I am sitting at a bar in Port Saint Joe. It’s a dark place. It smells like onion rings and Miller Lite. I might be mistaken, but I believe there are dartboards here. Waylon Jennings is singing.
It’s hard to believe this town used to be the largest city in Florida. Once upon a time, in 1838, this little place had 12,000 people and, amazingly, only one McDonald’s.
This was where the Florida constitution was first penned. That’s how important this town was.
They don’t teach us stuff like that in history class anymore.
There is a guy at the bar beside me. He’s from Chicago. He’s here for leisure. He is a columnist, like me. Except this man is pretty famous for writing political rants online. He is incognito this week.
I have never met another columnist in a bar. Let alone a famous one. What are the odds?
We did the whole “what do you do?” thing, and we figured out that we were both writers.
The difference is that he writes for huge newspapers and drives a Benz. Whereas my career is still undetermined. I write for small-town papers and I drive 22-year-old Ford.
Even so, I’m not unsatisfied with my life. I have a good dog and most of my original teeth.
The man has never been to this town before. Florida is my home state. I grew up just two counties over. So I welcome him and tell him he’s picked the right time to visit.
October on the Gulf Coast is the season when—any meteorologist will tell you this—all the tourists go home.
I have spent many an October in Gulf County. This place has changed over the years, but it hasn’t changed too much. The fishing is still good. The barbecue is still stellar. The beer still flows like the mighty Apalachicola.
The famous man asks what my favorite part of Port Saint Joe is.
I shrug. Because it’s hard to say, really. I have a lot of favorite facets. If I were forced to choose, my favorite spot would probably be the Piggly Wiggly.
“The Piggly Wiggly?” He laughs. “A grocery store? That’s your favorite place?”
Some men are Methodists, other men are Presbyterians. I am a Piggly Wiggly man. I have visited Piggly Wigglys in 18 different states.
There are, for example, only two Pigs in the great state of Texas. I have been to them both. The only Piggly Wigglys I haven’t frequented are the ones in Wisconsin. But I’m holding out hope.
“Why do you like Port Saint Joe’s Piggly Wiggly so much?” the man asks.
I have no real answer. Maybe it’s because I have a lot of good memories there. I remember walking the aisles of The Pig when I was younger, in town for vacation. I was swollen with invincibility. Sunburned. High on summer romance. The air was filled with promise.
The Pig is the one of the first major landmarks you see when you get into town. So when you are inside The Pig, it means that you are finally here.
That’s why everyone comes to The Pig as soon as they hit Joe. They walk inside the pneumatic doors to stock up on essentials. They load their SUVs, then head to Cape San Blas or Indian Pass for the week.
People come to The Pig when they are still giddy with irrational vacation excitement. Before the end-of-vacay blues starts to set in.
You can see the different kinds of shoppers, meandering through the lanes.
You have the locals. They come in all shapes, sizes, creeds, and income-brackets. Some have been here since their great-great granddaddy dog paddled these waters. Others moved here from Buckhead because they can afford it.
You see the affluent. You see the down-and-outters, spending their last paychecks on Marlboro Lights.
You see guys who are in town for a weekend fishing trip. They are the ones whose carts contain only Natty Light, coffee, and hotdogs.
You see tourist families with loud, happy children. You see yuppies purchasing organic foods that cost more than naval aircraft carriers. You see newlyweds, hanging all over each other.
You can buy Piggly Wiggly-themed T-shirts that say stuff like: “What Happens at The Pig Stays at The Pig,” or “I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie.”
You see people. For better or worse. You see the human experience. You see men who work hard for a living. You see women who work harder.
You see families who come here to rediscover why they are a family. You see hopeful anglers. Old married couples. And young people, holding hands, kids who just want to be loved.
The cashiers call you “sweetie.” The employees actually smile when you ask them questions. Even the music playing overhead is pretty good.
The famous guy at the bar is amused by all this. “It’s just a grocery store,” he says. “Nobody writes columns about grocery stores.”
Well, if you ask me, maybe it’s time to start.