Native survival - a guide for 'the season'
Just when you were comfortable with going out in public ...
They're back. Or will be soon.
The lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas signals the last bit of quiet time Islanders have before the beginning of the "season" in Southwest Florida, the time of year when our winter friends migrate from their northern haunts to more temperate climes.
Retail businesses often make it or break it financially in the next few months. Home sales boom. Restaurants are packed, and harried waiters and bartenders are finally able to pay off those huge credit card bills accumulated during the slow times of September and October with their tips during the January-April boomtimes.
The problem residents of the area have during this time of spending frenzy is the influx of people in our midst, people who don't know the roadway system, are unused to Southern courtesy and easy-going hospitality and, frankly, are here on vacation, and don't want to be hurried.
What to do during the snowbird season?
A few die-hard Florida natives refuse to leave the safety of their homes from January to April.
The more adventurous, foolhardy or naive brave the roads - paid-up car insurance receipt safely tucked away in the glove box - and do battle with the cars whose license plates all seem to begin with a vowel.
One season long ago we contrived a defense for tourist drivers: A plunger pistol that would shoot stick-on flags onto the vehicles of errant drivers from northern states, alerting other motorists of the potential danger on the road.
Short of weapons or a steady diet of Prozac, here are some tips on getting through "the season:"
Highway madness, or not getting mad
Roads are where most of us have our first-hand, up-close-and-personal view of our winter visitors. Just like they say in the driving schools, learn to be a defensive driver (to combat offensive driving styles).
First tip: Take the trolley.
The Manatee Trolley, running up and down the Island daily, is easy, convenient and free. Its hours of operation should accommodate any errand at any time and, with the promise of no more than a 20-minute wait to grab a ride, it's easy to meet any deadline - or reservation.
Every couple or family on the trolley means one less car on the road and less congestion on our sometimes packed streets.
And for new visitors to the area, the trolley is a great way to get the lay of the land without rubbernecking.
Second tip: If you do drive, NEVER use your horn.
Blaring horns do nothing but prompt harried, nervous drivers into doing something really stupid. The fact that you're blowing your horn at them at all indicates they're already doing something dumb. They're probably already embarrassed about it. Tooting at them only sends them to further heights of silliness.
A case in point was several years ago, when an out-of-state driver pulled out without warning onto a six-lane highway, hell-bent for reaching the farthest lane of traffic. All six of us other motorists, amidst a screeching of brakes, ground to a halt and laid on the horns. The driver, flustered and realizing she'd almost become a hood ornament, stopped and backed across all six lanes of traffic to her original entry point.
Dumbness compounding dumbness, heightened by the blare of car horns.
Third tip: Consider alternative modes of transportation.
One native Islander switches from a truck to a bicycle to get back and forth to work during the winter months. He figures he can get to work in the off-season in 15 minutes by truck, but during the season that trip takes 45 minutes. A bike is 25 minutes, rain or shine, traffic or not. He said the aggravation and stress caused by driving more than make up for the panting he has to do when he gets home - and he's getting some exercise.
Zoo-ing the tourists
View tourists as the rare but wonderful creatures from the strange but wonderful world from which they seem to come.
Let's face it, some tourists have spent some of the year on the planet Neptune. Where else would people wear plaid shorts, black knee-high socks and sandals in public? What about hats that seem to have sink scrubbers glued on the brim? Or his-and-her matching shirts that proclaim "I Heart My Wife/Husband?"
By pointing and laughing out loud, you merely make a spectacle of yourself. But by striking up a conversation with them, you can study tourists in greater detail and prepare for your turn "out of town." You may win dup some day at Disney and in need of sympathy.
When bribery and threats just aren't enough
Fourth tip: Make reservations for everything.
Your favorite restaurant or lounge is going to be slammed for the next few months. Regardless of how big a tipper or how friendly you are with the maitre d', you can't get seated or served a drink at the bar when it's 10-deep. Plan ahead and make reservations for everything.
Planning ahead is generally a good idea for almost all ventures in the next few months. Expect more people to be in front of you in traffic, and leave earlier for your dinner engagement. Remember that you're driving defensively, so you'll want to go slower, too. A good rule of thumb is to remember how long it takes you to do something in August, then double the time to accomplish the same thing during the winter months.
And remember, it's just for a few months
When you're stuck in traffic behind a car about the same size as its "Show Me State" origin, remember that this season too will pass. Come the day after Easter, the nightmare will be over and your company will be gone, leaving behind much of the contents of their wallets and purses in the wallets and bank accounts of area business owners.
It can only get better if it were tourist season year-round.
In a case of déjà vu all over again, transit officials in Manatee and Sarasota counties are working with officials on Longboat Key and the City of Sarasota to resurrect an expanded trolley service to include the key and St. Armands.
A similar program was proposed about a decade ago, grants were procured, but the program was dropped after Longboat officials said they didn't want "toonerville trolleys" running up and down the length of their island.
There apparently is a change of heart to the south now, though, and a study of developing a service that would stretch from the Anna Maria City Pier to the Circle should be complete in about a year.