Today, I am unspeakably injured.
-Bill Russell at Wilt Chamberlain’s funeral, 1999
That is my mood today too, having heard that Bill Sharpe has killed himself. The police have not yet released the bodily details of his death, but we know what finally did him in. He, at last, succumbed to what my good friend and erstwhile Floridian Lindsey once called “the tough as shit fight people put into also making something good happen” here. The fact that he could not prevail despite his best efforts — and they were very good — shows me that it is not altogether a fair one.
Bill embodied that fight. His now-defunct South Tampa Community News was a reliable gem full of common sense and communal concern in a landscape full of slick, essentially commercial publications like South Tampa Magazine. Once the chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Party, his most recent endeavor was the Tampa Epoch, a monthly newspaper designed for sale by the homeless. In the face of a wave of anti-homeless ordinances intended to hide the problem of Florida’s masses of bridge dwellers, Bill responded the only way he knew how, with a newspaper and good will.
Faced with foreclosure on his Bayshore condo, Bill Sharpe chose the Epoch and Tampa’s least fortunate over personal comfort: he moved himself and his cat into the newspaper’s offices. His good works earned him little material wealth along with rebukes from the Mayor, the City Council and lots of angry Tribune readers, who objected to his initiatives to keep the homeless alive and making honest money.
He was a good person who cared about this place and his fellow man. Rest easily, Mr. Sharpe.
Below is a timely reminder at the edge of winter from Florida Commissioner of Agriculture W.A. McRae, waxing more promotional than agricultural (his son, as it happens, later served as Chief Justice of the U.S District Court for the Middle District of Florida, appointed to the bench by President Kennedy):
When the North is wrapt in snow and ice, the ground frozen rough and jagged, the howling winds sweep across the plains and pour through the crevices of the house with a shivering moan, when stock must be housed and fed to keep them from freezing and clothes of an oppressive weight must be worn to keep warm, it is pleasant to dwell where summer-weight clothes suffice and the tepid sea waves invite the pleasant ablution.
When food in the North must be bacon, dried and canned fruits and vegetables, it is pleasant to have fresh fruit from the tree. When in the North trees are bare and vegetation has left no trace behind of its presence or intention of return, it is pleasant to recline in a hammock beneath live oak, palm and pine draped as a bride on nuptial day and drink in the beauties of tropical verdure, while fanned by balmy breezes from the bosom of the Gulf Stream.
Sho’ nuff. It’s been pretty mild in a lot of northern climes this year but let’s face it — they ain’t going to the beach in Delaware yet and if they do, I dare ’em to get in the water. So change out those light sweaters and shorts for t-shirts and swim trunks, ’cause spring’s a-springin’ baby, and there’s nothing the snowbirds can do about it except go home. I can already feel the roads de-congesting and my sinuses re-congesting!
Au revoir wintertime, we hardly knew ye.
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I just now came across this news item important for those of us post-orthodontic souls who grew up in South Tampa. It seems that Gallagher, Plant High alum and serial torturer of melons and mayonnaise, has had his third heart attack moments before he was to take the stage at Hat Tricks, a comedy club in Lewisville, Texas. In 2011, he collapsed on stage in Minnesota as a result of his second heart attack. Performances scheduled for next week in Oregon and Oklahoma have been postponed indefinitely.
It’s been a rough time these past few years for ol’ Gallagher, but then so has it been for his home state too. Best known for his blend of trenchant social critique and puzzling smashing of fruits and vegetables all over the place with his giant “Sledge-o-matic” hammer, he always had a peculiarly Floridian political bent: cynical, paranoid, not quite right- or left-wing, but almost always convinced that it was all bullshit. He mostly just sounded like a dude who had braved a lot of 98 degree summers and was sick and tired of everything. I can respect that.
I’ll leave you for now with a few words from the Bard of El Prado Boulevard. From a 2005 email he sent to a fan website:
I haven’t been married since 1990. I have two ex-wives and one child by each. I had to sue one of my brothers in Federal court in 2000. My mother lives somewhere in Florida. I was arrested in 1968 for marijuana also and that is what kept me out of the draft until the end of the war. I was Kenny Rogers opening act for 100 dates in 1981 and my manager was Ken Kragen the guy who made everyone hold hands across America. My video tapes have recently been bought to be re-released by Anchor Bay over 20 years after I made them and they are still entertaining.
I think I’m the most famous person from Tampa.
Get well soon, Leo.
Don’t you dare call Bob Morris a poor man’s Dave Barry: any fool can see he’s more like an inland, hayseed Dave Barry. You see, Morris and I, unlike most Floridians, are actually from here. And the difference shows. The eight-month summers, the existential threat of hurricanes, the even more existential threat of mosquitoes and palmetto bugs, the sisyphean futility of trying your desperate best to stay one step ahead of the humid torpor which looms almost always — that stuff works its way all the way down into your sweaty bones. To say nothing of the sunsets to which the postcards do no justice and the sublime beauty of practically everywhere. It’s a lot to take in.
