“So, you’re from Clearwater?”
And now we have three possible routes the conversation can take.
First: “Oh, no way! My grandma lived there. Super cool beaches.”
This line of conversation is a trap. You can’t ask, “Why ‘lived’?” because the answer is going to be ugly. People over the age of 65 don’t move away from Clearwater. Clearwater practically has a hanging sign above the city gates: “Last Stop Before Final Exit.” So it’s best to just ask what the person you’re talking to remembers about Clearwater.
The second option: “Are you a Scientologist then?”
If I were a Scientologist, I would have told you that before I told you I was from Clearwater. But, in all fairness, only a select few people are aware that Clearwater is the “worldwide spiritual headquarters” of Scientology, so if the topic comes around to Scientology, then the person has done some homework on the area. As a longtime Clearwater resident, I can tell you entirely too many honestly surreal stories of encounters with Scientologists, but I won’t do that because Scientologists legitimately scare me. Did you know they have a time machine in downtown Clearwater? AND A SERIES OF TORTURE CHAMBERS?
Honestly, I could go on and on about those wacky folks, but I’m convinced they’re going to read this and hack the U.S. government again in order to delete my Social Security number, and thus ensure my future as the only 65+ citizen of Clearwater without Social Security checks to gripe about.
So we come to the third thing people will say to Clearwater residents:
“Honestly, I didn’t know people lived in Clearwater. I thought you just vacationed there.”
And there it is. It’s hard for a lot of people to imagine someone growing up in a town that is mostly famous as a beach spot for retirees. People think of little Clearwater kids leaving their tiny surfboards outside their classrooms and tracking sand into daycare. They’re not entirely wrong. Growing up, my friends and I would end every day out with a quick trip to a beach just to watch the sunset or see the moon’s reflection in the water. We’d find the diners on Clearwater Beach that tourists loved, and then we’d meet the wait staff at local hookah bars.
Growing up on Clearwater Beach is a lot like letting a 12-year-old live in a candy shop. We could enjoy the ocean, the beach, the windsurfing, the dolphin spotting, and all the food whenever we wanted, but we gorged ourselves sick on them. In fact, I saw one of my middle school teachers at Clearwater Beach once -- there can be no fun in a place where you once had to awkwardly small talk with a former teacher in swimming trunks.
So where does that leave our innocent conversation about being a Clearwaterite (Clearwateran? Clearwaterer?)? With the same “live and let live because this place is so weird” shrug that defines most of Clearwater life. The only civic identity in Clearwater is a shared recognition that it is very, very odd that all of us ended up living on a tourist beach; the town’s young and almost no family’s been there for more than one generation, so there’s not a lot of shared history or culture. There’s just the overwhelming sense that we have to keep the entire place clean and neat during the tourist off-seasons so that we can let Clearwater do what Clearwater does best: entertain tourists, retirees, and Scientologists.