I fucking love Florida. The state exists in my mind like a snowglobe of itself, a snowglobe I quite possibly had once, with a retro font and a brilliant globe of orange, a stiff, aqua wave with a happy dolphin tail-dancing upon it. This is the Florida of my heart, and it has been in residence since the 1970s, when my Sagittarian, road-tripping grandfather, Carl, packed up his wife, my grandmother Phyllis - so tightly wound that she’d cling to the car door in low-key panic for miles upon miles, certain a crash was imminent – and me, and my younger sister, and drive us all out of Boston, out of Massachusetts, out of New England, through the south and into . . . Florida. Which may be, technically, the south, but to my mind has always occupied its own strange landscape, a region onto itself.
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I loved how the Florida Welcome Station gave you free cups of orange juice. I loved the sunny, sunny warmth of the navel orange sun, making it so that I had to wear shorts and sun dresses and spaghetti-strap tops every single day. Even in the midst of a humid Bostonian summer some chill can poke through; it seemed such a thing could never happen in the literal sunshine state, where it was summer – meaning vacation – all year long.
In Florida there were alligator farms, zoos dedicated to this particular reptile, and yes, I know they were almost certainly fucked up – and do I even have to say that I know how deeply fucked-up Florida is – with redneck zoo workers poking the beasts to make them snap, dangling a hunk of raw meat over the apex of its deadly jaw, but still – I loved it. I loved the gift shops, with net bags of gumballs made to look like oranges, and dresser sachets that smelled like orange blossom, something I’d never smelled before but wanted to smell forever. I loved the shell art – hoop-skirted ladies will full bonnets, all made from sea shells! Seashell turtles and seashell frogs! A seashell t-rex! So many incredible things were (are?) for sale in a Florida Gift Shop, such as a glass jar, set in a Styrofoam base, containing a fetal shark in blue-tinted formaldehyde. You simply can’t get this stuff in New England.
I loved St. Augustine, with its strange castles, and beaches scuttling with crabs. I loved Daytona, and the waves that would knock me over, beat the shit out of me, leave my legs kicking at the sky, looking for solid ground. I would eventually right myself, salt water plugging my ears, muddy sand clumped in my hair, my bathing suit half-ripped from my body, eager to go at it again. In St. Petersburg I loved the shimmering sand, sand like snow, littered with iridescent sea shells. My hunter-gatherer bullshit would flare up and I would amass a whole pile of seashells and insist on bringing them home. By the time we returned to Chelsea, Mass., the plastic bag of shells reeked like sea-death and they were thrown in the garbage. But while sourcing them every single one felt important, an impossible find.
St. Petersburg Beach held the Don Cesar, the big, pink hotel on the shore, and I wanted us to stay there so bad. Carl, my grandfather, would respond to my pleas the way he responded to all such pleases while on our summer roadtrip: Sure. We can go there. It just means we can’t go to Disney World. Never mind never mind never mind! Disney World was the point of Florida, the reason for the trip, through it was very Sag-y of Carl to work as many low-cost side-trips into our week on the road as possible. A wax museum was allowed; the Chamber of Horror was the first of its kind for me, and when I begged to go through again it was allowed. A Prison Museum is surely problematic but I simply loved climbing in and out of cages, being proximate to the thrill of phantom violence. Florida was one big tourist attraction, meaning it was stuffed with things that wanted to both delight and slightly scare me, and my favorite emotion is being delightfully scared. In Florida I found a place like a state of mind. It was full of cheer, but a John Waters, campy cheer. That it was rotting all the while was palpable, part of its trashy charm.
