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From dawn till dusk, Gandy Beach offers a kind of freedom

ST. PETERSBURG

Remnants of the night before line the shore at Gandy Beach.

Footprints are seemingly fossilized in gelatinous sand that has a peculiar red tint.

Smoke slowly billows from a fire pit, with beer bottles and eggshells scattered in and around the white ashes.

In the mangroves, a leopard-print bra is tucked between two branches, and condom wrappers and more beer bottles lie nearby in the dirt.

The white plastic cover on a full-size mattress collects rainwater in brown puddles.

Though cars zoom by at 60 mph a few dozen yards away from the shore, the thin strip of beach lining Gandy Boulevard is calm on a Friday morning.

Tourists won't find Gandy on a list of Florida's must-see beaches, next to Clearwater and Fort De Soto. Nor is it a little-known gem. The garbage, debauchery and unsightly scenery deter tourists and locals alike.

Silos and smokestacks make up the horizon. There are no rest rooms, snack bars or kayak rental kiosks. Dogs run without leashes. People park on the sand. Aside from "no camping" signs, there is little law enforcement.

But the beach still has its loyalists. They don't like tourists or crowds, and they do like the freedom they have at Gandy.

Jim Gartman, 64, is one of those folks.

"It's just ordinary people," he says about the group of friends he has made coming to Gandy every other day for several years.

Gartman said the regulars know there are some unspoken rules. Homeless people stay on the west end of the beach, and the east end is more family-friendly. And if you sleep in your car when it's parked by the mangroves — as he does occasionally — it doesn't count as camping.

On this day, Gartman wraps a rope around a sturdy tree branch, with a 20-pound dumbbell tied to one end and about 2 feet of PVC pipe on the other. The retired construction worker from Brandon pulls down on the pipe to lift the weight for a light workout.

He's one of just a few people on the beach on this summer weekday. They're the kind of folks who view an early afternoon rain as a reprieve from the heat rather than a reason to seek shelter. Here, a man doesn't stop throwing a stick for his pit bull. Another walks along the water in boxer shorts.

For a while, the beach goes largely empty and silent — save for the sounds of cars rushing past and the occasional mullet flopping in the water.

As the workday comes to a close, cars peel off Gandy Boulevard onto the makeshift dirt road that lines the beach, dodging bumps and pools of rainwater. They park on the beach and along the mangroves. Mud splashes up onto passengers in a Jeep with no doors.

Two men — one with a flat-brimmed hat worn backward and another with a Chinese character tattoo on his arm — examine a bulky silver sedan, listening for the whistle of a punctured tire. Zach Wynne, 19, and Jordan Fuqua, 20, had blasted through the water-filled ditches looking for a cheap thrill.

"That was pretty cool," Wynne said. "Didn't think we'd make it, though."

Their friend Carroll Parks, 18, rolls up her black tank top, showing off a tattoo that says "love is enough" in cursive on her right hip, and does a cartwheel in the sand.

Robbie Iverson, 19, and Brandi Dorr, 30, back their pickup truck up to the water and sit on the end of the bed, their feet dangling. The couple hold hands and silently watch Dorr's three children — Chris, 13; Peanut, 9; and Bubba, 6 — splash around.

"It's like listening to rain," Iverson says about the cars in the background.

Peanut repeatedly cries, "Mommy, I love you," from her hot pink inflatable raft.

Iverson and Dorr, both currently out of work, kiss.

Farther down the beach, 3-year-old Lorelay Mooney, in a giraffe-print swimsuit with a pink tutu, dunks her arms into the water looking for treasure. She runs to her mom each time she finds new bounty — pieces of garbage, broken glass and a piece of charcoal.

"It ain't gonna hurt her," says her mom, Tiffany Mooney, 23, over the talk radio blaring from a nearby truck. "You never know what you'll find at this beach."

A beach often characterized as Beer Can Beach is picturesque for a moment when the sun sets. Pink and orange clouds overshadow the industrial skyline, and dolphins poke their fins out of the water.

But the moment is short-lived. At dark, Gandy beach is at its busiest.

Headlights on vehicles lining the water and the Gandy Boulevard streetlamps light up the sand.

Car stereos compete to provide a soundtrack for the evening. Country music dominates the score, accented with hip-hop and shouting teenagers.

By 9 p.m., about 25 people stand around several trucks and SUVs parked on a sandy mound, drinking beer and catching up. They're mostly young adults, though there are two small children hopping over a puddle.

By midnight, there should be about 15 more cars and three times as many people, according to Joseph Bosworth, 20.

He has been coming here every Friday and Saturday for almost four years to hang out with folks he met on the beach.

"It's where me and my family always used to come," he says, pausing to holler at a friend, part of his beach family.

Lauren Carroll can be reached at (727) 893-8913 or lcarroll@tampabay.com. Follow @LaurenFCarroll on Twitter.

From dawn till dusk, Gandy Beach offers a kind of freedom 08/30/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 3:42pm]
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