You’re building a community in a Walmart parking lot.
Across Fort Myers, unusual communities are popping up in unexpected places as displaced people join volunteers and workers looking for places to camp as the labor begins to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Ian.
Some, like Sharon and Joseph Pastore, 65 and 66, brought their entire homes with them. The couple weathered the storm in a 1974 Airstream trailer they bought in Apache Junction, Arizona, in 1984.
They survived with their dogs, Brody and Paisley, but their beloved catamaran, the Bolero, which docked at Salty Sam’s Marina on Fort Myers Beach, did not.
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“We were out there near the dock until the rain got scary,” Sharon Pastore said. “I know everyone said they were praying, but I called every dead relative I could think of that night.
Even after moving further inland to a Publix grocery store, Pastore said the storm surge threw up white caps across the bottom of the trailer’s door. She and her husband planned how they would break out of the trailer’s rear window if they had to escape the oncoming water.
She’s working on letting go of the boat emotionally, she said.
“We’ll be fine. We’ll go to Clearwater for the season and then we’ll be on our way. We’ll be fine,” she said.
“No wants and no needs”
Others, like Kurt Bartholomew, had to leave everything behind in the forced evacuation of Fort Myers Beach after surviving the island’s storm.
Bartholomew welcomes his new neighbors to the piece of land he used to live on, a shaded parking lot on the edge of San Carlos Boulevard Walmart, just behind the Pastores’ new apartment.
He’s got an air mattress, some spare clothes and snacks, and a fresh copy of Where the Crawdads Sing to keep him company.
Normally, he said, he goes to the library six days a week, but all his books are scattered on the beach when they’re somewhere. He’s looking forward to the mystery, he said.
“I have no wants and no needs,” he said. “And honestly, I’d rather be out here than in a motel.”
As he spoke, he turned his face to the sun and spread his arms wide to catch a cool breeze that blew through the palm trees.
‘We were here’
A few rows down is the Cajun Navy Ground Crew Volunteer Food and Supply Distribution Center in operation. Beyond is a sea of RVs and tents, mostly occupied by visiting workers and volunteers.
An outlier in the lot is Roberto Marquez.
A construction worker-turned-mural painter, Marquez found a calling late in life to channel his activism into the arts.
Since 2018, he has handed the reins of his construction business to his sons back home in Dallas. Today he travels the world trying to paint murals that capture the emotions of the moment following a tragedy or disaster.
He has traveled with migrant communities, creating works in Uvalde, Texas and Ukraine hoping to help document those moments. He prefers to donate his installations to the community after completion.
“I think it’s figuratively important to leave something behind so someone on the street remembers what happened,” he said. “It’s a different way of saying, you know, ‘We’ve been here.'”
He builds his own canvases, some over 8 feet tall, and often uses donated or salvaged pieces of wood to make the stretcher bars. His art could be categorized as Cubist or Futurist, full of swirling colors and stylized, fractured images that become recognizable for a moment before merging back into the piece.
“One of them in Ukraine, they called him ‘Mexican Guernica,'” he shared with a smile at the reference to Pablo Picasso’s famous painting.
Marquez wears a black leather bandolier across his chest, filled not with bullets but with brushes and his reading glasses. He joked about the unsubtle metaphor and said he found it really handy to have his tools on hand while he worked on the big pieces.
The towering mural at the Fort Myers Walmart has yet to be named. Marquez hopes the community will help him find the right one.
You can reach reporter Mariah Timms at [email protected] or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter at @MariahTimms.