Question: Exactly what type of moron do you have to be to live in Florida?
I assume I lost most of you right there. But for those of you that stayed, I commend you. You’re a brave soul, and I promise that this story will have sex in it. OK, there’s no sex, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have sex while you read it. I’m not your boss; you can do whatever you want with my story. Print it off, fold it up, and use it to balance a shaky table leg, if you like. It’s your call. Naturally, I didn’t make the decision to live in Florida again willy-nilly, if that’s what you’re thinking. Maybe nilly-willy, but certainly not willy-nilly, there’s a huge difference. Look it up.
Hey, I’m a Floridian, I have no delusions….
Like most people of a certain age, I’ve lived in many different cities, even countries. I spent 7 years in Europe during the Bush presidency; 6 of those 7 years were just spent apologizing for being an American. I wanted to see the Louvre, but no! I had to wander around as the token American offering my sincere regret, while being pelted with delicious French cheeses just for being a Yank. I often thought it would have been easier to just have a tape recorded message I could play when my European friends started in on me for having the audacity to be born in the United States:
“Well, yes, I DO agree with you. US foreign policy is absolute bullshit. Yes, I too hate what President Bush has done in Iraq. Hey, I’m a liberal, don’t yell at me, fella! I didn’t vote for that buffoon….Well, sure, Americans are fat, but have you seen Gérard Depardieu? I mean C’mon!”
I never did that, and to this day that is my biggest regret, well, except for that time in high school when I went through my Goth phase and screamed at my father, “You’ll never understand me the way Morrissey does!” then ran into our glass sliding door and fell over. But I digress. Florida is my home, Gainesville more specifically. It’s a little gem of a town that’s described as, “Austin before it exploded.” I live in constant fear of Gainesville exploding (That’s what she said. You see? There is sex in the story….I’m so sorry for this joke; but not quite sorry enough to remove it, obviously).
I’ve lived in Athens, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and I have no desire to see it turn into a city that takes me two hours to go five miles in a car. I’m not emotionally able to live in a city that’s a metaphor for my life anymore (gee, that’s sad). In Athens, I one time got out of my car when my husband was driving and walked the remaining two blocks home to our apartment. It took him another hour to get home. I almost suffered an aneurism- luckily I kicked a few angry Greek mother-in-laws on the way home to relieve the tension. Hey, hey, hey….they had it coming! Trust me. Let he who has not had a Greek mother-in-law cast the first stone.
Some Gainesville Bliss
I’m just sort of done with large cities at the moment. But like so many things I’ve learned about myself over the years….that could change on a dime. Who knows, maybe in my 40s I’ll move back to Chicago and be the oldest improv student at Second City. Of course, I’ll be kicked out because as all my twenty-something improv buddies do sketches about parenthood I’ll just keep yelling, “Oh my GOD, you idiots know nothing about life! NOTHING!”
Outside of Gainesville (exactly like Atlanta and Chicago, for that matter) is all Redneck Riviera. I often say of taking small back roads outside of town, “No, I will not take the road less traveled. I live in the south. Have you seen “Deliverance?” But Gainesville itself is filled with a menagerie of liberal oddballs like myself, not unlike the fantastic list of characters in Portlandia. The noted hard-core, rebellious author Harry Crews said of Gainesville in his essay, Why I live Where I Live, “I can leave the place where I live a couple of hours before daylight and be on a deserted little strip of sand called Crescent Beach in time to throw a piece of meat on a fire and then, in a few minutes, lie back sucking on a vodka bottle and chewing on a hunk of bloody beef while the sun lifts out of the Atlantic Ocean.”
I once met Harry Crews as a kid; he was a professor at the university here like so many of my friends are now. I was awestruck that a man well into his 60s had a mohawk- his crystal blue eyes seeming to penetrate me- and by his tattoo that read, “How do you like your blue eyed boy Mr. Death.” I was young and too intimidated to tell him how much I admired his essays. Truthfully, he scared me a little but as always when I meet an outsider, I feel that our souls connect and I make a mental tip of the hat as if to say, “I’m right there with you buddy, yes…the world truly is a shit-show.” It seems, like the outsider Harry Crews, I feel the need to explain why I live where I live. No one demands an explanation if you live in New York or San Francisco, but tell people you live in Gainesville and they’re like, “Whoa man…I’m so sorry. What happened?”
