For millennia, people gathered round a fire with food to hear a story. Stories entertained and helped reinforce cultural values. I see a lot of stories here on the wire saloon that all share the same narrative; and serve a similar function. Stories, after all, are a retelling of one's experiences, and when you hang out with like minded people your stories tend to be as similar as your experiences have been. This is a long story, but I'm trying to retell it as neutrally as possible. The mind has an interesting way of warping events to suit your internal monologue... and that would be a disservice to the subject matter.
This happened to me two years ago, when my wife (then fiance) and I had just moved from Los Angeles to be with my grandmother in Clearwater, FL who wasn't doing well. We had a live-in nurse take care of her for the majority of her elder years, but she was declining rapidly and it was becoming too risky to keep her alone in her house. It was a no brainer to make the move then, given the economic struggle that is LA, but especially since my nonna needed someone to watch her house while she was in hospice care.
Now I had grown up in Seminole, near Clearwater, until I turned 18 and went to Florida State for college before moving out west. So I was no stranger to the town. I would come 2-3x a year to visit my family and have holidays together. I knew the neighborhood my grandma lived in, and I knew it would be a tough fit for us. She often called me, dejected, saying she tried to go to the pool or to Bingo night but people there were mean to her. She never would say why or what happened, but I knew it was because she was different, and had a thick accent.
I'm not too far off from my nonna, minus the accent. I like to wear hats, had a nice beard at the time (Civil War General style), and being Sicilian, I resemble a certain stereotype that a select few folks love to hate. For those that don't know, Sicilians are often referred to as the 'mutts of the mediterranean'. We're part North African, part Greek, part Italian, part Spanish, part Middle Eastern. My wife on the other hand looks like a barbie. Tall, blond, gorgeous. What a pair we are
Despite what some misguided folks may think about me on the surface, I was literally born on July 4 and I take that to heart. I've been obsessed with the Civil War since I was 8 years old. I have pictures of Grant, Lee, Stonewall, and Sherman in my office, hanging above a collection of miniballs, beside the Union banner and two framed newspapers from the Harpers Weekly, dated 1862 and 1864. I hunt my own meat, and my dad taught me how to live with the land from a young age. I have always been a member of the 'common sense' political party (ie, judge each candidate as an individual) and refuse to identify as one side or the other. My mom and dad were young 1st generation Sicilian immigrants, came here with nothing. My dad made a living as a trapper in upstate New York/Canadian border while getting his bio degree, and later, masters in chem. He then worked 5 years at a large lab before starting his own chemical company here in FL, and has made a name for himself in the environmental testing community, before bringing his mother out here to retire. The American Dream.
Anyway, despite sticking out like a sore thumb, we settled in fine, and first met our neighbor two houses down to the left, who had a little yorkie and went out of his way to make us feel welcome. He'd always walk by smoking a cigar and wore a fun bucket hat. He stopped by to give us recommendations on restaurants nearby to try, and told us not to be strangers. That gave us the courage to take a walk down to the development's clubhouse/pier on the water. After all, we lived there, so why not.
We took our two dogs and walked about half a mile down to the pier. It was unlocked, so we walked right in. We sat in silence and enjoyed the evening, saw a pod of dolphins, the brilliant colors of a west coast gulf sunset, and lots of jumping mullet that I wished I had my cast net to catch. There was an older couple sitting next to us that kept staring at us, and from the corner of my eye, I could tell they weren't happy. But no problem, not my business.
They left, and shortly after, we did too. As we were leaving, a stern looking older fellow was waiting for us at the gate of the pier with arms crossed. He scowled and said "Well, I hope you had a good time." Confused, I simply replied, "We did, it's a beautiful day". and smiled at him. He then grunted and put a lock on the gate before walking away from us.
Anyway, what's one bad apple. I knew there were tensions in this part of Pinellas, and honestly I grew up with it too so it wasn't too big of a deal. So I let it go. Just a grumpy old man, right? Sure.
Well, a short time later, I let my dogs out to pee in the backyard, and I hear a lady screaming. I look in my back window and I see my neighbor to the rear on a stepstool over my fence throwing branches at Fidget, who is just staring at her, confused. He's not barking, he's not doing anything, just sitting and staring at her with his head cocked. She hits Fidget with one of the branches and he yelps, at which point I see red (don't mess with a man's dog), run outside and shout "Hey! Do not throw things at my dog! What is wrong with you!?" She replied, "my dog refuses to pee because he smells your dog on the other side of the fence!" and she continues to throw branches at him, shouting 'GET BACK!'
I shout back at her "Hey this is my property, my dog can sit at the fence all he wants! Get down before I call the police!" to which she turns to me and says, "Oh you think you're SO cool! You're not welcome here! Everybody in this neighborhood thinks you're trash! Go back to California where you belong!" (Yes this is literally what she said, word for word, it is burned into my brain).
At this point I am completely speechless. My wife, hearing this, practically breaks down the back door and starts shouting all the municipal codes she's breaking, at which point the lady's husband comes out and starts shouting at me for starting a fight.
It took me saying "I GREW UP HERE! I WENT TO SCHOOL WITH FRIENDS WHO ARE COPS HERE!" for him to stop shouting and say, "I'm coming to your house, meet me in front." My wife was afraid but I could tell he was just shocked to hear I was a local.
The guy was wearing a country club polo, tucked into khaki slacks... the 'dentist on golf day' look. I told him we were there watching the property for my nonna, and we were planning on moving as soon as she got better. He said "Well Im glad to hear this isn't permanent, just stay out of each other's way and there won't be any more issues."
It ended there.
During the next few months there were a handful of similar encounters with my other neighbors, but you get the idea. From then on, we stayed inside and minded our business, until sadly, my nonna passed away. My dad offered the house to us, but the childhood memories of Christmases and Easters passed weighed heavy, and I knew it wasn't meant for me. I helped my dad renovate the house to help sell it and told him to share the money with his brother.
What makes this memory stick so hard to me... these people flew an American flag in their front lawn. I grew up with a vision of America where all men were created equal, where the power lie in the hands of the people. While my friends admired Michael Jordan and Dan Marino, I admired Lincoln, Grant, Eisenhower, and the other brilliant minds of our country's past.
The old west was as diverse as any big city... freed slaves trying to make a new life as stable hands... mexican and irish immigrants putting bread on their table as cowhands, native tribes trying to integrate with society the best they can. All manner of religion, political stances, and culture, smooshed together in a new frontier, all fueled by the hopes and dreams of a better, brighter future.
Shooting cowboy style means something different to everyone... But that old west, the REAL old west, is what brings me here.
We're gonna look different. We're gonna think different. But pards... isn't that America?