I moved to Florida in the fall of 1996 to go to college. For a kid who had every inch of his room plastered with ski pictures and whose ultimate dream up until May of that year had been to move out west to become be a ski bum and work for a mountain rescue group, this was a complete one-eighty.
Really I was moving because of a girl, but I needed a valid reason to go if I wanted my parents financial help on this escapade. So, I picked graphic design out of the course catalog for Santa Fe Community College. I’d never taken an art class in my life, but one of the requirements for graphic design was photography and I loved photography. The other classes seemed neat too.
I’d met the girl that summer at a fancy camp we had both worked at. When camp ended, she went back to Florida and I went to work for an insurance company in Harrisburg. Everything about my current situation was wretched, so with Jimmy Buffett’s lyrics mixed with memories of visiting my maternal grandmother in St. Augustine, and young love in my heart, I packed up my car and pointed it south.
I found an apartment in a new gated community called Melrose. It had two pools and a workout room. The gates made my mom feel better. I liked the pools. It was a unique set up, in that you rented your own room complete with full bath and deadbolt on the bedroom door and shared the common area with two or three other people. I knew enough about myself then to know I liked it quiet and did not want to be with a ruckus bunch of roommates. I was placed with a 30- something divorce´ from New York.
Gainesville is smack in the middle of the state and the stadium at the University of Florida is called the swamp for a reason. For various reasons the girl and I did not last but Florida was not Vermont which I had left the previous summer swearing never to return, so I continued on.
For a while it was just David and I in the apartment. Then Tarik moved in. He had previously been a used car salesmen in South Carolina but had moved down to make a new start and to go back to school. He was probably in his late twenties, and he and I got along well; we certainly had more in common than David and I. Next to move in was David’s brother Kyle, who was going to school at the University of Florida but spent more time working at Sears than going to class.
He and his girlfriend loved the party and club scene and though I joined them at a rave one Halloween where I watched a guy in a wheelchair roll and spin to the beat on a roof top dance floor, we did not hang out all that much. Kyle did bring with him a very large salt water fish tank to which I added a sea horse. It is the closest I have ever come to living near the ocean.
Shortly after Tarik moved in his ex-girlfriend, a stripper from South Carolina, came down to get a boob job. She brought along their golden retriever who liked to drink beer.
The day after his girlfriend had her implants Tarik called me into his room. There his lady friend sat smiling in all her new boob glory.
“What do you think?” He asked.
I stood there mouth agape.
“Um, nice,” I said and quickly left the room.
Our upstairs neighbors were just as much of an eclectic mix as our apartment was. This is what you get when you don’t really get to choose your roommates. There were sisters named Jo and Eleanor. Despite Eleanor’s mother-hen tendencies, I got along well with them. There was also a quiet girl named Katie who revealed her true nature one day when the song Little Red Rodeo came on.
“I hate this song and Rodeos [a type of SUV] because I only see black people driving them.”
I was shocked that someone who seemed so nice and sweet and with whom I got along with so well could spew such illogical hatred.
Maggie, the fourth one, was of Cuban decent and had a white-hot hatred for Castro that I had never seen in someone before or since. She also spoke her mind and had no qualms about telling me how selfish I was for “leaving” the child I had fathered in Vermont. I was used to people passing judgment on me, and I decided it was best just not to engage her on this subject.
In need of some kind of income, I scoured the want ads in the local paper. First I got a job at the Cracker Barrel as a host, but when I arrived for my first shift the manager put me in the dish room. I lasted a day. Next I found a job helping the woman who sold roses to the intoxicated college students at the bars in Gainesville. The job was at this woman’s house and it turned out she wanted glorified house help more than anything. Another kid was also there to help out and had it worse than me. The woman had him washing her clothes, including, he told me in hushed tones, her underwear. I lasted a day at that job too.
Bunk Beds Etc. occupied a store front at the far end of The Oaks Mall which was conveniently just down the road from my apartment. The beds that we sold looked like castles, ships, tree forts, pretty much anything you could think of. They were more indoor play houses with a place for a mattress. We also sold rocking chairs and futons. I was the only in store employee and I would generally pass my time reading my book or people watching. A bunk bed store does not get a lot of traffic. At times a seemingly lonely old man would come in and sit in one of the rockers and talk my ear off. I knew far too much back then to listen to his rambling stories. I bet they were good.
For some extra money, I would deliver and set up the beds for customers or take things to the “factory” which was located in Ocala. The “factory” was in an abandoned single-story house set among tall trees at the end of a long meandering driveway. The house was dark and the shag carpeting was caked with sawdust and wood chips. The bathroom, where I often put the materials I was delivering, had an exceeding large pink sunken tub. The man running the crew looked more like mob muscle than a carpenter and I wondered, not for the first time, what strange world I had fallen into.
Next week it gets even stranger.