Truly, Gainesville is a freak magnet. I partially grew up here. And partially in Miami, and no matter where I’ve been, in all the large cities, Gainesville rivals them in terms of sheer crazy. In retrospect, I’m not surprised that River Phoenix and his family moved here when I was a kid. I spent summer nights in the back seat with Joaquin Phoenix (who was at that time called, “Leaf”) waiting for our older friends to “score Strawberry Boones Farm.” We were the babies of the group and instructed to “just be cool, dudes.” My first time getting shit faced was at a party where River was too drunk to drive and accidentally ran over my friend Anna’s foot. He was so kind and charming, no one seemed to mind. And oddly, Anna’s foot incurred no injuries. And YOU thought Dr. Martens were just for looks.
This was also right around the time Steve Martin was in Gainesville filming “Parenthood” and when I found out I had missed “the love of my life” I spent days in my Gainesville home crying in my pillow. Yes, I had a crush on Steve Martin, a man 30 years my senior when my friends were all goo-goo over some silly boy band. So? I just knew an old man with an arrow through his head was the only man who could really understand me. I wrote in one of my hundreds of journals I’ve kept over the years, “Stupid Gainesville! I’ll move to LA one day and when I meet Steve Martin we’ll laugh and laugh that he didn’t know his soul mate was right there, in Gainesville years ago. Sure, I’m 12 and you’re 50, but what of it? We’ll make it work!” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the general deluded gist.
I spent my high school years in downtown Gainesville, attending punk rock shows, drinking coffee in the afternoons with my other artsy, discontents…all dreaming about how we’d take over the world. The brick paved streets, the southern Gothic buildings, the Spanish moss covering everything- it was an oddly appropriate backdrop. My high school boyfriend was the lead singer of a particularly sweet punk band called “The Smegmas” and their biggest hit was called “Fuck You.” Ah…high school and young love; so misguided. Years later, I went to Chicago and most of my friends went to New York. I then moved to Europe, to Atlanta, and then to Greece. What’s the phrase that always makes me laugh and then cry? “I’ve seen some stuff, man, and some things.” And really, haven’t we all?
But time has a way of changing your values, if you’re lucky, and I wound up standing on my balcony in Athens, Greece thinking, “Huh…I sort of miss Gainesville.” I missed the clean air, the Spanish Moss, the quaint downtown, the ease of making friends and perhaps most importantly, I wanted my son to know his grandparents- both of my husband’s parents having died the year prior. So, I of course made an appointment with my doctor to make sure I didn’t have a brain tumor, and my therapist for mental illness. Surely, that could be the only reason to want to move back to Florida? After we ruled out all possibilities that I wasn’t sick physically, or emotionally; my husband and I made the decision to come back to the states, specifically Gainesville. OK, none of that happened, but I’m sure YOU’RE thinking it would have been a swell idea.
The first few months back, I was sure I made a terrible mistake. I constantly checked home prices in Chicago, Atlanta, even Miami…right after we paid for our house in Gainesville in cash…in full. We were lucky enough to sell off one of my husband’s rental properties and can I just say MY punk rock song is, “Fuck You, Mortgage Company.” I would constantly yell from my office, “Sweetheart, we can flip this house and go back and renovate another house in Atlanta!” My husband was not happy. But he married a discontent, his own fault really. His mother warned him about American girls, he’s the damn fool who didn’t listen. But really, his mother didn’t like any Americans. The first time I met her she said, “I can count the number of good Americans on one hand.” Sadly, she could only count to three. I kid! She could count to four. You can read about her when I finish my future essay, “Greek Mother-in-Laws: Seriously, What Did I do to Deserve This?”
