Why I Hate Florida
...A guest at the hotel.
As the December sun sets upon the Gulf of Mexico, the white sands of Clearwater Beach take on a pinkish hue at the Tiki-bar of Shepherd's Beach Resort Hotel. The northbound traffic on the Sand Key bridge, which spans the inter coastal harbor, slows to a snail’s pace as drivers fend off piercing rays of sun and squint to cut its blinding glare. The gulf waves along the empty beach advance, and then retreat, as gulls and egrets rush to pounce on their expectorate. A gust of wind sprays mists of salty air upon my lips as I eye the carcass of a sea bass washed up along the shore, I spit, then smile and think... at least I'm not in jail.
I feel a sense of pity towards the poor misguided souls, such as I was, ten years ago, when I first came from Chicago, to this jutting extension of America's groin. A man can dream of basking on the bleached sand beaches, and sipping Piña Coladas with bikini clad women. The thought of moving down here and spending the entire year, without so much as the thought of shoveling snow, overshadows the fact that you love the change of seasons. The brilliant shades of autumns leaves forgotten. The iron mountains of your city skyline, and winter walks along Lake Michigan, just memories. The realities of who you are and where you’re from, betrayed by the palm tree fantasy of a Floridian ruse. The slide whistle song of the cardinal, drowned out by the shrieks of egrets and herons, as they feast on the torso of what very well might have been your better judgment, tossed to the side for the price of a moment’s enchantment. Florida is a lie, a siren, a temptress, and a vixen; Florida is a whore!
Past the palm trees, away from the beach, and out of sunset’s eyeshot, the real Florida lay. With her makeup off, her golden wig in curlers, and her teeth placed in a jar, we see the truth. We see the white trash trailer parks built on sugar sand sinkholes, inhabited by the local ambassadors of the tourist trade. Hustlers, dealers, pimps, and whores, working the night shift under the watchful eye of the local constabulary, who are making sure they get their share. In Florida, they pick oranges in the day; they pick tourists at night. The three largest sources of income in Florida are jails, oranges, and tourism. If one wants to work an honest job, figure on ten dollars an hour at best, if you have a trade. At least in Chicago, you're used to the game, you expect all the back room dealings, its reputation is known, its operations are overt. At least in Chicago if you want to work an honest day, you can make a decent buck. Your average resident of Florida couldn't afford to go to Florida on vacation. Living there, and retiring to, are two different sets of circumstances all together. Yet, here I am again, a little older, a little wiser, and a lot more cautious.
It was about ten years ago when I first came down here and fell victim to the states’ incarcerating charm. I found that straying too far from the beach, beyond the palms, where Cyprus trees drip haunting strands of Spanish moss, the unfamiliar traveler puts himself at risk. Herons, cranes, and egrets, majestic in their flight along the shore, give way to inland vultures circling overhead. The Tiki bars and swank hotels, which line the beach, would do their best to keep the curious from wandering off too far. But wanderer I was, so with sun burnt skin and Northern plates upon my van I steered across the causeway to view the charms which Florida proper had to offer.
As I reached the mainland, the thought had not occurred to me that my van was out of place. The 1979 Chevy Work Van, with a rebuilt 350 big block engine made the 1200 miles without a hitch. Bought for a mere $400 equipped with four bald tires, busted rear view mirrors, and a brush on paint job, I was surprised it took me this far. It started out as just a joy ride. I pulled onto Cleveland Street, the main drag in downtown Clearwater. Palm trees lined the street in front of little shops that reeked of small town charm. Further down the road the charm transmutes to strip malls scattered about the transient motels with empty pools, and signs proclaiming weekly rates. I pulled off the strip, and noticing the sign which read "The Lonesome Boot Saloon" I felt compelled to take a break and pulled into their lot.
The first preindication of a less than pleasant stay arose when the bar maid asked, "So, where you from?" It seems that everyone in Florida is from somewhere else. The bar was somewhat crowded with what I later found to be transplants from the north. Billy from Rhode Island came down here for a week, and then attained a DUI. Bob, a biker from Philadelphia came down to see if he could make it in the building trade and was arrested for possession. Jesse from Kentucky, just got drunk and jumped a Greyhound, and had been trying to find the bus fare home for the past three months. Similar situations seemed to fill the stories of each reluctant local in the bar. They came here, got arrested, or couldn't afford to leave.
Al Carson, who owned the bar was a Chicago transplant that got lucky, he told me, “They have a saying down here, arrive on vacation, go home on probation," Al came down here nine years earlier and bought the bar. He said the cops leave him alone because he gives to the Sheriffs Department and the Clearwater Police. "They make it all look nice and legal, but it's all about the money down here. Jail is the greatest source of income for the state, go watch Cops on TV, most of it is filmed in Florida. What they do is rent the prisoners out to businesses, than charge the prisoner rent."
I later looked that up, and found that in that year, 1999, then Governor, Jeb Bush passed a law allowing businesses to pay convicts for labor. The government in turn charges the convict room and board, restitution, and other miscellaneous fees. In other words, the convict goes to work for a day, and at the end of the day the government gets the money. They call the program: Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (P.R.I.D.E). At times the convicts are shackled together. After all the charges, fees, and taxes, the convict might make a dollar or two for ten to twelve hours of labor.
