When it's 80 degrees and the sky beats blue above crystal sand, no other world exists. Certainly not one with creeping death that swirls and loops across the gulf, south of Louisiana, then Mississippi, then Alabama, and now … no. There's no room for the thought. Pinellas beaches may not see a drop of the oil that has spewed since a rig exploded hundreds of miles from the Florida coast April 20. And Gov. Charlie Crist will tell you: There's certainly none here now. (Come on down!) But for just a moment on a glorious Wednesday, we asked some who work and play on the waterfront to contemplate the spill, before the sun wiped our worries away.
ST. PETE BEACH
A breeze has just kicked up on Pass-a-Grille beach, frosting waves with white. Joan Barnes, 67, doesn't mind. She has already spotted a manatee this morning with husband Frank, 75. "It was so clear, you could see your toes," she says. They're now basking in side-by-side beach chairs, letting sun and wind soak in as they have every year since '97. They came in April from London, Ontario, and won't leave till June. They'll be back in October, even if tar should stain the precious white. "Oh, we will, we will," she says. Frank pipes in: "We just pray that it doesn't come." He's concerned for the whole coast, especially the Panhandle. For now, they'll savor their stay at Isla del Sol. And they have a backup plan should murky brown steal across the gulf to spoil their pristine getaway. "We like the pools, too," Joan says.
Doreen Moore, 57, feels like she's preparing for a hurricane. Communicate, collaborate, get the word out. We're open for business! The oil may never come! The real estate broker also manages vacation condo rentals. She's on the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber board. She's running from a Big C meeting — you know, the Barrier Islands Government Council — to meet with a reporter. Next to the elevator at Madeira Bay Resort, the Beach Beacon declares: "Tar balls remain primary threat." Upstairs, Moore's employees follow a script taped to the office computer monitor: "The Gulf Coast is open for business as usual." It's easy to reassure out-of-state callers that things are fine, just fine. What's scary are the calls that never come. But resort rentals are looking pretty good for Memorial Day weekend, Moore says. "We'd like it to be sold out, but we're close." She shows off the views: From a sixth-floor lobby window, deep blue gulf meets the sky in an unbroken line. Palms nod gently. On the Intracoastal side, masts mark a private marina. Looking out from a balcony toward John's Pass Bridge, Moore pauses. She recalls when the '93 oil spill came up the mouth of John's Pass, how it looked like an asphalt road, how they took the pontoon boat to sweep up oiled birds and shuttle them to the sanctuary. "People didn't want to be here," she says. Back in the elevator, the pep returns. Oil, schmoil. "The upside is, we don't think it's going to be here!"
ST. PETE BEACH
At a quarter after noon, Capt. Kiven Davidek, 46, guides the Shell Key Shuttle up to the Merry Pier. After a morning on Shell Key, it's time to go. "All right, guys, come on. Grab hold," Davidek says. Five adults and two kids clamber off the pontoon boat with a hand from Davidek's helper. She lifts one tiny blond girl across the gap from boat to dock. Then she offers the secret to preserving fragile sand dollars: Let them dry in the sun, then paint on a few coats of Elmer's glue mixed with water. Plenty of folks take Davidek's shuttle — $25 round trip, half-price for kids. Some snorkel. Some picnic. Most come for a piece of nature to take home. As far as Davidek is concerned, those sand dollars and shells will keep their snowy whiteness. "There is no oil smell," he says. "No oil at all. I personally don't feel the oil is coming this way." He hasn't heard a hint of concern from customers, just one or two curious phone calls. They ask if oil is anywhere near the beaches. "And no, it's not," he says. Since he and his wife, Nancy, bought the business last summer, he has seen tarpon, dolphins, turtles and manatees. It sure beats the cubicle he saw every day for 24 years. Another few months, and his wife will be able to quit her job as a paralegal to join him full time. Pelicans splash nearby. Livin' the dream? "Not bad, yeah," he says.
