I am sitting with my laptop computer in a Fort Myers motel on the Tamiami Trail, heading into the home stretch of the first leg of my "Orange Crush" book tour. We started in Jacksonville two weeks ago, circling the coast of Florida clockwise. Tomorrow, Sarasota, then homecoming in Tampa. I feel like that Italian marathon runner staggering into the stadium and running the wrong way, the crowd yelling for him to turn around and head for the finish line.
Except there is no finish line. I'm home for a few days of Tampa Bay events, then out of state for three weeks, and back to Florida and it doesn't end for another four months. Maybe normal people can travel and function, but not me, which is curious because my books are mainly about traveling. That and murder. But I like the traveling part better. That's my problem. I love Florida too much. Telling me I have to do a promotional tour of the Sunshine State is like giving an alcoholic the keys to a liquor store. I want to take it all in at once, drink every last drop of the scenery and the history. But at least I don't talk on the cell phone while driving. I take photographs. I've got all these great shots from across the state: beautiful stretches of landscape and historic buildings and cars scattering out of my way.
The place I'm in right now is great. I love all these old Tamiami Trail motels, the gaudy neon signs and crusty desk clerks and the Paper Strip of Total Confidence across the toilet seats. Besides, I'm trying to stretch my publisher's travel budget as far as possible so we can add more events. But the hookers are starting to get on my nerves. When do they sleep? They make far too much noise and seem to subsist entirely on cigarettes and Snickers bars. ... As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up: I had to change hotels after one book signing because I rebuffed one of them as I got out of my car with a suitbag-then she started calling me in my room. You have to give her points for industriousness; but if you ask me, that was a little out of line.
On the bright side, SARASOTA Magazine has taken pity on me, commissioning a series of articles to keep me busy, like having a rehab patient build a clipper ship out of popsicle sticks. The magazine ran an excerpt from "Orange Crush" a few months ago, and I've also written for it about finding possibly the worst place to live in Sarasota and about meeting all my favorite authors at book festivals until they called security.
This time they requested a first-person report from the book tour, wanting me to describe what I'm seeing out there on the highways and byways of Florida, and what I'm seeing is a lot of rain. This is the wettest drought I've ever been through. It rained like the devil in Jacksonville, all down A1A to St. Augustine. It poured in Daytona Beach and deluged in Orlando, just before my Chrysler sprayed transmission thingies all over I-4. I ended up calling a friend and renting a Malibu at the airport. We're in a garage at Orlando International near midnight, ready to transfer my possessions to the rental and it's all spread out there on the pavement-all this book tour promotional stuff and laundry and Triscuit boxes. We stop and stare at it, just laying there, looking really depressing, like the stuff that washed up on the beach in Castaway. My friend asks what motivates me to put up with this kind of life, and I say I used to work on the night desk at The Tampa Tribune. He says, "oh," and we start picking up luggage.
So what is going on out there in Florida? What's the word on the street? In short, general confusion, plus residual bitterness at all the stupid Floridian jokes. We're now at Election-plus-268-days, and we still can't get that monkey off our backs. For a few weeks we were able to pass the dunce cap to California, thanks to power failures and the fine public service record of Rep. Gary Condit. Then we watched heartsick as events began to roll backward toward the Sunshine State like that Indiana Jones boulder.
What? You say Condit has a brother? And you say he's a dirtball and an ex-con? And he's a fugitive and nobody knows where he is? Gee, where on earth would such a person hide out? I don't know. Why don't we look, say, in Florida?
They grabbed Condit's brother in Dania. I was actually a few blocks away at the time, taking in some jai alai between book signings. I've always had a soft spot for the Basque sport, but I currently must go to places like Dania because my favorite seat at the demolished Tampa Fronton is now a lug wrench display at Home Depot. But even in Dania, the game is not the same; and I longed for the old days of the great champions Gallardo and Ochoa as I put another two dollars on a player named Jimbo. I came out of the fronton, and the satellite trucks had begun to circle. Then I heard they had dragged Condit's brother from a nearby apartment. Just my luck. I was inside, pouring money down the drain waiting for Jimbo to break out of his slump when I could have been outside in the middle of the national All-Condit-All-The-Time TV show on every channel.
But that's how it's gone all trip. I can't complain. "Orange Crush" has gone into a second printing after only three weeks, and, along with my first two books, "Florida Roadkill" and "Hammerhead Ranch Motel" is available at fine bookstores everywhere, thoughtful gifts for all occasions. They're even available overseas in a variety of languages. The French copy of "Florida Roadkill" has this great noir photographic negative of a busy intersection on the cover, although if you look closely, there's a street sign in the background that says "Cleveland." But the French are a powerful people, and who am I to question?
People often ask me: Now that you don't work for a newspaper anymore, are you going to run out of material? Answer: A book tour is weirder and freakier than anything you'll ever see in the newspaper business. The traveling, the late-night greasy spoons, the convenience stores and the random people you brush against just trying to make it from one place to another-this is where the rubber meets the road, the face of Florida up close and personal, a coast-to-coast freak-o-rama in Dolby Surround-Sound. Body-piercing, tattoos, haircuts that you used to only see after brutal hazing rituals. When did low self-esteem become so aggressive?
