When I left Florida for good after a few years’ work in Fort Lauderdale, a debate was raging in the state Legislature. It was about guns in cars. Nobody had a problem with the idea that you should be able to have a loaded handgun with you in the car. The issue was, did you have to store it in the glove compartment, or could you keep it right there next to you, for easy shooting?
I never learned the outcome of that debate. But it epitomized for me the human craziness of the Sunshine State, a place I love but a place of undeniable weirdness. Florida is different.
This book collects journalist Lynn Waddell’s reportage from the aft edges of the state. Waddell, formerly a writer for a Tampa Bay-area alternative paper, is brave enough to put herself in the thick of it, getting to know the take-no-prisoners women of the Leather & Lace Motorcycle Club, riding shotgun on an absurdly huge swamp buggy called the Redneck Royalty through an 800-acre mud park called the Redneck Yacht Club, trying to fit in with the crowd at the Riverboat Nudist RV Club. She has done her research, but as anyone knows who looks longingly at beach cams in the middle of winter, there’s nothing like being there. And so in “Fringe Florida” we find ourselves in the thick of:
• An Exotic Pet Amnesty Day at Busch Gardens, in which animal-loving Floridians can trade ball pythons, savanna monitors, African tortoises and other cuddly household pets among themselves. The goal is to keep people from releasing them into the wild, so there won’t be more problems like the infestation of 13-foot Burmese pythons currently swallowing alligators in the Everglades.
• Tampa’s Mons Venus strip club, where 73-year-old owner Joe Redner has fought the conservative local political establishment for decades over, for example, man’s God-given right to get a lap dance if he wants one. When the county commission passed an ordinance forbidding any acknowledgment of Gay Pride Month, Redner “declared himself gay and sued on grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights.” Asked if he really was gay, Redner – a straight white male from New Jersey – replied, “I’m gay, I’m black, I’m an Indian, a Jew. I’m everyone and anyone who has ever been oppressed for anything other than their bad character.” A provocateur for the ages.
• A fetish convention with more rubber, leather and costumes than anything David Lynch ever dreamed up, including a subculture (not entirely sexual in nature) of people who like to dress up as ponies and do, well, pony things.
• Gibsonton, a Tampa Bay community where circus sideshow freaks – the Lobster Boy, the World’s Only Living Half Girl – have settled for the better part of a century. So numerous are the midgets and dwarfs, Waddell says, that the post office put in a shorter counter for them.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Probably Waddell has only scratched the surface.
“Fringe Florida” suffers a bit because most of its stories are from the Tampa Bay area and nearby, a place that hasn’t entirely gotten past its Florida-cracker origins. (It’s also where a whole lot of Western New Yorkers tend to vacation.) A little broader geography would have been welcome. Especially I wished for a glimpse of Key West, the outer limits of the state where one local routinely bikes around town wearing only a G-string and a homemade stovepipe hat.
I also wished for a little more fact-checking, especially from a university press.
Two-thirds of the people living in Florida relocated there from elsewhere.
That might be evidence that the crazies move to the ends of the continent – or it might show that Florida is simply a nation’s eccentricities distilled by sunshine into a heaping helping of weirdness. Either way, “Fringe Florida” is an entertaining tour guide for the spectacle.
The Rev. Scott Thomas is senior minister of Amherst Community Church (United Church of Christ) in Snyder.
Fringe Florida: Travels Among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles
By Lynn Waddell
University Press of Florida
266 pages, $24.95