Catching Class Consciousness by Daniel Beugnet The riverfront at by lifemate


									                              Catching Class Consciousness
                                   by: Daniel Beugnet

         The riverfront at which my Florida hometown's main street terminates taught me
much of what I know that's useful. That crumbling shell of a commercial fishing and
shipping district provided the context for lessons about relationships between individuals,
between classes, and between people and the earth's natural environment. By age twelve,
I'd gained a sage wisdom about the tenuous relationships between people who must rely
on each other and on the earth that sustains them.
         At age four, I remember weekend journeys from my grandmother's tiny white
ranch house, where my mother and I also lived, 'down to the waterfront.' We'd travel the
slight, small-town blocks down Atlantic Avenue, west past cookie-cutter homes built for
paper mill laborers in the 40's and 50's- 20th Street, 19th, 18th. Past the home where my
mother was raised on 17th, its yard sporting giant slash pines, filched from the mill's
forestry division, meticulously planted in one neat little row. Past more bungalows on
16th, 15th, to the swinging four-sided traffic light hanging from a power line at 14th.
Past a ball field we like to call Central Park. By 12th I hear the tambourines clanging at
the Missionary Baptist Church on 10th, and it's not long before I see parishioners piously
filing into the Episcopal church that looks like a shrimp boat blown off the water and
turned upside-down. Then, the commercial district comes into view, displaying the
remains of 19th-century Victorian storefronts, all bedecked in vintage 1975 plate glass
and sheet metal facades, nestled within ornate hand-carved frames. And, that goes on
from 6th through 2nd, to Front Street, which borders the waterfront.
         We'd park anywhere, the banks of the river little more than a cracked and
crumbling blacktop parking lot. Then, we'd step onto the dry-rotten planks of a former
commercial shipping dock, circa 1870, no longer in use, unless you count the locals who
leaned on its railings, fishing rods in hand, gazing across the wide St. Mary's into
Georgia. Most of the land across the river is forested, depending on your definition of
forest. Its banks boast row upon row of brittle, anemic-looking slash pine, planted for
harvest by the paper companies. To our right and left and before us in Georgia lies the
destiny of those slash-pine faux-forests. Three paper mills belch sulfur from their stacks,
processing pulverized trees into bleached-white copy paper, corrugated cardboard, and
industrial pulp that goes into anything from paper products to popsicles. The odor from
the plants' emissions is unmistakable. It burns the sinuses on some days. But, we're used
to it and we don't take notice. In the foreground to our right, before the mill, is a small
seaport, hoisting multi-colored containers off barges flying unfamiliar flags, loading more
containers onto freight trains that amble behind us occasionally. Still closer is the
impressive fleet of shrimp boats, tied to docks forever growing worse-for-wear,
extending from ramshackle fish markets that offer cash daily for the shrimper's catch.
         1980's Fernandina Beach is not beautiful. 'Quaint,' 'homey,' maybe. But it is not
         Behind me and to the left is a relic of an age gone by, from Florida's post-war
development wave. With all its competition, from the would-be attractive Victorian
storefronts with their cheap facades to the billowing stacks of the paper mills to the
riverfront that is a parking lot, this is, by far, the tackiest thing in Fernandina. A giant
teepee. It soars to the height of a three-floor building. Fiberglass. Painted flat green and
blue. Multi-sided with multiple entrances. It is a monstrosity. It is the Florida Marine
Welcome Station.
         In the 1950's, Florida anticipated the wave of tourism that would transform the
state. During the post-war expansion, families packed up their vessel-sized Chevrolets
and set sail for Florida. They came by the millions. Someone surmised that visitors
might also buy real boats and set sail for Florida on the water. So, if we build welcome
stations on the interstates, why not have one on the state's flagship marina as well; that
way the state wouldn't miss telling every visitor about all the diverse ways they could
blow their money in Florida. Enter the giant teepee.
         The marine welcome station lasted some thirty years, offering all who stopped in
little paper cups of orange juice, courtesy of the Florida taxpayer. There were also
countless stacks of glossy, full-color brochures, and plenty of chitchat from bored
employees. I think mostly locals stopped there, for the free juice, and maybe a little
gossip with the staff. And, we certainly never missed an opportunity to do just that.
         I loved those trips to the riverfront. But, they ended when I was six. My mother
found an apartment just as I was starting school and embarked upon single parenthood in
the truest sense. Visits to the waterfront became infrequent at best. And, fiscal
conservatives in Tallahassee got wise to the sparse traffic at the teepee and they
demolished it in short order. For another few years, the awkward hexagonal foundation
lay amid the deteriorating parking lot.
         Finally, around 1990, local investors with an eye to improve the waterfront saw
potential in the vacant lot encapsulated by paper mills and fish markets. Looking to rise
above the district's tarnished past, they constructed something that would forever eclipse
the legacy of the giant teepee. A great, gray, fortress-like place resembling a very bizarre
riverboat took shape within a year. The front entrance rests atop the remains of the
teepee and then spans westward, ignoring the natural boundary between land and sea,
perching its helm atop the water, suspended upon cement pilings of some girth. Even at
