Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo
“Everybody that’s getting old has to go back in their mind and say, ‘Could I have done this better? Could it have been worse?’ Myself I say, ‘Hey, I lived it. You haven’t. Your turn."
BONITA SPRINGS — Sitting on a green plastic lawn chair outside of his apartment and sipping his favorite beer — “because it’s the cheapest” — a man called “Gator” watched as people came and went from the parking lot behind Buffalo Chips.
Gator’s apartment is behind the Bonita Springs restaurant where he worked for about twenty years as a janitor. He sits outside on the same lawn chair every afternoon, weather permitting.
“An old normal person would put hisself inside the room here and watch TV and drink beer and smoke cigarettes, but I like to be here and watch the birds, the feral cats that run around — of course I feed them,” he said.
Though Gator is retired now, he lingers at Buffalo Chips like a Bonita-version of Rodin’s “Thinker,” with long, dark hair, cowboy hat and boots. Some of the regulars and employees waved hello before parking their cars or walking into the building with friends, accustomed to his presence.
Al Greenwood, owner of the restaurant and property, said tourists have been coming to see Gator because he’s been a “notorious icon for Bonita Springs” for decades.
“He’s been like our ambassador for 25 years,” Greenwood said.
Gator admitted he does not always recognize the people who greet him — especially during snowbird season.
“I’m out here and I see these license plates … these people will wave at me, and I don’t know who the hell they are,” he said.
Over the years, Gator has been interviewed for articles “about five or six times.” Once, a Buffalo Chips manager even wrote a short biography about him and put it in the menus for patrons to read. Gator recalled signing autographs after that.
He is not quite sure what the allure is.
“It’s just like a little magnet. I don’t try to impress anybody. I just have a good time, and I love my beer,” he said.
Greenwood believes it’s Gator’s natural Cajun charisma that keeps bringing folks back.
“He’s unique. You don’t go to South Florida and see a Lousiana cowboy,” he said.
Gator’s legal name is Allen Christ Jr., though he’s not one to align with saviors — or politicians.
“Once you get in office, if you are an honest man, you turn crooked,” he said.
Gator avoids talking religion and politics, but he cocks his head back and whistles when he discusses the past.
“They say those were the good old days, oh lord, you should have seen the mosquitoes,” he said.
The oldest of three, Gator was born and raised in Baton Rouge, LA. When he was seven, his mother died while giving birth to his youngest brother. Their “pappy” chose to raise them alone.
“I kinda felt bad for my dad ‘cause him and her went out fishing and hunting a lot … they were close. I guess that’s why he never remarried,” Gator said.
He and his father were close, too. They “were always together,” from hunting in the bayous to hanging out at the bars, where Gator started drinking and smoking by the time he was six years old.
“Dad would bring me to the bar. Him and I would drink a beer together,” he said.
Gator stayed in school until a tenth grade math class changed his mind, a decision he recalled with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes.
“The teacher kept telling me ‘pie r squared,’ and I said, ‘You’re crazy. Pies are round.’”
A hurricane with a woman’s name drove him out of Baton Rouge and after a short stint in the tank corps at Fort Knox, he moved to Bonita Springs in 1962.
“This was a sleepy little town. I mean, they rolled the carpet up at six,” Gator said.
He started as a horticulturalist at a nursery, but “that work was kinda hot,” so he took the job at Buffalo Chips.
It was there that his habit of raising “beepers” — his name for baby alligators “because that’s the sound they make when they are really small” — earned him his stage name.
“I would put the gators on the bar at Buffalo Chips. I could train them to a certain extent … but I could teach people how to pet them without getting bit,” he said.
Greenwood said the tourists would “love to see Gator and his pet” when he would bring them over to the bar.
“Once in a while, he would bring them in his shirt,” Greenwood said.
Gator has marks on his arms, scars from his years of raising alligators.
“If you make a mistake, he bites you,” Gator said. “The side of its mouth is a curvature. It looks like a smile that looks up like ‘I got ya.’”
He claims he’s not as roguish as his reptilian namesakes, though.
During his time off, Gator preferred boot-scootin’-boogies over picking fights at bars, unlike some of
“I’m just not built for barroom brawls,” he said.
Nor constraints, he asserted. Gator has been married and separated twice, and “didn’t want to try a third one.” He has a couple of adult children whom he hasn’t visited or seen in decades, though he wouldn’t mind their stopping by and saying hello to him.
But Gator remains at his Buffalo Chips apartment because it’s where he feels he belongs.
“Right now this is a happy place. Tomorrow, I don’t know,” he said.
Greenwood hopes Gator has a long life and is able to remain in Bonita.
“As long as I’m alive, he’ll have a place to live,” Greenwood said.
As country music crackled from his small handheld radio and the graying summer sky signaled another inevitable rain, Gator affirmed he has no regrets.
“Everybody that’s getting old has to go back in their mind and say, ‘Could I have done this better? Could it have been worse?’ Myself I say, ‘Hey, I lived it. You haven’t. Your turn.”