Florida: it’s like living in an asylum and loving it

“The deal with Florida is the charlatans and lunatics and Snapchat-famous plastic surgeons. It is the Ponzi schemes, the byzantine corruption, the evangelical fervor and the consenting-adult depravity. It is the seasonless climate. The lack of historical consciousness. The way in which this nation’s unctuous elements tend to trickle down as if Florida were the grease trap under America’s George Foreman grill.” – Kent Russell in a tongue-in-cheek review of the book “What Makes Florida So Weird”

Shug, I’m not a Florida native. That means I’m not allowed to psychoanalyze the state, as Kent Russell says natives are inclined to do. I will say that time has ground away some of the state’s weirdness, the alligator wrestling and jungle petting zoos that once lined major tourist arteries from the Georgia border to Key West like dead skunk roadkill.

gatorgirlSad to say, most of the real jungles and pristine beaches have been paved over by the grease trap of a million condos and bikini-clad bodies per square foot enjoying nature in a former natural setting. I know this will offend some people, but when I saw what was happening to the sunshine in the sunshine state as a kid, I frankly hoped a badass hurricane would clear away all the crap in the peninsula part of the state like a giant flush in a huge toilet so that “we” could start over.

God knows, Mother Nature has tried, but there’s more work to be done before the seas rise and the state slides down into the Bermuda Triangle with the missing ships, squadrons of military aircraft, and maybe Atlantis. Word is, Atlantis sank because its movers and shakers abused their power. By the time I graduated from college and left home, I thought Florida would go that route, compliments of rogue developers more prevalent than palmetto bugs and equally able to slither away out of the light.

When my fiance came down to Florida to meet the family, she decided one afternoon while we were tip-toeing through the alligators at a nearby wildlife refuge that we were crazy. “What about those gators?” she asked. “No worries, Sugar, they’re in the swap and we’re here on the road through the swamp.” That made her feel about as safe as a can of tuna in a room full of cats.

But here’s the thing. When one moves into the state, one usually starts out sane. But things happen. Maybe it’s the water or too much sun or a million mosquitoes per square foot no matter how many times Mother Nature tries to blow them out to sea. Nobody knows because the people who’ve been there long enough to judge are no longer competent to judge.  With more data, people could get out before they’re involuntarily committed.

Looking back on it all–chasing stingrays, sinking speed boats, teasing copperheads, crawling into dark caves, camping in the piney woods, getting addicted to boiled peanuts, dining on bait fish–I truly think the large blue welcome signs on I-75 and I-10, need to say “No exit,” meaning once you drive into paradise almost lost,  you become lost and can’t leave. You won’t know any better.

If you figure out how to leave, you’ll miss it fierce. If you’re a writer, you write about it. If not, you’ll look at your summer vacation  slides on an old Carousel projector and tell people that in those days, you had it bad and that wasn’t good. Of course, if you’re an FSU Seminoles fan, you’ll still hate the U of F Gators while you watch every game on ESPN. You’ll watch folks boarding of their windows with plywood on the Weather Channel during hurricane season, and you’ll remember the good old days when you road out all the storms because you didn’t know any better.

(Fact of life: people buy new plywood every year when the first big storm approaches because they threw it all away last year, thinking they wouldn’t need it again. If this isn’t a clue to something or other, I don’t know what is.)

Here’s a tip. If you’re planning a Florida vacation, keep it short because if you stay there long enough to start believing the Swamp Booger is read–maybe even in your closet–then you’ve gone native, lost in the swamp, so to speak.


In a continuing search for sanity, former Florida resident Malcolm R, Campbell is the author of the following stories and novels set in Florida: “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” “Carrying Snakes Into Eden,” “Cora’s Crossing,” “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Snakebit,” “Dream of Crows,” “College Avenue,” “Emily’s Stories,” and “The Land Between the Rivers.” Learn more on his Amazon page.



Alligators, bullies and becoming a writer

My life began at a Gulf Oil Service Station at Immokalee, Florida, back in the days when the attendants came out with a whisk broom and swept the beach sand out of your car while they pumped your gas for you.

Papa at work
Word is, I was swept out of the back seat of our 1949 Nash even though I didn’t look like beach sand. Since authorities were certain that even though I was an ugly five-week-old baby, somebody would claim me sooner or later, they put me in the service station window with a sign that said IS THIS YOUR BABY?

An aging alligator couple took pity on me and raised me as one of their own. They taught me to swim and they taught me to lurk in the water with only my eyes showing so that I could grab hapless ducks in my teeth and bring them home for Duck a la Orange.

Mugsy Walters Requesting Lunch Money
When I got to high school, playground bullies made fun of my swamp dialect and taunted me with phrases like “see you later alligator” and “after while crocodile.” That’s what they said after they stole my lunch money.

Papa Gator said, “Son, you’re never going to bring home the bacon with your teeth like your brothers and sisters. You’re going to have to use your wits.” That advice has served me well.

I convinced the playground bullies of several truths: (1) When I grew up, I was going to be a famous writer and would put all of them in my books for better or worse, (2) Looking good in a novel was a good way to pick up chicks, something they needed to think about since their teeth weren’t large enough to grab anyone at the prom, (3) Papa Gator knew where they lived.

No doubt, truth number one (1) got their attention; that, along with my weekly column in the school newspaper called “Alligator Alley Gossip.” Everybody read it, but nobody wanted to be in it: Is that hickey on a certain red-haired girl’s neck a true love bite or did somebody forget their lunch again? Once again, a lover’s lane romeo with the initials W. S. forgot the distinction between “Jail Bait” and “Gator Bait.” Note to S. T.: old lady Anderson doesn’t keep the test answers in her drawers any more.

The world has moved on from the Immokalee I once knew. The Gulf Oil Station was torn down years ago. Seaboard closed down the rail line. Most of the gators, including many who still remember my name, have retreated deeper into the swamps. And now, the people coming to town aren’t there for the fishing, but for the Zig Zag Girlz Blackjack at the Seminole Casino.

The basic truth comes down to this. If you can’t earn a living with your teeth, you need to go out and find an occupation that fits your station in life, one that honors how you were brought up. Even those who don’t know my first adult meal was a pine warbler on toast or that I still make slaw with swamp cabbage, walk carefully around any writer who just might put them in his books.

Papa Gator would be proud.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/thriller novel “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” a novel where poor Jimmy Pew met up with Papa Gator and became a believer.