Hubs and I are renovating warriors. Together, we’ve redone 6 houses, including his 200 year old house in the Peloponnese, in Greece. We bought a modern, stylish home that we fully renovated within six months of being back in Gainesville. Our house currently looks like the love child of Frank Lloyd Wright and an Ikea catalogue. Beautiful on the cheap, we call it. But renovations can take a toll on you, and I could see by the look in his eye that this was one battle I wasn’t going to win. “No, Bethouli, we are going to stay here. I love it here, you love it here, you’re just freaking out” he gently reassured me. Did I say gently? That was a typo. He’s Greek. Everything he says is at level 10 and I’ve often been reduced to tears by him just saying some random thing: “Bethouli, you look beautiful- when did you get that dress?!” It’s not that he SAID something nice; it’s that he SCREAMED something nice.
Actual quote from “The Devil’s Advocate” I’m not kidding…
For the first six months of being back I had to readjust to being in the same town as my parents. You know, parents…those people that can make you brilliantly happy one moment and curl into a fetal position the next becoming a recluse that rivals Howard Hughes? Yeah, that’s it: Parents. Weee!! We had a good deal of arguments, my mother and I, but that seems to be the thing with mothers and daughters- so much love, but so much unnecessary drama. I loved my mother dearly; she had so much pain to contend with in her life yet always treated people with love and kindness. She lost 3 children in her lifetime- my brother and sisters, suffered financial ruin, had a husband that mentally checked out in many ways, but still, she was a pillar of strength.
She was often the mom that took other kids in in high school. All my punk friends, Goth friends, gay friends- she never saw the exterior. She could see what life can sometimes beat out of us, and so tragic when it’s at such a young age. My mom could immediately connect with the best version of a person…past the mohawk, past the piercings, past the black eyeliner, and see their chewy center of kindness and fear. How many licks does it take to get to the chewy center of a Goth kid? You’d have to ask my mom. Also? She’d give you a Tootsie pop.
My gay friends in particular loved her. She laughed at their jokes, told them the world was not as bad as they thought, and accepted without judgment that they were gay. Often my mom would stay up with them until 2 in the morning drink coffee and discuss old movies. She and my friend John both loved Cary Grant. For prom that year John and I went as 1940s movie stars. I had a feather boa, a smoking wand, and a handmade dress that was based on a 1942 film. John, of course, wore a vintage tux with tails and a top hat. Needless to say, we stuck out, just the way we always did. My mother thought we were the most fabulous prom couple and never once commented that I looked weird, or anachronistic. She was just knocked out that I spent a month making my own prom dress. I adored her.
I was only home for 6 months before she died. Suddenly. Of a heart attack.
At 66 she was gone and I was alone. Except that I wasn’t. I was a mom, a wife, a sister, a friend- but when your mom dies a piece of you is gone forever. I had come back, expecting my son to grow up loving my mother as I had. I imagined hearing him yell at me when he was 15, “You’ll never understand me the way Nanny does!” probably running into a glass door and falling over as I had declaring my Goth pact with Morrissey. (You should know being overly dramatic ending in looking foolish is a strong gene in my family.) But those dreams were shattered, and I had to pick up the pieces and move on. My father and I were never close, and losing my mom felt like the end of my extended family, and it many ways it was.
One of my only serious tweets….
Several weeks ago I had to attend my friend Caitlin’s mother’s funeral here in Gainesville. Caitlin, my best friend from when I was 11, have stayed close our entire life. She now lives in Chicago, but when we do see each other it’s as if not a day has passed. Well, except for having to act grown up if my son walks through the room. And even then my son gives me the “cut the bullshit, mom, I know you’re a goof-ball” look. Caitlin’s mother had a long battle with cancer, and in the end, that bastard cancer, won.
When we were kids, Caitlin and I spent every day after school at the downtown public library. I’m not sure why our parents allowed this, but I’ve always suspected that they went somewhere together to get a drink, assuredly cackling, “They’re YOUR problem now, Gainesville Library!” We spent our afternoons speaking with homeless people, drunks, and what I can only imagine now were possibly pedophiles.
