I confess. I had a preconceived idea about Florida, as the bland refuge where all retirees move from up North, and I imagined it essentially as a sunny place with palm trees and a lot of old people driving Cadillacs at forty miles per hour. What can I say? Jerry’s parents in Seinfeld made a lasting impression on me.
The truth is I should have known better. In my life I had been to Florida many times, to Orlando with our children to visit Disney World, to Cocoa Beach for a day trip, to Amelia Island to celebrate one freezing New Year, to Fort Lauderdale at the end of a Caribbean cruise, to Boca Raton to meet an old friend, and a few more times on business. Yet the preconceived idea persisted.
This February, at the insistence of good friends who recently retired to Fort Myers, my wife and I decided to pay them a visit. They live on a canal near the Caloosahatchee River, with a 36-foot yacht docked in front of their blue swimming pool, in a modern and nicely furnished house. Seeing them was great, and I appreciated their wine selections and our discussions long into the night about world affairs, on which we see eye to eye. Together, we went on a boat trip to the Everglades, visited the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, walked through downtown Fort Myers, and had drinks at a street side café under the setting sun.
After four days, four nights, and a promise to come back, we boarded the hydrofoil to Key West (the Key West Express). While I imagined the trip to be more glamorous (in my mind — false again — equating the vessel more to a flying catamaran than to a crowded, fast and efficient bus riding on air over water), we arrived to our destination on time and without a problem. During the journey we sat at a table across from an elderly couple going to Key West to celebrate their sixty-third wedding anniversary. That was certainly a milestone, but they were serene and calm about it, and while the lady said something about looking forward to people watching in Key West, the gentleman surprised me by bringing up the recent Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. “The politicians have it all screwed up,” he announced in a high baritone. “Tighter background checks, raising the age of the buyers, and arming the teachers. This is tinkering at the edges, and it will have no effect. Guns kill, and the only way to solve the problem is to get rid of them. All of them. Forever.” Wow, this was music to my ears and surprising at the same time, but we were in Florida and this tragedy was on people’s minds. While I looked around to see if others have overheard him, my new hero straightened himself up in his seat, self-assured and unconcerned as only somebody after sixty-three years of marriage could be.
We had a good time in Key West — great restaurants, a coral beach with warm, emerald water, the Hemingway House, the Truman Winter White House, the Mel Fisher Museum, the Butterfly exhibit, a sunset in Mallory Square, and, of course, walking and people watching. On the morning of the fourth day, we rented a car and drove north on Route 1 through the other Keys all the way to South Beach, Miami. On the way, we stopped at the Bahia Honda State Park to visit the supposedly most beautiful beach in the United States, but both the beach and the road to it were still being repaired after the most recent hurricane.
In South Beach we stayed at an ocean front boutique hotel. A perfect swimming pool and a wooden boardwalk separated us from the sand. They served a beautiful breakfast on the terrace shaded by umbrellas and palm trees, and offered a hydrotherapy pool and fitness room on the roof. We swam, visited friends, and dined at the famed Jose Andres restaurant. On the second day, the weather was so perfect that after a light lunch of arugula salad and a Pina Colada on the beach, I stretched my body glistening with sunscreen on the comfortable lounge chair and closed my eyes. It was impossible not to call to mind that back home the temperatures hovered around freezing, a light rain was falling, and the winds reached hurricane strength. Heck, half of Columbia, Maryland lost power that day for a few hours or a few days!
Slowly, out of the lethargy of the moment on my comfortable chair, materialized the nice face of the gentleman I had met on the Key West Express. Strangely though, he featured a graying ponytail, and a nose ring I hadn’t noticed before. “So what do you think about arming teachers? Good idea, ha?” he said in my face. “Let’s convert our schools into fortresses. That’s the best way for our kids to grow up.” While I searched my relaxed mind for an adequate answer, his wife, who just happened to sit on a lounge chair nearby, added with gusto: “The only thing I don’t get is why the poor school employees should be subjected to special training in order to carry guns, while the population at large doesn’t?” “Well, dear, who says it has to be logical?” her husband of sixty-three years retorted. He had a point, I thought, but before I offered my support, a man lying directly on the white sand jumped in. “If it were me, I’d arm the sales people in all shopping malls.” The man was tanned, had sculpted pectorals, and prominent abs. Clearly, he was working out with weights. “They’re a massacre waiting to happen,” he added. “No security guards at the doors.” As he said this, he casually leaned on his elbow and brought his other arm behind his head, as the Naked Maja by Francesco Goya came to my mind. “It’s true. A few years ago there was a shootout at the Columbia Mall. Who would have thought it possible?” I exclaimed. “Don’t forget the ticket checkers at all the movie houses in the US, and the theaters, the concert halls, and the sports arenas. Remember Aurora!” the wife from the Key West Express said. “Or the madams in the adult entertainment business,” chipped in a woman who was walking near us, her top cut so deep to her nipples that Stormy Daniels would have had a fit. “Remember Las Vegas,” she said. “And the priests, because it happens in our churches. And the rabbis, and the muezzins,” uttered the muscular man. “I knew a doctor once who was threatened by his patient,” the happily married man remembered. “I think surgeons should walk into the operating rooms fully armed.” “And the business owners and the construction workers,” somebody said. “Yes, yes, and the truck drivers, the Uber drivers, the taxi drivers, the train operators, the pilots, the flight attendants, and the fire fighters,” I surprised myself yelling as if out of control.
My wife touched my shoulder. “You’re shaking. Maybe you should get in the shade.”
Florida, oh, Florida — such a beautiful place and such preconceptions, you see!
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