Home with New Eyes

This past weekend Aimee and I went to my homeland of Orlando for my friend Nate's wedding. It was a beautiful affair with a Spanish bride, bilingual service held in the chapel of my alma mater Rollins College, and a party at the Citrus Club 70 stories up with a 360 view of downtown Orlando. Three weeks earlier Aimee and I stood 96 stories high over Chicago in the Sky Lounge of the Hancock Tower, and while Orlando's three big towers and urban sprawl glitter and impress, they appear like logs and embers next to the burning forest of Chicago at night.

The next morning, the city imploded the old Amway Center and Aimee and I drove by to see the piles of rubble. My mouth dropped and I laughed huh huh at sight of the fallen ruins where I saw Dylan twice, Springsteen once, several Magic games and the Solar Bears too. The rubble looked like a portent of the apocalypse. Wind swept and ashy, it lay in great heaps like dismantled dreams, broken communities. Against the shocking blue sky great banners read future home of the Creative Village, a vestige of hope stamped onto the fresh desolation of the demolition.

From there we drove up Edgewater Drive, through swanky College Park where my parents once ran Chef Haney's Cafe when I was 5, over to the Kerouac House whose door was open and which looked like every other home in the neighborhood, modestly built in the 40's or so, except that I had been there before on Google maps, steering my cursor up and down those streets, setting my mental me down on that bench in the front yard and sitting on that front stoop where Kerouac once ate a million tangerines and collapsed in the grass with Mexican fever. Then up to Edgewater proper with its quaint mainstreet and centrally located high school, its historic golf course Dubsdred and we ate at Tijuana Flats and had Dos Equis for lunch on the patio in the beautiful sunny 75-degree weater with the wind whipping down from the northeast. I feared that our beers would blow over (is there a greater fear in life? If there is, you're not doing it right) as people's empty plates set sail on the gusts, leftover chips and jalapenos falling down while the styrofoam lifted into into the tree's highest branch and sailed over the roof. The restaurant manager chuckled heh heh and us patrons marvelled whoa at the commingling of man and natural forces and the organic unity therein.

We drove further northeast into the no man's land of northeast Orlando and finally found Eatonville, its sad downtrodden main drag all run over with weeds and shacks for buildings. The oldest black incorporated municipality in the U.S. and signs for Zora Neale Hurston hanging everywhere. I told Aimee about Alice Walker's famous essay "Looking for Zora" in which the author hunts for Hurston's grave, staying mainly in this impoverished town interviewing its residents to get the low-down on its most recognizable denizen. And Aimee with thumbs flying over her smart phone in the passenger seat researched a faint memory from grade school about another black town in Florida where the white boys came in and killed six black boys on allegations that one had accosted their sister. They burned the whole town down and now no one lives there and no one talks about it despite the culture of oral transmission among African Americans (this according to Wikipedia, you see).

Aimee said humph. I said humph and we kept driving into Maitland where immediately the property value went up--fancy boutiques, french restaurants, curlicues on the rooftops--and down to Don Reid Ford by whose profits I've traveled the world (thanks always Bob) and through the monument of commercialism Winter Park Village, again by the municipal golf course and down Park Avenue, the heart of Winter Park, over to the antique district and the final fancy drags of North Orlando.

We ended up at Orlando Brewery where a choir group sat outside singing parody renditions of oldies a cappella with the words replaced by paeans to beer. A group of seven carolers sat on the windy patio in their jeans and beer-themed t-shirts singing my favorite "I'm Having Another" to the tune of the Turtles' "So Happy Together," talking about having to go home to "wax the dog, and walk the car"; "cut the floor, and mop the yard," but instead they insisted, "I'm having anotherrrrrr," and for the chorus: "beer beer beer beer beer beer-beer beer beer-beer beer, beer beer-beer beeeeeer."

"Look at us," Aimee said. "Middle class tourists taking in the sights in our Chrysler Sebring." Old Orlando, looking new to me.



