Postcards from Swamplandia

I recently had a request — actually from someone I don’t share chromosomes and/or a last name with! — to please write more.

So while I’m working on actual content, I thought I’d oblige my loyal twos and threes of readers by answering a few “frequently asked Florida questions.”

Q. “So, Jacksonville, huh? How you liking that?”

This is mostly from people upon finding out that I’ve relocated from New Orleans. The answer is, “A lot more than I thought I would.”

Look, let’s be clear: no place is like New Orleans except New Orleans. I still visit every chance I get, which is not nearly as often as I’d prefer. For the first year after I moved here, I was homesick and FOMO all the time. But I think if you make a choice to live somewhere, then you have basically two options: 1. Walk around constantly butthurt that the place you’re living in isn’t exactly like the place you came from; or, 2. Within the limits of common sense, make your new location into someplace you want to be.

When I moved here I really didn’t know anything about Jacksonville, so I thought I was going to the middle of nowhere.  Despite still not really being “on the map” when compared to Miami or Orlando, we do have over a million people living in 800+ square miles. We even have a NFL team, for fuck’s sake. I mean, it’s not a GOOD team, but we’ve got one.

Living in Jax is nice because winters are mild, and the gulf stream keeps most hurricanes away. I can stumble to the beach from my house, and unlike some other locations in Florida, our beaches are still an accessible place to live for people who aren’t millionaires.  (I’m barely a thousandaire most days.) The beaches also have a great community with our own little festivals and parades. It ain’t mardi gras or jazzfest, but it’s still cool.

As a beach resident, if I don’t feel like driving on the weekends, I can ride my bicycle to 99% of the places I need to go. Jax has an international airport and two interstate highways, so it’s also fairly easy to get away when I want to.

Plus,  we have a minor league baseball team recently renamed the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp — that shit is fucking hilarious.

Yes, Jax has things that need improving, but I’ve most assuredly lived in less desirable locations.

And no state income tax, so that hits.

Q. “Does Jacksonville really have a wonderful TGI Friday’s?”

A. So, it seems that “We have three of them, but I haven’t been to a TGIF in years” isn’t the answer that people are looking for here.

I really wish I had some kind of epic story to tell you but I’m 99% sure that you will find the same greasy burgers and watered-down drinks you get at every other TGIF location.


Q. “Florida isn’t really the South, though.”

A. I guess this isn’t so much a question as a statement people like to make because they think it’s some kind of “gotcha!” moment. I’m not entirely sure what they seek to achieve by it. Is it like, “Gotcha! You think you’re from the South but really you’re from Florida!”… Gasp, oh no! Now I have to return my Bitter Southerner membership card?

Look, okay — as far as I’m concerned, anyone above I-10 is a damn yankee.

(Just kidding, everyone knows yankees live above I-20.)

[Seriously, kidding; don’t send me your hate comments.]

So let me learn y’all a thing about Florida. It’s the only state in the country where the further south you go, the more ‘North’ you get. What I mean by that, is in Florida there exists a line of delineation not shown on any maps. Going by the results of an unscientific survey with a sample size of me, the divide occurs somewhere around interstate 4.

Everything located above Orlando is more or less an annex of Georgia/Alabama. The culture is undeniably Southern. Go to Panama City or Pensacola during spring break and try to tell me you ain’t in the South. (They don’t call it the “redneck riviera” for nuthin.’ Although I think Myrtle Beach, SC, is competing for the title.)

The Florida that exists below I-4 is another world entirely, with a completely different cultural landscape, one that has been shaped by immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, as well as immigrants from above the Mason-Dixon. (I mean, you can trash talk Florida all you want, but nobody retires and moves to New Jersey or Ohio. They all come here. Just sayin’.)

In my humble opinion, cities like Miami and Key West are great because they are so different. (Hell, Key West is barely the United States. I think they’d secede if they could.) You can take a vacation to someplace new and different without ever leaving your state! Florida is awesome like that.

But it’s also definitely the South. At least half the time. This explains why we are a swing state in every election. It really just depends on which half of Florida turns out to vote in larger numbers. But if any state has a split personality, it’s Florida. Speaking of which…

Q. “Hey, did you hear about [insert crazy news headline from Florida Man this week]?” or “Why are people in Florida so crazy?”

A. Yes, whatever it is, we’ve heard about it. Florida is the butt of every joke. Trust me, you just have to laugh about it and own that shit. We don’t hide our crazy, we put a margarita in its hand and let it walk down the beach. Florida Man is the best/worst superhero.

A2. I don’t know for sure, but I have a hypothesis: Drugs + heat = crazy.

I realize I’m approaching this topic with some levity, but we seriously do have a drug problem — there’s that whole opiate crisis among low-income/rural Americans right now, and our government still refuses to treat addiction as a mental illness instead of a criminal act due to a for-profit prison system that thrives on keeping drug users locked up. In our culture, addiction is ‘treated’ with bullshit “12 step” programs instead of doctors, and illegal drugs are often easier to get and cheaper than health insurance, so it’s really not a surprise that a lot of people are walking around tweaked out of their minds.

