Sponging Away at the 21st Century

30 May

On Florida’s West coast, somewhere between Tampa Bay and the panhandle, you’ll find the town of Tarpon Springs. I suppose I could be more specific but this little self-identified ‘village’ has such a distinctly odd, dream-like feel to it that it seems a disservice to nail it onto any map that isn’t decorated with sea serpents. In trying to describe the place I keep coming back to a definition I once read of “uncanny.” It went something like this: a thing which is uncanny so closely resembles reality that we are able to tell it apart only instinctively. A life-like latex hand may be uncanny because it seems human, ‘real’ so to speak, yet a touch immediately reveals its counterfeit nature The uncanny differs from the merely strange because of this duplicity of being (or appearing) only-just-not-real. After a few staggeringly hot May days wandering the streets, I can find no better way to explain Tarpon Springs.
Coming up the Anclote river from the Gulf coast Tarpon Springs looks like any other sleepy American fishing town. It is ‘frozen in time’ (or at least would like you to believe so), caught somewhere between past prosperity and modern decline and now dangling awkwardly from the all-to-visible marionette strings of the tourist industry. There are the fishing boats- all rusted steel and crumbling wood with names like ‘Carol Jean’ and (a personal favorite) ‘Iron Maiden’, this one painted in hair-metal font and all. Then there are the “fishing boats” clean, airy things with colorful new paintjobs and a suspicions lack of apparatus.

I’ll let you decide what sort of fishing the ‘Tarpon Springs’ does

Despite appearances, all is not hunky dory today. For miles we’ve been motoring through the rainbow eddies of a massive diesel slick and on passing the fuel deck we find its source. Surrounded by bright yellow oil booms which don’t seem to be doing much good is the burned-out hulk of a wooden fishing boat. It’s a harsh reminder of the realities of personal and ecological ruin which plague only one of Tarpon Springs’ “fishing” industries.

A little further is the main harbor where we eventually anchored, running aground only once (in my defense, I was still in the channel). Ashore, we made a beeline for the nearest bar, the Bridge Lounge where we met some of the local characters, a couple of dentally-challenged guys named Dog (Dawg?) and Duck who claimed to live under the bridge from which the lounge had taken its name. I played Dog, who mistook the 8-ball for the 9 and sank it on his second shot, while Duck told us a story which doesn’t really need repeating about their ex-wife (note the singular, which was the point of the story).  I suppose that given the look of the Bridge Lounge and the hour we were in there I would have been surprised not to meet these guys, but all the same the place sort of set the tone for our sojourn in Tarpon Springs.
It was when we left the bar and started exploring the town that things got weird. First off, we saw this guy:

Shortly after we met his twins. Then this guy:

Apparently the fishing which is Tarpon Spring’s claim to fame is Sponge Fishing, as in that odd-looking loofah you might find in a store for pointlessly expensive things, or dangling limply from certain showerheads. Each of these guys is a Tarpon Springs Sponge Diver and, not surprisingly, he’s trying to sell you something, usually a sponge or two.
He’s also meant to be Greek (note the ‘stash? I guess it’s a Greek thing, as all the 2-D sponge divers in town were sporting them). That’s the other thing about Tarpon Springs. Friends who had passed through told us to look for a great Greek restaurant. They couldn’t remember the name but said it would be easy to find on the main road. Seems reasonable, right? Except that this little town in West Florida probably has more Greek restaurants per square mile than any other place in America.

