City Confidential: Southern American Graffiti

Pensacola mural

Pensacola, Florida, is a town of many faces. It is a tourist town, a military town, a college town, a transient town. Making up what is known as L.A. (or Lower Alabama) are the butter mint pastel neighborhoods of Pensacola Beach and the turn-of-the-last-century charms of the North and East Hill neighborhoods near downtown, juxtaposed against the sketchy Brownsville and Warrington areas that look like Detroit, which makes sense, as the water in Escambia County is some of the worst in the nation.

The days are so hot and humid, one feels like they’re walking into a sauna. The blacktop shimmers in the boiling heat. Cars plastered with Bible quotes drive by with bumper stickers like, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.”

Alorica—Pensacola’s version of Initech from Office Space—is one of the few employers that pays more than minimum wage to unskilled workers. Most everyone in town has, is, or will be working there.

Strings of chain restaurants line the streets like dirty laundry on a clothesline, and trash from the transients collect like fermented sewage.

The Bible screamers are on one corner, the homeless on another, and parking lots are prime real estate for vagrants approaching strangers, asking for a handout—usually with a story that involves a serpentine belt.

On other corners or roadsides, people wearing sunglasses and sandwich signs dance to the beat coming through their earbuds while advertising going-out-of-business sales.

There is a church in the hub that seems hell-bent on scaring people into receiving the free gift of fire insurance with their signs such as “If you don’t want God, the devil will always take you back.”

Most of the signs in town have a letter burned out or fallen off, or they often contain a misspelled word.

Empty buildings are everywhere, yet brand new mattress stores (which come across as fronts for drug trafficking) are always being built. Zoning is practically nonexistent as “Donna Reed-type” homes are set up right next to trailer parks; it’s like having Haiti and the Dominican Republic within walking distance.

Plasma centers (where phlebotomists are also known as vampires) and payday loan shark tanks are popular in this city that has more churches per capita than any other county in Florida.

Though the town is overwhelmingly conservative, there are plenty of bars and even a vegan restaurant or two. There used to be a gay bar on the seedier side of town called Emerald City where heterosexuals frequented the drag shows, but it’s gone now.

The tower on Scenic Highway where homosexuals hook up stands like a phallus that experienced a circumcision mishap; the sand on the Bay Bluffs beach below, down the boardwalk and past the railroad tracks, looks like yellow grits—as if urine from a Mountain Dew drinker saturated it. The water is so murky, you can barely see the varmints that glide underneath.

Pensacola has its share of interesting people. Several years ago, there was a mute old man who looked like Moses and held up an Israeli flag—another street corner squatter. Mike Slocumb, “The Alabama Hammer,” is one of the dozens of lawyers who advertise during the local news. Dr. Michael Berkland, a former medical examiner, was put away for storing human body parts in a storage locker.

On Guillemard Street, across from Open Books—a non-profit bookstore that sends books to Florida prison inmates on request—is a park with a headless cow, looking like something from a post-apocalyptic world where children have stopped being born. The fountain there is rank—like a toxic waste dump.

The overnight cashier at CVS stands like a sentinel as a couple of potheads run in, their graffiti-like tattoos streaking past like a Van Gogh painting left under the Floridian sun too long.

It is in the wee hours that half the populace are red-eyed zombies and the other half are just going through the motions of life in a dying town—a town that only manages to stay alive by sucking the life out of everything and everyone—a town that is completely dependent upon tourists and the military to survive.

Inasmuch as there is a softening of morals in this small city, there is a coarsening of the culture where the counterculture is becoming the culture.

The ECAT (Escambia County Area Transit) bus is there for those who are unfortunate enough to ride it—two hours for what might be a twenty minute drive. Potholes proliferate on the streets like acne scars. Pedestrians and cyclists are always being hit. Hit-and-runs are the norm.

There are the bright spots, like the thriving downtown made possible by King Midas, a.k.a. Quint Studer—the local philanthropist whose name is on everything, it seems.

There is Pensacola State College (formerly Pensacola Junior College) where the magnolia trees produce their fat, white blooms that are like freshly-peeled apple slices which brown quickly in the sweltering heat; there is the University of West Florida, where the Spanish moss hangs like the beards of ancient philosophers and learned astronomers.

There is the Bear/Levin/Studer YMCA, where the swimming pools face a wall of windows and the sunlight and twilight give the place an ethereal feel—where, when a train goes by, you feel like you’re defying gravity in a floating building.

There is the Naval Aviation Museum with its skylights and throwback exhibits that memorialize the Greatest Generation. There are the Blue Angels air shows, the fireworks at Blue Wahoos Park—adjacent to the “Dr. Seuss-like” park with its negative space and springy terrain.

There is Sacred Heart Hospital, where sepia-toned copper statues of little children greet visitors like storybook sculptures and the colonnade on Twelfth Avenue that makes you feel like you’re entering that magical place where the woodbine twists and twines.

Though the town has aged, and not so gracefully in many places, in others, it has been revitalized with cosmetic construction.

Pensacola is a place for misfits and miscreants, for the backsliders and the born-agains, for the poets, artists, and musicians who can’t afford to live in Austin or NYC, for the students who can’t afford the big-time universities, for the foodies who nosh on grits a ya-ya and beignets for brunch, and for the Mormon missionaries who come to save them all.

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