We live in the center of weird. Weird is the state of Florida.
Florida has long eclipsed California as the place where the bizarre, unusual and outlandish have become commonplace. Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen has made a career of repackaging Florida weird as fiction.
When it comes to calling attention to itself, there is no place like Florida in the past 30 years. It has become so obvious that this week even a New Yorker blogger noticed.
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We qualify as our own tabloid. Sinkhole Swallows Man. Killer Amoebas in Central Florida Lakes. Giant Pythons Amok in the Everglades. Nude Man Found Dead on Killer Whale's Back. Miami Heiress Leaves $3 Million to Her Chihuahua.
Maybe it's the heat. Or something in the water. Or maybe it's that we are the southernmost state on the easternmost edge of the United States, and stuff just naturally flows downhill.
Let's ask the expert on weird: "Weird Florida" author Charlie Carlson.
"Florida has always been a carnival midway of sorts," said Carlson, a Seminole County native and historian.
He's not speaking metaphorically. Roadside attractions used oddities and weirdness to lure the first tourists to stop for a glass of orange juice or a bag of fruit. Carnies and circus people wintered in Gibsonton, creating a town of professional freaks in Hillsborough County.
Add to those all the scoundrels, eccentrics and crazies drawn to Florida, and you get alchemy of weirdness.
"Florida is a population of escapees," Carlson said. "If you are nuts or crazy, you could come down here and find safe haven."
Rollins College professor Socky O'Sullivan thinks geography has something to do with it — how the restlessness of Americans pushes them to the extremes of California and Florida, where there's no escape.
"So we end up with the most restless, the most disenchanted, the most footloose people around," said O'Sullivan, who teaches Florida Studies. "You bring all those people together, and it creates an interesting mixture."
Historian Gary Mormino suggests it's a combination of the state's large population — which attracts all kinds of people — and the tensions among all those different kinds of people.
"You have all the pressure points. It's North versus South, tourists versus natives, natives versus newcomers, Florida State versus Florida," said Mormino, author of "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida."
The axis of weird started tilting away from California to Florida in the late 1970s with the national fascination over serial killer Ted Bundy, Mormino said.
That was followed by the tug of war over Elián González (Google him), pulling the plug on Terri Schiavo (and her), the presidential elections, the Quran-burning pastor and pill mills as a growth industry.
Now everything that happens here — including serious incidents — gets magnified and overheated by media that can't take their eyes off Florida. Mom charged with killing daughter. Black teen killed inside a gated community. Bring in the klieg lights; park the satellite trucks at the curb.
Carlson contends kookiness has become so ordinary that we take it for granted until somebody from outside shines the spotlight on Florida as the nation's Ripley's Believe It Or Not! — see the World's Smallest Dog, Visit the Underwater Cemetery, Meet Miami's Face-eating Man.
"It's a mind-set with our population. We've lived in the middle of it for so long we accept it as the norm," he said.
O'Sullivan says this is not a good thing. The national obsession with the outlandish overlooks the overarching banality of Florida.
"I don't think we ought to define ourselves as a place where the weird is the norm," he said. "There are some incredibly dull towns in Florida. We are as dull as Ohio in many areas."
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