Florida’s a strange, strange place. It’s like America’s lost appendage, nearly severed but still hanging on by just a shred of skin, our southern-most point lost at sea, its tenuous connection to the mainland leaving it off in its own little world. Staring out of the train window for several hours at a time, the site of lush, brilliant-green tropical swamps punctuated by busted-looking trailer parks with the occasional Confederate flag flying high was a bit of a trip for this big-city liberal. But as with any place, there was more to it than a casual glimpse has to offer.
My first Sunshine State date was in Jacksonville. I’ve heard that it’s America’s largest city, and I don’t doubt it. A bus ride from the train station to the beach took about an hour and a half without ever leaving the city limits. My initial reaction to this place was, “Get me the hell out of here!” Miles and miles and miles of the most lifeless sprawl I’ve ever seen in my life poked a hole in my soul and slowly squeezed out my will to live. Modest residential neighborhoods gave way to a seemingly endless stretch of the kind of wretched cookie-cutter strip malls that provoked me into juvenile delinquency 15+ years ago. I felt truly sorry for anyone who had to endure living in a city with nothing to offer beyond factory outlet stores and fast food. At least where I grew up, I could sneak out of the house, hop on the subway and find something remotely interesting to do.
My lopsided, visceral contempt for this place was soothed once I arrived at the beach. Pure-white sand, calmly crashing waves, perfect temperature. Sweet. By the time my next bus dropped me off downtown, I realized it wasn’t so bad after all. The city felt like it was suspended in mid-air, as so much of it is built on or surrounded by bridges. A huge bookstore took up hours of my time. I’d camp out there indefinitely and read everything they’ve got if they’d let me. Jax also rocks in the vegan eats department, since it took little effort to find a mean jerk tofu sandwich and respectable mock-meat tacos.
But my impression of the place began to sink again after arriving at the venue where I was playing that night. I had found it online describing itself as an all-ages DIY-style space with a sick sound system, vegan-friendly menu and ties to the national underground music scene. To quote Otto, the bus driver from The Simpsons, “Man, that is flagrant false advertising!” It turned out to be nothing but a standard-issue bar with a standard-issue PA, no food at all, and a sound guy who spent 10 minutes figuring out how to mic an acoustic guitar without making it feed back. Maximum lameness.
I announced from the stage that I needed a place to crash and some locals were nice enough to take me in. They took me to a karaoke joint on the way home and that hole in my soul was viciously reopened, what little lust for life I had left oozing out onto the floor in a painstakingly slow but steady downpour. Observing the throng of people my age in their slick “young professional” getups drinking overpriced cocktails, singing the most insipid pop songs on offer while I’m slumped in a booth looking like a green-haired hobo, it dawned on me that had I done what I was told, had I not squandered every opportunity for “success” that my middle-class background had to offer me, I could be right there with them. Regrets? Hell no. That being said, everyone was nice as could be and without them I wouldn’t have had a sweet couch to crash on that night.
And that was just my first day in Florida.