The other day my friend Shannon called me asking for help. She said her women's group was putting on a luncheon for a group from some other country. Each member of her group was supposed to sit at a table full of the visitors from, I don't know, Shteyngartistan or something, and somebody came up with the idea of arming the ladies with fun facts about Florida as icebreakers.
The problem, she said, was that the facts they'd compiled about Florida so far just weren't all that fun. Leading industries, form of government, that kind of thing. Then she said, "I was wondering if you … "
"You got a pen?" I asked. "Take this down: In 1845, when Florida joined the Union as a state, the first state flag that flew over the capitol bore the slogan: 'Let Us Alone.' "
I went on to tell her about Ochopee, the town with the nation's smallest post office (it used to be a tool shed), and Carabelle, the town with the world's smallest police station (a phone booth bolted to the side of a building), and Cassadaga, the town that has so many crystal balls per capita that it's known as the "psychic capital of the world." I even mentioned Sweetwater, the town founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down.
I reeled off about a dozen oddball bits of Floridiana but avoided the really weird stuff — the nude biker gangs, the Wiccan Klan members, the convocations of furries who sometimes throw costumed parties at the beach.
Shannon jotted it all down, giggling, and thanked me. "I knew I could count on you," she said.
About the time Shannon called looking for fun Florida facts, the fine folks here at Slate approached me with a somewhat similar request. They wanted me to blog for a month about Florida, trying to explain why it's both the Land of Flowers and the Land of Face-Eating Zombies. They picked me because I highlight both sides in my Twitter feed.
As that line on the first state flag demonstrates, Florida has been weird and contradictory and mule-headed for a long, long time. To me, it's the most fascinating state of the 50, a place where the past is constantly tripping up the future even as new arrivals are always trampling what came before them.
We are the state of second, third, and fourth chances, the state where tragedy often wears the mask of comedy. When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder, where did he go? To Florida, of course — and promptly got in trouble for driving his 30-foot powerboat too fast through a manatee protection zone.
Carl Hiaasen, who's created his own subgenre of wacky Florida crime novels, always says he doesn't make anything up — he just reads the papers. In Florida, the scams are always bigger and the politicians more likely to be rascals. We're regularly ranked as the mortgage fraud capital, the pill-mill kingdom, the hotbed of Fix-A-Flat butt enlargers. In our tropical heat, tempers boil faster and a machete always seems to be in easy reach. The mosquitoes are more bloodthirsty than any Twilight vampire. Alligators will show up at your picnic to eat your burgers, then go off to wrestle a python or bite a police cruiser. Any second, the ground is liable to swallow you up as you sleep.
Is it any wonder we're Fark's favorite state, the only one with its own subject tag? Live here and you'll never suffer an irony deficiency.
I love it here. I'm a native Floridian married to another native Floridian. My ancestors arrived in 1850, no doubt looking for a good deal on waterfront condos. I grew up hunting in Florida's forests, fishing in its lakes, canoeing its rivers. Since 1989, I've worked as a reporter for Florida's largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). I've rooted around in the attic of Florida history and written books about wetland-fillers, manatee killers and orchid smugglers.
Here's the best story I know to give you a sense of what it's like:
When I was 12, I was camping with my Boy Scout troop down by a river. While crossing the deepest part of the river, I lost my footing, and the current pulled me under. I remember the rippling water closing over me, the pitiless blue sky above. Even now, years later, I sometimes dream about this, struck by the beauty of what seemed like the last thing I'd ever see. Just before the river claimed me for good, I grabbed hold of a rope that was strung across one end of the swim area. To me this sums up Florida: Surrounded by dangerous beauty, in over our heads, pulled along by powerful forces, desperately grabbing for any lifeline.
Editor's note: Craig Pittman, who covers environmental issues for the Times, wrote this feature for the online magazine Slate. You can follow him on Twitter @craigtimes.