(read aloud at the Wordier Than Thou Storytelling Night – L Train Bar – St Pete Florida – March 21st, 2012)
One piece of paper can change your life. Picture it – a humid Tampa evening in 2000. I was leaving the club as I always did – hot, sweaty, hungry, horny, and wide awake. Peaking out of a magazine rack was a tiny flyer. Remember those days before digital overstimulation fried our brains? When we actually picked up flyers and read them? Deep in the middle of the night strange creative people hovered over Xerox machines making flyers they’d paint the town with the following afternoon – driving in their beat up cars with staple guns and tape. On that humid Tampa night I picked up one of those flyers. This led to the greatest love affair of entire life.
It was just another open mic but something about the picture or the font was magnetizing. “NakedPoetry.com presents an open mic hosted by RhondaK.” I’d already been in Tampa for two years. I didn’t love it or hate it. I was certain I wouldn’t be there much longer. And here was this strange woman with a strange name throwing an event that looked alluring.
I attended. RhondaK sure didn’t disappoint in person. She was just as bizarre and magnetic as a name like that would imply. And she had a filthy mouth. I was sold.
I kept going to Rhonda’s events and eventually a friendship formed. I felt so nervous hanging out at first. All these established older art people. I was just a poor punk kid from New York. I didn’t realize everyone was probably as broke as I was. I was certain everything I said sounded naive and stupid. But I basked in the sense of uncertainty and danger that came with being in Rhonda’s world. It was one of the first times I felt at home in a place that hadn’t been home for very long.
The longer I hung out with RhondaK the more I realized we were kindred. I could tell her my dirtiest secrets. She thought the art shows were just as pretentious as I did. And we both had a knack for finding the worst guy to date in the crowd. Our group was completed by the addition of Betty X – a singer who from Seattle who like me, was new to Tampa.
It wasn’t the dinners, the art shows, the collaborations, or the events that had the greatest impact on me. It was the drives we took together. In her jeep, with the top town, it was RhondaK who introduced me to a place I’d already been living in for two years. RhondaK truly introduced me to Tampa. And so the love affair began.
RhondaK took me to biker bars where the waitress’ shirt lifted and there were knife wounds. We ate at strange all night diners owned by former circus freaks. We drove through desolate towns on the outskirts of nowhere where the steam rising off the water looked haunted and deadly. Through the inky night we drove down highways where tall dark mountains lined the road – products of phosphate mines. During the day people from all over the world visit Florida. During those nighttime drives I got to see where the locals who serve the tourists go home to sleep and hide.
Rhonda took me to voodoo shops full of strange candles and a spell for everything. We sat at the counter of Cuban restaurants where I did my best to order in Spanish. My order always came out right. We sat at the edge of Davis Island and looked at the reflection of our beautiful little skyline painted on the water. Rhonda showed me the nooks, crannies, corners, and hidden passageways of this beautiful, mysterious, and magical city called Tampa.
As the years passed my love for Tampa – and Florida – has only grown. I have spent the past ten years with road maps and my favorite CDs. I have driven to the middle of the state to visit the town with the strangest name. I traced the steps of a serial killer through strange forests. I drove through the Everglades listening to an AM radio show about UFOs. RhondaK opened my eyes to the true bizarreness of Florida – and 15 years later it still hasn’t lost its magic – not even for one second.
While the world at large is convinced that places like New York, LA, Chicago, and Portland are the epicenters of creativity and culture, after living in Florida those places bore me. Something about the magic of the flat land, the openness of the majestic skies, the randomness of every strip mall, and the whisper of the palm trees speaks to me in a way that nothing has before or since. Florida isn’t weird because of hair dye, piercings, or costumes. Florida is weird in an uncelebrated, undiscovered, and absolutely enchanting kind of way. You just have to look under the rugs, around the corners, past the city limits, above the trees, and after the sun goes down. Florida is not a place for people who don’t fit in but want to. Florida is a place for people who don’t fit in and that’s just fine. If you learn to love a city because a coffee mug tells you to, this place isn’t for you.
Yes, at times the creative scene here sucks. Sometimes the people suck too. But the older I get, the less I care about befriending strangers, social chess moves, the farce that is fashion, and being part of art scenes. I care more about how the air feels and being surrounded by a magic that speaks to me. As long as this air stays humid I will never feel dry.
You just never know when you pick up a piece of paper who you will meet, where you will go, Florida iand what will happen. Little did I ever think when I picked up that flyer back in 2000 it would eventually lead to the realization that I’d found my home. Florida is the greatest love of my life. I have RhondaK to thank for that.