Migrations Dead-Guy Shirts and Motel Kids: Immigrant Life in Florida
After immigrating from Finland, I adopted Florida and all its freaks, swindlers, addicts, and charismatic criminals.
One afternoon in the nineties, our friend Angie showed up at our house in Palm Beach Gardens wearing an oversized, secondhand polo shirt. Angie was closer to my sister’s age than she was to mine, but when we were kids, we cohered as a group while our parents wasted the weekends away. Her tiny frame was swimming in the shirt, which to me looked chic—it was retro before I understood what retro was, the graceful claim of a style from outside of your own time—and I was jealous of the effortlessness with which she did it. Angie told us that the shirt came from a bagful of free clothes that used to belong to a dead guy. They were soft polos and button-down shirts worn almost to transparency, with his name written in marker across every tag: Arthur B.
My sister and I befriended Angie the way that kids make friends: by being around each other often enough. Angie’s parents were the proprietors of the motel where my family landed after we arrived in Florida, and our fathers were acquainted with the same person—a glib, white-collar type whose business was helping newcomers “get established” by roping them into overpriced leases and dealings that would never turn a profit. Angie’s family had been in Palm Beach County for years, operating the motel he hooked them up with, where we ended up living for our first few American weeks.
It’s hard to explain that Florida wasn’t strange to me at first. It didn’t start being strange, in fact, until I left it behind and heard people from other states make it a punchline. In 1994, it was just a place where everything I could pick up and hold in my hands was new. My parents had visited, but only once, and they’d come back marveling in equal amounts about EPCOT Center as about the existence of Happy Hour two-for-one specials. When they got back to Finland, they unloaded a suitcase of Costco candy and showed us pictures of themselves on rental bikes, leaning on palm trees, smiling in the sunshine. I went to school with a secret about how I wouldn’t finish the year with my classmates.
Most of what was in those photos from their weeklong vacation wasn’t particular to the state of Florida itself. They never saw any other part of the United States before deciding to move us there. Until I left it, I didn’t know that in adopting Florida, I adopted all its freaks and swindlers and addicts and charismatic criminals too. Everything was new at first, and then when it wasn’t new anymore, it was normal. This didn’t happen in stages that moved from the grand to the particular, America first and Florida second. Florida was America.
To get there, we sold all our stuff and then took a meandering series of plane rides from Helsinki to Moscow, then from Moscow to Ireland, then from Ireland to Miami. The last leg of the flight took place on New Year’s Eve on a bouncy Russian airbus that served nine-year-old me sparkling wine as the clock struck midnight, St. Petersburg time. Upon our arrival, I threw up at the terminal; this is my first American memory. We remained stuck at immigration for hours. My sister and I napped agitatedly on the ground in between rows of seats as my parents tried to translate to the youthful officer what exactly we were doing in the country and why, sharing a single dictionary between them.
By the time the terminal finally spat us out, it was deep into the morning of January 1st. I was delirious from the time difference, and the humid Miami air felt like a breath on my skin, heavy and unreal. And then, a small miracle: We didn’t expect anyone to be waiting, but there was Angie’s dad, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a sign that said our last name. We piled into the car and he drove us three hours north towards morning in his boxy old Cadillac the color of fool’s gold.
I’d known we were to live our first days at the motel, and I’d packed into some nylon luggage everything we didn’t sell or give away back home. But as my parents were flipping through their bright yellow book for the right words to explain the circumstances of our arrival, the airline, operating on a skeleton crew for the holiday, locked our bags away. Our things were supposed follow us to Lake Worth later that week, but this also meant that we were in Florida with no clothes but the ones on our backs.
Back in Finland, I had a strict morning routine that consisted of eating thick-skinned oatmeal and then putting on my snowsuit and taking a long walk to school in polar semi-darkness. I’d walk under a highway overpass and past a soccer field that, for most of the year, served as a hockey field. The field was always freshly plowed, and the snowbanks accumulated alongside it all winter, which, by the end of the season, felt like crossing a small mountain range to get to school. But at the Seven Palms Motel, there was no snow and no script to follow. It was hot outside, and my snowsuit had been sold. I wasn’t enrolled in school yet, and I had no uniform to wear. So I flipped on the TV right in front of me and changed the channels until I found cartoons.
Later, my father returned from Kmart with a grab bag of clothes that included a bright neon swimsuit with vertical stripes. Pulling on the suit legitimized me into a motel kid, there on semi-permanent holiday like the other kids of vacationers. I woke up, swam, ate whatever random fast food was put in front of me—Arby’s, Burger King, Long John Silver’s—and drained Pepsi after Pepsi from the mini fridge. The butt of the swimsuit pilled from my sitting on the pool’s unpolished concrete rim before launching myself in. Winter was high tourist season, so there were lots of other kids, but they came and went, there for a week, two at most, and then they were gone. But Angie and her older sister milled around every single day after school, like my sister and I, and eventually we all became friends. Angie’s swimsuit was from Kmart too.
