Florida Man Explains His State's Weirdness

The Sunshine State has a frontier mentality and way too many people, says Craig Pittman.

Did you know that Florida’s first state flag bore the legend "Let Us Alone"? Or that the Sunshine State has more sinkholes and concealed weapons than any other in the U.S.? Heard about the woman who tried to resist arrest by throwing her baby at a police officer? Or the Gainesville man who attacked his girlfriend with a three-foot alligator?

These are just some of the bizarre stories Craig Pittman tells in Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. But this book is not just an almanac of wacky facts. When National Geographic caught up with the Florida native and Tampa Bay Times reporter at his home in St. Petersburg, Pittman explained that Florida is a kind of petri dish for many of America’s hot-button issues, from gun laws to political corruption.

The book opens with this quote from Lawrence P. Lessing: “Florida is a study in abnormal psychology, useful in signaling the … hidden derangements of the national mood.” Unpack that idea for us.

That guy was writing in 1948, which shows how long we’ve been strange and crazy and weird. [Laughs.] As far back as the 1920s, the Florida land boom was a signal of the boundless, and totally baseless, optimism of the American public—that everyone was bound to make lots of money and good times would continue on without end. Then came the Florida bust in 1926. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith said that though Florida didn’t necessarily cause the Great Depression, it certainly signaled the mind-set that led to Black Friday and the Depression in 1929.

We’ve been like that ever since. We’re the petri dish for a lot of things that end up spreading across the country. Our concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws were both adopted by dozens of other states after us. It seems like every major issue in the country winds up starting in Florida, or reaches its ultimate expression here—like the recent shooting at Pulse Nightclub where you had issues involving gun control, gay rights, terrorism, and Hispanic identity all crisscrossing, in one spot, right here in Florida, in the land of fantasy.

You write, “The smell of cocoa butter is my madeleine.” Talk about your own Floridian childhood and how the state has changed.

I grew up in the Florida Panhandle, playing on the beach, and one whiff of cocoa butter takes me right back to childhood. [Laughs.] I used to go hunting and fishing in the state’s forests with my dad. But a lot of the places we used to go are now suburbs. My dad finally got rid of his hunting dogs, saying "There’s really no place to go hunting anymore. You have to drive to Mississippi to go hunting."

That’s one of the things you notice if you’re a longtime Floridian: Things change very rapidly. Another Florida native I was chatting with compared it to being the kid in that movie The Sixth Sense, because you’re constantly seeing things that aren’t there anymore. That’s part of why people in Florida tend to live for today and not necessarily think about the consequences. Everything changes and you have to grab for the gusto!

Later, you became a crime reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Give us some juicy items from the police blotter.

The police are constantly coming across things that they couldn’t possibly have covered in their training, like the weekend in 2013 when police officers in Tallahassee confronted a runaway llama and wound up subduing it with their Tasers. [Laughs.] Or the day an officer pulled a guy over because he was weaving around, and the guy explained he had a squirrel in his shirt that was biting him. The officer reported, “I had the suspect secure the squirrel and step out of the vehicle.” [Laughs.] My favorite was a report about a woman who had gotten upset at her live-in boyfriend and hit him over the head with a New Orleans Saints commemorative lawn gnome. [Laughs.] You constantly see things like that as a journalist in Florida. Right now, some of my colleagues are chasing a story about a man who assaulted a flamingo at the Busch Gardens theme park. [Laughs.]

How do geography and weather affect Floridians’ temperament and outlook?

When people ask me why Florida is so crazy, the number one thing I point out is that in 1940 we were the least populous Southern state. Now, we’re the third most populous state in the country, with 20 million people, plus 100 million visitors per year, all crammed into this 35-to-40-mile-wide strip along the coast and Interstate 4.

We are a place that a lot of people come to, to try and start over. We’re the land of 1,000 chances. Put that many people together from that many different places, speaking that many different languages, and they’re bound to start ramming their cars into each other or chasing each other with machetes over whose dog pooped on whose lawn. [Laughs.] Our tropical climate is another reason why we produce so many weird stories. We’re not cooped up inside, weathering out a blizzard. We’re out 365 days a year, doing crazy stuff, like getting bitten by sharks or having samurai sword battles.

One of your chapters is called “The Gunshine State.” Why are Floridians so gun mad?

We have more concealed weapons permits than any other state: nearly 1.4 million. But we don’t know how many guns are actually here because if you don’t get a concealed weapons permit, you don’t need a license to have one! We have more places selling guns than we have post offices that people ram their cars into [see below]. And they have been doing a wonderful business during Obama’s presidency. People keep getting these messages that Obama is going to take away their guns, so they dutifully go and buy more guns! And every time we have a mass shooting, like at Pulse Nightclub, gun sales go up again. [Laughs grimly.]