Al had told me if I wanted to stay out of trouble, “Stay on the beach." It seems the cops won't bother a person so much if they are on the beach. Chances are they are spending good money at the hotels, bars, and restaurants. When a tourist stays on the beach, they support the beach, and the local economy. But when they wander into the city, the cops figure they're up to no good. What could they want in the city that they can't find on the beach?
As I left the bar the second portent appeared in the form of a Charlie Daniels song that came on the juke box as I was walking out. "Uneasy Rider," a song about a long hair made to feel unwelcome in a redneck bar called the "Dew Drop Inn." I figured then it was a good time to head back to the beach.
Pulling out of the bar's parking lot, I turned left on Cleveland and headed back towards the causeway.While waiting for the light to change on South Fort Harrison Street, my van was surrounded by Clearwater, and Pinellas County Sheriff's police. It seems the city cop followed me from the bar's lot and had his lights on for the past two blocks. I hadn't noticed them because of my missing rear view mirrors. When all was said and done, I found I was arrested for, eluding a police officer, driving an unsafe vehicle, and having an open container of alcohol in my vehicle. The open container was an empty can of Old Style beer they found under the seat, which very well might have been there when I bought the van. If I hadn't told the cop it was a beer can he might not have even known. He asked me what it was, and when I told him he asked again, “Was this Chicago beer?”
The police impounded my van and carted me off to jail. The next morning in court, where I was sure I was to be released, the judge brought up a DUI charge of ten years earlier in Illinois. My confidence had since subsided after observing the defendant called ahead of me get sentenced to three months in county jail...for possession of a shopping cart. Now at the mercy of that less than lenient court, in lieu of bond, I found myself remanded to Pinellas County Jail pending judgment at my hearing set to be held within the month.
In Illinois if you are accused of a crime, you are given a court date, and you await trial. If you are convicted, you go to prison were there are rehabilitative programs, even college courses. In Florida, so it seemed, they try to arrest you the minute you get off the highway or plane. Jail is big business in Florida, whether your guilty or not. If you are suspected of breaking the law, you go straight to the County jail and become a commodity.
I had spent two weeks as their unwilling guest when good fortune intervened and broke my toe. A (miscalculated?) jump from off the upper bunk resulted in a hairline fracture of a metatarsal. I found the infirmary to be much more pleasant in accommodation, however, in the county's eyes, I no longer served a purpose, and two weeks later was released upon my own recognizance. I saw no need to stay around, and after spending a month inside a jail of its own I thought this to be an opportune time to part ways with my trusty van; I didn't even want to think about the impound charge. The Greyhound bus was sixty dollars, so I rode the "Dog" back home. I returned to Florida some years later, only to find myself being arrested again, and again spent a month in county jail. It seems I owed a fine for my previous incarceration of which I was not aware of, I was in the system, and the system can’t let go.
Some people visit Florida and see it as a sort of Shangri-La. When I first went there I found it more befitting the Château d' If .Back then, if I were the type of person to wish ill fortune on another human being, I would wish them Florida. If I were to be asked to describe what my definition of hell would be, I would describe Florida. I know my words sound harsh. I know as well that this is not a representation of the whole state of Florida. This is just the impression of the state with which I was left. My animosities, I must admit, were of discriminating nature, but I see now where I went wrong. I was warned, be it too late, to be just the captive tourist, such as I am today. The State of Florida wants your money, and they are intent on getting it, one way or another.
As the sun sinks westward into Texas and the tidal waves recede, a Stepford waitress feels the compulsion to impede the vistaed scape before me. She can't help it, the climate here impels the locals to maintain room temperature IQ. "Of course I want another beer, damn it, I'm a tourist, can't you see my tan lines?" It's six o'clock, in about another hour my mother-in-law and wife will pick me up from where it is that wives and mothers go to shop. I sip my beer and hurl the asinine requests and questions expected of the tourist trade. My queries obsequiously answered as though not seeming at all too unfamiliar, "I'm sorry sir, we don't serve alligator snout,” or, "No, the pelicans aren't forced to clean the beach."
Ten years ago, I was more pleasant in my tone. Ten years ago I sought to peek beyond the causeway, where innocence and transients from the north would find they had no lawful right to be. Now graybeard wisdom guides my actions as I mimic what I see in lemming like compliance. They want a tourist, then a tourist I shall be. Now I sit here seemingly immune to outside forces intent on making clear that "tropical depression" does not refer to climate change alone.Now I sit where impudence remains expected, and courtesy's checked at the desk. The simple pleasant soul, once content to wander freely in his country, hardened by the avaricious dispositions it's people have procured. Now I sit with businessmen from Kansas and civil servants from New Jersey, whose rank and place are equal here as they boast of larcenies against their peers. I have conformed. I found that in a place where there's no honor; the honorable die, and I intend to live. I've joined the ranks, my scruples lay out in the street. I feel no anguish, nor remorse; I fear no repercussion for anything that I might do. I have Carte Blanche, I am a tourist now, and arrogance comes with the room...when you're a guest at the hotel.