The King of Florida and Other Roadside Attractions
Like much of Florida, it appears both ridiculous and dangerous and gambling is involved. I think. I still don’t understand it.
At home, I asked if our roommates’ cat meowed so much because it wasn’t getting enough attention. “No,” one roommate said. “We stopped loving the cat because he won’t stop meowing.” Much of the nation feels this way about Florida. I still love that cat.
At work, I answered phones, packed and shipped, ordered office supplies, and printed “honorary stock,” on certificate paper from Office Depot. On the same generic award paper grocery stores used to announce the employee of the month, paper that screamed both sincerity and last-minute panic, I typed in the name of clients, declaring them shareholders. They were print-on-demand promises of wealth for the buyers, for the sales guys. The lords. They were of a kind; between forty and seventy. They talked as though they were meant for better things, and not that better things had come and gone. There was a verbal altercation between one of the lords and The King. They were in the back of the office. The King was taller than the sales guy, I remember him as looming over the smaller man. Though The King always loomed.
“Nice Boxster. Too bad it’s not a real Porsche.”
“Oh, and you got a real Porsche?”
“People who drive Boxsters, ain’t got no soul.”
The soulless Boxster owner rolled up his sleeves, ready to throw himself at The King. A sales guy, who never said what car he owned or whether or not he had a soul, pushed them apart.
I drove a used car purchased with money my parents had set aside for my wedding. It was a rental in a former life, and drove like a car broken in by ten thousand asses.
One salesman was a former jai-alai player who resembled a refrigerator with a gray mustache. He had two children and a wife who had, at some point, found jai-alai an enormous turn-on. As a northern transplant, I had no idea what jai-alai was, or how much a part of south Florida culture it is. It’s played on something that resembles a squash court. Players wear a scoop-shaped basket on one hand, which they use to fling a solid ball at insanely fast speeds to earn points in a complex system people wager on the way you do horse racing. Like much of Florida, it appears both ridiculous and dangerous and gambling is involved. I think. I still don’t understand it. A sliding glass window divided my office from the sales floor and every day, the jai-alai sales guy would lean through it to talk my ear off about his heyday on the courts. I imagined jai-alai players wore uniforms that looked like the costumes in Tron. Decidedly unsexy. I let him hit on me until I had to print more honorary stock certificates.
One day I came home to find a smear of blood on the carpet. The kitten-headed cat had eaten my boyfriend’s gerbil. I should have been angry, but I wasn’t. The gerbil routinely bit me. And the cat had left clues—a small crime scene to investigate, my own cozy murder mystery in the tropics. I didn’t love the gerbil less for biting me and doing what gerbils do and you can’t stop loving a cat for doing what cats do. Maybe it’s better to decide not to love them in the first place. My roommates brought home dates, new potential partners. They’d quiz my boyfriend and me about them, using us as spies and judges.
“What was he like? Was he good-looking?” Was he better looking than me?
“Did he bring her inside?” Did they have sex in my bed?
Their questioning had a squirrelly desperation that came from not knowing if they wanted to stay, let go, or do anything at all. There was something inherently funny about being given the third degree by someone sitting in a Papasan chair. Anxiety-inducing questions shot forth from a throne of tropical relaxation.
I lied and said every new date was terrible and boring. My loyalties lay with the cat, who had at least been honest in its betrayal. The gerbil’s empty plastic ball was used to trap a possum that got into the apartment. Lured into the ball with food, once inside, the possum hissed, yowled and urinated as it rolled all over the house.
Florida, and the apartment, felt like a shell about to crack.
I lived near Coral Castle. Florida is a state of roadside attractions, which are as much about hope as they are about grifting. Castle is a misnomer, part of the grift. It is a sprawling arrangement of two-ton coral blocks that vaguely hint at a building. It was built by Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian immigrant, as a tribute to a girl he loved. It’s a marvel of engineering in the fact that it was constructed by a single person. No one knows how he did it. At one point, dismayed by an encroaching subdivision, Leedskalnin picked up his castle, one block at a time, and moved it ten miles from Florida City to Homestead by himself.
“We stopped loving the cat because he won’t stop meowing.” Much of the nation feels this way about Florida. I still love that cat.
The tour I took was guided by a series of yellow metal boxes, each with a speaker from which, at the press of a button, a tinny voice emerged, stilted as though reading from a teleprompter that wasn’t keeping pace. It was Ed Leedskalnin, ready to narrate his life and describe each room in his castle. Room is a loose term; the castle is more rock garden than house. Leedskalnin’s voice has the flattened vowels of a Latvian accent, and charmingly calls himself Ed. He understood he’d built something incredible, but that it was also a failure. Ed was a brilliant engineer but a poor sculptor, and most of the coral he carved remains stubbornly blockish. In the dining room sits a crudely carved heart-shaped table and chairs, a place where Ed imagined he would dine with the fiancée who broke his heart. Ripley’s Believe It or Not called it the World’s Largest Valentine. His love was never returned.
