“Florida!? But that’s America’s wang!”
—Homer Simpson, “Kill the Alligator and Run,” episode 19, season 11
Oh, too true, Homer! Florida: a glistening kingdom of sun and citrus, venom and sex, built on swamps and snow and sugar. The whole state is now shorthand for an American type of bad craziness—while the most family-friendly place on earth, The Imagineering Capital of the World, chokes the state at its center like a garrote.
Economics, immigration, climate change—these are the issues of the day, and all three intersect in Florida. Lashed by hurricanes and melted by the sun, it occupies peculiar real estate—another Florida specialty—in the American consciousness. Aggressive, playful, conservative: Florida is America’s future.
It takes someone with orange juice in their veins and alligators in their heart to truly bring the lessons of a place as complex as Florida to bear. To look past the banalities and old-hand shorthand which marks our discourse over the state—most of it joking—requires a native.
Sarah Gerard, of Pinellas County, is just that person.
Sunshine State, Gerard’s new essay collection, dissects what Florida means to the United States with a nuance and complexity only someone who has lived in it—and, just as importantly, moved away from it—can provide.
Gerard’s revealing insights into Florida real estate are particularly astute. She draws the class line between herself and her erstwhile best friend with simple home economics: “If I could quantify what came between us: the cost of your mother’s one-bedroom rent subtracted from my parent’s four-bedroom house in a gated neighborhood.”
Real estate is the loupe through which Gerard examines religion in an essay describing her parents’ desperate attempt to will a New Thought Movement college into reality from her childhood home. She also uses it to explore nature in the image of a house with its floors ripped up so rescued birds can defecate without causing damage. In a home-centric examination of America’s true religion, capitalism, Gerard studies Amway, the direct marketing behemoth whose massive pyramid reaches from Grand Rapids to Orlando. She makes the convincing case that Amway is America, with its highly ensconced members who have “gone diamond,” their money trickling—in a nearly imperceptible dribble—down the sides to the dehumanized “downlines” from whom they profit. Gerard’s detailing of her family’s brush with Amway is cut with fictionalized vignettes in which she and her husband have become the exceedingly rare diamonds, exploring the cavernous manses of the gated communities which dot the state’s most valuable land.
Florida is nothing if not a haven for builders and dreamers, down low where the laws are looser and the warm weather means construction season never ends. Cheap swampland is converted into mansions and country clubs, orchards into a Magic Kingdom, the Everglades into sugarcane fields.
How American is it, this rush to build in an inhospitable place? To turn aside nature and decide to build atop it? How darkly, cruelly, perfectly American is it that a “housing first” approach to ending homelessness in a state with a dire need and an obsession with building is met with fierce hostility, as Gerard chronicles?
That all of those pricey lands, those millions of dollars in assets, will soon be washed away hasn’t slowed their proliferation. This, too, is America in microcosm; it is a blind hunger for lucre and a blind faith for solutions, a bet that either the payout will be worth it or American ingenuity will beat back the seas. Sunshine State does not provide easy answers to any of the questions it dredges up, nor is it meant to; it is left to the reader—and the nation—to sift through the mangrove mud and crab carapaces.
During one of her fictionalized home tours, this one a four-bedroom, four-bath, 5,144 square footer in the tony golf course abetting Bayou Club, the realtor hands Gerard the single most important piece of paper in any Florida real estate transaction: the elevation certificate.
Listing the home’s elevation, an accurate certificate is requisite to assessing the home’s risk of flood damage or, in the case of Florida, its chances of surviving into the next few decades. It provides no solutions, only an answer, a simple statistic that must be taken into account.
Florida is the nation’s elevation certificate; consider Gerard our realtor.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.