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Elvis, Spring Break, and Coming of Age in Florida

If you are fortunate to arrive at the gates of mid life, you will have no doubt encountered an Elvis imitator along the way. At any given moment, in this diverse country of ours, a man is wearing a sequined suit and singing “Love me tender, love me true.” My theory of an endless supply of Elvis crooner extends to the endless loop of music that we hear in malls, elevators, and restaurants. With unrelenting regularity, the assault on our aural senses includes “Yesterday,” “Take it Easy,” Crocodiles Rock,” and “You’re So Vain.” These songs shaped and transformed our wasted youth as we mostly headed to the country, where we read Hesse, wrote earnest passages in our journals, and phoned home for money.

But now, thirty years and ten thousand listens later, as I wander through a mega store in search of Tums and Tylenol, the lure of “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight,” is not as appealing as a good night’s sleep on a firm Serta.

Which, believe it or not, brings us to Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, at the height of that American rite of debauchery known as Spring Break. And man do those college kids need a break. They’ve been in school for an entire month and half. 

It was at such a week of throngs, thongs, and bongs that I attended my first Elvis imitator concert. The venue was a more subdued time-share resort of quiet middle-aged couples and retirees that featured two pools, a hot tub, shuffleboard court, several outdoor grills, and thousands of confused lizards darting in and out of palm and banana trees. Lincolns, Chryslers, and Fords owned by heat-seeking Midwesterners escaping the wind chill from Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin packed the parking lot. Shirtless, barrel-chested men in sandals prowled the grounds, their bronze bellies stuffed with beef and bourbon. With cigar stubs propped in their mugs and bottomless drinks in hand, the men were proof that you can become successful in insurance and plastics. Maybe agricultural chemicals, too.

“So Elvis lives,” says an elderly man, without a trace of irony. We are standing together on a balcony overlooking the gathering crowd of a baker’s dozen waiting for the King to make his appearance. Some are quite drunk. We watch Elvis’s assistant, who I later find out is a disgruntled employee at the resort, tinker with the portable sound system with all the joy of cleaning a litter box. He mutters something that might rhyme with “duck” and then Elvis himself comes out of a nearby restroom, making final adjustments to his wide collar, sheer scarf, metal-framed glasses, and white leather shoes (a familiar accessory in south Florida). In addition, he wears a classic sequined jumpsuit—also white—with bell-bottomed pants, and his underwear (pallid briefs) is showing. On the back of his jumpsuit is a painting of a Phoenix that is apparently rising. Elvis is around forty years old with long, jet-black hair, which I believe to be his own, and the trademark mutton chop sideburns. 

“Hi, I’m Wayne Newton,” he quips. “I’m going to sing some Elvis standards and some not-too-well-known songs.”

He gives a cue and looks over at his sound man, who mutters and sorts through some CDs. Elvis says something under his breath, walks over, and pushes a button. Out of the small speaker comes his introduction: the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He picks up his microphone and sings “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” not exactly an Elvis standard. He quickly follows up with “Hound Dog” and “My Way.” Elvis has a good voice and sings with passion, but when he comes to the line, “Let the record show, I took the blows,” he steps on a plastic ashtray that shatters, the largest part scuttling out onto the beach. “Shit, sorry about that,” he says.

It occurs to me that this imitation is not of the svelte, throbbing Elvis who performed in the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, and was only allowed to be shown from the waist up to avoid uncontrollable sexual urges by teenage fans. What I am watching from the balcony of the time share is Elvis toward the end: the bloated, gut-over-belly star, heavy in girth and step, rumored to be hooked on a pharmacy’s worth of pills. Elvis on the edge, just before August 16, 1977 when, at the Graceland mansion at the age of forty-two, he finally keeled over while sitting on the toilet, a victim of cardiac arrhythmia. “The king is dead,” said John Lennon. “But rock ‘n roll will never die. Long live the king.” 

