I wrote several versions of my introduction. I submitted one with my proposal, and this version with my initial submission for peer review in December 2011. And of course, I revised it again before final submission a year later, and no doubt would revise it again if allowed the time.
An editor once asked in a job interview what topic most interested me. Without hesitation I responded people and their obsessions, those bold enough who pursue an interest, be it odd or ordinary, to the extreme that it becomes innate, an extension of who they are. Individually, these people are often called eccentric. Collectively, they are known as subcultures. I call them fringe.
I didn’t get the job, perhaps because I’m fringe myself, being a passionate voyeur to lives on the edge of the mainstream. Working on this book convinced me this is in large part why I continue to live in Florida. The state is a fringe voyeur’s nirvana.
In fact, Florida has so many quirky subcultures and they morph so quickly, I had to set strict criteria in order to weed some out. Even still, this collection is far from complete. Each of the fringe lifestyles I explore has a significant distinction to its cousins in other states. They either originated in Florida, dwarf those of in other states by size or prominence (Another state may have more human ponies, but Florida is home to the two-time national champions).
On a map, Florida even looks like fringe, dangling from the United States, dividing the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and dripping into the Caribbean Sea.
It’s no secret that the state has an eclectic edge, to put it mildly. So many outrageous news stories come out of Florida that Fark.com and HuffingtonPost.com dedicate web pages to sensational tales. Chuck Shepherd operates out of Florida where he finds great fodder for his nationally syndicated News of the Weird Column. As a freelancer to national publications, I have a running joke with my husband that whenever a bizarre national story breaks there’s probably a Florida connection. More times than not, I’ll get a call from an editor in New York.
The breaking news stories are but salacious tidbits that merely hint of the Sunshine State’s unusual social tapestry, which is the focus of this book. Bikers, sideshow operators, fetishists, swingers, lion pet owners, nudists, and others provide color and fringe to their respective communities. They subtly help distinguish one town from another. Their everyday lives typically don’t make mainstream press. The events of swingers and strip clubs never make mainstream travel magazines and certainly not the state’s travel guides even though they draw thousands of tourists and generate untold millions of dollars to the Florida economy.
During the two-plus years of compiling this book, I’ve frequently been asked why Florida? Why do people seem to leave their inhibitions at the state line? Though no social scientist, I can safely say a common thread is mild year ‘round weather. After all, it’s pretty hard to be a full-time nudist when you live in, say, Michigan.
The full answer is much more complex. The diverse and transient population, tourism hucksters, and perhaps the innate predisposition of the residents all play a role.
More than two-thirds of Floridians weren’t born here. We came towing U-hauls trailers, rode flimsy wooden rafts across the powerful Gulfstream, sneaked across the Mexican border, arrived packed like lifesavers on transatlantic jumbo jets. We hail from Yankeeville, the Heartland, the Bible Belt, south of the border and equator, the Far East, Wild West and about every country you can and can’t pronounce. The most diverse array of us settled along the I-4 Corridor, which is also considered a gauge of national electoral success. It’s a microcosm of America.
Even before settling in Florida, most transplants had already been exposed to the state’s tourism hype, myself included. As a kid, seeing Florida beaches and Cypress Garden waterskiers on TV, planted the kernel that the state was one big playground. That anything was possible.
Like many, my first experience in Florida was on a childhood vacation, the longest of which my family of five had ever ventured. Loaded in a Ford tank, we wheeled down from north Alabama to Panama City Beach, what many call the Redneck Riviera, a term I still embrace like a favorite pillow.
I had never seen the ocean before, and I rode the waves on a blow-up raft until my fingers pickled. Lathered in coconut-scented Hawaiian Tropic, I got the worst sunburn of my life. I built sandcastles with new-found friends. My typically straight-laced dad’s spirits rose with every swig from a Budweiser can, which he occasionally put down to play with us kids in the Gulf. My mom actually put on a bathing suit for maybe the second time in her life.
I learned to swim that summer in the pool of a motel with multi-colored doors across the street from the Miracle Mile Amusement Park with a roller coaster that I thought was 100-stories high. You could say that vacation eventually led me here. For years later, burned out from chasing daily news deadlines, I joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands who move here each year to what we consider paradise.
The Sunshine State is the world’s largest tourism destination and the fourth largest state in the union. More than 78 million people come here each year to play and another 18 million live here to do the same.
I moved to Florida from Las Vegas, another self-created fantasyland. I’ve written about the Sunshine State in one form or another for 14 years. I began this project with hubris and fear that I would find little that would surprise me. I was wrong. Though rarely shocked (as a journalist of 25 years that would take divine intervention), I discovered how much I didn’t know about my sunny state and more importantly, humanity in general. However weird or different a person’s lifestyle may seem, whatever furry costume they wear, pet they keep, spirit they worship, or lack of clothing, their lifestyles do not wholly define them. People who dare to pursue an offbeat passion can be quite conventional in other aspects of their lives. I greatly thank all those in this book who expanded this insight. I applaud them for embracing the fringe. And I thank the universe, for Florida, a state where fantasies can come true.