A Recent Journey to a Different Time

The smell of orange blossoms is a strong part of my childhood memory. There were several acres of orange groves next to my junior high school. Kids used to smoke cigarettes, pot, get intimate, etcetera in the grove. There is no way that I can convey the smell of the orange blossoms, but I really miss them. Most of the orange groves have disappeared because of development or freezes. Earlier this week, I decided to take a circuitous route to Fort Myers. I drove from Orlando to Clermont, and mostly took Highway 27 south towards Everglades City. We weaved onto some county roads and eventually to Highway 29. Much of that area is a part of what is known as the Lake Wales Ridge. It’s a sand ridge that has some of the highest elevations in Florida. The highest points are a little over 300 feet. The highest point in Florida is 345 feet. It’s in the Panhandle.

It’s no accident that the ridge is also the location of three towers that were designed as tourist vantage points. The tower trinity are the Florida Citrus Tower, Bok Tower, and the Lake Placid Tower. You can still ride an elevator to the top of the Clermont Tower. It used to be the best place to see acre upon acre of orange groves. Now you see a lot of development. Bok Tower is still a very busy place. It’s surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds. He is mostly known for projects like Central Park, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The last tower on the ride is the Lake Placid Tower. It’s situated in a parking lot that I am guessing is usually empty these days. The Lake Placid Tower is also the most recent of the trinity. It was built in 1960. The Citrus was built in 1956. Bok is the most ambitious and thoughtful. It was also the first. It was built from 1927-29. The two youngest were put in place to be tourist traps. Bok was designed to bring tourists in, too, but bringing in someone of Olmsted’s caliber makes it apparent that this was a much more serious project.

I forgot to mention the journey to Fort Meyers was to see a show at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery. I went to see Kalup Linzy’s collaboration with James Franco. A couple months ago, I met Kalup at the ARTBORNE release party at Lil Indies. He told me about the project and the show. I was reading through Halee Sommer’s interview/review in last month’s ARTBORNE. Kalup had mentioned that he likes to keep his work accessible. My favorite contemporary artwork is usually accessible, at least superficially, but there are layers that go deeper.

Attendees, photo documentation. Image courtesy of the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery. Photo by Martha Nicole De la Cruz

The woman who greeted us in the gallery was dressed like a security guard, but she explained the show as if she doubled as a docent. It was apparent that she is fond of Kalup and the show. She explained that Kalup had become friends with James Franco, and they decided to collaborate. Kalup grew up watching soap operas, and he was born in Clermont, Florida (home of the Citrus Tower), and raised in nearby Stuckey.

The show starts with a wall that shows a fake family tree that is a part of the framework for the soap opera. There were video segments that showed Franco and Kalup playing different roles, and different genders. The videos are entertaining, absurd, melodramatic, and banal. There is an awkward fluidity going on as the actors play the different roles, and much of the dialogue seems intentionally trite, much like most soap operas that I’ve seen. Sometimes I would almost forget that the characters were playing different genders, until I look again at Franco’s character in a dress and a mustache. The blur is not only part of the entertainment, but also part of why the work goes deeper than just watching outtakes from a soap opera.

The Kalup Linzy and James Franco show was the destination, but it was also a backdrop for an adventure. Prior to going to the show, we went to Sanibel and Captiva to look at the scenery, and find Rauschenberg’s house. His house on Captiva has been sold. You can see the gate where it says “Private Drive” and “No Trespassing.” There is also a toll fee to get onto the islands, and felt more exclusive than a small town.

When I stopped at the 7-11 an older man pushed the cooler door into me as if he was pushing me out of the way. I was dumbfounded that someone in their 70s would be so aggressive. I thought about how this kind of behavior might go over in a place like Miami. When I was getting ready to drive away, I just buckled up when I saw a woman pounding on the driver’s window. I opened the window. She started to lecture me about how I was taking too much time to get out of the parking lot, and that people were waiting. I looked around and didn’t see anyone waiting. I confess that after she yelled me, I gave her a rare “fuck you.”

I wasn’t in Mayberry. I know that this wasn’t probably the same place that Rauschenberg chose to retreat to get out of the New York City rat race.

Florida is such a mixed bag. The Rauschenberg Gallery is more of an anomaly in the area. Florida has pockets that show internationally known contemporary art. Miami is the most notable, but most of the state’s metropolitan areas have some excellent showings. The mixed bag part comes from the melting pot aspect of Florida. Driving through the Lake Wales Ridge looks like it could only be Florida, but a large part of Florida has a twang, mixed with snowbirds, and others who have relocated from other countries. The roadside is scattered with many chain restaurants, mom and pop diner types, Latin American markets and restaurants. Some of the best Mexican food that I’ve ever had has come from little joints in small towns or out in the country alongside Florida highways.

As we drove through Everglades City following a long awaited downpour (we’ve had a long drought), it appeared that everyone had left town. In the ’80s, most of the population of this sleepy swamp town were arrested for pot smuggling. The area known as Ten Thousand Islands was a source of frustration for DEA agents. The locals laughed about manipulating the agents into areas where they would get stuck in shallow water. It’s interesting that the Everglades City Wikipedia page doesn’t mention the smuggling arrests. That seems pretty suspicious.

After Fort Myers, we headed north on 41 towards Sarasota, or Pinecraft to be more precise. Pinecraft is an Amish and Mennonite community located in the suburbs of Sarasota. We ended up at Yoder’s Restaurant. They are known for their pie and fried chicken. By the way, both are excellent.

Driving down the back roads doesn’t feel very back road a lot of times. There are plenty of empty strip malls, defunct tourist spots. Florida is an aggregate of what is wrong and what is right about this country. The dead tourist spots symbolize unfulfilled and unrealized dreams. Empty malls, businesses that may have boomed or possibly didn’t, plenty of bars and churches.

I dream of a Florida from the past that is more progressive than previous times. I dream of canopied roads, mom and pop tourist traps. It’s a place that has to be experienced for a long time to understand what it is. Maybe most places are like that. I am hopeful that amidst the greed and shallowness that the benevolent dreamers will win in Florida and elsewhere. Next week, I plan on taking the elevator to the top of the Clermont Citrus Tower. I want to look out the window. I know it will be beautiful.

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