Ma Barker, beer, tiki bars
On the hunt for Old Joe in modern-day Florida
I’ve been thinking about this, Mr. Hand. If I’m here and you’re here, doesn’t that make it our time? Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with a little feast on our time?
— Jeff Spicoli Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Start 72 years ago, in the clear water of Lake Weir near Ocklawaha, Fla. Fred Barker is wanted by the FBI, but all he wants is the hide of Old Joe. Old Joe just wants to keep swimming, so he keeps his head down. Fred pounds beers at the nearby joint called Barnes Beach and plots Old Joe’s demise. Fred makes the mistake of writing a relative about Old Joe. J. Edgar is an avid reader, and plots Fred’s demise. Later that month, Fred and his Ma get crossed off the most-wanted list. Old Joe gets to keep getting older.
Go forward 17 years. A gator hunter named Vic Skidmore hunts down Old Joe. Some say it’s not even hunting, and Fred would probably agree. Joe measures out at 15 feet. Soon, his body parts are unstuck like Billy Pilgrim. Everybody wants a piece of Old Joe.
The old joint at Barnes Beach needs updating. The new owner named Johnson tries his name, but the legend of Old Joe still whispers through the citrus groves and cracker houses. But you’ve got to change with the times — in goes a tiki dock; in go hardwood floors and pun-filled rafters; out goes the old name; in goes “Gator Joe’s Beach Bar and Grill.” Inside, you can buy their signature Joe’s Gator Philly, followed by a tasty slice of homemade key lime pie. A replica of Old Joe’s head is on display by the bar. Soon, an admirer gives the place one of Old Joe’s actual severed feet. Now, like some modern Tom Joad, Old Joe really is there. As a young man, living nearby, I am there, too.
In present day, I drive towards The Villages in central Florida on a business trip. The Villages has been the fastest growing area in the United States for the past three years — the fastest growing rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States for the past three years, as well, but those could be fake numbers spread by jealous competing communities. The Villages bills itself as America’s premiere active adult retirement community, where all your “retirement dreams come true.” If those number are correct, the residents should be careful what they wish for.
My client and I drive through pristine neighborhoods. We express awe at the miles of carefully manicured golf courses, beautiful landscaping and blemish-free homes. I point out where I used to go on my dirt bike when this was just orange groves. I point out the spot where I once flew over the handlebars after hitting a turtle. I refrain from pointing out the spot I once took a date.
Finished with my tour, I suggest coffee; my client suggests beer. Who am I to disagree? We head into one of the faux town centers called “Lake Sumter Landing,” which is set as if you are in Key West. I’ve been to Key West. Sorry, no. The town center is way too clean.
I spot Gator Joe’s, complete with tiki dock overlooking the Landing’s man-made lake. It’s no Lake Weir, but my heart quickens.
There is no parking. Golf carts — some emblazoned with their owner’s names — seemingly clog every space. Google tells me The Villages has the world’s largest concentration of golf carts in the world. No kidding? I find a
spot near the Barnes & Noble and take a power walk. Getting closer, I see it’s a faux Gator Joe’s called “R.J. Gators,” complete with a cute alligator figure whose back story is he plays electric guitar. Not a severed reptile part in site.
We sit at the bar amid lots of colorful shorts and shirts. No one looks at us. I feel young here. A man wearing a yellow Royal Troon Golf Club hat is trying to engage a lady. The hat gets waved around a lot — like a bull fighter waving
a cape, I think. There were no Troon hats at Gator Joe’s, I think. At least the beer is cold. The peanuts are free. Their wings look good.
It’s time to leave. Google says 14 miles to Lake Weir — where we’re headed. But there are miles to go before we sleep.
No golf carts. No manmade lake. A real gator foot. What are we going to do?