A woman with blue hair and one of the largest diamonds I’ve ever seen walks up to me and hisses, "Having an Elvis imitator cheapens the place.” 

I think back to earlier in the week at the Lani Kai, the well-used beachside motel where the Spring Breakers crash. A sign advertised, “Braids, Beads, and Cornrows by Tara.” A burly bouncer and his posse turned cars away from the parking lots with a stern, “Stay out! Were Full!” This was on busy Estero Boulevard, the traffic-pedestrian clogged main artery for the island, in fact, the only road on and off Ft. Myers Beach. Knots of drunk and rowdy college kids roamed the T-shirt stalls, beachwear shops, bars, and restaurants. Self-esteem was high. A new Cadillac Escalade with counter-intuitive twirling gold rims, tucked ebony leather seats, and a dashboard DVD player queued up at the McDonald’s drive through, the latest forgettable hip hop anthem blaring out with a bass so deep that the car windows quivered. Near the Mango Fruit Stand, which featured red snapper, Gulf shrimp, and sample wedges of ruby red grapefruit, a Chevy Blazer prowled by with ten young, bare-chested men, who leaned out the windows, licking their lips like lizards, and yelling at a group of coeds, “Oh yes, girls, that’s all you!” A woman of around 19 teetered by on high-heeled clogs and outfitted in a skimpy bikini that had to contain less than a handful of Lycra. She clung to a drunk boy of around the same age, who was saying earnestly, “You mean, like where I was born, or like where I’m living now?”

•••

The Elvis imitator’s signature move is to jerk both hands back as if pulling the reins on a team of oxen. Then he staggers for effect. He did this reining-in routine on several numbers, including “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” a piece that seemed to sell-bound the audience. Not once did he dance or swivel his hips, even on “I’m All Shook Up,” and certainly not on “Let It Be” or “Help Me through the Night.” And when he sang “The Wonder of You,” the line “you give me hope and consolation” came out “Hope and constipation.” Nobody noticed.

•••

That afternoon back behind Lani Lai, on a beach littered with beer cans and broken lounge chairs, a local disc jockey introduced an act called the “Fellatio Brothers,” that he said were New York City police men and, thus, somehow linked in a positive, patriotic thread to events of September 11.

“Who knows what ‘fellatio’ means,” asked the disc jockey. A Bronx cheer when up. A few people waved American flags. The Fellatio Brothers, dressed in disco gear and wearing Afro wigs, then strutted forth to Stevie Wonder’s opening funk hook in “Superstition.” They proceeded to strip down to g-strings for the large crowd, which became so thick that I couldn’t see everything that was happening. But I do remember seeing the woman with the blue hair and the big rock. She was reaching for one of the Fellatio Brothers with both hands extended.

Nearby, identically dressed couples with metal detectors and trowels probed the sand for pocket changes and jewelry. Children with plastic pails and shovels built forts and sand models of starfish. Young guys with yellow and aqua boa constrictors wrapped around their necks promenaded up and down the coast. A kid sat by himself punishing a guitar with a pick and singing at the top range of his voice. Pleasure boats bobbed off-shore, pari-sails drifted overhead, and young men with washboard abs maneuvered jet skis at breakneck speeds, sometimes flipping them over in the waves.

Flocks of laughing gulls and black skimmers rested like decoys in whatever sandy real estate was left to them. They all faced west toward the receding tide. I thought of the lyrics to a Jesse Winchester song, “Biloxi,” a tune you will never hear in Costco or Wal-Mart. “Down around Biloxi, pretty girls are swimming in the sea. Oh, they look like sisters of the ocean.” The world seemed soft and perfect in a dreamy way. The temperature was 85 degrees with little humidity and no bugs. 

In Florida, depending on your age, you can feel young again—even reborn—or, suddenly too old. Even on the beach during Spring Break there are ominous reminders of mortality: men toting oxygen tanks and women in post-stroke awkwardness. Ambulance sirens are always wailing, signaling another heart attack or broken hip. Forty-six is not so old anymore. In fact, it is downright vigorous.

