A Softer Side of Florida Man

Hello friends and family!

Since my last post, I’ve been bouncing around Florida in the hopes of experiencing as much as possible before I have to head north for Christmas. I went to the Everglades and saw huge alligators sunning themselves in drainage ditches, and then drove through the Florida Keys until I reached the southernmost point of the continental USA. While in Key West I ate key lime pie and 45¢ shrimp and Cuban food and wandered around the charmingly crooked streets of the city where Hemmingway and Tennessee Williams once lived and wrote. Where else in America can you watch a 360-degree sunset from a decaying railroad track that some idiot/genius built to connect Miami and Key West in the early 1900s? (The railroad lasted barely 20 years before being destroyed by – and this should come as no surprise to anyone! – a hurricane). And when was the last time you fell asleep on a sliver of land in the middle of the ocean and woke up to the crash of surf just a few feet from your door?

Key West Sunset

After the Keys I parted ways with my love and companion, who is heading off to the other side of the planet for a year, and found myself in a dark mood despite the sunny weather. Hoping that proximity to The Happiest Place on Earth would cheer me up, I visited Celebration, a community near Disney World that was master-planned by the Walt Disney Corporation in the 1990s. It was designed to feel like a small town where everyone knows their neighbour, so the end result is a 1950s suburb centred around a town square. Picture the manicured uniformity of The Truman Show or Pleasantville, and then picture how restrictive the Celebration HOA rules and regulations must be. I failed to find them on Google, as I imagine the HOA exclusively publishes their rulebook as a leatherbound Bible, perhaps embossed with an image of Mickey Mouse evicting Goofy for planting the wrong kind of palm tree in his front yard.

Celebration and Key West are places I have classified as “Good Florida.” Good Florida is what you think of when you imagine Floridian vacations: orange groves as far as the eye can see, palm trees on white sand, and orchids flourishing in the Everglades. Good Florida is beach towns, airboat tours, mid-century modern architecture, fishing charters, golf courses, country clubs, rocket launches, and swimming holes. It is mainly navigable via golf cart. Its main locales include Disney World, the Keys, Miami Beach, spring break parties, and retirement communities where everyone votes Republican. The residents of Good Florida live in timeshare condos or walled suburbs with security guards at the entrance, and ask that you not step on the grass. Good Florida is not accessible to the masses; it has an entrance fee, requires tickets, and recommends booking ahead of time. This is true even for vanlife! Many of the campgrounds I’ve been visiting are gated and locked, even the free ones, and are accessible only if you make an online reservation.

A gated, swampy campground

Good Florida is an ideal, a fantasy of being able to impose order on a messy environment and the messy creatures that occupy it. Because Florida is, at its core, a fetid swamp that gets swept into the ocean every few years, it is only inhabitable after a whole process of swamp drainage, canal construction, crop irrigation, land subdivision, community development, and landscape architecture. And because Florida’s wildlife are, at their core, a bunch of venomous reptiles, oversized insects, carnivorous predators, and dinosaur birds, they must be controlled before they wipe out humankind. Any loosening of the reins will result in catastrophe, so Good Florida is freighted down with rules and regulations and policies and policemen. Honestly, it all seems like a lot of hard work.

Carnivorous predator

Unfortunately, not all the people who inhabit Florida are good at exerting the level of control required to maintain the Good Florida image. You’ve probably heard of the Florida Man stereotype, a wild-eyed man who is always getting into the most bizarre kinds of trouble. There’s a party game in which you Google your birthday and “Florida Man” and get a newspaper headline (and usually a mugshot) resembling a horoscope. I am Florida Man running naked through the airport screaming about a bomb and you are Florida Man stealing $1,000 worth of toothbrushes because he was bored. I am Florida Man having sex with a dog in a nativity scene and you are Florida Man tossing kittens onto the highway.

Florida Man resides in Bad Florida, which is where order fails and wild Florida flourishes. Unchecked, the environment tends to take over, helped along by the hurricanes that pull roofs off and turn houses into plant nurseries. Bad Florida is all overgrown grass and escaped ball pythons and underfed men with their shirts off, stalking down the shoulder of the road with no shoes on. Bad Florida is houses swallowed by swamps and unincorporated towns without zoning codes and families of five cooking off hot plates in motel rooms. It’s broken air conditioners in 100% humidity. It is overgrown jungle and methed-out hitchhikers and junkyard pitbulls off-leash and running right at you – yeah, I learned the hard way never to go jogging on back roads in Florida.

Dying in the humidity and heat

My campground host the other day was a Florida Man, a toothless truck driver with a big belly button pushing against the stomach of his t-shirt. We went for a wild ride in his golf cart, dipping into ditches and ripping through mud where the feral hogs had torn up the earth. He wore Midwestern dad sneakers and cargo shorts and had his socks pulled up to mid-calf. When he told me he was a disabled veteran I wondered if the disability was having all his teeth knocked out, or if it was something else. He was a stereotypical Florida Man who liked fishing, Corvettes, tall tales, calling the sheriff on homeless people, cutting grass, and chain-smoking cigarettes next to my open door so that my whole van stunk of Marlboros afterwards. But our conversation took a turn as we started talking about Christmas.

“You know, I really love violin music,” he said. I’d pegged him as more of a classic rock than classical music guy but he was sincere, smiling the sweet, gummy smile of a newborn. “I love the sound of a violin. So for Christmas, I’m getting a violin. It’s all wrapped up in the trailer already.” He had never played an instrument, and had no idea how to play a violin. “I’ve been taking online courses already,” he told me. “There’s four strings, one for each finger. And it’s the hardest stringed instrument to learn, because there’s no frets. You gotta play it all by memory. You play one string at a time, at first; only later, more advanced, do you play more than one string at a time. That’s what they’ve been teaching me in my course.”

I joked that he should buy his wife some noise-cancelling headphones for Christmas, and we laughed. The sun was starting to set, so we watched the wild turkeys on their nightly parade as they filed through the campground at dusk. “I hope to be alright by the summer,” he said. “Boy, do I love violin music. It’s just the best-sounding instrument there is.”

It turns out Florida Man can surprise and delight without committing an absurd crime – besides, this toothless trucker learning classical violin is more bizarre than if he’d stolen $1,000 worth of toothbrushes. And I think that man serenading the feral hogs with his violin music will be introducing more Good into Florida than any theme park or country club.

Good Florida

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