Florida Man

Making a home in the Sunshine State when you feel like a perpetual outsider

Illustration by Peter Oumanski
Illustration by Peter Oumanski

We Floridians are viewed by other Americans the way Americans are viewed by many Europeans: as primitive, mystifying, hellacious beings living in a paradise lost. Deprived of a history, we are not taken seriously, though we are considered capable of creating great chaos. It’s the combination—conundrum?—that’s at the heart of much of the ridicule: We are laughable, on a national scale, and also terrifying, whether robbing convenience stores with live alligators or making a mess of our election ballots. To reside here, at least for the self-conscious, is to live in a constant state of sheepishness.

I experienced it as soon as I made the decision to move to Florida. I was working as an editorial writer at The Providence Journal in Rhode Island, as unhappy professionally as I was geographically, when an offer arrived to become the travel editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. Because of my passion for travel writing, the job location hardly mattered, but it bothered me that I would be living in a state many of my friends had no desire to visit. Florida was seen then—this was the late ’80s—as the land of Disney World (childishness) and Century Village (senility). It was not a place for discerning adults.

Looking at apartments, my wife and I did notice a scarcity of bookshelves. But every morning, I drove to a newsroom populated by people who not only read but also wrote. Susan Puckett, the food editor and author of A Cook’s Tour of Iowa, taught me the line: “When you move to South Florida, you have to get used to the non-culture shock.” The reporters, meanwhile, raved about what a great news place this was, giving the first intimations of today’s Florida Man memes. These feature a photograph of some seemingly deranged man with an explanatory headline always beginning, “Florida Man …” Florida Man declares end of the war on drugs, claiming: “I did them all.” … Florida Man arrested for throwing pizza at father after finding out his dad helped birth him …

As someone who got his stories elsewhere and saw the region primarily as a place to live, I was less excited about its ability to provide colorful copy. What it gave me was the gift of travel, even when I wasn’t traveling. I had changed not just jobs but also latitudes, climates, landscapes, wardrobes. Simply stepping out of the apartment was thrilling, especially during a thunderstorm. I had never seen rain fall so hard; drops crashed on the pavement and splattered with a sparkling, teeming ferocity. Nor had I lived in a place—it’s the only one in the United States—that gets both large amounts of rainfall and hardly ever a sunless day. Or a cloudless one; Florida is as swelled with clouds as it is with stories, and their bulbous, towering forms help make up for the lack of topography. Just as in Manhattan, you could spot the tourists because they were the ones looking up.

Palm trees were everywhere, the most obvious sign that I had landed somewhere different. They came in various heights, some with coconuts, some without; a short one formed a silvery cluster, a taller one made a muscular fan. This palm, called the traveler’s tree, so named because its leaf bases contain water that can refresh a lost wanderer, not surprisingly became my favorite. A staff writer for the paper’s Sunday magazine, a native of Nebraska, refused to recognize any of these trees as real. True, they didn’t offer the shade of a honey locust, but for most northerners, they represented the dreamt-of tropics and provided a languid, romantic vision that even the natives recognized. The Cuban poet and freedom fighter José Martí hailed palm trees as “the girlfriends who wait.”

Nature here was so revelatory and abundant—the home and garden editor was even more blessed than the news reporters—that it made an impression on this city boy. As soon as I had learned I was headed to Fort Lauderdale, I checked on a map to see its distance from Miami—and was delighted to find that it was only 30 miles.

We drove down early and often, joining the free-for-all on I-95. Coral Gables mixed Mediterranean Revival corporateness and a lovely corner bookstore with grandiose neighborhoods of similarly styled houses. On Columbus Boulevard, they were fronted by ficuses that resembled modernist sculptures. In Coconut Grove, an air of faded bohemianism lingered—the famous playhouse was still in operation—and the residential streets seemed to have been carved out of jungle.