low tide, it looks as though it awaits orders to cast off, leaving its port-of-call for fairer
waters, far from the mill stacks and the cargo containers, each of which larger than the
restaurant itself.
         I started going back to the waterfront when I was eleven and old enough to make
my trips alone. I rediscovered the waterfront during the scorching one hundred-degree
heat of midday summer. That summer I discovered fishing, the past time that would
consume much of my childhood. Each morning, I'd wake early, throw on the same
sweaty T-shirt I'd worn the day before, grab my pole and tackle, and hop on my flat black
spray-painted beach cruiser, peddling away to the waterfront. On the way I'd stop by a
local fish market to buy a sack of yesterday's shrimp for bait. When I'd arrive at the
rotten planks of the old dock, the place would be deserted, except for a handful of wait
staff at the new restaurant, now not a dozen feet away from where I stood, the same place
I'd stood at age four. I'm all business as I bait my hook and cast my line. As I look to my
right, I think of the place when I was four. There are fewer shrimp boats now, revealing
more of the port and the mill.
         Often during the day I'm joined by friends my age, my earliest fishing buddies.
We talk and laugh, loudly as young boys do, getting excited when we reel in bony
creatures almost too small to eat, all the while unintentionally inciting the ire of the
restaurateurs inside the big, beached riverboat adjacent to us. We probably draw stares
from diners miffed by having their river views obscured not only by paper mills but also
by local pre-pubescent rednecks engaging in their simple pleasures.
         There is little doubt we were bad for business. In one particular moment of
intense excitement, I once slung a remarkably large fish onto the dry rotten planks behind
me, narrowly missing an elderly woman trying to get a view of the river. Her husband
glared at me through narrowed eyes and they went in to have their lunch on the far side of
the restaurant, choosing a view of a paper mill over a view of a river sullied by the
spectacle of dirty little local kids. The outcome was inevitable.
         One morning, without warning, I arrived at the waterfront, fishing gear in hand, to
find a stark notice. Placed at an 11-year-old's eye level, it read simply,
unappologetically, on a white plank with red lettering- "NO FISHING."
         I returned home slowly, ambling along, deflated, but not angry. I was confused
that something so simple as fishing in that spot where people had fished for all of my
short life was now criminal.
         Once at home I told my mother what had happened. She offered much needed
words of consolation but no solutions. Later that day, I went to my grandmother,
confiding in her my great dilemma. She suggested I write a letter to the mayor. I wrote
my complaint in eleven-year-old terms. I chicken-pecked my words on an ancient Smith-
Corona typewriter with a fading black ribbon. My grandmother gave me a quarter and I
biked down to the post office and mailed it that day. A week later, having forgotten
about the whole thing entirely, resigning myself to sleeping in and watching daytime re-
runs, I received a response from the mayor's office. The mayor wanted to meet with me.
I raced to my grandmother's in my excitement and showed her the letter. We called the
mayor's office right then and there and we scheduled an appointment for the following
week. We would all meet at the no fishing signs.
         When we arrived, we found a well-dressed woman standing where the mayor was
supposed to be, and I was about to go up and ask if she'd seen the mayor around
anywhere when my grandmother walked up and introduced herself. To my surprise, the
mayor was indeed a woman, the first in our town's history. The mayor and my
grandmother and I talked for half an hour about fishing and school and summer vacation,
walking around the waterfront, around the spot where the old teepee stood, gaining
various vantage points for viewing the river and the mills and the boats and the big gray
restaurant that had the signs planted. As we parted, the mayor asked if I would come
speak to the city commission at their meeting the following week. I agreed.
         I prepared meticulously. I wrote a very persuasive speech with discernible
premises to support my thesis. And, I was stylized, wearing my best red T-shirt that my
mom picked out, my thick hair parted on the side in characteristic boyish southern style.
The meeting was televised on local cable access, so I was speaking to an audience that
could number in- well, maybe the dozens; still, I had to look my best.
         I delivered my message with clarity and conviction, looking up from the frayed
notebook paper to emphasize particular points. When I finished, there was an awkward
silence among the commissioners. They waited for someone to speak up and
acknowledge this kid of a voting constituent for coming that evening and staying up past
his bedtime. Finally, one commissioner cleared his throat looked up from his notebooks
and legal pads, and stated diplomatically that, "fishing is an integral part of youngsters'
lives growing up in Fernandina..." or something like that. He promised to look into it.
        I left the meeting feeling as if I'd been heard. Days later, school started and there
were no more endless days of summer to be filled with fishing. The signs eventually
came down, I don't remember when. I just stopped fishing there, as did everyone else.
We knew we weren't welcome. And, gradually I, like other locals, stopped going
downtown altogether, for the same reason.
        Eventually, I stopped fishing altogether too. I was twenty-three, living in Atlanta,
far from any 'good fishing' when I was struck with the insatiable urge to cast my line
again, far from the shrimp docks and the mills and the great gray restaurant, somewhere it
was welcome.

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