A car blew up outside a semi-abandoned mall in South Florida. Other Florida locals and I smiled as we drove past the scene.
We had good reason for relief. For one, the driver seemed okay. Secondly, the fire, which occurred outside a dilapidated mall that once housed an FYE but now hosted rumored money laundering operations, contradicted the endless news reports that South Florida was no longer South Florida (meaning the counties known as Miami Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward, which make up the country’s collective idea of “South Florida” or “Miami”). As COVID-19 ravaged the United States, media narratives took hold regarding Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley tech bros immigrating to our shores. These transplants were planning to sweep our turquoise seafood shacks, mansion-sized sex stores, and guitar-shaped casinos into the sea. Much of the fuss was PR spin—according to USPS data, more Americans moved to Katy, Texas than Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or Palm Beach—but New York’s awful bougie Carbone steakhouse was still opening in Miami Beach. Florida was under siege.
I was frightened to visit my hometown of South Florida during the pandemic, only to find a new city that I hated, but work brought me back to the Sunshine State in June. I could no longer avoid home. Although I disagree with nearly everything in Florida (I loathe Ron DeSantis and politicians of his ilk), I still consider it home. Memories comprise our idea of home, and for me, home is the place where I can buy a machine gun for $75 from a bikini-clad, sunscreen-scented grandma in a palm tree-filled parking lot.
I was scared to see late-capitalist vultures feast on my hometown, replacing every hole-in-the-wall with mediocre NYC steakhouses and coffee shops, so I was happy to see a car on fire outside the mall. It was a sign that business was business as usual in the Sunshine State.
I could not say that for the rest of Florida.
That week, I planned to see a high school pal (we’ll call her Stefani), who had moved from Fort Lauderdale to New York then back to Fort Lauderdale again. She informed me that all the shady bars lining the beach were dying like endangered coral reefs, and I would see this tragedy myself when we met friends for dinner at an ocean-front Greek restaurant, where Florida locals dance on tables and break plates.
When I arrived on a rainy night at the Greek spot, it looked less like a busy tourist trap than a fading relic of old Florida. The pink neon light was fading. A sign warned, “DANCE AT YOUR OWN RISK.” How inviting. Stefani was late, so I took a seat outside on a neon-lit plastic bench and watched an elderly couple scream at the hostess, pissed they could no longer smash plates when they finished eating. Thanks to the recession, the restaurant could no longer afford to keep buying silverware. The money crunch didn’t seem to affect MASSAGES FROM HEAVEN, the parlor across the street, which had balding men walking in and out of it every few minutes. Tourist trap restaurants handled the suffering.
Stefani also suffered. Twenty minutes after our party was seated at a long faux mahogany table smelling like yeast, olive oil, and vodka, she barged through a door in a brown skirt that barely hid her visible vagina. She slammed her tote bag on the table and announced she forgot to wear underwear, and secondly, she was considering already leaving dinner.
“Why?” I asked.
She screamed something, which I struggled to hear over the sound of the chef DJing Pitbull. (Since the restaurant was short-staffed, the chef now doubled as a DJ).
“A guy outside invited me on his yacht. It’s called ‘the Self Made,’ and I feel like I should be on his boat.”
“But maybe I should just start coming to the pier and getting on strangers’ boats? When else would I do this?”
She was unwell, but it charmed me because even as this restaurant sank into the sea, Florida girls still acted like Florida girls. “You can ride a boat next weekend,” I said.
By the end of the night, she was drunk, and boats were back on her mind. She ran out of the restaurant to a pier. “Stefani!” I yelled, but she ignored me and jumped from the dock, over the water, and onto a boat. She laid down on the yacht’s chaise lounge and lifted her leg into the air.
“You need to get off,” I said. “The owner could show up.”
“No man has ever kicked a woman off his boat!” she yelled in cavewoman speak like Tarzan.
She had a point. Down the pier, I saw Bebe-clad tan women walk back and forth. I had long seen hookers in Florida parking lots (lot lizards, as southerners called them), but I had never seen pier prostitutes. Florida was maybe still Florida, and perhaps even becoming more Florida.
Not all Florida locals agreed with this assessment. A few days after the pier debacle, I met another girl—we’ll call her Gia—at the Margaritaville Resort on Hollywood Beach.
