From time to time I teach at Eckerd College as part of their OLLI program. It’s a not-for-credit program geared towards adults. One of the things I enjoy the most about OLLI is that my “students” want to be there; they aren’t there for a degree or a grade. They choose which classes they want to take based solely on what piques their interest, not because they’re trying to graduate. These classes are supposed be fun for them, and so the people who come to my classes either love Florida as much as I do or they want to learn more about Florida, which makes the classes fun for me (not that they aren’t fun already because, hey, I’m getting paid to talk about Florida, which is my favorite subject ever). Creating these courses also gives me an excuse to do more research about parts of Florida that catch my attention (Here’s a link to the summer courses at OLLI).
This week I’ll give a 90-minute talk called Wild Florida. I’m in love with the wild bits of Florida, which is more of it than you’d think. Working on the materials for this class gave me an idea for a book, and, hopefully, my editor will agree. The idea for the book and the idea for the course come from the same place: When I speak at OLLI, so many of the people who attend are not Florida natives and they absolutely delight in learning about the state — not only the weird stuff, which really isn’t what I do anyway, but the wonderful. The spectacular. And so I created this class to give people more insight into exactly how spectacular wild Florida is. One example is Archbold Station, one of the last bastions of safety for the scrub jay, the indigo snake and others. And if you want to know more, well, hey, you’ll have to come to one of my lectures or buy my next book. Until then, here’s a cool little movie a bunch of Florida kids made about the scrub jay.
I saw your article in the NYT and I wanted to reach out to you for some insight on Florida. My wife and I live in NY in Westchester County about 30 minutes outside midtown Manhattan.We moved to Westchester from the city to have a different life for our two young kids, 4 and 18 months. Were we live is gorgeous but the more my wife and I talk the more we are looking for a more peaceful warm way of life for us and our kids.I’m pretty sure I cannot make the same amount of money in Florida as I do in NY but we are open to a change. My question is, we want a nice safe place for our kids with a great school district.We were looking in Naples and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that location, and where specifically you would recommend. Lastly, if you would suggest that type of lifestyle for young kids? Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
The answer I gave him is appropriate for anyone considering a move to the Sunshine State. Here’s what I wrote:
I am so glad you asked. Every day, it seems, I meet people who had a dream of moving to Florida but bought into the fantasy without thinking it through. Florida is my Paradise —trust me, I’d argue few people love it more — but before you move here, I implore you to consider if you’re really ready for it.
See, you see warmer weather and a more peaceful way of life, and yes, that is true. But along with the warm weather — it’s February and my town was 80º today — you’re going to see a dramatic slowdown. Life here is quite different than Westchester (I lived in Port Chester as a child and go back to visit loved ones periodically); it’s not simply slower-paced and warmer. We take our time, we laugh a lot, we make time to take time — and this comes at a cost. What that cost is, I honestly can’t say, but it’s anathema to many New Yorkers, who seem gravely offended by our slower pace: “How do you get anything done?” my cousin once asked me, and I couldn’t answer him but to say, “I have no clue, but we do.”
I have been ushered out of my office at 5 p.m. on the dot and offered a “work beer” at 11 a.m., but it’s Saturday night as I answer you and I’m still working, too. It’s a dichotomy that some people can’t stomach. Florida exists in colorful grey areas, not the blacks and whites of some northern towns. There rules are different here, our old commercial said — and it wasn’t wrong. The mistake is thinking there are no rules.
Florida exists in this weird Southern limbo, too — we are not the Deep South; we are the New South, and yes, that matters. We are not confederates, try as some may to change that sliver of history: We were the only state in the South whose capital didn’t fall the Union, yes, but in Key West — a much more strategic city than Tallahassee, militarily speaking — the Union conquered, then allowed the locals to stay because, well, the rules are different here. But we don’t have the heritage of the Deep South; ours is not a slave culture married to white; ours is Caribbean married to transplants to indigenous people to frontiersmen. It’s… not easy. I can’t explain it, but we’re different here and no, we don’t mind a bit.