Little Havana in those days was disappointing; instead of an interesting boulevard for flâneurs, Calle Ocho was a busy thoroughfare for cars. The best part came when you made a right turn off 8th Street and headed south to Coral Way, where you entered a majestic tunnel of banyans. Nature again. They clotted the median with their thickly roped trunks and speckled the roadway with dappled light. I had never seen a banyan, a tree that is at once massive and ethereal, and here stretched an unadvertised collection of them, a brown-green line interrupted only by intersections. Each tree would have been impressive standing alone; finding them en masse, one after the other for block after block, was otherworldly. I was surprised the traffic didn’t stop so drivers could gawk. If palms were a flimsy (though graceful) excuse for a tree, banyans were magnificent über-arbres.

They touched the imagination of Carlos Eire, one of more than 14,000 Cuban children who came to the United States in the early ’60s as part of Operation Pedro Pan, when many parents disenchanted with Fidel Castro sent their children to the States in hopes of reuniting with them later. Eire didn’t find banyans exotic—they grew in his old neighborhood in Havana—but he did see them as celestial beings. “Those trees on Coral Way suddenly turned into angels,” he wrote in Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy. “Guardian angels thrusting spears and swords into demons.” He was fantasizing from the back seat of a social worker’s car, a worried child uprooted from parents, homeland, and native tongue. “As long as these trees are here,” he told himself, “I’ll be all right.”

The women took my wife aside and instructed her to never allow me to buy a boat. They needn’t have worried. What little I knew about boats included the fact that it’s hard to read the Sunday newspaper on one.

Often we’d take the MacArthur Causeway over to Miami Beach, gazing down at the lineup of cruise ships—which included the former ocean liner France (rechristened the Norway)—and the Chalk’s Airlines seaplanes landing in front of them. One memorable Saturday afternoon, we saw a blimp amid this tableau. Suggestions of Manhattan again, but with bluer waters and six decades lopped off. The city of the future (to quote the subtitle of T. D. Allman’s 1983 book Miami  ) was still clinging to the past, at least with its means of transportation. But even on the barrier island, there was a return-to-former-glory feel, as the Art Deco hotels of South Beach—thanks in part to a television show we had never watched—were being emptied of retirees and filled with an international beau monde.

It was only 30 miles but a long way from Fort Lauderdale.

My new home, by contrast, was a small town of canals and waterways, marine industries and yacht brokers, with drawbridges that regularly brought traffic to a halt. Residents talked boats the way other Americans talked cars. At the first party we went to, the women took my wife aside and instructed her to never allow me to buy a boat. They needn’t have worried. What little I knew about boats included the fact that it’s hard to read the Sunday newspaper on one.

The complex where we found an apartment faced the New River and was bordered on its other three sides by canals, along which our new neighbors parked their boats. Fort Lauderdale, it appeared, was a place people came to because it was easy to get away from: you headed down the canal, onto the river, into the Intracoastal Waterway, and then out to the ocean. Many of the boat owners were weekend sailors, but others went off on long voyages, or at least long sojourns. “The best thing about South Florida,” a boater said to me once at a party, “is the Bahamas.”

Outside the boating world, most people knew Fort Lauderdale as the home of spring break, even though the circus had effectively left town. Shortly before our arrival, the mayor, with the support of most of the businesspeople, had persuaded the kids to go elsewhere. But an image of callow hedonism lived on—I hated writing my return address on the manila envelopes that carried my freelance stories—and in large part still does. Arguably the most famous landmark in Fort Lauderdale is the Elbo Room, the beachfront bar featured in the 1960 spring-break movie Where the Boys Are.

I occasionally freelanced, sending my work north, because I was writing in a place where few people read. Weather had something to do with it, though Sunday afternoons in summer were ideal for stretching on the couch with a book while the heat and its loyal sidekick, humidity, made the outdoors unbearable. It was the antipodal, air-conditioned equivalent of reading by the fire on a winter’s day in New England, but what I missed was the solace of an imagined community of fellow readers. I sensed its absence because in restaurants and bars, I rarely eavesdropped on an interesting conversation.

