Saturday, August 20, 2011

Going Away

Since the Gabber now has my columns online, I no longer need to keep a separate blog for these. Starting today, if you want to read my column, I encourage you to do one of two things: read it on the Gabber's web site or on my main blog, Just Keep Swimming.

Thanks for hanging in.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Hand Up or A Hand Out?

By Cathy Salustri

So a man walks into the Gabber office (no, this is not a joke) yesterday and asks for walking directions to Bay Pines. Mary, one of the last few genuinely nice people in the world, listens to his story and decides that this man cannot possibly walk – after all, by his own admission he’d already walked to Gulfport from Bayfront – and gives him four bucks for bus fare. Except the bus costs $4.50, so I, for some reason I still don’t quite understand, chip in fifty cents. Mary gave him a cold bottle of water and wished him well.

We then watch this man walk to the bus shelter – and I have to admit, I am shocked – and sip the water.

For about three seconds. Then he leaves the bus shelter and walks behind the Laundromat.

A lively conversation ensued as we waited to see if he would return. Some of the office girls suggested I might be a cynic; I suggested I might be realistic.

“I don’t care,” Mary said. “I’ve done worse things with four dollars.”

She, of course, has a point. If this man was truly a veteran who needed to get to the doctor, then, yes, we absolutely did the right thing. If he was scamming us for money, well, then, we didn’t give him a hand up so much as a handout.

That’s the problem with helping people in need: it’s a fine line between a hand up and a hand out.
Even if you start out helping someone who has the best intentions, sometimes, I’ve found, that help becomes a crutch. That’s why unemployment and welfare come with conditions and time limits.
This is an argument my editor and I have quite often. Not about welfare or panhandlers, but about the fine line between supporting your community and becoming a crutch for organizations. I believe that Gulfport has many fine organizations that have developed a nasty habit of approaching the city with their palms open.

I watched the city council make some tough but long overdue choices last week in the final budget workshop. You will pay more taxes next year. Local police dispatch may get eliminated. You may pay more for drinking water. Hey, things are tough all over.

Unless, of course, you’re a business or nonprofit group in the city. That party has turned into quite the rager, unchecked for many years now. The Lions Club gets a waterfront building for dollar a year, a lease voted into effect while two of five councilmembers belonged to the Lions Club. The city pays $12.50 a month for 33 meters that provide power to the ArtWalk vendors who in turn pay... the Merchant’s Association.

The problem, as I see it, is that the city helps out any organization that asks, and for years now it’s been absorbing the costs. But what started as a way to help bring people into a floundering city and give these organizations a hand up has become something akin to organizational welfare: the money that should go to help draw new people to Gulfport now goes to maintain the status quo. A little help here and there has turned into expected income factored in to these groups’ operating budget.

My editor will tell you, as he has me, loudly, that cities (just like newspapers) need to support communities. I do not disagree. Where he and I diverge is with this public assistance mentality that’s overtaken virtually every organization that feels like Gulfport should pay their way. The argument goes that these groups do good in the city and help the economy. This has somehow turned into “we should roll over and give them anything they want.”

At the budget workshop last week, councilwoman Jennifer Salmon had the courage to ask the tough questions. Dr. Salmon and I are not, by anyone’s definition, chums. There’s a lot about the way she goes about getting things done I do not endorse. I will say that the woman deserves a metric ton of credit for questioning the city’s partnerships and what the city paid as opposed to what the groups do not. That couldn’t have been easy; no one speaks out against the groups that, as many have tried to explain to me with obvious patience, keep the economy vibrant.

But speak out she did, and I applaud her loud and long. She asked the city manager if no one had come up with a better idea for using city money than paying for the power for Art Walks. Before he could answer, councilwoman Barbara Banno, who has a business downtown, said that there were better ideas. Why isn’t the city using its earmarked downtown money for those better ideas? Well, because it’s using it to pay overtime for police officers working the Chamber of Commerce events. It’s using it to pay for the power along the street.
Take a look at the numbers: Gulfport’s Leisure Services spent over $114,000 for events last year, including many Chamber of Commerce, Merchant’s Association, and other business-bolstering events. (Click here to see the numbers) This number does not include overtime for the police department. By comparison, the city’s looking at eliminating police dispatch to save about $200,000. There are no such plans to cut the special events budget.

