Gainesville 101


Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 10:07 p.m.

Those of us who are prone to pun suffer from a serious condition - there is no known off-switch.

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Spend a day playing hooky and pay a personal visit to the Ichetucknee, above. Tubing the clear water is a rite of passage for North Floridians.

So we can see something in a church bulletin that triggers a chuckle, just about the same time everyone else is seriously into quiet prayer, and then when we try to explain this delightful play on words, we are greeted with groans and rolled eyes, instead of peals of laughter.

This is a long way of explaining how the name of the new University

of Florida president got stuck in my head. Bernard Machen was introduced as president of Gatordom and promptly told all who would listen that he went by Bernie. And in one of those great mysteries known only to those blessed/cursed to being prone to pun, I was suddenly doing my own very unsoulful version of that great 1967 Martha Reeves and the Vandellas tune.

Bernie Mack, Bernie

Oh Bernie Mack

When are you coming back?

And now that I have inflicted that on all you unsuspecting readers, I'd also like to take this time to welcome the new prez to Gainesville, to offer a few tips on thriving and surviving here in North Central Florida and point out a few of the don't-miss spots he may not yet have found.

Sightseeing

After the boxes are unpacked, it's time to look around. When visitors come from out of town to see the Kirklands, one of the first places we take them is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' home in Cross Creek. Stand on that porch and imagine what it was like before the road out front was paved or electricity arrived. The best time to visit is in the spring when the orange blossoms perfume the air.

Right on campus, the nightly flight of bats from the bat house on Lake Alice is a hoot. Here's a little tip to make it even more fun. As you are standing there with the crowd, position yourself directly behind your wife, Chris. As the bats come boiling out and swoop oh, so closely overhead, duck down in an exaggerated manner and at the same moment gently flick the back of Chris' hair and then say, "Wow, that one came close, didn't it!" On a few occasions, even the victims of this prank find it amusing.

You are living in Gator Country, both figuratively and literally. Many universities have mascots named for large toothy carnivores. UF is one of the few where these critters actually live and have a habit of roaming around like lost freshmen.

You'll be able to spot them at Lake Alice, but if you want to see them in bunches, take a stroll down the La Chua Trail on the north rim of Paynes Prairie. On a sunny winter day, it's not unusual to see them stacked up like a cord of wood on the distant bank. Just watch your step, there's no fence between you and the gators.

In mid-summer, when you discover how many different ways you've worked the phrase "it's not the heat, it's the humidity" into conversations, it's time to spend a day playing hooky and pay a personal visit to the Ichetucknee. Tubing the clear water is a rite of passage for North Floridians, but I can't tell you the last time a UF president ever availed himself of this privilege. Not only will a few hours of this natural air-conditioning cool you to your core, but the view from inside the tube will show just what a special place you now call home.

A few other must-sees would be the small town of Micanopy (more on that later) and McIntosh to the south. If you like quaint, you'll love these places. The list would also include Manatee Springs near Chiefland, Cedar Key on the west coast, St. Augustine/Crescent Beach on the east coast and the state's most scenic and best known hole in the ground, the giant sinkhole we call the Devil's Millhopper.

Keeping the faith

Coming here from Utah, you understand how those of a particular faith can impact a community. In Salt Lake City, it is Mormons and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In Gainesville, it's Gator football.

While it may not be recognized as an official religion, in the South

college football is taken nearly as seriously. We even have fundamentalist radicals who dress from head to toe in orange and blue and arrive in vehicles bristling with Gator flags and back windows shoe-polished with pro-UF slogans.

In other parts of the country, when they speak of the four seasons, they mean winter, spring, summer and fall. Here it's football season, football recruiting season, spring football season and conditioning for football season.

I grew up in the Midwest. I thought I knew people who took their football seriously, but it didn't prepare me for my first Gator game. You'd be able to see this from your air-conditioned view in the president's box. But this would be like watching a rock concert on TV. If you want to experience the moshpit of football, head to 50-yard line on Florida Field where the roar of 90,000 voices makes it feel like an earthquake - and that's before kickoff.

Chow time

I'm sure your staff will let you know about the fine dining places around Gainesville, where they have wine lists and real tablecloths. But they might be a little shy sharing with you the best places to satisfy those great junk food cravings for a midnight doughnut, a two-napkin hamburger or the best place to bury your face in barbecue ribs. I'm not known to suffer this kind of shyness, however.

If you are looking for a burger, you can get a good fix just a few blocks south of your office at Joe's Deli. They are charbroiled, large and have never seen the inside of a microwave.

