“What was in the bags?” she asked softly.”Florida mud,” he answered. “That was one of two true things I told you.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
I don’t know why I’m asking this question. My visit to Florida comes from a place of responsibility and urgency. Whatever romantic inclinations I possess quickly dissipate in the presence of two people who are aware [to varying degrees] of their incompatibility with one another, yet choose to stay together anyway. For three weeks, I’ve been a passive observer in the relationship between my parents, one that revolves around a shared understanding that they are very much so mismatched. My mother, for all of her good intentions, doesn’t have the skills to negotiate social interactions, and her mental state, much like my father’s physical health has deteriorated over time. As I observe the dependency with which she relies on my father for all of her socio-economic needs [including food, water and stability] I also note with subdued curiosity how he has come to depend on her for his physical needs – shaving, putting on a shirt in the morning, walking the dog, carrying heavy grocery bags or watering the lawn.
The irony is that after nearly 42 years of marriage, they may now be more compatible than ever.
If the tattoo on my back that I got in Japan is correct [and it always is] and everything does indeed come full circle, then maybe I should look at their relationship more holistically – by examining where they came from – and remove my own personal prejudices from the concept of marriage, commitment…in order to better understand them, and the wacky sub-tropic wonderland that is their home – Florida.
Humid, seedy, neon-lit, Mickey Mouse, concrete jungle
Every good story needs a back drop…how can I resist?
When I tell my friends that I’m going to Florida, they instantly flood the air between us with dreams of South Beach and perfectly tanned, perfectly sculpted physiques. These bodies move rhythmically to the sounds of Cuban jazz filtering out of the cafes on South Beach just because, you know, it’s Florida – that’s what they do! Men in bright yellow half-buttoned linen shirts sell boxes of mangoes for pennies, and yet, seem perfectly happy to live in poverty because their mindless self-belief in the American dream will keep their lights on! They think of theme parks, and Disney princesses and killer whales being bullied into splashing crowds of rabid spectators and their snotty children. When I tell people that I’m coming to Florida, the response usually revolves around the excited concept of well-oiled men of nondescript ethnic origins dancing Salsa on the streets for no reason at all…other than that the pasión took them, and really…who were they to resist?!
Because I live in Australia, and Australians have long been heavily infatuated with all things American, it can be difficult to adequately convey just how deluded this idea really is. And I’ve tried – while gesticulating wildly at a variety of recent news headlines that cover everything from an illegal sex toy ring to a homemade meth lab beneath the basement of a daycare center. And yet…it doesn’t quite sink in.
Anyone who has actually lived in Florida and made it out to tell the tale sees the state in a completely different light. We see mile after mile of interstate scattered with citrus groves and trailer parks. We see finely manicured lawns with patches of crab grass, genetically modified palm trees and an endless number of trucks stops that also moonlight as strip bars and 24-hour diners. I see cinder block houses filled with religious wall fixtures, glass tabletops and screen porch doors that announce your arrival long before you have the opportunity to. I think of dogs chained to the rusting chain link fences frothing at the mouth, secretly bred for backyard prize fighting; fertilizer plants, alligator amusement parks, neon-lit sex stores with catchy radio jingles, brand new red Camaros belonging to owners driving on suspended licenses, and vast stretches of indistinguishable stucco strip malls that blend together as quickly as you can drive past them on I-4 on the way to something better.
Florida is a state that, for all intensive purposes, still appears to be in a constant battle with the dank swamp bubbling just beneath its surface, hoping to subdue its foundation with just the right amount of family-friendly amusement parks in an attempt to class itself up…and failing miserably to do so.
That’s not to say that you won’t find your merengue and mojitos. They exist. On South Beach…behind the guy snorting bath salts and eating the face off of a gopher turtle. In the panhandle, you’ll also find some lovely beaches…the Grand Wizard is particularly fond of them, which explains why he and his buddies dress up as ghosts and hold their monthly bonfires there.
If you think of America as a body of water, where Maine and Washington state are the lily pads floating on top of a serene glassy surface…then all the sticky sediment, sludge, plastic beer rings and used condoms end up sinking straight to the sticky bottom and settling there, becoming as much a part of the sticky ecosystem as the manatees and the Burmese pythons chewing through The Everglades.
That’s Florida. It’s sticky as fuck.