What I encountered instead, outside the newsroom, was a coolness that surprised me because I thought I had moved to the South. But the South (Spanish moss, boiled peanuts, and drawl) was found in northern Florida, while the North (gold chains, delis, and lip) reigned here in southern Florida, at least in Broward and parts of Palm Beach counties. It is one reason South Florida can never secede from the state; to do so would be confusing semantically.

We quickly learned not to expect smiles during everyday transactions—perhaps, it was felt, the sunny skies were enough—and we didn’t always receive a hello when walking the boardwalk that rimmed our “island.” When I bought a bicycle and started taking rides in the evening, I was struck by how many joggers, dog walkers, and office workers studiously avoided my gaze: another feature of New York, which felt strange in our metropolitan Margaritaville.

And there were overt acts of hostility: the man who, when beaten to a parking space, spat at me from the open window of his SUV. Today, when road rage occasionally escalates into gunfire, expectoration seems almost quaint.

Fueling the behavior was a sense of entitlement, especially among some members of the older population. They had worked and suffered and paid their taxes up north. Now, in retirement, they wanted everything to go smoothly. And in many ways, it did: The orange juice was fresh, the street signs were in large type, and the driveway never needed shoveling. But there was no escaping life’s little imperfections. One afternoon, a woman called me at the paper and asked me to send her a copy of that day’s Miami Herald, as there was an article in it she wanted to have. Thinking she had misdialed, I informed her that she had reached the Sun-Sentinel. “I know,” she said, “but Miami is a long-distance call. And I know you have the Herald there.” I told her—this was years before we became desperate for readers—to call the Herald.

Gradually I discovered that the people who had grown up here, or been here for a while, were different: friendly, respectful, possessed of an easygoing nature that had been made even mellower by decades of mild winters. Also, unlike us transplants, they felt a bond to the community and had a family name to uphold, two strong contributors to good behavior. Some of them had roots in the Midwest, like the Everts, the First Family of Fort Lauderdale. The world knew Chris, who won major championships with steadiness and grace and had since moved to Boca Raton. But her parents remained in town: Jimmy, who still gave tennis lessons at Holiday Park, presiding patiently in dust clouds of children, and Colette, who used to applaud good shots by her daughter’s opponents. Often, they could be seen hitting in the evening—the ball sailing smoothly over the middle of the net before its clean, untroublesome return—in a session that was as much a conversation, and the semblance of a marriage, as it was an exercise ritual.

Over the years, I grew attached to Florida without ever feeling Floridian. Like most of my colleagues, I didn’t boat, I didn’t fish, I didn’t play golf, I didn’t go to the beach. The only ways in which I took advantage of the vaunted amenities were by playing tennis year-round, often on the clay courts at Holiday Park; swimming in our condo pool; and, every March, catching an Orioles spring training game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. For the most part, I eschewed native dress—T-shirt, shorts, sandals—and wore long-sleeve shirts (especially after my first visit to the dermatologist) and long pants. It’s hard to take a man seriously when he’s showing his legs … though I admired an acquaintance of mine, a writer of noir and a high-stakes poker player, who boasted that in the past two decades he had not once put on a pair of socks.

It was strange being happy in a place where I didn’t belong. The job, obviously, played a large part in my contentment, but it ended in 2008. When the great newspaper decline began, travel editors were among the first to go. I lost the community of fellow outlanders I had had in the newsroom and found myself among the ranks, quite large in South Florida, of the prematurely retired. I had been expelled from my paradise—no department cake, no farewell column—and dumped into somebody else’s.

But while my neighbors had their boats, I had my writing. (Writers don’t retire, they simply run out of things to say.) Freelancing was a struggle as always, but thanks to email, my pitches no longer came with a geographical black mark. Like the dog who gloats that no one on the Internet knows he’s a dog, I rejoiced that my home address had become any editor’s guess.

