An Englishman's View of 2 weeks in Florida by:
Directly outside Sanford airport in Florida is an office belonging to Worldwide Transportation. I was much relieved to see it. Surely they would have no problem getting me to West Palm Beach my final destination two hundred miles away. The young man behind the desk however was astonished. He'd never had such enquiry. They only transported people to Orlando - nowhere else. Anything further they didn't know about. And this was a "Worldwide Transportation" company?
Sandford airport is devoted to processing people arriving in Florida who want to visit Disney World (which, thinking about it, is probably the `world' Worldwide Transportation refers to in their title). I was an oddity in wanting to go elsewhere. This left me with no other option but to telephone my friend John in West Palm Beach who'd offered to pick me up once I landed.
I changed a dollar note and obtained four quarters, and rang his number. A recorded voice warned me to have $2.70 ready. I couldn't believe this - that was more than £1.50! £1.50 just to phone two hundred miles away. I could phone anywhere in Britain for 10p. Land's End to John O' Groats it would still cost me only 10p. I went back to the bureau de change to get some dollar coins. "I can't give you that - I won't have any left," the cashier responded. "But you're a bureau de change. I want to change some money." This faultless logic uneased him. He relented slightly: "What do you want them for anyway?" "To make a phone call." "Oh well if you want to make a phone call I can sell you a phone card." This seemed a good solution though a bureau de change wasn't the first place I would have gone looking to buy a phone card. "How much is it?" "Ten dollars." "Ten dollars!" That was more than £6! £6 to make a 10p phone call! But I had no choice "OK, I'll take it," I said reluctantly.
The man slid out a plastic card from a whole wad of them he had under his desk. It came wrapped in cellophane. He carefully ripped off the wrapping. I thought he would then simply hand it over to me: but no. I was about to be given a good minute's worth of instruction in how to use it!
He held the card in front of me. There were two numbers on it: "First you phone this number," he said pointing to the top number. "Then you wait for an answer. When you hear the answer you press 1 for instructions in English. Then you press in your card number - that's this number here," he said pointing to the second number. "Then you press in 1 again to phone any number in America or 011 if you want to phone outside America. Then you press the number you want to contact." "What?" My knees buckling under me. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. The complexity of using a simple phone card. "Go through that again" I pleaded. He did
In all I had to phone thirty three digits before I got to hear my friend's phone ringing. I knew things were big in America but I never expected phone numbers to be that big.
There are many different restaurant chains in America and I can reliably inform readers the name of the one they should avoid at all costs: Uno. This is where my friend John took me. It was his first visit as well. The food was awful. The waiter though tried to make up for the food - he began playing it. "Hey, I can make a boat out of that!" exclaimed the waiter pointing at a large inedible crust of pizza had left on his plate when he came along with the bill. "D'y' wanna see?" "Sure. Go ahead," John encouraged. He seized the crust and spiked it with a cocktail stick on to which in turn he spiked the bill for the meal. The result was a crude looking model of the kon-kiki. "Hey! You could get across the Okeechobee on that. It's real sea worthy. Look!" He dipped his fingers in the glasses of water we'd been drinking from and began sprinkling his `boat' with liberal globs of water. "Hey, there's quite a storm out there tonight!"
I'm sure this never happens at the Ritz.
One nice cafe I visited was called The Loggerheads. It was situated in a park overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Juno. I was intrigued by the name of it as I explained to the waitress who served me: "There's a pub in Shrewsbury in Shropshire back in England called the Loggerheads as well." She looked blankly at me. I wondered for a moment did she understand English, then she spoke: "Well, it's nothing to do with us. Its not part of our franchise." The Loggerheads in Shrewsbury is five hundred years old. All of Juno is less than fifty. How could she possibly think the Salopian Loggerheads was in any way subservient to the Floridian one? I was almost at a loss for words - but I found some. "Of course, being at loggerheads means disagreeing with someone." Another blank stare. "At least that's what it means in England. Have you heard it said here?" She slowly shook her head. At least the food was good.
