Change for a Year

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Florida: The Missing Years

When I graduated college, I got a sales job and disappeared to Florida for a year and a half. My friends worried I’d been sucked into a cult. My mom and sister begged me to come home and rejoin the family. Seventeen months later I pulled back into Wisconsin–only thirty dollars to my name, my life a total mess and everything I owned in the back seat of my Honda Accord. It had been a great time.

Many people don’t know that chapter of my life. I hold it dear to my heart.

***

After college I returned home to live in my parent’s basement, hoping to find a job and start a life. Months went by and still no luck. Then I met one of the craziest characters I’d ever meet, a pinstriped-suit-wearing fast talker full of promises to make it big and grab life by the balls. The scene could have been lifted straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross.

“We’re opening an office every six days,” he told me. Later he’d give speeches to the group of young twenty-somethings that ended with pithy quotes like, “You can build a million bridges, but suck one cock and you’re a cocksucker for life.” He was a douche, but he was interesting at least.

I bought a suit–a pretty blue striped number with a fly looking tie and shoes that reflected my pearly whites when I smiled. The second interview I met a pretty girl who talked even faster and took me to sling Toys for Tots toys merchandise to the busy crowd picking up milk and eggs at supermarket. I’d never met anyone like her either, but I knew she’d be a star. Two months later I’d tell her, “I just sold my motorcycle. I’ll go with you to take over Florida.”

“Ask every single person you see. Put the product in their hands. Package, package, package.” It was a crash course in 60-second sales I knew I could master.

“Hey miss. Hey miss!” I’d shout, pointing at the ground behind the people coming out of the store. When they look down confused I’d say, “You dropped your smile,” with the biggest cheese-eating grin imaginable. If they smiled back, I had them. They usually did. I was king of the ice breakers. I could fill a book with them.

In January I filled up my car, and eight of us drove 26 hours straight to Florida. There was a huge blizzard in Chicago. When we got there I sent a text to everyone–“Just saw my first palm tree. Welcome to Florida.”

Palm trees in Florida

Palm trees in Florida

We all piled into a house two of the group had rented. They were full of passive aggressive rage and had two dogs the size of a grizzly bears. They wouldn’t have a word of complaint until exploding suddenly over some bullshit like toast crumbs.

I shared a bedroom with a cute-as-a-button Iowa girl, and we hid there like prisoners from the madness of the packed house. I snored like a rusty chainsaw when I slept. One night she saw me putting on Breathe Right strips in the dark.

“That’s so sweet,” she said. I rolled over in my corner of the room–mattress on the floor and a couple bags full of clothes.

Later, we’d get a two bedroom apartment a mile from work and drink ourselves into oblivion every night. I learned such games as circle of death, school bus, and a half-dozen others of which I can’t even remember the names.

When one of our new Florida coworkers had a birthday, we filled a pinata with candy and condoms and played drinking games until my face grew bright as a tomato. I chinked the top of my friend’s beer, then grabbed a condom and slid it over the bottle. It swelled as big as my head before exploding foam everywhere. I discovered my roommate’s pet peeve of people not clearing the last few seconds on the microwave, so drunk one night I heated up some food, then turned the microwave upside down and punched in “07734” so it read, “Hello.” Hungover in the morning, I heard her scream my name.

Such was our life. We worked 60 hours a week and drank all night. At one bar the band would play “Piano Man,” and the women would dance on the tables. I’d buy shots for everyone when they ran out of money. We’d drink so fast the waitresses couldn’t keep up. We’d all hold hands and sway and belt at the top of our lungs:

Son can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet
And I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes

In the morning she’d come out and ask me how she looked. I’d sing James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” back to her and she’d laugh. We did that every morning for a month. One day I proposed with a candy pop at the office. I’d write her drunken love letters and tell her she’s “my Helen Hunt.”  I chased after her, but she was a lesbian.

Sundays we’d go to the beach. I’d come home pink as salmon after falling asleep with a Corona on the hot sand, listening to the waves roll in off the ocean and the people laughing and talking and living their lives in the sunshine state.

I mastered the question game. We’d have to do day-long interviews, often with boring-as-fuck strangers who didn’t want to be there after the first hour. I found that game an excellent icebreaker at bars. Buy a few drinks, play a few rounds of the question game and you can get to know anyone in an hour.

