There is a camera crew from Orange TV here to capture Levine and his adoring fans -- all seven of them. A woman with a microphone asks them to sit closer together so that, from the camera's perspective, it will look like a bigger turnout.
"I sure can draw a crowd, can't I?" Levine says, more amused than disappointed.
He tells jokes during a sound check, apologizes for not bringing his harmonica, then makes a "V" sign behind the head of the library executive introducing him. When she tells him he must stand behind a podium -- and not simply chat near the front row -- he waves regally.
"Excuse me," he says. "I must go deal with greatness."
But he is not even two minutes into the talk on his new book -- Bite Me! Tom Levine's Most Excellent Stories, which is about fishing and globetrotting and fatherhood and life -- when he interrupts himself.
"You guys really want me to talk about my book?" he asks. "Really?"
When they press him, he shrugs and presses on.
"Well, it's probably the book of the millennium," he says, his voice slow and languorous as always. "I don't like to overstate things. But I don't think anything else will ever come close. It's fabulous from start to finish."
Tall, tan, with an unhurried demeanor and perpetual grin, Tom Levine might be mistaken for an aging surfer dude who spent a little too much time waxing his board. But after twice running for Orlando City Council and a 2000 mayoral bid -- in which Levine led a so-called "Peasant Revolt" on a shoestring budget for just over 10 percent of the vote -- he went back to his bread-and-butter as an outdoors writer.
Forever concocting new ways of making money while investing a minimum of labor, he put together a collection of his pretty-much-true tales -- from backpacking in the Sierra Nevada to fleeing a lone, cranky black buffalo in Uganda -- for what is by most accounts a hilarious new book. In the past couple of months, he has sold more than 500 copies of the self-published paperback, done signings at bookstores from New Smyrna to Oviedo, and even gotten literary nods from Border's and Barnes & Noble.
Still, he stubbornly refuses to take himself seriously.
"Are you bored yet?" he asks his audience five minutes later. "Should I keep talking about the book?"
In the end, Levine sells four copies and gives a fifth to an elderly man in a wheelchair who promises to send him the money later.
"Will you sign it?" the man asks.
"Sure," Levine says with a shrug. "I'll sign it: You owe me $16.95."
KEEP IT SIMPLE
If ever there were a poster boy for enjoying the simple life, Tom Levine would be it, even at 53.
On a weekday afternoon, he answers the door barefoot, the theme from Doctor Zhivago playing on an old phonograph. "Thank God," he says of the interruption. "Sam's killing me in Monopoly."
Sam is his 9-year-old son.
Levine lives in a two-bedroom 1920 bungalow about a mile south of downtown with his feisty New Zealand-born wife, Michele Graham, his two boys, Sam and 8-year-old Ely, a shaggy terrier named Yogi, assorted squatter cats and no air-conditioning. He ripped out that luxury when he bought the place a couple of decades ago, both for reasons of frugality and environmental friendliness.
Levine is the lone breadwinner, a role he fulfills largely by taking fishing trips and then writing about them, mostly for the thick, glossy Florida Sportsman Magazine. Graham grows organic vegetables in the back yard beside an impressive flower garden, and, when the boys permit such erosions of precious piscine rights, Levine brings home his catch for dinner.
He drives a rattling 1979 red Chevy van with a canoe tied on top; its bumper stickers proclaim him "Proud to be an American" and make a graphic suggestion for those who would use cell phones while driving. Graham gets around by bicycle.
He is unfailingly amiable and content, except that he wouldn't mind being rich.
"So long ago, if I would've died, I would've died satisfied," he says. "So everything I've got now is just gravy. Michele here is the gravy boat."
He nods across the room to Graham, who has kicked off her shoes and is sipping a glass of wine.
"Shut up," she says.
They met 13 years ago, fellow wanderers, on a little island in Puget Sound, where she was whale-watching and he was on his way to Alaska. They shared a passion for adventure and nature and a disdain for greed, piousness and politics-as-usual. By 1992, he had brought her back to this house in Orlando, where he'd been letting friends and strangers alike stay while he was off traveling.
"He's not got a mean bone in his body," Michele says later, when he is not listening. "People confuse his being carefree with being irresponsible. In fact, he's very tenacious and articulate and intelligent -- and he is completely unable to be intimidated."
Certainly, many have tried. Born to a Russian-Jewish father and Irish-Catholic mother, Levine grew up in a strict, protective household and was sometimes brutalized in school. Swaggering football players figured they would teach Levine a lesson when he refused to cower, and a sadistic gym coach, who didn't like the middle-schooler's attitude, made him an object of relentless ridicule.
"Tom actually had his own way of thinking and own way of viewing the world even then, and he wasn't afraid to express it," says his decades-long best friend, Jack Raymond, now a 52-year-old cruise agent in Orlando. "He got picked on quite a lot, so he really grew up fighting for his own survival."
But he had been raised to have a sense of humor and to stand up for himself. Both traits have served him well.
In 1973, shortly after graduating from what is now the University of Central Florida -- where the would-be oceanographer switched his major from physics to psychology -- Levine had a nearly deadly encounter with police.
It happened the night his father, then 72, lay in the hospital, dying of lung cancer. At about 2 in the morning, Levine left briefly to take a walk and gather his senses, an act that for whatever reason aroused the suspicions of a pair of Orlando patrolmen. When they ordered him to leave, Levine -- hardly in a conversational mood and feeling no duty to explain himself -- refused. The officers arrested him for loitering, cuffed his hands behind his back, and, Levine says, ended up choking him until the blood vessels burst in his eyes.