Compounded onto that is Florida’s soul-crushing heat, which lasts for about 13 months of the year and can make even the most well adjusted of us (not yours truly, but, like, I know some well adjusted people so I just assumed) act a little bit insane sometimes.

End result, every once in a while… you get people going off the deep end, doing bath salts and eating someone’s face.

(It’s not the heat, really; it’s the humidity. Makes the faces oh so tender and delicious.)

Nah but really… the reason these things make the news is because they are so rare and bizarre. It’s not like face eating is a daily occurrence in the bread aisle at Publix. Pretty sure you’re more likely to get your face torn off by a frat bro at the Florida-Georgia game after his team loses.

Q. “Do alligators really come to people’s doors like that?!”

A. lol, no. The only Gators near my house are UF graduates. But even literal alligators would still be better than Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Switching Gears & Changing Lanes

I recently came across saved copies of some blog posts I’d written in 2009, when I was mired in a deep quagmire of personal disasters. Life, as they say, had handed me lemons. Shit… a whole damn grove of lemon trees.

In March of that year, I had been downsized during the worst point of the recession, and despite my best efforts, remained unemployed with no job prospects; I’d also recently ended a romantic relationship, and was living out of my car while sleeping on a friend’s couch.

I drank. A lot.

As I floated through the boundless expanse of my quarter-life crisis, I didn’t really have much else to do except turn up a bottle of Jack Daniels and spew my half-coherent opinions into the aether.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously contemplating uprooting from midtown Atlanta, moving to rural Alabama or somewhere similar, living in the trashiest trailer park I could find, making friends with all the residents, and writing a book about it. I imagined it being part investigative report, part dark comedy, part feel-good narrative about the rural South.

Hell, some of my friends told me to go for it.

I’m not gonna claim I was the next Hunter S. Thompson or anything. The stuff I wrote I certainly wouldn’t win any awards, nor earn me a publishing deal, and the word “fuck” was occasionally used in place of punctuation — but it was actually pretty funny.

Look, I don’t fancy myself a comedian or nuthin.’ In fact, usually when I find something I wrote a million years ago, I always end up reading it with a little bit of cringe. (For a real “dafuq was I thinking?!” moment, or fifty of ’em, try reading the journal you kept in college.) I don’t know how published authors do what they do… get to the point where they feel their work is ready to be permanently stamped onto sheets of dead tree. I’m always seeing how I could have worded something better or turned a phrase more eloquently, or… just… not been so much of a dipshit, I guess.

So when I say I thought my writing was funny, I’m not tooting my own horn — I think I’m my own worst critic. As I revisited my old memories, I was sitting there in total bewilderment, like, “Well damn, where did THAT person go? What happened?”

What happened? Well, I finally got a job and had to quit drinking so fucking much.

(But I’d moved to New Orleans by that point, so in reality I didn’t have to quit drinking that much. Now I live in Jacksonville, where “because it’s Tuesday” isn’t an excuse to close the office and day drink on the neutral ground. My brain misses that, but my liver, wallet, and waistline are like, “Nah. Stay the hell in Florida, asshole.”)

Eventually I really wanted to start writing again, and thought I would try to do so in a relatively sober fashion. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (which probably means we’re related somehow or have been friends for a long time), you can probably tell I’ve clearly been trying to “find my voice” again.  When I rebooted my blog, I told myself: no more late night booze-fueled rants! I’m gonna write about age-appropriate topics, and people will take me seriously.

Yeah, well… as it turns out, that shit is boring AF. That’s clearly evident as I read over what I’ve posted in the last 2 years.

I’ve always wanted to make people laugh. I like when I do make them laugh, and frankly it surprises me every time they’re not laughing at me. But sometimes that’s okay too. I try not to take myself too seriously either.

Attempting to take myself seriously meant that instead of writing the way I actually talk, with all of the slang, redneck-isms, and “fucks” interspersed ever so delicately (’cause I’m fuckin’ classy) — which are the things people seem to find amusing — I’ve been writing the way I think a “serious” blog would sound. Sure, it winds up mostly free of grammar errors / made up Southern idioms, and scrubbed clean of all the words that would make your granny try to wash your mouth out with soap… but it’s about as interesting as a kitchen appliance manual.

I don’t want my blog to read like I’m narrating a PBS documentary instead of talking about my own life. I don’t want to come off as pretentious or ingenuine ungenuine disingenuous (thanks for nothing, spell check). Keeping up an internet ‘persona’ is high maintenance and frankly too damn exhausting, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Sure, maybe this internet-me is good at “adulting,” never forgets dirty dishes in the sink overnight, always puts the preposition before the end of a sentence, never hides in the bathroom and looks at Instagram during awkward social situations… But that person just ain’t me.

I’m going to start trying to write more naturally, and even let myself have a beer or whatever if that’s what I need to put myself in a writing kinda mood. Maybe I get this blog off the ground for real this time.