If you’re not ingratiated with Florida locals, you likely have never heard of Hollywood Beach. Still, you’re aware of cultural reference points created there. Anna Nicole Smith overdosed in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. A serial killer kidnapped America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh’s son from the local Sear’s (now a Target) then decapitated him. National media associate Julie K. Brown writes for the Miami Herald, but like many Florida locals, lives in Hollywood Beach. In her memoir, Perversion of Justice, the journalist applauds the boardwalk’s old Florida architecture and describes meeting FBI agents at the Moonlite Diner, a classic movie-themed breakfast spot located inside a converted trailer. Florida locals love Hollywood because it’s the last vestige of old Florida. Whereas hotel conglomerates and questionable restaurants comprise South Beach, family-owned teal motels, historic art deco homes, and incredible fried fish joints make up Hollywood Beach. It’s a rare place in Florida where you can still eat the fresh catch of the day while watching aging Italian mobsters scream at each other.
Gia was the self-proclaimed queen of Hollywood Beach. Like a queen on a throne, she sat in the Jimmy Buffet’s hotel lobby beneath an oil painting of a parrot and a chandelier of hundreds of margarita glasses. Her blonde hair and tan skin made her the human embodiment of a sunscreen bottle, which was fitting since Margaritaville seemed to pump the smell of sunscreen through its air conditioning.
“I was initially against the hotel, but they’ve captured the local flavor,” Gia said. “I can say at Margaritaville what I can’t say on Twitter.”
Her ease ended when we walked onto the boardwalk. As we walked through the mist of sea salt and cigarette smoke down the boardwalk lined with ice cream shops, homeless tents, and a local bar that is now best known as the setting of a true crime podcast, she pointed at construction crews on the horizon. Mom and pop motels could fall. Skyrises could rise. In anticipation of gentrification, Gia worried about the future of the beach.
But old Florida also seemed to be renewing. One of the new hotels was two stories tall, and every room looked out into the sea. The windows were frosted; chaise lounges sat outside each door. It looked more like a brothel than a bougie luxury resort. Gia dismissed me: The only new arrival on the beach that fit her idea of Hollywood was the new celebrity resident, Dennis Rodman.
At the end of the boardwalk, Gia led me through George’s Market, the convenience store, where Brown, the Miami Herald investigative reporter, notoriously bought snacks in between reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein story. Through the grocer, we walked into an abandoned mall. Inside, Gia pointed at a broken-down escalator and mold-covered pink tiles like the phone.
“Every storefront is empty,” but this place is popping,” she said.
Gia pulled up her phone and showed Tik Toks of kids touring the mall. “These Tik Tok teens rent out the storefronts as Airbnb’s!” she said. “They stay in an abandoned mall.”
To her, Florida was an Atlantis crumbling into the sea, but watching the videos, it seemed like Florida might already be Atlantis. Tourists were already touring the crumbling empire. It might seem sad, but it was also a ray of hope: The abandoned mall was keeping Florida as Florida.
Perhaps Florida wasn’t changing at all. A few days later, as I drove on the highway, I passed a man pulling a machine car out of his car. The following morning, I sat in a suburban bagel shop, eating a honey almond bagel, when a fight between an elderly couple and an older man broke out in the middle of the bakery.
“Who cares if I fucked girls with Jeffrey Epstein?” said the married man. “Jeff was a great guy!”
“Fuck you!” said the other man.
“No, fuck you!”
I presumed this vile man was a lifelong Floridian, one of the Florida locals since birth, but he revealed he absconded from up north later in the conversation. The conversation was horrifying. Why did people who move here behave like this? Why did people choose to live in this humid, swampy suburban cesspool? I didn’t have an answer. But I needed to share what I had just witnessed. I needed to tell someone who would believe me, so I called my dad, who left Florida to live in his native Australia, and recounted the brawl in the bagel shop.
His response: “I want to move back to Florida.”
“What?” I laughed.
“It’s just so hard to witness its chaos from Australia. Chaos is exciting.”
I saw Grace one more time for brunch at a hotel restaurant, where the DJ doubled as a chef who exclusively played Pitbull and Bad Bunny. A lean boy poised on her arm, sweat pouring through his gray shirt. He was the only male in the restaurant wearing long pants, and he suffered from his decision.
“It’s so hot,” he said. “I can’t handle the heat. I might go back to the car.”
“You’re not from here,” I said through giggles. “How did you get here?”
“I met Grace on Tumblr, and during the pandemic, I decided to come down and visit, and it’s now been 18 months. I never left. I just sunk into the place.”
“That’s what happens here,” Grace said. “Just today, on the way to brunch, we passed a shoeless hitchhiker outside Flannigan’s”—a local BBQ ribs and seafood chain— “and we picked him up. He said he was here on vacation, and he never left! People come here, and they turn into Floridians.”
“You can’t stop Florida from being Florida,” I said.
“We all sink into the life here,” Grace replied. “Florida is a sinkhole.”
Don’t I know it.