Stranger in a Strange Land: Notes on a Trip through Florida amidst a Sort of Primary Madness

Terry and his wife and four kids live in a tiny, barely functioning house in the poorer part of Daytona Beach. He’s been out of work for over a year and they’re down to living off food stamps and whatever they can borrow from friends and family. And next week, the rent is due.

Nevertheless, outside their crumbling home they’ve proudly erected a “Mitt Romney” election sign.

“We always bin good Republicans” explains Terry, who like most Americans is open and welcoming to strangers: even a nosy Canuck on a bike. “We got to turn the country ‘round.”

I asked him how Mitt would do that.

“He’s one of us” Terry replied, puffing on a remnant of a butt. “Not like that coon in the white house.”

I inquired of Terry whether he knew that Mitt Romney wants to cancel the food stamp program and medicare, and encourage landlords to foreclose on people who can’t pay their rent.

Terry shrugged.

“Whatever’ll help the economy”

I looked at his hovel, and then at him. He didn’t seem to figure himself or his family into the picture.

Terry isn’t that unusual. He reminds me a lot of the stumbling aboriginal woman I once handed a leaflet to outside Vancouver’s Catholic cathedral as she tried hurrying into its morning mass.

“What you got against the church?” she bellowed at me.

“Well, it caused the death of a lot of your people …”

“Ah, bullshit!” she exclaimed. “We was all savages back then!”

I expected to dislike what I encountered this month in Florida, awash as it is in the gyrations of Republican politicians in heat as they hustle votes for the upcoming Primary from people like Terry. But it was all too familiar to me.

The beaches here are empty, except for Canadians and other odd sorts who dare to dip into the Atlantic at this time of year. The Gulf Stream must have a problem, for the ocean is colder than a banker’s heart. But the locals still act like every day’s a pause before summer, and they see the world laconically, like Yankees do, as either right or wrong.

I blame the Puritans for that, but I admire their simplicity.

Mitt Romney knows his audience, and he speaks in simple language, like any successful politician does. He may be a Mormon and a bland sort of bloke who tells shitty jokes, but he’s the favored son down here because of his pigment, at least among folks like Terry.

Meanwhile, down the street from Terry is a big housing complex filled entirely with black families who are just as destitute as he is.

I tried biking in there to see what people thought of the Republican Primary, but before I’d advanced a dozen yards two young dudes approached me suspiciously, and asked me where the fuck I thought I was going.

“Just looking” I replied.

“Lookin’? You lookin’?” one of them said, reaching for something in his pocket.

“Naw” I answered, and sped away quite rapidly.

I didn’t see a Mitt Romney sign anywhere in that particular black ghetto, or any election signs, for that matter.

Frazzled, I biked along a nearby drainage ditch surrounded by the lush tropical foliage that’s everywhere, and watched the alligator turtles slither their prehistoric tails in the garbage-covered slough. I stopped to get a closer look, and imbibe the humid quiet, when a cop car drove bumpily towards me along the grass, its light flashing.

“Hey” said the young cop as he approached me, his hand on his holster.

“Hi” I replied.

“You live heah?”

“Well, I’m visiting my Dad, in there” I replied, pointing to the senior’s complex across the slough.

“Canadan?” he said, grimacing, as I nodded. “You better watch youself ‘round heah”

He must have known that Canadians listen attentively when a cop speaks, for he simply nodded goodbye and left after the opaque warning.

I gave a couple of sermons while I was in Florida, in local churches whose ministers are buggering off somewhere. The pew crowd seemed to like me, especially when I ventured into politics; not because they agreed with me, but because they’re Americans. Speaking your mind is as much a religion down here as obeying the law is in Canada.

After one of the services, an older white man came up to me and remarked,

“What you said about the Seminoles, hiding in the Everglades to survive. They did that to a lot of our people, you know. Wiped ‘em out mostly, then stuck’ em in those camps, like in Canada.”

“Are you native?” I asked him, curious.

“Scots Irish. The original savages” he smiled.

I asked him how he was going to vote in the Primary.

“Thought I’d write my own name on the ballot” he answered. “I can do a better job than any of those jokers.”

He saw me smile, and added,

“I’m serious. It’s time the people ran this country.”

We were conversing over coffee in the church hall, in the small Gulf resort town called Bradenton. The place is miniscule, but even here, there’s a local Occupy group that’s planning to sit in at City Hall next week.

If you believe every network on the television, life in America these days is about choosing between a rich white guy and a rich semi-black guy who are basically saying the same thing. You’re either a Republican or a Democrat. There is nothing else, and no room for you, as a partisan of either team, to offer criticism of your All Star, or suggest another possibility. That’s what’s Primary: getting behind your Team.

But shut off the Sleep Machine, and step out under the heavens, and you realize that what everybody on the ground is really saying without words is that they know the entire Game is already over; they just don’t know what to do about the score.

Even Terry.

Just before I peddled away from the guy’s place in relative disgust, Terry surprised me. The man stepped towards me, holding on tightly to one of his youngest daughter’s scrubby little hands, and he shook his head and remarked,

“Not that I trust any of ‘em. They just is all we got.”

Rise like lions, after slumber, in unvanquishable number; Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you. You are many; they are few.
- Percy Shelley, 1815