Welcome to Florida (Initial Impressions of the Sunshine State)

1. A Slice of Heaven

Christmas on Park AvenueJudy got a job interview at Rollins College in 1991for an assistant professorship. I flew down with her to help take care of Alan. He was five months old, hadn’t been weaned yet and stubbornly refused to take bottles from me or anyone else. When we landed in Orlando Judy took Alan to the ladies’ restroom to change him while I guarded our bags. I looked around idly and saw a portly, middle aged man with a thick head of graying hair talking on a pay phone. He had a rich, rolling tone that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn without all the hesitations, and I realized that I was staring at Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority televangelist. When he glanced in my direction and noticed the stunned look on my face he swelled with pride and boomed a little more loudly into the phone. Our ride, a professor from Rollins, pulled up to the curb after Judy and Alan returned, and I said when we got into the car, “You’ll never believe who I just saw.” When I told the professor about encountering Falwell her face pinched tight in disapproval and she said, “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?” I responded, “It was like seeing the devil,” and Dr. Coleman relaxed. I lived in fear of saying something that would mess up Judy’s chances, and I knew that I had passed my first test. I resolved to keep my mouth shut after that.

We drove through the south end of town and I noticed that the sun baked ranch houses were mostly made of cinder block. Some of them needed paint jobs, and there were occasional trash strewn yards with high grass and weeds. Cluttered strip malls crowded against both sides of Semoran Blvd. with gaudy signs for nail boutiques and pawn shops clamoring for attention. We drove further north into Winter Park and the houses became larger with better groomed lots. Large oak trees shaded the road, and the yards of the two story mini-mansions near the college sloped gently down to Lake Virginia. Some homes had boat docks at water’s edge.

They put us up at the Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast, and as I hauled our bags into the lobby several professors arrived and greeted Judy. They planned to take her out for supper, but seemed confused by the presence of Alan and me even though Judy had forewarned them that we would be coming along. A professor in her thirties who spoke rapidly and non stop made it clear that Alan and I were not invited to come along. When I asked where I could find a restaurant nearby Professor Kleeman volunteered to take me to a place he recommended on Park Ave.

I pushed Alan in a stroller after stripping him down to a thin t-shirt and shorts. The temperature in Pennsylvania that morning had been in the thirties, and the cold rain kept flirting with the possibility of becoming snow and sleet. It was March, but central Florida was sunny and warm with temperatures in the mid eighties. Alan slept on my shoulder at first when we walked into the restaurant and sat down. The tables were crowded tightly together, and I had trouble handling the folded up stroller and diaper bag I hauled along with one arm.  But I managed to avoid whacking diners on the head as I struggled to a booth. Dr. Kleeman and I ordered, and when our food arrived Alan woke up. He blearily turned around and faced Kleeman across the table from us, and he began to cry. The professor had long hair in a pony tail and a beard trimmed into a Van Dyke point, and he terrified my baby. I got up and walked Alan up and down the aisle until he calmed down. I hoped that he would get accustomed to the foreign surroundings and be fine when we sat down again, but when he turned off my shoulder and gazed upon Kleeman his face squinched into a tight bunch of distressed muscles and he wailed. I didn’t know what to do, and I was worried about the professor’s reaction. But Kleeman was quietly amused by Alan and suggested that I take my meal back to the Fortnightly and eat it there.

Judy came back around 10 and Alan was already asleep. Our room was actually two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting room with a sofa and a decanter of brandy on a small, round, antique table covered with a lace doily. The staff had put a play pen in the sitting room, and when I sneaked in for a night cap I tip toed around Alan as he snoozed peacefully. Judy was exhausted but managed to relax a bit before we went to bed.

