Authors: Carl Hiaasen
|Berkley Publishing Group (1999)|
Beginning with "Welcome to South Florida", a chapter introducing such everyday events as animal sacrifice, riots at the beach, and a shootout over limes at the supermarket, this collection organizes over 200 columns into 18 chapters, chronicling events and defining the issues that have kept the South Florida melting pot bubbling throughout the '80s and '90s. An introductory essay provides an overview of Hiassen's career and outlines his principal concerns as a journalist.
For all those who care about Florida.
You just cover a lot of territory and you do it aggressively and you do it fairly and you don’t play favorites and you don’t take any prisoners. It’s the old school of slash-and-burn metropolitan column writing. You just kick ass. That’s what you do. And that’s what they pay you to do.
1. Welcome to South Florida
2. Murder and Mayhem
3. See It Like a Native
4. Rules Are Different Here
5. The War on Drugs
6. Tourist Season
7. A State of Chaos
8. Cops, Courts, and Lawyers
9. Candidates with Convictions
10. Our Leaders on Parade
11. Stormy Weather
12. Tax Dollars at Work
13. Ralph Sanchez and Other Subsidized Sports
14. Choked on Growth
15. Vanishing Florida
16. The Everglades and Big Sugar
17. Wild Kingdom
18. Small Victories
Since 1985, Carl Hiaasen has written some 1,300 columns for the Miami Herald, all of which I’ve been privileged to read as a single body of work, though choosing among them to create an anthology of reasonable length meant eliminating far more than I would have wished. While many great columns had to be omitted because of limited space, those gathered here represent some of Hiaasen’s finest writing as an advocate for realistic growth and decent government in Florida. Taken as a whole, this collection constitutes a history of sorts, chronicling a decade and a half of the issues, struggles, and personalities affecting the development of the state and the welfare of its residents. Individually, each column provides the distinct pleasures associated with reading Carl Hiaaseninspired outrage, hilarity, incredulity, and passionin language brilliantly wielded against two targets in particular: hypocrisy and greed.
While fans nationwide can find his novels anywhere, Hiaasen’s biweekly columns have thus far been essentially inaccessible after their appearance in the Herald or one of the other papers through which his work is syndicated. Even ardent fans would find it difficult to search archives for past columns, especially those from five or ten years ago. This anthology was therefore originally intended to answer the need for a more permanent record of Hiaasen’s career as one of the country’s most influential and articulate journalists. But what also emerges from the collection, most significantly for those of us who care about Florida’s future, is a clear picture of Carl Hiaasen’s continuing role as an uncompromising and eloquent defender of this state.
I’m indebted to many people at the Miami Herald for their time and generous cooperationto Lory Reyes and Michael Clark of the research department; Doug Clifton, former executive editor; Sam Terelli, general counsel; Jim Savage, head of the investigations team; Dave Satterfield, former city editor, now business editor; Bob Radziewicz, assistant city editor; Gene Miller, associate editor for reporting.
I must also thank Anthe Hoffman, Janette Johnson, and Melanie Almeder for their help and encouragement throughout this project.
Information concerning Florida’s real and projected growth was condensed from Hiaasen columns; various editions of the Florida Statistical Abstract (compiled by the Bureau of Economic Research and Development at the University of Florida); Florida in the Twenty-first Century, by Leon Bouvier and Bob Weller (Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Studies, 1992); and South FloridaThe Winds of Change, edited by Thomas Boswell (Miami: Association of American Geographers, 1991).
For years I resisted the idea of compiling my newspaper columns into a book, because it would have required re-reading each one myselfa columnist’s worst nightmare. Most of us can’t bear to look at something we wrote last week, much less a decade ago. That’s because the nature of daily journalism is fleeting, today’s words made instantly stale by tomorrow’s headlines. There is simply no time to look back.
