. Now well into her 80s, my mom’s as sharp as ever. And she can still talk the legs off of a donkey. I’m not sure which one of us finally called time. But I’m almost certain it was me.

Conversations with people into their ninth decade are, necessarily, more retrospective than they are prospective. Yes, she asked about work. Yes, she asked about my wife and daughter. But we talked more about our shared topography: parenthood, her childhood and young adulthood, my childhood and young adulthood. Much of it was gauzy and nostalgic. But behind it all, there was the sense that there was a clock ticking, inexorably.

In the afternoons, with the Florida skies threatening, and often delivering, on rain before breaking into a lemonade yellow sun that inflicted a sunburn that slowly mellowed to a tan, I took long drives around Sarasota.

There were a new pair of traffic circles along Main Street, a surviving piece of Old Florida, dotted with restaurants, boutiques and book stores. More than a few were new since my last trip. Some storefronts were dark and empty, victims of the pandemic-mandated shutdowns last year. But even at 2 p.m. on a weekday, the street hummed with life. I pulled into a parking space and paid at a kiosk — also new — and left a couple hours with some books under my arm.

Much has been made of the Sunshine State’s reliable Republicanism in the weeks and months since last November’s general election. In an ancient neighborhood called DeSoto Acres that was lush with bougainvillea and palm trees, one homeowner had hung Trump signs and banners, and a large American flag across his front gate. But as I listened in on barstool conversations, it was pretty clear from the accents and the enthusiasms that the East Coast liberalism of those recent emigres had survived the trip below the Mason-Dixon Line.

The ‘Happiness Garden’ in St. Armands Key, Fla. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The day before I left, I drove out of downtown, across the John Ringling Causeway, which stretches over a sparkling expanse of Sarasota Bay, and into St. Armands Key, a plush neighborhood of wildly expensive shops, restaurants of varying degrees of affordability, and implausibly large homes.

I parked, and on one corner, two women were leaning over a large faerie garden, adjusting stones and its tiny residents. They looked up, smiled, and greeted me. I complimented them on their handiwork. They were two friends who maintained the garden on behalf of the homeowner. One of the women had been doing it by herself. She was joined by other. And they’d been maintaining it together ever since.

“That’s wonderful,” I told them. “What you’re doing here is amazing.”

“We just want to make people happy,” one of them told me.

“You’ve succeeded,” I told them.

St. Armands was the first neighborhood I visited with my Dad when he and my mom moved down from Connecticut. It was my first Christmas with palm trees. We swam in the Gulf, and had lunch and beers at a now-shuttered local bar. An hour later, I was planted at the bar at one restaurant where we’d always had Cuban sandwiches. The memories came fast and furious. The years were blur. The sandwiches were every bit as good as I remembered.

Before I left, I walked up to the beach one more time. I left my sneakers on the sand and ventured out into the bathtub warm waters of the Gulf, the waves churned up by the recent heavy weather, slapped at the bottom of my shorts. This tag up with family, and the reminder of my ties to this very strange state, reminded me that, if there has been one good to come from the pandemic, it’s that it’s reinforced the importance of not wasting a moment, of maximizing every second with the people you love, because you don’t know how long you’re going to have them.

I walked deeper into the surf. The ocean water soaking me now. I didn’t care.

“What brings you here?” Will, the Lyft driver, had asked me six days earlier. It’s the pressing question we’re all called to answer.

Standing in the Gulf, the sun warm on my back, wrapped in memories and family. I had all the answer I needed.

Don’t let the moments go.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.