Softshell No. 7, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016


"The Trucker and the Turtles"


I leaned against the wooden fence on the dock and looked down at the tea colored water. A Florida Soft-shell Turtle floated to the surface and cocked his head so that one eye inspected me carefully. The eyes of this species are so close together that this maneuver was duly noted. Then another turtle twice as big appeared and another, paddling auspiciously in circles, and peering at me with two eyes, one eye, two eyes.



Softshell No.10, watercolor on paper, 8" x 10", 2016



Suddenly a man, about 60 years old, with curly blond-silver hair approached me from behind, wheeling his bike unto the narrow dock, just as I had. He regarded me with blue eyes and rudy complexcion. He nodded as I spoke about the friendly turtles and with a quick assessment he answered in a constrained childlike voice that did not match his tall muscular physique. "They are waiting for me." He opened the plastic bag in the basket on his handlebars and pulled out half a loaf of French bread and began to tear off pieces and throw them strategically at the swarm of turtles and fish that circled below. He giggled each time they gulped in the bread.




"Thunderbolt", watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



He used to be a trucker when it was nice to be a trucker, a gypsy kind of life. No one tracked you on a smart phone back then. You could meet with other truckers at a remote farm and party and bbq and take a break for a day or two. "Look at that highway" he said, pointing to I-95 in the distance, "Look," he said, "every minute there's a truck. Back when I was trucking, there were not that many. You could time them 10 or 15 minutes apart. Now, every few seconds there's a truck." He continued to tear pieces of bread from his loaf and toss them to the turtles and fish below as I asked him why this was so.




Purple Persuasion, 8" x 10", water color on paper, 2016



His answer had to do with the endless stocking of items in the big box stores, and foods from all over the globe. He launched into an expose about fruits from Mexico and Canada. We are bringing in everything from other countries, even food, because we can't make enough of it for ourselves. Once the bread was consumed by the creatures, he pulled out a baggie of pepper-jack cheese. I was surprised to watch the animals greedily snatch at this as well. The turtles started nipping at each other, trying to get as much as possible.




Softshell No. 9, watercolor on paper, 8" x 10", 2016



Raymond did not carry a gun. Never. He could fake it, slide his hand into his jacket like Napoleon, should the need arise. But he always carried a switchblade. He produced this item from his pocket and I inspected it carefully just as the turtles had inspected me earlier. This knife, Raymond reassured me, was not a weapon. He merely carried it for convenience, since his days of trucking, when he would invariable come upon a car accident where the occupants were trapped inside the crushed vehicle by their seatbelt. (Ralph Nader take note).




Softshell No. 5, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



When the pepper jack cheese was exhausted, Raymond pulled corn chips from his satchel. With his hesitant childlike voice he said, "These are too hard, get stuck in their throats, they'll let them soften first". He threw the broken chips and dust into the water and the Florida soft-shell turtles and fish sniffed at them a bit, back-paddled, and gazed up at Raymond, expectantly. He said he lived with his mother now and she had Alzheimer's and was also an "alchie" (alcoholic).




Softshell No. 6, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



Their home was falling apart but Raymond was reluctant to fix things as the materials would be too expensive. His mother would bribe him with a $20.00 bill everyday and talk to him as if he were a little boy, asking him to make a run to the liquor store and he complied. When the chips were depleted, Raymond pulled one last offering from his basket, a bagel. He was about to rip it when he exclaimed in hushed tones that his real friend was coming, the big girl he called "Babe".




Softshell No. 8, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



Up until now, Raymond's story had been poignant at best, but the site of a 12 foot gator drifting toward the dock filled my heart with both astonishment and terror. Just the other day I had been sitting on the banks of this lake busily sketching butterflies. Once or twice I paused to take in the feeling that I was being watched, and the thought occurred that curious alligators might be slowly prowlling the shores. I shuddered and dismissed the feelings. No one in their right mind would feed gators, causing them to lose their natural fear of humans. "Here she comes, my Babe" Raymond whispered with awe and as the beast neared, the hungry turtles and fish scattered and disappeared in the murky waters. "She doesn't eat bread, does she?" I gasped. "Oh no, just watch," he replied, as he tossed the bagel into the water.



