My Home Town Under Siege

A singer assassinated, the worst mass shooting in US history, and a gator kills a child, in less than a week — all in venues I am intimately familiar with. I am reeling from this. Flying there Saturday.

orlandoWith the world’s eyes on Orlando,
let me tell you who we really are

By Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell:

As I wandered through the sea of TV trucks on Orange Avenue Tuesday, a strange sensation washed over me: That’s usually me.

I’m usually the one who parachutes into a community with a media badge to interview grieving families and document tales of ravaged lives. After hurricanes and wildfires. In the streets of New York after 9/11.

I’m usually the one wondering: Before the tragedy struck, what was this place really like?

Well, America, allow me to answer that about Orlando.

Let me to tell you who we are.

Yes, we are theme parks.

And yes, we are tacky. We are stucco mermaids and gift shops shaped like giant navel oranges.

But I have to be honest, America: That tackiness isn’t us. It’s you.

After all, we’re not the ones who crave three T-shirts for $5 or water-filled snow globes that say “Florida snowman.”

We are the place you want to come to escape your problems … well, unless you also want nudity and craps tables. Then you go to Vegas.

But far away from the parks — where hanging moss drips from live oaks and regal cypress trees stand guard (until we clear-cut them all to make way for strip malls) — most of us live in a different world.

And there — in walkable hipster neighborhoods and McMansion-filled suburbs — we are so much more.

We are artistic. Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky, Fringe Festival and Film Festival.

We are cutting-edge. With one of the best performing-arts centers in America, one the MLS’s most-popular soccer franchises and an NBA team that, at one point in time, knew what the post-season looked like.

We are foodies, flush with James Beard finalists with culinary hubs like the East End Market, which sits smack dab in the middle of one of those walkable neighborhoods I mentioned.

For all those non-theme-park reasons, the New York Times ranked Orlando as No. 13 last year on its list of “50 Places to Go” … right between Zimbabwe and St. Vincent.

If that all sounds incredibly sophisticated, well it is.

But it’s also misleading.

For here in Orlando, we are also poor.

We have some of the lowest wages of any major metro in America, thanks mainly to tourism attractions and hotel occupations that don’t pay living wages.

We have an economy built on the backs of people who scrub toilets on International Drive and have to take three bus transfers to do it.

For that reason, we are also a community in denial. We have grand dreams, but with wages that weigh us down like an anchor.

So we end up being a community full of dichotomies.

We are the opera and Philharmonic, yet also Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys.

We are Park Avenue and Bithlo Speed World.

We are chateaubriand at the Waldorf Astoria and fried Oreos at the Central Florida Fair.

We are a melting pot.

By now, you know we have a lot of gay friends and neighbors. But if you’ve been left with the impression that they have to hide in nightclubs, you’ve been misled.

This city flies rainbow flags downtown. And more than 100,000 people attend our Pride parades around Lake Eola. One year, I rode on a float — and half the city council was riding on floats around me.

There are no closets here. Orlando is largely an oasis of open-minds and acceptance in a state that makes headlines for intolerance.

Diversity is one of Orlando’s hallmarks.

Yes, we’re “Latin” as you now know from “Latin night” at Pulse. But that’s an oversimplification. We are Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican and Dominican.

We’re Haitian and Asian.

We are South Carolinians and New Yorkers.

We are transplants.

It’s why we have a Vietnamese district on Colonial Drive and Mexican restaurants lining Semoran Boulevard; and why “pizza” means Chicago-style in one strip mall and New York-style in another.

Have I made it clear we have a lot of strip malls? Well, we do … though lately we’ve started gussying them up, adding pay-by-the-swipe wine bars and calling them “town centers.”

Oh, you know what else we are? We’re brave.

We have alligators, mosquitoes, hurricanes, sink holes, tornados, snakes and cockroaches the size of toy poodles.

We have a summer that starts in March, ends at Christmas and involves 280 percent humidity for much of that time.

We are evolving, getting beyond our citrus-field roots and theme-park mindset to become a place where people want to live.

And they do want to live here, America. In fact, they leave many of your cities to come join ours. Check out the Census data.

We are faith-filled. And we are generous.

Certainly we have faults. Lots of them. Maddening traffic. Underfunded education. And politicians who frequently require grand juries. I spend the better part of each year documenting all that.

But for the most part, we are diverse. And cultured. And aspiring to be more.

We are lots of things. But what happened in that nightclub on that one morning isn’t one of them.

That is not Orlando.

Combat Weapons For All?

Surely there is a way to prevent someone known to the FBI as a terrorist sympathizer from buying assault weapons solely built to murder as many humans as possible.

Video by the company that made the Orlando shooter’s weapon.

Mother Jones: The killer “legally purchased the weapon, similar to an AR-15, on June 4 in Port St. Lucie, Florida, near where he lived. (He legally purchased a Glock 17 handgun the following day, which he also carried during the attack.)”

Orlando Strong

I don’t want to make this about me, but simply stress how this craziness can hit any of us close to home.

From age 3 to high school, when we moved further out, I grew up in a house exactly 2.5 miles from the site of this massacre. Our dog’s veterinarian and kennel was almost literally across the street. The modest restaurants nearby were some of our favorites, for everything from fried catfish to Cuban food.

In those days it was a typically American middle class neighborhood where we didn’t just watch “Leave It To Beaver” – it was our way of life.

As a grown-up gay man many years later, and long ago, I went to Pulse a few times with friends. It was a fun and welcoming place for an evolving neighborhood that came to fully accept such diversity without complaint.

My heart aches for my hometown I love so much. Since Disney World transformed us in the early 1970’s from a place only known for orange trees, cows and mosquitoes it became our nation’s most visited tourist destination – more than 60 million a year, besting New York City, Vegas and all the rest.

I always feared we could be a target. And now it has happened.

Hopefully the nation will now see that Orlando is so much more than theme parks. It is little known what more we are, from our hundreds of gorgeous lakes, laid-back and fun people, an amazingly advanced center for state-of-the-art health care (the best doctors flock there for the golf courses) — and, thanks to the entertainment Goliath Orlando is, a huge, vibrant and yet very tightly-knit gay community that I know will rise above this with dignity.

Eleven and Counting: Another Trail Mix Birth Month

Trail Mixers,

I almost forgot. This month marks 11 years since we launched our little corner of the Internets. So many iterations over the years I’ve lost track which one this is, but we’re still here and so many of you have been here since the beginning.

11_year_olds_rockWhat to say? For starters, I’m amazed. Even after I took a year off to play politics, when our previous installment was shut down by despicable unknown unfriendlies, you all came back and picked up right where we left off.

Like I never have had, no idea what makes this work, but I do know it’s all about you.