Mikey D's agitation has set his leg bouncing, his arms waving. The commercial fishing boat captain officially known as Michael Dean, 38, doesn't hesitate to share his thoughts about this oil thing: "I think it's one big mess." He's down at the boatyard at Fishbusterz, prepping a 44-foot Thompson, the Warrior 4, to get back on the gulf. He has been on land nearly five days and shoves off in the morning. Last trip he and a crew of three worked the coast off Fort Myers, the sea floor 150 feet below, and pulled in 3,000 pounds of grouper, mainly reds. The fishermen are obsessed with the sea floor these days: Why is BP using dispersants? Won't that just send oil droplets to the bottom, killing the coral, wiping out the food chain? "I'd rather it stay on the top," Dean says. He'll survive. Survival is his game. Whether the oil comes close or not (one guy on the dock swears you can smell it 40 miles off the coast), he knows it'll hit home: If sea life is dying, who will want to risk fishermen killing any more? He figures he'll get in this trip, and one more, and that'll be it. There will be a shutdown. Then he'll just sign up for that lawsuit, or make a deal that puts him to work to help. Something. Otherwise … well, there is no otherwise.
Vendors line Pier 60 backed by rainbow-striped umbrellas, edges flapping. Tiffany Gilmore, 22, wraps wire around a guitar pick. The novel necklace idea emerged from her frequently lost picks, some of which Mom would throw away. Make them into jewelry, and they stuck around. On a good day, she sells 25 to 30 of them for $8 a pop. Tiffany and her mom, Wendy, 46, have sold "unique hippie gifts" at the pier since October. Why? "For one thing," Wendy says, "it's the most beautiful office in the world." The women have bonded with this beach. A recent add to their necklace lineup: A "Clearwater Beach" pick with a colorful sunset. Chatter along vendor row, yes, it has touched on the spill. "Most everybody's in agreement that it's horrible," says Tiffany, who also works full time as a certified nursing assistant at Palms of Largo. "We don't feel there's enough being done about it. We're all fairly worried about what's going to happen." If their precious beach were tarred and visitors dwindled, they would do other shows. "But we would want to come back," she says. "We love it here. This was our dream." So, Wendy says, they have a way to cope: "Burying our heads in the sand."
It's nearly a quarter to 6 and bar stools are empty at the Tiki Hut behind the Hilton Clearwater Beach. Dave Temple, 35, can't wait for the Memorial Day weekend to pack seats. He serves a drink on the rocks to a walk-up in a yellow polo. The guy leaves. Thirty-two seats still empty. Out here, around the thatch-perfect bar rebuilt in December, nobody talks about the oil spill. "I haven't heard anyone bring it up on the beach," Temple says. But he's ready with a line: "No oil here. You've got a better chance of being stung by a stingray than seeing some oil." Temple, who studied marketing at West Virginia University, worked a standard marketing job in Pittsburgh. But he had been to Clearwater on vacation half a dozen times. "I decided this is where I wanted to be," he says. He returned to bartending, which he had picked up in college. The tips? "Good," he says. "That's why I'm here." But the economy, and now fear of oil, they're pushing travel down. It's beautiful here, he wants folks to know. Beautiful water, beautiful beach, good times. "I wouldn't be down here if it wasn't," he says.
Earl Burgess, 44, keeps beach gear in his car for just this moment: He's reclined, earbuds pumping neo soul, a slowly sinking sun reflecting off his chest, feet in the sand. Relaxation. It's helping him focus on the Mac Book Pro in front of him, where spreadsheets hold the numbers he'll turn into pictures, then PowerPoint slides. Oh, did he mention he's working? The regional operations manager for Genentech landed in Florida from New York in 2008. It has worked out. "Some of the best beaches in the world are right here, and I love going to the beach," he says. His company offers gear that puts him on the Internet anywhere. It means escape: from the office, from his house. He can extend the workday, yet unwind. "I'm out enjoying myself, enjoying some beautiful weather," he says. So he's not thinking about oil. "Right now the disaster is only theoretical," he says. "There's no fear whatsoever." He reflects. "Besides, I don't get in the water that much." He's ready to slip in those earbuds, melt into the rhythm of the waves — and crunch some numbers.