Dead in the Water

Posted by @ 3:57 pm on June 11th, 2010

Image by Nik McCue, via ESPN

On Tuesday, I took a walk along the beach in Perdido Key, Florida, where my parents have a condo. It is my favorite place. The sand is white and cool even in summer; the water is clear and, since the Gulf is shallow, it gets warm enough to swim comfortably by late spring. The condo itself, six stories up, wrapped with balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows, is consolation for my parents’ selling the much-beloved house I grew up in (for far more than they paid sixteen years earlier, to people who razed it except for the chimney and put a McMansion in its place).

This is the part of Florida known as the Redneck Riviera. A mile down the road from us is the Flora-Bama Lounge, where donated bras crowd clotheslines across the ceiling and where you can play the LobsterZone (like those games where you grab for a plush toy with a metal claw, except instead of toys there are live lobsters). On nights when we don’t feel like cooking, we choose between the Crab Trap and the Shrimp Bucket. I usually opt for some kind of fried seafood–gulf shrimp, gulf oysters–with an appetizer of fried (blue) crab claws, a dish that I’ve never seen outside of the Florida/Alabama gulf area. Much more so than in Atlanta, where I’m from, there is truly a local cuisine in those environs. Smoked tuna dip. And the famed Royal Red shrimp — a lobster-like variety that swim through our waters for only a very short period during the year. Add some slaw and hushpuppies, plenty of tartar and cocktail sauce, maybe some new potatoes or sweet corn, and you’ve got a proper panhandle supper.

So I was on this walk. Nothing was different yet. A hermit crab grumped along the edge of the water in his chickpea-sized trumpet shell of a home. Gulls did their dive-bombing and toddler-with-food stalking. A great blue heron strutted around looking typically elegant and above it all. A (human) couple waded to hip-depth and canoodled, aware that being in water is the international PDA carte blanche.

I’m aware that in setting up this little tableau of looming tragedy, I’m skipping wantonly among diners to be deprived fish flesh, tourists to be dismayed, and living creatures to be oil-choked. The victimhood here is obviously unequal. My straits are not dire, though my lament is keen and real. Nothing compared to the all the people who depend on diners and tourists not to be dismayed. This includes not just shrimp boaters, but also construction workers, waiters, hotel maids. People who live week-to-week, day-to-day, and don’t have cash to spare while they wait for their claim to BP to be processed.

While I was at Perdido Key, I was reading The Years by Virginia Woolf. Some of those eponymous years take place during World War I, when the air raids affected London’s rich and poor alike. The effect was total. Every movement, every gesture, referred to the war. The oil spill is a war of attrition. The casualties are incalculable as yet. We won’t know for months. Years. It isn’t like an attack or a disaster sweeping through, cases in which it is possible after days or weeks to assess the damage and make a plan. All we’re learning so far is how much we don’t know yet, about how bad this is.

So I was on this midday walk, knowing that the water would die soon but not knowing when. I waded into the gulf, sat on the sand, watched a mother and child dig a castle moat, wondered how many more times I would do that before a rainbow sheen glossed the surface of the water and forbade all comers. I couldn’t see a sign, and not knowing seemed somehow worse.

The answer came quickly. At dusk, my brother returned from his own walk with tar stuck to his ankles. He thought he was just walking through a sludgy kind of sand, debris of seaweed or shells maybe, until he felt and smelled it, tried to rinse if off but couldn’t. By the next day, the oil smell had settled onto the beach. Reports of tar balls the size of peas. Oily sludge.

I was wrong. Turns out, not knowing wasn’t worse.