Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Human Interest

Dispatches From Next Door: The cabana boy grows up

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CLEARWATER BEACH — His rusting Nissan puttered up the Memorial Causeway Bridge, its engine wheezing. Mike McIntosh peered at purple clouds swirling just south. "I don't like weather looking like this," he said, his voice a slow-grinding blender. That wind, Mike knew, would make a hard day harder. He coughed and flicked his cigarette out the cracked window.

Once, when he first dug an umbrella into the sand 18 years ago, he wouldn't have cared. Back then, his stomach was taut, skin bronzed. He sprinted the beach, renting out more than 250 chairs a day. He wore no shoes, no shirt, no lotion, no sunglasses. Mike was on the bucket lists of single, vacationing women — "I made out with a cabana boy" — and he knew it. He had a smile that charmed and the patter to go with it. Most nights began at Shephard's tiki bar (though he had quit drinking at 22) and more than a few ended in hotel rooms. He used to tell people he would die on the beach, and when he did, they should just kick sand over his body.

Just after 7:30 that recent morning, he parked outside Pier 60. Mike, still wearing sneakers for support, slipped on a blue fleece jacket and pulled a wide-brim straw hat over his bald spot. He carried a bottle of Aleve in the pocket of his board shorts. Earlier, at home, a streak of Fixodent had secured the day's smile. On the beach, he strode with purpose, but not pace, like an aging NFL quarterback who no longer runs from the sideline to the huddle. His co-workers, both 19, watched him unfurl the first blue cabana at just the right angle so the wind wouldn't catch it. He was, in those early moments, an artisan, unfolding chairs with a single pop of his wrist. Fifty setups later, sweat glazed his coarse, brown cheeks. "Wasn't too bad," he said.

Mike shuffled to the Barefoot Beach House, his bosses' gift and ice cream shop. He used to work six days a week outside but had in recent years spent more time in the store. He resisted at first. Cabana Mike was cool, but inside, well, no woman brags to her girlfriends that she made out with a cashier.

Mike finished the day's fourth cup of coffee and headed back to the beach, equipped with his spiel. Where you guys from? Usually, somewhere cold. So y'all aren't missing home? They would laugh and say no. He would smile. He was fazed only when guests offered credit cards and he had to swipe them through a modified iPod. Squinting, he held the screen inches from the wire-framed glasses balanced on the end of his nose.

Around 3 that afternoon, his knee throbbing, Mike slumped into a chair and lit a cigarette. This year, he acknowledged, would be his last on the beach. He hadn't gone to Shephard's in 10 years or on a date in four. But decades in addiction treatment had taught him to focus only on the day before him. Even if he scooped toasted coconut ice cream and sold souvenir shot glasses, Mike could still be somebody.

His pace quickened as 4 p.m. approached. He collected the remaining rent and hustled back to the shop. He had earned $13 an hour, plus $4 in tips. Not much, but he didn't care. His mind was on the night ahead. In two hours, his bowling team had a game. Mike, 50, was their youngest member.

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