But if you are willing to travel a bit, point the car toward Alachua - a small town just north of here, which I'll get to in a few minutes - and head for Conestoga's. The Stogie Burger is the best I've found. The only thing wrong with it is it's almost too large to eat like a burger, and I often have to retreat to a knife and fork. It's so large, in fact, that when my wife, Susan, I go there, we split one, and also split one of the howitzer-shell-sized baked potatoes and call it a meal. My friends opt for the sweet potato fries.

Gainesville, as expected in a college town, is well-blessed with pizza places, including all the corporate biggies. Leonardo's, just a few blocks from Tigert Hall, is local, and serves it up by the slice. Millhopper Leonardo's, at the corner of NW 16th Boulevard and NW 43rd Street, offers whole pies of the same kind of tasty pizza in a little more family-friendly setting.

If you are looking for ribs, it's worth a pilgrimage west to the Newberry Backyard Barbeque. I'm a spareribs guy, and they do them right. You'll need a fist full of napkins to get through a slab.

If you are looking for a short weekend road trip, head north to White Springs and the Suwannee River Diner. Catfish is the specialty on Friday and Saturday nights, and the country veggies are yummy. The trip will also give you a chance to look around the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Listen to the bells and see something the composer of our state song never did see or quite spell correctly, the Suwannee River.

And for the late-night craving, wait until the red neon glow of "hot doughnuts" gleams onto NW 13th Street and get a taste of sugar-coated air at Krispy Kreme.

Navigation

You won't be overwhelmed with a long list of poetic-sounding street names here. It's mostly numbers and compass points. The name of this column is derived from where north, south, east and west meet in Gainesville, University Avenue and Main Street.

That's SW 13th Street in front of your office building. In Gainesville, streets, drives, terraces and ways run north and south (Streets drive Terrance wacky is my memory key). Avenues, such as University Avenue, along with places, roads and lanes, run east and west (that's April without an i as a memory cue). Boulevards and courts run at angles or meander.

A few quirks to remember. University Avenue magically changes to Newberry Road as you go west. That's because it takes a sharp jog. University Avenue magically pops up again as just an ordinary, less-traveled road just west of I-75. Williston Road changes into Waldo Road when you cross E. University Avenue. Archer Road is that busy four-lane in front of Shands, and as you get close to Interstate 75 it becomes a canyon of restaurants.

If you need to get downtown at 5 p.m., SW 2nd Avenue and SW 4th Avenue will get you there quicker than W. University. If you are north of University Avenue, NW 8th Avenue is an option, too. If you need to head north or south at that time of day, good luck. About the only relief I've found is on SW and NW 6th Street.

And a couple of survival tips: In Gainesville, a long-standing tradition is that some folks think red lights are just a suggestion to stop, rather than an actual legal requirement. When the light turns green, look both ways and count one Mississippi, two Mississippi before venturing into an intersection.

Gainesville also has lots of runners, joggers and bike riders, and some of the most dedicated jaywalkers you'll find anywhere. Keep an eye open for them.

Repeat after me...

One way to spot newcomers is to listen to the way they mangle pronunciations of local places, even if the locals have settled on an approach that would be laughed at in other geographical locations. Here are a few of the obvious.

The quaint town just south of us is Micanopy. If you are familiar with the John Anderson country song "Seminole Wind," you already know how to say it. If not, think of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones and the little kid on Andy Griffith and join them with "an" as in "Mick an Opie."

The county to the west is Levy, which is not pronounced like the thing that holds water back and rhymes with Chevy. Instead it rhymes with Lee, bee and Bobby Vee, and I know you are old enough to remember him.

Forget your French when pronouncing Lafayette County, it's LaFAY-it. Also skip your Spanish with Leon County, it's LEE-on.

The small coastal town in Taylor County is spelled Steinhatchee and pronounced STEEN-hatchee. The small town just across the river is Jena, like gene with an a.

And that brings me back to Alachua. When I first arrived here as a student at UF and found employment as a shoe salesman at Wilson's, the long-time defunct downtown department store, a customer from Alachua took great pains in explaining that the city ended with a long a, as in way, while the county ended with a short a, as in wah.

A week later, another customer from Alachua stopped by, and I

unleashed my newfound knowledge, hoping to sound like a local and was promptly and politely corrected, and told the city and county are pronounced the same.

Since starting this column, I've tried to offer advice on this subject, and no matter which side I take, I'll hear from the other that I've got it wrong. So take your pick. Once folks start correcting you, you'll know you've arrived.

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