His mother and a doctor witnessed the incident from the hospital window, and his brother ran to his defense. News accounts from the time show that Levine eventually won a small, out-of-court settlement from the police, who dropped all charges against him.
"For the record," Levine says, "even when they were choking me, I still didn't quit."
Raymond sees it as his friend's trademark of sorts.
"He is definitely a survivor," Raymond says. "But the other thing that strikes me is the incredible naivete in him. There is a purity of his thoughts that is unadulterated by conventional wisdom, that leads him to have this idealistic view of how things should be."
When, for instance, he campaigned against Mayor Glenda Hood and dentist Bruce Gordy, posting handmade signs that read "Tom Levine Fights Plaque" and, in the predominantly black Parramore district "Tom Levine for Mayor -- He's OK for a White Guy," he seemed genuinely surprised that he didn't win or at least come close. He once showed up uninvited at what was supposed to be a candidates debate and refused to leave, even when organizers called the police.
Asked to describe himself, Levine just shrugs blankly.
"I'm just a normal, ordinary person," he says. "I love my family, I like to have fun, and I don't like to see other people suffering. I think you need to ask everybody else why they're all going off the deep end somewhere."
As he talks, a photographer tries to capture a portrait of him. Levine leans back and raises an eyebrow.
"A little more cleavage?" he says.
STILL . . . CASH COUNTS
A lot of people like to think they have undiscovered literary talent, an as-yet-unwritten autobiography, even the Great American Novel deep inside them, merely awaiting an agent and the chance to sit down and write.
Tom Levine is not one of them.
"I am not really so much an author as a product manufacturer," he says, holding up the book. "This is my product. I manufactured it to make money to keep my family in the finery to which they would like to become accustomed."
Literary acclaim is nothing, he says, unless it means a wad of cash.
But despite himself -- despite the book's "forewarning" instead of a foreword, its "author's excuse" instead of author's note and an effusive back-cover endorsement by his mom, who has been dead for nearly seven years -- the book is winning fans with its folksy, tongue-in-cheek, Mark Twain-like style. Levine calls it a collection of "nincompoop-crashing-through-life experiences" that have him trekking across the Australian Outback, wandering around Africa and fishing off the Galapagos Islands.
But there is often a subtle little lesson tucked away in its pages, as well as homage to a Florida-gone-by, now ruined by overfishing, pollution, pavement and fences.
"I read that first chapter, and I turned to my wife and said, `This is fabulous. You have to read it,'" says Cory Reinert, assistant manager of the Colonial Marketplace Barnes & Noble. "I was hooked."
At the Titusville seafood restaurant Dixie Crossroads, where they're selling Bite Me alongside the children's book Anna Lee the Manatee in the gift shop, owner Laurilee Thompson says she is proud to stock it.
"I like him, and I like the book," she says. "I grew up here and I can relate to some of the stories he tells about what it was like then, and I'm always concerned about getting the message out about our deteriorating quality of life. My goal is to subliminally educate people."
His longtime magazine editor, Doug Stange, describes Levine's writing as "a curious and invigorating deviation from the status quo. . . . He travels on paper where others would not -- could not -- go, for sheer lack of imagination."
THIS IS A PLAN?
It is classic Levine that his marketing strategy, if you can call it that, is to wander in to whatever institution he's near -- tire store, Italian restaurant, hospital gift shop -- and ask if they'd like to buy a half-dozen or so copies for resale.
In this way, he finds himself on Park Avenue one recent afternoon, picking up Ely, a budding violinist, from music camp, and dropping by a boutique where he'd left a copy of the book for perusal.
"Sorry," the shopkeeper says. "I just haven't had a chance to read it yet."
Levine is undeterred. "Yeah, well, you don't want to just grab a few while I'm here?"
"Wish I could. . ." the man says. He nonetheless begins leafing through its pages, and soon the two are swapping fish tales like old friends.
"A guy like you -- it seems hard to believe you're not buying a couple copies," Levine says at last. "It's actually better than you'd expect."
The shop owner promises he'll read it. Levine thanks him, shakes hands, and leaves still smiling, not the least bit discouraged.
He guides Ely out the door for the rattling red van, its floor strewn with copies of Bite Me, orphaned flip-flops, a bucket, Frisbee and cast net -- everything a person needs in life, as Levine likes to say. As he heads home, 10 miles below the speed limit, he and Ely debate the morality of war, the boy being contrary just for effect.
"You know," Levine says, glancing back at his son in the rear-view mirror, "it's still not too late to take you back and get another baby."
Ely rolls his eyes and sighs.
"Oh, Dad," he says. "Shut up."
BOX: WHERE TO BUY `BITE ME'
Bite Me is available through Defiant worm.com or at the following locations:
Urban Think bookstore, Orlando
CB&S bookstore, Orlando
Cherazi's Italian Restaurant & Pizza, Orlando
Dickens-Reed Books, Mount Dora
Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant, Titusville
Chris' Place, New Smyrna Beach
Pink Palm Tree, New Smyrna Beach
Wuesthoff Hospital gift shops in Rockledge and Melbourne
On the Shelf, Melbourne
You also can call and order the book at: 407-894-6603.
PHOTO: Slow pitch. Levine signs copies of his book at Borders bookstore
in Oviedo. `It's probably the book of the millennium,' he says.
PHOTO: Easy does it. Tom Levine relaxes on the porch of his downtown
home. He's promoting -- to a point -- his `Bite Me! Tom Levine's Most
content © THE ORLANDO SENTINEL and may not be republished without