© 1996 Rich Rath

"The boardwalk? What's left of it is down four blocks and then two more to the right."

I thanked the bus driver, paid my fare, and stepped into the late afternoon sun of Jacksonville Beach. I lived in a coastal town further south, so none of this was new, not the salt smell and the vast expanses of "Pizza Huts" and "Taco Bells," not the one-story "Vacation Villas," not the "Islander Hotel," with its "I" buzzing on and off so that it sometimes read "slander Hotel" and not the "Seven-Eleven" stores packed so close you could crack open a soda in front of one of them, and then look down the road and sight another one in either direction.

This scene metamorphosed as I approached the boardwalk. The air took on the smell of burnt wood which had been put out with water and left damp. The waves became incessant and unconscious: white noise that cut out all but the most important sounds. The bus driver had told me that the place had been one of the first playgrounds for the rich in the '30s. Then, hunter-gatherer-like, the rich had migrated south to ever-sunnier places. They abandoned millions of dollars of business and buildings to the elements. Much arson and several hurricanes later, these ruins became what the locals call "The Blighted Area," almost a ghost town, but still populated because of its nearness to the ocean.

I met my appointments and threw my bag in a cheap room. Its plaster crumbled to the touch. Water dripped in a porcelain sink, stained rust-red from disuse. I left to explore the ruins, to see what life was still in them. Walking unhurriedly, hands in pockets, with the surf whooshing constantly in the distance, I took in scores of yellowing single-storied adobes—one-time pristine summer homes, now relegated to huts slowly rotting in the dampness, with sand and bristly cordgrass rudely scribbled over the well-typed lawns of other days.

I stopped in a corner tavern. Billiard balls clacked, glass clinked, chairs' wood scraped against floor's wood. Voices rose and fell. An occasional "Life's a bitch" or "You're alright" could be culled from the din. The bar itself was mahogany with a thin layer of shiny, chipped shellac. As my eyes became adjusted to the light, features, faces, and characters began to emerge from this gathering of misfits. An unshaven man of about sixty, short and lean, with flapping jowls, sang a slow-motion, swoop-voiced rendition of That's Amore two times, accompanying himself with his withered tap shoes like some destitute relative of Fred Astaire. Nearby sat Frenchy, an ageless bleached-blonde woman who kissed everyone and spoke with a suspect accent. Ten feet from the bar, two doe-eyed virgin males shot pool with a visiting biker. He held the awkward boys spellbound, his deep, decadent voice resonating with confidence and worldliness. After a while, a hunched and bulge-eyed old man with red veins in his face took the boys' place at the billiard table. When it wasn't his turn, I asked him for directions. He repeated them for me three times, just to talk to someone. He handily defeated the biker, though; and cracked a barely perceptible smile as he collected his beer. I left these loners unaware of how liquidly they had flowed to their niches and walked past their adobes and the occasional neon lights flickering at alley-ends to my room where I slept dreamlessly.

Next morning I went to the boardwalk again. I found a stand that was still in business and asked for coffee. It was instant. The attendant acknowledged as much, remarking that there wasn't much business these days, most people had their coffee at home. The day was windy; clouds blew across the sun and away again. The tide was low on the almost deserted beach, but the surf was deafening. The elements loomed titanic here. This was nature's domain, not people's. I shivered, pulled my jacket tighter, and turned up an approach street. I passed two young lovers at a modern public phone. All three looked curiously alive and out of place here.

Nestled among the dead embers and timbers of burnt-out buildings on this street was an abandoned carnival with giant garish "teacups," "scramblers" and other rides, all in chaotic disrepair. The bus driver had told me of this place. He claimed that it had stayed open in spite of slow business until one of the Ferris wheel cars had come loose, killing its riders and closing the carnival. Now it was stewarded by a man, alleged to be insane, who lived in the warehouse behind it. It was rumored that he had killed people, but no one remembered whether or not this was the same man who had owned the carnival while it was open. I caught a glimpse of his face at a doorway, but he did nothing, only watched.

A woman with a bicycle and two small dogs stood outside the carnival's fence. The bike was an ancient one-speed with a wire basket in front and balloon tires. The woman wore a yellow kerchief, followed by a natty tweed overcoat above bare shins, gray athletic socks and running shoes. She was toothless and bony-old, but I could tell she had once been strikingly attractive, still carrying vestiges of that beauty with her, like the strands of blonde among the gray of her hair. Two dozen or so scrawny cats and kittens, who made the carnival their home, gathered around her to eat the bread scraps she offered, while her dogs looked on peaceably.

A little way past this fence I found a scorched piece of driftwood, bleached by the sun and hollowed out in places by wind, sand and sea. I studied its whorls and intricate lines for many minutes. The wood, the taste of coffee, the smell of salt, and the ever-present surf, punctured only occasionally by some gull's cry, entranced me. The wood was dry and light now. It seemed freeze-dried. Much of it had been washed away, but its essence remained, so that I, who had not seen it before, could tell that it had once been a tree. Thin black lines of blight coursed through it, giving it a new though different life, starkly beautiful on its own terms.

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