A collection of head-scratchers and heart-warmers that shed light on our Sunshine State.
The nation's punchline
"2012: I call it the year in 'meh.' Not the worst we've ever experienced, but nothing particularly great to say about it either. Like being a socialite, but in Tampa."
Bill Maher, host of "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO, in the New York Times, Jan. 4
News release of the year
Take the rest of the year off, you desperate flaks. Lianet Sarduy cannot be beat. On Jan. 7 she emailed, calling our attention to the Ladies of Manure 2013 calendar put out by the Fertile Earth Foundation (fertileearth.org), a Miami nonprofit that promotes composting. We hadn't thought much about organic waste, so a photo of a naked woman in a biomass bikini really cut through the in-box clutter. The calendar, Lianet writes, "features scantily clad women decked in poop, and posing over toilets — all in an effort to capture the attention of those who don't consider green living a priority." Mission accomplished, Lianet!
Yes, but does he use the turn signal?
A computer engineering graduate student at the University of Florida has built a tiny electric car for his parrot. Pepper, an African grey, had a squawking habit that was driving his owner, Andrew Gray, nuts. "I realized the bird needed to be around people constantly," Gray told ABC News. "So I built the Bird Buggy." Pepper manipulates a joystick with his beak. "He knows how to drive, forwards, backwards, left and right," Gray said. Amazing. So there is somebody in Florida driving an electric car.
More nonnative turfgrass, please
An Orlando couple are leading an urban pitchfork rebellion against regulations that appear to make front-yard vegetable gardens illegal. Jason and Jennifer Helvenston planted radishes, beets and a bunch of other leafy edibles in a small plot in front of their modest College Park home. A neighbor complained (not enough splotchy crotons and garish red mulch apparently), and the city (which touts its sustainability efforts, by the way) cracked down. Outraged gardeners have massed behind the Helvenstons. The city has acknowledged it might need to allow such front-yard gardens, though with some restrictions — 4-foot height limits and 10-foot setbacks and even fencing to conceal the dirty work. Because no American child should ever have to see a vegetable in the raw.
The number of students at Florida universities who signed up in 2012 on SeekingArrangement.com, a website that matches sugar daddies with young women willing to trade "friendship or companionship" for help paying college expenses. Four Florida schools were in the Top 20, the most of any state.
Word for word
In his eulogy of Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the Tampa Bay Times, Howell Raines, former editor of the New York Times, called his longtime friend and mentor "the poet laureate of the last golden age of American newspapering." On Jan. 11, the day before Mr. Patterson died, Roy Peter Clark, of the Poynter Institute, found himself reaching for a book he had helped publish of Mr. Patterson's award-winning writing from the 1960s. "I felt the need to read to myself some of the great man's best work, daily columns he had written in Atlanta during some of the darkest days of the civil rights movement. . . . As I closed the book, I noticed that a single piece of white paper had been folded up in the back. I opened it and there it was, something magical, as if out of a scene from Harry Potter: a poem on the poetry of journalism with the title An Ending Thought, with the byline 'Gene Patterson.' "
Here is that poem:
Life asks the journalist to write a telling of the day, and more Than town crier or tale teller wasting words to the wind, Draw, the writer's told, first marking on the scroll of history. More even, too, than sentinel watching walls against the plunderer. Triumphant, at your highest be, songmaker Listening for the music of life's meaning and singing it Across the barrens of the day.
In November, Times photojournalist Maurice "Mo" Rivenbark posted on Facebook this account of his drive home. It has been edited for clarity and space.
The shadow of a man, then the sparkle of his metal walking cane caught my eye as I rolled off the Howard Frankland Bridge tonight in a light rain.
Racing traffic wouldn't let me stop. I circled back across the bridge and then west again, but he was gone. Where? There's no place to hide on that stretch of road. He must have been picked up. Maybe I really didn't see a man. I'd done my duty, so I was on my way again.
As I neared home, something pulled me back. How could a man with a cane walk that far? What if I read an awful news story about him tomorrow?
This time, just past the towering sign that welcomes you to St. Pete, there he was. I slowly pulled alongside him. He looked harmless enough, so I got out and asked where he was going. Did he need some help? He looked older than me, but not by much.
He said he got turned around after taking the bus from Clearwater to St. Pete. He was trying to find a church on Third Street N. He thought the bus driver said to walk north on Fourth Street. That was three hours ago. I talked him into a ride home.
As we drove to Clearwater, I struggled to understand his strongly accented English. He told me about leaving his home in Mali as a young man, traveling to France and then to the United States more than 20 years ago, looking for a better life and for the heart surgery he couldn't get in his own country.
He seemed amazingly content and kept smiling, like he knew the big secret of life. He said he has worked for hotels mostly and been married, but his wife left years ago. I asked how he gets by now. He said he has zero income as he touched his thumb and finger together to make that sign we all know. He said he's trying to find work or help.
A little further into the ride, I was embarrassed that I put a towel across the seat before he got in my car. It has helped before when offering a ride, but I knew he saw me cover the seat, and he smelled better than I did.
We pulled up to his apartment complex. He offered me gas money. I pulled the car lights up to the gate so he could punch in the code written on a slip of paper in his wallet. He asked for my business card and sat quietly in the front seat as I got one from a camera bag in the back.
Before he walked though the gate, I asked his name once more, hoping this time to understand it. Mohamed Mariko. But they call me Mo.
In his new book, Walkable City (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), city planner Jeff Speck dedicates a chapter to the economic and environmental benefits of a healthy and diverse urban tree canopy. He offers a bit of advice to "my southern friends," taking aim at a common, skinny sight along Tampa Bay area boulevards.
Stop planting palm trees. Correction: only three cities in America should be planting palm trees: Palm Beach, Palm Springs, and Hollywood — and there, only along Sunset Boulevard. The point is: if you've got great, palm-lined avenues, by all means, keep them. But understand that palm trees are merely decorative, and don't begin to offer the same environmental benefits as deciduous trees. The last time I checked, most Florida cities had not learned this lesson.* The same goes for crepe myrtles, spruce pines, and those other bushes masquerading as trees that somehow grace many a city's tree list.
*Incidentally, we had another term for palms in Miami: hurricane missiles.