This collection would have been impossible without the keen eye, unflagging enthusiasm, and heroic stamina of Diane Stevenson. She pored through many hundreds of columns to find those that best stood the test of time, and also presented a vivid panorama of a confoundingly diverse state. They reflect my own bent view of the place, so whatever wrath these pieces provoke should be directed at me alone. For her brave job of culling and organizing them, Diane deserves nothing less than a medal.
I am also indebted to the many talented reporters and editors at the Miami Herald, past and present. Their guts, ingenuity, and pit-bull persistence produced the news stories that inspired these columns. I feel fortunate, and proud, to be employed by a newspaper that knows what newspapers are supposed to do: Turn over rocks. Dig out the truth. Kick ass.
In 1953, Carl Hiaasen was born in Plantation, Florida, a tiny suburb of Ft. Lauderdale at the westernmost edge of then-rural Broward County. By 1960, around the time he got his first typewriter, Plantation’s population of 4,800 was roughly that of Ft. Lauderdale in 1922, when Hiaasen’s grandfather moved down from North Dakota to eventually found the area’s first law firm.
While Plantation remained safely fringed by Everglades and swamp, providing the perfect environment for an idyllic boyhood, Broward County’s population of 84,000 had almost quadrupled by 1960. By 1960 as well, almost one-third of the state’s entire population was concentrated in southeast Florida, which had grown in that same decade by over 113 percent.
In the years since, Florida has absorbed into its population approximately 300,000 people a year, for a relative growth rate almost triple that of the rest of the country. To accommodate the 700-1,000 new residents arriving daily, a minimum of 300 acres of green space must be paved, also daily, for subdivisions, streets, schools, and shopping malls. Added to that has been the considerable development required to house and entertain tourists, 41 million of them in 1990, the year before Native Tongue, Hiaasen’s satirical novel about theme parks, was published.
During the same years that 75 percent of all currently existing developments were being built, at least five animal species disappeared completely, and a significant number of others were greatly reduced as their habitats either vanished or were poisoned by agricultural runoff or toxins like mercury. Today, the Everglades is half its original size, Florida Bay is endangered, and Broward County (with a population of 1.5million and recently ranked ninth in the nation for destroyed wetlands and forests) has drawn Plantation into its geographical center. The dirt bike-path Hiaasen and his friends rode into the swamp, where they camped and caught water moccasins, is now University Drive, nine shopping malls lining the same route they once took.
These are the sources of Carl Hiaasen’s outrage and satire, the losses beginning even in childhood, when he and his friends would pull up or relocate surveyor’s stakes, feeling that such small, futile acts were nevertheless their moral duty. “We were kids,” he says. “We didn’t know what else to do. We were little and the bulldozers were big.” Their memorable roar Hiaasen often compares to “the sound of money,” because greed, he says, is “the engine that has run Florida ever since there was a Florida.”
Greed and its accompanying corruption, in fact, occupy one side of Hiaasen’s clearly articulated system of right and wrong, while unspoiled wilderness lies on the other. The two are separated by what Skink, in Double Whammy, perceives to be “the moral seam of the universe” as he gazes at the dike separating a contaminated development from pristine swampland. Against this backdrop, events play out in Hiaasen’s novels and columns, the moral landscape making almost tangible certain basic and universal values: we should be loyal to our friends, behave with civility and decency, earn our paychecks honestly, experience shame if we steal, preserve the world for our children, and never surrendereither our belief in these values, or to anyone who would violate them for personal gain. As Hiaasen says, “You try to be a good citizen wherever you live. Plant mangroves and don’t piss in the water.”
Hiaasen traces his strong sense of right and wrong back to the losses of the 1960sthe “complete end of innocence” caused by the Kennedy assassinations, two tragic events creating the historical circumstances that placed Richard Nixon in the White House, accelerated the war in Vietnam, and ultimately led to Watergate. “It was a poisonous time to be coming of age,” Hiaasen says. “It seemed to me there was so much wrong in the world. I felt such outrage for so many years over those things happening that it wasn’t a hard thing to carry into journalism.”
