I got picked on a lot in high school. I am not angry or bitter towards my peers who relentlessly insulted me. I get it. I was different. They didn’t take the time to get to know me. It’s a social norm for one person say something and then soon most everyone is saying the same thing. Herd mentality.
Herd mentality is the cloud cover of free human thought. It’s why people who dress similar often like the same bands. Or have the same opinions. Or regurgitate the same phrases. At my most cynical I truly wonder if at their core people truly like what they think they like. Or feel what they think they feel. All those kids in high school certainly all agreed that they didn’t like me. Until years later when most of them decided that they did. It is herd mentality that brings people together and ultimately holds them apart.
And then there’s the poor old state of Florida. I moved here in 1998. I hated it at first. Much like the kids in high school hated me. I didn’t know Florida. I didn’t understand it. I just knew it wasn’t “cool”. I didn’t spend my formative teenage years romanticizing a move to Florida. Like most teenagers, at my core I was certain I was meant to live in New York City, Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle in that order. Naturally I never set foot in any of those places. But if cool people thought those places were the shit…then they must be. Just like every single one of the cool kids thought “Nevermind” by Nirvana was the best album ever released in the early 90s.
Problem was I thought “Pretty On The Inside” by Hole was a much better album than “Nevermind”. And the longer I lived in Tampa the more I loved it than New York City, Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle. I visited all those places. It was heartbreaking for me to observe that people were basically the same everywhere. People went to bars to get drunk. People fought with their friends. People were creative, or they weren’t. The scenery changed. The rent prices changed. The availability of public transit varied…as well as the number of things to do on a given night. But what a bummer to me to find out that the people filling up the subways and the ten art shows instead of one weren’t that much more awesome than any of my friends in Tampa. Fuck me. Now what do I have to look forward to?
As my one year in Tampa turned into sixteen years I watched a lot of people come and go. Mostly go. Around 2006 there was a mass exodus to Brooklyn. More recently I’ve watched a lot of my friends zip over to Portland. And in the apartment that I moved into in 1998 I remain.
As the first decade of the 2000s crawled along poor Florida found itself in the news multiple times. First, in the year 2000 it was us who decided the presidential election. By a miniscule fraction of Florida votes George Bush won. And so began a decade of Florida shaming and hatred. It seemed the whole United States blamed George Bush on us (and of course not the states who elected him by a landslide).
Florida continued to stay in the headlines due to quality characters like Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, the human cannibal zombie, and the list goes on. Eventually the mass public concluded that a) everyone in Florida is stupid. b) Florida is the worst place on this earth and c) there is absolutely nothing redeemable about Florida. Even Tampa’s most successful band called the area a “cultural wasteland” in national press. Florida was a state with almost zero cheerleaders. Florida is the nerd in high school who everyone threw spit balls at because everyone decided that he was strange, weird, and stupid. And eventually it’s gotten to the point where almost everyone who lived in Florida seemed to hate it…and people who have never been here decided that they hate it too. The headlines can’t be wrong. “Flori-duh” is such a clever, catchy all-encompassing nickname that one can’t help but use it. You know, kinda like “hippie satanic faggot” was a great nickname for me.
And so I’m confused. Every morning when I get out of bed I open my window. I see a beautiful sky. When I read on my back porch I see a gorgeous tropical courtyard. When I drive to work I see clean streets and pass a series of beloved local businesses. When I socialize it’s with people who are intelligent, beautiful, well-read, creative, and vibrant. These are my friends. These are my friends who live in Florida.
By the side of the road I see strip malls. But I don’t drive by the strip malls. I pull into the parking lot. Then I walk from business to business. And from store to store I meet people of various cultures, age groups, and backgrounds. As I walked from one end of the strip plaza to the other I could have eaten vegan food, gotten my nails done, bought a voodoo doll, had a slice of pizza, gotten a massage, and gotten some custom made furniture. As I leave the parking lot I don’t understand why the strip mall is everyone’s enemy. If anything it’s a hot bed of spunk, variety, character, and culture. And I didn’t even have to move to Brooklyn. Well goddamn. Drive by any strip mall and write down what you can get from one end to the other. You can’t make this fucking stuff up.
