He stands, day after day, staring out at the deserted street, a rough leathery hand arched to shade a weather-worn face.
I know, that could be any one of us these days. But I’m talking about the cigar store indian standing sentry inside Havana’s Wine and Cigar Lounge.
I frequently ponder his haunted gaze while cycling the empty downtown street that connects the unused Bo Diddley Plaza to the sealed Hippodrome.
This is Gainesville in a time of coronavirus.
Ah, but where there is hope there is life. Depot Park’s walking loops remain well-used. The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is entertaining more cyclists, runners and skateboarders than ever. There are picnics and yoga on the lush green Thomas Center lawn. And the trail following Hogtown Creek through Loblolly Woods is a favored destination for social distance strollers.
I have been embarked on a sort of social distancing experiment of my own these past weeks, cycling hundreds of miles on Gainesville’s streets, avenues and trails. Studiously avoiding human contact while trying to keep in touch with all that is so unique, so alluring, so…well…so Gainesville.
Along the way I’ve been taking pictures and posting photo essays on my blog as a tribute to our university city.
And they’re not all pretty pictures. One day I followed the broken course of our ironically named Sweetwater Branch from where it flows out of a pipe at the Duck Pond until it finally empties into Sweetwater Preserve. Here a drainage ditch, there a lovely winding creek. We gutted it, buried it and used it to carry off our effluent – and then spent millions trying to clean it up.
On another day I rediscovered Gainesville’s truly spacey Solar Walk. How often have most of us driven past it, on NW 8th Ave., without giving those meticulously sited pillars a glance? Closer examination reveals a display that is simultaneously a mathematical salute to the solar system and a flight of artistic fancy.
Strolling the deserted grounds of the Tu Vien A Nan Temple, with its enormous Buddhist statues, was a revelation. Gainesville’s downtown parking garage, emptied of cars, turns out to be a fantastic street art gallery. And the heroic bronze images of Steve, Danny and Tim are lonely figures indeed when no one is there to do selfies with them.
On a narrow street near the Thomas Center I encountered a winged victory-like sculpture that looks to have been been carved whole out of a dead tree trunk. And taking a random turn onto a Florida Park street I came upon a historical marker commemorating the Cox Cabin, built in 1936 and still standing.
Cycling through a nearly deserted UF campus makes for a beautiful if somewhat eerie journey. The new baseball stadium is coming along splendidly and is sure to be ready when (if?) the next pitch is thrown.
Urban cycling has been experiencing a resurgence in this time of coronavirus, so much so that some cities have even closed streets to cars to better accommodate human beings. Gainesville is a more cycle-friendly city than most, blessed with miles of tree-lined old neighborhood streets and off-road trails that can facilitate two-wheeled meandering while avoiding much of the traffic.
Tired of staring out the window with a haunted gaze? Try practicing your social distancing on a bike for a change. You may be glad you did.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Sun. His photo-essays are posted at the top of his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.)