Among the things Hurricane Charley took away from Charlotte County this weekend is the familiar, if banal, identity of the strip. In becoming a tragic somewhere, the area has lost the logos, signs and indicators of the great nowhere.
Along U.S. 41 (a highway dedicated to war vets), there are the box stores, fast-food joints, nail salons, tattoo parlors, boating supply warehouses, discount carpet outlets (oh, the very Floridaness of it all), and everything's closed, shattered, gaping, boarded, spray-painted. ("Looters will be shot," vows the spray-paint warning on a gun store, almost hopefully, wishfully.)
The letters and words telling you where you are have mostly been wiped clean, ripped apart and toppled -- perhaps giving residents an even more vague sense of dislocation beyond the more pressing damage to their homes. The content of billboards has been peeled away like vinyl skin. Life is closed for business, and it is difficult to recognize.
"Satisfaction Guaranteed" has been peeled from the side of a Wal-Mart. (So has the word Wal-Mart.) A KFC is identifiable only by its remaining red and white stripes. National television crews are particularly enamored of a completely demolished AutoZone a couple of miles north in Port Charlotte, striking mostly for its curious recognizability as what used to be an AutoZone. Someone has spray-painted the remaining wall, helpfully noting that the AutoZone in another town is open. (Subtext: America perseveres.)
The story here is largely about the destruction of trailer parks and mobile homes -- more politely referred to here as "manufactured housing." That's where the heartbreak is; people's grandmas wandering around amid the debris of their lives. It is possible to look across a neighborhood at all the slices of metal wrapped like toilet paper around palm trees and pine trees and telephone poles and conclude that southwest Florida is made entirely of aluminum siding, mattresses, splintered barstools and the remains of Beanie Babies collections.
Yet the commercial strip is a kind of home all the same, and folks need to buy stuff. All day Sunday, people called into the Fort Myers ABC and NBC affiliates (broadcasting as one during the aftermath, and simulcasting on FM radio) to share news about where to get gas without waiting, where to get a meal, and everything else available in the retailscape:
"There's free ice at the Publix," says a caller, breathlessly relaying coordinates for a grocery store in nearby Lee County. "And the Blockbuster is open, and the Chili's. And the Beef O'Brady's. People need to know."
And another offers genius advice: "People are forgetting Costco. You can buy gas at the Costco and there is no line."
"The Cracker Barrel is open," says a male caller. "Daniel and 75."
The center cannot hold. (W.B. Yeats.) But the strip center can. (John Q. Applebee.) "All of the ATMs are working in Naples," a female caller says, somewhat guiltily acknowledging that she has cash, gasoline, the freedom to cruise around into air-conditioned stores and buy refrigerated items. "I didn't know if y'all knew that. It's really not that far of a drive" from Charlotte County.
Punta Gorda is the ephemeral Aftermathland, the Florida tourist unattraction. The Convoy of Hope, a line of Bible-thumping 18-wheelers from Springfield, Mo., has arrived and begun handing out free water and other essentials from a convenience store parking lot on U.S. 41. Guys on Harley-Davidsons cruise up and down the damaged strip, looking for ways to help. People drive around and stare. When Wal-Mart opens in Port Charlotte, across the Peace River from Punta Gorda, on Sunday morning, the people flock to it.
Modern Florida exists as a matter of convenience: cars, air conditioning, cheap food. Without these, things fall apart; jungle rot takes over; a tribe of nomads in tank tops would have to migrate back north, babbling incoherently about Cat 4's and mosquitoes and the "feels like" heat-index relative to the actual temperature.
Luckily, the world has arrived to rescue southwestern Florida.
David Schaknowski, who lives north of here in Clearwater, works for a company called Coastal Disaster Response, which means that he is now hammering plywood to what remains of the windows of the Eyeglass World Superstore ("Buy 1 Pair Get" -- well, who knows, the rest is blown away). When Schaknowski and his co-worker Robbie Mills arrive on the scene, the grass in front of the store is covered in the sparkling, artful scattering of hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses. They pick up what they can and throw it all back in the store and begin hammering the facade into a plywood fortress.
"Then we'll go to wherever they tell us to go next," he says. They've been up and down the strip, "and you can hardly recognize it. I don't think there's even a handful of businesses that didn't get damaged in some way." His bosses have told him to plan to stay for a few weeks.
"Or longer," he says with a sigh.
Down the road, the Walgreens has opened, on generator power. The empty refrigerator cases moan like ghosts. There's a long line of people, who all seem to be buying double-A batteries. A man in line idly plays with a selection of talking dolls, called Mr. Wonderful and Mrs. Wonderful.
Mr. Wonderful says: "I'd rather spend time with you. Let's just cuddle tonight."
Then he squeezes Mrs. Wonderful: "You don't need a glass. Just go ahead and drink from the carton."
Then he squeezes Mr. Wonderful: "Why don't we just pull over and ask for directions?"
"Sir?" the cashier asks, waiting for him to move up in line and buy his batteries and bug spray.
"Oh," he says, taken out of his trance. He is shopping, even with all the detritus of consumer culture littering the landscape.
The plastic furniture, the dirty mattresses, the twisted metal. The broken Golden Arches, dangling off the roof of a McDonald's. All the things to chain-saw apart, drag away, throw out, and miss with a measure of remorse. A state official again reminds people of disaster's three touchy-feely "T's," a mnemonic grief process: Talk, Tears, Time.
People keep calling into the "neighbors helping neighbors" hotline, to report news of their beloved state blinking back on: power's restored here, free stuff at grocery store there. A Burger King is open, so you know we're all going to be okay.
Fifty miles south, in Naples, some people are still waiting for electricity. As sunset approaches, they sit in a Barnes & Noble, in a palm-lined shopping center off Neapolitan Way, flipping through magazines, refugees who find solace in the benevolent realm of retail. This is the new Red Cross shelter: Frappuccino and the latest Real Simple. Hurricane or not, they'll let you sit here all day.