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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Notes from a pandemic in paradise: on love bugs and other Florida wonders

Bugs, masks, books, wildlife and coffee shops — the stuff of life.

Can we stipulate that love bugs are among the worst violators of social distancing? It’s not bad enough that they make love in mid-air (right in front of the children, for goodness sake). It’s that they often land on you while they’re doing it — attracted to your body heat — turning an innocent rocking chair moment on the porch or a bike ride into a menage a trois.

Suddenly, there seems to be more of them than usual. Is it because there are fewer vehicles out on the open road? Perhaps they are less susceptible to the mass highway executions that clog car and truck grilles and splatter windshields. In a perverse way I envy them. We cower at home. They go out with a bang.

The masked writer

Early in the pandemic we had no masks for protection. Now I have eight. Some purchased online, but others made by family and friends. My favorite is the black and white cowboy bandana. I’m a regular Hopalong Cassidy! But there are days I am moved to wear the one with pink flamingos or the one with golden trumpets. Finding the right mask isn’t easy. My wife has a peanut head. I have a balloon head. (Think Babe Ruth.) My head is so big (more brains!) that elastic sides of masks tend to pull my ears out like the flaps on an airplane wing, or a taxi riding down the street with the doors open.

Will you look at that!

Our early morning walks to Lake Vista Park never fail to surprise us. The other day, an osprey snatched a fish from the pond and carried it right over our heads. An armada of turtles — we counted 16 of them — paddled toward us near the edge of the water looking for handouts. Suddenly, something surfaced. What is it? Two otters! We have walked here 40 years and never seen an otter in the pond. With this pandemic, if it’s not one thing, folks, it’s an otter.

Among the missing

Two months into house arrest, we are way beyond the “staycation” phase. Our new routines sustain us, but we are itchy. We realize how much we miss the people and places that enriched our familiar ways.

Haslam’s Book Store not only sells my books. The folks there sustain our reading lives and connect us with rich currents of creativity in the city. When Karen was recovering from cancer treatments, not a visit to Haslam’s went by without one of the workers inquiring about her welfare. So to Ray and Raymond Hinst, to Martha, Michael, and Karen, and especially to Teacup the Cat and the Ghost of Jack Kerouac, I say, “See you soon, brothers and sisters of the word.”

The new kid in town, Tombolo Books, exploded on the scene just as the stay-at-home orders were put in place. Over the first few weeks of its existence, under the leadership of Alsace Walentine and her happy crew, this little shop of treasures opened the door wide for readers and writers of all ages. Tombolo is still taking orders, and I was delighted to pick up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Nickel Boys at the front door. Support your local booksellers!

The Jurassic Clarks

About a month ago I first noticed that the Clarks’ front yard was in danger of being overrun by grasshoppers. What plague is next? I wondered biblically. As we rock on our front porch, we notice more than ever the workings of nature around us. Black snakes slither in the bushes. The blue jays and blackbirds engage in constant battle. The squirrels go nuts in our old live oak tree. It’s fun to watch them walk across the wires as the territorial mockingbirds swoop down like fighter jets and jab them in the butt.

But no one has more fun than the lizards. For decades the brown anoles — immigrants from Cuba and the Bahamas — have dominated the lizard scene, chasing the green ones to the tree tops of the Carolinas. The male lizards, full of machismo, do pushups on the yard art, projecting their orange dewlaps from their throat, a sign of either love or war. The males have ridges up their backs and heads, looking like miniature stegosauri. The females are sleek and elegant, decorated with a gold stripe down their backs, always alert, leaping from ground to bush in a flash, disappearing like little magicians.

Hey, I’m from New York. My idea of lizards are alligators in the sewer pipes. Except we like lizards now, so much so that we tolerate them in the house, except for that day when I opened the toilet and found a swimmer who jumped up on my shirt. Years ago, one female lizard showed herself on our garage door, and we noticed that she had a split tail, possibly from an escape from a feral cat. We called her “Two Tail” and followed her adventures for almost three years. We’ve kept photos!

Coffee, tea, and you and me

Our old routines included many visits — and hundreds of dollars spent — at St. Pete’s growing number of coffee shops. Our favorites included the Banyan, the Craft Kafe, Kahwa and the Black Crow. We still take curbside service, but we miss all the friendly and creative characters who work and inhabit these places. God appears to be still taking care of the sparrows, even though they are not getting fed croissant crumbs from the usual crowd.

We miss Erica Allums, the original owner of the two Banyan cafes. The first time she met me, she overheard me talking about go-go dancers and decided I should be nicknamed GoGo. It stuck for most of a decade. Who does not now dream of a place where everybody knows not just your name, but your nickname? My wife misses Casey, cook and percussionist. She likes to hug him — a lot — and call him Tasty.

We miss the people — and the contacts. We miss seeing Bob Devin Jones, the cultural spirit of the city. And J.J. Pattishall, the jazziest cat in town. We miss Paul Wilborn and Joe Hamilton and novelist Lori Roy and Beth Reynolds and all the artsy folks at the Morean Arts Center. I miss saying hello to Joy, who sells hot dogs on the corner of Central and Eighth. I miss walking down Central to my favorite shops like the Swag.

Our reunions will be soon, I hope, and safe. I often say that I love St. Pete. But when I really think about it, it’s not the weather, the beaches, or even my beloved pelicans. It’s the people. I love the people. I miss the people.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. His latest book is “Murder Your Darlings.” Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.

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