Wandering from room to room, box to box, marveling at Ed’s obsession, two things became abundantly clear. Ed was a genius and by current laws, Ed was also a pedophile. In his book A Book in Every Home, Leedskalnin writes disturbing ideas about young girls’ purity, how girls aged sixteen or seventeen are at their “sweetest,” and how, to preserve her daughter’s purity, a mother would be in the right to sleep with young men who sought to court her daughter in order to keep their lust at bay. Agnes Scuff was the fiancée who spurned Ed Leedskalnin the day before their wedding, inspiring him to immigrate and build his flight of architectural fancy. She was sixteen years old. The faded boxes that narrate Ed’s life refer to her as his “Sweet Sixteen.” Ed was twenty-six-years old and courting a sixteen-year old. There is no box on which to press a button and hear Agnes’s voice. There is no insight as to what she thought about this older man, other than that she refused to marry him. All that remains is a gigantic literal and metaphorical erection.
The ex-jai-alai star who sold phony shares in a company and hit on a far too young for him secretary was not as different from Ed as he should be. I am not as different from the ex-jai-alai star as I should be. None of us believed that better days might have come and gone; we felt that we were on the cusp of good fortune. I ran to Florida hoping to figure out a relationship, to create a new self, to begin fresh. All of it is half madness built on bad ideas. This was how I wound up watching a couple end their relationship as I was embarking on mine, and working on the fringes of an enormous grift.
I showed up to open the office one morning in my best cheap suit pants and borrowed blazer to find The King alone, waiting for me. The office was dark and without the salesmen in it, oddly sterile. The lights flickered. On my desk was a box of garbage bags, likely purchased from the same Office Depot as our print-on-demand stock certificates. The woman I am now would have turned around and left. But at twenty-one, authority could still frighten me into obedience.
“We got the call,” The King said as he paced the room. The call could have meant anything. I knew The King had wanted to relocate. He’d started having me print business cards for a new venture. The cards had a small globe in the center. He said, “When I hand them to people, I want them to know I’m giving them the world.” Giving someone the world meant handing them a tear-off business card with a bleeding ink-jet-printed Earth on it.
“The call?” I asked.
“The Security Exchange Commission. Rich tried to sell shares to a SEC investigator. I’m paying you out for two weeks. Shred everything, wipe the computers, then go home.”
The King left. Alone, check in hand, I looked at the computers. Wiping a hard drive does not in fact wipe a hard drive. I knew this from a friend who worked in forensic accounting. Shredding documents does not erase a paper trail. When the Security Exchange Commission receives phone calls from salesmen hawking phony shares,wiping or shredding cannot save you. They do nothing to erase data, or close bank accounts. Any exchange of money that isn’t a pure cash transaction is traceable. If the Security Exchange Commission has contacted you, they already have everything they need. To think shredding documents and erasing hard drives would help you is foolish—like building a castle to lure back a girl who has always known you’re too old and too creepy.
In parts of Florida, thunderstorms are more regular than any watch. I left the office shaking, check in hand from a company I’d just realized was a fraud, and drove into rolling darkness. A week later, my boyfriend and I went north to Orlando, where he would start a hospital internship and I would look for better work, legitimate work, all our possessions jammed into the smallest truck we could rent.
Orlando was easier, but stranger—a roadside attraction, scrubbed down and sanitized. My entire life there may have been a fugue state. This time my boyfriend and I had our own apartment, next door to the Holy Land Experience theme park, where centurions greeted guests and Jesus was crucified with alarming frequency. It’s likely that at some point, Jesus and I were in the same bar. There was another theme park within walking distance. I could throw in a load of laundry, ride a rollercoaster, and be back in time to move it to the dryer. I got a door-to-door sales job and my territory was deep in a kind of culture my pampered suburban self didn’t understand. I begged people to buy office supplies at houses where toilet seats had been nailed into trees, used as rings to anchor planters. I knocked on doors at in-home businesses at houses with both cars and boats on blocks in their yards. Everyone had what we now call side hustles, but what has been and always will be getting by. They were car people, fishing people, multi-level marketing people. Direct sales people. Like me, though I didn’t understand that then—I was still too fresh from having been involved in a grift to know who or what I was. I sold nothing. In retrospect, there’s no way I would have bought a thing from my prissy northern self either. Not even the legal pads, paper clips, staplers or filing systems I was selling. Not even if I needed them.