I later learnt the Loggerhead Turtle was a common visitor to the beach which the cafe overlooked. In England when the name was adopted as a name for pubs at the time, a few hundred years ago, it was synonymous with the word dunderhead - so it was doubly apt for the café in Juno.
I had my strangest conversation of all in Florida in Clementis Street - probably the nicest street in West Palm Beach: a street full of pavement cafes leading to a square with playing fountains. I was sitting outside one of these cafés when along ambled a gangling individual who wore a berry and still had an aura of the sixties about him. Michelle Pfeifer once compared her looks to a squashed tomato: this man's looks you could compare to a bagful - it was an extremely well worn face. A large satchel hung over one shoulder and he had a wad of drawing paper under the other. He obviously got by drawing portraits of people. "If you stand still awhile I'll draw your picture for you missey?" he called to every attractive girl walking by. He showed me some of his work. It was fairly awful. "Mind if I join you?" he asked when he detected my English accent. He genuinely wanted to chat. He wasn't interested in obtaining a commission - which was just as well as he wasn't likely to get one. The trouble was his mind was addled: years of drug abuse I suppose. He was away with the fairies: "See there's two types of people in this world - besides men and women that is - those that are controlled by aliens and those that ain't. I seen aliens - well people that was controlled by `em - like my wife - I was so good to that woman, I would cut up a water melon for her and give her little bits at a time in her mouth - but she was controlled by a spiritual rat - I saw it in her eyes one day - it wasn't her it was this rat alien that was controlling her - and I thought - my God! I've been living for five years with a Rat. - I'm born again by the way - God's spirit is not welcome here on earth - this is the devil's realm - they beat up Christ - beat up on him - you know they nailed him to a bench they drove these nails in him - he said he'd come back - and he has - I seen him, ooh about twice. One day I just saw his half face . . . ." And so he went on.
One day on my perambulations in Florida I thought I had stumbled across a new religion. I saw this long building set back from the road with two large Sphinxes set on either side of the building's entrance, like something you'd expect to see on a Hollywood set. There was a large sign at the start of the driveway leading up to the building: "Amara Shrine Temple" it read. Beneath the words was the shape of a scimitar. I investigated further. Next to the entrance was a large nameplate and beside each name were the strange positions they held: Chief Potentate, Chief Rabban, High Priest and Profit and Oriental Guide. Had I stumbled on some strange Jewish sect or revived Egyptian cult? I ventured in. There was a man hoovering. In a way it looked like the lobby of an hotel. The walls were lined with photographs of beaming men all wearing funny hats. The hats were like fezs with that word `Amara' ornately embroider on them and that scimitar symbol was on them as well. I took a closer look at one of the pictures: "To know him was to love him" it said underneath. I forget who he was - I didn't know him.
I approached the chap who was hoovering: "Excuse me, I'm somewhat bewildered, what is this place?" I asked employing my best English accent. He clicked off the hoover. "It's a Shriners' temple. Y' know, a sort of club house? We're sort of Freemasons. Yeah, we're part of that bunch." And he clicked on the hoover again. "Oh." I said. I was even more mystified. They may have been Freemasons but not as I knew them. I picked up a copy of their newsletter and left. I spent a good part of the afternoon reading it, getting engrossed in the bizarre world of Shriners. I wondered why I had never seen them feature in a Laurel and Hardy film - or had I? The whole movement seemed populated with people of that ilk.
Well, presumably they don't be frightening the horses that's the main things.
Something that certainly frightened me in Florida was visiting a "Sports Bar". I remember one day in Cork going into a pub and being confronted with an enormous TV screen twice the size of my front door. It had been introduced to relay some vital football match - they're all vital matches, of course, there's never one that isn't. Well, this sport's bar in Florida didn't just have one such screen it had three! And as if that wasn't enough it also had about twenty TV sets dotted around the room as well. About a third were showing the game that was being relayed on the large screens the others were showing at least three other different sports.
Where ever you looked in that bar you couldn't avoid seeing a TV screen. You couldn't avoid seeing the same minor action relayed over and over again in slow motion. I was most depressed. It was a vision of the future. "It will come. It will come," I kept repeating to the friend who had taken me there. "It'll come to England eventually. What you do today we do tomorrow." A wholly depressing thought.
