Friday, May 25, 2018
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In hardscrabble Homosassa, scallop shucking is a living

HOMOSASSA

The cavalcade of tourists rolled in for hours. Their beers iced and children lotioned, they drove through archways of mossy oaks and beneath an aging water tower that in faded letters advertised "Old Homosassa, est. 1835." They wound past Neon Leon's Zydeco Steakhouse and the First Baptist Church and the limestone ruins of the Yulee Sugar Mill. By 11 a.m. July 6, a line of SUVs and extended-cab pickups, their boats in tow, reached beyond the length of a football field from a ramp that sloped into the Homosassa River. Almost all had come for the same reason: scallops.

Homosassa is a mostly poor town of 2,600. Regionally, its waters are known for manatees and its streets for drug addiction. Nationally, it's known for a little girl named Jessica Lunsford. It is not a place with a reputation for good fortune, but people here say maybe that has begun to change. Their cause for hope is a creature smaller than a hockey puck that holds within its shells a piece of meat the size of a marble.

The scallops mean more to few people here than to Cletis Huggins.

Three hundred feet from the crowded boat ramp on that recent morning, he and his brother and father stood in the shade of a gray tent and prepared for the day's onslaught. They were stationed next to the docks at MacRae's of Homosassa, a motel, bait shop and tiki bar that will host thousands of people on their way to or from the scallop beds every weekend until the season ends on Sept. 24.

Earlier, the men had set up stacks of 5-gallon buckets and four heavy-duty Rubbermaid trash cans, one pair right-side up and the other upside down. Cletis' father wrapped neon pink duct tape around his fingers. His brother pulled a thick but fraying blue glove onto his left hand.

Cletis, who is 22, wore nothing on his hands. He preferred to feel what came next.

• • •

Cletis was 13 when he first walked down to the docks and noticed what wasn't there.

 

Day after day, boaters returned from Homosassa Bay with coolers full of scallops they wanted to eat but not clean, because cleaning scallops (better known as shucking) is hard.

The coveted delicacy inside, wrapped by innards, is a muscle that tightly holds the shells together, and the edges of those shells feel like the blades of a used, rusting handsaw.

A demand unmet, Cletis thought. He and a buddy started bringing bowls, gallon Ziploc bags and butter knives they sometimes appropriated from local restaurants. As interest in scalloping expanded, then exploded, so did Cletis' operation. His brothers and father began to help, with as many as six of them working at once.

The timing was fortuitous.

The Huggins family is one of Homosassa's oldest, but it has never been among its most prosperous.

Cletis' father, James, was the third of 10 children. His family lived off the vegetables they grew and the deer his dad shot. For years, their home lacked running water, and, without toilet paper, they tore pages from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

James, 65, worked for four decades as a painter. Married twice, he raised four of his sons alone after his second wife left him. Cletis, the youngest, was about 5 at the time.

The family bounced between small houses and mobile homes, depending on the steadiness of James' paychecks. He started his own business in the early 2000s. Then came the recession.

But then, too, came scalloping, an activity that had become trendy to the right people — ones with money. It's an outdoor adventure, but in a Disney sort of way. The animals are caught in calm, shallow water with the clarity of a pool. Kids can do it, as well as their grandparents. "An underwater Easter egg hunt," people like to call it.

Every day of every scallop season, the family comes to the docks. They shuck for men with Sperrys and designer sunglasses and for parents whose kids point and gawk. They shuck for fishing guides who earn in three hours what one of them makes in 12. They shuck until their fingerprints wear off and their skin looks like steamed cabbage.

The Hugginses are thankful for the work, but Homosassa's burgeoning new industry didn't reverse their fortune so much as bend it. Life remains hard, but it is, at least, livable.

• • •

Cletis plucked a still-twitching scallop from atop the pile. He slid his knife in behind the hinge, and curled the mollusk in his hand, producing a scrape reminiscent of nails on a chalkboard. With another cut and two flicks of his wrist, the scallop's guts and shells were in the right-side-up trash can and the dollop of cream-colored meat had dropped into a bowl at his feet.

 

Three seconds.

His brother Randy, 46, stood next to him, replicating the task. James and a family friend churned through another pile a few feet away.

"I used to love this place. It was my home," said Randy, who lives in Crystal River and in the off-season travels the country as a welder. "Now I just come down here to do this and then get the hell out."

Here, one in four people lives beneath the poverty line. The Crystal River nuclear power plant, owned by Citrus County's largest private employer, won't reopen. Addiction to crystal meth and painkillers remains prevalent.

Housing developments were never built, and towering riverside condos never rose. The population is the same as it was in 1990. But if Homosassa had turned into a thriving waterside town like so many others in Florida, the treasure in its bay likely wouldn't exist.

