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Florida, the 'heavyweight champion of weirdness'

Published Jul. 31, 2013

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

-Hunter S. Thompson, who launched his gonzo journalism career in Florida.

ST. PETERSBURG — If you live in Florida, you follow the news in a certain way. When big news happens somewhere in the country, people in other states say, "Oh my goodness!" or "What the —-?" But we Floridians will scan a story like that muttering, "OK, where's the Florida connection?"

We do this because we know that any big story is likely to have a link to America's strangest state. The 9/11 hijackers got their flight training here. The trail of the Boston Marathon bombers led to an FBI shootout here. The Watergate break-in? Guess where the burglars were from. The guy who wrestled a shark to shore in Massachusetts with his bare hands? He was from Florida. The amnesia victim who woke up in California speaking only Swedish? His driver's license said he was from Florida. Major League Baseball scandal in Wisconsin? Yep, there's a major Florida connection.

And yet, some otherwise reasonable people contend Florida isn't all that weird. Other places produce weird news stories too, they point out.

"Google Weird Las Vegas!" my buddy Jeff said in mid-July. So I did. I found a column aggregating all the wacky news that occurred there. The most recent item was dated June 25. Meanwhile more than a dozen weird things had occurred in Florida in just the previous three days. The Florida stories included: a wanna-be mermaid getting in hot water with her homeowners' association because her fake tail violated the community pool's "no fins" policy; a man who attacked his roommate with a machete because he changed the radio station; and a woman who tried to run over her ex-boyfriend and crashed into a tree instead.

See, that's the thing about Florida. It's not that we have a lock on all the weirdness. Human nature guarantees that weird things can happen anywhere. What sets Florida apart is that it produces more weird news than anywhere else, and our weird news tends to be weirder than anyone else's. No other state is going to have a guy who faked a python rescue. No sir.

That's why, in 2001, administrators for the snarky website approved a tag for news items from Florida, the only state so honored. "Other states have odd stories come out of them, but no state can challenge Florida," a administrator said in 2011. "It's the heavyweight champion of weirdness."

How did Florida become the Go-To State for Weird? I consulted a number of experts, including historian Gary Mormino, author of "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams." Some folks think the rise of weirdness in Florida started with the 2000 presidential election, which guaranteed no parent would ever again name a newborn boy Chad. But Mormino contends it began long before that, as far back as the 1920s when unscrupulous hucksters were pulling wacky stunts to sell swampland to Yankees. The national news first began noticing this aspect of Florida in the 1980s, when cocaine cowboys were tearing up South Florida and Time magazine's cover asked if the state was "Paradise Lost?" Now we've got all the aggregators jumping on the Florida weird-news bandwagon, collecting clicks with our craziness. How does Florida maintain this constant flow of cuckoo? A few factors combine to help explain it:

The weather: The Sunshine State's subtropical climate has attracted everyone from circus freaks to avid nudists to retired CIA agents looking for a warm place to chill out. With no snow to keep them cooped up indoors, Floridians are out creating mischief and mayhem all year long, or running into alligators or boa constrictors or some other unusual creature basking in the warmth. And when the weather gets really hot, tempers tend to flare - and then a guy goes to beat someone up and gets the wrong house.

The geography: My friend Caryn - herself a transplant - always tells people, "Florida is the drainpipe of America." Florida has always been the end of the line for anyone fleeing a bad past. But once you're here, you're funneled into a fairly narrow space, a peninsula between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, where most folks discover you can't really get away from your past. In the 1920s, after Carlo Ponzi was busted in Boston for running the original Ponzi scheme, he jumped bail and fled to Florida - where he was caught running a real estate scam. That's why Florida tends to be a sunny place for shady people. Even the most benign relationships can take a dark, disturbing twist - just ask the mom who drove her son's getaway car after a robbery.

The history: "More than any other force, the frontier shaped Florida for most of its history," Mormino says. "Frontier values - fierce individualism, gun violence, a weak state government, and rapacious attitudes toward the environment - defined and continue to define Florida." How rapacious? In the mid-1800s the state tried giving away all of its swampy property to anyone who promised to drain it or fill it. By 1883, the government had given away deeds to 17.5 million acres of wetlands - even though it only owned 14.7 million acres.

The people: There are now 20 million people crammed into Florida - young and old, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and a host of other census classifications bumping up against each other, ramming into each other, objecting to what their neighbors are doing. Every year they're joined by more than 80 million tourists, also from every group imaginable, crowded into that same narrow space, usually without a clue about how to act here. The tourists do dumb things - like the Illinois newlywed on his honeymoon who got busted in a prostitution sting. The residents do dumb things too - like the wannabe firefighter who set a library ablaze so he could help the real firefighters put it out. Want proof that people here have trouble getting along? One Florida city reigns as the divorce capital of America - and it's Panama City, not a particularly large one. It doesn't help that when it comes to spending on mental health, Florida ranks 49th among the states and District of Columbia.

The promise of laissez faire living: Years ago the tourism industry told the nation to come to Florida because "The Rules Are Different Here." Some people have taken that to mean that in Florida there aren't any rules at all - so no need for clothes or checking copyright laws or zoning regulations. Perhaps the lack of rules is what attracts all the flying saucers here, too.

The pervasive possibility of bad hookups: The combination of warm weather with millions of tourists means we have a lot of people dressed in skimpy clothes who aren't staying long. Add in that aforementioned no-rules, YOLO atmosphere and you can see why illicit sex is such a constant temptation - and why it can so easily go haywire. Sex in the Sinshine State has tripped up preachers and teachers and politicians. Just last week, a veteran police sergeant was caught posting sexually explicit photos of herself in an online game. Using city computers. While she was on duty.

Our tenacious foliage: The Land of Flowers produces some pretty tough flora, which means machetes are a popular yard-care implement. So they tend to be handy when you need a weapon - say, when a burglar is breaking into your house.

The greed: Everything in Florida seems to be for sale, even beards. That mindset leads to people who overreach as they grab for the gold ring, like the woman who made millions working a phony refund scam and then boasted on Facebook she had become the "queen of IRS tax fraud" (she got 21 years in prison). We lead the nation in mortgage fraud and identity theft and, yes, tax fraud. We're also the only place in the world where a polo magnate tried to adopt his girlfriend so the couple could dip into his children's trust fund.

The open records: Florida has long enjoyed a tradition of open government records, which means a lot of the weird stuff that the cops see winds up available to reporters looking for something to make their readers' jaws drop. So when a retired Tarzan actor got arrested because his pet tigers kept escaping, it made the papers. When a woman claiming to be a vampire attacked a man outside a vacant Hooters, it made the papers. When Vanilla Ice's kangaroo and goat got loose, it made the papers.

I for one say, "Hallelujah." I am a big fan of open government, and a big fan of Florida letting its freak flag fly high. You want peace and quiet, go to Nebraska or Wyoming or one of those boring states. You want to greet every day's news with a raised eyebrow, widening eyes and a gasp of astonishment? Come on down to the Sunshine State . . . and bring your ATM card. We're waiting for you.


A final note: I consulted with some very smart folks, including Mitchell Kaplan of the great independent bookstore Books & Books, about what books to recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about my favorite state. There are plenty to choose from, but some are littered with errors. Here are three good ones we came up with:

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald;

Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., by Cynthia Barnett; and

Up for Grabs: A Trip Through Time and Space in the Sunshine State, by John Rothchild.

And if you'd like to read my books about Florida, they are The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid; Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species; and Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss.

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.


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