by Tim Gilmore, 12/31/2018
1. Learning to Walk at the Crossroads
Haydon Burns operated his 1971 mayoral campaign office in the Kings’ former apartment, the motel office at the Gator Lodge. He’d been mayor for 16 years and then governor, but Hans Tanzler beat him handily. Burns couldn’t convince enough voters that despite his stance against 1968’s city-county Consolidation, he should be the first mayor of Consolidated Jacksonville.
In the bar where the lobby once was, it’s Lisa King’s and her mother Susan’s birthday party. Lisa’s wearing gold, a long dress, a golden shimmer in her hair and makeup. She’s 5’11” without the heels, regal but unassuming.
Today’s Lisa’s birthday, the 28th. Tomorrow’s her mother’s. The fact that we’re here, that Ken Organes, Democratic challenger to the House incumbent in the most recent election, is here, that Richard Ceriello, with his waxed handlebar mustache, is here, that Thoren Perego, student activist at the University of North Florida, is here—marks a strange twist in the history of the Gator Lodge, recently renamed Midtown Lodge. It’s a homecoming.
When Salvatore Tomarchio, who’d Americanized his Sicilian name to Sam King, built this place in the early 1960s, he designed it with pride, and his love for his daughter Lisa (Linda came a little later) went into the spirit of the place. At the front doors, “Gator Lodge” greeted guests in striking letters in terrazzo flooring.
In those early years, Sam partnered with “Chopstick Charley,” from the Chinese restaurant and motel across the street, to host luau-themed nights at the Gator Lounge, and Lisa stuffed campaign envelopes for Haydon Burns, the former “Black Hat” (anti-Consolidation) mayoral candidate, at his campaign headquarters inside, in 1971. His new slogan was “All Hats for Burns!”
But the ’70s brutalized the Gator Lodge, situated as it was amidst the historical forces reshaping the city’s geography. The motel had stood outside the city limits before Consolidation. Now construction of Interstate 95 relegated U.S. 1, Philips Highway, and its long line of formerly middle class “motor hotels” to a derelict forgotten backstreet. White flight and suburban sprawl supplanted inner Philips Highway and left its motels in their detritus.
A bearded man in a baseball cap and a black Security Engineering t-shirt interrupts small talk politely, asks what’s going on tonight. He’s not used to seeing many people at the bar on a Friday night, especially not men in blazers, women in gowns. His name is Richard Brewer. He’s lived here for a year, but he’s lived in motels across the city since 1983. He used to “stay away from this place,” he says, since in the ’80s and ’90s, when Jacksonville was “Cracksonville,” it “was all crack cocaine and prostitutes.”
It’s different these days, he says. “It ain’t fair it’s a one-star motel. These new owners is different. Maybe it’s their Hindu upbringin’ or something.” The new owners, Jai Shree Laxmi Kuber LLC, who’ve tightened security, renovated the front office and the bar, and put the word on the street that nobody can rent here by the hour, still include Prem Patel, of the family who’s operated the Gator Lodge since the Kings sold it 42 years ago.
If place absorbs experience, the Gator Lodge has seen and soaked into its walls and grounds as wide a range of life as any other Jacksonville address. And Lisa King’s own foundations are embedded in those of the Lodge. When she first learned to walk, she went straight for the crossroads. In fact, it was her early childhood interest in where everybody came from and where they were going that convinced her parents to move.
2. Polis and Demos
If Gator Lodge was the place of Genesis, I’ve heard three versions of the story of the Exit from Eden. They’re all similar and since time and memory inevitably change the narrative, the truth is either somewhere amidst the three, or its own fourth version.
Susan, Lisa’s and Linda’s mother, says she and Sam had to “corral” Lisa in a lobby corner behind child safety gates while they worked. One morning, Susan found Lisa seated in a booth with a guest couple eating breakfast, announcing that she’d be leaving with them. The story Lisa’s heard has her standing out front of the lobby with her arms outstretched, asking strangers to take her with them. Linda’s heard it that Little Lisa plopped herself into someone’s car, that the travelers, having just checked out of the Gator Lodge, were halfway to St. Augustine before they realized they had a hitchhiker.
It’s no wonder Lisa grew up political. She grew, from her earliest years, as a child of the polis, the city-state. The Greek roots of politics, connecting her to a metropolis, brought her love for the demos, the people, to activism in her core understanding of the Democratic Party.
As a toddler, her access to strangers and eagerness to meet them sometimes terrified her mother. “Lisa never met a stranger,” Susan says. “We’d think she was in one room and find her talking to the cook in the kitchen, or she’d have slipped out with a family she’d just met in our restaurant, there at the motel, ready to tell us all about them and where they were going.”
