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?