Fort Lauderdale had also become an interesting city, one far removed from the beach bacchanalia for which it was known. The skyline was expanding with a mix of office and residential towers, many of the latter along the river, earning the city praise as an urban model of connectivity. Meanwhile, the high rents of downtown were spawning new neighborhoods on the periphery. An arts district sprang up in a section of old warehouses, and its obligatory arts-district grittiness was made more pronounced by its proximity to the sea. At the monthly art walks, you saw people you didn’t see elsewhere in town—or maybe that was because many of them weren’t wearing shorts. Wilton Manors, although not new, and a separate city within the city, blossomed as the home of the LGBTQ+ community (many of whose members, years earlier, had escaped the high rents of Key West and South Beach) and featured a lively main street of restaurants and shops. On the barrier island, North Beach Village appeared as an alternative to both the old seediness (bars like the Elbo Room) and the new luxuriousness (hotels like the Ritz-Carlton), thanks to a Swedish developer who was taking tired mom-and-pop motels and recasting them in a clean, Scandinavian aesthetic. In the neighborhood across the river from ours, a well-reviewed novelist hosted a monthly writers workshop.

It’s hard to take a man seriously when he’s showing his legs … though I admired a writer of noir and high-stakes poker player who boasted that in the past two decades he had not once put on a pair of socks.

We saw these developments as improvements (though a number of long-timers were moving to more tranquil places to the north of us) and recognized them as byproducts of changes taking place to the south. There the old standbys—Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables—had been joined by revived and in some cases completely transformed neighborhoods: Little Havana (now vibrant with music and tourists), Brickell (financial center turned Emerald City), downtown (young professionals joining the homeless), Overtown (historic and now hip African-American neighborhood), Wynwood (mural capital, which inevitably became too pricey for the artists), the Design District, Little Haiti, Little River (Wynwood’s anointed successor), and the MiMo District, named for its refurbished examples of Miami (a.k.a. midcentury) modern architecture. Sometimes we would get off I-95 early so that we could drive through many of the assembled parts—I particularly liked the dairy that rose in the concrete lowlands just north of Little Haiti—on our way to our final destination. Miami had so much to offer that we rarely made it to Miami Beach. Anyway, the seaplanes were gone, and the ships had grown so unshapely that they were now dubbed, at least by noncruisers, “floating condominiums.” But it was still a sight watching them sail down the channel and out into the Atlantic.

Adding to my pleasure in the region, especially now that I wasn’t traveling so much, was a growing international aspect. Miami, of course, had long possessed a Latin character; it always amused me when people complained of hearing Spanish on the streets because the aggrieved were usually northerners who had arrived much more recently than the Cubans. Miami was their city, as indicated by the provenances of the politicians and CEOs, but they were being joined by fresh diasporas from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and other troubled lands. You felt a change as soon as you exited I-95 and saw the man hawking roses at the intersection, or the fruit truck parked under a jacaranda tree. I couldn’t stay away, fascinated by a place that was so close to my home and yet so different from my home, with its own rhythms and stories, and the sense of possibility that accompanies the unknown.

By comparison, Fort Lauderdale was considered blandly Anglo, and it’s true that many of the yachts were crewed by Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans who drank beer in dark pubs when they weren’t at sea. But other language groups were represented in the environs: Brazilian Portuguese in Pompano Beach; Haitian Creole in Lauderhill; Romanian and Québécois French in Hollywood, a town that contained two Russian supermarkets. The Indian community had grown so large that the annual Diwali celebrations now took place at the Broward County Convention Center. Miamians were famous for never crossing the county line, but foodies drove north for our Korean and Vietnamese restaurants. Quietly, Broward had become more diverse than Miami-Dade, where the Spanish-speaking population overwhelmed all the others.

As South Florida was evolving into a serious place—there was no longer any nonculture shock, not with Art Basel, the Miami Book Fair, the New World Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas in its Frank Gehry–designed concert hall)—Florida was emerging as a pariah. This was disheartening; just as I was starting to feel good about my address, the country was getting fed up with my state.