Scallops depend on healthy sea grass beds, and sea grass beds depend on humans not to dredge the sand beneath them. In Tampa Bay, for example, the beds were decimated long ago.

Homosassa is lucky, in this one way, to have for so long been unlucky.

Supported by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rehabilitation project in the 1990s — and its continued avoidance of hurricanes and oil spill damage — the Citrus coast now has the most robust scallop fishery in Florida, with an area of sea grass six times the size of Manhattan.

The area's hotels are booked every weekend through September, and its restaurants, many of which will clean and cook their customers' fresh catch, are packed night after night.

In Citrus, the promoters of tourism call it a phenomenon.

• • •

He sees it on the front lines. From the docks, Cletis watches 20-some guides run visitors to and from the bay each morning.

 

After last season, he swore off shucking. He didn't want to toil on the dock's edge, but to launch from it, in his own boat as his own captain. Maybe, he thinks, that would be better for him and his little girl, Kylee, now 2.

But maybe not.

What the scalloping boom really means to Homosassa, he's not sure.

"I can tell you if they didn't have scallop season and people didn't do it, this town would be a ghost town," he said. "It would be pretty much nothin'."

But salvation?

Cletis, the first of his siblings to graduate from high school, still replaces lights at Walmarts in the off-season, and his 2003 Saturn VUE needs a water pump and a timing belt. Many of his neighbors still live in poverty, and the drug addicts are still desperate.

"It's definitely no place to raise your kid," he said.

• • •

The blade of his butter knife is straight and rigid, and the handle is wrapped in neon-pink duct tape inscribed with his initials: "CLH." Randy's blade has a slight bend in it that helps him maneuver the curves. Only James uses a real scallop knife, with its stubby blade and wooden handle. It was a gift three years ago from J. "Gator" MacRae, who runs the property.

 

For safekeeping, James tucks it each night into his sock drawer.

The boys are all products of Florida's real South, and they have the accents to prove it. Everyone gets teased: James for the pink tape on his fingers, Randy for needing a glove, and Cletis for not being smart enough to wear one. The "Local Boyz," as they've branded themselves on brightly colored "Scallop Life" T-shirts ($20 per), are sustained by Michelob Ultras, beef jerky and pinches of Grizzly fine-cut chewing tobacco.

The length of their shifts varies, but weekends are always long. The day before, they worked until after midnight, plowing through 300 gallons and, in about 13 hours, making just under $200 each. They charge $20 for a 5-gallon bucket.

By mid afternoon Sunday, the temperature had broken 90 degrees. Their faces dripped with sweat, and their hands throbbed.

Nearby, as the tourists waited for their cleaned catch under the shade of Red Budweiser umbrellas, they picked at fried fish baskets and tapped their feet to the rhythms of local blues legend Sarasota Slim.

Every few minutes, those tired of the music or of the waiting meandered over to the tent. Some asked questions, but many just stared, captivated, as if they were watching Las Vegas street magicians performing tricks they didn't understand.

A woman in a visor and sunglasses peered at Randy's hands.

"How do you get the goo off of it so fast?" asked Susan Wirt, in a distinguished drawl.

He picked up another scallop.

"I'll show you in slow motion."

"Ohhhhh," she said.

Randy smiled.

"Many years of practice."

Susan, a school psychologist from Birmingham, Ala., had tried to clean her own. Each took one minute, she said, and were still mangled. They turned out fine, insisted her husband, a cardiac surgeon. But the boys were so good at it, Susan said, and the price was reasonable.

The Wirts drifted back toward the music as more packed buckets arrived.

• • •

The sun was creeping toward the bay as the last of the boats pulled in. Fathers in Guy Harvey shirts tied off and unloaded heavy coolers. Mothers in sundresses escorted their sleepy, towel-wrapped children off the docks.

 

The Budweiser umbrellas had come down. Sarasota Slim had said goodbye.

James munched on potato chips, and Randy picked at a basket of spicy boiled peanuts.

Cletis was at the bar, frustrated and tired. Scallop guts stained his green shirt and his hands were pruned and milky white. A deep cut on his thumb from the night before still stung. He talked again as if this might be his last season.

Still at least an hour from loading the gear into his dad's 1996 GMC van and heading back to their shared double-wide, Cletis ordered a Bud Light and took a long swig.

Across from him, in the lawn of the MacRae's motel, three broad-shouldered men played bocce with their children. Watching from a nearby picnic table covered in a white cloth, their wives smiled and sipped glasses of white wine.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact John Woodrow Cox at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472. Follow @JohnWoodrowCox.

     
   
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