It helps also to remember that motels first started as “motor hotels” for working-class Americans proud to afford their first automobile and, alongside that new status, the dream of vacationing a few days from work, out into this American landscape, just as far as their cars might, in permitted time, take them. Motels, or motor lodges, or motor inns, were all about having accrued to yourself and your family some time all your own on the road out from home, within the limits of overnight expense and time required to be back at work.
Perhaps more than any Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen metaphor, the motel’s the American Dream before it soured on itself, wherein at four and six years old, Lisa thought herself ready to take her education on the road.
Susan remembers how drivers along early I-95 could see the first Gator Lodge sign glowing ahead of the city skyline. When Hurricane Dora tore through Jacksonville in late summer, 1964, it blasted the sign from above the motel.
Standing before the bar, Susan points to a game room with a pool table and computerized slot machines. That room was the restaurant, she says, which extended much further back. After she and her husband sold the place, the second owners inserted the wall midway through the restaurant, and opened a package store, now closed, on the other side.
“My husband was so particular,” Susan says. “Craftsmen from Italy did mosaic tile in the bathrooms. Every blade of grass was manicured in place. We had a $2.95 prime rib dinner. People used to stand in line. We had a baker, the best fresh bread. You could smell it all over the Southside. And we had the best baker, Vincent Acri. He was Italian too. He developed asthma and moved out west. Lisa would wander in there, all through the restaurant, the place might as well have been hers, and she’d come out covered in flour. We were still under construction when she was born in ’62.” With pride after all these years, she says, “You know this place has 100 rooms.”
3. “You Could See Every Scale on that Gator.”
The alligator shimmered. The Kings added him after Hurricane Dora took down their first sign. He crawled across the exterior wall.
When you’ve lived in Florida all your life, it’s easy to forget the alligator’s exotic to people elsewhere. This monster, though it occasionally carries off a dog, a child, an old woman walking her dog, is not one millionth as prevalent as the Florida cockroach. The alligator is, however, it’s also easy to forget, strangely beautiful.
Still, each alligator that occupied that outer wall became a little less exquisite. Teenagers wanted to steal its mad glittering eyes. The original fiend crawled that wall and glistened in yellow sodium-arc lights in the rain.
“The kids all wanted to steal it,” Susan says. “Got it in their heads to own the gator.”
In acclimating its people to living with vestigial dinosaurs, Florida acculturated this primordial beast as “the gator.” The University of Florida called its football players “Gators” and Hanna-Barbera’s 1962 cartoon Wally Gator was basically a reptilian Yogi Bear.
Still, to be a 16 year old boy in 1968, rejecting your parents’ work-hard-for-a-paycheck-to-paycheck-life value system, growing your hair long, listening to Black Sabbath and David Bowie, living life unplanned, moment to moment, you’d be the King of Florida to sneak that gator into your bedroom.
“It used to be so vivid,” Susan says, “you could see every scale on that gator. The eyes looked right at you, right into you. People drove by and stopped their cars just to take a picture.”
4. Navy Chaplain Scandal, the Search for Aileen Wuornos & Valentines
In 1972, the Gator Lodge became the setting for a case against a Navy chaplain, Commander Andrew Jensen, accused of manipulating several women and coercing them into sex.
The [San Francisco] Examiner News Services reported, on March 23, 1972, that a doctor testified in court in Jacksonville that Jensen was, “on July 8, the date a Navy wife claims to have had sexual intercourse with him” at the Gator Lodge, “covered with a severe rash and boils from his belt line down to his thighs.”
Dr. Clay Wickham said “sexual intercourse” would have been “extremely unlikely and very painful.”
The court leaned on testimony from “Mrs. Feryle Jump,” former Gator Lodge “clerk” who contradicted the testimony of 40 year old Navy wife Lora Gudbranson, who claimed she and Jensen had booked a room for sex. Jump said Jensen rented a room, but that “he was alone,” that she could see “there wasn’t anyone in his car because it was parked under the canopy right in front.”
Other Navy wives testified against Gudbranson, calling her femininity into question and saying she was “very aggressive” toward the chaplain. An Associated Press photo showed the chaplain, a gent in his sailor’s cap, holding the door open for his wife and three “ladies that are character witnesses.” Jensen soon left the scandal behind him, free and unblemished.
Linda King remembers “Mrs Feryle Jump,” whom she knew as “Aunt Marie.” She knew that Feryle Marie Jump, who died at age 79 in 1998, was not her biological aunt, and recalls, “Aunt Marie picked me up from school, first grade. My parents were out of town in Italy. I remember this wonderful day. It was just before Valentine’s. We walked back and she put me up in one of the rooms and gave me a felt pen, a felt-tipped pen, which felt special for some reason, and I filled out Valentine cards in that room for all my classmates.”
Richard Brewer remembers the Gator Lodge from the ’80s through the early 2000s as a frightening place he avoided. He moved in a year ago when he found out the motel no longer rented rooms by the hour. Before that, he’d stayed in motels down on Lane Avenue, the Diamond Inn, the Budget, the Executive.
