Make no mistake, the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee is hideous. It is a tall, rectangular, austere, Soviet monstrosity. It towers over the city and was built in the late 1970s, a time when a lot of mistakes were made. The historic capitol directly in front of it, however, is quite lovely. It was built in the mid-1800s and has that quintessential Jeffersonian dome in the middle. These days the old capitol is a museum, which I managed to duck into a half hour before closing. Both the senate and house chambers were being repainted, but I could still look inside to see the adorable old rooms. I checked out the various museum exhibits, including a collection of old political cartoons that marked the various debates that have come up in the state’s political history. I wandered through the old governor’s office and watched a video message from the current governor, Rick Scott.
Governor Scott was having a bit of trouble next door, as my visit came about a week after the Martin/Zimmerman verdict. Several police officers were coming out of the back entrance to the current capitol building as I walked past. Inside a group of young people had set up shop in front of the governor’s office, demanding that he hold a special session of the state congress to re-examine the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. The building was closed for the weekend, and the protestors were expected to remain there without air conditioning until it re-opened on Monday morning. Unable to get in until Monday, I took a few pictures of the building’s exterior, trying to find its good side. It doesn’t have one.
It started to rain and I rushed back to my car to meet my host Currie and her mother at a local Mexican restaurant. The three of us were going out for dinner and a movie. We saw The Great Gatsby, and Currie and I agreed that either too much or not enough seemed to happen in the film.
We went back to Currie’s house, which is unbelievably adorable. The walls are all brightly painted, the curtains and upholstery covers are handmade patchworks of Currie’s own creation. There is art on every wall and an old stained glass piece in front of every window. Sometimes words and phrases are written directly onto the wall, including my personal favorite in the living room: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Currie helped me plan out some of my activities for the next day, and invited me to come with her to church in the morning. After the service, I headed over to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of seeing an alligator. I was, after all, in Florida. I pulled over several times to scan the water, but always came up short. At one point I parked my car next to a couple of locals out fishing, and on my way back from yet another fruitless search one of them called out, “There’s a little gator over here if you want to take a picture.” Apparently I had been wearing my intentions on my sleeve. I walked over to where the woman was pointing and sure enough, there was a tiny alligator, not much more than a baby. I took a picture and thanked her.
The nearby Riverside Cafe had been recommended to me, and Currie told me to get the smoked mullet if it was available. While pulling a filet of smoked fish directly off the bone is not normally my cup of tea, the fish was pretty good. After lunch I headed up to Wakulla Springs, which is one of the many places in Florida that can lay claim to a “Fountain of Youth” connection. Despite the warm temperature, the spring water is always a bit chilly. That doesn’t stop hundreds of visitors from flocking to it every year.
Sweaty from the heat, I decided to throw on my swimsuit and join in. Wakulla is well-developed, with parking, bath houses, food, and a lodge. There’s a floating dock for swimmers to rest on, and a two-story tower structure for jumping. Local minerals give the water a brown hue, which creates the sensation of swimming in over-steeped tea. I swam out to the dock, and sat there with the other swimmers to warm up again. I imagined conquistadors pushing their way through hot, muggy, swampy forests, only to have the trees open up to reveal a beautiful lake that had sprung up from the ground. A lake that was cold and dark, but always safe to drink. Wakulla Springs didn’t need to be the Fountain of Youth, it would have been fantastic just as it is.
Back home Currie showed me an article in the newspaper advertising a poetry reading that evening. She thought might interest me as a writer. I decided to go, but got a bit wrapped up in writing and suddenly found myself running late and rushing to the coffee shop. When I arrived the place was about half full, and there was no indication of a performance taking place. I went up to the counter to ask, and the barista said, “Yeah, they’re doing that sometime tonight.” He pointed to the next room to indicate where it would be, and I ordered a drink. As I was paying a group of about six or seven people my parents’ age walked in and began rearranging chairs and throwing their coats over them. I asked if they were using all the chairs at the table (since it seemed there were none left), and one of the men said with a smile, “Go ahead and sit wherever, we’ll figure it out.”