Morris’ fellow Florida author John Dufresne once wrote a (beautiful) book which he called Love Warps the Mind a Little; I think the same could be said of a childhood spent in God’s Waiting Room. Morris is only too well aware of the highs and lows of life in Florida, and in this 1981 collection of columns originally printed in the Fort Myers News-Press, he explicates them ably. Of growing up on a farm and packinghouse that grew ferns – Asparagus Plumosa and Baker Leatherleaf – he writes:
The people who worked for my dad were mostly black and I’d guess you’d say they were poor, only I didn’t realize it back then because we were only slightly less poor. The men would cut the fern outside in the sheds and then haul it into the packinghouse for the women to sort and grade. They’d gather around the stove, warming panfuls of food — collards and hamhocks, cornbread, fried pork chops, roasted peanuts by the sackful and sometimes a sweet potato or two — so that the air in the packinghouse was thick enough to be bagged and sold as groceries. I’d find a chair where I was warm and out of the way and listen to what the men and women gathered around the stove had to say. It was wondrous talk, a weird mix of superstitions and religion and common sense.
(18, “Keeping Out of the Cold”)
As Ernest Hemingway might have said, “That’s some Florida-ass shit.” It doesn’t ease up much when Morris goes on to recount in a brief bullet-pointed list expressions of the gatherers’ indigenous wisdom. A selection:
- “You can’t unscramble eggs.”
- “If you dug a hole during a full moon and wait until the new moon to refill it, there won’t be enough dirt to do the job.”
- “If the catfish hadn’t opened its mouth it wouldn’t be frying in the pan.”
- “Don’t trust anyone who cusses their mother.”
Is it somewhat contrived? Here, sure, but the Florida folksiness of Morris’ representations is made up of the same stuff as the real thing: the traditional cracker values of loyalty, simplicity and good humor meld naturally and easily with the Protestant ethic of hard work as the way to salvation. The perennial struggle against laziness and the deeply felt suspicion of all things pretentious and high-flown animates the cultural life of this place. In this way, he has given us Florida writing at its purest.
Contra Dave Barry, who was born and raised in New York (eww) and who lives in Miami (doesn’t count), Morris brings to his work the perspective of an old Florida boy even when he is in exile. When Mr. Barry and other purportedly Floridian sophisticates branch out into the wider world, they tend to do so with an air of apology. They speak to their friends Up North and Out West as if their home state were a blacked-out bar companion, as if to say “I know, I know, but what can you do?” In his piece “New York Clothes” Morris suffers the slings and arrows of the big city with fresh-off-the-fanboat politesse. Clad in a Florida-tastic “pair of slacks tinted soft yellow, a matching yellow shirt, a tie with tasteful designs in beige, green and red, a camel-colored sport coat and a pair of cordovan Weejuns” Morris
[L]ed my buddies in our premiere venture on a big city bus. Where we came from they didn’t need buses. Everyone had a pickup. But I figured I could handle it. No big deal. I hopped on the bus, whipped out a dollar bill and handed it to the driver.
I can still see his sneer.
‘Get outta here, ya jerk,’ he said. ‘Correct change.’
It seemed like everyone on that bus sneered with him. I was shattered. Where we came from you didn’t act that way even if you hated somebody.
Anyone who has seen an episode or two of “Cops” knows that the people where he comes from don’t always treat each other so nice, but he has a good point. Though I sometimes daydream of living in the diverse and vibrant communal City, where people of all races, classes and toothpaste brands share the same space and ride the same trains, we all know damn well that you’d get farther hitchhiking in Jacksonville than you would in Manhattan. However, Morris’ fortunes soon change when he discovers the secret of the New York Gray Suit and gets himself one post-haste:
Suddenly, I possessed the wherewithal to hail passing cabs with great authority. I bought good theater tickets with astonishing aplomb. I spoke to matre d‘s with finesse, strolled through the Waldorf with a blush and even examined a $50,000 diamond at Tiffany’s without suffering the snickers of sales clerks.
The trick here is that he doesn’t adopt the assumption of Florida bumpkinry inherent in the coolly qualified attitudes of those who take a “Yes, but” stance on their love for our state — actually, he pulls one over on the New Yorkers, remaining the same himself but looking different to others. (Nice going, Bob, beating those dastardly infidels at their own game.) After this breakthrough, “The city sparkled like 10,000 airport runways lined up one after the other,” maybe the most homespun description of the city I have ever seen. It’s as if he had never seen anything on a physically grander scale than an airport — and maybe he hadn’t!
