There’s nothing like a little bit of writer’s block to make you take in your surroundings for inspiration.
For context, I’m sitting at a bar at Palm Beach International Airport – one only marginally bigger than the one in Portland, Maine – waiting to return to Vacationland for a long weekend.
Not knowing the best way to kick this piece of all-the-more-infrequent bloggin’ off, I consulted everyone’s trusty sidekick Google for a snappy quote that adequately summed up Florida.
Unfortunately, everyone’s favorite search engine came up short, and I was left looking around in something resembling desperation for a jump-off point. And then it hit me.
On one corner of the bar, there’s a leather-skinned couple talking about Pittsburgh Steeler football in various four-letter words that I’m familiar with but would never use. [Editor’s note: Riiiiiight.]
Across from me there are a half-dozen guys in suits worth more than I owe on my car, ordering Coronas in a way only slightly more appropriate than a click of the fingers. Behind me walks a family that I’d roughly estimate as “lower middle class” with a gaggle of kids in tow.
And that’s when I realized: That was a better summation of the last month-and-a-bit than any quote could ever really sum up.
There are folks here with more money than you could shake a stick at, the ones that dress to the nines every time they leave the house. Frankly it makes me want to sell the Subaru and buy an Audi (although gas prices are also a factor in that.) But less than five blocks from the upmarket strip of the type of bars you’d expect TMZ might hang out outside of, are streets full of cheap housing, petty crime and folks that probably struggle for every buck they make.
Contrary to many of my loved one’s opinions, West Palm Beach isn’t the glitzy locale it may sound like. It’s definitely a city of stark contrast, which I guess is fitting, given it’s a contrast of a whole different type for me.
It’s confronting to think that it’s been more than a month since I arrived here in the 33401. Mere hours ago, I punched out after my fifth week at my new job at The Palm Beach Post.
Incidentally, it’s the trip “home” to Maine that had me in the mood to stop and reflect on the last few weeks, as much for myself as for those reading along at home. Assuming y’all are still with me.
I’ll start with something that’s become more than familiar over the past two years (!) of Crawfin’ USA: weather reports. Most of the friends and family I’ve heard from over the past five weeks have gone straight for the climate comparison when asking me how things are going.
It was just my luck that, on the day Deanna and I finished the road trip (words about which are coming soon…no, really), West Palm Beach had its highest November temperature on record. The mercury hit 90 degrees, or 30 Celsius, which is completely out of character in what’s supposed to be the lead-up to winter. Not down here, though.
The first few days were a brutal reminder that I wasn’t in Kansas – well, Maine – anymore. The only time I put long pants on was when I wore a pair of jeans to a cocktail bar with Deanna the night we arrived, and that was not what I’d call a comfortable fashion experience. Being an overheated sonofabitch at the best of times, I spent most of my first week or so wiping sweat from my brow constantly and wondering how I was going to survive the summer.
Frankly, I’m still wondering that, but as I’ve said before in these pages, human beings acclimatize more quickly than they give themselves credit for, and by the time I started work (first day sweats not withstanding) I’d grown mostly accustomed to the warmer weather.
It’s not all sunshine and palm trees, though (although there are a ton of the latter.) Through 18 days of December, we’ve had maybe two rain-free days, and rain here reminds me of the showers we get back home: Warm, heavy, saturating, and over quickly. The weather reporter at work has been promising an impending “cold front” for about as long as I’ve been employed there, and there’s been no sign of it. Cold front obviously means something different down here too, because the temperature isn’t supposed to dip below 60*F for awhile. I have a suitcase of coats that I guarantee will never be opened.
Outside of the climate change, there have definitely been other adjustments. A sweat formed on my brow as we arrived in West Palm Beach, due to nerves rather than humidity, as I experienced multiple lanes (each way!) of traffic for the first time since leaving Australia. In the evening rush hour. After spending two years on the pleasantly calm roads and highways of the northeast, it was absolutely a wake-up call to return to the gridlock of a larger city.
Florida drivers are aggressive too, man. The odd Mainer got under my skin for lack of indicator usage, but I swear I had more horns blown at me in anger in the first two weeks in the Sunshine State than I did in two years in Vacationland. Maybe it’s because they assume I’m an asshole tourist due to my as-yet-unchanged license plates (and the fact that no one drives Outbacks down here, for good reason), or maybe it’s because there are rules I’m not accustomed to. Whatever prompted the friendly honks of support, it’s just another adjustment.
The blacktop landscape looks different, of course. The office and my apartment are both on major thoroughfares, so it takes a little more concentration to drive home than it did on the autopilot drive from the KJ to State Street. The upside of all these major roads (and going a couple miles down the highway to work) is that I get pretty good mileage, and the double-edged sword is that I must go past about 15 different great food places between the office and my place.
That, of course, is the most stark contrast. I wrote back in like March (and didn’t post it until October I think) that, living in small-town America, it was easy to forget the corporate machine that keeps this country turning. Hallowell is truly blessed with a ton of locally owned options, and the closest thing to a chain is the Liberal Cup (which has a sister bar 75 miles to the south, and that’s it).
South Florida, on the other hand, plays home to all of the big names that I’d forgotten about unless I caught them on the odd commercial I’d see on the TV at The Maine House. On top of that, West Palm Beach seems (so far) to be the type of hybrid city that blew up and expanded in a short amount of time, filling the gaps between neighborhood spots and low-key establishments with the chain and corporate places that occupy Everytown, U.S.A. Obviously, being spoiled for choice is a wonderful gift, but there’s certainly something to be said for having that go-to place where you’re one of the regulars, they know your name and what you’re going to order before your butt has even warmed the seat.
Being unfamiliar with the neighborhood was definitely something I had to come to terms with as well. Having spent my entire life in the one major city, the places you did and didn’t really want to live was practically ingrained in me from birth. Once I moved to Augusta, a 10-minute driving tour with a long-time resident-slash-coworker was enough to give me the lowdown on where I should and shouldn’t look for places to rest my head (for Maine readers, two words: Sand Hill.) Down here, I really had no bearing or frame of reference on which to base my housing decision.
The big-city aspect gave me the benefit of online real estate “best neighborhood” maps, but it also presented the whole issue of “bigger city, more police blotter entries.”It was tough to know what evidence to trust. I didn’t really figure it out until I’d signed a lease and moved in, but the best way to find a place here is definitely to beat feet and look around. There are a lot of self-contained apartment complexes here, gated communities with shared facilities. The next time we’re looking for a place, I think it’ll be more a case of driving around and looking at neighborhoods we’d like to live in, rather than trawling Craigslist ads and figuring it out in reverse.
That’s not to say I landed in a trap house or anything. I secured us a nice one-bedroom in what so far has proved to be a pleasant (and huge) complex built around a man-made lake with a gym, two pools and a jacuzzi. It’s three minutes from a great shopping complex with a brand-new Publix supermarket, restaurants of the Indian, Japanese, Mexican and Italian persuasions, two bars and the gym I signed up to. Best of all, everyone who’s asked whereabouts I’m living has responded very positively to my answer. Nothing like a little local validation eh?
This turned out to be a little longer than I intended it to be, but in a sense it makes up for my prolonged absence on CrawfinUSA.com. Or maybe I just wanted to justify the cost of renewing the domain name last week?
Either way, life goes on here in Florida. It’s different, and I can’t help but feel like the lifestyle shift is conducive to more writing.
I hope so, anyway. I’ve got $26 worth of web hosting to get my money out of between now and next December 13.