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Not your chamber of commerce's Florida

The headline was "Foam Finger" and the story had to do with how Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein had installed an 11-foot-tall foam sculpture of a hand, middle finger extended, in the front yard of his home in Pompano Beach.

Some of his neighbors were a little upset. Go figure.

In most states, this kind of story would show up on the front page of the papers and lead the 6 o'clock news. (Presumably without a picture of the finger.) In Florida, that story isn't news unless the finger comes to life and starts hopping around and poking people. There are so many other stories that are even wackier to pick from.

Early every morning, the Associated Press assembles stories to put on its state news wire. Bear in mind that the AP is a reputable news-gathering organization that doesn't make stuff up.

So let's look at what went on in our great state in one 32-hour period last week, from first thing Tuesday morning until noon Wednesday.

It starts with "Whirlpool Death," the horrible tale of a 79-year-old resident of a Gainesville home for the mentally retarded who died after being scalded in a whirlpool, and ends with the fab five _ Air Bag Death, Psychic Scam, Insane Escapee, Human Head and Foam Finger. Here are some of the stories that moved over the AP wire:

Whirlpool Death

Taco Bell Murder

School Slaying

Storefront Crash

Pastor Convicted

Plane Crash

Man Shot

Video Violence

Ex-Mayor Sentenced

Fly-In Fatal

Draft Dodger

Embezzlement

Cocaine Lawyer

Boy Arrested

Eatery Rats

911 Death

Sex Abuse

Miami Corruption

Elephant Death

Air Bag Death

Psychic Scam

Insane Escapee

Human Head

Foam Finger

Remember, all of this madness occurred not in a month, or even in a week. Just 32 hours.

Here's what a few of those stories were about: School Slaying is out of Jacksonville, about a man who robbed and murdered a high school student who was waiting for his parents to pick him up at school.

Sex Abuse is from Fort Lauderdale, a woman accused of forcing her two daughters to watch her having sex with her live-in boyfriend, then allowing him to sexually abuse the girls.

Psychic Scam comes from picturesque Key West, a fortune teller who scammed a Swiss heiress out of $160,000. She surrendered after eluding police for almost two months.

Insane Escapee is from West Palm Beach, a murderer who smeared himself with feces and snored and shouted through most of his two-day trial on escape charges. The verdict? Not guilty by reason of insanity.

And Human Head? That one is from Ocala, where police were using dental records to try to match a head found in the Ocala National Forest to a headless body discovered in January.

Just another day in paradise.

So what is it about Florida? Why do so many strange people end up here?

You get the feeling that instead of the Statue of Liberty, we've erected a statue at the Georgia border, a statue of some guy wearing an undershirt and shorts, a Bud in one hand and a Viceroy in the other, saying, "Give us your tired, your poor, your nut cases, your convicted felons, your molesters and con artists . . .

Next to him is the Foam Finger.

Welcome to Florida.

There are plenty of theories about the state, about the explosive growth, the transient nature of the residents and blah, blah, blah. But here is a simpler explanation for why the state is such a dirtball magnet:

Gravity.

Look at Florida on a map. It's like a pouch dangling there at the southern end of the country. A receptacle, if you will.

This explains why most of the major tabloids are based here.

"The farther south you go, the more strange it gets," said Leskie Pinson, senior editor at the Lantana-based Weekly World News. "Ever check the Key West police blotter? I have 65 correspondents all over the world, but Florida is the hotbed, for sure."

Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who covered Miami and Dade for the St. Petersburg Times, concurs.

"I really believe that if you took all the collective weirdness and craziness from the country as a whole, and you just let it slowly seep down . . . Well, it has to stop somewhere. There's no where else it can go. It's not Florida's fault; a lot of these people can't swim, or they'd keep going south."

Florida: America's colon.

Has a nice ring to it.

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