To become Floridian, you have to shift your mind when you move here; it’s not simply a smaller paycheck and better winters; it’s slower. Everything. Is. Slower. We roll up the sidewalks at dark, because, well, that sun’s hot. And yes, there are places to play after the sun sets, but there’s a lot of drinking at those places. And sometimes it’s hard not to drink too much — after all, isn’t Florida a permanent party? Actually, no, it’s not. It’s not, unless you want that. And if your kids grow up here, they’ll learn that balance, but it’s the older transplants who seem to struggle. And that’s why I write you. Your children will love it here; Florida is a playground for a child. Your kids will learn to throw a cast net, fish for tarpon, play outside when their old school chums are bundled in snow gear and probably have at least a few friends who can take them boating. But it’s hard sometimes for adults to let go. How will you embrace Florida? How will you let go of your northern ideals?
And also I beg you: Please don’t expect things to be the same as up north — one of the quickest ways to alienate us is to remind us that the pizza, bagels, etc., are better up north or to say “that’s not how we do it up north.” We know that; that’s why we’re here. 😉
So if all that doesn’t dissuade you, let’s talk neighborhoods. Because, no, we’re not talking cities; we’re talking block by block, and the biggest thing is finding a neighborhood that works for you. Naples doesn’t strike me as family-friendly, but as much as I’ve traveled Florida, remember, we’re big — Naples is as far from my home as Delaware is from yours. How much do you know of Delaware? That’s what I’m about to tell you about Naples. From my seat, I see lots of suburbs without a lot of trees and in Florida, trees matter. It’s not Florida in the same sense, perhaps, as the Florida you seek.
Perhaps investigate Coral Gables, Marco Island, Sanibel, and others. It depends on how you see yourself living in Florida; if you want to make boating and fishing a priority, move close to the water. If you want a big city feel, go for Miami or even St. Pete (although St. Pete has a different vibe than Miami). But most importantly — and something many people don’t take time to do — if you’re thinking of becoming Floridian, do yourselves a favor and take two weeks to a month and drive the state. Stop at the local eateries, look at the schools as they get out every day. Look at the cars, look at the yards. Go to the grocery stores — we worship a place called Publix here — and see what food you can’t get. Can you live with what you see?
Before you even take that road trip — and I hope you do — consider this:
Florida has two migration patterns. To discern them, look at the Interstates. I-95 runs down the eastern seaboard, and so many of the towns along Florida’s east coast (especially, markedly southeast Florida) have a New York feel. That’s a lot for me, and my parents — and we were born in New Rochelle, Yonkers and Sleepy Hollow. Down the west coast, though, you see traces of the midwest, which is a lot of friendliness but sometimes not as much on the “things to do after dark.”
Naples is less intense than, say, West Palm Beach, but more so than St. Pete. Your kids would have a great time in any of the small towns dotting either coast, because, well, they are kids and kids love to play and they adapt. Adults, not so much.
I would, of course, heartily tell you that my town, Gulfport, is the best, but I’m biased. I love that my town feels like the Florida I remember from 1980. What I encourage you to do is find the Florida you seek, the Florida that exists in your dreams, and move there.
That may not be the answer you wanted, but really, it’s the best answer I can give. What do you want from Florida? What do you seek? Search it out and, when you find it, move there.
Let me know if you need something more specific. I fear this isn’t the answer you seek.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.
Lying on a Panhandle beach, I turn to Barry and ask, “Why don’t we live here?”
“You’d be too cold,” he answers, and he’s not wrong. My friends joke (but not really) that I get Seasonal Affective Disorder when the sun’s behind a cloud for more than 15 minutes, and that whenever the mercury drops below 80º I run for my sweatshirt. Right now, it’s in the low 80s and I’m writing with a blanket over me.
Nevertheless, the Florida panhandle beckons. Specifically, the Forgotten Coast of Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties. Sand dunes line the coast, buffeted by pine forests from the small towns selling hyper-local seafood and low-key tourist dreams. Few roads trace the edge of the land here — US 98 through Port St. Joe and, to its west, 30A. I am hopelessly, totally, irrevocably charmed by seaside forests and small-town splendor.
