A Decade in Daytona

  Jerome Shea       August 11, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Like nomads—a very large contingent of nomads—the Advanced Placement essay graders strike their tents every few years and move on. We move on because we have outgrown the accommodations or because the Educational Testing Service was able to strike a better deal somewhere else or out of a perverse need for discipline (see below). For whatever reason, this was our last sojourn in Daytona Beach, Florida. With something between bemusement and amazement, most of us finally realized that we would miss the place.

We English Language and Composition essay readers first hit Daytona Beach in 1999, the eve of the new millennium. We had moved there from Trinity University in San Antonio. Trinity has a beautiful campus built on the site of an old quarry, and San Antonio has the River Walk, Brackenridge Park, and a large dose of Texas history. And the food in the university cafeteria was surprisingly good. No one, I think, wanted to leave. In Daytona Beach the hotel accommodations were good but our daily bread, dished up in the Ocean Center where we also spent the days reading essays, was borderline awful, the main drag, A1A, lined with typical beach town souvenir traps, roared with Harleys and ‘vettes all day and all night, and just about the only beer to be had was Budweiser. The rumor blossomed that we were being punished. But why? What particular gods had we angered? You could imagine Franz Kafka scribbling feverishly. Welcome, we told ourselves glumly, to the Redneck Riviera.

But Daytona started to grow on us even while we made fun of it. Somebody discovered a place that sold beer worthy of the name, even if the place was a long hike away and they stocked that Yuengling one case at a time. Of course, the beach and ocean were an attraction. I’m not big on swimming, but all the hotel rooms faced east and the blood red sun rising in the morning was worth getting up for. We eventually discovered some good restaurants. Tex-Mex gave way to crab cakes and other local cuisine.

Oh, and the ballroom dancing competition in the Hilton. That you don’t see every day, even if you have to peek through the crack in the door.

This year, this final year, we came back to an Ocean Center that had been doubled in size and was truly spiffy. More important, the food staff was caught up in the excitement of the new: they were cheerful and outgoing, and the food was distinctly improved. (So why are they rubbing it in, in this our last year?)

This year, for the first time, we almost saw the space shuttle go up from Cape Canaveral, sixty miles to the south. Alas, it was scrubbed and then scrubbed again during our stay, demonstrating anew that there is no such thing as a free launch (sorry).

And this year, for the last time, I got to see my old college friend, Ken, who always drove up from Ft. Lauderdale for an evening. We are talking about doing the San Diego Marathon in 2011. Brave talk for a couple of guys who’ll be on the cusp of 70 by then.

Each year ETS shells out for a professional writer to give a talk one evening. My heart leapt up when I learned that this year it would be Brian Doyle, lyric essayist and my current hero.* He gave a wonderful talk, and your weekend wonk got to chat with him one on one. Shakily I praised his stuff. He was very modest and said, “You know, Jerry, sometimes when you’re writing you just get incredibly lucky.” I nodded sagely: “As a writer myself, I know just what you mean, Brian.” (Then I thought…OMG! I just told BRIAN DOYLE that I was a writer—and God didn’t strike me dead?)

I think we’ll miss the Redneck Riviera just because it is tacky, with its Joyland amusement park (I never did ride the Slingshot and shame on me) and really cheesy arcades and gimcrack souvenirs and tee shirts with lewd slogans. We’ll miss it precisely because it never apologized for that stuff, never pretended to be what it was not. Next year we will be in Louisville, Kentucky. My source tells me that it is a real step up, with good restaurants, microbreweries, Churchill Downs, the park along the Ohio River, and other delights.

But the food, as the kids say, sucks.

*Google “Brian Doyle, University of Portland.” And Google his most famous essay, “Joyas Voladoras.” You’ll thank me.

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