I am not saying these groups don’t provide a worthwhile service. I’m not even suggesting the city shouldn’t help out. I go to the Art Walks and Fresh Markets; I don’t want these things to go away. I am saying it’s time for the city to reign in its spending. When we can’t afford our own dispatch department but we can afford twinkly lights in the trees, it’s time to end the party. It’s time for last call at the cash bar.

Perhaps this is just the push these groups need to spread their wings. I know they may kick and scream – I’d be astounded if they weren’t actively seeking a candidate to run against Councilwoman Salmon in January and threatening to pull their (mostly free) ads from the Gabber – but I believe it will serve the city better if these groups have to pay their own way.

Oh, and that man who so desperately needed bus fare? He never came back to catch his bus. Which means the money we gave him didn’t really help him. But then, he wasn’t asking because he wanted our help.

I’ve found that people asking for a handout usually don’t.

Contact Cathy Salustri at

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Giving Tree, Skink, and the Lifted Lorax

By Cathy Salustri

There’s this part of the The Giving Tree that always makes me cry. It’s at the end, when the child is an old man, and all the tree can offer him is a place to rest. That final image of a tree stump has done more for making my generation environmentally aware than any other kids book I know, unless it’s the lifted Lorax, speaking for the disappearing Truffula trees.

We all have a short list of books that shaped us. For me, it’s The Giving Tree, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Lorax, Wuthering Heights, Walden, Cross Creek, and pretty much everything Carl Hiaasen’s ever written.

I know, Hiaasen doesn’t seem to fit with Bronte and Thoreau, and yet there he is, insisting we pay attention to how we’re letting politicians muck up Florida. Turns out he serves me well as I watch local government make a perfect mess out of paradise. My favorite character from his novels, Skink, is a former Florida governor who violently avenges anyone who tries to hurt his state. Skink fights for the Everglades, the panther, and the trees. He’ll kill a person before he’ll kill a tree, especially if that person was about to kill a tree. He’s just about perfect.

At Gulfport’s city council meeting last week, two of our council members – the two I would ordinarily call the “greenest” – said “OK by me” to moving an oak tree to make room for a new sign in Clymer Park.

As much as I would like to do so, I’m not about to debate with councilmembers Sam Henderson and Jennifer Salmon why this is a blazingly stupid idea or why an arborist who makes money by moving trees will say whatever his client wants him to say. They can go buy their own copies of The Giving Tree. But instead of cutting down the tree, let’s think about using Clymer Park’s natural assets to the city’s advantage.

I’m not a fan of Clymer Park. First we have the debacle in city hall with the sign in Clymer Park, next we want to rip out a perfectly good oak tree because it blocks the view of the sign, and all the while, we aren’t really using the park as a park at all. It’s more of a green area that sucks money from the city budget. Cut the grass, edge the grass, chemically manipulate the grass. Any Florida gardener will tell you that grass is the least economically sound decision you can make for your landscape. In fact, if we’re talking about removing a living green thing from Clymer Park, let’s start there.

What if, instead of a big strip of grass that the city has to mow on a regular basis, the city turned Clymer Park’s weedy strip of grass into a lush subtropical landscape? What if Gulfport opted to honor the Clymer family name with a mini-botanical garden?

Picture it with me for a minute: fan palms and sturdy oaks lining either side of the park, ringed by spurts of fragrant white jasmine climbing the trunks of the oaks. Alongside the trees pink bouganvillea explode into color alongside clusters of purple crepe myrtles.

Clymer Gardens wouldn’t just have trees and flowers. It could have a bike path and a live tree (just like towns used to have) for the city’s Christmas decorations. People could walk along meandering, shaded pathways, pausing to sketch on a bench. Instead of the money pit with little aesthetic value you see today, you’d see a park – a real one, with all kinds of local flora and fauna – that invited people to stop and check it out. Painting classes could meet there, as could yoga classes and councilwoman Salmon’s organic landscaping classes. The city, with the help of volunteers, could plant a second community garden here. The city could even plant edible landscaping and create habitat for birds and other wildlife. On Halloween, picture a haunted walk through the park, which would be free for residents but cost for nonresidents, so instead of dumping money into the park (after, of course, the initial expense of buying and planting the greenery), the city could make money on it.