Years ago, when my family fell apart, my mom and her husband decided to upgrade their denial and actually move to Florida. In the wake of our cracked-up family, New England was haunted, depressed. Florida was the promise of a 24/7 vacation. My step-father liked to scuba dive, my mom is a Disney freak. But they were, in addition to these things, nurses. And Florida is a terrible place for an hourly-wage worker. Thinking that they were moving into the Florida of Epcot and manatees, they moved into the Florida of right-to-work and Mar-a-Lago. No nurses’ union, shittier pay than bck in Boston, lousier conditions. They signed a subprime mortgage on the house they purchased with money my mom had gotten in a workers’ comp case, and soon after went bankrupt. Like most broke people who signed those things, they avoided the fine print. What was the point of reading it, its incomprehensible. They lost their house and moved into a rental. My stepfather got sick, then sicker, than sickest. In between and amidst all of this I would visit them.
I actually loved visiting my parents in Florida, even if it was emotionally fraught due to my discomfort with my stepdad. There was something that happened the moment I stepped out of the airport, the air-conditioned chill instantly evaporating, my skin melting into my bones. Was I relaxed? For, like, the first time ever? The air smelled intoxicating – which I just read somewhere is the root of the word poison in Latin. The air smelled poisonous, and I fell under its spell.
In Florida you could go to the Everglades, America’s own jungle. I almost did, once, driving back from Miami with my ex. We saw a homemade sign advertising trips out into the swamp of it, cheap. The bubba who owned the air boat, looked at me, looked at my boyfriend. I’ll take ya, he drawled. But, one at a time. This fool thought I’d never watched an episode of Forensic Files; I wasn’t getting in his rickety metal boat alone, even if the way it seemed to skim the greenery, levitating above the swamp, was intoxicating. We left, driving back up the Tamiami Trail – known as Alligator Alley, for the literal lumps of fucking alligators sunbathing along the side of the road – back to my mom’s, sad that we’d came so close. One of the wild life species living in the park, I’d heard, was Iggy Pop himself, and I badly wanted a sighting.
Miami had been okay. On a tiny strip of beach right against the freeway we’d tried to sunbathe, but it was windy. The ocean offered me a solid, perfectly formed conch shell, something I’d only ever seen in a gift shop, and I was enthralled by its gradated pink interior, so smooth and hard, its lizardy spikes. On the way out of town we passed a Black Queen in a convertible covered DIY-style in the Louis Vuitton logo, on the upholstery and the body, the whole damn thing. It was mesmerizing.
At my mom’s I went thrifting at Trash to Treasure, the very best thrift store, part of a larger complex, the Port Charlotte Senior Center. In nearby Punta Gorda, in the parking lot of a nature path, is an historical plaque reading, FIRST WHITE MAN DIES IN AMERICA. You cannot but laugh out loud upon seeing it. The unnamed Spaniard was righteously slain by one of the indigenous Caloosa people on May 24th and I could actually embrace this as a sort of holiday. Near the signs are some super creepy statues of Ponce de Leon with the paint all chipped. I enjoy these things. That I am enjoying them in a way they were not meant to be enjoyed adds to the fun.
Once, on a performance tour that stopped to play an anarchist venue in Tallahassee, our host took us to Wakulla Springs to swim. He told us how there are mastodon bones lodged in the spring bed, how you can take a glass-bottom boat on a sunny day and see them. While we were wading in the water, about up to our knees, I noticed a bunch of signs warning against alligators. I asked my host about this; he shrugged. The only people ever got bit were swimming where they weren’t supposed to, he said lightly. Well, then. I did not stay in the water much longer, though it was stunning to watch people climb the high dive situated above the mouth of the spring and jump in; more stunning, even, to watch the park rangers aim use their speedboats to herd the alligators away from the jumpers. We did go on the glass bottom boat, and though it was too overcast to see the ice age skeletons, I saw more alligators than I could count, and was doubly amazed that an anyone would swim so close to them. There were also deer, and turtles, fish and ducks that were positively new wave looking, with striped neon faces. This magical ride coast like three dollars and sometimes you even get to see manatees. It is where Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed there.
