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Community Voices: The view from St. Pete of a world-wide pandemic

Roy Peter Clark

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Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

This report from St. Petersburg on the coronavirus pandemic is brought to you by the letter P.

That letter is central to our city’s name.  It also stands in this message for parking, parks, porches, parties, pollen, Pinellas Point, and pelicans. Each P plays its part in helping us get through this pandemic.

Parking:  It’s no secret that my favorite coffee shop in town over the last decade has been The Banyan on Central Avenue and Seventh Street.  I have met so many cool people there, including Joe Hamilton, creator of the Catalyst. But as the city has grown and grown, it has blocked easy access to our favorite spots. Why? NOT ENOUGH PARKING!!! Yes, I know I am shouting with those capital letters. I will say in a quiet voice that – a product of our isolation – is the availability of more parking spaces all over town. If you have to get out, you’ll probably find a space. It’s not much of a benefit, but – here’s another P phrase – any Port in a storm.

Parks: For me and my wife Karen, recovering from treatments for breast cancer, the St. Pete city parks have felt like a lifeline. In our new COVID-19 routine, we sleep a little later, enjoy a good breakfast, and look for a chance to get out of the house. The weather has been a bit too warm for this time of year, but is cooler and often breezy in the mornings. We live in Pinellas Point, right around the corner from Lake Vista Park, so most mornings we head there for an hour of walking, dog watching, and greetings to strangers – all at a safe distance.

We also venture out, discovering the beauty and comfort and natural Pleasures (another P word) of Crescent Lake, Straub, Vinoy, and North Shore Parks. We love Katherine B. Tippets Park at the very tip of Pinellas Point, where the Pink Streets meet the bay.

The people who work for our city, from the Mayor to maintenance workers, should be honored for the beauty and comfort of our public spaces. Citizens and visitors are drawn there, now, perhaps, more than ever in order to escape the physical and emotional isolation imposed upon us all by fear of this disease.

Routine moments take on new meaning, even if it’s just a quick wave to a passer-by. A mother and child at Crescent Lake delight in the sight of a mother duck gathering her ducklings. Karen and I stumble on a baseball field and realize we are looking at the spot where Babe Ruth was said to have hit one of his longest Spring Training home runs.

Just this morning, I had parked my car under a tree and was leaning up against it when a father pushing a baby stroller walked by, helping his young son steer a little bicycle. The boy looked like he was about to fall off, but when the dad went to grab his bike, he lost control of the stroller, which threatened to topple over.

An older lady put out a hand to grab the bike. I dashed toward the stroller. But the dad got control of both just in time. It made me appreciate that our fear of contagion could not overcome our willingness to jump in and help – safely, if at all possible – in a moment of seeming danger.

Most people we saw at the parks were enjoying themselves at a safe distance. But not everyone. The tennis courts at Crescent Lake looked too crowded. I have no idea why the four seniors at the Lake Vista dog park think it’s a good idea to sit haunch to paunch at a picnic table.

Better for them to follow the lead of the eight ladies at Lake Vista, nicely separated outside the Rec Center, who were line dancing in an impromptu exercise class. Or the eight ladies at North Shore Park, sitting in the lotus position on their towels under a beautiful tree, separated nicely in a friendly circle.

(As for the jogger who thought it was cool to spit on the sidewalk, Chuck Norris knows where you live.)

Pollen:  When our dog Lance passed away about 25 years ago, Karen planted a tree in our front yard. The live oak now towers above the house, its branches spreading to create shade and a mansion for squirrels and birds. The fleas come with the dog, they say. And the tree comes with acorns, countless acorns, but not before it sheds clouds of yellow pollen. The top of my red Toyota looks yellow. With little rain, the pollen count has been soaring.

Family members and friends are suffering from their allergies. In a time when we are so paranoid of any sign of illness, the folks are coughing and sneezing and rubbing their itchy eyes. The good news is that those with allergies do not have a more serious illness. But, in the blink of an itchy eye, we may turn into pariahs as we find ourselves coughing and sneezing into our elbow creases.  More than once I have seen people get up and walk away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing – even when the person says “Hey, I’m not a leper, I have allergies.”

Porches: Karen and I have rediscovered the charms of rocking on our Adirondack chairs on our tiny front porch. We read there. I will play a little music there, sometimes offering a free concert to a few neighbors passing by at a safe distance, walking their dogs or riding their bikes.

Jeff and Julie Saffan live around the block, and we wondered whether there was a safe way to enjoy their company. They joined us at the top of our driveway, four patio chairs (sanitized) and a long table between us. They brought their own drinks, and we shared two hours near sunset talking about the country and the world and our little corner of it. It felt safe, delightful, invigorating. As a parting gift we offered them a roll of toilet paper. We have a return visit scheduled for Friday for my birthday Party (another P word). They will bring their own cake. There will be no blowing out of candles. Which brings we, as always, to…

Pelicans:  I enjoyed a rather high moment in the city just before the world turned upside down. As a result of some articles I had written, on January 9 the council designated the brown pelican as the official bird of the City of St. Petersburg. Here’s to the bird life around us. We may be hiding, but they seem to be soaring, squawking, diving, hunting, and pooping – yes, lots of pooping.

In the trees and on the wires, mockingbirds, the fierce little warriors of the air, protect their nests against the nest invading crows. Osprey snatch fish from our ponds and lakes and serve them for dinner to young waiting in giant nests atop light poles. I saw a red shouldered hawk, sitting on a neighbor’s driveway, wings spread above the body of a dead squirrel. And at the sea shore, a brown pelican shows his stuff to a flock of migratory white pelicans. The brown pelican has this great move, which the white pelicans can only admire. He soars, and dives, and surfaces with a mouthful of fish.

For as the poem reminds us, even in a time of pandemic: A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute (another P word).  

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