By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
SARASOTA — To much of the world, it is known as “God’s waiting room” — a place where old people go to die. To those who have never been there, it is a city of early-bird dinners beginning at 2 p.m. with lights out by 8 p.m. To the uninformed, it is hair salons specializing in blue dye and Buicks the size of Rhode Island driving in the left lane eternally flashing the right blinker.
Joining the gigantic Buicks are the cars filled with impatient tourists getting angrier by the second because 640,000 local people are getting in their way, burning precious minutes of their week-long vacation from their self-inflicted misery elsewhere.
So what’s not to love about Sarasota?
The truth, however, is much different. If God does indeed have a waiting room on Earth, and if Sarasota is it, then that simply proves God’s benevolence.
A mass of black, ominous clouds build over Sarasota’s downtown skyline of office and condominium towers. Thunder rumbles and lightning streaks across the sky. The people fishing off the pier at Causeway Park a few blocks away barely notice. Just to the east, financial firms and banks encase themselves in brilliant blue glass, reflecting the setting sun. A short distance to the west, across the John Ringling Causeway Bridge, the sun is still shining on the tourists finding the best bargains on $300 Prada sunglasses at the shopping district of St. Armands Circle. Back on the fishing pier, an overweight man in a t-shirt smile
s courteously as he walks past, carrying his fishing gear and a 12-pack of beer. He carefully places a glistening bottle on the rail of the pier just across the bridge from art galleries catering to those for whom spending $10,000 on art is an afterthought — with less impact on their wallet than that man’s 12-pack had on his.
Sarasota is a hidden world-class city. In a state not known for culture, it stands apart; it is a city filled with museums, art galleries, music and shopping. Only in Sarasota, within a surprisingly short distance and in an easy afternoon, is it possible to open an offshore bank account, wade out into the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico from expansive and spectacular beaches and then crack a beer with the guys on the fishing pier. If one felt the urge, the Budweiser could be coupled with fresh croissants or pains au chocolat from Le Macaron bakery just over the bridge.
ota’s Lido Beach, Ashley Carnegie of Bradenton is beautiful in her wedding dress. Technically she is now Mrs. Ashley Ward, having just married Reginald Ward of Eustis on the beach. A quarter of a mile to the north, another couple vows a lifetime of commitment and love while friends and family cluster around barefoot on the powdery white sand. A few hundred yards to the south there is yet another cluster of people; yet another wedding. Nearby tourists, mostly youngish parents with children, wade in the warm water or build sand castles, seemingly oblivious to what could be the happiest day in the lives of the six people getting married around them. Somehow the wedding dresses are not out of place on this beach. It is not the first time new lives have begun here.
Lightning streaks across the evening sky, thunder continues to rumble and a few fat raindrops fall on the pier at Causeway Park, but the people fishing still don’t seem to notice. They live here; they know that as quickly as the rain comes, it will be gone. The fishing is good. The beer is good. Just hanging out on this pier is good and a few drops of rain won’t change that.
A few miles away, a more permanent lightning bolt rests in Brian Johnson’s backyard. The yard art would be instantly recognizable to fans of classic hard rock. Johnson is the frontman and the insanely powerful voice of AC/DC, one of the most successful rock and roll bands in the history of music. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend, along with his wife Brenda, are year-around residents of Sarasota.
When Johnson is not touring the world screaming out “Back in Black” or “Shoot to Thrill” to thousands of equally screaming fans, he is at home in this town. In contrast to the sometimes overly-publicized causes célèbres of his fellow celebrities, Joh
nson puts his money where his mouth is in Sarasota, donating time and cash to hospitals and charitable organizations throughout the city. His wife is known for becoming personally involved. Instead of invoking or pleading with his fans to join his causes from the stage after belting out the tune “Hell’s Bells,” he quietly turns around and hands over some of the cash he has earned from those fans to make a difference for people in his community.
According to a feature story in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, when the ringing of the Hell’s Bells fades away, Johnson enjoys spending his time camping with his wife and friends at a nearby RV park. Everything in Sarasota, it seems, is unexpected. Who knew that God would choose heavy metal over Muzak in His waiting room?
The wedding parties are gone as darkness envelopes the beach. The 12-packs and soda cans are nearly empty on the pier and tourists mingle with locals over seafood at Barnacle Bill’s restaurant on U.S. Highway 41. For the to
urists, the frustration associated with the mad rush to get on with their vacation is gone, fading like the sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico just a few miles away. What remains are unspoken thoughts and personal questions. “Why don’t we live here?” they silently ask themselves, while smiling at their spouses happily enjoying a fresh grouper sandwich; all the while not knowing that their spouses are asking themselves the very same question.
Inside, while the locals kick back and the tourists ponder, a large, late model Buick slowly passes by the restaurant, traveling 20 miles per hour under the speed limit on U.S. 41. The car is in the left lane with the right blinker endlessly flashing.
Links to Sarasota activities:
Official Website: www.sarasotafl.org/
City of Sarasota: www.sarasotagov.com
Mote Marine Laboratory: www.mote.org
G.WIZ Science Museum: http://www.gwiz.org
Ringling Museum of Art: http://www.ringling.org
Art Center Sarasota: http://www.artsarasota.org
The Sarasota Orchestra: http://www.sarasotaorchestra.org
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall: http://www.vanwezel.org
St. Armands Circle Association: http://www.starmandscircleassoc.com/