And then I log onto Facebook. It seems lately hardly anyone has anything nice to say about Florida. “Fuck this place.” “I’m getting out of this fucking swamp.” “Florida is all a bunch of backwoods idiots.” “America should get rid of Florida.” Yup, Florida fervor on Facebook and everyone is heading west, so they say.
And then I think about the beautiful sun rises. The one-of-a-kind cloud formations. The best dentist I’ve ever had in my life. My awesome doctor. The apartment I continue to live in and love. The music I hear coming from local musicians and the intellectual conversations I’ve had here. Here. In Tampa. In Florida. How can everyone hate somewhere I love so much?
This is where I start to question myself. Do I really love it here? Am I being honest with myself? Or am I being the way I’ve been since I was a kid — thinking and doing the opposite of the masses just because it’s in my blood. Maybe I’m lazy and have convinced myself to love a horrible place because I have too many books and CDs to move. Trapped by my possessions and comfort. In those moments of self-doubt is when the pictures of people under waterfalls in Oregon really get to me. Or the endless photos of Manhattan’s skyline. Our instagram society taken the myth of the trendy city to the millionth extreme. How many fucking people can take a picture in that glass building in Chicago? Is everyone in Portland standing near the same fucking waterfall? Just how many angles can one capture the Empire State building. Sometimes I want to scream into my computer — YES WE KNOW! YOU FUCKING LIVE IN NEW YORK! I can think of a lot of beautiful things in Tampa that people should feel it’s cool to get their picture taken by.
Isn’t it profitable and rewarding when a city adopts a catchy phrase or identity that people embrace ? How can anyone NOT love New York? It’s on a trillion mugs and sweat shirts. Portlandia was an ironic and satirical look at Portland. On some level it also served as a great advertisement. I’ve read in hashtags that we are supposed to “Keep Austin Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird.” Once a city self-proclaims its weirdness has it jumped the buzz-city shark? Portland seems pretty typical to me when I visited. In that it was weird in all the ways one would expect. No disrespect. It’s working for a lot of people.
I will say this. Tampa (and Florida as a whole) is pretty goddamn weird. And not in the hashtag or coffee mug slogan kind of way. Also not in the newspaper-headline “dumb Florida story of the day” weird. Florida’s weird is untamed and not categorizable. Your guess is as good as mine who will be standing on the corner of Fletcher and Nebraska tomorrow at noon. One of my favorite things about Tampa (and Florida) is that it’s really not aware of what it is. The occasional ugliness of Florida sells headlines. But its constant beautiful mystical wonder and unpredictability is unmined and undefined as of yet. Perhaps I should take solace that while we may be reduced to sensational headlines…at least we’re not distilled into neat and tidy hashtags.
Which leads me back to the herd mentality. Somewhere along the way someone with social influence decided that Florida really sucks. That strip malls suck. That Tampa sucks. That nothing good is happening anywhere down here. And that person told another person. Then the messenger got a high-five and got patted on the back and then told another person how much they think Florida sucks too. Since basically no one is sticking out their neck and saying “fuck you, Florida sure as fuck DOESN’T suck” why should anyone believe otherwise? By now the Florida bashing is so effortless and common it’s just a natural reflex. Please take notice that it’s always ALL of Florida that sucks. It’s always ALL of Florida that’s a disappointment. It’s always ALL the people who Florida who are backwards. In a society where it’s taboo to generalize about people based on their culture, sexual orientation, gender, or outward appearance…people have no problem generalizing by geographical location. The Florida generalizations run rampant.
I find this dangerous. I find this self defeating. For ALL of Florida being supposedly stupid and backwards…we are quite often really really fucking close in our elections. For instance…the disheartening election that went down last week. My candidate of choice lost by ONE PERCENT. I repeat ONE PERCENT. When I wade out into the Florida population almost HALF of the population votes as progressively as I do. I find this extremely uplifting, encouraging, and important. What a bummer that instead of recognizing how close we were…the day after the election everyone had already rented a U-Haul and turned their back on the state. For fuck’s sake when will you people stop living here and start LIVING here.