We met a business man on holiday and a woman in town for a conference at breakfast. She was especially helpful when Alan lunged forward and upset a glass of orange juice onto his mother’s lap. Judy was gone the rest of the day except for short breaks around lunch time and mid afternoon. She had to nurse Alan at regular intervals, and she used her breaks to center her thoughts and let go some of her tension. That day she was interviewed by more faculty members and gave a lecture to a class. I took Alan on walks in the surrounding blocks and was impressed by the manicured shops and homes around Park Ave. Men and women wearing business suits, and small groups of ladies at their leisure strolled up and down and sat at tables outside of restaurants and bistros. Flowers hung from baskets from the sides of the buildings, and the exterior of every establishment looked shiny clean and freshly painted. I naively assumed that all of Winter Park was wealthy. I pushed Alan past Central Park and crossed railroad tracks into West Winter Park. The houses became simple wooden cottages on small lots marked off by chain link fences, and I realized that I had wandered into a very poor neighborhood just two blocks away from stores selling expensive jewelry, French wines and fancy chocolates. The disparity seemed odd.

Judy and I had a few moments together in the late afternoon before she was whisked away again. While she was gone that evening I read the Orlando Sentinel while Alan napped, and late that night I opened the window of our room and watched the traffic flow by on Fairbanks. I could smell jasmine on the balmy air, and I thought that Winter Park was a slice of heaven.

Professor Small drove us to the airport the next day, and he was cautiously encouraging about Judy’s chances. Her lecture had gone over well and the faculty she met had felt comfortable with her. Our hopes ran high.

We boarded a plane at Orlando International Airport and waited for take off. The pilot mumbled something unintelligible over the intercom, and the air flow was shut off in the cabin. We continued to wait at on the baking tarmac and the interior began to get hot. Alan gradually got cranky. He twisted and leaned in Judy’s arms, and decided to cry. Two stewardesses descended on us, and one of them picked up Alan and began to walk him around the cabin. He was surprised by being held by an unfamiliar woman and quieted down. When he started to crank up again she scurried up the aisle and took him into the pilots’ cabin. We could hear her cooing to him, “Look at all the pretty lights!” as she showed him a control panel with dials, buttons and glowing lights.

The pressurized air system was repaired after we sat for twenty minutes, and the stewardess handed Alan back to Judy before we took off. Judy nursed him and he fell asleep for the two hour flight to Pittsburgh. We had to catch a connecting flight for Allentown, and discovered that the Pittsburgh airport was something of a maze. It was apparent as we dashed from building to building taking multiple turns off of branching corridors that the airport had been built piece by piece with no architect in charge of making the over all plan coherent and navigable. We reached the gate just before the end of the boarding call. Judy had carried Alan, and I had hauled the stroller, diaper bag and a carry on bag, and we were both out of breath as we trotted up the jet way and boarded the plane.

Judy’s parents picked us up in Allentown and drove us back to their home outside of Kutztown. The temperature was in the low thirties and there were traces of dirty snow in the yards of houses along the way. The subtropical flora and midsummer heat of Central Florida felt like a dream, a mirage that we had been allowed to have a glimpse of for a short while. And while we wanted to go back there and start a life with all sorts of new possibilities, we had no idea if that was going to happen. We retreated to State College the next day and waited for the phone to ring.

2.  Lowered Expectations

Judy got the job, but the dean of faculty low balled the salary offer. We had been living on soft grant money for the last five years at Penn State, and Judy and I decided that we had to take the opportunity. We assumed that the money would get better once she had been there for a while and had earned tenure.

We were set to move in mid August, but Judy got anxious for arrangements to be made and sent me down to Orlando in July to find a rental house. My car started to break down on the outskirts of Sanford, a mid sized town twenty miles north of Orlando. The car limped into the parking lot of a 7/11, and I went inside. I got permission to leave my car there over night until a service station across the intersection opened the next morning. A cop at the counter warned me to take my valuables out of the car. Sanford looked sleepy, run down and rural like farm towns in Ohio, but displayed a more sinister character after dark.

I had seen hotels along Lake Monroe three blocks away, and I huffed and puffed with two heavy suitcases in ninety degree heat to the nearest one. That night I studied the Orlando Sentinel for houses to rent, and tried to call a woman on staff at Rollins whose number I had been given in case of an emergency. I got her mother instead. She was babysitting at her daughter’s house, was very suspicious when I explained my situation, and offered hostility instead of help. She thought that I was trying to scam her. I slept fitfully that night not knowing how bad the car was and whether or not I would be stranded without transportation in an unfriendly town 1,200 miles from home.