I’m not the first. Years — centuries — before Tampa Bay became a place to live, Florida’s panhandle attracted people. After Ponce de Leon’s 1513 discovery of Florida, pioneers opened the West — West Florida, that is, which totally became a thing as our much-maligned state bounced between five flags until becoming part of the US in 1821. Of course, statehood wasn’t an easy road — the U.S. couldn’t let just anyone in, right? So, in 1838, Floridians got together and convened a constitutional convention at St. Joseph, Florida’s largest town with a whopping 6,000-ish people.
By the time Florida became a state in 1845, that town was gone.
In July 1841, a ship from the Greater Antilles docked there. NBD: St. Joseph was a significant port (’member, anything south of the Panhandle was a swampy morass of death, what with the skeeters and gators and lack of air conditioning) so ships came and went like it was today’s Miami. Except this ship had a passel of passengers lousy with yellow fever, which sucked for the passengers who died — but not before they infected most of the town. Of the 6,000 living there, all but 1,500 died. Of those, another 1,000 fled because they weren’t fond of death. So when a hurricane hit a couple months later, the 500 remaining residents found themselves homeless, because the storm trashed pretty much every building. Resolute pioneers that they were, they soldiered on… only to have fires rip through town a while later.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 24 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.
If all St. Augustine had going for it was “oldest city in the United States” I would never go there again. I grow weary of the Spanish Quarter. I mean, how many times can you walk through the oldest schoolhouse? Honestly, there’s more to St. Augustine than this, and I made it my mission (see what I did there?) to find it.
Problem is, real history — the fun stuff — doesn’t fit in boxes like the names and dates. Also, sometimes you get to watch history getting made, and it makes you cringe.
OK, well, first things first: St. Augustine, if you can forgive it for being so damn insistent that it’s the oldest city in America (really, you can’t blame it, because those Jamestown schmucks totally co-opted that) has some awesome stuff. We stayed as guests of the Casa de Suenos, a funeral home turned B&B that sadly seems to have no ghosts but, happily, lies outside of the Spanish Quarter yet within walking distance of pretty much everything we wanted to see. After a late-night arrival, a hot Jacuzzi bath and a glass of in-room sherry (16th-century conquistadors had no such niceties), I collapse, exhausted, but wake determined to see something of St. Augustine that isn’t a tourist trap. Fountain of Youth? Um, no, that’s totally made up — Ponce de Leon never even believed in it.
For all its touristy history, though, St. Augustine really can’t help but ooze charm. It’s eminently walkable, and while we tend to spend our time looking at dead people (the Huguenot and yellow fever graveyards make me inordinately happy), there’s no denying later — as we sit on the upper deck of Meehan’s and work our way through a seafood tower and some superbly smooth Irish whiskey —that the old city has something special. We watch the horse-drawn carriages pull tourists in love up and down the waterfront, and we watch the sun sink into the bay over the Bridge of Lions.
The real reason I’m here, though, is the Night of Lights.
Every Christmas season, St. Augustinians light pretty much every solid surface of the city with three million twinkly lights, earning the celebration a spot on National Geographic‘s list of the world’s ten best holiday light displays. And certainly the lights impress, but to me, the reason the lights came about at all touches me more.
When St. Augustine belonged to Spain, the Brits had a lot of angst about the Spanish being so close to the colonies. The Spanish, for their part, weren’t in love with the Brits being right next door, either. Florida was then — as it is now — damn desirable, so being a Spanish sailor in Florida was not a whole lot of fun, what with tensions high and every boat maybe staging an attack on La Florida. On top of that, sailors returning home had no easy way to tell if the city remained under Spanish control or if it had fallen into enemy hands.
The people of St. Augustine had an easy workaround for this: If the city remained safe, homes facing the water burned a single candle in the window. If the ships didn’t see all the windows lit up, they knew the city was under siege or had already fallen under enemy control.
Hence, the Night of Lights.
This story remains at the forefront of my head the next day. A stop at a nondescript sandwich shop (Hot Shots) for an exquisite sandwich leads us further away from the city, this time in a car. We head into Lincolnville, an historically African-American part of town that clearly hasn’t blossomed under the same level of care and love as the Spanish Quarter.
Welp, they don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump, but the New York Times likes me.