We are in the south. Progress will be hard and long. I could easily choose to move somewhere where it will be easy and some other troubadour has already done the hard work for me and my peers. I don’t think it’s fair to me or the public if I give up my Florida skies and beloved apartment because I am too lazy to get on the streets and really try to make a difference. Florida needs me. Florida needs my lesbian friend Melissa who wants very badly to get married someday. Florida needs every forward thinking person. And most of all Florida NEEDS all these people to say “shut the fuck up, we love it here. We are sick of the picture you are painting of Florida because it’s not complete and it’s not accurate.” To me “Flori-DUH” is as insulting as a racial slur. I’m not fucking dumb. My friends aren’t fucking dumb. In fact, none of the thousands of people I know here are dumb. Quit accepting the way people talk about our home. It’s not acceptable. I am a citizen of Florida and I DO NOT accept the way people are talking about my home.
I have known a lot of people move to more active cities and then get involved in protests and political activism. Of course when they lived here…and when they came back to visit they did nothing more than sink or swim for ten dollars. So when a person is an activist only when it’s an easy and trendy thing to do are they really an activist? Does it take moving to a place where the general populous is more involved to be involved yourself? I call bullshit on that. If you didn’t care about the world here I don’t believe that you care about it wherever you are…no matter how many pictures you post of you “doing things” with lots of other people “doing things.” You don’t need to move to the “BEST COAST” to care about the world. Get out of the club, get off your ass, and give a damn. Right here. Now. This is the kind of place where your voice really does matter…and where it could really make a difference.
I will tell the truth – I haven’t done shit. I’m uneducated in politics. I have not been active in social outcry. I have laid on my fucking couch and watched DVDs of old TV shows for the last ten years. And bless its heart…Florida lets you be comfortable, air conditioned, and content. At the price of important elections being lost because we are too comfortable to get our asses of the couch and into the streets. I keep hearing over and over that people don’t vote because they feel their vote doesn’t count. One vote may not make a difference. But ten might. And a hundred really might. And one thousand really really might. And a million sure will. Last time I checked, the way to start counting to a million is by starting with one. YOU are that one. The million can never be reached unless everyone takes the accountability to being the number one that begins the count to a million. And how selfish and narcissistic of us anyhow. It’s not about YOUR vote being counted. When we go to vote we aren’t singing a metaphorical solo in the school choir. We are choosing what part of that choir we are going to sing in. The American public decides how the song is going to go. When you choose to not add your voice to the chorus…ever so slightly the song changes. And when 100,000 people don’t add their voice to the chorus there’s the threat that the tenor section may not have its voice heard at all. It may all be rigged. It may not mean shit. But what if it does? I can’t bear that irresponsibility.
Every time you say Florida sucks you are diminishing all the work that the progressive people are doing. Every time you say that Florida disappointed you you are neglecting to recognize that a great majority of the population indeed votes and thinks the same way you do. Almost half in fact. The moving away and the self-hating isn’t going to push that number over half. Stop it. Stop it now. I’ll take the first step by saying the following out loud: My roots are deep. Florida is my home. Until the day I die I will not accept things here until they are right. Until I can get married to another man. Until a mass transit is proposed that truly makes sense and is good for the population. I want young America to want to move here. We have a lot to offer — even if we don’t realize it ourselves yet. There’s no where else in the world I’d rather be.
When I left Buffalo New York in 1996 many of my friends hated it including me. Since I’ve been away that city has reborn and found a spirit within itself. I am happy for Buffalo. And if Buffalo has found a way to be amazing to itself Tampa sure as hell can too. Florida sure as hell can too.
Florida – we are so close. Or at least closer. I beg of Florida to stop hating itself. I beg that we all stop accepting the way people are talking about us. I propose that we stop saying all the negative things about Florida ourselves. STOP. NOW. There’s lots of work to be done and loving a place OUT LOUD is working to improve it. I believe in this geographical region of the United States. I was suicidal when I moved here. The good people of Florida cared about me and saved my life. Smart people. Kind people. Progressive people. The Florida I know and love. For every Rick Scott there’s a Kelly Benjamin. For every Pam Bondi there’s a Scott Bentley or the Disco Dolls. And for every Rhonda Storms there’s a fucking Jeremy Gloff.
So all you motherfuckers can move out west and keep Portland weird. I’m gonna stay in Tampa and keep it my home.