I noticed Tom Corcoran from across the parking lot, because he was a giant and there aren’t many of them in mall parking lots in Lakeland, Florida. He was a giant in more ways than one, and there aren’t many of them, period. Fewer still since we’ve learned today that he died last month.
I’m still a little surprised he responded to my first email, a note from a stranger that was taking on a story—that of Jimmy Buffett and Margaritaville—that Corcoran 1) had a hell of a seat for, and 2) could have written better himself, had he ever wanted. But he got back to me pretty quickly. We spoke on the phone. I booked a flight: Portland to Orlando to a rental car I drove to Lakeland. He gave me directions to the mall and a restaurant and there he was. I called out. He waved me over, opened his trunk, and pulled out a framed collection of all the photos he’d shot for Buffett’s breakthrough Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes record.
At dinner, he drank wine. I drank beer. And we talked for a good, long while. “I should really be taking notes,” I said at one point. “Plenty of time for that,” Tom said. And the next day we kept going at his house, opening his memory and boxes of memories with a break for lunch at a Cuban joint. Stories from the Navy. Stories from those earliest days in Key West. Times with Buffett and swapping poems with Jim Harrison. The Great Floridian Adventures of Hunter S. Thompson. The snow in the Bahamas encountered on Buffett’s boat just before he found out “Margaritaville” would be a hit. The 1980 Mariel boatlift, and the wild night Tom only barely fictionalized in one of his own brilliant mystery novels. I think he preferred the veil of fiction, but he could have written a hell of a memoir. In binders he had a photocopy of the first page of the logbook for the Euphoria, Jimmy’s first sailboat. There was a photo of Corcorans, Buffetts, and producer Norbert Putnam and his wife all dressed up and cruising the Atlantic Ocean in style. That was the day I figured I might be able to write the book.
Before I left the next day to hit the road and wind my way to Gainesville for library research, Tom slipped me a CD, his mix. The Greatest Hits of the Lesser Antilles, songs they sailed the Caribbean to in the 1970s. The rental car didn’t have a CD player. Times change. The next time I saw him was in Key West when we laughed about Margaritaville gelatin mix and stood under the stars on the beach enjoying a couple of amazing nights of music.
The last time I saw him was too long ago. Thanks to Tom, I had the opportunity to talk about the book at Florida Southern College. We used the trip as an excuse to take the kiddo to Disney. I sneaked up to Lakeland for a night, gave the talk, and got a late bite with Tom and James Denham, the head of the school’s Center for Florida History.
Tom and I caught up a few times after, but never in person. I’d been thinking about him lately, meaning to drop him a line. Damn I wish I’d dropped him a line. I’m grateful for the time I got with him. I’m grateful for the time he gave me. So many others have similar stories, I suspect. He was that guy. Tonight I’m listening to Greatest Hits of the Lesser Antilles, and I’ll hoist a drink in his honor. Tom Corcoran was one of a kind. Thanks, Tom. We’ll miss ya.
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