In December 1990, Jacksonville police interrogated two women staying at the Gator Lodge who matched the description of a probable serial killer and her lover, wanted for the murders of a number of possible rapists and johns.
An All Points Bulletin had just announced, “TWO WOMEN ARE BEING SOUGHT AS POSSIBLE SUSPECTS IN THE SHOOTING DEATHS OF EIGHT TO TWELVE MIDDLE-AGED MEN WHO WERE LURED TO THEIR DEATHS ON THE FLORIDA HIGHWAYS.”
Later criminologists, feminists and cultural studies theorists made much of this language of blame. Prostitutes “lured” men like sirens of the highway, as prostitution had conservatively been considered a “victimless crime.”
“SUSPECT #1 IS A WHITE FEMALE, FIVE FEET EIGHT TO FIVE FEET TEN, WITH BLONDE HAIR, WHO IS TWENTY TO THIRTY YEARS OLD. SHE MAY HAVE A HEART TATTOO ON HER UPPER ARM. SUSPECT #2 IS ALSO A WHITE FEMALE, FIVE FEET FOUR TO FIVE FEET SIX, WITH A HEAVY BUILD AND SHORT BROWN HAIR. SHE MAY BE WEARING A BASEBALL CAP. THESE WOMEN ARE ARMED AND DANGEROUS AND MAY BE OUR NATION’S FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLERS. INVESTIGATORS [FEEL] COMPELLED TO WARN THE PUBLIC, PARTICULARLY MIDDLE-AGED WHITE MEN TRAVELLING ALONE.”
Serial killers don’t usually claim self-defense. Aileen Wuornos did. In a videotaped confession on January 16, 1991, she said she “believed she was going to be beaten or raped or killed by each of her victims.” As a child, she’d been sexually abused repeatedly, and as a child prostitute and young woman, she’d been beaten and raped again and again. In Phyllis Chesler’s 1993 St. John’s Law Review article, “A Woman’s Right to Self-Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuornos,” she argues Wuornos had “been under attack all her life, probably more than any soldier in any real war.”
“Given what we now know,” Chesler writes, “about how often prostituted women are raped, gang-raped, beaten, robbed, tortured and killed, Wuornos’s claim that she killed six out of hundreds or thousands of violent johns, in self-defense, is plausible.”
In October 2002, the State of Florida executed Aileen Wuornos, who’d traveled Florida with her lover Tyria Moore, by lethal injection, for the murder of seven men she’d encountered as a prostitute in 1989 and 1990. Wuornos used at least five aliases.
Times-Union headlines in December 1990 referred to “2 Women Questioned in Slayings of 8 Men,” and the stories referred to victims as “white, roughly between the ages of 40 and 60. All were shot, some repeatedly. Some were stripped naked and robbed, their bodies dumped along rural roads.”
The women at the Gator Lodge, questioned for six to eight hours, were finally identified as 26- and 38-year-old stepsisters from Carrollton, Georgia. The likelihood that Wuornos spent time at the Gator Lodge is high, but she (probably) never killed a john there.
5. The City’s Great Untapped Strength
After Sam King’s heart attack and death in 1972, Susan remarried, lived further south in the Jacksonville suburb of San Jose, then moved to the outskirts of Atlanta.
When Susan visited Lisa and Linda at a brewery in Athens, Georgia a few years ago, they met an Indian boy studying at the University of Georgia, who told them his grandparents had lived at the Gator Lodge down in Jacksonville.
Now, three eves from New Year’s Eve, Lisa’s birthday converges with her mother’s at midnight. Tonight’s a homecoming.
Her mother remembers Julius Collier, “the young black man who worked with Sam on the construction site. Julius and Sam went together wherever they went.” Everywhere Sam went, he took Lisa with him, standing her between him and Julius in the cab of his white Chevy pickup. “She never knew color,” Susan says.
She feared for Lisa toddling around the pool. “We fenced in an area, a big shade tree in the middle, and put all her toys inside.” One day Susan looked up to the crane lifting a large piece of metal to the second floor of the motel, still under construction, and saw Sam with Lisa sitting in his lap in the bucket of the crane, rising above Philips Highway.
Another time, when Lisa was “corralled” behind child safety gates, missing out on being “in the middle of the lobby, where the action was, she piled all her toys and her lawn chaise longue on top of each other and she made her escape.”
Lisa King was born a “people person” in a place of constant coming and going. From the start, she wanted to understand everyone’s story. She wanted to know about their lives, about as many different kinds of people as she encountered. Haydon Burns’s campaign headquarters was almost but incidental. Now she talks about how much more diverse Jacksonville is than most residents realize, how the city’s leaders need to make everyone’s lives better, not just keep the wealthy happy, how her own father was an immigrant in a city of immigrants, and about the great untapped strength of the city’s diversity. She learned all these lessons early on, here at the crossroads, at the Gator Lodge.