But hey, wait: What’s a True Floridian, anyway? It certainly isn’t just the fact of being born here and being around for a while afterwards. My copy is inscribed by the author “For Jesse, who has proved that even a Minnesotan can become a True Floridian,” so that’s out. Well it’s a big weird state, so the answer is necessarily complex, but Morris offers several suggestions, again bullet-pointed, an evidently classic convention of late-mid-20th century human interest columnists. What follows is a few of my favorites. With insincere apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, ya might be a True Floridian if:
- You don’t yell “Shark!” when you see porpoises playing in the surf
- You laugh when Northerners say Florida doesn’t have a change of seasons, because you know everything is cheaper between Memorial Day and Labor Day
- You can crack open a dozen oysters without drawing blood
- You can correctly pronounce the words Kissimmee, Alachua, Matlacha, Micanopy and Ochopee (I would add Tamiami and maybe Thonotosassa)
- You never pay money for citrus
- You look[ed] forward to the completion of I-75, because it will help clear out the state quicker come summer
- You know where there’s an undeveloped beach and you plan to keep quiet about it.
and so on. Great fun, right? Yet Morris precedes it with a serious proposition. Florida’s detractors have said it’s a place “without any significant heritage” and that we are “a mish-mash of people who don’t know who they are.” Can that be true? Are we just so many faceless lost tribesmen, muddling our way through the universe without anything to anchor our identities? I say no way, it couldn’t be. How else would we know that Dave Barry isn’t a real Floridian?
James Tokley is probably the smoothest fellow in Tampa — let it wash over you.
From what I read in the Tampa Review and the revived Sunland Tribune, there’s actually a really interesting poetic history in the Bay area. I’ll do my best to uncover it.
Huzzah for now!
Interesting dude Kenneth Roberts – who was at various points a best-selling novelist, a booster for the (disatrous) Florida real estate boom of the twenties and a water dowsing huckster – wrote three books about the Good Life in Florida: Sun Hunting (1922), Florida Loafing (1925) and Florida (1926). He later disavowed them. They were generally regarded as unscrupulous acts which directly promoted his own large investments in the boom, and ultimately, uninteresting schlock. When he listed his works in chronological order later on in life these books were usually omitted, a palimpsestic metaphor for the fleetingness which defines the life and times of our great palm-bowered state.
He did, however, have a penetrating word or two to say about Florida’s most wonderful time of the year:
When an old Florida resident talks about the climate, he has in mind a temperature that will permit one to run around in the sun without feeling at all hot and at the same time to ride around hatless and coatless in an automobile without feeling at all chilly. Since this is a difficult combination to get, the Floridian – like the Californian – spends a great deal of valuable time explaining to strangers that he doesn’t know what to make of this weather; that he can’t remember when there has been any weather like this; that one might come down here every year for a thousand years without finding it as hot as this – or as cold as this, or as dry as this, or as rainy as this or as windy as this.
This is the great failing of the Florida climate. If the old residents would only stop talking about it, over ninety percent of the climate-hounds would soon wake up to the fact that a Florida winter is like a Maine August – fairly warm at times, fairly cool at times, and occasionally fairly rotten but on the whole a very excellent spell of weather.
–Florida Loafing pp. 3-4
To all the “summertime soldiers and sunshine patriots” out there: Happy winter!
Tonight’s beginning was intensely convivial: I rode along with two old friends to the Tiny Tap Tavern on Morrison & Howard and had a couple of $4(!) pitchers of beer, an actually-audible conversation with my companions and perhaps most importantly, pitchers of beer that cost four U.S. dollars.
Afterwards, feeling pretty good about the night and our chances of happy and fulfilling lives so far, we made our way as planned a few blocks north on foot to MacDinton’s Irish Pub a/k/a MacDiesel’s a/k/a MacD’s a/k/a the place my uncle knocked up that Auburn girl. It was unremarkable, except to say it was remarkably decent and that I was almost bodily involved in a Seinfeldian conflict — a fight about nothing.
After a couple of hours of thinking long and hard about who I am, realizing just why certain types of white folks are feared and reviled in some circles and why a bottle of Bud Light should cost $5, I said my goodbyes and sauntered my way back down to the Tap about an hour or so before last call. I had an actual, feeling conversation with a bartender who remembered me, met for the first time a chef from Bern’s I’m pretty sure I had met there several times before and listened/sang along/bopped to five or six Michael Jackson songs with a young lady on the eve of her 28th birthday and a couple of her charmingly wasted associates.
When 3 o’clock rolled around I thought about cabbing home but ultimately settled on walking. About a third of the way down Morrison I took my shoes off because my feet were killing me. It was 70 degrees out, give or take, and the dense canopy of oak trees couldn’t have been more arboreal. A guy and, I’m guessing, his girlfriend drunkdrove past me blasting a finally-forgotten Billy Joel song, then stopped half a block ahead of me and asked if I needed a ride. I told him I was practically already home.
As I settled into bed and that car wrapped itself around a quaint Hyde Park gaslight, I thought to myself:
Welcome to the Trampa Bay Times.