Fear and Loathing in the Sunshine State

Originally published in March 2020.

The moment I realized we were all absolutely fucked came when I sat at a Ruby Tuesday’s at the Orlando airport at 9:00PM waiting for my Spirit Airlines flight back to Chicago. I was nursing a vodka and club soda absent-mindedly staring at a tv above my head tuned to coronavirus coverage on CNN, while listening to the two women next to me prattle on about the cruise they’d just left in the Bahamas. I myself was just coming back from a four-day Florida binge, part of which was spent at a theme park capped off by a two hour ride in a cherry red 2020 Mustang convertible with our friend M just returned from Asia by way of Hong Kong.

Yeah, we’re all absolutely fucked.

China has remade itself into an enormous quarantine tent, half of Italy is closed for business, and stocks the world over are bottoming out, while here in America we’re glad handing at political rallies, swapping drinks, and licking subway floors like it was just business as usual. The entire country feels like a suicide party bus headed toward the cliff. Our social order is fucked. Our economy is fucked. Our politics is fucked. Might as well drink and get high cause the end is nigh.

My sojourn began as it ended, at an airport bar, this one at O'Hare. It was the day after the bloody massacre that was Super Tuesday and Mike Bloomberg was on television whining that he was the only “Democrat” who could defeat 45. The segment had been taped the night before and not even twenty-four hours later Bloomberg had dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden’s corpse.

I was drinking wine. A chubby middle aged Midwesterner sitting two stools down from me was wearing an N95 mask, only pulling it up occasionally to sip on a glass of bourbon through a straw. We were both listening to Bloomberg while taking turns staring daggers at an old woman on the other end of the bar who wouldn’t stop coughing.

In retrospect it was probably a bad time to travel. Not only because of coronavirus but because the week promised endless harangues by moderate Democrats very excited about Joe Biden.

Imagine being excited about Joe Biden.

We had a real chance this cycle. One opportunity in decades to rewrite the narrative. But conventional wisdom has it that Bernie is too damn consistent to be president. He’ll still probably win a few states in the months ahead, but Biden has the backing of the machine and now all of Bloomberg’s cash. They’ll tear down the convention rather than hand the nomination to Bernie and then we can look forward to the main event: five months of an election so incoherent it’ll require subtitles. Mustn’t offend the Philadelphia suburbs, or the super donors in Orange county, or the Never Trumpers who’d never vote for a Democrat anyway.

Of course there is the coronavirus factor and the very real fact that all the top candidates for the oval office are in the highest risk category. Bernie and Biden are holding rallies across the country while 45, who’s been promising that everything is absolutely fine and the virus is just a hoax out to topple his presidency, has been quietly cancelling all of his public events.

The topic of 45’s incompetence came up at a poolside tiki bar at our Orlando hotel where E, K, and I encountered a MAGAmerican out in the wild. He was a salesman—obviously—from Charleston, who loved the second amendment almost as much as he loved the president. Sure, sure, he acknowledged that 45 tweeted too much, and he occasionally said some dumb shit, but business was booming, so what if America was rotting from the inside out?

K, who is very much a feminist and very much a lesbian and takes it personally when tubby, white, male salesman from Charleston lavish praise on a guy determined to classify her as a nonperson, took the poor fellow to the woodshed. He ended up buying us drinks and we closed the bar with a pair of Frenchies mystified by American politics, but happy to be in Florida during a pandemic all the same.

Two things to know about Florida on the very edge of spring 2020: people love 45 and everyone smokes pot. When I say people love 45 I mean there are shrines to the motherfucker along the highway. When I say everyone smokes pot I mean it’s everywhere even if it's still illegal. I spent only four days in the Sunshine state and was standing in a cannabis greenhouse by day three. It was a seismic reversal of fortune from the previous day that we’d spent roaming Universal Studios with little more than overpriced Coors Light and a pencil joint between the four of us. E and her fiancé, G-wagon, got drunk on Harry Potter while K and I crept into back alleys and behind restaurant dumpsters to take tokes.

Now and again we’d glimpse someone in a medical mask or wearing gloves, but for the most part people walked straight past hand sanitizer dispensers without so much as taking a glance. Guessing who might be infected became a party game of sorts as we circled the park for hours in search of a gift shop we could rob.

The next day we tried to escape both the virus and 45 by driving to St. Augustine but they followed us there too. MAGA hats were on proud display, as were flags and cardboard lawn signs. The stray conversations around us were about proper hand washing and how you should never touch your face, ever, under any circumstances. The news was reporting the apocalypse unfold in real time, upping the number of confirmed cases in the United States while warning that likely thousands more remained undetected. The administration was fumbling the response. Doctors still didn’t have enough test kits. Deaths were now being confirmed in Florida.

K, E, and I decided that the only right proper responsible thing to do was to get as shitfaced as possible and hooked up with some of K’s old friends to accomplish the task. They were all as depraved and left of center as we were and at least one of them had a medical marijuana card. By midnight I was eight Jameson shots in with a Bernie bro in my lap who was determined to show me her breasts. And as I sat there, calculating in my head the likelihood that this woman’s large husband would murder me if he came back home to this bullshit, I realized that we Americans have reached a new high of collective anxiety.

The world’s been in free fall for four years now. The shit just gets worse and worse with every news cycle. America is on the verge of tearing itself apart over a self-obsessed game show host while nature is ramping up to stomp us out once and for all. Locusts and plagues are upon us. Experts are warning about the imminent extinction of bananas, and honeybees, and anyone who’s ever swallowed tap water. And because of this constant, never-ending anxiety, we’ve become more debased than we’ve ever been. We’re all running high on alcohol, and weed, and prescription painkillers. We’re all, every one of us who isn’t in the cult, one news story away from a complete emotional and psychological break.

Did you hear? People are excited about Joe Biden.

We find strength in each other. Comfort in our shared perversions and perceived weaknesses, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. This high octane party has to end at some point, and just like I woke up half naked, bleeding, and hungover on Saturday morning, so too America will have to come to grips with its own decline.

K dropped me off at the airport after we’d spent the day crisscrossing the state in her convertible Mustang. Going as far as Tampa to meet up with M, back from Asia, before taking E home to Bradenton. If we have coronavirus we’ve done our part to hasten the end times. At least we’ll have tried to take out Florida first.

After I found my seat on the plane and ordered a double vodka and club soda from the airline attendant, I sat staring in bemusement as the woman next to me spent ten minutes wiping down every square inch of her sitting area with baby wipes.

“Can’t be too careful,” she said before glowering at me.

“I probably don’t have it,” I said to her.

She didn’t believe me. Neither did I. We’re all absolutely fucked.

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