Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Oldest City

And so it came to pass -- anyone's guess how -- that I was invited to a literary festival in Florida. No, really, a guy who hasn't had a book out since 1986 rubbing shoulders with professors and authors. Not only that, I was sort of the headlining act, last one of the conference.

The Other Words conference has been going on for several years, and although I'd never heard of it, I did note, once I'd been invited, that it would allow me a weekend in St. Augustine, Florida, a place I'd never been, and that all I had to do was show up on Saturday night so that this guy Wyn Cooper and I could talk. Cooper, as you'll see from the link, is a poet who's also had one of his poems turned into a hit record by Sheryl Crow, and a brief conversation with him before I left convinced me this would be fun.

I don't have much to say about the conference itself -- if you're curious, you can click the link above -- but I was very interested in being in America's oldest city, seeing as how just a little while back I'd been to America's other oldest city, Santa Fe. St. Augustine has them beat by about 50 years, though, and I figured there'd be something to see.

And there was: when I woke up on Friday morning, there was this big grey edifice across the street and a bit to the left of my hotel, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort built to defend the city from the various forces who wanted it for themselves. The town itself was founded in 1565, and some wooden forts erected against the threat of the French, largely Huguenots (aha! A Montpellier connection!), who'd settled a bit to the north near what is now Jacksonville. This didn't prevent the French fleet from trying their luck against the Spaniards, but their luck was bad: the fleet was destroyed by a storm, and the Spaniards marched north and destroyed their fort. Then the shipwrecked sailors appeared and the Spaniards killed them all. Florida was off to a great start.

Then came the British, who burned St. Augustine to the ground in 1586, but wound up settling further north in Jamestown, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. The reason St. Augustine was so important to Spain was that it was on the Gulf Stream, which could whoosh boats coming up from South America, often laden with gold and silver, straight to Spain. Seeing that their location was so vital and their new settlement could be used as a stop for Spanish ships for repairs and supplies, they decided to build a stone fort, and work was started in 1672 and finished in 1695. The main building material was coquina, a fossil-bearing rock that's much sturdier than limestone, and it's held up.

Which is better than the town itself has done: British forces from South Carolina showed up in 1702 and burned it again, but spent 50 days beseiging the Castillo and never took it. Giving the British the finger, the Spanish governor announced that runaway slaves would be given their freedom if they came to town, and made good on it. Of course, they were still employed in manual labor, but they got paid for it.

Good defenses make good neighbors
In 1763, the British acquired Florida as part of a deal involving a peace treaty, and took over the administration of St. Augustine and the Castillo. There's really not much to see per se inside the fort: the most interesting stuff is graffiti scratched by soldiers stationed there, which include pictures of boats that naval experts can actually identify and assign to a nation, but the Parks Service has good posters detailing the various periods of the Castillo's history, and some of them highlight individuals who were important in the city's history. My favorite was a Swiss mercenary who rose high enough in the British army to be appointed governor, and apparently complained bitterly about how awful Florida was. He wound up getting transferred to Quebec, where he really enjoyed the weather.

Owing to the turbulent history, "old" as far as structures go in St. Augustine means early 18th century, and there are older structures in New England, the Hudson valley, and Philadelphia, among other places, and because the Spanish gave the place up for the last time in 1821, when they gave Florida to the United States (and the Americans renamed the Castillo de San Marcos Fort Marion after the "Swamp Fox"), there's no real Spanish vibe to the town except a self-conscious one. Part of that came about when Henry Flagler, who had helped John D. Rockefeller establish Standard Oil (and was acknowledged as the mastermind behind it) decided that Florida held an unprecedented opportunity for healthful tourism, and, in 1882, moved to St. Augustine to start developing it. The first thing he did was to build a hotel.

Not the Best Western where I stayed
He also built another one across the street, a little less grand. It's now St. Augustine's City Hall. This one is now Flagler College, where the conference was based. Flagler built a railroad to connect various of his enterprises in Florida tourism, and eventually it went all the way to Key West, but he really lavished a lot of attention on St. Augustine. Thanks to the conference, I had an ID that let me into the no-go areas in this building, including the dining hall.

Thanks to the miracle of my patented Blur-O-Vision photography, you can't really make out the lavish murals in the top photo or discern the little stage where musicians would play for hotel diners. Nor, in the lower photo, can you see that the windows are stained glass by Tiffany, the largest holding of Tiffany glass in the U.S. 

Here's a view of the main entrance, showing some of the books conference attendees had for sale, most of them poetry, which is definitely not my field. But the whole building is this over the top, take my word. 

Unfortunately, there's not much of interest in this tourist enclave I was staying in unless you need scented candles, bath supplies, or candy. Dang, there was a lot of candy for sale. I found a place called the Fudge Bucket, which I humbly submit is the worst business name I've seen this year. It's on St. George St., where a lot of old houses have been turned into bars, restaurants, and tchotchke emporia. 

I did a lot of walking, mostly because I like to walk, and you never know what you'll find. There was one area where there were some impressive old houses that I liked. 

And there were other, more fanciful, ones.
Photo somewhat worse for shooting directly into Florida sunshine
I spent a lot of Friday tramping around these streets and pretty much exhausted the possibilities. I was also wary: this was the weekend of a marathon, and Pirate Days, where the city is invaded by people who like pirate cosplay. There was a van parked at my motel which had skeletons all over it, and I saw a lot of people walking the streets in full (and meticulously detailed) pirate drag. Saturday there was a parade, but fortunately I missed it. 

