Friday, July 31, 2009

Little Bastards

This really happened. Well, most of it.
"What the hell is THIS?" exclaimed Judy as she pointed to a cockroach-looking critter on the bathroom counter. Cleverly and courageously, she had trapped the little bastard under a handy water glass in the middle of the night. She waited graciously till the break of day to exclaim to me about her exploit.

"Well, if it weren't 3 inches long and didn't have really long legs, my sweet, I would say it was a cockroach." You have no idea how hard it is to conjure up witty repartee while standing bleary-eyed in the common company of a woman in nightclothes and a cockroach-looking critter under glass. "Looks a bit like a cockroach on stilts."

Slipping a piece of cardboard under the inverted glass, I rendered the critter-prison portable and I ported it to the driveway, from whence the critter quickly skittered under the house. Judy threw a perfectly good $2 glass away, and I made coffee and talked about something else. I knew that I had to get to the bottom of this or we pretty soon weren't going to have anything in the house to drink out of.

"Neighbor," said I later that morning, "we're new to these parts, and wondered about a big old cockroach-looking thing that my wife captured last night." Neighbor - let's call him Paul, originally from Arkansas - everyone down here is originally from elsewhere - so Paul says to me, "Oh, them's palmetto bugs. They're all over the place. Harmless though. And did you see how fast they can run?"

I asked others in the park - we like to tell folks we live in an ungated community - about palmetto bugs, and they all said about the same thing as Paul. "But," I said, "they really look like cockroaches, except bigger." "Nope," they all said, "them's palmetto bugs." I felt better, and I explained to Judy as to how she should feel better as well.

Over the next few months, we saw 2 or 3 more of the little bastards - I call them "little" because it makes me feel a little better - I call them "bastards" because that makes me feel a lot better - anyway, we spotted some more of them around the house, but follow-up searches that Judy recommended I make of all the hidey places in which one might expect to find cockroach-looking critters, well, those searches routinely turned up empty. That was sort of uncockroach-like. You know how they say if you see one of the little bastards, there's a thousand more hiding under the kitchen sink? Well, thankfully this wasn't true of these particular little bastards. But I did see some of them lurking outside in the hibiscus bushes - this was back before I had to cut down all the hibiscus bushes, but that's another story - and i saw a few parading down the driveway in broad daylight like it was Palmetto Bug Pride Day.

That broad daylight thing made me nervous because if they really were cockroaches - well you never see cockroaches out in the sunshine, so any of the little bastards that you find in the sunshine are probably rabid. I did not like the idea of rabid cockroaches lurking near the house. Palmetto bugs, I suppose, were OK with daylight because I didn't really know if palmetto bugs were supposed to be nocturnal in their habits.

The more people I asked about the cockroach-looking little bastards, the more I was assured that they were palmetto bugs and harmless. This reassured me no end and helped to placate the wife as well. After all, we came to Florida in the first place to enjoy a life of placation, so we began to revel in the feeling we got from knowing that them were palmetto bugs.

I suppose I should have left well enough alone, but my insatiable thirst for knowledge sent me to the ultimate expert on palmetto bugs, just to inquire as to their personal habits. Right there in Wikipedia, I learned that the common name for the palmetto bug is - damn, this was hard to accept and it still makes me sore about all those neighbors from other places - anyway, the real name for palmetto bug according to Wikipedia is "American cockroach."

I haven't explained this yet to Judy, and she remains in a fair state of placation not knowing what I know. Now, it is of some consolation to me that the palmetto bug of Florida has adopted different habits from its Connecticut brethren in that - well, all cockroaches like it where its warm and wet and there is lots of food all the time - but here in Florida those cockroach-friendly conditions occur mostly out-of-doors, which is where these little bastards belong - assuming, that is, they belong anywhere. In fact, conditions in Florida are so cockroach-friendly - I'm not sure I like those two words linked together like that - but the conditions are so good that Florida cockroaches grow up to be pretty damn big. And they grow legs like stilts so they can motor along through the cockroach-friendly underbrush at a sprightly clip. Contrarily, when the little bastards come indoors here in Florida, they find that it's cold and dry all the time - everything is air-conditioned all to hell here - and they hate that. It dries the little bastards out and freezes their little cockroach asses off. So they stay outside. In the cold, dry North, of course, the little bastards have to go indoors where it's warm and wet. So Connecticut is sort of an inside-out Florida if you're a cockroach.

