Emily Dickinson said, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
Woody Allen said, "How wrong she was! The thing with feathers turns out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich." (This from his book "Without Feathers.")
I say the thing with feathers was the guy in a South Beach store who was trying on a headdress that made him look as if a bunch of angels were trying to perch on his noggin. A lot of guys on SoBe that evening were wearing feathers. And quite a few ran around in wings. Imagine: fairies on South Beach.
It turns out it was White Party Week, which was explained to us by one of the Big Birds with a rolling boil of enthusiasm: "It's White Party Week!" This was borne out by the techno music everywhere (when you die in SoBe they pipe Planet Soul into the casket), the beach party where the only advertisers were Bacardi and Wet (if you pack more than that for a romantic weekend, I question the validity of your relationship) and the pockets of people dressed in white feathers, emanating energy. Maybe Emily was right. They even made me hopeful. I hope they all got laid.
It was supposed to be a hopeful weekend for us, too, we two girls who were not invited to the (feathery) White (fairy) Party. (Actually one Big Bird did politely say, "Anyone can come" -- but in that soft voice that translates as, "You'd be as out of place as a pig at the opera." ) We were going to the Coral Castle, which I thought was going to be a quixotic monument to lost love, defeated purpose and the mild insanity that sometimes makes people likeable.
The nut in question was Ed Leedskalnin, a Latvian mason who built a home out of coral as a monument to his ex-girlfriend. "In 1912 cupid's arrow struck my heart," says Ed's disembodied voice, in the self-guided tour of his freaky Homestead homestead. Sadly, the 16-year-old girlfriend (Ed was 26) told him the night before their wedding that he was "too old and too poor." It's nice to know that teen-agers 80 years ago were just as capricious as they are now.
With his "memories of Agnes and my lost family still in my mind," Ed built the castle. No one is quite sure how Ed, a 5-foot, 100-pound guy, moved the 10-ton sun dial and the 1,000-pound chairs he carved. The petulant little Latvian got irritated when questioned. "If you understand the principals of weight and balance used to build the pyramids you can move the world," he says. (Of course, nobody understands how the pyramids were built. Newsweek notes that people with weird theories on the subject are called "pyramidiots.")
Not having seen pictures, I imagined the castle would be an orangey-pink cottage, with the kind of cake-icing decoration a 16-year-old girl would like.
What we came across was a structure as gulaglike and depressing as the Orlando Public Library. Coral turns kohl when it dies, so the enormous gates at the entrance came to resemble a South Florida version of the Catacombs. Ed did sculpt one truly beautiful thing, a crescent moon that oversees the rest of the structures. But it is the Marilyn Munster of the lot, the only thing with a smattering of the high vision one wants in a personal Eden.
Other objects were just plain disturbing. "Ed's bathtub" was a hollowed-out block of stone you wouldn't soak an engine block in. Even the heart-shaped table was inescapably jagged and painful. But the nail in the coffin was the living quarters. The plank-board beds, rotting burlap and the legless "chair" suspended from the ceiling by a rusted 3/4-inch chain suggested the horror-movie scene where we enter the psycho's lair. We decided to go someplace more cheerful, like an old insane asylum.
Instead of impossible dreams, the Coral Castle's strange sorrow better reflected the virtues of quitting. We've all had heartbreaks, or, as Homer Simpson sensitively put it, "Welcome to Dumpsville, population: you." And in these instances one often tells one's self, "I need a hobby." But you'd think you'd know right away that building such a monument was a bad idea. So much for "Great Expectations." Even Sonny Bono healed up and found another girl.
And on the subject of great literature, back to Woody and Emily.
Woody once said, "Sex relieves tension and love causes it." Mostly it's true, explaining why there was so much happiness at the Wet Bacardi party and so much hard darkness in Ed's monument to emotional constipation. "Stones commemorating the past," after all, is one way to describe a graveyard. The thing with feathers is supposed to take itself lightly, the quality, according to theory, that makes angels able to fly.