I guess I’m picturing a park that everyone could use – and would want to. Sound a little idealistic? Perhaps. But I have a financial motivation, too: while the city pays to mow and maintain the grass that stretches from Gulfport Boulevard to the Catherine Hickman theatre, what I’m describing doesn’t need mowing, fertilizing or irrigation. Even the groundcovers could survive on rainfall.

While we’re all living my verdant fantasy, let’s go to the beach. At last week’s cleanup, the city manager said that if the city didn’t rake the beach every day, the greenery would overtake the sand. While I love a day at the beach, let’s think about that for a minute: what if we removed the grass and added in buff colored sand dunes sprouting saffron and malachite sea oats, purple railroad vines and yellow beach sunflowers? Add in a few more pine trees and we’ve created two things: a spectacular view from across the street and a return to how the waterfront may have looked before we trashed it. Maybe the city could even find the money for a beach walk through the trees.

Of course, it won’t happen. Gulfport city hall has this odd attachment to grass: it’s care is budgeted every year, even when we have to cut other programs and raise taxes. But think about what we could do if we capitalized on all the sunshine, warm temperatures, and rain. Think of what we could do if we took advantage of living in paradise instead of destroying it.

But no, I’m not going to debate with the city council the merits of moving a tree that probably would live another couple of centuries.

I figure we’ve got some real live Skinks out there somewhere, and maybe a few Loraxes. I’ll let them have that argument. After all, someone’s got to speak for the trees.

Contact Cathy Salustri at

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For Better and For Worse

By Cathy Salustri

The Universe has a sneaky way of doing things. Believe it or not, I’d already intended to write a column about marriage – well, mostly – when my friend Amanda called yesterday and told me her boyfriend proposed and she accepted.

Amanda’s one of the loveliest people I know. (I’m not just saying that because she makes this squash and cheese pasta thing that’s brought better women than me to their knees. Honest.) Everyone loves Amanda, and while I don’t believe marriage can work for me, I am thrilled for her and wish her all the happiness in the world.

Nevertheless, at some point in their union, there will come a time when her husband – also a wonderful human being, by the way – will want to strangle her. That is not a reflection on Amanda’s character, or his. It’s more a statement about what happens when two people spend a lot of time together in close quarters.

Of course, he won’t really want to kill her; I’m exaggerating. It also doesn’t mean that they will have stopped loving each other, or that they want out of the marriage. But making relationships work isn’t always pretty.

The best relationships have conflict. So, in fact, do some pretty great cities. That doesn’t bother me – think it’s healthy. No, what I find disturbing are the folks who insist, no matter what, that everything is just ducky. These people think that as long as you focus only on the positive, everything will work out in the end.

These people, too, would have you think that the people who choose not to ignore the bad bits and, in fact, want to see them brought to light and discussed and worked through, are somehow bad people themselves. They might even go so far as to suggest those who complain don’t love their partner or their town and want to undermine the whole thing. They might say those who bring issues to light are just plain wrong or looking for trouble because everything is just fine, dammit.

But here’s the thing: pretty relationships don’t last. We all know (or knew) a couple that never fought or looked at each other sideways. She never packed a bag and spent a week at her mother’s house; he never stormed out in anger and headed to the local bar. Their friends thought they had the perfect marriage – until he moved out one day, or she ran off with a Grateful Dead tour.

It’s the same with a city. We can go along, pretending everything’s fine, throwing some mighty fine parties and patting each other on the back, but underneath it all, what’s wrong will still be wrong. The more we don’t talk about it, just like in a marriage, the more it festers. On the outside, everything is perfect – although usually because people are petrified to admit otherwise.

When one of those “perfect” marriages where no one fights and everyone’s happy all the blessed time finally reaches critical mass, one partner finds out the other one’s actually been unhappy for a long time but was afraid to speak out. By the time they did, things had gotten too big to fix, so they just walked away.

Why would someone be afraid to speak out? Well, sometimes people who have issues just don’t want to deal with confrontation. Other times, people are scared that what they love won’t hold up to the questioning. They may worry that if they start to question, the pretty bits will fall apart and there won’t be anything left underneath to hold it all together. They fear that the relationship isn’t strong enough to stand up to real conflict or trial.

