When I was a kid, my dad took me to a flea market on an Indian reservation. There was a show there, behind big wooden log-cabin walls, where a Native American fellow would wrestle an alligator for sport. Crowds cheered as both man and animal were covered in dark mud. There was also a statue outside the flea market of a stereotypical Indian chief in a headdress with his naked, muscled arms around a gator’s neck. At the actual flea market, my dad bought me a dream catcher and a stone arrowhead. This was kind of an average weekend.
One time my family went on vacation with another family to the Everglades and the youngest son from the other family was almost swallowed whole by a gator because he was standing too close to the edge of an airboat we were on. No one reacted that strongly to seeing that. Are you picturing Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy?” That’s about right.
I tell people those stories (and others like them) and the most common reaction is, “Wow. Florida, huh?” That’s where I grew up. And it is a crazy place. But you all knew that. Pretty much every news story about Florida involves something that is just pushing unbelievable. Florida is where the fictional serial killer Dexter is allowed to thrive and murder, dumping his victims in the murky depths of the ocean. Florida is a land of lawless weirdos and f-ck ups. It’s a land of simultaneous anonymity and overt friendliness. There’s underlying suspicion and secret darkness. My father’s local Broward County AA group is full of older men in Ed Hardy and gray ponytails. They talk about their raucous days. Sober or drunk, things happen there that people in other states wouldn’t, couldn’t, fathom. That’s what we talk about when we talk about Florida.
In college, I read the news aggregation site Fark.com religiously and they have tags for various levels of crazy. There are tags for “Fail,” “Interesting,” “Silly,” “Weird,” etc. One of their most popular tags read simply “Florida.” I recently followed this Twitter making fun of all the hilariously awful headlines in Florida: Florida Man. I went home to Florida for a month and on my last day there, this was a headline on the front page of the newspaper:
That’s right. It is legal to shoot alligators with handguns. Welcome to Florida.
When I was home, I also attended a panel at the Miami Book Fair about how living in Florida influences the fiction writers who come from there. Someone asked them why they remain in Florida, what about it inspires them to write. Most of the authors on the panel said that the stories they hear in Florida are wilder than anything they could make up or imagine. They’re constantly grabbing new ideas from everyday life in this bizzaro world. In Florida, most of them said, they are constantly inundated with inspiration. Every newspaper, every TV story, every conversation with a local breeds some new unreal, insane, twisted tale that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.
My theory is that Florida is so big, so expansive and so diverse and that many different, explosive people shouldn’t all be so close together. Plus, it’s easy to hide. What might seem normal becomes cracker-jack crazy when left to fester in a swamp or in the northern parts of Florida, which might as well be the woods of Georgia. There’s Miami, a cocaine town with a party problem. The trailer parks. Disney World. Thick mangroves and thicker water. A million tiny, anonymous beach towns. Shake Florida out and you’ll find magic and dirt mixed into paste. There’s so much space that sometimes there are miles between houses, and miles between people’s lives. In those crevices, weirdness grows. Leave us to ourselves, it says. You’re never gonna get the full picture. You’ll never understand. Nothing feels all the way real, like a mirage in an oasis. Consequences are a dream. You can get away with anything here.
It’s hot too. People get out of control in humidity like that. And in that heat, there’s extensive boredom. You can’t be inside too long, it’s too nice out. And anyway, the A/C won’t fix the burgeoning lava inside you, the constant sunshine that becomes too much after a while, the sidewalks singeing the sides of your bare feet in sandals. The restlessness. And all that space.
It’s enough to make anyone crazy.