Florida itself was the joke, or an endless succession of jokes. There is no need to make up damning anecdotes about a place that offers them in great number, with breathtaking variety, to the world gratis.

This reaction was also new. When we moved here, Florida was simply dismissed, seen as a frivolous place where nothing important ever happened, aside from the occasional space launch. It didn’t take up much of the country’s imagination. All that changed with the 2000 election and the hanging chads. Suddenly, Americans saw Florida as a screwy, sun-addled land of, unfortunately, great national consequence.

I was used to living in belittled places—I grew up in New Jersey and spent two and a half years in Poland—but Florida was different. New Jersey and Poland were the butt of jokes, whereas there were no jokes about Florida; Florida itself was the joke, or—Florida Man again—an endless succession of jokes. There is no need to make up damning anecdotes about a place that offers them in great number, with breathtaking variety, to the world gratis.

And it isn’t just memes on social media. Much of the contemporary writing about the state perpetuates, often gleefully, an image of outrageousness. Carl Hiaasen’s vast oeuvre has mined a rich trove of subtropical zaniness (the former Herald columnist has said that he often gets his ideas from reading the newspaper), and in nonfiction, Craig Pittman has given us Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country and The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife.

These native sons have been joined by Florida émigrés, writers who have left the state without the state necessarily leaving them. Writing about Florida has been a pretty safe publishing bet since at least the late ’90s, when Susan Orlean came out with The Orchid Thief. And whether it’s Sarah Gerard in her essay collection Sunshine State or Karen Russell in her novel Swamplandia! or Kent Russell in his travel book In the Land of Good Living, the predilection is for the aberrant and/or fantastical. The latter Russell, brother of Karen and a gifted writer as well, depicts the city of Tampa entirely through a visit to a strip club and an interview with the owner. He also makes the mistake of walking through a state in which everybody drives.

Then there are the transplants, like Lauren Groff, who lives in the college town of Gainesville and whose story collection Florida features more snakes than undergraduates. In one of the rare stories set in town, there is an obsession with sinkholes. For Groff, as for the others, the state is a place of anarchic, unregenerate exotica. (The cover of her book is graced by a Florida panther, an animal few people—aside from Kent Russell—have ever seen.) Writers have long been drawn to the freakish and the extreme; in Florida it seems to be a prerequisite. There are exceptions, obviously: Ana Menéndez writes with understanding of Miami’s Cuban Americans, and Jonathan Escoffery’s debut story collection, If I Survive You, for all its mayhem, is rooted in the realities of contemporary Miami—at least those experienced by a down-and-out son of Jamaican immigrants. Hearteningly, the book was short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Predictably, non-Florida writers have taken their swipes at the state. Asked in an interview to name some of the world’s most overrated places, Paul Theroux, who’s been around, mentioned Miami, saying that it possesses “terrible feng shui.” This seemed an odd criticism of such a Hispanic city, like complaining that Hong Kong isn’t “simpatico.” Amanda Petrusich, in her New Yorker profile of Iggy Pop—who lives in Miami Beach, restoring the city’s old reputation as a home for seniors—described Miami as “aesthetically vulgar.” This was a strong reaction to … I’m not sure what. Art Deco? Midcentury modern? Mediterranean revival? Street murals? Palm trees? To me, Miami and Miami Beach—separate cities though often conflated by outsiders—are stunningly beautiful; their parking garages are more dazzling than most cities’ skyscrapers. (The New Yorker did publish a glowing appreciation of the Herzog & de Meuron garage in South Beach.) And the beauty is lapped by water in which dolphins swim. At least until the water subsumes it.

In the summer of 2020, Jerry Seinfeld wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in response to an acquaintance’s declaration on social media that New York City was finished and that he was moving to Florida. In defending his home, the comedian couldn’t resist a dig at mine. “We know the sharp focus and restless, resilient creative spirit that Florida is all about,” he wrote, before noting his acquaintance’s “enervated, pastel-filled new life.” For Seinfeld, Florida was still, and perhaps always would be, Del Boca Vista.

