American Scenes: Riding the Trolley in St. Petersburg, Florida

Downtown St. Petersburg, Florida is breathtakingly beautiful. The sweep of earth-toned buildings many of which are inspired by the domes and arches of classic Spanish architecture, contrasts stunningly with the curve of the Tampa Bay waterfront.
07/12/2013 01:26 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Most of us walk through life with our eyes narrowly focused. We usually see what's routinely in front of us, but often fail to notice details above or behind us. Our vision sometimes gets fuzzy when we look to our left or to our right. Put another way our range of perception is often limited. Ho much do we pay attention to what transpires in front of us? As one of my wise African teachers once told me when I was just beginning my anthropological research.

"You look but your don't see. You hear but you don't listen. You touch but you don't feel."

The major contribution of anthropology, at least the way I see it, is that anthropologists pay careful attention to people in situations. They tell stories that give flesh and bone to our social awareness and demonstrate how specific events or individuals reflect the ground-level reality of society.

In a periodic series of blogs, I will attempt to apply this kind attention-paying to everyday scenes of American life. The first installment is: "Riding a Trolley in St. Petersburg Florida."

Downtown St. Petersburg, Florida is breathtakingly beautiful. The sweep of earth-toned buildings many of which are inspired by the domes and arches of classic Spanish architecture, contrasts stunningly with the curve of the Tampa Bay waterfront. There is marina, a yacht club, Vinoy Park, which features a trail that follows the twists and turns of the waterfront as well as a small public beach, the Dali and Fine Arts Museums, both of which have spectacular bay views, not to forget a line of upscale shops, real estate offices, galleries and restaurants. Even in the clutches of summer, the bay breezes keep the air fresh as well-dressed people of all ages jog, bike, walk their dogs, shop, or dine at wonderfully decored sidewalk restaurants. Downtown St. Petersburg is the picture of American prosperity -- a minimally congested green space designed for easy, clean living.

And yet if you pay attention, you see aspects of the underside of social life in St. Petersburg. Walking is a good way to pay attention. During a recent visit to St. Pete, my companion and I walked along the bay front every morning. On each of our morning walks we encountered a thin leathery man, whose appearance and gravely voice suggested a long, hardscrabble life. He said that he fishes from the same bay front perch every day. When he invariably catches small fish he throws them to four old pelicans that sit calmly beside him.

"The pelicans," he says, " get glaucoma when they get old and can't fish so well. So I help them out."

To help pay the bills he sells jewelry that he makes. "Helps me out," he said, "but I use some of it for the birds."

One day we decided to go to St. Pete Beach -- a lovely sandy stretch along the Gulf of Mexico. Because it was too far to walk to the beach, we took the reasonably priced Bay to the Beach Trolley. The 30-minute trip from the bay to the beach cost two dollars.

Our trip to the beach, early on Sunday morning was uneventful -- a few people going to church, a young backpacker getting off at a local Publix, a short, wiry African American woman, perhaps 80 years old, getting on with multiple grocery bags and then getting off, a young man traveling with his bicycle. In fact, there was little conversation.

On our early afternoon return trip, though, we encountered a cast of characters worthy of a Charles Dickens novel. We sat next to a 40-something African American man reading his bible. After giving us a pleasant greeting, he talked across the aisle to a round red-haired woman.

"You work in one of the hotels?"

"Yeah," she said. "The TradeWinds."

The bible reading African American laughed and said, "Oh yes, I tell all my friends that I stay there. I just give them my credit card number and sign and enjoy a lovely view and a comfortable bed. Oh yes."

The hotel lady laughed.

The bible-reading African American repeated the same statement three times, each time with greater amplitude.

By that time we had stopped to pick up three additional passengers. A guy wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and baggy shorts who looked like a contemporary version of John Belushi, a pudgy woman with bleached hair, blue plastic-framed glasses and a Chicago White Sox t-shirt, and a third man in a beige t-shirt and shorts. The John Belushi lookalike and woman, both visibly drunk, staggered down the trolley aisle. The third man, whom the John Belushi lookalike called Miguel, had a steadier gait.

The African American bible-reader stood up and joined the group in the back of the trolley. "Hey, I'm from Chicago."

The John Belushi lookalike bellowed "Southside! Southside!"

They talked about where they had lived. The woman, whose speech was slurred, mentioned how much she missed White Castle hamburgers. Other passengers, including my companion and me, remained disconnected observers.

The John Belushi lookalike staggered toward us and plumped down on a seat. He listed to the left and seemed to doze off. Meanwhile, the bible-reading African American made a series of loud off-color scatological comments, which made the John Belushi lookalike sit up straight.

"Hey," he said. "There are ladies on the bus." He then pointed two fingers at his sober companion. "Miguel, my man."

When the trolley stopped at "Grand Central" for 10 minutes, the Chicago White Sox woman and the John Belushi lookalike got off to have a smoke. Soon thereafter the John Belushi lookalike repaired to the bathroom and remained there. Miguel left the trolley and walked toward the bathroom to check on his friend. As the driver readied the trolley for departure, the woman asked him to wait for her friend who was nowhere to be seen.

"We don't want to be late for the baseball game."

"I'm sorry but I've got to go."

Maybe they got to the ball game. Maybe they didn't.

At the next stop, a trio of men got on the trolley. A young African American man wearing mirrored sun glasses and carrying a backpack, a bone thin elderly man, who shoved a beer can into his front pocket as he boded and a young man wearing a black t-shirt which read: "My parents told me that I could be anything I want so I decided to become an asshole." The young African American man made sure the elderly man, whom he called "Pops," and who walked with a cane, was okay. They only stayed on the trolley for two stops. When the black-shirted man got off he didn't have 50 cents to pay his fair. They driver waved him away.

Minutes later when we walked into our hotel lobby, where Miss Florida hopefuls had booked rooms, we encountered groups of matrons and young would-be beauty icons.

We greeted one contestant. "How are you doing?" I asked

She flashed us a million dollar smile and said: "I'm magical."

American scenes are filled with surreal contrasts -- wealth and splendor juxtaposed to poverty and despair. This very thin slice of life in St. Petersburg demonstrates how the major themes of American social life are powerfully presented in everyday life. If we are paying attention the ever-present issues of race, poverty and social class stare us in the face. In spaces like the Bay to Beach Trolley where racial, economic and class differences can come into palpable confrontation, many of us become uncomfortable. In these situations, we are presented with unpleasant truths. The privileged don't like being in the presence of the under-privileged. Middle and upper middle class people shut down around working class people or, worse yet, homeless people who might be inebriated or drugged.

Inattention reinforces ignorance and limits life experience. Paying attention, which can at times be disturbing, expands consciousness and deepens social awareness, which makes life more fulfilling.

Next time you are in St Petersburg, take the trolley. In every way it's a really good deal.