Florida is flat, like a half-drunk bottle of champagne that sat open too long, devoid of sparkle, like the infinite bike lanes adjoining the highways that never, ever, provide a moment to coast. Florida is beige under a blue sky. It’s a blur of primary colors whizzing down a four lane boulevard, passing infinite numbers of businesses to meet every need from botox to burgers; from a billboard announcing a 7 minute wait for those who patronize the local E.R. to an offer of shingles vaccines on a digital sign outside of Walgreens, to endless larger than life faces of lawyers and plastic surgeons. Florida is streets that say “no outlet” and the security guard at the booth who will press the button that lifts the wooden bar to permit your entrance, as your car slides past the wrought iron spikes that protect the residents from the outside world. Florida is row upon row of coral stuccoed homes surrounded by golf-courses and man-made lakes with names like Palmer’s Ranch Drive and Avenida Bourganvilla; where side-walks sit empty in a post-apocalyptic stillness, the only motion a palm tree swaying in the breeze.
Florida is a game of connect the dots, where island oases with names like Sanibel and Siesta Key are strung together like a necklace, each bead parted by a chain of avenues, roads and boulevards that run full day and night, converging onto bridges that bear the weight of snowbirds and refugee families from the North fleeing winter’s wrath. Florida is bald heads, sagging breasts, chin hair, stomachs that topple over swim trunks, navy capris dotted with red anchors, and madras shorts. Florida is grandparents waiting in second-floor condominiums for a grandchild’s arrival; for a game of cards or a game of golf; for art classes, a lecture about flora and fauna, a bingo game; for a bus trip to Tangers’ Outlets; waiting for an answer; waiting for meaning; waiting out the years; waiting for April or May and the college student who will drive his grandpa’s car back to Boston, while grandpa flies Jet Blue. Florida is pure white sand, snowy white egrets, and throngs of very white folks, who avoid Miami, which is really not quite Florida. Florida is Ft. Meyers, the most segregated city in the United States, where a waiter recalled applications to join the Klan distributed in his 10th grade classroom.
Florida is a paradox; its pages filled to the brim with exhaust fumes, condominiums and kitch, but the margins where the roads end are teeming with exquisite beauty. Florida in the margins is turquoise gulf waters, a pelican riding a morning wave, a great blue heron meditating on a branch of a mangrove tree. Florida in the margins is an alligator sunning itself on the edge of a bike path; a morning stroller on a beach gathering scallop shells that will sit in a glass jar on her night-table in Au Clair Wisconsin and make her smile each night before she turns the light out. Florida in the margins is an Everglades wildlife refuge that says no to cars; it’s the water under bridges; bays and bayous, creeks and gulf shores and a clarity of light that beckons. Florida in the margins is pedaling a bicycle up and down Key West’s quiet streets, away from the sound of The Conch Train and the drunks getting wasted in the afternoon’s darkness of The Green Parrot or Sloppy Joes. Florida in the margins is a tall slice of key lime pie, shrimp ceviche and a fresh-caught fillet of local grouper, swimming in bernaise; it’s tropical lushness in infinite shades of green, spell-binding bromeliades and the bark that weaves itself around a palm tree. Florida in the margins draws me in; its warmth; its light; its surprises around every corner on a boat edging through the mysteries of a mangrove forest. It holds me until I cross the margin, where it dumps me on my ass, and I swerve my bike, jumping to the sidewalk to avoid the automobiles, choking on exhaust, as I swear I will pedal far, far from this place, never to return.
Last Sunday, while eating a scoop of Sanibel Crunch Ice Cream outside of Pinnochio’s, the island’s prized ice cream establishment, I saw, standing alone in the parking lot, a willowy snowy egret. Expecting it to spread its wings and disappear momentarily, I grabbed my camera, and proceeded to follow its delicate steps, like a ballerina’s pas de deux, until it stopped and paused, studying the driveway’s EXIT sign for an unusually long moment. “Even the birds….,” I thought as I pressed the shutter.