There was something about the way he’d used Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s local office as the return address on his dangerous parcels, even though she’s been mostly out of the national eye since resigning as Democratic National Committee chairwoman two years ago. There was the way he’d misspelled the congresswoman’s last name and styled the street address — just up the block from my son’s old preschool — incorrectly, as “Saw Grass Parkway.” Some rando looking the place up on a map would’ve gotten those right. Only an irate local could mangle them just so.
That Cesar Sayoc also turned out to be an itinerant DJ, working trendy Miami clubs and Palm Beach strip joints while living out of his heavily stickered van and planning his anti-liberal mail bomb crusade, was just a dollop of cream on the Key lime pie.
It used to be all fun and games, this Florida Man shit. Haha, look, America’s funny proboscis birthed some more weirdos. Here’s an amusement-ride magnate in Windermere who was robbed by some friends dressed as ninjas. There’s an Orlando dude who burned down his house to get the bugs out of it. Here’s an abandoned pine coffin in Deland with 46 weapons in it, including a mace and a crossbow. Also, there’s “Pervert Dave” Cummings’ obituary. Don’t forget the flakka and bath salts.
“For years, weird news has been Florida’s special province. But I worry that the Florida Man craze has naturalized our collective psychosis, rather than addressed the very unnatural pressures that generate it.”
I’m a Floridian because of the crime. My father, an engine mechanic, moved us down from upstate New York when I was 5 to break through in the boat business. It was the ’80s, and obscene wealth, much of it ill-gotten or smuggling-based, had exploded the marine industry. My father got large offers to hide drugs and cash aboard yachts he was delivering. He declined, and still got boarded constantly by Coast Guardsmen and local cops who thought nothing of sawing holes in boats to search for contraband. But he made a comfortable enough living restoring boats that had once belonged to shahs and “importers.”
My earliest memories are of spending fatherless weekday evenings learning to play all-night rummy with my mom and Marlene, the girlfriend of my dad’s alcoholic boat-business partner, in her crumbling seaside rental as she shifted a smoldering Virginia Slims to pluck cards out of the deck between three-inch French-cut nails. I remember that and rising before school to watch the 6 a.m. local newscasts about carjackings, spring break vandalism and godly politicians being taped having illicit sex with a prostitute who was married to a local cop. (The cop husband did the taping from inside a bedroom closet.)
I still live on the same street as Marlene, near the local seaport, amid the “boat people” — broken-down yacht-washers, drugged-up stewards, drunk deckhands, and half-conscious cooks. I can drop a kayak in the water and, within minutes, pass parks where natives killed white settlers, drawbridges where inebriated pedestrians have challenged gravity and failed, and manses occupied by latter-day robber barons like the late Wayne Huizenga — the owner of a garbage company who went on to run Blockbuster Video, the Dolphins, the Panthers and the Marlins, who laundered his monopolistic reputation with philanthropic gifts and snapped up most of the waterfront real estate downtown.
Just up the road is New River Pizza, where the pipe bomber worked as a delivery driver with his insanely stickered pro-Trump van. I never got delivery from there, but I must have seen the guy at some point in the neighborhood, where, according to his lesbian boss, he ranted about killing Jews, gays and immigrants. To be honest, I might have tuned out his van. I’ve seen plenty of cars and vans with crazy messages scrawled over their windows here.
Non-Florida coastals are up in arms in disbelief that anyone of conscience could employ a white supremacist like Sayoc. But if you work in certain industries or counties here, you have worked and possibly had drinks with guys who say these things. Maybe they say it in that absurdly comical delivery that makes you ask your friends, “So is he joking, or not?” or maybe not. Maybe they have a really sad story of adversity and mental health issues of some kind. Maybe they’re kin or kin of friends. And maybe a good delivery driver or cabinetmaker or steward or boat cleaner really is hard to find.
These are not sufficient reasons for murderous bigotry, but they are partial examples of the link between economic inequality and racial inequality in our great, big, iniquitous, enclave-encrusted state.
For years, weird news has been Florida’s special province. For writers like me, it’s been a financial godsend. It’s nice to get paid for being a Zelig to this teeming jungle of insanity. But I worry that the Florida Man craze has naturalized our collective psychosis, rather than addressed the very unnatural pressures that generate it. In exulting in the unbearable Floridaness of our being, it’s as if the world enjoys the comical scene of a fish out of water, flopping about as it slowly asphyxiates. Yeah, it looks funny from a certain point of view. But maybe stop and get the fish some water already.
Florida is weird because Floridians crave freedom ― the ornery, childish sort preferred by Ron Paul-loving crackpots: freedom to be an asshole, to not change, to make a quick buck, to step on the people who aren’t quick enough, to make losers and blame society’s fuckups on them.
For many Floridians, embedded permanently in mediocre-paying jobs to keep afloat, our freedom is also the freedom to ignore everything else. When I drove last Friday to Aventura, the North Miami residential and retail enclave where Sayoc sometimes stayed with his mother, I stopped at a Starbucks next to her apartment to see if people knew him at all.
Me: (orders iced tea and sandwich) Did you hear about the bomber?
Me: The guy who was sending all those pipe bombs to politicians. He lived right behind here.
Barista: Wow! Really? That’s $10.92.
On the way out, I noticed a small plane overhead, towing an ad for Miami’s Magic City Casino.
If this is a frontier, then its true pioneers are the lawyers who figured out how to juice a financial crisis by foreclosing on homeowners before filing the legal paperwork — the wonderful innovation of “robosigning.” It’s a frontier where Miami high-rises stand empty but owned by overseas LLCs, a brilliant money-laundering tactic, just a few miles from neighborhoods where tin sheds with blue tarps qualify as homes for indigent tenants. Where a South Carolina lady with a Napoleon complex and a .38 in her purse can make the state a petri dish for pro-gun policies that get teens killed for wearing hoodies or simply going to school. Where the heir to a small, dirty Queens real estate fortune can buy a historic coastal mansion, make it a private club for tax purposes, be neighbors with Rush Limbaugh, and reinvent himself as a part-time Florida man with presidential aspirations. Or where a health care grifter from Texas can make a name for himself financing dirty anti-Obamacare ads, buy his way into the governor’s mansion, deregulate septic tanks, financially penalize liberal arts majors, shut down the state’s only tuberculosis-fighting hospital during the worst outbreak in 20 years, defund rape counseling during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, win re-election, and use his personal fortune to buy more ads pretending he’s good at his job during a Senate run.
We stopped adapting to the land long ago, as evinced by the rich neighbors across the canal from me who are fighting government plans to raise their homes’ seawalls before rising tides wash away their dreams. Let us drown in peace and profit, they seem to say. What we adapt to are the conditions set by our climate change-denying, commerce-humping, gun-crazy, aw-shucks politicians and industrial captains.
This stuff makes me nuts. It makes me hunt invasive pythons in the Everglades to feel better. It makes me road-ragey. It makes me drink and worry that my son will be stuck, like me, in a morass of a society whose death rattles are entertaining until they aren’t. It makes me think terrible subversive thoughts as I kayak up and down the waterways, past manses of the lucky and indifferent, past another house with a yacht and a Trump flag next to a black lawn jockey. It makes me contemplate violently piercing the bubble of civility in these rich environs so they better match the realities on our potholed streets, where mentally ill bodybuilders can rage against a machine that doesn’t exist and send deadly posts in the mail to political celebrities who do.
I know that isn’t a healthy outlook. I’m a Florida man. What else can I do?