A strange device recently appeared on the beach near Sebastian Street in Fort Lauderdale, like a visitation from space. It sported a long ramp, with steering wheels and ratchets and an open cockpit with a wide-screen view of the Atlantic, and hardly anybody noticed.
This was a children's climbing contraption, installed on Sebastian Beach by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. It stands there still. The oddness of its arrival was not in its beige, whimsically concocted look but in the spot where it was placed.
Look around. Can we find a more unlikely place for a playground? On this sunny day, it's business as usual on the beach in the vicinity of the new jungle gym. Two middle-aged men sun themselves on the same towel. Men in colorful little Speedos dash around in the surf. A particularly ripped man, with tight trunks that draw attention to his sculpted butt, stands up and saunters toward the water.
You've got it. Sebastian Beach is Fort Lauderdale's gay beach. This is an unofficial designation, meaning that it has become a gathering place for gays, not that they have been segregated there for any reason. But one thing is clear: Few children gather there.
A mile or so north, at Sunrise Boulevard, there's a vacant space on the beach where a similar climbing structure, made of the same tough recycled plastic, used to stand. This is an area where families from Victoria Park and Coral Ridge, as well as those from the beachside neighborhoods, tend to gather.
So, Tailpipe wondered, what's the deal? Is the city finally acknowledging that members of the gay community sometimes raise families (though gays and lesbians are barred from adopting children in this state)? Are kids from the more northerly neighborhoods less in need of things to climb on?
A man named Wally sat up on his towel to offer two possible explanations for the new arrival. One: The city has no idea this is the gay beach. Two: It did it on purpose to make this area less attractive for gays.
Tailpipe decided to ask Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Terry Rynard. She told 'Pipe that Sebastian Beach had once been the site of a playground that had deteriorated. The new equipment, she said, was simply a replacement. "That is not a new location, necessarily," she said.
Well, when did the older equipment deteriorate? Rynard didn't know. She said she'd get back to Tailpipe.
Those who use Sebastian Beach — including Wally, who has lived in Fort Lauderdale for 16 years — say they can't recall ever seeing playground equipment there.
If there's one person who's on top of issues having to do with sexual orientation in Fort Lauderdale, it's Mayor Jim Naugle. Tailpipe decided to go to the source.
Naugle denies that he was The Decider here. But, informed of the placement of the new play area, he says he approves. Enthusiastically. It distresses him, he says, that Broward County has recommended Sebastian Beach to gays on its tourism website, www.sunny.org. "They have designated certain beaches as gay," he says, "but the city has not."
Naugle wants families to feel free to use Sebastian Beach (and, in fact, no one has ever been denied access there). "Family tourism is a much larger market than the homosexual market anyway," he says.
The subject seems to resonate with Naugle, like chimes that set off other chimes. He has made his disapproval of gays a cornerstone of his public image. He mentions that he doesn't like it that certain hotels market themselves as "gay only." Naugle thinks this may be illegal, and he says he's been meaning to contact some lawyers about it.
Also disturbing to him is the "Rainbow Tourism" section of sunny.org, the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau website. Rainbow Tourism offers lodging information for gays. "Go through it and you'll even see partially naked images," he says. "Two men lying in bed naked. I just think it's demeaning. They don't show heterosexuals together naked."
Back at the beach, some children have commandeered the climbing structure. A 5-year-old girl inches down a green slide as her little brother tries to scale the mini climbing wall.
The children's father, who asks that his name be withheld, says he would prefer that the apparatus were somewhere else on the beach. It's not that he dislikes gays, he says. But why not put it farther down the beach, in the more family-oriented area?
Wally's partner, Dean, sits up and takes notice. He doesn't understand why the city would choose Sebastian Beach for a new jungle gym, he says, but he'd like it to be known that gay men are members of families.
As the sun begins to drop behind the condos, a dark-haired man walks up. Sam. He is high on two energy drinks, he acknowledges. But he is seeing things with crystal clarity. There's a silver lining to this new addition to the beach, he says. "If you're 5 years old and you're watching the gay society mingle on the beach," Sam says, "maybe you'll be more accepting when you grow up."
The Traffic Beast
"We'd like it to be a little Las Olas Boulevard over here," says Matt LaMariana, talking about the downtown stretch of Wilton Manors. "The city is trying to make it pedestrian-friendly, but you can't do that with four lanes of traffic flying by!"
Tailpipe feels his pain. He has been known to head to the trendy Shoppes of Wilton Manors to pick up a steaming cuppa joe at Java Boys, maybe to peruse the swim trunks in the window of Gay Mart or duck into Georgie's Alibi for a beer, then to hucklebuck across the street for a candy fix at To the Moon Marketplace. It sucks when that crossing gets interrupted by the business end of a Chevy going 55 miles an hour.
Indeed, speeders on Wilton Drive have long been the bane of existence for shop owners and shoppers alike. In recent months, at least one pedestrian died while crossing the road; another was critically injured in a hit-and-run. LaMariana says he and the city have come up with a solution — if only they can get the State of Florida's blessing.
This month, LaMariana plans to open a thrift store called Out of the Closet, a massive, 8,500-square-foot shop that will include a full-service pharmacy. Proceeds from the store will benefit the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which already runs 18 such operations in California. LaMariana's will be the first in Florida. Its location? Near the corner of 20th Street, at 2097 Wilton Dr.
But because the building lacks sufficient parking, LaMariana asked to use the city's public lot across the street. OK, said the city — for a $90,000 fee.
Throw in a crosswalk? LaMariana asked.
Well, almost. The problem, LaMariana explains, is that the state's Department of Transportation, not the city, controls the rights to Wilton Drive. So the project is stalled until the state gives it a green light.
LaMariana says that Wilton Manors' director of community services, Wayne Thies, is pushing to get the state to cooperate, and LaMariana hopes his cold, hard cash will serve as leverage. The check for 90 grand, he says, has cleared.
"We can say, 'You have the money — what's the holdup with the crosswalk?' "
In the Toilet
Scratch the Merry Christmas part. But how about Happy New Year?
Angela Daughtry of Oakland Park couldn't possibly do much worse in 2008.
The problem started in October, when the 35-year-old, engaged mother of two found the toilets in her apartment backing up. She called a plumber, who came and snaked the line. The trouble: Tree roots had broken through the main sewage line. The plumber said it looked like it would probably get worse soon.
Prophetic words. In December, the shit hit the fan. Her toilets began pouring over with neighbors' sewage.
"It was disgusting and just didn't stop," Daughtry says. "All sorts of stuff. It was everywhere. On the walls, on the furniture. We tried to scoop it up with towels and carry it outside, but that only did so much."
Daughtry contacted her landlords, Derek and Kandy Cox of Daytona Beach. She says they told her they wouldn't pay to fix the pipe because they wanted to sell the property soon. They did not return calls from Tailpipe.
It didn't end there. Health inspectors and building code enforcers came out to look at her apartment. The walls had softened and warped, and the ceilings were bowing. She says a code enforcement officer told her it was the worst he's ever seen.
As Daughtry and her fiancé searched for new places to live before Christmas, still sledging through the sewage caked on the carpet, the children, 9 and 13, began to get sick from the mold and fumes coming off the waste. When they realized they wouldn't be able to have Christmas for the children, she says, she and her fiancé began to fight. He left her a week before the holiday.
With nowhere else to go, she took the kids and moved in with her mother. "This sewage has ruined my life," Daughtry says. "That shit has taken everything."
Trying times for the good-natured single mother who's desperately looking for a new nesting place. A clean one with functioning plumbing.
— As told to Edmund Newton