Two Quick U.S. Trips: DeLand, Florida, and New York

Flowers

Spring blossoms, DeLand, Florida

I was home for most of March, teaching an intensive short course at Georgetown the week of March 6, then catching up.  On Friday, March 24, I hopped the Metro to the airport and flew south to Orlando, into early spring in Florida.  Pressed through the hordes of visitors headed to see Mickey, Minnie, et al., picked up a red Ford Mustang (for some reason, it was cheaper than the little cars I prefer, but still got north of 30 miles per gallon), and drove north 50 miles to DeLand.

DeLand is the total opposite of the image that “Florida” conjures: densely vertical beachfront cityscapes, choked freeways, odd politics.  There’s only one high-rise in the entire town of 30,000, a dorm for Stetson College, the former Baptist liberal arts school (enrollment = 3,000) that – together with Volusia County government – anchors the local economy.  No traffic jams, and 25 mph speed limits.  And a decidedly progressive vibe, thanks to plenty of academics.  The downtown is returning to life (albeit without much retail), and the old neighborhoods are filled with farmhouse style dwellings and lots of bungalows.  Plus, of course, the verdant vegetation that makes the state so special.  Not long after crossing the city limits I felt very relaxed indeed.

I was soon on N. Clara Avenue, hugging Magda, daughter of my longtime friend Herb Hiller.  It had been way too long, almost nine years, since I visited them, especially because Herb was a great mentor and friend when I was in grad school in the mid-1970s.  Now almost 86, he is still going strong, busy, focused, and articulate.  Herb was taking a nap, so after visiting briefly with Mag (talented in her own right, a great singer/songwriter) I plopped down on a couch, dogs Napoleon and Rooster on the floor beneath me.

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On the kitchen table: citrus from a backyard tree

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Rooster, one of three new BFFs

Herb’s wife Mary Lee arrived about 3:45, and we started the first of several wonderful conversations in their kitchen.  Herb joined us, as did Mag and her daughter Wyatt, already 14.  We talked and talked, ate a nice salad and Moroccan bean casserole.

Herb (who graduated from Harvard Law but never practiced) worked in Miami’s fast-growing tourism industry through the 1960s, then at the dawn of the mass cruise-ship trade, then into the Caribbean – all conventional models.  Herb and I have been long friends not least because we have for decades shared a vision of sustainable tourism based on a very different model of authentic local experiences.

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In the mid-1970s, when we advocated that approach, people thought we were nuts, or as Herb wrote at the time, “communists, vegetarians, Luddites.”  We don’t feel smug that our vision has come to be widely embraced, but we are certainly pleased.  So we talked a lot that weekend about tourism development (the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation), and Herb’s efforts to nurture small-scale tourism in rural Florida, much of which has been oriented to the bicycle.  We are, in brief, simpático.

Was up at dawn the next morning, out the door for a splendid amble around downtown and the neighborhoods north of the center, back for a cup of coffee, then back out with Mary Lee and the dogs for their A.M. constitutional.  We met friend Dave, visited the art studio of Tony Eitharong (where Dave helps out part time), and headed home for a bowl of oatmeal.  Herb and I yakked a bit, headed out to buy some beer, then west to the St. John’s River, Florida’s 300-mile wide waterway (for years Herb and Mary Lee lived on an island in the river north of DeLand, where it’s called Lake George).  Yakked some more on the riverbank, then back into town for a quick wander around the Stetson campus and a serendipitous chat with another colleague (you could tell we were in a small place!).

Florida like it used to be:

Houses

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Studio

In the artist’s studio

After a tonic nap, we drove south a few miles to Cassadaga, a former “spiritual encampment” (think psychics and such) for dinner at Sinatra’s, in the old hotel (which regularly offered séances and the like).  Back home, Mag baked cookies for dessert, more yakking, and off to sleep.  Sunday morning, another walk, without and with the dogs.  At 10:30, longtime friend, former island neighbor, and lawyer Bill arrived with some legal documents to sign.  We had breakfast of homemade raisin bread, a meal that conjured memories of wonderful repasts at Herb’s old house in Coconut Grove, Miami, and a good yak with Bill, a native Floridian (it’s always great to meet those folks, rare the state).

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At noon, I hugged Herb, Mary Lee, Magda, and even the dogs (including Mag’s cute Stevie), hopped in the Mustang, drove south to the airport, and flew home.  A great visit with a wonderful comrade.

The last travel of the quarter was a day trip to New York for a video interview for a consulting client.  It hopped but and Metro to Union Station, and onto the 8:10 train.  It had been about two years since I rode Amtrak, and I growled to myself as we formed a long line to board the train, contrasting too much control (queueing, and ticket checks, ostensibly for security) with the openness of European train stations.  The Berlin Hauptbahnhof is arguably as vulnerable to terrorist attack as Washington Union Station, but the platforms are completely open.

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The tracks were as bumpy as ever, but the train was on time and spotlessly clean inside.   The ride is not especially scenic, but there were moments: crossing the Susquehanna River at the top end of Chesapeake Bay; apple trees in blossom along the Schuylkill River just north of center-city Philadelphia; and the brilliant contrast between the flat, empty wetlands east of Newark and the soaring Manhattan skyline on the horizon.

Arrived New York Penn Station on time at 11:21 and walked a few blocks north to Han Bat, a Korean restaurant I’ve enjoyed a few times over the last 25 years.  At 11:40, my friend-since-1961 Tim Holmes joined me, and we tucked into a spicy lunch (kimchee and more) and a lot of banter, jumping through five-plus decades, back to sixth-grade art appreciation with Miss Feltl, forward to his music-writing gig for Sony (he just finished a press release marking Loretta Lynn’s 85th birthday).  Tim always marched to a slightly different drummer, and I’ve long appreciated his perspectives on life, society, and politics.   An hour or so later we ambled up Sixth Avenue to my gig and parted.  As I have written many times, it’s a great joy to stay connected with long friends.  On the way north, I gave an attaboy to a young guy who thumped the back of a van that had driven through a red light.  The driver stopped, and a lively exchange ensued.  The kid struck a blow for order in the face of chaos.  Excellent!

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The video production crew had set up in the Presidential Suite of the New York Sheraton, which would have been posh save for all their kit, duct tape on floors, etc.  For the first time in my episodic on-camera career, a tech applied face make up (whew!), and off we went.  Took 30 minutes, slam dunk.  At 2:15, I met an airline colleague for a coffee in the lobby, a nice chat, then walked south on Seventh Avenue, through the circus of Times Square, and on to Penn Station.  Geographers like all places, but each of us gets one pass, and I always use mine in The City That Never Sleeps.  Just too frenzied and uncivil.

Signs

The sign business: a growth industry in Times Square

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Hopped the 4:05 train back to Washington.  My client kindly upgraded me to business class, where the seats and amenities were identical to coach, which got me to musing about the last time I was in “business class” on a U.S. train: summer 1962, to and from visiting relatives in Chicago, aboard the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha streamliner.  It was called the parlor car back then, and as I lurched home I did some Googling; sure enough, found two images of the Hiawatha’s “Skytop” parlor car, lovingly restored by a group in Minnesota.  Trust me, the parlor car looked nothing like where I was sitting:

ParlorCar

Thanks to Railroading Heritage of Midwest America for this memory!

Waiting for the Metro home, I had a nice T-t-S with a North Carolina family.  As I always do when I see visitors who seem lost, I asked if I could help.  They were completely turned around.  But they were going where I was going, so I simply said, “Follow me.”  We had a nice visit while waiting for the train and on board.

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