That, my friends, is almost always a mistake, because if the pretty things are all that’s holding something together, it isn’t being held together at all. Even the Mona Lisa, without a canvas, is just paint. There is no doubt that every small town, be it Gulfport or St. Pete Beach or Buffalo Soapstone, has both types of folks – the people who aren’t afraid to belly up to the bar and order a shot of “What the hell were you thinking, buying those flowery towels when we can’t afford groceries this week?” and the “Why, honey, those decorative soaps are lovely. We can eat Ramen for a week; don’t worry about the expense.” I am certain, too, we all know people in either type of marriage.

I will tell you this: Amanda’s relationship will stand up to questioning, of that I have no doubt. I will also tell you this: so will your city. I look across the bay and on either side I see cities with problems, but also with strong foundations. Gulfport, St. Pete Beach, and every little town across America is built on the backs of people who loved their life enough to fight for it, to remedy the tough issues. The best relationships are built on love, yes, but tears and conflict, too.

I know everyone reading this loves their city.

The question is, who among you is strong enough to face the problems?

Contact Cathy Salustri at

Save The Beach Theatre

By Cathy Salustri

Save the Beach Theatre.

I love a feel-good movie, a bag of popcorn with fake butter and a glass of wine.

The wine part is weird, I admit, but blame my misguided youth: for a brief while in college I fancied myself a film student, which meant going to see a lot of art films at the Enzian theatre, where they served Gardenburgers and cheap wine. I love Gardenburgers but hate art films as much as I cannot abide the patchouli-scented men who make them, so I failed at the whole film student endeavor, traded my black cords in for some sundresses, and happened upon this cool beach community. With only two “art houses” in the area I could catch Tom Hanks films without ever bumping up against a serious young man in black jeans and wire-rimmed glasses who wanted to show me his claymation documentary. Despite its artsy films I preferred the Beach Theatre to others, because when it did show popular movies instead of brooding subtitled affairs, I’d get popcorn and a cheap mini-bottle of red wine and pretend I was in college again, only this time I could watch a movie I actually enjoyed.

But then something changed: movies started to suck. Computer-generated explosions replaced plot, and the dark, Quentin-Tarantino-on-barbituate, brooding characters replaced George Clooney and Harrison Ford as on-screen idols. When I realized that Pulp Fiction wasn’t a fluke, I took to watching my Goonies and As Good As It Gets DVDs.

The critics promised me Super 8 was different. I walked over to the Beach Theatre, which, as it fell on hard times, started (much to my relief) pandering to the lowest common denominator of the moviegoing public: me. I bought my beloved artery-clogging buttery popcorn and requested my cheap mini-bottle of wine.

Save the Beach Theatre, which was out of wine. In fact, their cooler’s kind of bare. The registers don’t have receipt tape. The seat arms wobble in what I choose not to view as an allegory for the entire place.

Save the Beach Theatre, owned by St. Pete Beach resident Michael France. He’s made public his struggles with the classic movie house, and he says he’s trying to convert the theatre to a non-profit to keep it going. After last night, I do not know if he can hold on that long. Rumor has it he’s going through a wicked divorce, and I can’t imagine he’s got a lot of energy left in him to keep fighting this fight.

Save the Beach Theatre, a grand palace once. To me, it still is. But its glory days have passed and those of us who still love it are probably more in love with what it stands for than what it has become.

Save the Beach Theatre, where you can go see Super 8. I loved that, as the critics promise, it’s a Goonies-meets-Stand-By-Me movie not outpaced by special effects. It’s set in the summer of 1979, complete with My Sharona on the soundtrack. Glittery, polished effects and computer-generated images would have ruined this movie.

Save the Beach Theatre, because it occurred to me as I watched the film in my seen-better-days seat and tried not to resent the flat Pepsi that, even though the theatre may be fading, it’s a lot like Super 8: proof that the simple things are grander than the glitzy.

How do you save the Beach Theatre? I have no clue. I do know this: people always tell me that had they known that this restaurant or this business was having trouble, they would have done their part and patronized them more. Well, I’m telling you: the Beach Theatre needs you. Until the theatre gets its nonprofit status, you can’t donate money, but you can buy a ticket. Don’t want to see a movie right today? I’m not suggesting you see a movie: I’m suggesting you buy a ticket.