It was George Bernard Shaw who supposedly said that England and America were two countries divided by a common language. There was only one occasion however I had any problem with American English. It was when I went in a foodstore and posed the question: "Do you have any tomatoes?". Now I should have thought about the manner in which I should said this beforehand. As the song says: "You say toe-mar-toe and I say t'mayda". Americans mostly say "t'mayda" but I say "toe-mar-toe". Initially, however, it seemed my pronounciation, had not caused a problem. "Sure. You want two eh?" the shop assistant responded. "Yes that's right." And I wondered just how she knew I only wanted two. But I guessed she knew the habits of single bachelors and she had me down as one as soon as she saw me. She ducked behind some gadgetry; there was a slight clunking and then she slapped two slips of paper on the counter. "Two dollars," she said. Expecting to see two red spherical objects and hear a slightly lower charge mentioned, I uttered a bewildered: "What?" "Two lotto tickets - that's two dollars." I was careful thereafter to make my pronouciation of tomatoes sound more like "t'maydas" rather than like "twolottos."
Preparing to travel back to England from Florida I discovered it was actually quite easy to journey from West Palm Beach to Sandford - there was a direct railway line! Sanford railway station was only four miles from Sanford airport. Why didn't Worldwide Transportation know this? Why didn't the Information kiosk next door know either?
If Sanford airport was the smallest international airport I'd ever been to, it's railway station was even less impressive - it was merel a halt. There was one building and no one around. I was surprised the train stopped there. I had some problems getting off the train. I opened the door and was faced with a drop of three feet! In negotiating this leap I discovered that American trains are equipped with folding steps which I should have pushed out. Having got off I found the collapsible steps hung out slightly, thus preventing me from being able to close the door. The steps could only be retracted by someone standing inside - and there wasn't anyone. The train was going to leave with a door wide open! I hastily moved along the train trying to find a figure of authority. I soon found one: a guard was at the next door pulling back the retractable steps belonging to it." "I'm terribly sorry but I wasn't able to close the door of the next carriage." "What! You got out of the next carriage!" "Yes, well, you see, I wanted to get off here." "You dumb clot this is where you're suppose to get off!" But before I could receive any further admonishment the train slowly pulled away out of the station on its long journey to New York - I'd be back in England afore it got there.
Now you know, or at least I know, why in American films there's always a guard standing by passengers as they exit off trains. But it's left me wondering - how do the guards shut the doors when they get off?
I told the taxi driver who drove me from the station to the airport, how when I'd arrived two weeks before, my friend John had driven all the way from West Palm Beach to pick me up and if I'd known about the train line I wouldn't have heard of him driving such a long distance. "Ah, distance is nothing in America," responded the taxi driver. "What did I read once? Ah yes it was this: the difference between America and England is this, in America a hundred years is really old whereas in England it's nothing at all. In England a hundred miles is a really long distance whereas in America it's nothing at all."
Reaching the airport I was reminded of the strangest incident of all I had in Florida. It was a church spire that reminded me. After I had made contact with John, I had a good few hours to wait before he arrived, so I decided to go for a small wander. The terrain surrounding the airport was very flat and void. The only noticeable object I could see was a church spire maybe a mile and a half away. I decided to walk out to it expecting perhaps to find a little community, a cafe possibly - but there was nothing just a church: Iglesia Christiana it was called. It was a Latin American church, possibly Cuban and, unusual for a Latin American church, it was Protestant, probably evangelical. There was a church hall attached and a few people were clearing up after some function. For supposed Christians they were most unfriendly. They were loath to be engaged in any conversation. They regarded me very suspiciously. I mentioned I was waiting for a friend to arrive and they urged me to get back to the airport in case I missed him - even though I explained the distance he had to travel. So I left. And as I left I received this almost chilling valediction: "Have a nice day - and stay out of trouble my friend." I knew what was wrong, I knew what disturbed them: I had come travelling by foot. Some weeks after I got back to England I sent them a card to ask them a simple question: what sort of a car they thought Christ had.