Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, the longest river in Florida. I’m sitting at the river’s edge, eating lunch, watching the seagulls beg for my bread crust.
“It’s not polite to beg,” I tell the gulls.
They simply stare at me with sad eyes because deep in their little bird hearts they know I’m right.
On the shore is an old guy, fishing. He has a white beard down to his navel. He is shirtless. He looks exactly like a Biblical prophet would look if that prophet had also been a founding member of ZZ Top.
The man waves at me. And even though I don’t know this man from Adam’s stepson, I wave back.
“How’re you today?” he says.
“I’d be a lot better if they were biting!” he says.
Then he casts.
And basically, I’ve just described Palatka in a nutshell. Friendly. Small. Nice. Lots of fishing.
Palatka proper is behind me, brilliant in the noon sun, painted with the vivid pinks of a million azaleas. The brick edifices look the way they did 150 years ago. The bell in the First Presbyterian church rings out a tune. And the town is overrun with walkers. Which I find absolutely wonderful.
You don’t see people walking much anymore. And yet that’s how America used to be. People walked everywhere. These days, however, if you walk as a means of transportation you take your life into your hands.
If you don’t believe me, just take a stroll to your local Walmart on foot. You’ll have to hop eight lanes of traffic, jog across 23 culverts, and dodge at least 450 sleep-deprived truck drivers. By the time you get to Wally World you will be out of breath, covered in mud, and suffering PTSD.
But in Palatka you still see people walking.
“You from around here?” asks ZZ Top, cranking his reel.
“No sir,” I say.
Back to fishing he goes.
The truth is, I’m not a stranger to this town. I’ve visited several times, and it’s always like today. Laid back. Nobody ever seems uppity. Nobody is ever shrill. Young people aren’t afraid to talk to you. Nobody shys away from striking up a conversation.
As I was writing this column on my laptop, for example, I spoke to six different strangers who participated conversations with me. Six.
I remember the first time I ever visited Putnam County, I had no writing career whatsoever. I breezed into this town with my friend Lanier Motes, who is from Palatka. Lanier’s family was having a party, and my wife and I were invited to partake in the festivities.
We had such a great time that I ended up falling asleep on the Motes’ coffee table wearing a lampshade for a hat.
The next morning they took me on the grand tour across rural Florida. I met men who hunted hogs on horseback. I saw campaign signs in alfalfa fields, reading ELECT GATOR FOR SHERIFF. I met old men with names like Mole, Tank, and Weasel.
I touched the roughened clapboards on the country chapel where Billy Graham first beat his King James, the same church he was baptized in.
I visited the nine-foot tall purple chicken which sits at a roadside stand in San Mateo. The chicken is locally famous for once being stolen by three young men who strapped the 600-pound statue to the back of their Chevy truck and dragged it down the road.
The chicken’s owner recalls seeing one young man riding the chicken, hollering and waving his hat around like a barrel racer. The boys were charged with grand theft, property damage, and riding a chicken on the highway without a permit.
So anyway, after that first trip to Palatka, I wrote 600 words about some of the things I just told you, then I shared them online. I didn’t really think much about it.
The next morning I received thousands of friendly emails and messages from Palatkans.
That was many years ago, and since then the emails have not stopped coming. Over the years I’ve gotten to know the people in this fine town. I’ve met the city’s worst critics and her most ardent boosters. These are good people.
In some ways these people are responsible for this writing career I find myself with.
“Hey,” says the fisherman. “Lookit! I got one!”
His rod arcs toward the water. His reel is zipping. He yanks the great fish out of the river. And after his moment of triumph, this perfect stranger says, “You want it?”
I am a little surprised by this. So I ask if he’s serious. Is he really offering me his fish?
“Of course I’m serious,” he says. “I’m just gonna throw it back anyway. But it’s yours if you want it. Hey, pay it forward I always say, dude.”
And that’s Palatka in a nutshell.