It was somewhere on I-75 that I saw the sign and knew I was on the right track.
The day before, I’d awoken at 3:30 a.m. in East Hampton, flown to Miami, rented a car, and driven across the state to Marco Island. There, I spent three hours with Steve, an artist who’d worked for my father many years ago, at the Bonart Corporation in Manhattan. Steve had kindly agreed to meet and let me photograph a painting my father had done of him, busy at a drafting table in the company’s studio.
To my great surprise, Steve gave me the painting, and though I have no recollection of meeting him when I was a child, we were like old friends, sitting by his infinity pool in the early evening and talking about the good old days.
“He wasn’t interested in money,” Steve said of my father. “He was interested in life. He was living the life of Riley in Montauk. That had to be one of the happier times in his life.” That was why Steve, left to run the business, would drive to our house in Hither Hills, or to the Bonart Gallery, at Gosman’s Dock, every couple of weeks throughout the summer, to go over billing and the like.
“He was a fantastic painter,” Steve said. “We had something that other people don’t have. It was a kind of business that fostered that kind of relationship, because you’re one on one. I loved it.”
One painting secured, I retired to a shabby Naples hotel before the next day’s 303-mile slog to Cross City, to which a couple my parents knew in Montauk had retired. They had bought two paintings, and I had arranged to photograph them, too, on this working vacation.
The three paintings were on opposite ends of the state, but at lunchtime a salmon sandwich and bottle of beer at Woody’s River Roo, a crowded bar and grill on the banks of the Manatee River, made those last 180 miles sail by like so many, um, Confederate flags.
What is that saying about Florida? The farther north you go, the more south it is (or vice versa)? Anyway, the miles ticked away and I was a stranger, venturing ever deeper into a strange land. “Eat Where Elvis Ate!” one billboard, in an infinite landscape littered with them, commanded (“JESUS Is the Answer,” proclaimed almost all the others). Alas, there was no time for the hot-dog joint where the King had voraciously expanded his girth.
Nor would I visit the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala — I certainly wasn’t about to pull up in my rented Nissan compact. No little deuce coupe, this rust-colored eyesore, nor nearly as cool as my sweet Volvo convertible — I’ll get that stupid top down this summer if I have to use a chain saw — but it did deliver me from Miami to Marco Island to Naples to Cross City to St. Petersburg to Fort Myers and back to Miami in this 100-hour sprint across the Sunshine State.
I digress. Somewhere on I-75 — was it before or after the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing? I cannot recall — I beheld a rebel flag that had to be 50 feet long, lazily flapping from a pole twice as tall. Almost directly across the interstate and reaching just as high was a white cross, rendering the adjacent mega-church almost tiny. Cross City, here I come.
The radio crackled to life. If it wasn’t Sean Hannity (it usually was), it was an evangelist: “My friend,” one drawled, “if you’re saved, you will believe in the virgin birth, because you will not know who He is ’til you know what He’s done. In other words, faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.”
It was a faithless and lonely night in Cross City, and I was up before the dawn, desperate to complete the assignment and get back on the long road to St. Petersburg, where a swimming pool, a luxurious seafood dinner, and the finest sauvignon blanc in town awaited. I could finally relax for a minute.
Christopher Walsh is a senior writer at The Star.