As part of my assistantship at FSU, I work 5 hours a week in the Digital Studio, a tutoring center housed in the English department where students can come get help on the digital projects. Why is this housed in the English department? you might ask. If you did, we might answer, Visual Rhetoric.

On most days in the studio the tutors lounge on couches or in cushy chairs with their faces to the computer screens, absorbed in their coursework, their lesson plans and paper grading, or surfing Facebook and the internet. It's like study hall. We come to work and organize our lives, read and write. Sometimes we think of funny or interesting things to talk about and the conversation evolves as tutors come and go for their scheduled shifts. Sometimes grad students use the space for their own digital projects, and get to talking. Sometimes we put on Pandora.com and dance the jitterbug. It's the most happening place in the Williams building.

That's not to say we don't help students, too. We do. They come in with their remediation projects and ask for primers on InDesign or PhotoShop. Some tutors are more adept than others. In these times, I tend to get nervous and stammer, feeling inadequate. Somehow I survive.

Yesterday, amid the productivity of students click-clacking away on their keyboards, A--- stopped to ask the room, "Do you remember how you learned to type?" She said she used to close her eyes and type the alphabet for practice. C---- said he took a class in high school. I said I distinctly remembered a time, at 13 years old, when I made a huge improvement in my typing speed.

It was 1998. Our family had just gotten its first computer, a Macintosh. While my brother was distracted with being 16, and my father was more into cooking shows on television, my mother and I jockeyed for control of the machine. She'd get on early in the morning and I'd stay up late at night stalking through AOL chat rooms, talking to various strangers throughout the country--people my age; people who maybe weren't. The novelty of real-time, written communication and the intrigue of never knowing who you'd meet sucked me in. I quickly had a friend list dozens long with random chatters and would have chat boxes layered on each other and bell noises going off like a one-note carillon for each new message. I had to type fast to keep up.

Then I found the Grateful Dead forum, including message boards for trading tapes, sharing lyrics, and exchanging trippy pictures. The forum had a skull and roses banner with lightning bolts coming down the sides. 13-year-old Paul, tye-dyed and greasy-haired, yearning to have been 18 at Monterey Pop, 21 at Woodstock, was stoked. I wandered into the chat room, 710 Ashbury, and found a constant dialogue going on between people who claimed to have toured with the Dead, to have sold grilled cheeses and t-shirts in parking lots to fund their tours, to have traveled in VW vans.

The conversations went something like this:

SugarMag420: I just made the tastiest kynd cookies evah!!

StStephen69: Nice SugarMag mama! Can I have one?

SugarMag420: Sure. Here you go.  ::passes cookie::

WharfRatSam: I can really feel the love in this room right now.

I imagined that was exactly how people acted in the parking lots before the shows. It felt like an authentic interaction with the Dead Head community, which I so wanted to belong to. I had to jump in, but first I needed a screenname, one that showed my devotion to the band and status as a "newbie."


'Cuz I loved Grateful Dead bears and I was 13 years old.

Deadbear13 had a long run in 710 Ashbury. I learned the jargon of the community ("I need a miracle"; "stealie"; "irie"), started collecting tapes (though my mother wisely prohibited me from having them sent to our address, so I used the Shurtz's), and camped out in that chatroom professing my love for the band and its devotees. "No way you're only 13," they would say. "You're an old soul." When the Grateful Dead Forum community started inviting me to real, live gatherings, I got nervous. When a couple of the girls said they were coming through Orlando and wanted to meet me in person, I got scared. Bit by bit, Deadbear13 withdrew. Soon enough I went to high school and Deadbear13's online persona fizzled away.

I was left with lightning in my typing fingers.

That was over half my life ago. Chat rooms do nothing for me now. I don't even like being available to Facebook chat unless I need to ask somebody a quick question. Besides, with the Digital Studio open all week, I know where to find my constant-streaming banter.

Deadbear13 must've looked something like this.