Alligator Woman No.2, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



Babe closed in quietly, almost imperceptibly, as Raymond and I stood motionless waiting and watching. Finally she was just under us, next to the floating bagel. She gently took it by mouth and coasted into some grasses close to shore and craftily positioned the floating bagel inside her wide open chops. She had set a trap with bait courtesy of Raymond. Babe was not afraid of homo sapien, in fact, Raymond had trained her to consider humans as couriers of food.



Green Anole Man, watercolor on paper, 10 x 8", 2016



Her or him? It hadn't occurred to me to ask Raymond how he knew Babe was a "she". Most people who live in Florida refer to gators as "he" (feminists take note) unless said Floridian is a herpetologist, who has actually handled an alligator and inspected it for gender with a forceps. At any rate, my experience thus far was chilling, but my concern about how to handle this newfound knowledge and the man with the switchblade who stood beside me, gave me both pause, and a sense of grounding.




Alligator Woman No.1, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



Surely Raymond, a 40 year resident of Florida, knew that feeding alligators was illegal, a misdemeanor with a $500 fine. For an instant I wondered if my life was worth so little. And for Raymond, I wondered if befriending turtles and alligators was worth losing a hand or arm, as is known to happen to people who feed them. I had already figured that Raymond and his switchblade were no danger to me, but his familial bond with the wildlife in this place was a substantial threat to children and families who fished this chain of lakes.




Above the Treeline, watercolor on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



I could easily inform the police where to find Raymond and when. But something about snitching on a lonely unemployed man who took care of his sick mother turned my stomach. It reminded me of working in public education when I was trained for approximately 20 minutes how to identify child abuse in the home of my pupils, (without ever being in the home of my pupils). Thereafter, I was threatened with jail time if I did not snitch on parents even if I had just a slight suspicion that something was amiss. Incidentally, the reward for informing on a parent was the privilege of sitting in on their court case to view their "public execution". The only time I had cause to consider child abuse was when I came face to face with a parent who threatened to beat her child to a pulp. The little girl stood next to me and so did the principal. I was foolish enough to tell the mother that violence of that sort would not correct her child's problem. At which the principal reprimanded me for telling a parent how to raise their child, "There are laws against that," he intoned. As I stood by Raymond, watching Babe with the bagel as bait in her open chops, I pondered my choices.



"Hands Up", water color on paper, 8" x 10", 2016



Not one to hold back, I asked Raymond to just stop talking for a minute and listen. He stilled and looked at me for the first time. Here was my moment and I began, saying that I found it quite marvelous that he had discovered that alligators have an affinity for using tools, a sign of superior intelligence; the same intelligence that tells them to be afraid of people, because surely they will be hunted down and killed once they are known by the authorities to be unafraid.




Showy Fins, mixed media on paper, 10" x 8", 2016



I pointed out that I had seen a young boy, fishing alone on a bridge that straddled one of the canals that feed into these lakes. In fact he had four poles going at once; one lying on the bank on one side of the bridge, one lying on the bank on the other side, one tied to the post of the bridge, and one in his hands. Like Raymond, he had a fascination for aquatic life and a love of nature. This child was so industrious and clever and totally absorbed in his craft that he was oblivious to me when I stopped my bike to watch him running between his poles. Sometimes he would enter the tall grasses by the edge of the lake, in such a place that an alligator could easily be hiding. Raymond nodded and said that he had seen the same boy. Raymond, I said, if that boy gets killed by Babe because you like to watch her use bread as a trap, than it will be on your conscience for the rest of your life, and mine too.




Brown Dwarf Star, watercolor on paper, 8" x 10", 2016



You have to stop this! There was silence as Raymond looked deeply into my eyes. His clear blue eyes were shinning intensely, almost to the point that I wanted to look away, but I never look away. Raymond replied, "I will give it up if you will be my babe." I am sure that I hid my astonishment, falling back on my respect for humanity, the same respect I expect from others when I am laid bare in a weak moment.




