When I tell people I went to college in Florida, I’m just as surprised as they are – still, nearly eight years after graduating. “You’re SO Northeast,” is the usual reply, or something along the lines of how I seem Ivy league, preppy or some other such silliness that really means: Why would someone who went to and performed well at an upper class public high school (my parents paid for tuition for me to go there) head south to a small private college with virtually no reputation north of the Carolinas? The answer is simple: Money.
I wanted to go to Boston University with all the passion and fervor my 17 year old body could muster. I got in, too. But BU is expensive. My parents were divorcing, so money was tight, and BU didn’t offer any financial help.
The University of Tampa did. They were in the middle of a huge recruiting drive and kept throwing money at me. “It’s not a matter of whether you get in,” an admissions counselor told me when I made my on campus visit. “It’s a matter of how much money we give you.” The eventual answer was almost the full amount. By the time I became editor of the student newspaper, I was covered since my pay for that job was a stipend applied toward my tuition – and the first steps toward what would become my eventual career.
But I didn’t stick around after graduation. I barely stuck around during my four undergraduate years – I left every summer and, one semester, for England. I didn’t think the UT was terribly challenging, so I tacked on experiences that made it so (internship in a Washington, DC newsroom, semester studying Shakespeare at Oxford, editing the student newspaper).
Another reason I fled? I don’t like Florida.
Sure, it’s a great place to visit, especially when it’s 20 degrees and snowing in New Jersey. While my family and friends dealt with snow and ice last weekend, I was lying by a pool in my bikini reading James W. Hall’s Hot Damn!: Alligators in the Casino, Nude Women in the Grass, How Seashells Changed the Course of History, and Other Dispatches from Paradise. It’s a love letter to the state written by Hall, a mystery writer and Kansas native. He writes about those things that kept me from staying in Tampa after graduate: The heat and humidity that gloms to your skin nine months a year, the recurring fear of hurricanes, the vagabond culture (no one is really from Florida). His recount about Florida summers shot me back to the Ford sedan I rented in 2003 to drive from Tampa to Gainesville for a job interview near the University of Florida. The front of the white car was nearly black at the end of the trip with all the bugs I killed. I thought I saw an alligator on my way over.
Even though I was offered the job, I turned it down. It might get hot here in the summer, but it’s a different hot, no matter if the temperatures in New Jersey and Florida sometimes come out the same. Florida heat will suck you down into a deep abyss. New Jersey heat passes you over.
Hall didn’t leave – obviously. He moved his life to Florida and bristles that he can never put a Florida native bumper sticker on his car. Even if we feel different about the state, I enjoyed his essays. It was perfect reading to go along with my explorations of Florida’s west coast. While, yes, I did spend a lot of time by the pool, I also visited those sites I couldn’t get to in college because I didn’t have a car – the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort DeSoto, the Ringling Estate. And for a moment, while wandering the grounds of the gulf-side estate in the soft humid pre-storm winter Florida air, I thought “maybe I could do this.” Then I remembered what it was like to run in that humidity, and that it was already sticky in January, and called my mom back home.
I picked up Hot Damn! from Inkwood Books, a fantastic independent bookstore in Tampa. I wanted some sort of Florida reading to go along with my St. Pete Beach vacation, and what better to read than stories about the strange place that is Florida? I might not embrace the state like Hall does, and I may cross my heart and pledge loyalty to the northeast, but I can still appreciate the odd corners of the vagabond state, and writers who show their love for it in a fun, zippy book of touching essays. And how could I not love a book with the opening line of “Essays are about as sexy as donkeys?”