I temped at a real estate firm, at an aircraft supply company, at a document scanning firm, and at a vegan food factory. I know the gleeful horror of someone shouting that the vegan cheese extruder is clogged. Eventually, a hotel hired me. My hours were punched, the business was legitimate, and the hotel lobby had ducks that swam in a fountain. Most of the staff were transplants—young and from colder climates. We were looking for somewhere warm and cheap to live, somewhere to try being on our own. At the time, you could get an apartment with cash and a call to a friend as your reference. Florida was a good place to start out, which typically meant that we’d finish somewhere else. We were like the guests who flowed in and out of the hotel, just with longer stays.
Florida was a mismatched cat, ducks, palmetto bugs, and lizards slipping through cracks in walls and windows.
There was always a celebration for someone moving back home. Home in the hotel industry never seemed to be Florida. The word was always said with longing, forgetting all the things that made us move to Florida to begin with. I left when my boyfriend secured a medical residency in New York. Despite the large geriatric population and the number of hospitals and clinics, Florida is a difficult state for practicing medicine. The same spirit and cheap living that reward both grifters and ingenues breeds more malpractice lawsuits than a solo practitioner can insure against. For us, Florida was ripe for starting over, but not for staying. Just before I left, two friends from the hotel took me out for drinks.
When you drink at a conference hotel, you drink for free. Itinerant salesmen will keep sliding you gin and tonics for as long as you still have a center of balance, and beyond. I was well on my way to capsizing when my friends and I abandoned our salesmen and made our way to yet another bar. They buttressed me between them as we walked. Hospitality folks know each other and keep an eye out. I was pleasantly drunk, safe among tourists, among hotel people and park people who knew we were also hotel people and park people. My friends plied me with more drinks. The air was heavy, sweet, and music was all around us. I looked up.
“The ceiling in here is amazing,” I said. “The stars look so real.”
My friends laughed. It was an open-roof bar. I’d mistaken the sky for the ceiling of a theme park ride.
In Florida, it was easy not to notice that I was desperate. It felt like everyone was, and maybe they were. In the places I lived, poverty sat beside wealth, separated by a single gate. Divorce and marriage shared an apartment. I might not have noticed my car falling apart because there was a truck in the next lane with a homemade missile built from beer cans strapped into its bed. It was shortly after 9/11. The truck had a sign taped to it that read, “Hey Osama, This Bud’s For You.”
Years later, in a Brooklyn apartment with nothing so interesting as a theme park across the street, I searched for what happened to The King. In part, because I wondered if he’d died. I wondered if he’d been caught. I wondered if my youth and ignorance were any sort of defense for working there. I wondered too if there was anything about me and who I’d been at twenty-one that was worth defending. Scared, broke, and hopeful.
Despite his efforts to cover his trail, The King was tracked down by the Securities Exchange Commission and the IRS. He was prosecuted and fined well into seven figures and prohibited from claiming to be a broker or a financial professional. I’m sure he went back to grifting. For some people there is no other way. I didn’t have to sing like a canary, though I would have. I’d known nothing. I was green and young, and that’s what made me flee to Florida like it was made of hope. It is, maybe. The divorcing couple I lived with stayed together. The ex-jai-alai player is now a gambler, sitting on the other side of the jai-alai courts. I write for a living. We’ve all stumbled into where and who we wanted to be.
I love Florida desperately. In winter in New York, it exists as a land of inexpensive sunshine, a place where Northerners like me go to start over, be that in retirement, or just out of school and following a boyfriend. I went south with no real life or work experience. By the time I left I’d been an office manager, a salesperson, an executive assistant, knew the ins and outs of the hotel industry, had witnessed large-scale fraud, and had begun to write. When I think of Florida, there is always something growing in that thought, palm trees, the everglades, me. Perhaps that’s why I keep letting myself be gently reeled in; every visit is a greening. There are towns in it I still navigate by feel. When I step into the humidity, my shoulders and hips let go, I remember that sometimes the best food is the cheapest, and I get an itch to go see something weird. It’s a forthright place in that all the strange seeps from every crack, impossible to hide. I like that. I am that. When I dream of Florida, I dream about sweat and grasshoppers bigger than your hand span, about lies and grifts, and only needing a few dollars to make a new self.
Erika Swyler is the author of Light From Other Stars (Bloomsbury, May 2019) and The Book of Speculation . Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Catapult, VIDA Review, Monkey Bicycle, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter: @erikaswyler