The sign is hard to spot but it features half an alligator, a lot of discoloration, and a few letters left from the word “Souvenirs.”
At the juncture of the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 75 sits a forgotten exit to Wildwood, Florida. A lonely exit only used by truckers who avoid the Turnpike service plazas and travelers who happen to find their tank on E at that strange intersection. In fact it seems that since 2007 when Ocala replaced Wildwood as the Northern control city on the Turnpike the number of people exiting into Wildwood quickly diminished. My reasons for stopping there a few weeks ago emanated from a quick glance into the woods before the exit. An unkempt and rotten wooden billboard sat behind a row of trees blocking it from view. The sign is hard to spot but it features half an alligator, a lot of discoloration, and a few letters left from the word “Souvenirs.” As I exited I immediately saw the Souvenir Shop and it jumped out at me as the most dated Florida tourist shop I had seen. The parking lot was completely empty so my car pulling in was quickly noticed by store owner Slavoljub Stefanovic who came out front to introduce himself. Slavoljub was a small Polack man who hurried me into the store to introduce me to his wife Helga and to show me some the items he had for sale. As I began to have a look around the expansive shop, Slavoljub followed me and filled my ear with our country’s current economic problems and other political banter that tapered off into background noise for me. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in what he was saying, it was just I was so caught up in looking at how all the merchandise on the shelves was so archaic. Disney, FSU, U of F, and various Indian apparel all had layers of dust on them and tags ranging from 1985-1995. Sunglasses that had been out of style so long that they were back in style sat there covered in dust, still unworn. Florida Gator jackets featuring their older logo hung on the racks and bumper stickers featuring popular 90′s slogans were among items littering the isles. Slavoljub must’ve just figured, “Why buy more stuff when we haven’t sold the old stuff yet?”
After taking some photos and going on a little tour of the place I promised Slavoljub I’d be back another day as I wanted to do a specific shot with some of his old signs he had stacked behind the building. He saw me off and handed me “THE PLATIPHORM FOR AMERICAN REFORM”, a two page word document he had written to address what the US needs to do to avoid financial collapse. Though it understandably had a gross number of misspellings (most days over the years it would seem his only conversation was with his wife in Polish) the point of view was interesting as Slavoljub had been a citizen in both a communist and capitalist society.
Driving out of Wildwood I thought my day of taking photos was over and it was time to get back on the road to my original destination. Before that could happen though I needed to get some gas, so I stopped at a truck stop that happened to have a chrome polishing shop on the property. While picking my fuel grade I realized that everyone working at this adjacent shop had a BLACK FACE. It was almost comedic how ridiculously dirty these people were and I wondered why they didn’t wear masks as I walked over. The employees were a little stand-offish when I approached them about taking photos but about half of them agreed. When I asked one of them how they keep the floor of their shower clean he laughed and replied “I don’t even bother.” All the polishers were covered in layers of soot due to the fact they worked at one of the busiest chrome polishing shops in Florida. They were all getting paid good cash by the many truckers who waited in line, in fact almost nine workers were running buffers at a little past 5 o’clock on a weekday. For a rig to stay looking clean and something a trucker can be proud of its driver needed to have it polished every couple of thousand miles I was told. Apparently the next polishing shop worth a damn was hundreds of miles north on I-75 in Georgia, so business was booming. As the sun went down I jumped in my car and hit the road still mulling over the fact that these people didn’t wear masks, when dealing with what seemed to be toxic fumes. After telling a friend this story, he informed me inhaling the fumes could actually be a cheap way to get high and something they were probably addicted to, something that could keep work interesting. I’m not entirely sure of that but there sure were some wild eyes in Wildwood that day at “A Cut Above Polish Shop”
A few weeks later I found myself back out in Wildwood again with my friend and artist Brandon McLean for the specific task of producing a photo for a book I’m working on. While I’ve saved that photo for future use we did manage to get some other cool shots with a borrowed headdress from the Slavoljub and out in a wooded area we found on the outskirts of the city.