At 24, I decided to run away from Southern California and move to an island. The original airline ticket was booked to St. Croix, but Hurricane Hugo beat me there by a week and devastated the opportunity.
The next ticket would have sent me to Hawaii, but the airline went bankrupt, and I lost the chance. The third ticket brought me to Florida, where, in 1989, Captiva Island became my first island home.
Captiva was a beautiful introduction to the Sunshine State. There, I found a job at a resort, moved into employee housing — right on the sand — and walked two miles up the beach to the restaurant where I worked the breakfast and lunch shifts. By the time the sun set, I had my toes in the sand, and my Walkman tuned in to a local radio station when, during the sunset hour, they played Jimmy Buffett songs one after another.
I worked through the winter season but, as I was prone to doing in those days, got antsy and felt the familiar pull of wanting to escape. I returned to Huntington Beach, California, turned 25, and got antsy again. While there, I didn’t hear much Buffett on the radio, but now and again, “Margaritaville” or “Come Monday” came strumming through the speakers. When they did, all I could see were my toes in the Captiva sand, so I moved back to the island, to employee housing, and to the restaurant.
After a few years and a handful of bad decisions, I got antsy, packed up and moved to Atlanta. I lived with a friend for a while but then moved into a small, sketchy Midtown apartment. The cracked, red-brick building overlooked neon signs drawing attention to a local strip club where the thump of a bass note reverberated through the night air and rattled the windows in the apartment well into the wee hours.
What became clear from my time in Atlanta was that I was taking a slow tumble that landed me, now 28, at my rock bottom. However, because there is silver and gold in every story, even just threads of it, while I was in that horrible apartment, two good things happened. First, I bought my first Buffett album, a used CD of “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.” Second, I adopted Alex.
The black kitten was off in a cage, away from the other cats. It had arrived at the shelter the day before. According to its records, the profile remarked “liked to wander” — a sentiment I could identify with. I looked at all the cats in all the cages, but the black one all by itself, the one who liked to wander, Alexander Van Kitten — Alex for short — came home with me.
As a 20-something roamer chasing a dream and largely failing to gain any ground, I moved back to California and back in with my mother — and Alex, who spent the next 15 years cuddled up by my side. While back home in California, I enrolled in college because I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to ensure success (even minor success) as a writer. I also picked up another 20 or so Buffett CDs because they reminded me of the beach back on Captiva, where I was going back to as soon as I earned my bachelor’s from Cal State Long Beach.
Like so many others, my presence in Florida can be linked to Jimmy Buffett, if even just peripherally. Buffett was the soundtrack when I was in California, driving in the Jeep or listening to music at home. His siren call kept me focused on where I knew I wanted to be, and for sure, he is one of the reasons I moved back to Florida and eventually to the Keys, where I’ve been living for the last 22 years.
I still listen to Buffett, but not like I used to. Sadly, I did not jump on tickets when he came to town back in February. However, I do feel like I participated in the event, if even in my mind, by influencing the pick of his opening song. Just a day or two before Jimmy played his “locals only” show at the Key West Theater, my column about the Summerland Keys came out in the paper.
Mostly, the story revolved around the name and how it was tied to some of the Flagler-era history. Partly, it was about one of the island’s former residents, a songwriter named Fred Neil, who penned a catchy little tune called “Everybody’s Talkin’” that was made famous in “Midnight Cowboy” starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
The story I ended the column with was centered on the notion that even though Fred Neil had passed away in his house on Summerland Key years before, his energy might still be swirling around in the island breezes. Because of that, I suggested that it might not be unusual for drivers crossing Summerland Key to have “Everybody’s Talkin’” crawl inside their head like an earworm.
And then, just a day or two after the column was published, Jimmy Buffett opened up his Key West concerts with “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Intellectually, I know he recorded his version of the song in 2003. Still, it is interesting that, out of all the songs in his catalog, Jimmy chose to open with the one I had just written about.
For me, one of two things happened: either he read my column and made a last-minute change to the set list, or there really is some magic in the air and, after traveling down to Key West, he felt compelled to open with it. Either way, it gave me a connection to the coconut troubadour that will spark a special place in my Florida state of mind for the rest of my life. After all, life is just a tire swing.