Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. Chatterbox's Guide to Living in Sarasota

Newcomers, take notes.

By Robert Plunket January 24, 2019 Published in the February 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Hello, Sarasota!

Image: Shutterstock

Congratulations! You’ve just moved to Sarasota. Maybe you bought one of those fancy new condos downtown. Or maybe a house in Lakewood Ranch. It’s exciting, isn’t it? A wonderful new hometown to explore and settle into.

Is there anything you should know before you start your Sarasota lifestyle? Well, yes, in fact, there is. I’ve been here 35 years and here’s what I tell newcomers.

First of all, don’t unpack your boxes quite yet. Chances are you’ll be moving again soon. Sarasota may be unique in the world for the number of times its residents move. We move from the keys to the mainland. We move from a condo to a house. We move to be closer to the country club. We move to be farther away from University Parkway. We move when we come across a house nicer than the one we just bought. We move because the flight path is right over our pool. We move because our neighbors are too conservative—or too liberal.

So don’t fight it. We’re movers. (And after a certain age, shakers as well.) This is not a sign of failure in Sarasota. It is not buyers’ remorse. It’s just what we do. The important thing to remember is to confine all your moves to the greater Sarasota area. Once you move here, you stay here. Nobody moves out of Sarasota unless they’re being driven out of town. 

Say good-bye to the beach. Chances are that’s one of the main reasons you’re here. In your future Sarasota fantasy life you’ll be packing up your cooler daily, gathering your beach chair and that colorful towel you bought on the Circle, and heading to one of our famous white sand beaches for a blissful day of total vacation-like relaxing. Well, it ain’t gonna happen. You’ll find you go less and less. The town’s full of much more interesting things to do than sitting still all day staring at some water, no matter what a pretty shade of blue it is.

The beach gradually becomes like the Empire State Building for New Yorkers. You glance at it once in a while and you’re glad it’s there because of the prestige it brings the town. But it’s strictly for tourists. The real tragedy is that it ruins beach vacations forever. What’s the point of going to Saint John, Cancun or the Seychelles when we have just as good a beach here? That’s the terrible paradox of Sarasota—you move here because you love the beach. And within a year or so you’re not only indifferent to it, you’re indifferent to any beach. 

Explore Florida. You now live in the most unusual state in the Union. It’s full of things the other 49 can only dream of. Get out there and sample the tropical delights. Go to Key West and wander Duval Street with a Planters Punch in hand. Ogle the mansions of Palm Beach. Go antiquing in Mount Dora. Just don’t go to Tampa or Orlando.

When I first moved here I thought I’d be going to Tampa all the time. After all, it’s the 11th largest city in the country and it’s only 50 miles away. Wouldn’t it have fabulous restaurants, stimulating cultural events, world-class museums and a sophisticated intellectual community?

Now I find that years pass without my entering the city limits. It turns out to be the sort of place that, a thousand years from now, archaeologists will describe as “a large commercial center of no particular importance.” Its innermost soul revolves around sports teams and the military. Its local celebrities are all men with a whiff of sexual scandal—General Petraeus, Hulk Hogan, Bubba the Love Sponge, and the guy who invented the nudie bar and then ran for mayor. Although I must say, Tampa is where I bumped into Queen Elizabeth. She was bestowing a knighthood on Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. When Sir Norman got up off his knees, she turned to the crowd and in her eyes, I could detect a desperate plea: “Get me out of here.”

Aside from meeting the Queen, there are exactly three reasons for a Sarasotan to make the trip to Tampa. They are:

—The airport. Sometimes you can get a cheaper fare or better connection.

—Ikea. You might need new cabinets for the laundry room and they have a good selection at excellent prices.

America’s Got Talent auditions. They only hold them in big cities, so if you think your marimba act has a chance, you’ll have to drive up to find out.

If Tampa isn’t really worth the trip, wait until you get a load of Orlando. It’s the anti-Sarasota: loud, crowded, mass market, overpriced and painful to visit. They should pay Sarasotans to come, just to class up the place.

Orlando has one insurmountable problem: As the world’s most popular vacation spot, it is clogged with traffic. And it’s not just volume. The world is there for a vacation, and this means you get bad drivers from all over the planet, all in the same place, each displaying the worst driving habits of his or her country, driving rental cars they’re unfamiliar with. The city seal should contain a picture of a rear-end collision.

Well, enough gloom and doom.

Let's make friends. You probably know very few people; after all, you just moved here. But you have this great new home you want to show it off. The realtor kept telling you how great it was for entertaining. So where do you meet people?

The conventional answer is “volunteering.” I’m sure this works for some people. Every time I volunteer, though, I always get stuck cleaning out kennels or making cold calls to complete strangers, begging for money. To avoid this fate, I suggest you look to politics.

Politics is not only the most exciting thing going at the moment, it’s a great way to make friends quickly. You’re bound by a common philosophy with the other people, with plenty to talk about, often with great passion.

You don’t have to work on a campaign. Just show up at the regular meetings of the Republicans or the Democrats. Either one will do. You’ll find that Democrats in Sarasota are refined and genteel, fun to be with, well-dressed and trying to do good. The Republicans are a little rougher around the edges, self-made, self-disciplined and trying to make money.

In fact, at the last Republican meeting I went to, I got three different money-making ideas just eavesdropping during the social hour. The first was to build a gated community with paired villas. The second was, if the community turns out to be a bust, turn it into a prison and lease it to the government. The third was grow hemp.

If you can’t decide which party to join, do what I do—go to both until something clicks. Another thing I’ve discovered about local politics—a $100 donation during a campaign will open many social doors. A $500 donation means a lot of important people will want to be your best friend. A $1,000 donation and they’ll want you to run for the county commission.

So, I hope all this helps. With any luck, by this time next year you will have turned into a real Sarasotan. You will have mastered the correct pronunciation of “Ca’ d’Zan.” You will have learned the hard way never go to Longboat on a sunny Sunday afternoon. And when you see a palmetto bug on the kitchen counter, you’ll just shrug and say, “Well, that’s Florida.” 

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