Life concentrate, Florida 1988

This blog is part of my continuing “Big Dumb and Broad” series. Some names and dates have been changed.

In 1988 I worked for four months in Florida and was lucky enough to meet and mingle with many locals and other characters. I learned a lot in this period, some of it from the people I came across, and the rest from whomever shuffles and deals out the cards of life. “Long distance relationships don’t work” and “always take ID” (no matter how old you look) were unfortunately not the harshest lessons I saw handed out.

floridaHappier times at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Spending a few seasons in the US over the years I came to understand the place and why the people are the way they are – or at least how we perceive them – friendly, fast talking and geographically introverted.

America oozes what I call “life concentrate”. Stuff happens constantly – both good and bad – which just make this place feel like somehow life has been condensed and squeezed into a small pocket of time and left unguarded. I’ve lived for many years in Australia and also the UK, but haven’t had the same range of experiences that just seem to continually seep through at all levels of society in America. As I said in my introduction to this series last week, I saw life, death and everything in between.

In Australia I’d be horrified if I saw a SWAT team carry out a drug-bust at the local bus stop, or neighbourhoods of six foot weeds, burned out houses and bullet-hole ridden cars. But not here.

Case in point. These days they call it the Jacksonville “Improvement District”, but in 1988 they just called it “don’t go there”. Here I was, two days into my first US visit and I was there. Not that I had a choice. My employer, the 84 year old Ms Belvedere had just picked me up from the airport, and was short-cutting through a rough neighbourhood just north of downtown.

“Er, where are we?” I asked, eyeing the drab rows of faded weatherboards, peeling paint and weeds rising from the cracks in the footpaths, hoping my place of employment was not nearby.

“Now, you won’t ever need to come down here.” she replied in her slow, southern drawl.

Up ahead I saw the first signs of life in several minutes, what appeared to be an Afro-American man sweeping the footpath. “Taking pride in his street” I thought. A woman appeared alongside him and from a distance, it looked like she was trying to forcibly take that broom from his grip, but lurching, like she was either drunk or quite ill.

The lights turned red, and as Ms Belevedere’s Lincoln Continental eased up to the corner I saw the little scene for what it really was. The man was indeed holding a broomstick, but I would wager that sweeping was the furthest thing from his mind at that point, given that his female companion was wielding a huge kitchen knife, and alternating between dodging the stick, and lunging at him, knife first.

In a flash all four doors locked and Ms Belvedere slammed her foot on the gas, red light be damned.

“All mah life, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that” she gasped as we left the angry couple to sort out their grievances. At that moment I believed her, but over time I came to understand that this was America. You don’t take it personally, but stuff just happens everyday, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to be driving past it instead of walking.

Welcome to the U.S.A. Life concentrate.

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