Greetings from Florida

By staff December 1, 2002

I blame eBay.

I mean, sure I love souvenirs. Who doesn't?

But then it got weird.

As a kid I remember riding down I-95 on family vacation, face pasted to the window as we passed 200 miles of billboards for South of the Border, bugging the folks until they were ready to claw their eyes to stop and buy me a bag of official Mexican jumping beans.

That's where it starts, when you're young. It's rooted in the psyche, something to do with memory and emotion. We need to bring back a piece of a distant place to remind us of the good times. It's a simple equation for happiness: We came, we saw, we bought crap.

Since I grew up in Florida, most of my childhood mementos have alligators and oranges and dolphins on them. I still have a felt pennant of Cape Kennedy, before they changed the name back to Canaveral, the exact sort of thing that brings big bucks on eBay.

And that's where the trouble began. I used to have my stuff organized in a single sentimental "Florida" box. Then I went online. All the treasures I discovered encouraged me to seek out more items in person during my travels, which spurred me to get back online until it became a vicious circle. The first Ybor City cigar box soon overflowed into a second, and a third, and a fourth, until I had a whole collection of collections, each box holding a different kind of item, like:

Matchbooks: The Breakers, the Biltmore, the Clewiston Inn, Dolphin Bar, Half Moon Beach Club, the Don CeSar, Boot Hill Saloon, Conchy Joe's, Sloppy Joe's, Palma Ceia Country Club, the Riviera Beach Crab Pot, Ron Jon Surf Shop, Cocoa Beach Pier, the Flora-Bama Lounge, the News Café, the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, the No Name Pub, Sugar Loaf Lodge.

The reason eBay was so addictive is this: I love traveling around Florida, and of course I love souvenirs. But all the new stuff in the gift shops is, well, new. I'm standing there pawing through a spinning keepsake display at Disney-MGM, and I'm thinking I'd love to buy the stuff, but I just can't get with an Aerosmith Rollercoaster collector's pin. Just doesn't say "Florida" to me.

What I'm looking for are the souvenirs of Old Florida, stuff I remember from my childhood that I no longer have or that my parents, in their wisdom, refused to buy in the first place. Where did it all go? I imagine a trove of trinkets lost down the back seat crack of the Rambler we sold in '66.

Once in a while I'd find one of these great old touchstones, like the citrus sipper. Remember those things? Great concept, awful design. A little plastic mouthpiece you stab into an orange, so you can squeeze the juice all over your shirt and pants. I have a hazy memory of my folks only letting me use it if I was wearing swim trunks and standing in the ocean.

But great finds like the sipper were few and few between. Enter the Internet.

Now I know what you're thinking about the Internet. Isn't it just used for porn?

That's what I thought, too. But then I found something a few years back called eBay.

I'm a journalist by trade, having worked in newspapers for 16 years, and the Internet was supposed to immediately revolutionize the way reporters did their joba. But a couple years came and went and still nothing. It wasn't until eBay debuted that the dramatic impact was felt, and male and female reporters alike began spending half their shifts tracking auctions for neon beer signs and Baby Gap clothes until the publisher put up a firewall.

Me? One day I typed the keywords "Florida" and "souvenir" into the search engine, and all bets were off. This is my idea of what heroin is like. My entire existence consumed by looking for ways to get money to score.

Here are what my recent computer searches have brought up: conch shell lamp, handkerchief with Florida map, various little spoons like you'd find at Starvin' Marvin, souvenir orange (made of wood), ceramic flamingo spoon rest, snow globe with dolphins on teeter-totter, tropical nativity scene made of driftwood, painted sand dollars, coconut penny bank, shot glasses, plates, thimbles, playing cards, ashtrays, beer steins, salt and pepper shakers and a clear toilet seat full of seashells.

Who says Florida isn't old enough to have culture?

Buttons: Myakka River State Park, Miami Vice, Tampa Tribune 100-year anniversary, "I climbed the St. Augustine Lighthouse," "I saw the Columbia launched," "Jimmy Buffet for President."

So here's essentially where I am now. I've devised a methodology for successful souvenir gathering so that my hobby follows a disciplined pattern, which distinguishes me from all the geeks.

The first rule is the cheaper the item the better (free if possible); it places more emphasis on sentimentality. These items are usually acquired on location: matchbooks, cardboard coasters, ticket stubs, menus, postcards.

The second rule: Resist spending money in person and check eBay when you get home.

It's an easy choice. I can buy new stuff from the gift shop when I'm at an attraction, or I can go online and purchase vintage items circa my childhood or older. Instead of buying contemporary postcards, I've been able to pick up postcards from the '50s and '60s showing how an attraction used to look back when I first visited it.

I've got a Miami Seaquarium postcard from back when they still had a retro-futuristic monorail (before Disney made them quaint) full of Ozzie and Harriet families. I have a postcard of the corner drugstore in my hometown of Riviera Beach (giant bottle of Coppertone on the roof), an old church in my hometown (my bus stop in fourth grade), and a postcard of the local drawbridge that I used to fish off (also in fifth grade) before they tore it down in favor of one of those tall gleaming arches that now connect too many of the barrier islands.

I have an exterior shot of a popular old local hotel, now in disrepair, and a black-and-white interior shot of the packed lounge of the same hotel in the 1940s. I have street scenes of Key West and Miami Beach, where the cars have giant tail fins and the people ridiculous lapels. I have shots inside old stores and restaurants, where it's the unexpected little things that evoke childhood sensations of old Florida, like terrazzo.

