I hear the human race
Is fallin’ on its face
And hasn’t very far to go,
But ev’ry whippoorwill
Is sellin’ me a bill,
And tellin’ me it just ain’t so.
(From the “South Pacific” show tune, “Cockeyed Optimist.”)
Nellie Forbush, the heroine in the timeless Broadway show, was an incorrigible optimist. If her character showed up tonight at a Marco Island cocktail party, her full-throated optimism might seem over the top, at least right now.
Marco is buffered from a lot of life’s problems, but it’s not immune to the economic troubles that beset the planet.
To be sure, this place was built on optimism, by the pioneers, the developers, the merchants, retirees, vacationers, volunteers and others.
Optimism seems inbred here. Perhaps it’s in the drinking water. More likely, it’s in the genes of those who came here for a good life and who stay to help make it so.
Still, optimism is under pressure these days, tested by hard times and a soft economy. Our zippity-doo-dah outlook is blurred by shrinking nest eggs, disappearing jobs, congressional tomfoolery and the drumbeat of media negativity.
A cross-section of Islanders revealed their attitudes toward life on Marco. Understandably, many of them define the future by the outlook for their own jobs or businesses.
A bunch of cockeyed optimists? Hardly. But they’re not all woeful pessimists, either. At least, not yet.
Tom Wagor, president of the Southwest District for M&I Bank, a Marco resident for 28 years, spoke for himself, not for the bank:
“We’ve had down-turns and bounce-backs before, but this is the steepest cascade effect I’ve ever seen.
“I worry about America getting away from letting the free market drive supply and demand. Yet, the government had to put money into the system to get through this.
“I think people here are keeping their heads down (economically) until they can see how things turn out. If we can stabilize the real estate market and foreclosures, that will be a good thing.”
Lori Wagor, Sports Center manager for Hideaway Beach Club since 1991:
“My business is down, but at the recent sports-wear tradeshow in Orlando, there wasn’t much gloom and doom. Maybe it’s just a golf attitude, as in, ‘I’m going to do better today.’
“We all have to tighten our belts. It seems everyone’s been hurt, so we cut back on things and ride it out. We’re a strong country and we’ll be fine, but it may take longer than some people think.”
Rick Popoff, owner of Rick’s Island Salon and Day Spa:
“I didn’t realize until this past year how many of our clients retired early and depend on the stock market. It’s frightening to hear people singing the blues about losing money in the market. Many have reserves but they’re losing a lot.
“Change usually is a good thing; scary, sure, but it usually turns out well, as long as we don’t try to change the whole world at one time.
“The best way to run up the economy is to support the people right under your nose. Spend money here and it will allow people to hire more workers.”
Lisa Popoff works with Rick in the salon and also Marco Island’s best-known school crossing guard for 22 years. She talks about the children she shepherds safely every school day:
“I think most kids are shaped by what they hear at home. I don’t think they grasp how bad the economy is now.
“Many seem optimistic, but some live in an unrealistic world of computers, cell phones and video games. And others don’t have a chance to be kids anymore, because they have more responsibilities at home.”
Vincent and Joseph Giannone, 18-year-old fraternal twins, and Marco residents since childhood, are now students at Florida Gulf Coast University:
“As a student, preparing to go into the world, it’s kind of scary. There may not be jobs in our fields and we may end up working in restaurants,” says Vincent.
“In the short term, we started college at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, but the tight economy forced us to move back home and attend FGCU. It’ s a good school, but it was depressing to have to give up independence and live at home again. Also, there just aren’t any good jobs for college students, because everybody else is taking them.
“I’m usually optimistic, but right now it’s tough. I’m not sure politicians will give us what we need.”
“I’m an optimist generally but we could do a lot better with our country. My friends talk politics all the time and enjoy it. One was a McCain supporter and one is a big fan of Marx, and I voted for Obama,” says Joseph.
“Meantime, I’ve been looking for a job for six weeks. The economy is terrible, so there’s no jobs open for waiters and servers.”
Still, Joseph is guardedly optimistic.
“Ten years from now, I’d like to be a filmmaker in Hollywood, but if that doesn’t work out, I’d like to teach.”
Roy Lansdown, owner of Panorama Custom Building, a Marco Islander for 27 years:
“I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. I ‘m just trying to stay based in reality with what I see in front of me.
“Every business is feeling the effects of the economy and everyone I talk to in business is suffering. We’re just struggling to stay afloat in the construction business. Most builders now are doing renovations, remodeling and additions for existing clients, just to cover their overhead.
“To fix this, we have to put the common man back to work and here, it’s in construction work, our major industry.”
Christine Farhat, a teacher at Tommie Barfield Elementary School:
“Living here is expensive and the economy is forcing some teachers to relocate. Many who stay must subsidize incomes with additional jobs.”
That’s true in Christine’s case. She now tutors students after school, works part-time as a server at Sasso’s restaurant and weekends at the Eagle’s Nest timeshare, building on Marco Beach.
“I have one daughter in college and the other will begin college in August,” Christine explains. So, is she still optimistic?
“Yes, generally. I think hard times bring out the best in many people.”
Chuck Schwindt, a retired orthopedic surgeon:
“I’m pretty much in the middle between optimist and pessimist. When the economy went bad, I was pessimistic about things. Now I can see there are bits of light, but generally I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
“Many people here are optimistic because most who got here and have done well achieved that by being optimistic. That will hold for the long run, but right now I hear a lot of pessimism. We hear changes are coming but we’re not seeing much yet.”
Jim Prange, a Realtor here since 1980, now with Premier Properties:
“I think it’s sad. I go to Little League and three of the dads are losing their houses. Some are people who’ve been on Marco forever and made contributions to the Island. Now they’re losing their income.
“Most people agree last year was the worst financial year since the Depression; the stock market, real estate, everything. As amazing as that is, our sales on Marco went up.
“Overall, however, I think about 300 Realtors, fewer than half the Marco total, had at least one sale last year.
“We’re realistic, yet still optimistic. We wake up in the morning like a prizefighter getting ready to fight.”
Nikki Prange, Jim’s 24-year-old daughter and his Realtor partner at Premier Properties:
“People my age are pretty scared, assuming the real estate market and the general economy will get worse. Some friends are moving back with their parents to save money.
“Every day we come to work trying to have a smile on our faces, but you turn on the news and everything’s negative. Sometimes you’re across the table from wealthy people, crying because they can’t make their mortgage payments any more.”
“We must stay positive, everyone working together, not to create an unrealistic picture, but to make a positive out of the negative. Life is what you make of it.”
Whether these people are optimistic or pessimistic, they all had much more to say. Perhaps everyone would be better off if there was more sharing. Commiseration can be cathartic.
And who knows, amongst the conversations we might even find a few “cockeyed optimists,” who might sing along with Nellie Forbush in that hit song from “South Pacific”
“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.”