1. Books

'Homegrown in Florida' excerpts whet readers' appetite

Published Oct. 13, 2012

An excerpt from "Night Shift"

By Michael Connelly

The bestselling crime fiction writer had his first glimpse into a darker world while growing up in Fort Lauderdale.

It was the summer of 1972 and I was sixteen years old. My family lived in Fort Lauderdale and I had a part-time job as a dishwasher at a hotel on the beach. I had been working there since I was fourteen, busing tables and washing dishes on weekends. I was saving up for a car. The day I turned sixteen I got my driver's license first and then got the car, a green Volkswagen bug. I paid $600 for it, just about everything I had saved up from washing dishes. Four-speed, no air, 8-track player mounted in the glove box. The car had a white racing stripe. It was sweet.

The car gave me freedom, not only to roam farther than my bike would take me, but to expand my work hours at the hotel. I could work late because I could get home quick. That summer I took several night shifts, washing dishes in the hotel's banquet kitchen after weddings and parties that went late into the night. Working the night shift, I saw a darker and more intriguing side of the city when I would head home. The denizens of the night would come out. Bikers, runaways, drug dealers, and cops.

One night after midnight and a long shift manning the racks of the Hobart industrial-size dishwasher, I was heading home tired and ready for sleep. I felt like I had a film of sweat and steam encasing my body. On Sunrise Boulevard I came to an intersection just as the light turned red. I brought the green bug to a halt. The intersection was dark and abandoned. No businesses open. No cars waiting and no cars coming. I decided to run the light. No harm, no foul, I thought. It would get me a minute closer to a shower, and then to bed.

I looked around, making sure there was no traffic cop lying in wait. And that's when I saw him. The running man. Moving east toward the beach, a man was running full speed toward the drawbridge I had just traversed. As he passed beneath a streetlight's cone of illumination I saw that he was no jogger. Big and burly with a beard and long hair, the running man was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. He was even wearing boots.

As I watched him pass toward the bridge, he stripped off his shirt without breaking stride. He had on a T-shirt underneath. He balled his shirt up around something he was carrying. As he passed by an ornamental hedge at the start of the bridge's incline, he shoved the whole bundle in and kept moving, still not breaking stride.

I never ran the red light. I turned and watched the running man until he crested the bridge across the Intracoastal and disappeared from sight.

What was that all about? I wondered.

The light finally turned green. I thought for a moment and then pulled the bug into a U-turn. I coasted into a nearby parking lot and got out, leaving the engine running. I went to the spot in the hedge where I saw the running man hide his package. I reached in and found the bundle and pulled it out. Then I found the gun.

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An excerpt from "Miss Olive"

By Jeff Klinkenberg

The Times' Real Florida columnist grew up in Miami back in the days when folks left their front doors unlocked.

Miss Olive was one of the first people my family met when we moved to Miami in 1951. Mother was weeding in the front yard the day Miss Olive stopped on her way from the bus stop. Miss Olive tapped the cracked sidewalk with her cane and spoke in a manner my mother found threatening.

"Somebody could trip on this," Miss Olive grumbled. "Somebody could get sued."

My mother, a warm, friendly person, introduced herself to Miss Olive. She told Miss Olive how we had just moved from Chicago, how my dad hoped to make a living playing the piano, how musician jobs were scarce, and how my dad was out of work temporarily. For the moment, we were poor.

Miss Olive surprised my mother by offering the loan of lawn equipment. She said we could borrow her edger if my dad would edge her sidewalk when he was finished with our own. We took Miss Olive up on what seemed to be a kind offer. Within minutes, the ancient, rusty edger broke down. Miss Olive expected us to fix it, or replace it, and we did. Our already strained budget was strained even tighter. My dad worked in her yard to help make things right.

My mother's second story is about Miss Olive's heater.

Our small house lacked heat. Miami, fortunately, seldom gets more than a taste of winter. But one day a strong front roared in from the north. Miss Olive offered the loan of an old kerosene stove heater. My parents were grateful. I was three and sickly.