Because that is one of my husband’s favorite movies I really want to orchestrate a Florida roadtrip that begins in Tallahassee. Of course we’ll go to the springs, and we’ll of course drive by the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution, where the state killed Ted Bundy, because we’re grim like that. Killer lesbian nurse Catherine May Wood also did time there, and Ghislaine Maxwell is still doing hers. Staying on this grisly tip, we’d also visit The Last Resort Bar in Port Orange, Aileen Wuornos’ one-time hangout and location of her arrest. There’s a shrine to her on the premises, and her ghost is said to haunt, etc. All my childhood stops would be a part of this dream vacation, including places I yearned to go but Carl and Phyllis could not afford, such as Wiki Watchee, where femmes in mermaid costumes enact underwater ballets while you eat hot dogs in a subterranean theater.
The reason I was away from Dear Diary these past weeks was because I was traveling a bunch, and overwhelmed by it. One of my trips was to The New College of Florida, in Sarasota. This school may sound familiar to doom-scrolling newshounds; it recently was bum-rushed by Ron DeSantis and his gang of goblins. A public, liberal arts college – a real haven in Florida for many queer and free-thinking young people – DeSantis has put the school in his crosshairs, firing the president and replacing her with a conservative republican at twice the salary. He fired half the board, replacing them with conservative cronies. According to a New York Times article published the day I flew home, DeSantis’ team is looking to give New College a conservative makeover, using as inspiration a small, Christian school in the Midwest.
These are the people who just banned Charlotte’s Web (for reals – I had dinner, while there, with some middle and high school teachers no longer allowed to have this book or Beloved even in sight of students), who have made mentioning your queer/transness in a middle school setting illegal, who has cancelled African-American AP courses for high school students because they take issue with intersectionality, among other things. The very real safe space New College has provided Florida students under attack, and as DeSantis is gearing to run for president, we all need to be looking at his terrifying agenda. At New College it includes diminishing tenure protections for faculty, getting rid of diversity and equity programs, and making Western Civ courses mandatory. Under DeSantis, the state is investigating the personal politics of students and faculty, and investigating what might be available for trans students, ostensibly so that they might do away with it.
I was brought there by the poet, doctor and professor Emily Carr, who heads the creative writing department and hosts a festival called Words in Action each year (and has authored a few poetry collections; I’m currently reading Whosoever Has Let a Minotaur Enter Them, or, a Sonnet, and its freaking wonderful). We hung out at Siesta Key the day the events began. It’s the same powdery white snow as I remember from my childhood; Emily told me it’s literally pulverized quartz crystal. We talked about how scared she is, how the everyone’s jobs are threatened, how she just narrowly saved hers from these shenanigans but a couple weeks ago. She’s concerned about her students; she wants them to persevere, to fight; she’s worried about them fighting, what will the consequences be. It all made me think of ACT UP, and how all fights are the same fights, the efforts of wealthy, rich white people, mostly men and straight, entirely cis (with the exception of Caitlin Jenner), who just want everyone else to either not exist or else exist in the most dire, miserable, lifeless, joyless conditions, in service to them.
The New College students, like all of us, have a lineage in the fight of good against evil on this planet. I don’t know why it should be so, that we have always had to fight like this, but it’s true. Humans are monsters. (My love took me to the Medieval Torture Museum for Valentine’s Day, as that is our vibe, and it really affirmed that Europeans are fucking psychos.) I recommended Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, as well as the film How to Survive a Plague, and a recent Radio Lab episode I listened to called Ashes on the Lawn. I think ACT UP are the perfect crew to look at when wondering how to respond to fascism because they weren’t afraid of their anger, they weren’t afraid of pissing people off or being respectable, The had literally nothing to lose; they were dying. Their actions were perfectly pure expressions of natural rage and grief; they used theater and confrontation. I think because so many of these kids are queer, also, I want them to know they are part of a lineage of resistance. They have inherited the ancient hate of this next incarnation of bigots as much as they’ve inherited the right to call Sylvia Rodriguez and Phyllis Martin and Del Lyon and David Wojnarowicz their ancestors, and so they have this rich history of queer resistance to draw from. I talked about it a little with Emily, there before the ocean, which we eventually went into once we both had to pee, and by then I was fully sunburned because I had legit put on sunscreen like a toddler, like slapped it on a little here and there and got burned all in between.
