I first noticed him on the boardwalk path, leaning over the railing to look amongst the mangrove trees. A camera hung expectantly around his neck and a pair of navy blue suspenders clung diligently to his khaki pants. His white hair and glasses were shaded by a tan tourist cap, and his blue stocking-ed feet were staring at the sky from between the slats of his scuffed sandals. Stooped with age, he was alone, clearly on an outing to take a picture of some manatees.
We were, after all, at a manatee viewing center – a boardwalk built alongside an electric plant. The manatees come here because the water is warmer around the electric plant. The tourists come here to see them.
It was a Sunday afternoon. The sun shone down thickly on the flocks of tourists bundled in sunscreen walking the boardwalk. They hung over the railings and stared hopefully down into the water. Fish were spotted, darting here and there in the shallows – but no manatees.
“Ah, well, we’ll just walk further down. Maybe we’ll see something farther out.”
So the flocks gravitated down to the pier that stretched far out into the water. They passed the man in the blue suspenders with the camera hanging expectantly around his neck. They passed the mangrove trees. They passed the fish. They stopped repeatedly along the way to scan the water that rested at the feet of the electric plant.
“See that shadow there? Is that one? Look, something just jumped out of the water there!”
…but no manatees. Having reached the end of the pier, the tourists clung to every last shred of hope, hanging over the edge of the railing and gazing at the water that they had already looked at a thousand times.
What they didn’t notice was the man in the blue suspenders with the camera hanging expectantly around his neck. He had walked to the end of the pier. He had determined that he would not be getting his manatee picture today – but still he lifted the camera from where it rested on his chest. He stepped back from the crowd and tilted it up – up – until it framed the outline of the rusting electric plant, smoke stacks standing tall, pluming white clouds into a blue sky. He snapped his picture, lay the camera back on his chest, and walked back down the pier with a smile; leaving all of the other tourists clinging to fruitless hopes behind him.
There is something wonderful about a man who, when denied the expected beauty of a manatee sliding through water, is able to step back and see the beauty in the rusting smokestack of an aging electric plant.