But then, just down the beach toward the Lani Kai, 46 can seem over the hill. All one has to do is stroll past the endless volleyball games with the bouncing girls, who are now younger than your children, but nonetheless alluring in their inadequate bikinis, their navels framed with sunburst henna tattoos and punctured with silver posts and rings. They have pre-childbirth hips and 18-inch waists, and perfect breasts without a sign of sag. (It doesn’t help that the bikinis are often flesh colored and the girls look naked from a distance.) Of course they don’t give you a glance, even if you are like me and jog forty minutes a day with five-pound weights with a respectable 34-inch belt-line, and you can finally afford a trip to Florida.

But I will say middle age has its advantages. People either take you more seriously or they ignore you altogether (see above). It’s like you are given a temporary pass, a breather between the angst-filled biologically-driven days of your first forty-odd years, and the more careful and thoughtful and just plain tired years of your last three decades…maybe four. You no longer hitchhike. No one challenges you to a fistfight. Television commercials are more likely to fascinate instead of repel. Coffee doesn’t taste as good so you drink less of it. Vanity falls off away, which can have its drawbacks (watch the eye brow hairs, men). You can’t stay up all night and discuss Kafka, which is such a relief. And you realize that those girls in the bikinis are probably more trouble for you than they are worth. Like what in God’s name would we talk about? Still, it did make my ego soar when a gas station clerk in Alabama said I reminded her of Mick Jaggar. “There’s something about you,” she said, smiling with that adorable Dixie drawl. I can only hope she meant a young Mick Jaggar.

•••

In the middle of “Suspicious Minds” it becomes apparent that the wide belt Elvis wears is much too big. He tugs and pulls and finally takes it off to the bawdy cheers of an elderly woman in a halter. Tourists march up to Elvis and flash their disposable cameras and point their camcorders. During a rather rousing performance of “Jailhouse Rock,” in which Elvis dramatically gives his scarf to a young girl, several people rise up from their beach chairs to dance. One woman swings her granddaughter by her arms in a wide arc. The music ends and Elvis stands there looking not so much like the pop star, but more like a perspiring overweight lounge singer. “Thank you, thank you very much. We’re going to take a short break. My assistant will come around with a bucket. Please give generously.”

I leave just before the second set. I am not alone. A medley of “CC Rider” and “Nothing But A Hound Dog” follow me to my room. I lie in bed caressed by Gulf winds and, with the sound muted, passively watch the Real Estate Network. Across the screen flash scene after scene of lavish interiors, sprawling golf courses, spacious bays, non-native landscaping, waterfalls, and exuberant middle-aged couples riding bicycles. The Olde Naples Seaport had “openings from $1.75 mil.” Building 2 was “just released” at the Twin Dolphins from the $700’s. “Last chance for waterfront elegance” at The Dunes, “from the $300’s to over $2 million.” There was still time to buy time at Rookery Pointe, Herons Glen, Pelican Landing, pelican Isle, and Bayshore Estates (just $799,000). If Bayshore was too expensive, Paradise Village offered a “Key-Wester Model” for $789,000.

The lonely sound of six people applauding snaps me out of my stupor long enough to reach for the remote and turn off the television. After his finale of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis asks the audience, “Did you like my show?” I look out the window to where the crowd is begging for an encore, but Elvis and his reluctant helper can’t seem to get the sound system working again. Finally, everyone drifts back to their rooms. 

Elvis was a hit. My last morning at the resort I noticed a flyer posted in the main office announcing Elvis’s return the following Thursday night. But by the time he reappeared, I'd already driven the 1,400 miles north to Illinois, where the trees were still bare and the icy wind took my breath away.
______ 
Stephen Lyons
is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.   He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. His next book—profiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwest—will be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in the anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com. 

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