I am looking for a story. Where do you go after writing 280 posts in two years?
At the start of the new year I set out in search of the real Florida but quickly discovered it was a search for the heart of America. There is no real Florida, just as there are no real Americans, despite what others may tell you. We are all real Americans and I have been on this journey all my life.
My Dad was a U.S. history teacher and we spent a couple of weeks every summer traveling America. He was a brave man. loading my Mom and the four kids into a car with no seat belts or air conditioning. We drove as far away as Michigan and Florida. We visited Presidents’ homes: Monticello, Mount Vernon, Hyde Park. Battlefields: Appomattox, Gettysburg, Valley Forge. Monuments in Washington, D.C. Places like Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Williamsburg, and Plymouth Plantation. I was steeped in American History and raised on American highways and byways. The passing scenery is the home movie that runs through my mind’s eye.
Here’s an American story. This past weekend Rich and I had dinner with some new friends. Our hostess was Italian, her husband Canadian. They met outside of Milan where she grew up, fell in love, got married and moved to London before settling in the suburbs of Philadelphia. While living on the Main Line, their two adorable daughters were born in America. But our friends didn’t like the winters and found the social structure unfriendly. The Who’s Who of America. Where did you go to school? Who are your parents? How do you vote? What country club do you belong to?
We also knew people on the Main Line. One was a lovely woman whose husband once worked with George Bush Senior. The walls of the family room were lined with photos of influential Republicans through the decades and it made me uncomfortable. My dented Hyundai was out in the driveway and the Gore for President bumper sticker stood out like a sore thumb but this woman was a lovely hostess. The kids where in the pool when she greased up a giant watermelon, threw it in the water, and cannonballed in after it. For a woman in her eighties she looked marvelous. It was a chilly, cloudy day in late August and she was the only adult in the pool. I will admit it was hard to talk to most of the guests. I was out of my class with this country club crowd.
This past weekend, our Canadian host told us his father grew up in Egypt, moved to Greece because of politics, then finally settled in Montreal.
“So when we left Philadelphia to move to Florida, it was comparatively easy,” he told us. “I had a job, money, this beautiful house. My father had nothing when he moved his wife, children, and mother to Canada.”
We all agreed Florida is a place of reinvention. No one checks your pedigree.
He told us of an evening in Los Angeles shortly after the school shooting in Newtown, CT; a business meeting between two Canadians, a New Zealander, and an American. They asked the American if this horrific event would change things. “Probably not,” he said. The other three didn’t understand.
“Please explain this obsession with guns,” they asked the lone American. He had no explanation.
We told them we never locked our doors in New Hampshire. When we sold the house we had no keys to bring to the closing. The day we moved our youngest daughter to Denver and arrived at her dorm, she couldn’t open the door.
“Why did you not teach me how to use a key?” she asked.
They thought this was very funny and somewhat amazing. Our hostess said, “In Italy, people do not own guns like here, but they always lock their doors. It is part of Italian culture. They are afraid of thieves.”
We told them we lock our doors in Florida.
We pondered the insanity of semi-automatic rifles in the hands of ordinary citizens. She worried about the houses where her children would visit their friends.
“I suppose I will have to ask their parents if they have guns in the house,” she said, in her lovely Italian accent. “That seems like an insane conversation to have.”
Yes it does. But it is an American conversation.
Twice a month I work for a couple who own an electrical engineering business. He is an Iranian American. Her first husband died of a brain tumor when she was a young mother with a small child. She and her second husband worked together for years before they married. She refers to him as her best friend. They are trying to make a success of their business but are still climbing out of the hard times they experienced during the recession. Many baby boomers are climbing that same hill toward an elusive retirement.
Once a week I work for a Republican builder. I call him a Republican builder because anytime someone stops by the office, he introduces me as his liberal bookkeeper. It started at my interview when I mentioned I wrote for the Huffington Post. Apparently that is a dead giveaway in certain circles, although I write human interest stories in the Over 50 Section, a label I am much less comfortable with.
Rush Limbaugh streaming on his desktop and the Drudge Report on the homepage of the computer I would be using were his red flag. I changed the homepage to Google. Over at my desk Pandora is playing my custom-made Led Zeppelin/Reggae/Mumford&Sons channel. We argue politics frequently. He thinks he can change my political leanings. I have no such illusions about him. We manage to work well together and although our conversations sometimes get feisty, our civil debates may be a unique American situation.
I no longer watch the news except for Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning. I love Charlie Rose. Of course, just acknowledging the fact that I love Charlie Rose and read the N.Y. Times every morning says something about me.
I recently wrote a blog about the Port Salerno Seafood Festival. It took me several days because each time I sat down to write the piece, the story started with the gas station, the rundown neighborhood we were driving through, the man with only seven dollars to purchase gas.
This was going to be a story about my visit to a small, picturesque harbor town. A place I expected to be the “real” Florida, but I soon realized there is no real Florida, just as there are no real Americans. The concrete jungle that is South Florida is as much America as the Idaho landscape I fell in love with two summers ago. The oceanfront mansions blocking public access to the beach are as real as the man I passed on my way to work this morning. He was wearing a long wool coat and sat on a low cement wall holding a sign that read “Work for Food”. This isn’t a search for the real Florida as much as it is a search for the heart of America.
All my stories, from the blogs to the novels to the pieces I write for the Huffington Post, are slice of life stories. America is a lot of different things but for most of us it is the promise of a dream. The dream of a better life. I don’t see that dream coming true as I travel through my days, so I feel compelled to report what I see. To share the stories I witness with my eyes wide open.
My dream is to write for a living so recently I read an article on how to write an essay for the New York Times. One piece of advice was this: Embrace your own strangeness. So that’s what this is. My strange fascination and bewilderment with the land of so-called opportunity where all men are declared equal. Apparently that blog about the Seafood Festival was always going to start at the gas station.