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From New York Sculptor to Bait Lady Off Florida Coast

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From New York Sculptor to Bait Lady Off Florida Coast

Old 09-17-2009, 05:20 PM
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Default From New York Sculptor to Bait Lady Off Florida Coast


HOMOSASSA, Fla. -- Fishermen come once for the novelty, a floating bait store in the bay, a lonely-looking, old pontoon boat with a hard-to-miss, five-foot-long, bright-white shrimp sculpture on the top.

They come back to see Bonnie.

Even when the fish aren't biting, fishermen still come to buy bait, stopping their boats like men dropping by the small-town barbershop when they don't need a haircut, coming just to hear the local chatter.

She makes everyone feel better.

Bonnie Van Allen, who turns 70 next month, has spent most of her daylight hours here the past 15 years, pulling her traps, catching her shrimp or anchored and rocking gently in her usual spot near channel marker 26, pointing the way to deeper waters into the Gulf of Mexico.

To the fishermen on Florida's west/central coast, she is their lighthouse, their landmark in the sea, offering her warmth and her wares, mostly to regulars who started as customers, turned into friends and now feel like family.

"I've been buying bait from Bonnie for nine years, and I don't think I've ever pulled up and not seen that big smile of hers,'' said Butch Miller, a local fisherman. "You talk to her for just a minute, and she makes you feel good about being out there. Everyone knows who she is.''

They come to buy bait initially, but they soon come bearing gifts -- books, cookies, hats, recipes, a puppy once -- paying homage to the first lady of this waterway, hoping that a wink and smile from her will ensure a safe passage and a productive day on the water.

Her pinfish and grunts cost $6 a dozen. The shrimp is half that price. The inspiration is free.

Bonnie works alone. Her skin is dark from the searing sun. The sunglasses rarely come off. The hair has turned gray. The hands are rough from the labor. If you're a lucky one, the hug is strong.

"The life she lives now seems almost fictional,'' said daughter Ivey Van Allen Steinberg, who lives across the country in Los Angeles. "When I tell people what my mother does for a living, their eyes really grow wide. When I come to visit, I always think it's like Mayberry on the water.''

Bonnie stands barefoot on the boat and laughs easily at herself, at the winding path her life has taken, a once-renowned sculptor who lost everything, yet managed to turn tragedy into triumph, living two different lives in one lifetime.

"A lot of people just know her as the Bait Lady,'' said Homosassa fishing guide Dennis Lowe. "They don't realize where she's been, and what she's been through.''

Van Allen was born and raised in Miami, went to college at the University of South Florida, eventually leaving with a doctorate in art history. She became an accomplished sculptor and teacher, lecturing on college campuses across the country. When her first husband died young, she moved to New York City to find her niche in the art district, where many of the country's most creative minds lived.

"I went to New York to see how good I really was,'' she said wistfully on the boat last week. "And I found out, I was pretty good. Back then, that's who I was, and who I thought I always would be.''

Her work, much of it abstract sculptures, was shown in various New York galleries. There still is one piece in the Bell Atlantic Building in Philadelphia, another in the Degroodt Public Library in Palm Bay, Fla. There are dozens and dozens in private collections.

After a decade in New York, she returned to Florida in the late '80s, established enough to work and sell her work anywhere. She remembered this area from her youth, where her father would bring the family on fishing trips. She and her live-in boyfriend bought a nearby, five-acre, low-lying island surrounded by a national wildlife refuge, thinking she would live and work there forever, a perfect hideaway for an aging artist.

But they never bought insurance.

And the devastating, No Name Storm of March 13, 1993 hit the Florida coast at 5 AM, forever changing her life. It swallowed the island, washed her home, her studio and her life as she knew it – out to sea.

She and her boyfriend barely escaped with their lives. Much of this little fishing town was destroyed. There still are remains of crab traps hanging from trees on the island as a reminder.

"I went to New York thinking I would become rich and famous. And I became semi-rich and semi-famous,'' she said. "And then I became broke and wiped out. It just broke my heart. It took me almost two years to face the fact: I had to find another way to make a living, to survive. I didn't want to leave the island, and I didn't want to teach again, so I had to find something else to do. Then I started thinking what I always heard my father say when he fished here: `I can't find any $$%%%^& bait without going all the way back up the river.'''

Even though she knew nothing about bait and very little about boating in the open waters, she and her boyfriend (now her husband) built her a heavy-duty pontoon boat, mostly with scrap materials. She learned as she went, asking questions and exploring different options.

There were days she couldn't catch bait, and other days she couldn't sell her bait. She nearly capsized twice in storms before she learned how to read the weather. The sun gave her skin cancer on the neck and cataracts on both eyes. She was soaked by rain, and hit by lightning, but she always came back the next day.

Less than a year ago, just before her cataract surgery, she tripped pulling up a bait trap, fell off the boat and couldn't pull herself up over the edge. It was December and the water was cold. She nearly froze before help arrived almost two hours later, a regular customer who sensed something was wrong when he didn't see the boat move.

It's never been an easy life, just a rewarding one. Her days starts with a 4:30 AM, wake-up call, an hour long boat ride as she navigates her way through dark, rocky channels and tight turns before she reaches the bay and marker 26. She's there by sunrise before the fishermen starting coming. By 1 PM, her selling is done, and she begins the physical labor, pulling bait traps she has spread along the coastal area. By 5, she is heading home, another hour through unmarked canals and swamps to get the pontoon ready for the next day.

She raised that puppy Gracie on the boat, and they kept each other company for years until Gracie became more important keeping her husband company at home after he suffered a stroke. Now it's just Bonnie and her reading material between customers.

She reads her Wall Street Journal, thanks to one loyal customer, a former executive at the paper, who bought her a subscription. Bonnie may specialize in bait, but she is business-savvy, too, engaging, personable and well-informed. She is a loner who is really never alone.

"I used to worry about her a lot,'' said Ivey, the daughter. "But what she does has gone from the desperation of trying to pay the bills and survive, to something that brings her great joy. Not many people are that lucky.''

As Bonnie navigates her way home after another long day, she looks up at the note she scribbled many years ago on the inside of the boat. It's faded, but still legible. "If you want to see God laugh, make a plan.''

She smiles at the thought. The giant shrimp on top of the boat, the trademark of her Island Bait Company that fisherman always see, was the last sculpture she ever made, or ever will.

"This is a good life that I lead now. I'll probably live into my 90s, because this is a healthy way to live,'' she said. "If I ever quit doing this, you know what would happen to me. I miss my old life sometimes, but it would be too painful to go back. That's another life. I'm the Bait Lady now.''
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Old 09-17-2009, 07:26 PM
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Thanks for a good read.
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Old 09-17-2009, 07:29 PM
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God bless Bonnie, to her a friend is a person she has yet to meet. Definitely a fixture along the channel. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us..
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