Oh, oh, oh! Quick idea for PSA:
Anything I dared Caitlin to do, she did. She was the shortest kid in our class, I was the tallest. She was fearless, I was shy. There was a man who stood in front of the library every afternoon we called, “Joe White.” As you may have guessed, he dressed head to toe in a white suit. OK…maybe we could have been more creative with the name- but we were 11. Joe White looked not unlike a homeless Steve Martin in his wild and crazy guy days, minus the arrow through the head. I always suspected he used to have an arrow through his head, possibly through the frontal lobe, well whatever the area is that regulates impulse control…I’m no doctor. He stood in the hot summer sun, screaming from the bible; the ubiquitous Gainesville hippie hurriedly walking by with their kids, ignoring him while taking little Raindrop to get his books. But not Caitlin and me- no, we wanted more crazy- the crazier the better.
Caitlin and Me circa 1989
I would dare her to go ask him questions and he would of course tell her that we were going to hell (which really, we already knew, hey- we were after all in Catholic school.) He one time told her that I was Mary mother of God and that I would give birth to Jesus. And really, I call bullshit. My son is not Jesus. He’s exactly like me, a pain in the ass, questions everything, and usually winds up rolling his eyes so hard he sees the inside of his brain if you mention religion. So, no, Joe White, ha ha ha, jokes on you, buddy. He asked Caitlin to marry him one afternoon. You see? He looked passed the age difference. Aw… that’s why I had hopes for Steve Martin having a child bride. It all makes sense now. And really, doesn’t he have one? (Sorry Steve, I still love you, though.)
Everything makes sense if given time…
As I stood there looking at Caitlin’s tear stained cheeks in the church rectory; I saw in the distance the library where we spent so many joyous, if not sincerely odd afternoons. I was hugging her hard, maybe too hard, and as is my way; I tried to think of something funny to lighten the mood and make her smile.
“Hey, didn’t Joe White follow you in here one Sunday” I asked trying to remember what exactly the story was.
“Oh my god, yes! I was sitting here in Easter mass and he ran up to the window and started waving at me. I was thinking I really hope my mom doesn’t notice because she’ll wonder why a homeless man in white thinks I’m gonna hook him up with Mary, the mother of God! Tell me, Beth…does Alexander know he’s Jesus, yet?”
We both laughed. And for a brief moment I remembered what it was like to be a kid with her here, and how beautiful it was to live in this place that’s filled with so many memories. Gainesville really is a charming city. Typical southern Gothic really, lots of old mansions covered in Spanish moss and now being the hipster/liberal town that it is, food trucks and young men with beards drinking local brews on every corner.
I think a sense of place is underrated in our culture. I do sincerely understand leaving a place if it’s full of close minded people, if you can’t find work, or if you need to experience the world. But I also think far too often we look down on those who love the idea of a town, or a particular city being a constant back drop in the story of their life.
I love this city as my mother had, but I had to discover that living 5,000 miles away across the Atlantic Ocean. And if I move away again, it will be for a purpose, not trying to escape the sadness that I used to carry within. There is no escape from your own unhappiness. I love that at a certain shop I remember my mom taking me for my first grown up haircut, or at a park I remember my mom holding me close and telling me she loved me, I love the connection of place, and that this city holds within triggers for a collection of memories of my beautiful mother. I could love it, like so many people do because the weather is amazing from October to May- that you can be outside in cool weather while the rest of the country is freezing, or that it’s the only truly liberal city in the penis of America (Florida’s actual name translated from Spanish, this is a lie I choose to believe) or that ocean is so close, or that the education is fantastic, yeah…..that stuff is cool too, I guess. But I want roots. I need roots. Perhaps looking at the enormous, moss covered Oak trees my whole life, tripping over their roots popping from the earth finally had some subconscious effect on me.
As I take my son to some of the same places I used to go as a kid, I often wonder if he, now 11, is starting to realize that this is a smaller city. Will he, like I did around his age become aware of the world and want to move to some place like New York or Chicago. I ask him,
“Alexander, do you like Gainesville? Do you think you’ll want to move one day?”
“Are you kidding mommy? No! I love it here! I’m glad we moved from Greece. I never want to leave.”
And I want to believe him; that he’ll carry his home in his heart as I have. But I also want him to see the world and even now find myself telling him about a trip we’ll take to Europe, or how fun it was to live in Chicago in my twenties. I look in his big brown eyes, squeeze his little hand and think to myself with trepidation, “ Give it time, my darling son; give it some time…..”