Lorraine Margeson answers the phone in the kitchen. "Hello, HON," she says. On the line is a captain from a state wildlife agency with the latest news about the oil spill.
"Okay," Margeson says. "Oily birds. Oily turtles. Call meee if you see any. PROMISE? You're a sweetheart."
Margeson, 53, is probably Tampa Bay's best-known environmental activist. She is a pint-sized buzz saw. She cusses, she threatens, she shouts. She writes e-mails overflowing with capital letters and exclamation points. She is afraid of nobody except maybe her mother, who sometimes asks "Have you been smoking?" at which time Margeson answers by blaming her nicotine-fiend husband, Don, for the cancer-stick smell.
In good times and in bad, she is fired up about something. But the oil spill in the northern gulf has turned her high-energy personality up several notches. Coffee? She'll take a gallon, black, and make it snappy. Sleep? She'll sleep when she's dead. If she has to make some lives miserable in the next few months, she is willing and able.
"I'm a giant pain in the a--," she says. "That's my M.O."
Up in her giant second-story bedroom, an enormous computer sits on an enormous desk. Next to the computer, papers are neatly stacked. Next to the papers are files containing hundreds if not thousands of names she can call on a moment's notice, which she often does. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?
"We're going to get TAR BALLS even if we don't get an oil SLICK on the beach," Margeson declares. She's more or less shouting into the phone again.
Nobody knows what's going to happen to Florida's beaches. Will the oil ooze onto the state's western shore? Or will the loop current sweep it south into the Keys and up Florida's east coast? Whatever happens, Margeson is "DISGUSTED! THIS IS GOING TO BE A DISASTER!"
She sounds like she was born in Brooklyn because she was. As a young woman she studied flute and opera but eventually took up Taiko, a physically exhausting Japanese form of take-no-prisoners drumming. She and a partner once performed at Carnegie Hall. You can look it up.
She moved to St. Petersburg in 1987 after her parents gave her a house. The house, unfortunately, was near a strip of unsavory motels used by drug dealers and prostitutes. Margeson started a crime watch. She feuded with City Hall. She criticized police efforts. Eventually, the law landed on her side. Still, she moved away, to a lot on the other side of the city, far from prostitutes but very close to "THE BIGGEST POPULATION OF EASTERN DIAMONDBACK RATTLESNAKES IN THE STATE." Lorraine Margeson had found her own Garden of Eden.
She and her husband built a three-story house with a bird-watching deck on the roof. They replaced plants from foreign lands with native vegetation. They joined Audubon, they joined Sierra, they became friends of whatever park needed them. On her block, she persuaded neighbors to stop killing rattlesnakes.
She and her husband have a computer hardware business. They would rather watch birds. They count robins. They see hummingbirds and cedar waxwings and the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak. They drive over to Fort De Soto to look at the warblers in the mulberry tree. Then they head for the beach, where Lorraine picks up trash and snarls at "idiots" who get too close to the endangered least terns that nest on the sand. She watches black skimmers. She never tires of watching the pelicans.
And now there's oil in her gulf. And it may end up here, on Lorraine's beach, where it might hurt Lorraine's birds.
So that's why she's on the phone today. That's why she is on the computer. She is networking with other people, leading their next move. "WE'LL HAVE VOLUNTEERS UP THE YANG," she says.
Cleaning oil-soaked birds? They'll be ready. Skimming oil? Check. Booms to block oil from lapping at the beach? "If we can GET THE BOOMS!" she says, and drops an f-bomb. "WE DON'T HAVE ENOUGH BOOMS!"
She stops talking and looks over the trees, into the sky, at a passing nighthawk.
Dusk is approaching. You know what happens at dusk at her house?
The bats that live in her roof tiles come flying out by the hundreds. "THEY'RE SO COOL!"
Lorraine gets a dreamy look. Then it's gone. Time to go back to the oil watch.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.