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The Weird Comfort of Florida Tacky

The goods that keep me coming back for more.

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a pink souvenir shop in Florida Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

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On a warm morning in Daytona Beach last month, I stood on the balcony to my room at a Holiday Inn, looking out. I wasn't staring at another beautiful sunrise, but instead at an orange Dodge Charger.

The driver had apparently tried to watch that sunrise from her car while bumping club music with a thumping bass. Based on tire tracks, she had done doughnuts on the sand, too. And now she was stuck. Really stuck. A Subaru and a half-dozen beach walkers were trying to help dig her out.

I grabbed a box of Cheez-Its to watch the show. I almost opened a beer. “Who needs the Eiffel Tower?” I thought.

I was in Florida because I had decided to go on a trip after my dog died to drop out of my everyday life for a little while. I could have gone to France. I even bought a plane ticket to Paris. But a few days before I was supposed to get on that plane, I said fuck it.

Forget culture, wine, and haute couture. Au revoir, good taste. I went to Florida instead.

Yes, Florida, the state that looks like a wang (and has one for its capitol building). I went to college in Tampa and try to go back to the beach once a year. I leave my serious self at the airport and dunk a tanner, blonder, day-drinking, bikini-wearing version of myself into everything that the tackiest state in the union has to offer: sunshine, beaches, overpriced hotel pool bars, and souvenir shops that sell things like nipple-themed sippy cups.

These are places where primary colors are neon and everything is always 50% off, including custom-printed booty shorts with your name on the butt. Here, you can buy Frozen boogie boards, thong bikinis, alligator bottle openers, and crucifixes all in one place — sometimes all on the same shelf.

It's an inevitable evolution for a destination that's been grabbing for the cash in your pocket for more than a century before Walt Disney bought his swamp.

Florida first started beckoning tourists just after the Civil War. About 50,000 people visited the state in 1869, drawn by (mostly dubious) promises of the state's restorative health powers and sales pitches of cheap and beautiful real estate.

Railroad magnate Henry B. Plant built the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891, conveniently near a stop on his railroad. It's now part of the University of Tampa, my alma matter. (The hotel closed during the Depression and was then bought by the city, which leases it to the university for $1 a year.)

Back when I was in college, it was the most beautiful building I'd ever seen. But as James W. Hall, author of Hot Damn! — the Bible of Florida weird — told me, it wasn't considered so stately when it was first built. It was seen as a monstrous architectural mash-up with giant Moorish minarets flying on top, stuffed with $500,000 (in 1890s dollars!) of antiques. Plant was "trying to sell northerners on this exotic, weird, fanciful location," Hall said. "It's all about commerciality and creating something out of nothing."

That concept hasn't changed much in the last 125 or so years, but what's considered exotic, weird, and fanciful has shifted with time. Spring break — the bacchanal that’s currently in full swing — started in 1934 when the Colgate men's swim team went to Fort Lauderdale over the Christmas holiday to practice.

Young people partying during spring break in Florida Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

The idea of a Florida retreat flipped to Easter break, and became supercharged after MTV broadcast its first Spring Break from Daytona Beach in 1986. The concept exploded, to sometimes disastrous results.

Florida's tackiness has long leaned heavily into misogyny — the concept of the wet-shirt contest wasn’t born here, but Florida is where it planted two bare feet (and breasts) on stage — and bikini-clad women, along with guns and Confederate flags, are now dominant themes of the goods for sale here.

Walking through the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market makes me feel the same way I do when listening to the song "Blurred Lines." I know I should turn away, turn it off. But I keep looking at stuff, just like I still sometimes leave that song on when it comes on the radio.

But eventually the song ends, and I go home, as do the 85 million other tourists who come in and out each year. And when your trip is a day, a week, a month, even a snowbird-long season, who cares long as you drop money into the local economy? Florida is "so focused on making money off tourists, and tourists of course don't stick around to see if the things that are being built are permanent," Craig Pittman, author of Oh, Florida!, said.

Which may be why I was so delighted to watch that Dodge Charger stuck on the beach. It was weird, cheap entertainment that I wouldn’t haven’t enjoyed if I saw a car stuck on the beach in New Jersey. After I finished my Cheez-Its, I called beach patrol.

"Yeah," the dispatcher said and sighed. "It happens all the time." Eventually, a pickup truck pulled her out, and it and the beach patrol trucks went on their way and left her alone, but on firmer sand.

She stepped out of the car, put the part of her bumper that had become detached into the trunk, adjusted her hat, and took a selfie.

"You smell like the beach," my mom said when she picked me up from the airport. It snowed the next day. My serious self returned, and I got back to my normal life, steeped in work and grief over my still-dead dog.

But I got to hit pause for a little while, something I don't know if I'd have been able to do in Paris. As a reminder of that time, I brought home a few more pieces of crap, including a Mickey Mouse ring and a T-shirt of a dolphin leaping over a pink glittery “Florida,” and another tale to tell from my favorite weird and wonderful state.