Considering how much down-time 2020 has afforded us, I found myself surprisingly mobile this year. It turns out that driving across the country is a good socially-distanced activity, even when passing through states which are, with a lot of help from psychopathic governors and yell-talking Boomers who still think they have a shot with that 20-something bartender, COVID-addled nightmares.
Speaking of Florida, I found myself back in Mayo, the seat of the state’s thinly populated Lafayette County. The whole county’s population sits well under 10,000, and the Republican Party ticket dominated over 85% of the vote, among the most lopsided differential in the state. I hate to paint any state as “Red” or “Blue,” considering how Georgia proved that nothing is permanent, but Florida really feels like the quintessential nest for Trumpism (see previous paragraph). I’m still unconvinced that boats can operate in Tampa Bay unless they are flying at least two MAGA flags. Further into this tangent, the preponderance of Trump boat parades led some right-wing pundits to express sheer shock at their Dear Leader losing based upon this gaudy empirical evidence. It’s almost like they learned nothing from the 1936 Literary Digest election poll, but some a bizarre inverse version focusing on people whose identity and self-worth is expressed through boat ownership (that I’m not qualified to conduct).
Five years ago, I wrote about how some colleagues and I first wound up in Mayo in 2010 while interviewing locals about 2001 wildfires. In March 2015, my friend and I stopped through on a scenic drive between Tallahassee and Gainesville. A number of shops and eateries that I recalled from 2010 were no longer there, including one prominent smokehouse, which I believe had turned into a pizza place of dubious functioning status.
I only had time to grab lunch at a corner cafe (apparently defunct, even as of this writing 5 months later), take a few photos of the amazing Lafayette County Court House (and Chateau de Lafayette across the street, seen in this post’s cover photo), and stop into the Dust Catcher thrift shop, run by Vi Johnson.
I chatted with Vi for a few minutes before purchasing a one-time-use camera from 1999 and getting back on the road. Despite owning the building, Vi was hoping that somebody would buy her out, considering how many books and curios she had accumulated with no real hope for moving otherwise. Similar to many similar towns I’ve found via the Ben Irving Postcard Project (Belding, MI, for example), the Interstate Highways had long since redirected most traffic away from FL-27, sapping the tiny municipality of any real potential for sustainable economic gains. As if that wasn’t already an insurmountable challenge to any local entrepreneurs, she added, the opening of Dollar stores at opposing ends of Main Street “absolutely killed” her. Additionally, the biggest local company, a logging concern, had successfully petitioned to remove most of the parallel parking spots from Main Street in order to give their mammoth trucks unfettered access to tear through the mostly-vacant downtown. I’m not injecting any personal opinion here when I type that it’s a sad state of affairs.
Anyway, the last thing I want to do is look down my nose at small towns that are, through no fault of their own, aging out and clinging to life. I finally read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity this fall, and in it, he outlines the danger of romanticizing the struggles of those “left behind” in America. I also struggle with my love of small towns, considering how I have never really lived in one. As I’ve also written here, I grew up in a town that loved throwing that label around, but considering how much money (both New England-auld and 90’s nouveau-riche) swirls through the place, I would refrain from slapping John Cougar Mellencamp in the background of a video about it (more on that coming in 2021).
If anybody reads this and happens to know somebody opening up a retro-style café or bar, I have a lead on a functioning, vintage soda fountain for sale in North Florida. You can’t see much of it in this photo (below), but it’s under there, I promise, and it’s a classic.