As everyone settled in with their drinks, I learned that there was considerable miscommunication about the time of the event, but that the featured poet would be arriving soon. The baby boomers were all friends with each other as well as with the poet herself, and most were part of the local writing and theater scene. I told them about my trip and my writing, and one man handed me a business card saying, “Let me know if you’re ever interested in producing one of your plays in our area.”
The poet arrived and gave her reading. The space was small and cramped, and she had to read with audience members pushing in on all sides, including behind her. While her poetry was good, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable performing it and tended to make jokes about her work and herself as a way to make things seems more casual. She was reading partially out of her published book of poems, and at one point asked the audience to call out page numbers at random to decide what she’d read next. After it was decided that enough time had passed, she gave her bow and we applauded. As I was getting up to leave, one of the men I had been chatting with earlier came over to me.
“I live just down the street,” he told me. “This group of us, we’re all old friends, and every Sunday we gather at my house to watch Masterpiece Theater. Would you like to join us?”
The cafe is situated right next to a lake, and we walked a few blocks on the shore to the man’s house. It’s a big, beautiful place with dinosaur stained glass in the windows. There were bowls of candy all over the coffee table in front of the TV, and I was given a plate to load up on the food leftover from the evening’s potluck. The poet eventually joined us, and fixed herself a plate as well. I called Currie to let her know I’d be a bit late, and she laughed as she told me she wasn’t surprised I had managed to make some new friends. I found a good spot in front of the TV, and the seven of us watched a delightful evening of intriguing British mystery.
The next day I said goodbye to my wonderful host and headed back towards the center of town. I’d been told that the view from the giant, ugly capitol building is quite nice, and I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing the protestors after they had been held up in the building all weekend. I went inside the new capitol and was greeted by a polite gentleman with a pamphlet map of the facility. He pointed out some of the highlights, and I made note of where the governor’s office was. I assumed I would see some protestors walking around, but I couldn’t pick out any from the handful of people passing by. I did, however, see an awful lot of police officers. I walked over to the section of the building that held the governor’s office. There were several more cops, including a pair standing on either side of the lobby entrance to the office. These two seemed more serious and intimidating than the others. I walked up slowly, pretending to be interested in the photos of past governors that lined the hallway. When I got close to the lobby I hesitated, and one of the officers gave a huge, friendly smile. “You’re welcome to go in,” he told me. I thanked him and went in the lobby. No one was there. I walked back out. I wandered around for a bit, checked out the observation deck, and even slipped into the interfaith chapel for a moment. Before leaving I made one last pass near the governor’s office, this time seeing five or so young people sitting on the lobby couches. A friendly-looking woman was standing nearby. She looked to be in her early twenties, and was looking at me as I looked at the protestors. She was one of the organizers of the protest for the group Dream Defenders, and we struck up a conversation. She told me about their protest and the interaction they had with the governor the previous Friday.
“We asked for a special session to reconsider Stand Your Ground,” she told me. “He said he wouldn’t do it, but that he’d pray for us.” She shot me a sarcastic smile.
I asked where everyone was, and she said most had gone off to shower and eat breakfast. They planned to return later that day and stay until the governor listened. I wished her luck and was on my way.
About a month later, the Dream Defenders ended their protest. They planned to move their efforts towards individual lawmakers and registering young voters. Before I left Tallahassee I talked to my host Currie about the protest and she shook her head. “The problem is that everyone in the state legislature likes the law. We need to get rid of them first.” Perhaps she’s right, and that seems to be the conclusion the Defenders have come to. When I think back on Tallahassee, one moment comes to mind more than anything else. While I was touring the historic capitol I sat down to watch a short intro video about the history of government in Florida. Near the end, as the film began to cover modern day changes, the narrator proudly claimed, “Florida has won awards for good government.” There was no expanding on the statement, just a single sentence implying that at one time someone, somewhere, felt that the State of Florida was doing something well. I wonder who it could have been.