Eventually, my parents moved us from the motel into an apartment, got jobs, and enrolled me and my sister in school. But the vacation went on every weekend. The apartment complex was filled with other young Finns who liked partying on the weekends, some of them parents, some of them not. The centerpiece of the complex was the pool, so that’s where everyone gathered to do vodka shots under the stars. I look back on it now and realize that my parents were just young adults who happened to have children. There were half a dozen of us kids; the pool was our domain during the daylight hours, and when the adults took it over at night, we roamed through the unlocked apartments doing whatever.
I recently watched Sean Baker’s extraordinary The Florida Project and recognized so much of my childhood—we weren’t mired in the kind of precarious poverty that the film depicts, but my parents made little money at the construction site and the nursing home, and so found their own small hustles to make ends meet. And though I wasn’t nearly as unsupervised as the film’s young protagonist Moonee, I felt close to her when she chose to create chaos inside a system built by adults. I remember sitting undetected behind the shower curtain with my best friend at one of those parties as drunk adults used the bathroom. We froze into stillness every time someone entered, and stifled giggles every time we heard a fart. I still always look behind the curtain when I use strangers’ toilets.
In pictures from that time, everyone looks so nineties Florida: florals and light denim and wraparound sunglasses on our sunburnt parents, bike shorts and Blossom hats on me and the other girls, the boys in swim trunks and oversized No Fear shirts. And hand-in-hand with the clothes is a memory of music, lingering across those weekend-long parties. I remember the accordion player with his big, gin-blossom nose; the way Angie’s dad’s lower lip stuck out as he hunched over his electric guitar; my own showboat father, shirtless in a vest and a cowboy hat, singing Finnish standards with his strong, warm voice. In the pictures, the blue-green light of the pool falls across everyone’s faces as they’re caught laughing into the morning hours. In the pictures, the hot wings never get cold.
Something I recognize now is that the parties often lasted long enough to turn a little weird, the way parties do if people don’t want to move past them and into reality again. Someone made out with a person they weren’t married to. Someone kicked out the window of a minivan. These people were our parents and neighbors, but at the time, they were just partying, the way I have found myself partying since. They were partying for their best selves, and to halt the time that was passing them by.
We’d moved to the north part of the county by the time Angie came around dressed in her dead-guy shirts. My father returned to Finland to nurse his deepening addictions, and my mother moved house to extricate herself from an immigrant enclave that started to feel stifling. My sister and I continued to live in hand-me-downs, secondhand trash dropped off at the house and rummaged through to create personal style. As I grew older and my body grew uncomfortable, I embraced oversized tees that I imagined hid things from the world. I was feeling around for an identity, and when Angie walked wearing Arthur B, I saw one.
I remember the moment with the shirt so powerfully. The twinge of envy I felt was not about the object of the shirt itself; it would never have looked right on me. What I was jealous of was the seeming deliberateness of the choice, and the nonchalance with which she wore it to the effect of personal style. It was just like how she and her sister were already at the motel, fully formed when we arrived and began our fumbling. To choose a way you want to define yourself and then dress deliberately toward fulfilling that vision was magic to me. It was a clean talent. I didn’t know how to make other people see me, but I wanted to.
Angie and my sister continued to be friends, but my best friend moved back overseas, and I was lonely. Over time, my introversion steered me toward goth. As a style, it worked perfectly because it was aesthetically obvious in a way I liked: Visual signs that said don’t talk to me were a way to have control over my friendlessness. Once I knew what I was going for, the task of browsing Goodwill racks and garbage bags of discarded club clothes was easy. When we went to the Goodwill, my sister gravitated toward grunge antifemininity, and I rifled through the racks for anything black or synthetic. Period details also helped—I wore ripped-up eyelet slips underneath every skirt and dress I had. My style, though uncomfortable in the heat, was finally beginning to feel like mine. It felt like a uniform, and after awhile, it was even a way to make friends again: Say Isn’t it fucking hot? to someone also suffering in vinyl pants in the sunshine, and you’ll be guaranteed to have at least one thing in common. At least you’re both committed.
In another picture I keep, I’m in high school, and it’s taken on a night my new best friend and I are headed to the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Lake Worth. We pose seriously in our regalia, our bangs gelled into spikes and our eyes lined all the way around. I have a studded dog collar around my neck. Next to us, there’s my sister and Angie, wearing the discards from our goth dress-up pile just to amuse themselves. It’s all vinyl and lace and feather boas, and they’re making faces at the camera like they know it’s corny and overwrought. I know it is, too, looking at the picture. But I didn’t know it at the time, or didn’t care, and now I feel tenderly toward my own seriousness—I look like someone who found something she was looking for and doesn’t mind if other people notice.
At the end of The Florida Project, Sean Baker suddenly switches from a 35-millimeter camera to an iPhone to capture Moonee and her best friend as they run hand-in-hand into the happiest place on earth. It’s a sudden change in perspective, too different from the rest of the film not to notice, and it has the effect of making you feel like you’ve left someplace. And, of course, you have. The film is often funny and charming because of its charismatic stars, and bleak equally as often because of its scenery and situations, and the ending scene feels like a fantastic diversion into unreality away from both of those things. There’s no real-life equivalent of this sudden shift for me—maybe there isn’t ever, for anyone. But something keeps me returning to these strange and golden moments, and when I look at the pictures that serve to corroborate the memories, I feel the blur of time, and I feel myself hurtling forward.