Ticket stubs: Buccaneers, Devil Rays, Lightning, Daytona USA, Rolling Stones at the Ice Palace, WWF "Raw is War" at the Ice Palace, 1975 Disney "E" ticket, 1997 Florida Marlins World Series (autographed by Dave Barry, whom I accosted in the liquor line).

But the real coups are the View Master sets, where the funk is in 3-D. Now those were the days. Most of the sets have the obligatory shot of a model from the pre-anorexic period standing in an orange grove, smiling and gesturing up at a piece of hanging fruit. Why they wore swimsuits in orange groves back then I do not know. ... I've got the "Flipper" set, the Seaquarium set, Cypress Gardens, Weeki Wachee, Busch Gardens, and the Citrus Tower up in Clermont, back before the interstates, when the tower on Highway 27 was a top-shelf Florida roadside attraction-- and was actually surrounded by citrus groves instead of housing developments.

When I ordered that last set for about $10, I had no idea how they could have squeezed three reels of photos out of the Citrus Tower, but they did it. There are shots of the Citrus Tower from every conceivable angle, day and night, from the observation deck in every direction, plus pictures inside the restaurant and the gift shop, photos of fruit baskets, glass figurines, a pile of hats, a stuffed alligator, and a final photo of some woman playing an organ in the lobby. You're not going to find a treasure like this today in any pavilion kiosk.

Pins: Sea World, Bahia Mar Marina (Travis McGee), Miccosukee Indian village, Gulfstream Horse Track, Tampa Jai-Alai, Edison House, Conch Republic, Pier 66, Super Bowls XXV and XXXV, 75th Anniversary of Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach Bike Week, Salvador Dali Museum, Myakka River State Park, State Capitol in Tallahassee, Flagler Museum, Silver Springs.

Silver Springs was an interesting purchase. I was coming through Ocala on a book tour and stopped at the attraction but balked at the $31 ticket price. So I asked if I could just go in the gift shop and buy something. They asked for my driver's license and said if I wasn't back in 20 minutes, it would cost me a full ticket price to get my license back.

I had been willing to stand by word of honor before they came up with that license business, but what's fair is fair. If they're not going to trust me, then I'm not to be trusted. I got out my camera and set the timer on my watch. Then I took off through the entrance and ran a complete circuit around the park, taking in the whole attraction in 15 minutes, snapping pictures along the way until I arrived at the gift shop, where I bought a pin in three minutes and arrived back at the ticket booth with two minutes to spare. I retrieved my license and walked off smiling, having just made $31 for only 18 minutes of work.

Patches: Castillo De San Marcos, St. Petersburg Pier, Marineland, Dade Battlefield Memorial, Vero Beach Fire Department, Pigeon Key, Looe Key Dive Center.

Then there's a very special sub-collection. I call it The Godfather collection. I have a friend who lives near Sarasota named Paul Thayer who knew the late John D. MacDonald and has a number of his possessions picked up at the estate sale. Each Christmas he surprises me with one. I have a delightfully horrible furry tie from the age of leisure suits worn by the creator of Travis McGee himself, and a yacht pennant that flew on one of his boats, and, my favorite of all, a rock paperweight from the '70s painted with little daisies around the word "sh-t."

Try to find that on eBay.

The "sh-t rock," as I call it, along with all the other sentimental detritus, can be viewed online at my Web site, The Web site was designed to publicize my series of Florida crime-comedy novels. The knickknacks are located on a page dedicated to the serial killer in my books who, among other things, is obsessed with collecting Florida souvenirs. You might want to remember that next time you try to cut me off in traffic.

Miscellaneous: A complete collection of National Geographics with Florida articles starting in 1927, Seven-Mile Bridge lighter, Hemingway House coin, Gasparilla doubloon, space shuttle coasters, Alligator Alley keychain, Everglades 3-cent postage stamp, Yeehaw Junction swizzle stick, giant Venice shark tooth, Seminole Indian poker chip, Cabbage Key coffee mug, Hotel Algiers ashtray, Miami Seaquarium plastic dolphin.

When I was four, I went with my family to the Seaquarium. I remember my mother dropping a quarter in a slot and holding me up to this glass dome that lets you watch an injection-molding machine make a little plastic dolphin that drops down a chute and into a tray where you can pick it up and burn your hands. The dolphin I got that day back in 1965 was a small white dolphin. Carved in its base: "Carolina Snowball." This was the famous albino dolphin that was the Seaquarium's huge draw back in the early '60s, before she died in captivity and was later all but forgotten. But, staring through that glass bubble in awe, the memory of the rare dolphin was permanently etched in my four-year-old brain.

Last year, when my oldest daughter turned four, I took her to the Seaquarium. Of course I had to take her to the injection-molding machines. Except today they're all killer whales and dinosaurs and stuff. No, I said to myself, it has to be a dolphin. I held my daughter's hand as we worked our way down the row of vending machines until we came to one with a dolphin. I slid a dollar bill in the slot and held her up to the glass dome. She watched in wide-eyed awe as the plastic dolphin fell into the chute.

She held it up to me.

"Look, daddy. She's cute."

I read the base of the plastic souvenir and got goose bumps. "Carolina Snowball." Somehow this ancient machine had slipped through the cracks and never been replaced, because they definitely were making new ones-or else they were still advertising a dolphin that nobody at the park probably even remembers. It was an incredibly tender and overwhelming moment as I stared down at the plastic dolphin in my daughter's hand.

"Give it!"


"It's mine!"


"Sorry. I lost my head."

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