28 Saragossa

            Ponce de Leon himself is admired next to the softened gray City Gate, waving to hordes of strollers and photographers. A couple looking at a map of attractions bumps into the founder of St. Augustine and knocks his saber to the ground. Everyone takes his picture now, including my coffee date, Holly. Her and I aren’t part of these tourist groups. We are students living here, trying to get a cup of coffee from Kookaburra or Café Hildago or maybe Crucial Coffee Hut. But all these choices are wrong today, another day in St. Augustine where the older residents are dressed in maroon puffed-up sleeves and trousers with no-nonsense gauntlets. After Holly has uploaded Ponce to Instagram, we decide coffee forty minutes away in Green Cove Springs is a better option. The further away the better. 
            On the way to my house we pass coquina buildings and I remember the flyer on one of the wooden columns in the foyer of Ponce Hotel, better known as Flagler College: Celebrate the anniversary of the first European expedition to Florida! I recall how I’m supposed to avoid downtown at all costs on these days.
            “This city is too compact for biweekly costume celebrations,” I say to a body that’s half a mile ahead of me.
            I’ve stopped walking without realizing I’ve stopped. I’m facing what appears to be the only establishment in St. Augustine flaunting kaleidoscopically colorful stained-glass on the second and third floor windows. Rich yellow siding makes this house stand out like the sun emerging from cool clouds against the white coquina town. Why haven’t I seen this house before? I notice a plaque on a pocked clump of stone hiding under long fronds in pots. The house at 28 Saragossa Street was built in 1891, with fifty windows, twenty five rooms, and no ghosts. The stone tells me this three-story canary-colored, white-trimmed Queen Anne style house was built for Henry Ritchie, who was “responsible for the Bird’s Eye View sketch of St. Augustine.”
            This house is 28 Saragossa, the house I rent for my four-year stay in St. Augustine is 72 Saragossa, in a charming neighborhood two blocks north of Flagler College. My house is a sad chipping pastel green ranch-style with ants climbing up kitchen cupboards, performing daily rituals around the bag of sugar. 28 Saragossa has a thin iron fence at a display of potted ferns and short palms covering a front yard of white concrete in front of the yellow house. Sprinkled in every space that doesn’t hold a plant is some sort of glass bauble or statue (mostly of cats). There are too many things to admire; glass sailboats in a window just below the highest peak of the house, a ceramic rabbit’s head by the front door.
            Holly’s at the car, and I’m catching up, thinking of the thirty-or-so purple and blue bulbs sticking out of plant-pots filled with sand, some are on pedestals, recall wine and coke bottles displayed on prongs of rusted iron sculptures, shiny vases I could hide in.
            At Spring Park Coffee, we’re sitting at a table and I tell Holly about the ceramic sun smiles over the front door over tall stone cat statues accompanied with one of the many lounging cats of St. Augustine taking a break from sun-bathing in the shadow of the figures.
            “It’s full of treasures!” I explain.
            She responds, “This whole city is like that.”
            “The whole city is not like that. The whole city is…” what is the word to describe St. Augustine? “Gimmicky.”
            “I mean, we watched a magician cut a twenty-dollar bill out of a tangerine on the side of the road yesterday.” My boyfriend volunteered for the act and wrote his name on a twenty, gave the twenty to the magician, the magician put it under his shoe and pulled a tangerine out of his pocket. He cut the tangerine open and there was the twenty with Charlie scribbled on it.
            “I guess.”
            I understand she’s talking about “Historical St. Augustine,” how most of this town is themed as 1700s or earlier, hiding “fun facts” and “did-you-know’s” around every colonial corner on signs and told by men dressed as sheriffs.
            “The rest of the city feels inauthentic.” St. Augustine is too full of attractions like the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse that ring fake bells every thirty seconds harmonizing with screeching recorded laughter of children. There’s Potter’s Wax Museum, Old Jailhouse, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!.
            As we get back into town and park the car, there’s a woman in a bonnet and long dress—in Florida!—carrying needlework. She’s telling a small group about the ghosts wandering the top floor of Harry’s Restaurant, formerly a bay mansion. 28 Saragossa used to be a house where a man could look through the Ponce De Leon Hotel, the Lightner Museum, the Old Drug Store, look through binoculars, examine life, and sketch all the elegant cobblestone roads, Spanish-style buildings, the exact way all the fingers of the Matanzas pushes its way over land. Every perfectly-angled road.
            “Oh, yes! built in the late 1700s, owned by a rich woman, Catalina. When she died, none of her nine children managed to inherit the estate and the Catalina Ghost has been terrorizing the third floor and the women’s restroom ever since to get her property back.”
            But this history doesn’t matter to 28 Saragossa now. Now, the porches and balcony porches are covered in dangling tinkling wind-chimes of all shapes and colors. There is a mosaic square next to the door, white and blue sea glass surrounded blue ceramic squares shaping the house number. Now, all I see is a vibrancy the rest of the city avoids by obsessing over the way St. Augustine used to be.


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