Floridians get used to it — that look they get when they tell someone where they live. At some point most residents of the land of Disney, oranges and humidity have found themselves on trial for the weird sins of their home state.
Actual Florida man Craig Pittman, the environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times who appears July 29 at Books & Books in Coral Gables, is here to make those looks even more disbelieving. In “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country” (St. Martin’s, $26.99), he offers up more Florida stories, which are even crazier than you’d expect. Every page is bound to make you repeat Pittman’s favorite phrase — “Oh, #Florida.” And, of course, plenty of it takes place in Miami.
Also the author of “The Scent of Scandal” — about obsession and orchids — Pittman will appear July 29 at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
How did writing ‘Oh, Florida’ differ from writing a book about one subject?
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It’s a lot harder. When I was writing my last book, “The Scent of Scandal,” it was sort of telling one story in a linear way. With this one it was a matter of trying to go after enough stories to fill 17 or 18 chapters and also enough to make a coherent argument that, ‘Yes, Florida’s weird, but it’s also pretty cool too.’ You can’t have one without the other. I was looking for stories that would help me support that argument as well.
Were there any stories you didn’t include that you wish you had?
Oh, there was a guy who had a love affair with a dolphin. That fell by the wayside. Even little stuff, like the Florida Chamber of Commerce got started as a deer tick awareness committee from the Cattleman’s Association. There just wasn’t room for everything. There was a Miami thing — secretaries in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office were having phone sex with drug defendants in a big drug case. They ended up having to fire them and take people off the case. It was a big mess.
Do you have any favorite Miami stories in the book?
Yes! This was from the Cocaine Cowboys era. A group of undercover cops who were masquerading as drug dealers arrested a group of drug dealers masquerading as cops. That, to me, just sums up Florida. Dave Barry likes to tell this story, about drug dealers who were trying to get away from pursuing authorities, and they ended up dumping their cocaine load out of the plane, and one bale of it ended up in the middle of a crime watch meeting in Homestead and just missed the police chief’s head.
There were plenty of times in this book where I just couldn’t believe what I was reading, like the story about the mayor of Cedar Key getting taken out by a U.S. military coup. What does it take for you to look at a Florida story and think ‘That can’t be real?’
I read that story in a book about Cedar Key, and it was just a passing reference. I thought, ‘They’re making that up. That can’t be true.’ So I started digging into it and found the New York Times actually covered the whole thing as it happened. And there was a Navy historian who wrote about it too. So I thought, ‘I guess this actually happened. Holy cow.’
Were there stories you just couldn’t believe?
Well, you’ve got to be careful. There are a lot of people who make up stories about Florida, especially these days. I’m constantly hearing, ‘Oh, did you hear the one about the couple selling tickets to heaven?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, I did. And I also saw the Snopes.com thing saying it didn’t happen.’ It seems like these days people who like to make up stuff, if they attach Florida on the front of it a lot of people believe it immediately. You’ve got to check it out. That’s why it helps in a nonfiction book to be able to point to the source for that story and say it’s true. Like the guy who in the middle of a road rage incident accidentally ran over himself. Or the woman who was practicing to be a mermaid and got in trouble with her homeowner’s association because her tail violated the ‘No Fins’ policy at her community pool.
I know this book came together in part from your amazing Twitter account. How do you decide what to share?
It’s sort of a gut thing. Some things you read and you think, ‘Eh, that’s not so weird.’ I saw one the other day where a guy was arrested for vomiting in a fast food drive-thru, and I thought, ‘OK, but that’s not that weird. The guy who threw an alligator through the Wendy’s drive-thru window, that was weird.’
Some of the best Florida stories involve some form of nudity. Like that woman who was shaving her bikini area while driving and crashed.
Yes! Why would you even think to do that? But she did. And had the ex-husband in the car with her and asked him to take the wheel. There’s just so many questions about that story.
I know that one was your favorite, but which were the most surprising?
Some of the historical stuff was really surprising. Like the time that Meyer Lansky had a gambling casino in Hallandale, and some good government folks got a lawsuit and an injunction that said the casino had to be shut down and no gambling could occur there. Lansky read the order very carefully, and then he issued directions to his staff, and they went off and tore down the gambling hall and rebuilt it on a new piece of property that wasn’t covered by the injunction. It opened up and everything was running just like it had been. The good government people were like ‘Oh, shoot’ when they couldn’t beat him.
I wanted to asked you about a column you wrote about a viral Florida story. The mugshot of a man with grease paint under his eyes was everywhere, and it turned out to have a sad backstory. Your book manages to tell crazy stories while avoiding a mean-spirited tone. How does that inform what you write about?
The thing you have to remember is: in Florida, tragedy often wears the face of comedy. And so there’s a lot there that we laugh at, but when you poke at it, it’s actually very sad. A lot of the crazy stories that happen in Florida happen because we’re 49th in the U.S. for funding for treating mental illness. When you look at it that way you think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not as funny as I thought it was.’ Nevertheless, some of the stuff that happens is just so crazy there’s nothing you can do but laugh. . . . The road rage story where the guy ran over himself — yeah, he injured himself, but the fact that he was the aggressor in the road rage incident is what makes it funny.
Is there something you like about the direction Florida is taking?
Yes, I like seeing so many Florida people running for president. I thought that was a great development. I hope that next time all 17 or 18 people running for president are from Florida, because I think that would be a wonderful thing to witness.
What’s an element of a Florida story that always makes you laugh?
I have to admit, anything involving an unusual weapon gets my attention. One of my favorites, and I don’t think I included it in the book, was a guy who showed up to a backyard picnic to attack his ex-wife and his mother-in-law grabbed a Tiki Torch and whacked him upside the head with it. It caught his hair on fire. His mugshot was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
If You Go
Who: Craig Pittman
When: 8 p.m. July 29
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Information: 305-442-4408; www.booksandbooks.com