It was a charming little near-the-beach cottage I'd rented last Spring in Gulfport. The perfect place to sit in quiet repose and get some writing done, or so I'd thought.
The little-old-lady landlord began to show up in my yard, however, almost every day. Often many times a day. Puttering around tending to plants that didn't need tending, raking leaves every time five of them fell. She showed up at my door just to chit-chat, and to show me things she'd bought at yard sales. It began to feel like she was a roommate and not a landlord, to the extent that maybe she should start sharing the rent since she was always there.
The concept of personal space did not exist to her, and it's part of a greater pattern I've found wherein the concept doesn't exist to many Floridians.
It didn't stop there. Her minions started hanging around in droves.
There were a husband-and-wife yardwork team she employed that arrived randomly without warning, doing more yardwork that didn't need doing. They arrived on beat-up old bicycles and were always arguing loudly with each other, screaming obscentities and completely oblivious that I was sitting on my porch trying to work. The woman (who was always barefoot and clad in a dirty halter top and tiny shorts that showed more of her sun-fried leathery body than I needed to see) often ended the domestic squabbles by speeding off on her rickety bike in a huff. As often as not, she would return about half an hour later, with her demeanor completely changed, now utterly mellow and in some sort of fog.
I watched as the woman operated a leafblower and proceeded to blow leaves, rocks, and debris directly at my car. I went over and stopped her, and she stared dully at me, like an animal, unable to comprehend why I was concerned. That some people try to take care of their cars was as alien a concept to her as the neutrino. Without speaking, her hollow sunken feral eyes telegraphed to me, "Wow, you're really, like, uptight, dude. Chill out."
She nodded, mumbled "okay", and carried on blowing crap at my car exactly as before. I gave up on trying to communicate with her and moved the car instead.
A successive series of complaints to the landlord about this and many other malfeasances, became more and more fruitless each time, and she increasingly suggested I just needed to lighten up and not be so serious about such things about privacy, property, safety, you know, silly things like that.
This cognitive dissonance is the fundamental dynamic at play, I believe, that causes most of the friction and weirdness in Florida (well, besides hydrogen sulfide).
For many who wind up here, there's a notion that because we are in an alleged tropical paradise, all rules of conduct are now null and void. We normally think of teens misbehaving on Spring Break in Florida, letting off some steam because they're far from home and since everyone else around them is also a tourist, who cares what we say or do, right? But Florida has the same effect on adults as well, and not just tourists but lifelong residents.
It only snowballs from there. People become complacent and numb to the daily onslaught of obnoxious antisocial people, and in turn become obnoxious and antisocial themselves - either as a defense mechanism or a "when in Rome" attitude. The crazies, when confronted with roadblocks to their slacking, dig in their heels and resolve to keep on doing whatever it is they're doing - or not doing.
One guy at a bar, mistaking me for a local, ragged on and on about how Gulfport would be a much better place if only we could just get rid of all these damn northerners and snowbirds who just don't "get" how Florida is "supposed to be".
I went to a restaurant that is infamous for its long lines, surly service, and painfully long waits to be served. It's become almost like those places you hear about where the whole gimmick is to be served atrociously for novelty's sake. As a way of getting ahead of any complaints, when you arrive you're greeted with happy colorful painted signs instructing you to relax and be happy, and to not, not, not be impatient because now, and I quote, "You're on Florida Time."
This is classic cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance has been called "the mind controller's best friend" and with good reason. Presenting a human being with repeated contradictory stimuli has been shown in studies to have the effect of keeping the subject in stasis, their mind continually spinning its wheels trying to deal with it. People - some people, anyway - simply cannot help but try to make some sense of their surroundings, and this keeps the attention focused on the dissonance when the sane thing to do is to simply walk away. For this reason, it's a popular tactic in sales and marketing (I've been known to use it too) and in the seduction tool known as "Fractionating".
Back home in Kentucky, a bad restaurant is simply a bad restaurant. But here, it's wrapped up in the mythology of Florida the same way an evil politician wraps himself in the flag, and you're presented with the data Congratulations, you are now in Paradise and Paradise is a place where you take it easy and relax even as you're simultaneously presented with things that aren't optimal for you to be relaxed about. You'll either adapt, or you'll have a psychotic episode.
I placed my order at the counter. A sullen woman, refusing to make eye contact, took it down quickly and grumpily, with the weariness of someone who has dealt with so many tens of thousands of people that she no longer regards it as an act of human interaction; it's merely something unpleasant one has to do and get done as fast as possible, like cleaning a toilet bowl. I smiled and warmly thanked her and dropped the change in her tip jar. She clearly found my cheerfulness disgusting.
I looked around at my fellow luncheoners; though the view was beautiful and though we were surrounded by crudely painted signs with positive Floridian motivational quotes (mostly involving exhortations to drink alcohol), everyone looked uncomfortable and miserable. Some made a noble effort to feign excitement, not wishing to bring down their vacation partners, but their faces couldn't conceal the sadness and irritation. Like victims of an assault who stare at a fixed point in the distance and try to disassociate, we each picked out a palm tree, a heron, a boat, and stared intently at it, trying to leave this Florida for a more private, mythical one of the mind.
Meanwhile, back at the cottage, I soon found another down-and-out husband-and-wife team in the landlord's employ, screaming at each other while spending months doing daily unannounced renovation of the outbuilding I'd been using as my painting studio. And when they weren't shrieking at each other and acting on the verge of a physical fight, they were blasting modern country music from their truck and operating chainsaws, hammers and drills as early as 8am. The landlord, who by now recognized me as the un-mellow troublemaker that I was, curtly recited some city statute that she claimed permits construction work to begin that early. Never mind such concepts as courtesy and privacy. These things are mere trifles in her idea of how Florida is "supposed to be".
By the time things had degenerated to the point where the landlady's manchild son made threats of violence against me in full view of the landlady herself and she didn't bat an eye, I knew it was time to get the Hell out of Gulfport before their zombie virus infected me. That's not a metaphor. If you hang around lazy and crazy people, you will eventually start to become lazy and crazy yourself. Choose your people wisely. They will gradually, imperceptibly, dissolve you like saltwater corrodes copper and saliva breaks down sugars and carbohydrates. If you find yourself stuck in a situation where you are forced to consort with lazy and crazy people, get out of it. By any means necessary.
Thankfully, I did. The story so far has a happy ending, and it's at the end of the line for the Gulf Coast: Naples.
The city of Naples (and its satellite, Marco Island) seems designed with the specific goal of breaking from this ignoble tradition. Naples is a safe haven for sane people, an oasis of civilization smack dab in the middle of a dangerous alligator-infested swamp, acting as a W.P. Mayhew levee to keep the waves of manure from lapping at your door. (And yes, the irony that this, too, is cognitive dissonance is all too sweet.)
Is it a little bland? Yes, but I've come to prefer blandness to chaos. Not so much because I'm a senescent old man, but because, if you'll permit me to make a second Barton Fink reference, I'm trying to work. I've been here long enough now to call myself a Floridian, and this Floridian's telling you we didn't all come down here to get stoned. My productivity has been through the roof since transferring here, and my faith in my fellow Floridian, despite what you may think after reading this blog post, remains strong. If you're coming to Florida for the peace and tranquility promised in the postcards, let me recommend Naples. (Close runner-ups: Clearwater, St. Petersburg, and St. Augustine, all three great places to live, work, and play!)