Dear America: Florida

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I'm having to pick certain states to write about out of a lack of time (I've got 18 days left in the U.S. of A) and because I just don't have anything interesting to say about certain states (Delaware, Connecticut).

So I'm skipping to Florida. I have a LOT of memories of Florida because I've been a number of times, but the last time in particular stands out to me because it was crazy. Not wild crazy, but crazy crazy. (Unfortunately it seems all my uploaded photos from my time in Florida have been deleted from cyberspace, so you'll have to make do with my novella below instead.)

Florida was to me what Los Angeles is to me now, or was, a couple years ago. I used to think Miami was where I wanted to live after college (doing what? I hadn't thought that far, but I figured I'd be able to score a job at the Miami Herald). I was obsessed with Florida for a handful of years at the end of high school; life in Florida just seemed so different -- in a good way -- to me. 

NYPD Pizza in Orlando
So the story goes like this: I was freshly 18, and it was Spring Break, senior year of high school. I had been half-jokingly saving money since 8th or 9th grade for a trip to Florida, and I had managed to save about $500. I talked my best friend Winnie into going with me, by Greyhound. She is 4'9" or 4'10", and I'm 5'2", and we both still look young for our age. Her parents were not happy with the idea, so she lied and told them we were going down with a bunch of friends, including guys. Lies, all lies.

Our itinerary had us going by Greyhound for about 24 hours down to Orlando, where we'd have lunch at NYPD Pizza (made famous by the Backstreet Boys ... seems like every boy band has a pizza haunt. Isn't there a pizzeria in Dorchester the New Kids used to frequent?), followed by the Typhoon Lagoon water park. Yeah, woohoo, 18! Spring break! We were pretty lame. 

After the water park (tons of fun, I won't lie), I think we got on another bus to Tampa. In Tampa, we stayed at a place called Gram's Place B&B. Being 18, we didn't have too many options when it came to accommodations. This place was weird -- there was a room laid out like a train or tour bus; upper bunks and lower bunks with curtains and the weirdest red glow. I vaguely recall an aquarium in this room as well. The guy running the place was no less strange. 

Winnie and I went out to "explore the town," which meant taking the bus to Ruskin, Nick Carter's hometown (though he no longer lived there). Except it was Saturday, and the bus to Ruskin didn't run on Saturdays. So we ended up going to the International Plaza mall instead. After killing some time, we decided to take the bus back and have dinner at a seafood restaurant my mother had recommended. By the time we got back into the area, it was extremely dark and we decided to just head back to the B&B. Except we got off at the wrong bus stop and completely lost our way. 

We were walking around aimlessly in a residential neighborhood when a pizza delivery car pulled into the driveway of a house we were standing in front of. Winnie went and asked him for directions, and he basically told us we had ended up pretty far away. He offered us a ride, and there was a moment when Winnie and I exchanged looks -- me trying to telepathically tell her "NO!" She climbed into the front seat anyway, and I had to follow her.

Fortunately for us, he was neither a criminal nor a perverse person. His name was Sam and as we got to talking, it turned out that he was from the same NYC neighborhood as Winnie. (I'm not sure I believe that to this day, but there's no reason not to.) He told us that the area we were in was pretty drug-infested, full of drug addicts, and it was good we'd bumped into him. Oh, good to know. Kinda explains Gram's B&B.

Tramcar room at Gram's
He dropped us off at Gram's and we thanked him profusely. When the owner of Gram's spotted us, he asked us if we'd like our own private room/cottage, and after checking it out, we agreed to moving into the new room. It was more of a loft than anything else, with a sofa bed under a loft bed, and our own sink. While packing our stuff for our departure the next morning, we noticed some creepy crawlers on the walls and furniture. Winnie was far more freaked out than I was, but somehow I ended up sleeping sitting up on the sofa with the lights on, and I'm not sure Winnie got any sleep that night.

The next morning, at about 5 a.m., we set out on our walk to the Amtrak station, headed for Miami. It was still dark and we were running late and to make a long story short, a cemetery decidedly NOT on our MapQuest directions popped up at the end of the street Gram's was located on, and we were chased by a very angry dog on another block.

In Miami, we had a fairly normal time ... a couple days filled with beach and sun, gelato, tiramisu and virgin pina coladas. A few days later, we again headed south. At a bus depot awaiting our bus transfer to Homestead heading towards the Florida Keys, we were accosted by a man trying to sell us his plastic cobra "friend" (???). Before you get any ideas, it was literally a black plastic cobra unwinding into the air, with beady red eyes. Winnie had the patience to humor him while I watched them with hawk eyes, a few feet away.

We were meant to catch a bus from Marathon Key (where Nick Carter and siblings lived at the time) to Key West, but somehow we missed the bus and were left stranded in Marathon, in front of the airport. In a panic, we called my parents and asked them to find us accommodations for the night. While we waited for them to return our call, a sunburnt man in a Hawaiian shirt in his late 20s or early 30s approached us. He told us he, too, had been left stranded and he was a pilot. He made a few calls and said that he would staying in town and would we like to join him for dinner and drinks? I remember saying to him, very dryly, "we're underage." He handed us a slip of paper with his name and phone number, saying, "For the next time I'm in New York." Yeah, smartass. Give us your number so we can call you next time you're in New York? Perfect logic. Creep.

Luckily my mother called back just then and told us she had made reservations at a cottage/motel a short distance away. Later, as Winnie and I stood in front of the airport entrance trying to figure out which way to walk, the sketchy guy came rolling up in a golf cart (!?) and again asked if we wanted to join him, this time saying that his company was putting him up in a hotel room and we were welcome to stay with him. This sounds absolutely ludicrous, but I swear I am NOT making this story up.

Well, that's pretty much where the craziness ends. We started our walk to the motel. On our way there, we passed the entrance of the Carter family's estate (their address had been leaked online, of course) and Winnie said she saw movement behind the gate. I was too humiliated to stick around and ran across to the other side of the gate. I wasn't even thinking when it started to open and an SUV reared its head. It wasn't Nick Carter (boo), but Aaron and their father. They didn't seem to notice us, for which I was grateful ... because why would two teen girls be flanking their gate suspiciously on a random weekday afternoon?

I managed to find photos of Nick Carter's Marathon home online

Soon afterwards, we checked into our beautiful, beautiful cottage. Beautiful because it was all our own and it was clean and it had a TELEVISION and a REFRIGERATOR and its own bathroom and a coffeemaker!!! We had dinner at Pizza Hut, went to the local Publix (restocked our junk food stash and even bought an entire tiramisu cake for about $9) and spent the evening eating tiramisu while watching a special on The Weather Channel. The next morning, we left for another uncomfortable 20+ hour ride back up to New York City.

If you're still with me, I can't believe you've read this entire thing. And I also still can't believe how crazy that entire trip was, all these years later. I've been trying to round up some of my friends to do Miami the "right" way for a couple of years now, but I've been wildly unsuccessful. Maybe there just isn't a right way to do it ...

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