My dad had a temporary job at an all-night Miami Beach restaurant. So only my mother and I were home. Mother woke at dawn, wheezing and coughing and hallucinating about spider webs.

No hallucination, the spider webs on the ceiling turned out to be soot. During the night the heater had malfunctioned. We were probably lucky to be alive.

We decided to stop borrowing from Miss Olive. It was too expensive or dangerous.

An excerpt from "Arsenal"

By William McKeen

The chairman of the journalism department at Boston University was a boy living with his family on Homestead Air Force Base in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened.

There was something different about the texture of the sound this Sunday night, as our parents were across the street in the noisy throng. Chuck and I anticipated the morning's before-school feast on the Officers' Club lawn. As my brother did his homework, and my sister tied up the telephone, I watched television in the living room with the party roar from across the street as background noise. Around eleven, when I should've been in bed, I heard my parents talking as they crossed the lawn. They opened the door before I had a chance to get back to my room and pretend to be asleep.

"Charles, something must be going on," my mother said. "They're not supposed to dress that way in the Officers' Club."

"I think Mason knows something, but he's not telling," Dad said. "Maybe he just doesn't want to talk about it at the club. I'll let you know what he says tomorrow."

"Not that I mind the flight suits," my mother said, "but they've been so rigorous about kicking out flyboys before. So it was strange that no one raised a fuss when they all came in wearing flight suits, and you in your dress uniform."

"I'll see what I can find out tomorrow," Dad said.

Obviously, too busy to notice me.

Chuck was an early riser. He and Suzanne had to catch a bus to Redlands Junior High, out in the civilian world. I had only a short bike ride to Air Base Elementary, so I usually got an extra hour of sleep each morning. But on those post-party mornings I was always the first one up and needed to rouse my brother. We were sneaking out the front door when we were greeted by the spectacle of my father in his parachute-silk boxer shorts standing in the driveway smoking a cigarette and holding a still-rolled-up Miami Herald. He was too distracted to notice us. Across the street we saw a line of barbed wire, and behind that, on the Officers' Club lawn, a tank. We lived on an Air Force base, but the troops that milled around behind the wire were wearing the telltale olive drab of the United States Army. I had awoken inside my nightmares.

An excerpt from "Red Clay Road"

By Craig Pittman

The Tampa Bay Times' award-winning environmental reporter grew up in a little green concrete-block house at the end of a red clay road in Pensacola.

W hen I wasn't chasing planes, I was perched on a branch in my favorite persimmon tree. In my imagination that branch could become a fighter plane, or a rocket ship, or a battlement for repelling brigands. It also became a front-row seat for watching my dog, Spike, chase the trailer-park cats out of our yard. He would always run them around the perimeter at top speed several times, as if they needed to attain escape velocity before vaulting the fence to safety.

My dad loved to hunt quail, so he always kept a passel of bird dogs penned up out back. Spike, a Brittany spaniel with knowing eyes, was his favorite when they got into the field. Once Spike got the scent, he showed no fear in facing the thickest brambles. Sometimes my dad would carry me along too, but I was no Spike. I always got snagged by the briers, and usually when Dad would kick up a covey I'd be too far away to get in a shot. Even if I fired, I'd miss completely.

More satisfying were my solitary squirrel-hunting trips to the woods behind my grandmother's house. She lived across the bay bridge on the road to Chumuckla, in what was then a fairly rural area. I'd tote my .410 gauge out into the pines and loose off a dozen deadly shots in my imagination, but in reality I'd never fire it once. The squirrels were too smart to show themselves. Instead I spent my time wandering around enjoying the deep shade, the passing breeze, the sounds of cardinals and mockingbirds at play.

My sense of solitude extended to my bus rides to and from school. Usually I spent the time reading some paperback thriller. My taste ran to stories about tough guys who knew how to play all the angles and caress all the curves. Most of the other kids would take one look at the gory covers and just keep walking, leaving me alone. That was fine by me. I was busy looking for clues — not just for the mystery in my hand but for the larger mysteries about how the world worked.


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