Stepping off the Boulevard
This past Tuesday morning, a breezy, puffy-cloud-of-a-day, Paul Harmon – otherwise known to locals as ‘Paulie” – stood at the foot of The Beached Whale stairs at his usual spot. There to keep an eye on parking spot poachers, and in some cases, to take possession of car keys when the owners of said keys are about to make themselves a drunken menace on the road, Harmon was putting in his last shift on the job.
Sporting his signature floppy-brimmed hat, TunaSkin shirt and a pair of sunglasses in dark contrast to his dazzling smile, Paulie looked around the surrounding neighborhood with a kind of bittersweet fondness. After 17 years on Fort Myers Beach, Harmon has moved out of the work force and off the island.
His story starts in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, east-side of Worcester. All families – everybody was related somehow (if not by blood). A woman could walk anywhere in the neighborhood at any hour of the day, and she would be totally safe, protected. Nobody would bother you. You didn’t mess with someone you didn’t know – you never knew whose family they were in!” he says with a knowing grin, a capital ‘F’ implied in the word ‘family’.
In the next decade or so, Paul was married, subsequently relocated to Atlanta for a while, and then, after a few years and a vacation here, Paul made the permanent move to the island. His wife and he were divorced not long after that, but Paul settled in to make a life for himself here. He had fallen under the island’s spell. “When I first got here, I came up over that bridge, saw the Gulf and said ‘I’m home’.”
Paul, his then-wife and another friend met for his first lunch out as a new islander at The Cottage. A few weeks later, he was working as a valet/night door security at the very same place. Through the ensuing decade, Paulie became a familiar face to those who live and work on the North End of the beach. In October of 2010, he left that job and moved to a similar position across the street at The Beached Whale.
Protecting Hospitality Workers & Customers
Although he can recall a few run-ins with people over the years, for the most part people understand that leaving their car in a restaurant lot while they go off to enjoy the beach robs the businesses and the servers of income. Paul elaborates. “That one spot, I could have five or six cars come in and out of. It affects the bartenders, the servers, my pay and the business.” Some people don’t get that, so Paul steps in on behalf of those who pay him to protect their interests. “That’s what my job is, to get everybody in and out.” Sometimes, though, he encourages those who are obviously on the far side of one-too-many to leave their cars in the lot. “It’s not worth it to take that chance, to let them leave when they obviously have had too much to drink.” This was more of a problem when he worked the door at night across the street; not so much with the lunch crowd he watches over at the Beached Whale. “I’ve been called every name in the book by people who want to leave their cars in the lot, sometimes in languages I do not even understand,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’ve got thick skin.”
Paul’s life has covered a gamut of experiences since he arrived in town. He and his wife called it quits, and he found himself living alone for the first time in many, many years. He found himself a spot on Pearl Street, and settled in with a couple of cats and a killer music collection. The day after Hurricane Charley blew through, Harmon and his neighbors came out that morning to see the damage, “and we found a manatee stranded in the middle of our street. Everybody came out to help. We got some cardboard and worked it underneath it, then tied ropes around and under its flippers to make sure it did’t fall off. Then we got a car, pulled it across the street to the beach and dragged it to the water.
In December of 2013, Paul had a health crisis. “I got home from work, and out of the blue I doubled over in pain. His partner of nearly 12 years now, Carol Wilkins, asked if his back was out. “When I said it was my stomach, she packed me into the car and took me to the hospital.” The diagnosis was colon cancer. “I spent three weeks in there, then I came home around Christmas.” The following May of 2014, he went back in for his second and final surgery, “where they successfully re-attached all my intestines and I’ve been fine since.”
After the Fire
But that wasn’t enough of a challenge for this guy, because almost a year to the day after that second surgery, Paul and Carol lost everything they owned in a Memorial Day weekend fire that also claimed the life of one of the duplex’s tenants, known around town as ‘Hippie Jo’ (Joanne Finney). We asked him to tell us about this life-changing experience.
“I was sleeping, and Carol was just getting ready to go to bed. She heard someone yell ‘Fire! Get out of the house!’ She woke me up. We checked the front door and front windows. Flames were coming up, so we took the back stairs. We got down about three steps and she froze, so I threw her down the stairs and across the driveway, and I slid down the rest of the steps. One of the deputies, Colt Masters, he helped me get Carol across the street to St. Peter’s Church and then we got out on the sidewalk. Shortly after that, the propane tank blew.” With first, second and third-degree burns on her arms, legs and feet, Carol was sent to Tampa for treatment. “She’s still recovering; her feet are taking the most time to heal.” One lasting benefit; Carol can predict the rain. “Her feet are barometers,” Paulie quips in his classic New England accent (bah-romadahs).
After losing their home, Paul and Carol looked for another place to rent on the island, but it proved impossible. “After the fire, we needed to find a new place to live. For one thing, the rents on this beach are way out of control. Nobody’s being reasonable about what they’re charging. One bedroom with a kitchen and a bath, and they want $1600 a month, and you still have to pay all your own utilities! I don’t know what they think we make for money in the restaurant business, which is most of the businesses on this beach. I don’t know what owners and landlords think we make, but we don’t make that kind of money. It’s hurt a lot of people; many have left because of it. Unless you’re making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, you can’t afford to live on this beach anymore.” While staying in temporary digs offered by a friend at below market cost, they searched for a permanent location, Paul and Carol went to visit some of her son’s family at Indian Creek. On their way out, they saw three places for sale, and called all of them when they got home. One called back, and Paul and Carol bought their new home the next day. “I love it there,” Harmon says with enthusiasm. “We’re on the beach, but we’re off the beach.” He goes on to say he doesn’t miss the traffic or the noise.
“But the people…” Paulie begins with a catch in his throat. “I’ve made a lot of friends. Even from the job I have been doing, I have met and made friends with people from all over the country.”
And now, another milestone; Paul has retired. We asked Harmon exactly what that means to him.
“Carol’s probably got a honey-do list the length of the island, so that’s going to take up most of my time,” he says with his characteristic wise-guy humor. ‘But really, my son and his wife are having a baby in June, and Carol’s son Jason (known as ‘Pony’ by his friends on the beach from days gone by) and his wife are also expecting in September.” That means a trip to New England and then Toronto. “We’ll go up for both of those things.” But as he looks at the traffic easing past the Whale, Paul says, “I’m not a traveler. I don’t fly, and I really don’t like driving anymore either. Walking or riding my bicycle, I’m happiest.”
Paul talks about the changes that have taken place on the island during his 17-year run. “People have changed in general. A lot have come and gone over the last seventeen years. Some of the changes are for the good, and some for the bad.” He says the infrastructure construction is a good thing, and the newly proposed downtown development from Torgerson looks “pretty decent, from what I’ve seen of it.” He says he loved the small town feel of Fort Myers Beach when he arrived those many years ago, but cautions against stagnation and holding on too tight to the past.
“Some people in this town don’t want change, and they look at the beach through rose-colored glasses. They’re living too far in the past. “They have to start looking at – ‘it’s not just their beach’. They have to understand, you know, we have hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. And that’s how we live. These businesses deserve better treatment.”
Paulie has lived through many changes while carving out a life on our island. We wish him the best of luck in the next chapter.