I found this out today, when a friend from middle school posted his obituary. The first thing I thought of? War songs. And then I thought, man, I wish I had sought him out and told him how much he’d set my life on this particular course.
You see, without Mr. Byers, I wouldn’t have a book. At least, I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote. I wouldn’t be interested in history. And I sure as shit wouldn’t give a rat’s red ass about the WPA, which kind of figured prominently in the book.
In eighth grade I didn’t know who I was yet. I didn’t know what I cared about, aside from Duran Duran and cute boys. I loved to write, but mostly poems that, honestly, weren’t exactly Pablo Neruda. And then I ended up in Mr. Byers’ history class, which was decidedly so much more than names and dates.
“Late is wrong,” he said the first day “and wrong will be punished.” Not a grand statement, of course, but if you’ve ever met a 12 year old, you know the importance of simple things. Even as he said it, though, he smiled. And you couldn’t be in his class and not smile, too.
We quickly moved from that to other things. History — a subject often relegated to phys ed teachers — often gets left behind the more practical (some would say) subjects of language arts and math. Mr. Byers would not allow this to happen; he forced us to care. With every new epoch of history, he had songs and posters. We’d walk into his class one day, and it would be covered, say, in election memorabilia from Herbert Hoover’s presidency, or war posters. When he taught us the Great Depression, he played us this song — of course, it wasn’t the Annie version. That’s how he drove home the horrors of the Depression, with this song. And then he moved us into FDR and why his New Deal was so balls-out awesome. He took an alphabet soup of agencies — FERA, WPA, CCC —and led us through them, explaining how these agencies pieced a battered economy back together and forever changed the landscape of America.
Years later, I rediscovered the WPA when I found the Guide to the Southernmost State, I remembered those long-ago classes. And while the narrative in Backroads doesn’t explicitly talk much of the WPA, the original book was a WPA project and my writing was informed by what I learned long ago in Mr. Byers’ class.
Only as an adult did I realize not everyone loved the WPA; not everyone loved President Roosevelt and his New Deal. This came as a shock to me; how could someone not love the man who saved America by using Americans? Clearly, these people had never taken Mr. Byers’ history class. I wonder, too, if I’d had a teacher less enthusiastic about the WPA, what my attitude upon discovering the writing the WPA would have been. Would I have pursued it? I want to think I would have, but honestly, when I realized the book was part of the WPA, my mind raced back to that classroom, those lessons, that man. Without his teaching, I do not know that I would have written the same book, if my writing style would have been informed the way it was.
I never told him. I never told him that, but not for him, there would be no book, not the book I wrote. Oh, yes, there certainly would have been a Backroads of Paradise, but it wouldn’t have been the same. No connection to the Great Depression so great that when I took an oral history of a woman who lived through it — just this afternoon — I asked her how she felt about FDR, and she told me she thought he was great and went on to talk about how awful Hoover was. At that instant, I remembered Mr. Byers and his “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. I didn’t know he had died this afternoon, but all these years later, he was the reason I asked, he’s the reason I felt a spurt of excitement when she elaborated on why Hoover sucked and she liked FDR.
A few months after Mr. Byers covered the Great Depression, a few friends of mine and I organized the Lip Sync show at JFK. And then we got to the intermission, and nothing was planned. Dave Byers to the rescue: He stood in front of the crowd and, as was his custom, did what he knew: He led them in a political song, one that came slightly after my hero, FDR, led our great country into WWII. And every voice in that gymnasium — even the ones who hadn’t taken his class yet — every voice lifted to join him in a rousing chorus of song. Everyone loved this man and the way he taught history.
And so, tonight, with the world a little less rounded, a little less aware of itself and its history, I hear it again. Bear with me, as I play it again, in his honor, and I say, one last time…
Part of me wants to play this cool and be all, “Yeah, it’s cool, you can pre-order my book” and the rest of me — the real me — has an almost-insurmountable compulsion to run around the house screaming “My book! MY BOOK!”
So severely conflicted on this am I that it took me 19 full days to write this post, which has to be some sort of record for something, even if it’s a record for how batshit crazy things get inside my head.
Forget all that. The post has arrived, as has the book. It feels as though I’ve lived a lifetime since I first had the idea, which I suppose happens to many writers, unless, of course, you happen to be James Patterson, because that man is a machine. And if you are James Patterson, hi. Buy my book, OK?
