PALATKA—It’s early morning in Florida. There are billions of crickets singing. I am overlooking the Saint Johns River, which cuts straight through Putnam County, and it’s hypnotizing.
If you were to ask what I am thinking about right now, I would tell you flat out: I am thinking of taco dip.
This is because I am a man. Men don’t think complex thoughts. We think painfully simple things. If you could peek inside a grown male’s head, it would shock you. You would find nothing but cobwebs, empty potato-chip bags, and Dale Earnhardt posters.
There is a bass boat out this morning. A man teaches his son to hold a rod. The kid tries to cast, but can’t get the hang of it.
Behind me is a narrow mainstreet, lined with storefronts, a bingo parlor, some gift shops, street lamps. Five or six steeples pepper the skyline.
There’s Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest dining railcar. Their burger is a spiritual experience on a bun. That’s not just my opinion, Billy Graham once ate it and felt the same way.
Speaking of Billy Graham, he preached his first sermons in these parts. He was a nineteen-year-old when he was baptized and ordained here.
They say the tall skinny kid with the oiled hair could be heard shouting in the woods near Silver Lake. He would holler sermons at a specific pine stump for practice. Years later, I understand the stump finally repented.
Young Billy went on to preach in local country churches and shout to roomfuls of people who fanned themselves with paper bulletins.
It all started right here.
Just down the road is Saint Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. It’s got more history than you can shake a taco at.
Though, today Saint Augustine is more of a tourist attraction. The last time I was there, a man wearing a banana suit approached me on the street and asked if I wanted to play putt-putt golf for half price.
Then he offered to sell me a Rolex for ten bucks. What could I do?
The watch lasted a week.
Palatka is nothing like that. This is a sleepy American town where old men gather at Bradley’s restaurant to drink coffee until noon and flirt with the waitresses.
You can buy jars of honey from a roadside stand using the honor system. You can get your hair “did” in a salon where the ladies inside probably graduated together.
You can attend a cookout at someone’s house, even though you’re the new kid in town. Like me.
I went to one such party last night. The shindig featured Palatka’s main players.
On the outdoor patio, tucked in the woods, was a group of men with white hair, telling lies to each other. They sipped from plastic cups. Others spit into them. The crickets were deafening.
I wish you could have been there, all you would have heard were bursts of laughter, interrupted by sips from SOLO cups.
The food was exquisite. The buffet featured the greatest hits of Southern fare. Deviled eggs, ham, pound cake, you name it.
But there was one dish in particular that moved me. The dish was called taco dip. I don’t know what was in it, but when I ate it I heard classical music.
The night went on. I kept eating the taco dip. The old men kept telling stories.
I don’t know how I fell in with these people in Palatka. This is my third time visiting town, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think I belong here.
The older I get, the harder it is to find a place to belong. And it’s even more difficult in this day and age to find people who don’t want to one-up you. But things are different here. People are different.
“That’s just how we are,” said one man. “In Palatka, once we love you, we love you.”
Somewhere in the world, a corporation is building a new shopping complex. Another grocery store, another Walmart, another Bonefish Grill. Do we really need another Best Buy?
Another year passes; another young family leaves their small hometown in search of a Starbucks. Another bulldozer takes down another baseball diamond. A historic building gets demolished and replaced with a Home Depot. Another entrepreneur publishes another real estate magazine.
But here in Palatka, people still get together for barbecues. Old men still call each other by nicknames like “Mole,” “Weasel,” “Tank,” or “Doc.” Fathers still teach sons to fish in the early morning.
The man in the boat trolls toward the bank. I see the boy, holding his rod. I hear the screaming reel.
The kid pulls in a fish. The father says something to the kid. I can’t hear the father’s words from where I sit, but I hear his body language. He’s nothing but happy.
The boat fires its motor. It disappears into the dark. And the crickets sing a farewell chorus that would make old Billy proud.
I have got to learn how to make that taco dip.