I first knew something was horribly wrong with the state of Florida during an ever so brief stop in a muggy backwater armpit called Lake City. One morning there about fifteen years ago, I witnessed a 350 pound woman devour a T-bone steak around 7:30am at the local IHOP. Nearby there was a table packed with hunters in camouflage eating breakfast before no doubt heading into the wilderness for a day of killing. Until then, they were mercilessly harassing some poor fellow sitting alone, peppering him with absurd questions about his mother. As I left, two shades-wearing, jack-booted highway patrolmen sauntered in, keeping their motorcycle helmets on, as if prepared for a brouhaha inside. The whole scene made no sense at all.
Then again Florida itself has never made much sense, especially as a geographic entity. Custody of the land has changed hands more times than a Zipcar. It used to be dominated by the Seminoles; and the Spanish; and the British; and the Spanish again before the Americans seized the territory. Today control of Florida is held by a tenuous alliance of evangelical NASCAR enthusiasts, Hispanics, and retired Jews. But for how long? Demographics have constantly changed, quite possibly because no one group thinks the place is worth hanging on to. Florida has always been a little different. Well, a lot different. And to prove it, here are 10 infamous incidents that collectively demonstrate why Florida’s nickname shouldn’t be the Sunshine State, but America’s Freakshow.
10. The Miami Face Off of 2012
In May 2012, a naked homeless man was shot to death by police after refusing to stop eating the face of another naked homeless man. It is suspected that both men were under the influence of “bath salts”—a catchall term for a variety of substances that obviously make great appetite enhancers.
9. Ted Bundy’s Trials
One of America’s worst serial killers of all time, Bundy’s reign of terror ended in Florida, where his trials became the kind of televised media circus that Florida would become famous for in subsequent years. During his second trial in the state, Bundy, who was handling much of his own defense, asked a witness on the stand to marry him. Even more amazingly, she accepted. This outrageous exchange produced nothing but yawns amongst Floridians, who experience far greater displays of freakdom during a trip to the supermarket. The couple did not live happily ever after, as Bundy was executed seven years later.
8. The Death of Anna Nicole Smith
H.L. Mencken once said that no one ever went broke underestimating the American public. But even I have to admit I was taken aback by the sheer tsunami of media attention that came crashing down on Florida after Anna Nicole Smith died. Who would have thought that the death of a voluptuous no-talent, pill-popping, former Playboy Playmate who married a shriveled octogenarian oil tycoon would’ve gotten so much press?
Even more bizarre than the media attention was the behavior of that judge during the subsequent custody hearing. You remember this guy?
7. LeBron James and The Decision
Superstar athletes follow the money all the time, so it can never be a surprise when one of them jumps ship, leaving a team and its city devastated. But when an athlete keeps everyone in suspense for months, seemingly wavering back and forth between staying and going, and then participates in an hour-long special announcing “The Decision,” well, that takes a certain kind cavalier disregard for people’s emotional attachment to their teams. If you’re going to skip town to sign with the Miami Heat as LeBron James did, just go, dude. Don’t hold a live interview in which you give a city that’s done nothing but embrace you for seven years a big middle finger on national television. Granted, “The Decision” took place in Connecticut, but it, and this stunning display of pretensiousness in Florida are part of the same on-going Miami-based douchebaggery.
6. Former Congressman Allen West
Allen West is one of those people who lack a frontal lobe—that part of the brain that prevents you from saying those crazy things you think, but know not to say in public because it's telling you not to say them. West doesn’t have that. Here are some of his greatest hits presented without commentary:
“I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”
“The Democratic appetite for ever-increasing redistributionary handouts is in fact the most insidious form of slavery remaining in the world today,”
“If Joseph Goebbels was around, he’d be very proud of the Democrat party, because they have an incredible propaganda machine.”
Amazingly, such statements were too much even for Florida residents, as West lost his reelection bid in 2012.
5. Terry Schiavo's Feeding Tube
This one isn’t so much on Florida as it is on the U.S. Congress, which made complete asses of themselves trying to get the feeding tube of a brain-dead woman reinserted by calling her testify before the Senate. Also, the House passed a bill to protect Terri Schiavo and only Terri Schiavo, which President Bush then signed. A court deemed this politicization of a very personal issue ridiculous and unlawful. Still, only in Florida.
4. Casey Anthony
Nancy Grace has a lot to answer for here. She has made a healthy living off the bodies of dead toddlers, and has shined spotlights on their cases even when nothing can be gleaned from the kind of wild speculation in which she loves to engage. Worse, she’s merely a symptom—a nasty sebaceous wart—on a diseased and bloated media carcass where gossip-mongering hyenas come to feed. It’s no surprise then, that the case of a young, white, single mother whose toddler went missing became The Most Important Thing Ever. Americans love babies. And they love to hate suspected baby-killers even more than they love babies.
3. Elian Gonzalez
Back in November 1999, a five-year old Cuban refugee named Elian Gonzalez en route to Florida was scooped up by fisherman and turned over to the United States Coast Guard. Gonzalez’s mother had drowned trying to bring them to the states. Until June 2000, Gonzalez stayed in Miami with relatives, while the Cuban government and Gonzalez’s father demanded his return. The boy became the center of an international tug-of-war before finally being returned to Cuba, but not before an infamous raid was carried out in the dead of night to retrieve him from his relatives. The above photo is one of the biggest non-sex-related PR disasters of the Clinton administration.
2. George Zimmerman's Trial
Florida has an uncanny knack for transforming tragedy into banality almost instantaneously. Within days of news of the shocking story of a teenager who went out for Skittles and iced tea and never came back, it turned into a full-fledged racial bitchfest. On one side was the bombastic self-promoter Al Sharpton and some ill-defined “black community” clamoring for justice. On the other was right-wing commentators who, for the first time in their lives, were urging caution when it came to prosecuting an average person for an otherwise unremarkable crime. That the Zimmerman/Martin incident broke down along ideological lines was a sad and pathetic display of race-baiting we could well do without.
1. 2000 Presidential Election
For several weeks in the winter of 2000, Americans endured a Third World-style roller coaster ride in the wake of their presidential election. It’s one thing not to know who the president will be before an election is held, but after? That sort of scenario is only seen in places where the leaders don epaulettes and answer to “General.” After a lot of recounting and discussion about hanging chads, voter intent, and some court decisions, it was decided that George W. Bush had won the election.