Technically, the book has not arrived: You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or from the University Press of Florida) and they’ll ship it to you on October 4, the actual release date. Also, if you want it as an ebook, you have to wait — I mean, not much longer, but apparently the something about metadata or other things I don’t understand and don’t you dare pretend you do, either. The takeaway? You will have the chance to buy the ebook and no, I don’t know when but soon.
When UPF offered me a book contract, my editor told me in no uncertain terms to never promise people a publication date (well, until the Press itself released one) so I would make jokes when people asked me. My favorite one?
“Well, I’m not certain but I’m hoping sometime before we elect a new president.”
I made it with a whole month to spare.
As I write my thesis, I realize that El Cap is a bit of a smart ass. Generally, he’s been wonderful and supportive, even going so far as to provide a RoadTrek in which we traveled the state. He was patient when I asked him to stop so I could take a picture of a sign and listened to hours of my diatribes about the state’s water management practices. I guess, really, he’s earned the right to be a smart ass. To wit…
I first realized this when I was writing and he said something. When I realized he’d asked me a question, I apologized and explained. Here’s how that went:
Me: “I’m writing about Okahumpka.”
El Cap: “Aren’t those the people who work in the chocolate factory?”
And then tonight, as I’m (FINALLY!) nearing the end of the epic manuscript…
Me: “I’m at 237 pages, 56,445 words.”
El Cap: “Yeah, but some of those words are duplicated, like ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
He’s considered very funny. In France.
In the 1990s I lived on Morse Boulevard, just outside Orlando, and I loved it. Other than buying groceries I did all my shopping by walking around the corner to Park Avenue. I found birthday gifts at local shop. A local florist make me a Christmas wreath for my front door. I sipped coffee at a non-Seattle-based shop that was neither trendy nor pricey. Friends and neighbors would walk down the street and get sushi at a hole-in-the-wall; the bookstore next door always had a lively game of checkers at its sidewalk table. The Mill restaurant had food for non-sushi lovers and we could walk there in 10 minutes.
Orlando seemed very far away, but it wasn’t. Not really. We’d drive to Church Street to get terrified at Terror on Church Street and marvel at the tourists who’d managed to wander away from the theme parks for an evening. We’d use the parking garage that had flowering bushes on its outside so we didn’t have to fight street traffic, but we’d move the car if we wanted to head down Colonial to Dekko’s to go dancing.
I worked, once or twice, as a stagehand for Orlando Opera Company, and the company shared space with Southern Ballet in a building donated by Florida Power. Before every matinee my friend Angi and I would climb a narrow ladder up to the roof and spread Visqueen over the long, narrow skylight. Lake Ivanhoe curved along the building and, while I hated the climb, I loved the view.
In case it isn’t clear, I loved everything about Orlando and Winter Park. The only thing wrong was that it was way too far from the beach, and I need salt water like beagles need to howl. I moved back to Pinellas county.
At first I visited frequently, but over time the visits grew less frequent. I went back this week, and what I saw shattered my heart.
Dollar General, automotive chain stores, and fast food chains dominate the landscape. My college and early 20s memories are all that remain of a unique, untouched community. I don’t just mean Orlando; Park Boulevard has changed utterly, populated with the smaller chain stores you see in every small town trying to make itself distinctive from the next small town 20 miles over. A few holdouts remain, but the personal feel has disappeared under a cloud of assimilation.
Sadly, this is not confined to Orlando. Over the past few days the joke in our small camper has become “Look – a Dollar General. We must be downtown.” At times I feel adrift in Anytown, USA.
My thesis chair and Florida guru Dr. Gary Mormino wrote an article for the Tampa Tribune years ago. In it he referenced a 1990s postcard of the Orlando skyline. “Welcome to Orlando!” the postcard read. One problem: the skyline didn’t belong to Orlando. When polled, area readers thought it might be Halifax.
“There is no here, here,” Dr. Mormino laments in his article, and as I drove down US17 and 441 through the Orlando area and a dozen other smaller towns, my heart breaks for Orlando, for Winter Park, and for every little town in Florida who has lost its “here.”