I call it a combination of peer pressure and fear—or fear pressure. If you know a lot of other people have concealed weapons, then you will want one, too. You don’t want to be the one in an argument about trimming the hedge who is only armed with the hedge clippers. But the problem with all these concealed weapons is that a lot of times people forget they have them. We lead the country in accidental shootings. In one incident, in a hotel in Clearwater, this guy knocked the gun out of his pocket and it hit the floor and five people were wounded. [Laughs.]

Ironically, people talk about Florida having this frontier mentality because we were a frontier state much later than many of the other states. They didn’t fence off the open range here until 1949. But in truly frontier times, when Florida was still a territory, they frowned on the use of concealed weapons. Anyone carrying a concealed weapon was not able to claim manslaughter because, they said, if you had a weapon and had concealed it, it showed you had a bad intent. We don’t follow that frontier mentality quite as much these days. [Laughs.]

Crime writer Carl Hiaasen once called Florida “a sunny place for shady people.” He’s right, isn’t he?

My goodness! We lead the country in Medicare and identity fraud and we are a hotbed of people using Fix-a-Flat ingredients to increase the size of their butts. [Laughs.] Even back in pre-state days, we were known as a rogue’s paradise and that hasn’t changed at all. Charles Ponzi, the guy who invented the Ponzi scheme in Boston, fled to Florida and got involved in a real estate fraud. You can’t trust anything you see or hear in Florida. The Wall Street Journal found that more brokers with flags on their licenses are located in Florida than anywhere else. We have an awful lot of elderly retirees here, who have money to invest, so people find ways to pick those suckers clean. One of my favorite con jobs was when a gang managed to convince a large number of elderly folks in Florida that they needed special, government-approved toilet paper. [Laughs.] They managed to get more than $1 million from their victims for that!

Every state also has sleazy politicians, but Florida’s pols take the cake. According to historians, from 1920 to 1940 there wasn’t a single election in Tampa that wasn’t rigged by gambling interests. In 2014, the mayors of three different Dade County cities were busted for taking kickbacks. In my hometown, four of the five county commissioners have been charged with various high crimes and misdemeanors, ranging from consorting with prostitutes to taking money that was intended for charity and using it to buy football tickets. It doesn’t matter which party is in power, either. In the '70s, when the Democrats were in charge, a whole bunch of politicians were charged with various crimes. Now we’ve got Republicans, but the same thing is happening.

I think it has a lot to do with our history. In the 1920s, because of Prohibition, a lot of people started turning to Florida as a source for alcohol, because we had so many places along the coastline where you could land illicit liquor. So a lot of people started buying up property to be where all the liquor was. That touched off a land boom, which became known as "Florida Fever." Everybody was convinced they were going to get rich by constantly trading their property holdings back and forth. This is the era when, as historian Gary Mormino points out, Florida became Florida.

Florida is often referred to as “God’s waiting room” because of the number of retirees in the state. Take us inside The Villages and describe Sudden Elderly Acceleration Syndrome.

The Villages is a fascinating place. It’s larger than Manhattan and the largest retirement village in the country. A lot of retired professors, engineers, or government officials live there, and they all drive around on golf carts. Some of them have souped up their golf carts, at the cost of thousands of dollars, and they hold the Guinness Book of World Records record for the longest golf cart parade. They are also known for having the largest per capita consumption of beer in the U.S. [Laughs.] They are less proud of the fact that they are also known for a lot of black market Viagra sales and sexual liaisons. One police officer talks about seeing two elderly gentlemen doing battle with their canes over a woman sitting in a golf cart, waiting to see who would win. [Laughs.]

There’s also something I call Sudden Elderly Acceleration Syndrome. So many people crashed their cars into post offices in Florida—mostly elderly drivers who got the brake and the gas confused—that the postal service ran public service ads on TV saying, “Please stop hitting our post offices!” [Laughs.]

Florida emerges from your book as a pretty tawdry place, full of hucksters, corrupt politicians, and gun-toting maniacs. Why do you still love it?

Two reasons. One, it’s a very beautiful place, with cotton candy sunsets that you just can’t believe. But, frankly, I love it so much because it’s so unpredictable. I think the state motto ought to be "Expect the Unexpected." If you want to live someplace where the news is the same day after day after day, go to Wyoming or Nebraska. But if you want to live in a place where you open up the paper every day and go, “Holy cow! Look what happened! A guy assaulted a flamingo!” then Florida is the place for you, because you’ll never be bored in Florida. Never, ever! [Laughs.]

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

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