I've decided to incorporate this phenomenon into my security procedures. The mistake I'd been making was coming back to the room in the suit I wore to the book signing. Too much of a target. Instead, while stopping at 7-Eleven to pick up dinner, I change into my "crazy" clothes: sweatpants with holes, an inside-out T-shirt and those laceless sneakers my wife wants me to throw out. I top it off with my baseball cap with the moose antler. But I wear the cap backwards because I be bad! Even the hookers give me wide clearance.
Still, I'm no match for reality. There are people on every street corner you couldn't make up; and if you did, you'd be drummed out of the business for writing bad fiction. Some of them even wander into bookstores.
Like the elderly woman who began attacking audience members for laughing at my satire and being lazy and not appreciating America until the store's host had to close down the event ... and the man who asked me if I knew herpes was mentioned in the Old Testament ... and the middle-aged woman who came up to the table during autograph time and began talking about her high school reunion, then about a prank some neighbors played on her, the same people who are always spreading rumors about her, and then we're back in some sad little scene in her childhood before leaping forward into a series of bizarre recollections, ecclesiastical theories and words that didn't go together, and her voice is getting louder and suddenly she looks like she's going to laugh and cry at the same time before she shifts gears and says, "Yeah, that's what he told me. But I know what he was really trying to say. Do you know what he was really trying to say?"
"That you should buy my book?"
She laughed at that and turned and walked away, talking to herself.
That's how low I've sunk, trying to trick schizophrenics into a hardcover purchase like some literary lap-dancer.
But not all audiences are heavily into irrelevance. When most of them hear that "Orange Crush" is a satire about a Florida election, they go berserk. I didn't realize the wounds were so fresh. There's carping about Jeb and Katherine rigging everything, and about dim-witted Democrats who can't read a ballot, and there's even a pecking order within Florida ("What's up with Palm Beach?!"), and we finally conclude that the state's residents are either much smarter or infinitely more stupid than the rest of the nation suspects.
Then we leave politics and move on to Double Jeopardy: crazy Northern drivers, soulless developers, greedy oil companies wanting to drill in the Gulf, the increase in shark attacks, the increase in hurricanes, and what's up with Palm Beach?
The next day the mechanic called and said my Chrysler was ready. Good news-I didn't need a new transmission. It would only cost $2,173. He must have seen me coming all the way from Tampa. I got out of a Jensen Beach signing at 10 p.m., raced back to Orlando, checked into a motel on Orange Blossom Trail, dumped my gear in the room, returned the rental to the airport, caught a cab back to the motel, got four hours of sleep, called another cab, picked up the Chrysler from the mechanic, reloaded my gear, checked out and raced 150 miles to a noon signing in Palm Beach in the clothes I had awoken in. I arrived with five minutes to spare and did a quick wet-paper-towel bath/wardrobe change in their rest room before emerging to a waiting audience. Glamour resumed.
Soon, a new hurdle. The only key I have to my car is a valet key, which won't open the trunk. I used to laugh about that. What good's a valet key? You can always pop the trunk open with the button inside the glove compartment.
I wasn't laughing after the Palm Beach event, when the cable mechanism to the button came loose, trapping half my junk in the trunk. The bookstore people got behind the car and rocked up and down on the trunk lid while I repeatedly pressed the button until we got the trunk open one last time. We unloaded everything from the trunk and stuck it in the passenger compartment. Only the passenger compartment was already full of stuff, and it ended up stacked to the roof, all the way around this little human-shaped space in the driver's seat. And I waved goodbye, squeezing myself into the car like John Glenn in a Mercury capsule.
Next stop, Pembroke Pines. I get off the interstate and head down Flamingo Avenue, straight into the cross-hairs of the most dangerous intersection in America, according to a list released by the American Automobile Association. I've got the radio on, monitoring the far-right fringe, and my cell phone rings. It's my publicist, checking up on me. I report everything's fine as I squeeze toothpaste onto a brush. That's the key to an efficient book tour: multi-tasking while driving. I tell my publicist to hold on-I think Paul Harvey is breaking in with something important about a product that removes dust from the air, and I spit toothpaste out the window. Whoops, the window is up. Where are those napkins? Whoa! That guy almost hit me! They really are going to have to redesign this intersection.
I make it to the Pembroke signing, then Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach and Coral Gables, where I spotted actor Stan Tucci last year. The employees checked his credit card receipt to make sure it was him, and I copied the Master Card number but chickened out before ordering the coveted Hammacher Schlemmer two-man submarine on the Internet.
It's now six o'clock, getting near book signing time in Fort Myers. The hookers have quieted down for their dinner break. I've just finished showering but discovered my deodorant stick is empty. Not to worry-I've been on the road long enough to improvise. The phone rings. Another newspaper interview. "Oh, yes, career's going great-books are really taking off," I say, shaving deodorant scraps from the bottom of the bar with a pocket knife. "Couldn't be better."
A few minutes later I conclude the phone interview, scrape the white antiperspirant flakes together on the counter like a line of cocaine, apply it, and smile proudly in the mirror-"You are the seasoned business traveler." Then I'm out the door again for another bookstore and more glamour than I can stand.
Tim Dorsey is the former night news coordinator of The Tampa Tribune. His web site is timdorsey.com.