Dollar General stores all look the same, whether they’re nestled under live oak trees or set amidst palm trees, and, after eight days of driving Florida’s back roads, those stores symbolize the loss of our “here.”
I see Florida towns as we travel from stoplight to stoplight through sand, forest and lakes, and some of these roads reveal the very worst of Florida: her homogenized outer skin, a veneer that is peeling up like cheap pressboard furniture that’s been through a flood. This is the US 19 through Largo or the Ulmerton Road of the state. This is the worst Gulf or Gulfport Boulevard we could conceive. This is neon and sandy asphalt and Anytown, Anywhere. This is hell.
I believe St. Pete Beach is trying to keep some of its “here”, despite what the people throwing around threats and yelling at commission meetings may say. I believe Gulfport wants that, too. I do not know they have the funding or the leadership, but I hope it finds the former and suspect it may have the latter. I’ll be honest, I’d feel better if the city planners had been more vocal about how to keep our here, here. I’d feel better if Gulfport hadn’t already started the march toward low-budget chain stores along its namesake boulevard. I would feel better if we could at least agree on what our “here” is.
Take a drive yourself and search for the here: some of it remains throughout Florida. It bleeds through in old diners with Cuban coffee and restaurants with frogs legs and catfish. It traces the rolling hills of north Florida and it invites you to roll down your car windows and breath in south Florida’s salt air. It knows who it is and can’t try and pretend differently. Each here has its own identities, filled with its own history and imperfectly beautiful. It has no apologies.
It has no Dollar General stores.
I don’t even know why I’m posting. I should totally be packing. We’re leaving in the morning on a three-week trip around the state (Again, I’m gay for Florida. That’s right, I said it. Come and get me, PRIDE!) and instead of packing, I’m writing. For free. Which is fine, because I do this for the love. Totally.
Back to packing (I know it’s only been a sentence for you, but I’ve been on Facebook, played a stupid game, and watched half an episode of Cheers): I am not packed. I mean, I am, sort of, but I’ve packed too many clothes and not nearly enough in the way of toothpaste and the like. I also feel like I should bring some books. Or something. Maybe knitting.
God, I’m pathetic. Actually, El Cap is my savior here. I’m busy packing knitting and textbooks, and he’s trying to figure out if we have room for three types of rum. That makes him sound a lot boozier than he is, but three weeks is a long time, people. Plus, the RoadTrek just ain’t that big, and, well, honestly, I can be kind of a bitch. Truth? When I think about it, I’m shocked he thinks three types of rum is enough.
So he’s portioning out the amaretto for the trip (hey, just because someone likes an after-dinner drink doesn’t mean they have to over-indulge. At least, that’s what I’ve been told) and he goes to throw the bottle in the recycling bin. Which, he points out to me, is all beer bottles, empty liquor bottles, and one two-liter Pepsi bottle (for pizza).
Yeah, it sounds bad to me, too, but I swear, we don’t sit around and drink all night. It was just a week of cleaning out the fridge and dumping stuff out and re-packaging the Kraken (it’s a rum; I don’t actually travel with the Kraken, although how cool would THAT be?) for travel. We don’t normally fill our recycling bin to overflowing with booze bottles, and I am totally not just saying that because my mother reads these posts and is completely paranoid that I’m becoming an alcoholic.
So he brings in the laundry (because, yes, ladies, I am just that lucky) and mentions to me that our recycle bin looks like one of the beach dirties (my words, not his, he’s actually far classier than I am) because of the mounds of empty beer, wine and alcohol bottles. What can I say? How do you combat that? I settle for telling him we’re just like Nick and Nora, only green (this link totally doesn’t make my point; you’ll just have to watch if you haven’t seen it). This does not appear to make him feel better, but I’ve taken to calling The Most Interesting Dog in the World “Asta” now. She doesn’t appear to notice.
So, yeah, once again, not a point to this blog entry. Evs. Stay tuned, though, because tomorrow I start three weeks in a small van with another human, and if we don’t go all Copernicus on each other, it’ll be a good trip. Either way, it’s bound to be interesting.
Note: We really are like Nick and Nora, except we don’t solve crimes. And we don’t drink enough. The rest? That’s us. Totes.