I went down to the 7/11 early the next morning and managed to drive the car a few hundred feet to the garage. When I walked back to the hotel I saw a man standing on a dock in a marina off of Lake Monroe. He was looking down and talking to something in the water. There was a strange note of affection in his voice, one that might be used when talking to a persistent but familiar enemy who had become something of a friend. When I drew along side him I saw that he was speaking to a twelve foot alligator cruising semi-submerged between the small pleasure craft and fishing boats. The reptile stared at the man with shrewd eyes as if summing up the pros and cons of coming closer to shore for a quick lunge.

I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat in my room and smoked. I didn’t usually indulge, but the strangeness of my situation made me feel justified in doing a little damage to my lungs. I pored over a map of Orlando and the newspaper until the garage called and told me that a blocked fuel filter had been the problem. They replaced it and my car was fixed.

I drove from Sanford down through Longwood and Casselberry and was struck by the hodgepodge zoning plans of the cities along State Route 17/92. I passed car lots sitting next to residential neighborhoods next to decrepit motels next to a church next to a day care center next to a strip joint. I arrived at Rollins, dropped off a few things in Judy’s new office and asked for advice about Orlando neighborhoods from the lab technician in the biology department. Winter Park was too expensive for us when I factored in our monthly pay from Rollins. The rock bottom salary the college had offered would push us further south. She hinted that parts of Orange Blossom Trail could be a very scary, and seemed reluctant to comment when I mentioned that I had seen ads for very cheap houses in Pine Hills.

I began to drive around Orlando and noticed that the traffic was very busy and intense. Drivers were aggressive and took a lot of risks by changing lanes without signaling, running red lights, tailgating, cutting off other drivers and switching lanes in intersections. I felt like I was driving inside a hyperactive video game.

I decided to check out Pine Hills for myself. It didn’t look too bad until I saw a one legged man wearing nothing but torn, cut off shorts hopping in his front yard on his remaining leg while brandishing a crutch at someone who had apparently fled before I passed by. A car was up on blocks in the man’s driveway, and newspaper bundles were stacked in his carport. I saw similar yards with rundown houses in the adjacent blocks, and I understood why the rental prices were so low. I eventually came upon a fairly suitable house in Azalea Park on the east side of town. Some of the houses in the area looked poorly kept, but the streets around that location looked decent enough. The price was right, the ride to campus could be driven in twenty minutes, and there was a large park about ten minutes from the house. It met all the criteria that Judy had set for me.

That night I stayed in Professor Kleeman’s house. He and his family were out of town for the summer and they offered its use to me. Although the kitchen was clean I saw ants and cockroaches as long as my thumb cavorting around the sink and counters when I went to get a glass of water late at night.

I started out late the next day for Pennsylvania and had to stop in South Carolina for the night. When I walked into the motel office a woman was having a rant with the night clerk. She wasn’t mad at him, however. She told him a story about an evil woman in her church who had done her wrong. The clerk nodded along and offered comforting words whenever she paused for breath. The woman concluded by saying, “I’m a Christian woman and I know that I’m supposed to forgive and forget and that our Lord says that ‘vengeance is mine’ but I do hope that I live to see the day when Doris gets her righteous punishment for her sins against me.” The clerk said, “I’m sure you will. The Lord takes care of His little lambs.” The woman smiled at him and left. I escaped as quickly as I could from the office with a key to a ratty motel room featuring worn carpets, chipped furniture and a wall unit air conditioner that rumbled and complained as it struggled to remain in operation. The booming sound of the clerk’s voice echoed in my ears for several minutes after I closed the door and lay down on my bed.

I got back home to State College late the next day and collapsed. I waited until the next morning to tell Judy that Orlando was a big, noisy, difficult place, and that the idyllic conditions at the comfortable and genteel Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast were the exception to the rule. The City Beautiful, home to Disney, palm trees, orchids and gators, was going to be a challenging place to live.