Save the Beach Theatre because if it goes under we’ll have to head over to the vacuum that is
the Baywalk Muvico. We will buy tickets online, listen to a nifty sound system, and probably order popcorn shrimp.

Save the Beach Theatre because you can’t buy tickets online, and no one’s accusing them of deafening you with their massive sound system, and other than the old-fashioned fake butter on the popcorn, your food choices are limited.

Save the Beach Theatre and keep your money local when you buy your cheap wine, popcorn buttered all the way down to the bottom of the bag, and tickets to a movie that reminds us that you can find the amazing in the unsophisticated.

Save the Beach Theatre, because, like Super 8, some things, including our communities, do better without the glitz.

Contact Cathy Salustri at, or leave your comments here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Advice to the Class of 2011

I don’t want kids. My biological clock never kicked in, and I see babies as random masses of cells and diapers.

Now, my friends’ kids? They’re a different story. I love them madly. Some of them - OK, most of them – call me Crazy Aunt Cathy, probably because I don’t recite puffy platitudes about living when ask me real questions. (“Cathy, why did my best friend make fun of me?” “Because she’s a little jerk, Randi Sue. Drop her.”)

That’s why I got so enraged at the drivel that passed for advice at my friend’s daughter’s high school graduation last week. Granted, I was in Clearwater at 8 a.m. with precious little coffee or food in my system, but even still... The valedictorian promised that the world was a bright and shiny place where you could do anything because fortune smiles on all of us equally.

Had he told his classmates that leprechauns would bring them pots of gold and unicorns would wash their feet with their soft unicorn tongues, this young man could not have described more of a fantasy world. He had no business giving life advice - at 18, you know nothing, despite what you believe.

Here’s some practical advice for the class of 2011, courtesy of my mistakes and successes:

10. Learn to make yourself happy. You cannot depend on anyone else - lovers, parents, children, or friends – for happiness. If you don’t know how to make yourself happy, you’re screwed. Likewise...

9. Don’t waste time trying to make other people happy. You either will or you won’t. If you chase other people’s happiness you’re going to make yourself crazy.

8. Life isn’t fair. Get that idea out of your idealistic young head right now, because fortune doesn’t smile on us all equally. You’ll get passed over for a richly-deserved promotion. Your soulmate will shatter your heart. Accept it and move on. Don’t expect fair, because it won’t happen. You can’t change that. Speaking of which...

7. You will not change the world. I know you just got 57 cash-filled cards expressing exactly the opposite sentiment. Nevertheless, better than 99% of you probably won’t invent an alternative to fossil fuel. But you do have a tremendous power - to change your world, the one you see when you wake up every day. Think small. You are small. In fact...

6. You are not as great as you think. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mr. “Every Kid’s a Winner” generation. Welcome to the real world, kids, where, at some point, most of you will not be good, smart or pretty enough. I’m not saying you’re dumb and ugly; I’m saying that the Universe is balanced by the truly grand and the supremely hideous. Everyone doesn’t get to be awesome. I know you’ve heard about your greatness since birth, but it’s time you found out...

5. Everybody lies. Ask any cop, priest or reporter and they will tell you I am absolutely correct. This includes you, which is OK as long as you don’t lie to yourself. Everyone else? The trick is figuring out if they lie about whether your dress looks pretty or why there’s a shovel and bag of lime in their trunk. Speaking of lies...

4. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is crap. Trust me on this. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. I love to write. Because it is how I feed myself, I also hate it. No matter how much you love something, when your choices are doing it every damn day or starving, it’s work. Some days I hate writing so much it makes me throw up a little in my mouth to look at my computer. I keep doing it, though, because...

3. Do what you love and the money will follow. I know this sounds counter-intuitive. For me, writing – even those “throwing-up-a-little-in-my-mouth-if-I-have-to-write-about-local-sewer-issues-one-more-time” days – still beats putting on pantyhose and selling term life insurance. So find your own thing that you love, but don’t stress over it too much, because...

