Keeping Score: Florida Dispatch
Greetings from Florida, the state that writer Graham Greene called a “sunny place for shady people,” where weirdness and mayhem run amok under the coconut trees, and where Justin Bieber sat in his yellow Lamborghini at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning and asked the police, “What the f--- did I do? Why did you stop me?”
The 19-year-old Beiber posted $2,500 bond for DUI and other charges, about half the cost of a night at the Orchid House where he’s holed up on Miami Beach. A week’s stay in one of its villas is $33,775 plus tax.
South Florida is Las Vegas on steroids. At the Fort Lauderdale airport last Friday morning, Cleveland Browns receiver Davone Bess was seen walking down the concourse dancing and singing with his pants falling down. He spilled coffee on a cop, didn’t flinch after the cop whacked him with his police baton, and spent the day in jail for assault and resisting arrest.
In a West Palm Beach courthouse, an internist is on trial for writing 10,744 steroid prescriptions in six months; up the road in Stuart, Celtic legend John Havlicek’s son was arrested in a reverse prostitution sting.
The doctor, Timothy Sigman, was wearing a DEA Sucks.com t-shirt when he was busted. According to the Palm Beach Post one of his customers is a member of The Power Team! which draws people to Christ through power lifting.
Religion and recovery centers are big industries in South Florida. Some, like the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, are reputable. Others merely offer refuge to twenty-somethings from the Jersey Shore who want to sober up in time for a good run during spring break.
According state tourism figures, Florida’s on pace to break the record 87 million people who visited in 2011. They come, they see, and they buy. A roadside tourist stand on Route 1 in Martin County called Sea Treasures sells five-inch long fetal sharks in glass jars for $15.99 apiece. “Gross and disgusting but boys six to sixteen love them,” said the clerk.
Up the road at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, several hundred scavengers converged for a treasure hunt called Cachepalooza, where participants use GPS receivers to find “caches” stored in munitions boxes that have been hidden behind palmetto bushes and off the trails near the Loxahatchee River.
Too high-tech for me, so I drove to Dwyer High School for the boys’ basketball game against Palm Beach Lakes. The advent of school choice combined with a good faculty and dedicated coaches have transformed Dwyer into a sports mecca. Its alumni include All American defensive back Matt Elam, Florida State tight end Nick O’Leary, Cleveland Cavs guard Alonzo Gee and Olympic runner Ricardo Chambers.
The hardware these and dozens of other athletes helped the school win is displayed in the gym hallway where I counted 227 plaques, awards, trophies, and banners for everything from lacrosse to basketball, football and cheerleading on levels ranging from district titles to state championships.
I gave my $5 ticket to a perky blonde-haired woman named Sara McDonough, whose son Jack wears number 33. “He’s a junior and he’s a co-captain. He comes off the bench to shoot 3s.”
McDonough said that the family moved to Florida from New York City when Jack was in the first grade. “For the weather, school, new job ...?” I asked.
“Ours was more like September 11,” she answered. “It scared us.”
The raucous crowd of about 400 was mostly black and the cultural coolness of the event was embodied by a tall, skinny fan I spotted walking past the bench during warmups. He was in his 20s, wore dark clothes, sunglasses, and a ski cap with a cotton snowball on top. He took the steps two-at-a-time up to the last row of the bleachers, then sat down and plopped his arm over his knee, ready to take it all in.
I was on the opposite side, seated next to a guy in his 50s named Eric, a talker and laugher who kept waving to his friends, cousins and neighbors. “You know,” he said, jabbing his right index finger into my leg, “I have always gotten along better with white people than my own people.”
A camera flashed near me when a mother took a picture of her pudgy young son, glasses on and fast asleep with his head against the wall. “And all this noise ...” she smiled.
Jack McDonough came off the bench late in the first quarter. He hustled, helped fallen teammates to their feet, fought for position under the boards and by my count had two assists and sank two three-pointers, including a tying shot late in the game during Dwyer’s 71-64 loss in overtime.
The next morning I was back in the state park which was filled with campers and mobile homes. The nightly rate is $26, or $90 a night for a cabin near the river. Something I learned down here is if I’m ever bitten by a rattler or copperhead it’ll be cheaper to ride it out the old fashioned way with a knife and tourniquet. Last June near Gainesville, an 11-year-old boy was bitten by an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and needed 80 vials of antivenin to get the poison out of his system. The hospital bill was $1.5 million.
“The thing about Eastern diamondbacks is they have very virile toxin,” said Frost Sutherland, “and the amount is incredible, nearly as much as the gaboon viper.”
Sutherland is an outdoorsman and native Floridian who works at MacArthur Beach State Park. He’d spotted my Mass. license plate and found me reading inside an empty picnic pavilion. He’d come over to squawk about the snowplow game more than 30 years ago when Mark Henderson — a prisoner on work furlough — cleared a spot for the Patriots’ John Smith to kick the winning field goal against the Dolphins.
“(Don) Shula let it slide,” griped Sutherland. “If I’d a been him I’d a gone crazy. You’re supposed to play it as it lies.”
Sutherland said he’d killed dozens of rattlesnakes when he was a boy growing up in West Palm Beach. “I’d go barefoot and one day I looked down and had stepped on one. The only thing that saved me was I’d stepped right on his head.”
That was before development began pushing the suburbs beyond I-95 and out toward the sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee. Wildlife is in retreat, including the state animal. “I’ve only seen one in my life,” he said of the endangered Florida panther. “She was magnificent, dark tawny, almost a red. Absolutely gorgeous.”
Not all wildlife goes willingly. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Department is hiring people willing to capture and relocate crocodiles that have wandered into peoples’ yards. The pay is $25 an hour but wouldn’t you know it, doesn’t include health insurance.
So, if you want the Bieb and the bizarre, steroids and snakes, and a bunch of nice, regular folks, head south to the Sunshine State, where the greens fees are outrageous and the nightly news is highly entertaining.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.