I was eager to reach Ocala and meet with a City Daily Photo blogger friend whose page I had been following since 2009. I was surprised as I approached Ocala how the landscape had changed. Gone were the flat marshes, defoliated forests, and pit-mine-pocked landscape. Instead I found lush pasture fenced with freshly-painted white posts. Horses grazed peacefully near huge stables and contemporary homes. I had seen pictures of this on his website and knew that I would see some pockets of wealth. Also my friend and I had exchanged a few emails and I had determined that he was a thoughtful person who seemed to express some ideas about politics and religion that I found both intriguing and sympathetic. I was not disappointed by our meeting. We sat at a Starbucks and he related to me some of the salient events of his past life and spoke pointedly about a source of irritation in his present one. He was living in a stronghold of right wing politics and fundamentalist religion. He went so far as to say that many in the community disliked Obama. He seemed to think that his fellow citizens hid behind a veil of political excuses, like the president's poor handling of the economy, to mask their true sentiments. They disliked the president because he catered to phony liberals, sucked up to minorities, and more significantly that he was godless and black. My friend spoke about how strong the Tea Party was in Ocala, that seeing an Obama sticker was rare, and then quipped jokingly that having one might even be a liabiltiy. Ultimately he felt that he was not in tune with the mood of rural Central Florida, but enjoyed living there nonetheless in a safe, gated community along with other transplants from the big cities of the North or from Orlando who enjoyed the golf, the green landscape, and some modicum of cultural activity.
I shared with him some of my observations from my drive along the back roads before reaching Ocala. I had seen huge numbers of single-wide mobile homes, many in poor condition with junk stacked nearby. Others were in seedy trailer parks, parked in rows, dilapidated worn out sheet metal structures with an older pickup or minivan squeezed between wooden steps leading up to the door. It was my impression that these parks contained poor white people who labored in the phosophate mines or in orange processing factories or were home to folks who didn't work at all.
Then I spoke of the churches advertising their denomination on reader boards using every imaginable combination of religious words such as savior, gospel, truth and ministry. These houses of the faithful could be found in rude block buildings or frame houses, and occcasionally in more modern centers. Even though it wasn't Sunday, their parking lots usually had quite a few cars. God knows what their owners were doing there, but I'm sure it was Gawd's work, and I certainly had no intention of going in and finding myself at Bible School. I had stopped the night before at a Comfort Suites near Bartow, Florida, and was told by the receptionist there were no rooms available. She spoke with such pride that the entire place had been booked for a Children of Noah convention. The pentacostal charismatic experience seemed to have trumped handily the traditional church world which, although housed in more formidable buildings, appeared to me lonely, empty and closed, except perhaps on Sunday.
I recalled the small towns I had seen. Those before Ocala and many that I saw along the road after my visit contained a botched up mixture of awkwardly renovated historic buildings. These stood in marked contrast to the rest of the business district which consisted of one or two old warehouses and a motley collection of stores, their names faded and some with windows boarded up. New hope and opportunity seemed to have been found along the edges of the city center. There I observed dated strip malls with a Dollar General, a larger regional super market, the usual beauty shop and other boring-looking stores anchored by a McDonalds and a Pure Oil gas station. Along the street I saw a surprisingly large number of used car lots packed with models that I felt in other geographical areas would have long been crushed. Also pawn shops with brightly illuminated signs advertising that the owners also paid cash for gold jewelry seemed overly abundant. Likewise there were many old single level motels which might have been considered quality in their heyday and had boasted an AAA sign or a Best Western rating. Now they stood in disrepair or transformed into permanent living quarters with rusted air conditioners looking like old buck teeth protruding from their windows.
When I was hungry, I would look around specifically for the catchy phrase on a sign, "home-cooked food" or "home-style cooking." I found this usually below the name of a restaurant named, not unsurprisingly, something like "Mary and Bud's Kitchen." I figured that there I could find something authentic and nutritional to eat. In addition, such a restaurant could provide an opportunity to chat with local people. Although the McDonalds or Checkers seemed to attract the main lunch crowds, I looked forward to eating in the local "simple" places. I would usually look for an empty stool at the lunch counter next to some unsuspecting fella and hope that my conversational skills would help me make a "friend." I have to admit there were moments also when I was just plain lonely and desired to have some human contact. Before having a chance to utter a word, an 18 - 20 year old waitress wearing a cheap t-shirt which said Strawberry Fields Forever on it approached, flopped down a menu before me and asked in a friendly, but unpleasant sounding accent, if I wanted a glass of water with lemon. She clearly wasn't Mary, who I learned had died several years earlier after she and Bud had sold the place and moved to Nebraska. As I scanned the menu I suddenly became anxious. I was at a loss for what to order. Since I had become sensitive to avoiding trans-fats and food with high salt and sugar content, the thought of eating cheap hamburgers, chicken fried steak, or breakfasts of eggs and biscuits and gravy seemed unpalatable. After deciding to try a tuna fish sandwich, I was offered my choice of sides of either tater tots, fries, mashed potatos, potato chips or cole slaw, certainly none of these were homemade. I looked around and saw the other patrons eating what amounted to grotesque food, especially chicken nuggets with canned green beans, including a big thick piece of toasted white bread slimy from grease from the grill. Many of the men had large bellies. The women were overweight and exhibited a dull, uneducated expression, I surmise, from spending too much time talking of the weather or about their pastor. I left feeling disappointed. I knew that economic austerity had cheapened the food. Also there was a blatant disregard for integrating more current medical and dietary information into the choice of servings. I remembered briefly those days as a child sitting with my parents and sister at similar family-orientedeating spots and eating real fried chicken, vegetables from the garden and even a slice of homemade pie served by Ma and Pa. Now, as I climbed back into my car, I realized that, surrounded by an atmosphere where ignorance, conformity and poverty seemed so pervasive, it was imperative for me to retain good spirits. After all, how fortunate I was to be on vacation and able to explore the world..
At the entrance to one town, a tattered banner proclaimed that the high school team had earned the title of 2011 State Cheeleading Runners-up. I imagined that there had probably been a parade honoring the winners. The grandstands at the sporting events were surely full. The townspeople were proud of their children and the community. For a fleeting moment I saw the pageantry and knew their happinesss. Just as quickly the thought, like a speck of dust kicked up from my tire, was gone and replaced by my next vision. I realized I was already out of the city limits and on the road to Georgia.