We open the windows for the first time in months, and the fresh breeze carries in birdsong. There is a sense of release—not just from the heat but also from the looming specter of disaster—and a vernal feeling of rebirth.

The more Florida is derided, the more devoted I become to it, in every realm except the political. (When friends elsewhere ask me how I can live in such a benighted state, I ask them why they don’t move here and help make it less so.) I support all Florida teams, professional and collegiate, a heresy in a place that breeds fierce intrastate rivalries, and I follow the tennis players who live and train here—Coco Gauff, Ben Shelton, Sloane Stephens, to name just a few—and give a lie to facetious cracks about focus. I always root for the Floridians on Jeopardy!—a more studious group of stereotype breakers—and take satisfaction when reading in a New York Times obituary of the distinguished scientist or renowned economist or former statesman who died in Delray Beach or Boca Raton or Coral Gables. The state’s long roster of the eminent deceased got a rare literary addition this year when Martin Amis died at his home in Lake Worth. I fill with local pride on seeing poems in The New Yorker by Barbara Hamby (even though she’s all the way up in Tallahassee) and Campbell McGrath. Poets are generally resigned to the idea of a small audience and so feel less temptation to deal in the sensational, which leaves them free to ponder, and through their imaginations elevate, the quiet and the everyday. To my delight, a popular master of this style, Billy Collins, now makes his home in Winter Park.

Lord knows there are things I don’t like about South Florida: the bling (and all that comes with it), the incuriousness, the frequent disregard for the past, the portents of impending doom. A sense of doom, however, may be universal. And there are things I still miss: old buildings, good tomatoes, Sunday drives, the thrum of a crowded boulevard at dusk. Although we now have cultural events, there is no prevailing cultural vernacular; you can go to a play, or a foreign film, or a poetry reading, or an art show (especially an art show), but you can’t necessarily discuss it with the neighbors. The arts districts have also changed: Miami’s Wynwood has gone upscale, with hotels and condos, and Fort Lauderdale’s FATVillage was razed this year to make way for a mixed-use “urban destination.” The plans call for the inclusion of art studios and galleries, though they won’t have an edgy warehouse feel.

When people ask, I am quick to point out that I came here for work, not, like so many others, for the weather. In other words, I’m not that shallow. But I sometimes wonder if the weather—despite its role as an enemy of bookishness—is the main thing keeping me here. I avoid the sun as best I can, but I still love to see it illuminating the world. Our summers are long but, these days, not as hot as much of the country’s. The beauty of peninsular life. And fall, which northerners all insist we must miss, is distinctive: it marks the end of a dreaded season (hurricane) and the start of a cherished one (stone crab). It serves as our spring; we open the windows for the first time in months, and the fresh breeze carries in birdsong. There is a sense of release—not just from the heat but also from the looming specter of disaster—and a vernal feeling of rebirth. And we know an even sweeter season will follow.

Unlike most Floridians, I’m happy that people are moving here—not just New Yorkers, in spite of their fellow citizens’ warnings, but Texans and even Californians (I’ve not only read the articles, I’ve also seen the license plates). Their presence feels like a confirmation of the validity of the place—a number of them have come for jobs, some in the reportedly budding tech industry—and a justification of my long tenure in it. So, except when stuck in traffic, I welcome them.

I welcome them even though they don’t necessarily return to me the satisfaction one gets from living with one’s people. But after three decades here, I’ve decided that there are advantages to living in a place where one remains an outsider. Like travel, it’s educational, and continually touched by the unexpected.

A few years ago, I went with a friend to a Marlins baseball game. Our seats were along the first-base line, behind three young men speaking Spanish. Whenever a Marlin got a hit, the five of us cheered in unison, but those were our only moments of connection. Inning after inning, they conversed in their language and we in ours. At the end of the eighth, as they got up to leave, they turned around and shook our hands.

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Thomas Swick's latest book is the memoir Falling into Place: A Story of Love, Poland, and the Making of a Travel Writer.


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