Essays, Travel

From Florida

Orlando impressions: Good Folks

First, everyone drives everywhere. Rather like suburbs anywhere on earth, the only way people can realistically get around and do their daily tasks is to drive. From my billet to the Orlando Fringe is a fifteen-minute haul down the I-4 freeway, which like every freeway in the States that I’ve been on so far, is under never-ending construction. Reminds me of Edmonton, that way…

Floridians are, from this Canuck’s perspective, almost obsessively polite and engaging. It’s literally hard to buy a coffee without someone asking, “Well, haow arh yoo, honey?” or “Cain Ah help yoo, darlin?” When you’re handed a sandwich at the deli counter, the lady might fix you in an affectionate gaze and say, “yoo have yoursailf an absolutely wunnderful daiy!” And she makes a point of meaning it.

I think this habit of social engagement is drilled into Southerners, not only by the business principle that the customer who feels good will return, but by some cultural imperative learned in churches and schools. This morning, out for a walk to get a coffee and sit somewhere where I might write these words, I passed a gentleman, roughly my own age, grey-white like me. I said “good morning.” He responded, “Good Morning, Sir.” Perhaps in a society as militarized as this one (and it is unmistakably military), people get accustomed to chains of command.

Americans are more social animals than Canadians. They have less space around themselves, and they create less distance around themselves, than we do. Most Canucks expect to be left alone until there is a need to communicate, whereas most Americans will open a conversation, assume that you want to hear their story, or take it upon themselves to begin an encounter. I’ve heard strangers say surprising things to one another, explaining to strangers why they were late, or how they feel about their dogs or their life, in a way that only very eccentric Canadians do. A Vancouverite would look at you rather blankly if you encountered them on a walk and began to explain why you were limping, or how you felt about your job or your niece or your pet.

American grammar is an adventure. I went to buy thread at the Target store the other day. When I gave up searching and asked a cashier, she actually didn’t understand the word “thread” at first. (No doubt her mother would have, but who sews in a world where you throw everything away?) She referred the question to another woman, who advised me to “go down at the end, you see where the housewares is? Down the end from there.” The thread was indeed in the general locale of where the housewares was, but nowhere near the end of anything, not even an aisle. I heard a radio DJ confess, “I’m “confused in that.” Of course, everything is always “at” somewhere, as in “I don’t know where it’s at.”

I’m not being a grammar nazi making these remarks, I’m just taking note that there was clearly never a Miss Corcoran (that frightening face of my fifth grade), drumming the blackboard or a desktop with her pointer on behalf of the sacred laws of English grammar, in the average American’s life.

Americans work hard. They don’t distain lower-wage jobs the way, for example, Albertans did during the oil boom, but engage with them fully, and work hard at them. It’s an endearing quality. Broom-leaning isn’t a common American pastime. Perhaps the last fifteen years of relative economic hardship are responsible for this ethos, but I think it’s also cultural. I walked by the local Roman Catholic church today, located, along with the service agency it runs, in a large park. The gardener, who keeps the place looking beautifully manicured, raced by in his golf cart, a small stars-and-stripes flying from the rear, on his way to make something neater.

I tried to sift though the AM radio dials on my drive South. The bandwidth is largely taken up by the Christian Right, who preach against sin, not shy to preach against sinners as well, and the subtext and surtext of talk radio in the South is certainly how liberals are leading the USA adrift from its natural place in the order of things. I’ve seen one Trump bumper sticker reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” which was not at all surprising, except that the bumper was shared by a University of Florida sticker. I saw a t-shirt yesterday that read “HERE IS MY GUN PERMIT: The Third Amendment states….” The conflation embodies everything that distresses me about such people. Point out to this guy that “the right to bear arms” is not in the least incompatible with acquiring a permit to do so, and he would no doubt start yelling at you or, more to the point, might exercise his right to bear arms.

All in all, however, my trip to the USA is a pleasure. I feel like a foreigner here, and I am. The fact that Americans look a lot like me, and speak (more or less) the same language makes travel here more convenient than many places I have been in the past two years. I have a fellow-feeling for these bluff and engaging people. They are not shy, they engage each other, they believe in their society and they want to make it function. That impulse to cynicism (or at very least to irony) which is a Canadian’s birthright seems not to be shared by our cousins to the South. I would never consider changing the maple leaf, nor yet the fleur-de-lis or even the Red Ensign, for their battle-scarred flag (and yes, the Rebel flag is seen in places in the South as well), but they are by and large, very nice people. Their only weakness is their capacity to believe, like the muscle-bound guy forever pumping iron in his basement, that they’re not strong enough.

I am not a praying man, but if I were, I would pray that Donald Trump doesn’t win next November, because the world will be subject to Four More Years of American belligerence and exceptionalism. The people I’ve been pleasantly chatting with over the last while don’t need that any more than do the Mexican workers who do the lower-paying jobs in much of the nation, or the Persians who just want into the States so as not to be shot at. They’re good folks, too.

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