Twenty-six years ago I volunteered to run a water taxi on the Fourth of July. The owner had a previous engagement towing a boat across the waterway to Stuart, Florida. I had my choice ,and I picked the water taxi because I'd just come back from a delivery.
That was so far back. How far back you ask? Why Estero Boulevard was still one lane each way back then. Yes, that was a joke but a lot of roads hadn't been widened like San Carlos between, the new sky bridge and Pine Ridge Road. If you wouldn't mind stepping into Professor Peabody's 'Way Back' machine I can show you this story rather than telling it to you.
Don't want to, I understand. I'm not that up on all the controls. Anyway I was slated to take one morning cruise of the Back Bay on the Water-Taxi Tour boat and then stand by Channel 16 for Taxi rides the rest of the day. It would be a busy evening after dark when they shot off the fireworks from the one lane Fort Myers Beach fishing pier.
I'd booked a private cruise for the show. Wife, son and some friends would be aboard as we stood off Bowditch point and watched the celebration of our independence. The boat was restricted to the Back Bay because of its age, so just off the point was as far as we could go.
I'd expected a quiet afternoon of napping in the Water-Taxi Tour boat office at the Matanzas Inn and eating a couple times at Mike's Waterfront Landing (Matanzas Restaurant) but I was mistaken. Around 1 p.m., I started getting hailed on the VHF 16 frequency for taxi rides. So, off I went to pick up at a sailboat and then over to the shrimp docks where there were a couple of pigs already on the spit and a serious party underway.
The passengers wanted to go to the Winn Dixie grocery store and 'Casey's Alley' in the same strip mall. Some wanted to go for groceries and some for drink. The boaters in the anchorage wanted to join the party and do some laundry at the 'Alley.' The Water-Taxi Tour boat was load-tested for 30 passengers, and if I didn't do a head count; 40 of them would have piled on during some trips. Casey's was having a Red, White and Blue party. Some trips we couldn't find space at the rickety dock so the passengers had to de-boat into the mangrove trees.
There were exploding amateur fireworks all around which added to the party mood! Most of my passengers were off the shrimp boats but there were plenty of cruising boaters from the Back Bay anchorage and they knew that a 'buck a ride' was a bargain. I burned up a half tank of fuel but loaded the till with a lot of bucks and a few tips. Around 6 p.m. the taxi rides slowed down and most shrimpers were intent on catching 40 winks in anticipation of the big fireworks party around 9 p.m.
Despite everyone around the 'Alley' cooking, when I tried to order some food I was told the 'Alley' didn't serve food. The charcoal grills were set up by regulars and some of them intended to help a charity. Not sure how much made it to the charities' bottom line but it was the effort that made up for the pilferage.
I ate pulled pork BBQ at both ends of the destinations and I had to agree that the venders around Casey's Alley had the best hot sauce to go with the pork. Hard to believe that the Texas boys could be out-barbecued but half of the Casey's crowd were from the Lone Star state themselves. Food was excellent and the characters at both ends were great. "Hey boat driver," one drunken passenger said to me, "you're alright!" Good to be accepted.
That night I fell in love with the strangest place on Fort Myers Beach, 'Casey's Alley'. Between runs I went up to the bar and walked around outside and was enthralled with the most iconoclastic near-beach bar. There were entertainers on a small stage that only a few people paid any attention too. Some patrons danced but most just leaned in to hear the music.
The crowd was rip-roaring, loud and friendly at the same time. Over the years the fishing fleet and Casey's were refuges for men and woman who needed to disappear. It was the original 'don't ask, don't tell!' Some of the defenders swore that there weren't drugs used or sold at or near the Alley over the years. I'll never tell you differently but the ladies' room door had a lock on it and it was often frequented by non-ladies. The management rode rough shod over their patrons. They kept the fights and other misbehaving to a minimum but they couldn't stop it totally.
Despite any "unintentional" flaws, the Alley became a landmark and celebrated the freedom to be different every fourth of July. When the beach became a town, we knew Casey's Alleys days were numbered. Nothing overt but a change of attitude and mindset was part of it. The death of the owner in a tragic windsurfing accident was a big part of the end game.
I was never a regular but whenever I felt the need for a dose of nonconformity, I visited the Alley. It was good for the soul. The water-taxi business ended not because of a lack of need but because of insurance regulations! Happy Fourth of July!
Boatguy Ed is a marine manufacturer, avid boater, television producer and past Commodore of the 'Dead End Canal Yacht Club.'" Please contact him directly through www.supershipbottom.com or the Dead End Canal yacht Club Facebook page or www.boaterstreasures.com or boatguiEd@aol.com.