Going Back to Mayo Part II: Back in Mayo Again

Back in Mayo means obligatory selfie with the Mayo Water Tower. July 2020.

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.

The supposed (according to a December 2020 Google Search) home of Casa Frias. In 2015, this building housed a cafe-restaurant with a bizarrely misspelled “Ya’ll” on the entrance.

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.

Vi Johnson reads on a slow day at the Dust Catcher Thrift, Mayo FL, July 2020.

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.

My Hometown and McMansion Hell

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Not my town, but it could easily have been.

I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.

My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.

The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.

Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.

None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.

I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?

Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.

The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.

This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.

Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of  taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.