Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One of Florida's great storytellers

Jeff Klinkenberg, right, and Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman.

Who hasn't read a book by Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck and thought to themselves: "Wouldn't it be great to travel back in time and meet a great storyteller?"

I know I have.

Jeff Klinkenberg is a great storyteller. He's worked at the St. Petersburg Times since 1977.

Jeff would be the first to tell you that he's not in a class with Steinbeck or Hemingway.

But I'm here to dispute that.

And besides; Jeff's still alive!

One academic type has called Jeff, "Florida's poet laureate."

In his 32 years at the Times Jeff has met and written about some of Florida's most colorful and interesting places and the characters that inhabit them.

Back in August, Jeff reintroduced his readers to a Florida treasure, photographer Clyde Butcher.
As much as I love Clyde Butcher's Everglades photographs, I think I love watching him take a photograph even more. Peering through his camera, he is laid back and intense, funny and crabby, almost at once.

"Nobody move,'' he says. "Movement is my enemy.''
Jeff also turns out essays that reflect his love of Florida.

And many of them run in the paper on weekends. Which is good because his stories are best when read and savored over that second cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.

In this November 2008 story, Jeff took his readers on a lazy kayak trip along Florida's Spruce Creek.
The ailing stock market. Another presidential smear campaign aimed at convincing the ignorant and frightened to vote for the right guy. Give me a hammock where I might hear an owl. Let me paddle among ancient reptiles and look for balance.
And in a world where I-Pods, computers, Blackberries and cell phones proliferate, Jeff often writes nostalgically of a tranquil, less complicated time in Florida that's almost gone forever:
As a boy in Miami, we lived in a house without air-conditioning. Through open windows we could hear Charlie and Patricia, the young married couple next door, arguing like George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In the evening, when sounds carried, Mrs. Posner began pounding her piano and singing opera in the house next door to Pat and Charlie.

On Saturday mornings, Mrs. Crespo's washing machine, sloshing and burping only 30 feet from my bedroom, roused me from dreams of Davy Crockett and his worn but reliable musket, Old Betsy. I think of those sounds differently than the sounds of today. In my mind they represent innocence.
In the woods, I hear the cry of a red-tailed hawk as it carries a shrieking squirrel to its hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

Every time I hear a rattlesnake rattle I get goose bumps. A great blue heron, disturbed by my canoe, flaps away from the mangroves squawking like a rusty gate, sounding both put out and disgusted with the human race in general, me in particular.
One of the reasons Jeff is able to write so beautifully is that he works for a newspaper that gives him the time he needs to do his subjects justice.

One of my favorite series of Jeff's stories is this package he did on the Tamiami Trail.

Told in five parts, it traces US 41 from Tampa to Miami, ending on Calle Ocho.
Time to slow down! Stop and look. Stop and climb out of the car. But not for long.

"Hey, mister! Sir! Sir! Sir! Yes, you!"

It's a Hispanic man, polite but disturbed.

"Don't you know you can't park here?" he asks.

You have left your vehicle on the property of the Northern Trust Bank.

"Please, sir. Move your vehicle now."

You explain your mission.

"Okay. You can park here but just for a minute."

He watches as you walk through a canyon of skyscraping banks over to the sign on Brickell Avenue.

"End," the sign says, "East. 41."
If you didn't know much about Jeff except for the fact that he's telling stories for over 32 years - more if you count his time at the Miami News and his college newspaper - you might come to the conclusion that at 6o years old he's burned out.

Jaded. Cynical.

And that nothing much impresses him any more.

But you'd be wrong.

Jeff recently wrote this on his Facebook page: "Here's my story about perhaps the most amazing person I've ever met. Lillian Stello, in her 70s now, was a world famous burlesque dancer who called herself "Chesty Morgan.'' A tragic, tragic life. But talk about perseverance."

Yes; after 32 years, Jeff is still amazed from time to time.
Let's say you are shopping at a Publix. You are in the cake mix aisle near the flour and the baking powder. You are joined in the aisle by an older woman. She is tiny, probably a few inches short of 5 feet, but under a red windbreaker her sweatshirt is strained to the bursting point.

She makes small talk about baking.

"I make lemon cake for all my friends,'' she says in a lilting Polish accent.

Her Florida driver's license identifies her as Lillian Stello and says she is 72 years old. She seems younger. Maybe it's her lively blues eyes. Perhaps it's because she wears her hair in a blond mullet.

Even some longtime friends don't know Lillian's story. Sometimes it is easier to tell the whole, amazing story to a stranger.
If any of this has whetted your appetite for more of Jeff's work, you might want to check out his latest collection of stories: Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.

And once you've finished reading it, you can put it on your bookshelf.

Right next to Mark Twain, Hemingway and Steinbeck.

1 comment:

  1. He really is a humble author, not even comparing himself to the levels of Hemingway or Twain. But in my opinion, his works are almost at Twain's literary genius. His latest book, Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators, is really good, and it deserves a day in the limelight.

    If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and read it. Support him!


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