Hitting a few spots in my hometown with an old friend. Sarasota’s not the easiest town for the young and laterally mobile, but we do our best.
Occupation: Musician, Singer/Songwriter
You can find her: Wherever fine records are sold, singing with her band Hurray For the Riff Raff.
I guess it made sense that the one-man band who insisted on banging out every Jimmy Buffett and Led Zeppelin cover he could think of, buffering each one with a thick dose of vaguely misogynistic audience banter, would have been set up across the street from the tchotchke shop where I bought a sand dollar for the dashboard of my truck. This is a thick slice of the Florida I know. The repetitive, manicured, safely packaged Paradise they sell to anyone who will swallow it whole.
There’s a part of me that loves the tchotchke shops. The postcards. The snow globes and sea shells. The stuffed manatees for the kiddies snuggled up next to the wall of sunscreen.
But this guy on stage. This guy makes me miss New Orleans.
“I hope you’re paying attention,” I tell Alynda. “You could use this in your act.”
When I first met Alynda, she was working in a New Orleans coffee shop I liked to write in. When she wasn’t there, she played banjo on the street and sang with one of the most unique and powerful voices I’d ever heard. I was already overwhelmed by the talent level in the city. It was just two years after the event everyone referred to as “the storm,” and you could hear music pushing its way through the windows and into the streets like flowers bursting out of a concrete floor. There was a determination in the air to make the walls sing again. There were people taking the old stones and rebuilding the temple.
Alynda was one of those people. Maybe I was, too. I hope so. Both of us recognize how lucky we were to be there for that impossible moment. I always said that I envied my father for being in San Francisco in the 60’s, and my grandfather for being in New York in the 30’s and 40’s. I always wondered what it must have been like to be in a place like that, where everything was exploding in a million directions. Now, I think I know.
So it’s strange, years down the road from that launching pad, to sit here in the town where I grew up, and where Alynda spent a large chunk of her childhood, looking out over an unfamiliar scene on a beach and talking about the next phase of our lives like a couple of grown ass adults, while in the background the guitar man groans painfully through a Van Morrison cover. You already know which one.
I’m not going to mention the name of this place, because it was awful. I used to eat burgers and drink chocolate milkshakes there when I was a kid, but everything’s different now. Even the beach, which used to begin right at the outdoor tables, now extends a few hundred yards past the umbrellas and the mediocre food. The design of the place is completely different than 30 years ago. Only the name is familiar.
Some things stay the same in Florida. Many don’t. But it’s still my hometown.
Oysters and palm trees with Christmas lights. It’s the holidays in Florida.
Alynda spent a lot of time in this town as a kid, and our paths often intersect around the holidays. Sarasota shaped me, right down to my complicated attitude toward rapid, massive change. It’s given me a fierce romanticism about those places that stay pretty much the same while everything around them flips inside out and back again.
The Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar, which I wrote about a few months ago, is such a place. There are parts of it that weren’t there when I was a kid, but it still sits snugly on a quiet little waterway just off the non-stop traffic flow of U.S. 41, and it still serves much the same menu as it did when I went to school just up the road. Alynda had never been there before, so we stopped in for oysters and key lime pie, with the place packed and the evening fading out.
We talked about Nashville, Alynda’s new home. There’s a peace there that doesn’t always come through in New Orleans. Whatever else the city of New Orleans is, it’s a chaotic thing much of the time, and attempting to navigate that and stay sane can be a challenge. Almost everyone I know who lives there had to move away at some point. Many of those who have dug their heels in still have to get out for a few weeks, even a few months out of the year—a category I definitely still fall into.
Maybe the idea of home is a malleable thing for our generation. The world, in digitized form, is available at our fingertips. Perhaps it’s only natural that we keep reaching out and looking elsewhere for…something. I don’t think it’s because we expect to find home elsewhere, but because we expect to find another piece of ourselves there.
My hometown looks very different from the place I remember as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in have shifted, and the house I lived in the longest has been bulldozed. That happens, and I’ve accepted it. Though I do wonder at what point, in my mind, does my hometown become Theseus’ Ship? I wondered that recently when I passed through Dayton, Ohio, a town that much of my family was born in, and that many family members are buried in, but a town that no longer houses any of my living relatives.
Maybe it’s the memories of a place that keep the continuity for us. But I don’t think so. I think it’s about the people, the crew of that ship that keeps my connection to it alive. And there are few people in my life, not in my immediate family, with whom I go back further than Ray and D’Arcy Arpke, owners of the great Longboat Key establishment Euphemia Haye.
D’Arcy Arpke with my sister, Alex. All these years later.
Alynda and I met my sister and her boyfriend at the restaurant where Ray and D’Arcy have been in business for 35 years. They took over the place right about the time my family first moved to Longboat Key, and within a couple years we were living just a few doors down from them, going to school with their daughter Kate (who now lives a few miles from my sister in Los Angeles).
Today, the place has evolved from a 28 seat hole in the wall into a two story place that celebrities eat at on their way through town. It’s yet another piece of my childhood that I can reach out to grab. I have Ray’s cookbook sitting on a shelf at my house. If I dig through my dad’s photos, I can find photos of us all together, the Arpkes, my parents, my sister and myself, a long time ago.
Musicians playing in the Haye Loft, the upstairs portion of the restaurant.
There were two excellent musicians playing upstairs while we sat there, and Ray broke out a bottle of wine and the right number of glasses for us all to gather around and share memories. I’ve started to view the act of returning to where I came from as going to a high vantage point to look back over the path my life has taken. And from up here, things look all right.
A few years from now, I’ll take another look from up here. Alynda, I’m sure, will still be making music. My sister will still be working in television. Ray and D’Arcy will still be running this restaurant. And, with a little luck, I’ll be telling their stories here, or somewhere like it, for a long time to come.
Euphemia Haye Restaurant is located at 5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive in Longboat Key, Florida. They have a website right here.
The Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar is located at 5353 S. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. Their website is here.
Kate, Ray and D’Arcy’s daughter, has a terrific blog about living the mobile home life. It’s called Massive Tiny Dreams, and you should go see it here.
Alynda’s band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, has a new album out called Small Town Heroes. They are playing Carnegie Hall on January 29. Below is the official music video for their song “The Body Electric.”