05/15/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Job in Paradise

The alligator had her face raised up to us and we saw a leg and a tail sticking out of it. It was a possum. The seven-foot gator, along with her ten cute little babies, was about six feet away from their feet as the riders in my tram pulled out their cameras and phones to get their photos. She was struggling because of plants hanging from her mouth, which she apparently snatched up along with the poor animal. At the request of my passengers we watched for a minute before I drove on to the restaurant at the beach. It was just another day at work in sunny southern Florida.


The sights are more pleasant most of the time along the Pelican Bay tram routes. There are beautiful herons and storks and other birds of every color and shape. The anhingas proudly spread their wings in the sun to dry as people walk within a few feet of them. The moorhens, with their green feet, yellow beaks and red-patched heads walk around eating small flowers. Fish and turtles swim along both sides of the north berm as people walk and bicycle the narrow paved strip. I, and the other drivers, weave in and out of the pedestrians, bikes, and wheelchairs with our passengers, carrying them to and from various restaurants, bars and parking lots that can be found at the endpoints of the three miles of routes.

"Is the owl out today?"

That is the most common question I get when working the north berm routes. When I turn my seven-passenger tram (which is something like a long golf-cart) off the paved path onto the boardwalk that winds through the mangrove swamps and past two bays, I always slow down to see if the little screech owl is sitting on the edge of her hole in the hollow tree that has been her home for years. If she is there we stop, so the bird can continue to be the most photographed owl in Florida. She often sits there for hours at a time a few feet north of the wooden boardwalk, just watching the people watching her.

The owl is quickly forgotten when we exit the dark mangroves and the ocean appears through the tables of the Sandpiper Restaurant and the Beach Cafe. There is a bar if a drink is desired, and there is usually a nice breeze blowing by noon. If it is morning there are dozens of people facing the sand and waves from their covered exercise area, moving to the music as their trainer encourages them. As soon as they are ready to return to their cars or to one of the condo buildings that have access to the paths, I load them up and head back the other way.

Pelican Bay is a community laid out along a few miles of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline in Naples, Florida. There are more than ninety homeowner associations within it, shopping centers along the edges, and hundreds of acres of wild areas preserved close to the ocean. The Pelican Bay Foundation, my employer, operates and maintains the many facilities and amenities, which include a community center, a fitness center, tennis courts, art studio, computer center, restaurants, bars, and cafes, along with security and a fleet of more than thirty electric trams.

Members (and their guests) have access to all of this as part of their dues, and they can ride the partially-solar-powered trams as often as they like from early morning to late in the evening. In fact, the restaurants and bars at two locations along the beach are reached only by walking or by electric tram. There are no roads to them.

It is a beautiful place to work. My first week I watched (along with my passengers), river otters playing alongside the elevated paths, pelicans fishing the shallow waters there, raccoons on the railings of the boardwalks, a bald eagle perched high in a dead tree, and flashy red cardinals trying to decide if they really wanted to head back north now that spring was here. The people have been nice, and the food they prepare for the drivers' lunches has always been delicious.

This is a fun job, but not a way to make a living. Most of the positions are part-time and half of the drivers are seasonal, working from as early as October to as late as June. Retirees make up most of the staff; they see it as extra money and something interesting to do. Every day I work I am asked by passengers several times, "Aren't you too young to be a driver?" My biggest shock was discovering that I am indeed the youngest driver out of about sixty that make up the team. I'm a year shy of 50. The oldest drivers are in their eighties.

The little ceiling fans in our vehicles don't cool us much, but then the heat here is never as bad as people think. Winter mornings are sometimes surpisingly cold, but jackets are provided. On rainy days I roll down the plastic sides and read a book or magazine for long stretches until the next passenger comes along. I'll be moving on to work in another department soon, but this is not a bad job (certainly better than my recent experience as a sign holder), and it's in Naples, which is one of the most beautiful cities I've lived in.