3. A Hostile Landscape

Judy and I took the kids out to a buffet restaurant a month after we moved into our rental house on Sage Drive in Azalea Park. Alan had enjoyed putting his chocolate pudding in his mouth, hair and nose. By the time we had wiped him, the high chair and the table down it was a bit later than we expected. When we walked out of the restaurant the sky had turned an ominous, bluish black, and a violent bolt of lightning streaked down to earth in a pink, crooked flash accompanied almost simultaneously by an alarming BOOM. We piled the kids into the car, strapped them into their car seats and sped home. The sky opened up just before we got the kids inside, and we were all soaked. After we toweled them off and they settled down, I sneaked away and sat on the steps of our Florida porch and watched the dark clouds roll by. A cool wind blew through the viburnum hedge along the driveway and the crape myrtles in the yard.

That night I took the garbage out to the curb after dark. When I reached the bottom of the driveway my face ran into something sticky and elastic, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something the size of the palm of my hand suspended in mid air. I yelped and hopped backward, and then stepped forward for a closer look. The suspended object was a banana spider, and it was sitting in a web that it had strung from foliage on either side of my driveway, a span of at least fifteen feet. That was a bit terrifying to contemplate, but the thing that bothered me more was trying to imagine what a spider that big in a web that huge hoped to catch and eat.

A few days later I bought a kit and assembled a small lawn mower. Our yard was a half acre of muddy looking sand and struggling patches of St. Augustine grass. Sand spurs grew in great abundance, however, and I discovered their presence when I tried to walk barefoot across the lawn to reach a hose. The round stickers lodged into the soles of my feet and sent me hopping back to the carport. My toes felt like they were on fire.

I got the mower started and began to cut grass and throw up spurts of black sand into the air. I soon was choking and wheezing and decided to take a break. I happened to look down at a ragged tuft of grass and saw something odd poking out of the ground. I bent down. A dull gray creature the size of an overgrown grasshopper stared back at me. Its head looked like the monster’s head in the movie, “Alien”. I took a step toward it and it reluctantly retreated into the hole it had dug into the ground. I later found out that the insect was a mole cricket and that he and all his friends and acquaintances were eating the grass in the lawn from the roots up.

An older couple next to us and a widower across the street were friendly. They gave us advice about gardening in Florida and shopping and navigating in Orlando. But the rest of our neighbors seemed suspicious of strangers and reluctant to show any interest in newcomers. When we took the kids to the park several blocks away we encountered a little boy. He came up to Annie and Alan with a smile on his face and began to play nicely with them. An old woman with a lined and tanned face wearing a shawl sprang up out of nowhere. I gave her a friendly look, but she scowled at me as she snatched the boy by the arm and dragged him away from us. Her eyes were hostile when they met mine, and I could see that she thought that I had evil intentions concerning her grandson. We were used to meeting young parents with children in parks in State College, and Judy and I were surprised that we were considered a threat for being friendly to a child.

Daily encounters with workmen and service people could become unexpectedly hostile. One postman said rude things to me if he saw me working on a landscape painting in the front yard. Another seemed affronted when he saw me playing with my kids in the carport. He questioned my intelligence when he found out that I stayed home with the kids while Judy went to work. He thought that I was foolish for having stuck around for the hard work of raising children when any man with half a brain knew that women were just for pleasure. The garbage men hated their work, and one took intense pleasure in ramming our can against the edge of the truck until he broke off the handles. The bags had stuck inside, and I guess he felt justified in doing some damage to get them out. The customers and store keepers in the strip mall nearest to our house spoke to me first in Spanish, and when I didn’t answer in kind they looked at me with guarded expressions. My tanned skin had fooled them at first, but they had figured out my ‘deception’.

We saved and borrowed money and moved out of Azalea Park at the end of one year. We bought a house in a working class neighborhood in Seminole County on the outskirts of Winter Park. The neighbors on either side of us were a lot friendlier, and we soon made friends with a family down the block who had kids about the same age as ours. We felt a lot more relaxed, and the postman wasn’t interested in making rude and personal comments. He just delivered the mail. Our garbage cans were not further molested.

A heroin epidemic swept through our old neighborhood a year after we left, and the park where we met the little boy and his grandmother was no longer safe for children. Used needles littered the ground around the swings and the picnic shelters. Judy and I felt that we had escaped just in time.

Palm at Chilean Dr

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