"Crackling", water color on paper, 8" x 10", 2016



"Alright, and our first date will be with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. I have an officer-friend who we can have a few beers with, and she is not a lady who is sympathetic to gator feeders . . ." Okay, he said with a flirting smile, okay, I will stop feeding Babe, but I hope that you will come and make sure that I do." I advised Raymond that I would not make that kind of a deal with him but I would tell my friends who liked to visit these lakes and together we would all make sure he was holding fast to his word. Dusk was almost upon us and I had a 15 minute bike ride home so I said good bye to Raymond and began to peddle away. I heard him call in the distance, "Good bye Babe!"




Surfing No.3, 8" x 10", watercolor on paper 2016


The Adventure


I monitered the lakes for several months after this incident and did not find Raymond feeding the animals. But I always came back to the thought that our grocery stores could suddenly become empty once those trucks stopped bringing us everything we need, everything from other countries where the people there are in great need. Are we depriving them of food grown from their own soil?



Surfing No. 5, 10" x 8", watercolor on paper 2016



A few months later, quite by surprize, I was asked by a family member to accompany him to Karachi, Pakistan, and I agreed. I had been to Karachi twice before, in 1984 and 1986. I would be staying in the same condo that I stayed in 33 and 31 years ago, so I knew what to expect. I lodged with family there and I had a lovely adventure. The only phantom that lurked in my mind was dysentry. I became ill both times, and both times I recovered, and yet I was not a young vivacious woman anymore, so I packed a quanitiy of remedies and scheduled Culligan Water deliveries. I felt confident with my pre-planned sustinence, but I was not prepared for the vigor of decay that met with me.





The once upscale, garden-like condo and posh neighborhood had become a ghetto. I noticed that there were now make-shift chicken stalls on the streets, squatters who were selling butchered chickens, hanging from a trellis just above the live caged birds. Once inside the condo, my gracious family served me a spicey and delicious chicken and rice meal. As each day progressed, I continued to eat chicken with a small reprieve of hen eggs and oranges.





When I quized my hosts, I soon learned that chicken was the most affordable meal in the entire city of 20 million inhabitants. I was struck by this. In my former visits, Karachi was required to have 2 meatless days a week, due to the habit that most families ate pricey goat or lamb on a steady basis, thus depleting the resources. Meatless days meant chicken, condsidered to be the most exquisite and the most expensive type of meat at that time, or fish which was also lavish. Vegetables were economical but a bit taboo to serve to guests or visiting family. Lentils were extrodinarily cheap but most definitely not a culinary favorite, and a shameful dish to place before a guest (though I love lentils). A wide variety of fruits were also inexpensive at that time.





What had changed during my thirty plus year absence, was that all of these foods were now considered delicacies, far too expensive for the best of guests. All of them, except for chicken. So the delicacy from yesteryear was now the daily grub. It reminded me of those weird scenarios in the movies where people unkowingly eat food-stuffs created from dead or murdered people. There were movies like that around when I was a teen, some 40 years ago, and the same theme presented itself in a new movie I saw recently. Thank the gods and goddesses for chicken, because the next phase, I fear, is morgue food.





Now, to close this post script, let me say that I have a very new perspective on what Raymond, the ex-trucker was talking about when he referred to the fact that American grocery stores are stocked with food from all over the world. Without the trucks that crowd our highways, criss-crossing the US, our shelves would be bare. That's a chilling thought.






Our grandparents who farmed this land, produced everything they needed to eat, They traded with each other and supplied cities with food and drink. Daily, I hear of droughts and crop failures, the fisheries collapsing worldwide, the extinction of both animal species and heirloom plants, and the bees that pollinate them. And yet, the trucks keep coming, at least to America. And like the turtles, we keep eating, without regard to the foreign hand that feeds us, (when, by all accounts, they should be feeding themselves). By failing to see this, we also "feed the alligator" that will one day be bold enough to over-take us. But I am not a pessimist. WE are the super power and the art of "Babe" will win in the end.



Friends, 9" x 12", watercolor on paper, 2016



© 2017 Lea Atiq, all rights reserved