One night I lost my friends. We bought out the supply of Jello shots, and I spent all night playing the game with some girl I’d just met. I remember the guitar player in the corner singing, “Bartender Song (Sittin’ in a bar)” by Rehab. It was the first time I heard that song and the first girl I kissed in Florida.

At night we’d drive home across the Jacksonville bridges. It was the one beautiful thing about the city. We’d blast O.A.R.‘s “Night Shift,” singing “It’s 3 a.m. and I want to go to bed/Got a lady running through my head,” and just drive all night, windows down and cool, salty, ocean air blowing through the car.

I’d listen to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and think of Wisconsin and finally understand when he sang, “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win.”

But playing the question game late into the bar hours, I’d always get the same response as the questions became more personal and piercing–“You really love your family, don’ t you?”

Eventually, that brought me home.

In the meantime it was everything a young man with good credit could want. And I rode it out until the bitter end.

Jacksonville, Florida at night

Jacksonville, Florida at night

I stole something only once in my adult life. It was a grape soda from a Walgreens somewhere outside of Orlando. It was probably the worst day of my life. Our little shop in Jacksonville was on the verge of being shut down, so we’d been relocated to Orlando to retrain. The new boss was even more RAH-RAH-RAH! than the old one. He was from New York and having trouble transitioning his sales to the laid-back pace of Florida life.

A few days before I’d gotten a ticket for running a toll. I literally did not have a dollar to my name, and I blew through the toll, not having any other option. That gave me $181 ticket from a take-no-shit cop.

“Son, if you don’t have any money. DO NOT ride on the Florida toll road.”

Then my car insurance ran out. I’d had insurance every second of my life until it expired at 8 a.m. one morning. At 11:30 a.m. a woman smashed into my Accord and caused $7000 in damage. I got out of my car, the nick on my head gushing blood into my pretty blue shirt. While we waited for the cops to straighten it out, I walked with the girl I was interviewing to Panera Bread and had lunch, my tie spotted with blood and my hands on fire from the air bag that had blown up in my face 20 minutes earlier. She did not take the job.

A few days later I was walking through the streets outside Orlando, trying to sling t-shirts to whoever wanted them. I had 26 cents in my pocket. It was hot. I’d been walking for miles. I untucked my shirt and sat on the curb, resting my head in my hands and feeling like shit.

I must have looked something awful–a fat, sweaty mess sitting on the side of road, head buried. A guy drove by. I never saw him, only heard him yell, “It’ll be alright, man.”

When we all came to Orlando we piled into a two-bedroom apartment. There was like nine of us there, trying to live cheap until going back to Jacksonville. Then it became eight. Then seven. Then six. It was a running joke, like a game of Survivor, sad and hilarious at the same time.

That was when I knew it was over. I texted my boss, the oh-so-serious-business-girl I’d followed to Florida and had become one of my closest friends. “It’s over, I’m leaving Orlando.” I walked into a Walgreens, waiting for her to pick me up. I grabbed a grape soda, drank half of it. Then I set it on the shelf, walked out and waited.

We packed up our apartment–we were the final two–and headed back to Jacksonville.

On the way back she got a flat tire.

I stayed there a few more months, slinging car wax for another man who had filled our old office. It was fun. I made over 100 bucks commission my first day, not knowing what the hell I was doing. I’d walk around gas stations, giving people demos and trying to wow weary travelers in 90 seconds, convincing them to shell over 20 or 40 or 100 bucks before they hopped back onto the interstate.

We bounced from a house to another apartment, met more people and had more good times. I’ll always remember the corn on the cob, the butter fight, and the giant glass of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. I still can’t smell the stuff without gagging.

There is more to the story, including a Christmas Eve away from our families spent driving through the dark streets to look at the lights and many nights of Guitar Hero singing god-awful duets. There were some sad times as well.

Now we’re all separated and living our new lives. Some have families, and we’re spread across the country. But that year in Florida, and the people, good times and memories had will always be in the back of my heart.

And that’s a good thing.

1 Comment

  1. Everybody needs a great adventure in their life at least once. Awesome story.

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