Florida is desolate. It is the most green, most lush of all possible wastelands I have yet encountered. I have been in the Fort Lauderdale area for private reasons since the very end of August, and soon I will be going home, and not a moment too soon.
I hold the average Floridian no ill will. Not everyone chooses to live here, and like any other part of this country, the original inhabitants have much more of a right than me to talk about who should or shouldn’t be here. The land itself is beautiful, even if it isn’t within a climate my body, mind, or hairstyle can tolerate. I at least admire palms in an aesthetic vein, and I have been fascinated to see so many different species here. There seem to be even more than I’ve encountered on trips to California. Other interesting trees and plants abound, and there are little lizards skittering everywhere, and there are herons, and if the travel schedule had permitted, my husband and I would gladly have gone to tour the Everglades. The summer weather tantalizes my amateur meteorologist; it is unpredictable, but predictably so. Daily, there may be at least one thunderstorm, and though I may curse profusely at driving through them, though I retain a childlike nervousness about being struck by lightning outdoors, I have immensely enjoyed watching the rain and wind and chaos from the safety of the hotel room or the parked rental car. The flat land and the gigantic cloud masses stagger me; every afternoon’s palette is blended lapis and emerald and mist.
I am glad, in a certain way, to have seen these things, to experience some of the farthest southerly reaches of this continent. Though I have seen several unique places across the globe, this is my first time in the tropics. I may be perpetually too warm in the outdoor humidity, too cold and dry in the indoor high-power air conditioning; I may find it unthinkable to personally live somewhere with such a routine risk of hurricanes and flash floods. Still, it’s something new, and it’s good to meet the new.
Almost everyone I have met has been kind. As a New Englander I always have to adjust to random strangers talking to me as if we know each other, but it’s never felt invasive yet. Most people I have met, of course, are workers providing me with services, so I suspect that some of this is a “customer is always right” ethos combining with Southern hospitality, but I have not yet run across the passive-aggressive Stepford niceness I loathe, and frankly I would expect that from a rather different sort of person here. Probably the sort of people who can afford to drive Dodge Chargers. We have counted approximately two score distinct Dodge Chargers here, never mind all of the other sports cars. I should note that I actually like Chargers; that doesn’t mean I have to like their owners.
I’ve eaten food that ranges from decent to delicious. I’ve enjoyed the chance to drive on some exquisitely well-arranged roads where most drivers use a reasonable speed, neither too fast nor too slow, even though I seem to be an anomaly for believing in turn signals. Driving around Fort Lauderdale has become one of my favorite activities here, in fact. I can control the air temperature in my vehicle, I can look at the wonderful trees, I can appreciate the vistas, I can listen to music, and all without much stress. Given that I haven’t regularly driven a car in five years, this has been reassuring.
But the state is desolate. I know this is not a completely fair statement. I have only seen one corner of it, and I’m not expecting to venture any further than a day trip to Miami on Tuesday. During my first few days here, I consciously told myself to have an open mind. I had indeed set foot in a place that, for good or ill, I associated with grotesque heat, bourgeois retirees, and the very worst of conservative politics. Though I had long established that I would never go to Florida unless I had no other option— and, for this trip, I will assure you that I had none— it seemed wise to make the best of a twelve day stay and try to find things I could appreciate. This was how I allowed myself to notice the natural beauty and the relative ease in getting about. I tried not to look for flaws just to say that I had seen them. Unfortunately, the flaws still hit me like a sledgehammer. I did not really have to look in order for them to appear.
It’s the apotheosis of suburban planning. It’s the highly manicured, institutionalized shepherding of the elderly. It’s the utter lack of organic neighborhoods. I have seen essentially no work of architecture that doesn’t seem to have dropped out of the sky without respect for the wildlife around it. I am given nature, but the beauty I find is in that which has just managed to escape human control, not what has been trimmed and set out for me. After a point, I have no words to describe the literally endless strip malls, full-size malls, housing complexes, chain restaurants, every few intersections nearly a clone of the others half a mile away. If the streets did not have such useful signage, and if I did not have GPS access, I would get lost in an instant because of each town’s homogeneity. Sunrise. Tamarac. Coral Springs. Pembroke Pines. Plantation (yes, a town called Plantation). They are all clones, right down to the paint on the buildings, probably right down to the layout of the golf courses.
I know that my complaints are not original. I’m issuing boilerplate criticisms about many parts of the United States, of which Florida is ultimately just an archetypal example. I had the pretentious thought, at one point, “I imagine people will immediately know I’m not from around here.” Yes, me, the exceedingly not-tanned, not-thin, young-ish person with unusual hair, metal playing in the car, dramatic makeup, all-black clothing even in the heat. This was not just a pretentious thought but also, I suspect, an incorrect one. Florida is not actually composed of preppy, orange-skinned people who spend their days boating, golfing, visiting South Beach, and drinking mid-quality mojitos. Rather, the state has a very diverse population, and it simply tries very hard— even harder than some other places— to make it difficult for a lot of those people to live there comfortably. It wouldn’t even be right to say that the state lacks the subcultures with which I associate or one might think I do. Florida has a distinct goth scene, a strong leather community, and an extremely well-known metal scene for fans of the genre.
If I spent more time here, I would be very keen to explore what drives and enriches the good, interesting residents. Some of the best art comes from unlivable conditions, and sometimes that art is what secretly makes them livable. In theory, I would like to not hate this place.
But after I leave it, I don’t have enough money or leisure time to prioritize a trip back to Florida over trips to many other places I’ve always wanted to see. So it is probable that my twelve days in Florida will be my only days in Florida. I have the distinct sense that I’m going to leave it with my thoughts summarized by this rather pointless, nose-upturned, thoroughly Yankee, miniature travelogue. If some people— some— wanted to show me how I was wrong about this state, they ought to. In the meantime, however, I need to get away from the bleakness of so much beauty thwarted by so much concrete. That’s a trite summary of a complex problem, but so far I have found almost nothing in Florida that wasn’t a cliché, and therefore I will keep that thought precisely as it is.