I was tasked with teaching podcast making to the students, specifically witchy podcasting, and there’s only so much I have to say about podcasting, but the workshop was five hours long so I mostly talked about witchcraft. It felt really great to be giving a low-key DIY witchcraft lecture to these stricken students. I had brought with me a ton of potions by my favorite witch, Dori Midnight – Boundaries in a Bottle for protection, Witches, Bitches and Hos for more and specific protection, Pleasure Activist, her sex potion collab with Adrienne Maree Brown, and Between the Worlds, for folks transitioning, or staking out non-binary territory or doing away with their gender all together. Occasionally a student would come up clutching Pleasure Activist in one hand and Boundaries in a Bottle in the other, torn between opening up and walling off. Thankfully I’d gotten so much she could have both. I also spread out a bunch of inspiring posters from Miriam Klein Stahl – posters of Audre Lorde and Keith Haring, leathermen in a chorus line of kicks, Harry Hay, calls to vote for trans rights and reproductive freedom. What wasn’t snatched up by students were taken to hang around campus, complementing some basic and also hand-made calls to resistance.
Obviously, the only people who can truly lay claim to Florida are the fifty+ bands of indigenous people who were living there when the Spanish arrived. But it feels extra worse that such a gorgeous and tropical land, a geography that holds palpable magic in its plants and sand and waters and creatures, is ruled by the worst of us, like a fairy tale where the goblins cast a death spell over the enchanted forest. I’ve had Vic Chesnutt’s song, Florida, in my head non-stop since I’ve returned, and I’m not mad about it. Yes, it’s a song about deeply giving up, but as he sings, a man can only stand what a man can stand. I’m more down with there’s no more pathetic place in America, even as his emotional voice crooning Florida, Florida conjures not disgust for the fascist overlords of the place, but something wistful and yearning and humid and mystical, a longing for it, this weird place that I feel like I know so well, but won’t ever be able to get too close to.
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I remember the epic drive down I-95 to Florida from Boston, for the class-aspirational sojourn to Disney (where we camped! Camped for Pete’s sake! And I touched a languid armadillo that sought shade under our pickup truck camper! It was amazing!) I remember the desperate need to stop at South of the Border, that sombrero-shaped tourist trap where I’d beg for my parents to buy me small horrors like “Mexican” jumping beans, rubber snakes, or resin paperweights in which tiny scorpions were hermetically sealed! I remember stopping a a very racist-named chain restaurant that was trying to rebrand with a tiger rather than a horrifying racist portrayal of a human being as it’s logo and mascot—of course at age ten I didn’t really understand all of this—but when the waitress asked me if I wanted grits, I asked, “what are Gree-it’s,” to the delight of my parents whose accents were equally illegible to the waitress. Trips to Disney were such a big deal for south shore folks too, like a sign that you’d made it and could afford manufactured joy for your children…
So many memories are sparked by your post—but most of all I wanted to ask, remember our Dirt Bike Gang song, “I Need Mickey?” I wrote the lyrics in tribute to the large footprint Disney held in your mom’s psyche…that promise of escape & magic.
Love you so much and thanks for bringing a spark of hope & queer radical lineage to the young people of FLA.
This is SO how I think of Florida, having only been there as a kid. A fave memory is going to Solomon’s Castle, a tourist attraction in the woods with a sort of outsider art feel, silver castle structure all built by one man who also does metal sculpture, I think it has been there since the 80s at least. Their current website is a perfect reflection of the vibe. No credit cards, the castle was not air conditioned when I went as a child, there is a sort of pirate’s boat restaurant floating in a river, the family of Solomon is giving the tours, etc.