Welcome back to Florida Stories, a column where staff writer Allie Conti tells us some of the lessons she's accumulated in her decades of living in the Sunshine State and making her parents sad.
Gainesville, Florida, is a town some consider the southernmost point of the South. It's home to one of the country's largest state universities and is therefore the kind of beer-soaked cultural wasteland where you can go to a bar called Balls—seriously—and see Southern-belle sorority girls and their male counterparts getting wasted seven nights a week. But it's also a bastion of blue in an otherwise brick-red county. That means that it's simultaneously an incubator of the type of small-city rage that produces bands like Against Me! and Hot Water Music and the sort of place where full-time Alachua County residents (known as ACRs) try to take revenge for the "war of northern aggression" by cheering on the Gators against whatever Yankee college football team rolls into town.
When I moved there at the age of 17, Gainesville was the best place I'd ever lived. I was there to attend the University of Florida, although some of my friends from the Orlando suburbs had followed me up too. They kept me humble, lest I get too comfortable around my highfalutin new classmates and get any big ideas about trying to slip into upper-middle class respectability. Sometimes we slept in apartments where low-hanging chandeliers were used as ashtrays and there were maggots in the sink. Other times, we slept in a double-wide trailer off I-75 in a nothing of a neighborhood called Arredondo, which doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, maybe because no one has ever cared enough about it to set one up.
Sometimes I'd talk to a high-school friend I'll call Jennifer about my life and about the crust punks I'd met and their dogs wearing Millions of Dead Cops sweatshirts, and I guess Gainesville sounded like a nice place to live, or at least nicer than Tampa, where Jennifer was going to school and hating the people around her. So in 2008, she decided to make the two-hour drive to the Fest.
The Fest is a festival that brings thousands of punks from as far away as Iceland every year. They come to Gainesville to guzzle PBR, watch a bunch of bands, and maybe glimpse Fat Mike from NOFX speed by in a golf cart. Jennifer was coming to test out a possible relocation, the idea being to see if she liked it in North Florida enough to trade her four-year school for a community college.
She stayed with us in the trailer, which I'll describe by saying that sometimes a middle-aged guy named Jimmy James tried to crawl through the kitchen window to beg for 305-brand cigarettes because his mom hadn't given him an allowance that day. Jennifer fit right in with this landscape, and it wasn't long before she became interested in a piece of local color I'll call Jared.
Jared was a real cute kid—young face, flannel button-up, always on a skateboard. He loved cigarettes, and would do a couple of pop shove-its on our little street in Arredondo and then start coughing wildly before needing to stop. As soon as he'd stop wheezing, the kid would light up another stogy. My interactions with him were minimal, but I do remember that several times he gave me cash and asked me to go to the gas station for him and pick up a pack. I thought this was strange, but whatever. Four Loko still had caffeine in it at the time—a lot of things back then didn't make a lot of sense.
To Jennifer, Jared was a modern-day James Dean. She remained smitten with him even after being forced to hide in the bushes of his parents's house while he went inside because, he said, his mom had adopted his ex-girlfriend and he didn't want her to get jealous. When she told me this I thought it was strange, but young love works in mysterious ways, and anyway you can't be too judgmental living in a place where transients with street names like China Kat would regularly crash on the couch.
What she didn't tell me, and what I didn't end up finding out until much, much later was that while she was in the bushes he was packing his bag so he could elope with her to Tampa, the Fest being a powerful aphrodisiac and Jennifer and Jared being a couple of young kids—she was 18 and he was younger than that, another fact that I didn't really grasp back then.
All this information came courtesy of Jennifer a few days ago, when I messaged her after wondering how that story ended and in search of closure and wound up being told a tale that sounded like the worst Hold Steady song ever written.
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Apparently, in wasn't until they were en route to Tampa that Jared admitted he had run away from home. The part about his mom adopting his ex was true, but he also didn't want to be seen so he could make a clean break. It's a testament to the intoxicating effects of the Fest that after he told her this, they continued with the original plan and headed back to Tampa, where he was supposed to live in the closet of her dorm room.
"We did a ton of Adderall and listened to that song 'Video Killed the Radio Star' over and over again and thought it was the best song ever written," Jennifer told me. "He told me we were going to get married and he would support us by selling Adderall."
The infatuation wore off around the same time as the speed they'd been popping all weekend. After a few weeks of harboring a minor in her closet, she had to demand that she drive Jared back to his mom.
"And then he wouldn't leave and I started having panic attacks and my roommate put us in the car and drove him back to Gainesville and forced him to get out," she remembered. "Then she fed me pizza as I hallucinated on the ground [probably from the constant Adderall use], and then she called my parents."
During Jared's post-Jennifer days in Gainesville, my friend A.J. used the kid as a day laborer once a year. Apparently he would paint an entire house for a pack of cigarettes—a pretty good deal for my friend, considering they only cost about $4 in those days. Police records show that over the next few years Jared got arrested 23 times for things including burglary, grand theft, and underage possession of liquor. Facebook tells me he now lives in Key West, where he's still skating and smoking.
As for Jennifer, after that speed-fueled nightmare of a relationship was over and she had returned to her normal life, she decided to move to Gainesville anyway.
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