Long and lean with a taut potbelly, he's a suntanned country-sophisticate with perfect white hair and a gold rope necklace bearing a gold anchor to match the one on his pinkie ring. He has a taste for things from the ocean either still squirming or deep-fried into submission, along with a thirst for cold beer...bottles or cans, hell, it don't matter...matched by an appetite for sun, sand, sky, space, and speed...speed on the ocean and lakes, speed on concrete ovals that lead five hundred laps to nowhere, and speed from the afterburners that lead to the moon and beyond.
He's a daytime Republican until the sun starts to set and he slips into his Day-Glo butt floss and boogies on big roller skates down Robertson Boulevard with an island drink in one hand and a spliff in the other, bobbing his head to some secret musica cubana while adding up his social security checks.
He's a lily-white good ol' boy who lives inland except that he's also a Deep South black guy who lives hard along the gulf along with his equal dose of Jewish-ness that mingles with his Cuban-ness that pervades his Mexican-ness.
When he's a woman she's all of the above plus enormous tanned and oiled implants that are covered in a subdued manner when she piles up her bleached-blond hair for mass or synagogue or Sunday evening services, and when it's over she rolls into her Mercedes convertible, the one with the little plastic Mickey Mouse head on the antenna so she can identify it in a parking lot when she's having a senior moment, and then slips into her inappropriate string bikini and turns heads, old and young, at the pool.
This, my SPF-16 friends, is my personal and biased personification of the State of Florida.
I've visited it regularly for the past ten years and, in one form or another, I've seen this individual everywhere. I've seen him in dive bars in the Keys and strolling through the Ritz. I've seen him presiding in a luxury box at Yankees spring training and I've seen him lifting his bifocals over the price of a jug of scotch at a strip mall liquor store.
I've seen him lingering with a cigarette outside a clapboard church and I've seen him puffing a twenty-five dollar hand-rolled turd in Ybor City, but mainly I've seen him lounging alone at the beach wearing a Speedo that has has little to do with speed but definitely evokes an 'Oh!', sitting in a collapsible chair that squats close to the sand with a weather-beaten Gators ball cap on his head and a sweating cooler at hand, watching the clouds and the waves and the babes.
Generally he's the color and consistency of beef jerky. Generally he's wearing a drugstore version of Jackie-O sunglasses that are large and black enough to reflect light back to the moon. And generally he's one of the most serene-looking sons-of-a-bitches I've ever seen.
Every state in the Union tries to project its own personal character; such a generality helps both residents and outsiders distinguish it from the other fifty pieces of the jigsaw. State nicknames give insight into these respective characters, from the blessed (The Golden State,) to the agrarian (The Cornhusker State,) to the ripe for mocking (The Beaver State.)
Florida didn't think too hard into it, just blinked around the beach and came up with the Sunshine State. Other informal nicknames include the Hurricane State, which matches its tempestuous weather and the speed with which it rebuilds itself, and the Manatee State, the manatee an indigenous creature so torpor-like in its peacefulness as it floats in warm shallow water that you can picture an inflatable raft beneath it, sunglasses on its smooth head, a cold beer in its flipper-thing as it bobs around the pool at the Raleigh Hotel in Miami.
Sunshine, hurricanes, and manatees all nicely represent Florida, but the most appropriate nickname would reflect its non-indigenous creatures, the ones who migrate from the north to shed their skins and recreate themselves. To bury the pesky past and begin anew.
My suggestion: Florida...The Do-Over State.
It's a place where a second (or third or fifth) chance is not only viable but de riguer. Florida seems devoted to ending well and then starting again, or just ending, or just starting. This phenomenon has created an atmosphere of shape-shifting and diversity that does not put at odds, for example, extreme religiosity and the Hooters international headquarters.
Maybe it's the wild natural beauty that seems about ten minutes away from re-consuming the entire state, or the miles of faceless strip malls that scrub it of place-identity, but there's an inarguable otherworldliness to Florida. When you step off an airplane, there's something in the air that makes you want to quit your job and open that topless taco stand you've always dreamed about. And your odds would be fifty-fifty in making a fortune since Florida is where the audacious and the delusional go to hit it big.
And if you don't? Well, it's a big state.
Just move further south and start again.
I've heard all or part of the following conversation dozens of times in my life and the punch line is always, always, always the same:
Person 1: Say, whatever happened to Ned?
Person 2: Well, you know, the marketplace is pretty bad right now...
P1: It sucks. The sub-prime mortgage mess, the airlines...
P2: Bear-Stearns, Merrill Lynch. Plus, he hated his job. Plus, the thing with his wife...
P1: What thing? A cheating thing?
P2: I can't say for sure. That, plus the marketplace...
P1: It totally sucks. She cheated, huh?
P2: So he...
P1: Went to Florida?
There was a time not long ago in America when, if someone wanted to start over, he could disappear into portions of the largely unsettled west or blend into the teeming masses of New York City or Chicago. Many things ended that practice, the most pervasive being state and federal systems of personal identification. No matter where you are in the country, it's now nearly impossible to walk across the street and buy a Big Gulp and a Penthouse without a driver's license, social security number, credit card, or bank/ATM card, much less fold anonymously into a new community halfway across the country.
Remarkably, Florida has managed to turn the concept of beginning anew into a precept.
A person can change his name and grow a mustache if he feels it absolutely necessary but all that Florida requires is that he bring an legal ID and leave his old baggage at the door because who he used to be matters less than who he is now, or who he plans on becoming next month.
There are more second acts playing out across Florida than there are off-Broadway and it feels both accepted and expected. It's where one goes for the second, older part of his life or a second, newer career, or a second, newer self-identity. A paunchy pale CPA in Pittsburgh may still be a paunchy CPA in Florida, but he's not pale anymore and he doesn't work for that lousy accounting firm anymore, and most importantly, he's not in Pittsburgh.
He can open that topless taco stand.
He can sit on the beach staring at clouds and waves and babes.
Paradise is a do-over.