Anyway, you can see why folks here call them palmetto bugs. I'm still not sure about the rabies thing though, so I generally keep my distance.

I could be wrong about this, I suppose, but I don't think so.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Best Eatery Ever

My favorite food authors, Jane & Michael Stern, rate each of their finds, not by the absolute wonderfulness of the restaurant, but how it compares to what it tries to be. So Shady Glen in Manchester rates at the top, not because the food is better than Cavey's, but because it is the perfect 1950s ice cream shop. Few are perfect, except perhaps The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou in Pinellas Park, just south of my place.

Pinellas County is laid out on a grid, with main drags running predictably north-south and east-west. The resulting squares are filled with mobile home parks and billboards. Once in a while, a square contains a park or some natural wonder, like a swamp, a Burger King or a government building. On extraordinary occasions, a creek or even a bayou wanders through the grid. (
Plug 8133 Park Blvd, Pinellas Park, Fl into Google Earth.) Drive down Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park, amidst the car washes and strip malls, and turn into a ramshackle driveway at the ramshackle sign reading The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou. Drive over the alarmingly ramshackle pavement and notice that the frenzied pitch of Park Boulevard fades and soon disappears. Welcome to the Cafe. See

The Cafe is a shack, but not a ramshackle shack. Real-McCoy plank siding must date back to earliest Florida history - maybe 1955. Inside are plain booths, but the rear deck is a destination rivaling Clearwater Beach itself. The deck overhangs the bayou and virtually nothing else. The dark, brackish water meanders north or south with the tide and swirls with catfish and the occasional alligator. Mangrove and cypress line the shore as far north as you can see. The tin roof sings in the rain - jeezus what rain! - but the picnic tables on the deck position you barely out of the deluge. Gentle and unfailing breezes keep away any little biting critters. Cajun music of all colors plays not too far in the background.

The Cafe has Cajun food for the ages. Gumbo and jambalaya and etouffees and po'boys and oysters and catfish creole. Boiled crawfish in 2- or 5-lb batches. Red beans and rice. Dirty rice. Pork bouidin and crawfish boudin and sausage-stuffed Cajun meatloaf.
Cafe's crawfish cornbread is succulent and satisfying beyond description.

Care for a beer? Keep in mind that beer served in Florida rarely strays far from the Bud Light rut. It's a hops wasteland, a barbarian, scum-swilling land of pantywaist buzz-chasers that wouldn't know a decent brew if they fell into a mash tun. So it was a shock of epic magnificence to see a sign in front of the Cafe claiming to serve
80 craft beers, 15 of them on tap. Local brews like Dunedin Pale Ale and Jai Alai IPA, Belgians ales, stouts, wheat beers and Hercules Double IPA. Brews from Colorado and Oregon and California and the Carolinas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Louisiana. Texas, Massachusetts and Virginia. And those are only the ones I have tasted, so far. The Cafe would be beer heaven if it served nothing but hot dogs.

One might think, mightn't one, that an eatery of this intensity would serve some wonderful desserts. The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou serves one dessert, and one only. One is all is needed because everyone knows, or quickly learns, that it is the best of all possible desserts: bread pudding with whiskey cream sauce.

If I were stranded on a desert isle for the rest of time and could bring only one thing with me, it would be The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou.

I could be wrong, but I don't think so.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Billboard Rant # 1

Florida, God bless it, is a land where advertising rushes in at every turn. The billboard, in particular, sticks it in your eye. We have one down the street that reads VASECTOMY - NO NEEDLE - NO SCALPEL. Um, right. Perhaps they use a mallet. Or a tiny weed-whacker. The billboard touts a grinning genital-grabber in Elvis hair and a BIG 800-number. Would you let Elvis mess with your junk? I thought not. Besides, this is Florida, where the median age is 74. Cialis ads should abound - as they do - but vasectomies would seem a shrinking market.

Out on I-275 in Tampa is a billboard for an outfit that cleans up after murders, suicides and "undiscovered deaths." You might expect something discreet from advertisers in this delicate industry, assuming that you knew that such an industry exists, but you would be wrong. Florida does not grasp discreet. 400 square feet of gore in view of 55,000 cars an hour.

Lawyer billboards? How about one for an outfit called, ? It's not even grammatically defensible.

Florida has a population density of about 600 people per square furlong and no zoning laws. In the inevitable scrum for every available retail dollar, advertising has grown even denser than the population. In more ways than one.

It's a crazy state. I feel at home here.