Since I was free until Saturday night, I did a lot of wandering, and managed to meet some St. Augustinians who, I hope, aren't typical, although I fear they might be. First was a sort of hippie chick who accosted me when I was headed to Flagler College. "Pentax or Nikon?" she asked, pointing at my camera. It was a Nikon, and she told me that's what she'd had. She asked me what I was doing in town, and I told her, and she introduced herself as Georgia and said that she didn't know much about poetry but she did know about rock and roll and had adopted Jim Morrison as her mentor "as a poet and as a clown," which I thought was fair. She said she'd have a camera "when I get everything back," and wished me a good stay. The second one was a young guy I met crossing a bridge a bit further up the street that runs by Flagler. I'd gone to a huge liquor store outside the city limits to buy a six-pack for nightcaps while reading at night, and this kid perched on the bridge's railing said "Do you believe in God?" Not wanting to walk into a minefield, I said "Sure," and he replied by knocking on the railing's stone and saying "He's concrete, just like this. He's not an abstraction, no way." Okay. The third one was a chunky young guy who struck up a conversation as I was eating breakfast. He said he listens to NPR all the time and asked about the conference and went back to what he was doing. As he got up to go, he handed me a napkin. "Check this out sometime. Have a nice day." The napkin had a URL for something called The Political Cesspool, and he had written "Check the archives," and then two Latin words, one of which was "deo" and the other a form of the verb "vencere," which, having never really learned all the tenses despite my Latin teacher's best efforts, made me think it could be translated as "God will win." 

Food? Yes, they have it. St. Augustinian cuisine is seafood, of course, and yet it's not all that varied: you have mahi-mahi, you have blue crab, and you have shrimp. And that seemed to be it. There's also a local specialty of Menorcan clam chowder. Menorca is a Spanish island in the Balearic group, much touristed by Germans and Brits these days, but with a version of Catalan culture and language. Although Menorcans were disproportionately represented among St. Augustine's Spanish population, and set up the town's bakery (now a tourist trap serving fake Spanish pastry) and provided ancestry for Steven St. Vincent Benet, the clam chowder is all that remains. Thus, I had to have some, and so I hit Catch 27, which looked pretty good, for dinner on Friday. If their version was anything to go by, the broth is tomato enhanced by the local datil pepper, an odd-looking, mildly hot, chile, which adds a good deal of complexity to the flavor by not trying to overwhelm anything. The flavor of the clams comes through, and the only problem I had with Catch 27's version was the two immense croutons in it, which soaked up the broth and sogged out. But it gave me ideas, which I intend to try out in a self-invented recipe soon, so I bought a bottle of datil sauce at a hot-sauce emporium tourist trap and brought it home. Catch 27 also made some decent crab-cakes. 

My other bit of culinary knowledge was provided on Saturday, when I went to find a pharmacy. I walked across the Lions Bridge, a drawbridge across the bay, and into another part of town that was less touristy. Still, there was no pharmacy for as long as I walked, although I did happen on the Alligator Farm, one of St. Augustine's earliest tourist attractions, which is actually in the National Register of Historic Places. Cost $22.95 to get in, so I passed but I took the opportunity to ask my phone where the nearest pharmacy was. The answer was discouraging -- why are there no consumer-friendly businesses in the St. Augustine tourist area where I was staying? Santa Fe seems to have no problem having convenience stores and so on in their tourist area -- so I walked back. On the way out, I'd passed O'Steen's Restaurant, highly recommended by locals, so, hot and sweaty from the long walk, I decided to stop in. A cup of Menorcan chowder was out of the question, sad to say (I figured it'd be the definitive one), but their famous fried shrimp wasn't. It was, um, fried shrimp, but the shrimp themselves were fine: the local shrimp seem to have an iodine-y tang I associate with the Atlantic, not overwhelming, but another note in the basic shrimp taste. They were inexpensive and gave me the energy to hike back to my motel and collapse. 

The other place of note to eat was, amazingly, the coffee shop attached to my motel, Mary's Harbor View Cafe, which is the place to catch breakfast (or lunch, apparently). Mary, a large no-nonsense woman with a cheery demeanor, runs a tight ship, and has earned the neon sign on the back wall declaring the place The Mary Show. I had omelettes all three days, and can report that the hash-browns on offer here are the real deal, not some grease-soaked previously-frozen slab of starch. And the shrimp omelette I had Sunday morning was top-notch, as were the others, but that one was special. Mary's joins the pantheon of great motel coffee-shops that also includes the legendary Duke's At The Tropicana of sainted memory. 

My interview went well, and Sunday I headed to the Jacksonville airport in a cab driven by a chatty but sane woman who'd survived what sounds like a fairly impoverished upbringing in a trailer. And I survived the flight home, which was smooth, although the route went through a swath of weather that scared me to death every time I called up the map on my phone. Interesting short trip, although I have no particular interest at the moment in exploring Florida further. Just remember: if you visit, no bookstore, no pharmacy closer than six miles, and no convenience store, but a Fudge Bucket. What an odd place. 
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