This is our state’s most tragic loss. Not knowing what we stand to lose allowed us to swallow miles of beach with condo canyons and surrender the Everglades to sugar cane and irrigation. Our state’s beauty has become a commodity with the most beautiful parts garnering the most pages in tour books. If your town doesn’t fit with the accepted view of paradise, well, you don’t get the prize: visitors.
My grandfather’s sun honed face twisted and paled as we turned off I-10 and entered the final leg of our southwest journey, down 301. As we passed bleached wood cracker houses and dingy brown cedar sheds, his brown forehead furrowed, drawing his coarse eyebrows tighter and tighter until the bushy lines above his dark eyes seemed a thin ridge of curly dark hair.
Up on stilts they sat, no shutters or covering save grime and webs. Underneath and along side sat rusted pickup trucks with dented fenders colored to match the decay of the vehicles. Flats boats shared weed patches with the trucks, the only difference their marginally better maintenance and the occasional trailer elevating the vessels. Washing machines, derelict farm equipment, and a mise en scene of auto parts awaited us anew as we passed each home.
My grandfather sucked in air, his silence crowding our 1976 maroon Buick Regal. “This,” I can only imagine him thinking “is worse than what I left in Italy. This is what I have worked my whole life to give my son? A slum in the south?”
“This” referred to Florida, the interior parts of the state detailed along 301, the parts of the Sunshine State not photographed by the Florida Tourism Board or local Chambers of Commerce. “They” referred to my father (his son), my mother, and me, a seven year old whose greatest field trip in life, prior to the three day journey to Florida from New York, was a dead heat between the Bronx Zoo (where a goat ate my coat) and seeing Peter Pan on Broadway (I got a pretzel from a street vendor and got to ride on a train).
In a chain of events too complex for a seven-year-old brain to comprehend, my parents had decided to leave Westchester County and move to Pinellas. And while they knew the end result- a small two bedroom just miles from then-pristine Clearwater Beach- my grandfather, who had come along to help- did not.
Eventually we turned our cruise-ship sized car onto Interstate 275 South, where the landscape grew noticeably tidier and steadily more sanitized. Our orange-striped Jar-Tran moving truck followed the car as we made our way to Clearwater.
I had visited before- our new home was my other grandparents’ vacation home- but the moment I saw the sparkling teal water of Tampa Bay, it eclipsed every other memory in my as-of-yet fully formed brain. The teal water of Tampa Bay bounced the sparkling sun into our car and the salt formed diamond crystals on my grubby, sweaty cheeks.
“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice hushed and reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” Before we left New York my parents ensured that they filled my tiny mind with all the sights and sounds of New York. We saw the Twin Towers, a Broadway show, and the Statue of Liberty.
I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar in the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this later – much later – as that I had come to where I needed to be.
I fell in love with the water that day, but as I got older I felt the inexorable pull of the other parts of Florida. I love SCUBA diving, low tide is a sacred time of day, and, most surprisingly, I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida.
These corners don’t fit with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s image, they’re our “secret squirrel”, our skeletons. The chambers and tourism boards want us very badly to be a fresh, clean, homogenized land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn we have convinced ourselves that we want to, need to, make our “guests” feel so much at home that they never see that side of Florida- that schmaltzy, chintzy, broken-down, rusted out Florida.
But that’s the Florida I love, just as much as I love the crabs scurrying around the intertidal zone and skimming my hands just beneath the sand to find a handful of sand dollars. My parents, New York natives both, didn’t behave as the typical “carpetbaggers”, as my grandfather later referred to everyone who came to Florida after us. My parents didn’t travel 1300 miles to turn a fast buck or recreate a slice of Little Italy or Whatever County, Michigan. They had visited, succumbed to the pace and the life, and fallen in love with what the state was, not what they wanted it to be or what they thought they could make it. They moved here because of what Florida offered them, not what they thought they could get her to surrender.
I, like my parents before more and countless other settlers, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let her claim me. Almost 30 years later I’m traveling Florida still, looking for parts of her I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the blight of strip malls and jet skis.
Today I’m seeking out Florida on roads that parallel the interstates, rattling along once again without air conditioning. My beaches have changed and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll her back roads in a Volkswagen Vanagon, forever in search of that secret, schmaltzy, backwoods, wonderful Florida, the sun-bleached roadside shacks remain. I feel the quickening inside me as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is the same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt as the salt water opened itself before me.
It is the feeling of coming home.