Tarpon Springs’ Greek Orthodox Church

The story goes like this. In the first years of the twentieth century, long before the advent of Brillo, a Greek sponge magnate named John Cocoris brought the sponge trade to Tarpon Springs. He began recruiting Greek divers to work the trade and by the 1930’s Tarpon Springs had become the major sponge in the US. Like any history, this describes the place in a way that seems straightforward, even mundane. History may be charming or eccentric, but it is reasonable.
“Why!” our intrepid questioner might exclaim, “is the middle of a sleepy Florida town graced with the most stunning Orthodox Church I have ever seen?”
“Well you see”, the historian answers, “being quite devout the sponge fishermen brought their religion with them.”
IQ: “B-but how can it be that in our modern world of technicolor polyurethane an entire town can get by plucking sessile creatures from the sea floor?”
H: “Hmm, ah… Actually, it’s not so much the sponges as the concept of the sponges…”
This one gets a bit more involved, having to do with a particularly American nostalgia for immigration stories that are shrouded in just the right amount of history, a love of the ‘road trip’ and of anything purchasable which progress has rendered kitsch. It includes the factoid that Tarpon Springs actually imports most of the sponges sold on the Sponge Docks, after the local sponge populations were laid low by a particularly nasty red tide in the 1930’s. All this is in the annals of history (eg. Wikipedia) but sometimes history just isn’t enough. For instance it doesn’t quite explain the atmosphere that is Tarpon Springs. Like our latex hand, we may understand how it exists, even why it exists, but some part of our brain is still going “wait a minute, there’s something really weird going on on here, if I can just put my finger on it…”
Maybe it’s that while the Greek restaurants are actually run by Greeks, the Sponge Shops, and Sponge-Tour outfits (“See the Free Sponge Museum!”) and Spongeboat Cruise lines, the people selling this distinctly ‘Greek’ experience all seem a bit, well, Floridian. Then there’s that sign at the fanciest restaurant in town advertising a ‘Patsy Cline Dinner Night’. In the empty dining room I find a friendly maître d (this friendliness is peculiar in itself as in this place I look more like a bum than a patron, and I’m not buying anything, just asking to use the bathroom while hinting that I would love to tie up to their dock to fill my water tanks if it didn’t seem like they would charge me for it…). He tells me that they’ve “found a lady who does a wonderful [Patsy Cline] routine” and that they really hope they can “retain her for another show,” his odd manner of speaking implying a fear she might run for the hills as soon as she set foot in the place.
These things all feel odd, not-quite-real. Taken individually they can easily be quirks, as any town might have, but in the aggregate they’re hard to believe. Plus interwoven through all this are the murals.

It’s not just the town’s sponge diver mascots that bear an uncanny resemblance. Nearly every business in the ‘village’ is decorated with paintings and murals that have a certain je ne sais quoi. One of my crew has been finding working of late as a muralist and by day two we are all obsessed with these paintings. We comb the town, debating which are the best.

Finally, near the end of our stay, we get the skinny. At the place with the Free Sponge Museum we get to talking boats with a midwestern transplant to Tarpon Springs and later find ourselves drinking beer with her and her partner at what I can only describe as a Tiki Bar (the Tiki Bar, I am chagrined to learn, is a Florida staple). They tell us about Painter Mike.

Known around the village, Painter Mike is a local guy of rather dubious celebrity. Apparently, he has gained his status as the painter to turn to in part from his skill with the brush and in part because people know that he’s an easy-going worker. Here our host pauses and says, with no little tact, “Mark, well, he’s not exactly the fastest worker, and some days he doesn’t show up at all, but he doesn’t need much. As long as he can finish the day with enough to buy a couple beers and a pack of cigarettes, he’s a happy guy.” There is, of course, some variation is his work and in its reception.

We learn that the folks who commissioned this one are not very happy. They claim it doesn’t help the business. Our mutual favorite though is one at the Agora Food Market. It’s a picture of Mark and our host enjoying an evening drink on the waterfront which appears to have been done in a mix of paint and ballpoint pen:

It’s particular charm is that as a glance it is hard to tell what the connection is with the business whose wall it appears on, and who presumably paid for it. Eventually, we find it. Look closely on the side of that pink building in the upper left corner, and you will see, also in what looks like ballpoint pen: “Agora Food Mart”
Later on, we meet Mark exactly where we’re told we’ll find him, in the Eagle’s Nest Lounge. Unfortunately, he’s plastered and displays a fair bit less tact than the man who described him and when my muralist friend ventures that they might do some work together he comes back with a pick-up line. Though we all love his work, quite genuinely, it seems tonight we’ve come a little late to meet Mark the muralist.
Here it is then, the uncanny part, the bit that sticks most in my mind. Consider that Painter Mark, this unassuming guy who may or may not show up for work, and may or may not be sober when he does, has achieved the wildest dream of many artists. He has taken a town and made it his own, instilling his unique style so deeply into the essence of the place that you cannot separate one from the other. Sure, it’s a small town but it’s an entire town! I suppose for Mark this is what evens it out, even if his pay is just a couple beers and some cigarettes, at the end of the day, in no small way, Tarpon Springs is Painter Mark.

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


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