A weeks ago, I’d shut down email for the day, except — fun fact — I’m almost always trying to clear out my email. Over at Creative Loafing, our food editor and one of my favorite people, Meaghan, always has about three or four emails in her inbox. She’s that good at clearing them out. Right now, I have roughly seventy-seven million emails waiting for me, so I feel compelled to check them from time to time, even when I’m theoretically done for the day.
So, the de facto in-laws are down for the holidays, and as we’re all watching football I start looking for easy emails to handle. I see one from a John Dorman, who says he’s with the Times and would like to do a Q&A with me. Now, we have a daily paper here we also refer to as “the Times“, so I thought, oh, OK, that’s weird, because they rejected me for the Festival of Reading and haven’t shown any interest in Backroads whatsoever, but cool.
Then I get to the signature line and it’s not the local Times. No, it’s the New York Times. Or, as I said about two seconds after I realized which paper had contacted me, The New York Fucking Times, but only in my head, because, well, I try not to say fuck so much around Barry’s parents, because I’m a goddamn lady and all.
So, um, hey, read this super-cool interview with this awesome Florida chick who’s in the New York FUCKING Times. Or buy the print version of the paper Sunday. Or do both.
This article appeared in the October 27, 2016 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.
My Cedar Key ghost story happened 20 years ago. While contentedly exploring the island, I happened upon a cemetery and, with a macabre excitement, busied myself going from tombstone to tombstone when this old green Ford Thunderbird convertible drove through the cemetery and then disappeared. I couldn’t find a drive or path where it would have turned off, but it was gone nonetheless.
Alcohol was not involved.
Today I know that I had too much city in me to find the turnoff — I was young and I expected drives to have clear markings, I suppose. Pretty sure I saw a good ol’ boy and not a ghost, but if I said I had seen a ghost, there’d be no shortage of people to assure me I had. See, every culture, regardless of how much contact it has with other cultures, has three things: mermaids, Bigfoots and ghosts. Cedar Key is no exception. Do I believe they’re true? As with mermaids and Bigfoots, let’s leave it at this: I want to believe.
My skepticism doesn’t make the re-telling of the ghost stories any more fun and Cedar Key — a tiny outpost a couple hours north of Tampa Bay in Levy County — has awesome legends: Murder, pirates and ghost dogs. Let’s break down the three most popular.
For years I’ve wanted to stay at White Gate Court in Islamorada. The idea of a dog-friendly — truly dog-friendly, as in, “we love dogs everywhere on our property” — appealed to me. So, this May, we piled the hellhounds in the Xterra and forced them to enjoy themselves in the Keys.
It worked out well for all of us and, it turns out, even though dogs matter more than humans at White Gate Court, it’s still a pretty awesome place for people.
Also, Calypso has a boyfriend.
I wrote more about this for Creative Loafing Tampa back in May; here’s the link.
If you’re from New York, you may call him Bigfoot.
Every culture has one, and in Florida, we have two. In the north end of the state, he’s the Bardin Booger. Towards the southern edges, we call him the Skunk Ape. I wrote this about trying to find proof of the latter.
Like what I wrote? I have a whole book about my great Florida road trip, and you can buy it from Inkwood Books, which is a lot like Amazon, only they’re local and nothing at all like a massive local-eating website, except they can also usually shop in two days, so please show them some love, OK?
Some people would tell you the quintessential Florida pie involves key limes and well, I’m not about to argue. I will, however, suggest a forgotten pie, one that, while less universally known than key lime, has a more distinctive Florida taste: The sour orange pie.
For half a millennia — let that sink in — sour oranges, not the juicy Valencia or eminently snack-able honeybees (also called minneolas), were the order of the orange day in Florida. Now, if you love the sweet tang of a morning glass of OJ, this was not the orange for you.
However, it makes one hell of a pie. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find.
Is that treason? Am I going to jail now? Look, I’m not a fan of the guy. One of the main reasons? His treatment of Florida’s indigenous folk. Now, I know we had a period of time in our history when “killing Injuns” was trendy, but really, Jackson took this trend to new levels of historical douchbaggery. He didn’t care that Spain had rule over Florida, because he was damn sure going to come down here and kill himself some locals anyway, treaties and such be damned.