A place called home
For all of its collective psychosis, the state is actually incredibly diverse…and beautiful. The panhandle, home to the capital Tallahassee, is considered by most to be more like Southern Georgia and Alabama than the rest of the mainland. Palm trees are hard to come by. So are non-black minorities, migrants and people outside of the traditional spectrum of human sexuality. Instead of Spanish, people tend to speak a romantic Southern drawl that drips over any word that ends in “W” “L” or “E.” People marry their high school sweet hearts, start small businesses, buy houses in the woods and buy dogs that they take hiking on weekends. During football season, they drive to Doak Campbell Stadium and tailgate. They hook up grills and smokers to the back of their cars and trucks and grill marinated meat, pork ribs and sausages from Bradley’s Country Store on Centerville Road while drinking beer from the keg.
In Miami, English, believe it or not, is by all social standards considered to be more of a second language than a first. It is the breezy, sunny, self-proclaimed hurricane that has consumed all of the nearby suburbs, swamp and marsh in its Palm tree-lined vortex and rebranded itself to anyone native to the area simply as ‘South Florida.’ It is the proverbial LA of the East Coast, and it has the cosmetic surgery rate to prove it. It’s home to the best Cuban and Jamaican food you’ll ever taste, and some of the worst road rage and music [reggaeton] you’ll ever have the displeasure of enduring on your daily curse-laden commute to DEAR GOD ANYPLACE ELSE!
Orlando is the concrete, neon-lit, Mickey Mouse jungle – the apex of tourism in the Western hemisphere and home to the world’s most aggressive racial profiling neighborhood watch programs. Daytona Beach, on the East coast, has played host to some of the some incredibly laid back motorcycle gangs, incredibly vile Spring Breaking fraternities and sororities loaded up with too much booze and not enough common sense, and a thriving yet oddly censored strip club scene equally as known for its nipple pasties as it is for its underground crystal meth labs.
And Clearwater, on the West Coast…well, Clearwater is home to the international Scientology headquarters…and Hooters.
Florida’s three greatest exports are tourism, conventions and bovine-based fertilizer. If that isn’t a metaphor for the rest of its incentive offerings, then I don’t know what is.
The Florida Effect
The interesting part is that, for a state that has so many polar opposite sub-cultures and groups of people who want nothing to do with the other, we all tend to go one way or the other: It’s a place that you spend your entire life being swallowed up by, or your entire life trying to escape. There is no in-between. That’s the Florida Effect. When my brother and I were younger and my father’s job had us move from city to city every three years, we lived in all of these areas at some point or another and I can say with certainty that the vast majority of people I knew growing up in each city are still there today. That’s neither here nor there. I don’t judge that, and I understand on some level why that life would appeal to some people – even though it doesn’t appeal to me at all.
The rest of us, on the other hand, have dedicated the majority of our adult lives fleeing the humid, wet peninsula with a passion that could easily be described as fevered. Unrepentant. Crazed. Have you ever seen a Pentecostal revival? If not, go to Florida – they have plenty of those too. A preacher with zero theological qualifications calls himself a “Dr” and holds the religious equivalent of a hayride hoedown in his mom’s living room while body slamming the bible and putting desperate old women with terminal diseases into headlocks until they write checks for what little money they have left and leave possessed by the holy ghost to come back the following Sunday and do it all over again.
To achieve the great escape, one must be equally as impassioned. One must be possessed.
To be fair, most states have a city like this – For Illinois, maybe it’s Skokie. For Virginia, maybe it’s Lynchburg. I don’t know. But the entire state of Florida…is like this. To me. To many people.
And for those who, like me, managed to divine their getaway…coming back can feel like desperately trying to run in a dream where some invisible hand keeps pulling you backwards to the open snake pit from which you’re fleeing. Or like tripping headfirst into a downward spiral lined with little red chilies…and your entire body is an open, salted wound.
A few weeks ago, I was hanging out at a pub when I found myself immersed in the most random conversation with a man named Eric. Eric used to teach in Korea and was passionate about pursuing his tertiary studies in Latin America, but found himself pulled back to the Orlando area because of his family. For several hours we chatted about the magnetic pull of Central Florida, and how he found himself unable to get back out again. In fairness, Eric would probably find it difficult to get anywhere, considering I’m pretty sure he was a raging alcoholic, but even if he were sober, I would have believed him.
But for people who stay, like my parents…the shared commonality of home, in my opinion, can be a force stronger than the hurricane winds they board their windows against every year…