Ma Barker, beer, tiki bars

On the hunt for Old Joe in mod­ern-day Florida

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUR TOWN - SEY YOUNG

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?

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