2. Only AIDS and children are forever. Nothing lasts, which is a good thing. When I was your age, I had plans. I plotted and dreamed and schemed and got where I wanted to be– and hated it. So I took a do-over, and so can you. All you have to do on any given day is suck breath in and push it out again, so try not to take life too seriously. There’s no prize at the end...

1. The reward is the journey. Honest. It’s hard, and you’ll probably fail at a lot of it, but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve found. I leave you with this quote from pop culture:

“We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”

Have a lovely ride.

Contact Cathy Salustri at

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wasting Time

By Cathy Salustri

I like to think of myself as a patient soul who is slow to anger. I come from a long line of people who think the best way to make your point in an argument is to state your opinions with volume and anger. I do not subscribe to that school of thought.

Except when I’m faced with those Orwellian, automated, geared-for-discouragement, voice-response phone systems like the one at Bright House. I call to find out why I can’t get online and within moments I find myself screaming at the phone, “PERSON! I WANT TO SPEAK TO A DAMN PERSON! PERSON! PERSONPERSONPERSON!!”

“Did I understand you correctly? You want to speak to a person? If you want to speak to a person, say ‘representative’.”

I answer with a colorful adjective preceding the term “representative,” and the system gets me through to a person who soon reconnects me to the wonderful world of the Internet, including the latest draft of this column, the Gabber web site, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter.

The Internet is a horrible, wonderful, necessary place. I can get lost there for hours. I’ve wasted days of my life looking at funny or horrible videos I won’t remember in a week. When it comes to wasting time, I am the master.

Which is why I don’t need any help from local government. Two weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting through a St. Pete Beach city commission meeting while our beach reporter took a much-needed vacation. I say “much-needed” because I am spoiled by the entertaining yet brief Gulfport city hall meetings, while she regularly attends meetings that run so long that the CIA isn’t allowed to make suspected terrorists sit through them.

On the table last Tuesday night? Well, commissioners spent almost a half hour debating flower colors for Gulf Boulevard. Don’t get me wrong: Gulf Boulevard is dangerously close to looking like an inner-city throroughfare. The city would be well-served to make it look more like Blind Pass, with its majestic palms and subtle lighting. But is the color of the flowers something that needs discussion in a public meeting? Honest, I think you can discuss that with the contractor without residents suing you. Or, you know, maybe not. This is St. Pete Beach, after all, where one commissioner sneezes, another says “bless you”, and a local attorney slaps a lawsuit on the city for discussing the sneeze in private.

But I digress. The meeting also included – without a trace of irony – a protracted discussion on how to shorten the meetings. One commissioner sensibly suggested putting fewer items on the agenda. Crazy talk, apparently, because the commission ultimately decided instead to limit the meetings to five hours and, hey, whatever doesn’t get done moves to the next meeting. They ended the meeting four hours after it started and commissioners walked away feeling pretty good about themselves.

Which is utter nonsense. I’ve, sadly, attended city and county meetings on a quasi-regular basis for 12 years now, and I can tell you there is nothing going on in any small town that requires 300 minutes of discussion every other week. That’s enough time to watch the movie “Office Space” more than three times. Unless you’re discussing building a high rise on the beach, violent crime, or people murdering baby turtles and dolphins, nothing needs that much explaining and detail. To quote Senator Kevin Keeley in the Birdcage, “People in this country aren’t interested in details. They don’t even trust details.”

And yet details abounded in this meeting; what was missing was the real stuff, the meat. And I notice it’s missing a lot from these meetings. St. Pete Beach is great for talking about the color of the blossoms along the road but not so much for talking about height and density. At least, it doesn’t seem to get a lot of discussion in public, except for the citizens fighting about it. St. Pete Beach’s commission perplexes me. As a resident I generally read about the meetings after the fact or hear about them from my colleague. But on that night I watched commissioners snicker at each other while another commissioner read a prepared statement about red light cameras. I noticed glances exchanged that made me feel I was watching some sort of secret alliance. I heard elected officials start to bicker with residents.

As a reporter, I was fascinated. As a beach resident, I was sickened.

As a person? Give me Facebook and YouTube any day. At least it’s not costing taxpayer dollars for me to waste time there.

Contact Cathy Salustri at or comment on her Hard Candy Facebook page.