There’s a tollbooth on the road over to Pensacola Beach. The toll is a dollar.
(Only on the way out. It’s free to come back.)
The tollbooth operators wear a uniform. It consists of a Hawaiian shirt.
That’s it, really.
I mean, I’m sure they wear pants, too. But I never see the pants.
After almost two years of living on the Florida panhandle, I’ve come to think of this Hawaiian-shirt-as-uniform business as typical of what locals call the “Salt Life.”
The “Salt Life” is a popular motif down here on the ole Redneck Riviera. I was of course ignorant about the Salt Life when I first moved to Gulf Breeze. But shortly after we arrived, my husband Kelly and I started seeing “Salt Life” decals stuck to the backs of cars and trucks.
We saw more and more of them. They were everywhere. There were several variations, but the most common was done in white lettering that looked like it had been eroded a little. As though from a gulf breeze, maybe.
“What’s that all about?” I asked Kelly, after I’d seen enough of them to feel they couldn’t be ignored.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s another one.”
It became our own private version of the Slug Bug game.
Eventually Kelly got a job working with some locals who filled him in.
“Salt Life means you’re a local,” he told me one evening after work. “But a local who goes to the beach. Not a local who ignores the beach, or a tourist.”
“Oh,” I said.
But it seemed unlikely there was a sticker purely to designate panhandle locals, so eventually I got around to looking it up online.
Turns out the Salt Life is just a … store.
The company originated out of Jacksonville Beach. It sells t-shirts and visors and coffee mugs and–go figure–car decals.
This was a little disappointing. For a while my ardor for the “Salt Life” cooled.
But eventually it came back.
For one thing, there’s the fishing. I’ve lived near the beach before; I grew up by the Jersey Shore. But I’ve never seen so many people fishing in my life as I see fish here.
Some stimulus money has trickled its way into the local area; it’s being used to build two new fishing piers.
Fishing piers! That’s what we need more of to get this great country back on its feet, dontcha think?
Well, here in Salt Life territory, we do. It’s essential to our well being.
Even to mine, and I don’t even fish. I like fishing, though, now that I live here.
Here are some things I like about fishing:
1. At a time when I get the feeling a lot of people don’t even want to be seen in public, as though it’s an embarrassment to be caught outdoors, I like the way people who fish will just stop on the side of the road and drop a line anywhere they think they can catch something.
1A. They do it late at night, too. I like that. It seems like being out late at night is considered especially suspicious. I’m in favor of any excuse to be out in the middle of the night.
2. I like the way fishing seems to cross all boundaries. People young and old, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, all fish together.
2A. The only difference is the really rich people fish on boats.
There’s this old man I see walking up and down my street a lot. He passes at all hours, in the wee morning, very late at night, or anytime in between. He walks slowly, creakily, pulling a cooler on wheels behind him.
He’s headed for the bridge. He’s going fishing. He’s living the Salt Life.