When Hiaasen began his Miami Herald column in 1985, however, after having first been a general assignment reporter and then a member of the Herald’s prize-winning investigation team, the newspaper hadn’t yet established a tradition of commentary written with “ferocity and passion, mordant wit, and moral outrage,” as Doug Clifton, former executive editor of the Miami Herald, describes Hiaasen’s biweekly column. Miami was still a young city, Hiaasen explains, with no voice, even on the editorial page, that expressed strongly held opinions likely to inspire an equally strong response from readers. So when Hiaasen ridiculed the first Cuban American county manager, whose indictment for grand theft was dismissed because of a 1951 ruling on cattle rustling (“a standard of conduct against which all public officials should be tested,” Hiaasen dryly observed), Herald editors initially cringed. Interestingly, however, the following year that same county manager forgot to disclose, as required by law, a large profit he made on a land deal, prompting Hiaasen to write that such memory lapses by someone controlling the county budget suggested the need for a brain scan in addition to a lawyer: “If I thought [he] deserved to be fired for lying to the IRS and buying stolen suits and lying about it, I would say that in the column. Gotta get rid of the guy. And it was unheard of at the time.”
From the start, it was also clear Hiaasen would not allow himself to be bullied. In 1987, when a city commissioner objected to funding the Sister Cities convention because representatives from communist countries might attend, Hiaasen called his antics “boneheaded.” By certified mail, the commission sent a formal, albeit unintelligible, resolution demanding that the Herald retract or clarify Hiaasen’s “false and misleading statement,” to which Hiaasen replied that since his original column was neither false nor misleading, he couldn’t add even “a cheerfully instructive footnote.” He did, however, formulate a resolution of his own, which reads, in part:
“Be it resolved: It is hereby demanded that the Miami City Commission quit wasting time on dumb, self-serving resolutions when there are so many more important issues facing the community.
“Regarding the Sister Cities International convention and the alleged Communist menace therein, it is hereby demanded that city commissioners halt such reactionary nonsense immediately, since it exposes all South Florida to national scorn and ridicule. It is further demanded that if the commissioners choose to make fools of themselves, that they do so in the privacy of their homes and not in a public forum.”
Now, much of Miami has come to expect a no-holds-barred Hiaasen column that synthesizes news stories and corruption scandals, and makes sense of issues in its own “brilliant fashion, with humor that skewers,” according to Jim Savage, head of the Herald’s investigations team, who worked with Hiaasen in the mid-1980s on uncovering and ultimately stopping Port Bougainville, one of several illegally sited developments that would have added altogether some 60,000 people to North Key Largo. On this project, and on the Smuggler’s Island investigation, which began with a memo about a water main and ended with a series on dope running in Key West, Savage observed firsthand Hiaasen’s legendary insight. It was Hiaasen, Savage notes, who quickly recognized the heart of the storyhow drug dealing dramatically altered people’s lives, especially in Key West, but with implications for the rest of the country. Savage now uses Hiaasen’s story-assembling techniques, as well as his accuracy, fairness, and skillful interviewing, as a model of excellence in investigative reporting when he teaches seminars in project writing. “Carl is the most talented journalist I’ve worked with because he’s an outstanding researcher and a world-class writer,” Savage says. “It would be great if we could clone Carl Hiaasen, so one could still be working with me.”
At age four, Carl Hiaasen learned to read using the Miami Herald sports page and maps of Florida. Two years later, when he got his first typewriter as a present from his father, he taught himself to hunt and peck well enough to write his own sports page, reporting on neighborhood kickball and softball games in newsletters he handed out to friends. Even then, he knew he wanted to be a journalist, because getting paid to learn about the world and report on it in stories bearing his name seemed the perfect occupation.
Continuing to write for pleasure in high school, Hiaasen again had his own publication, More Trash, an underground newsletter in which he experimented with irreverent commentary by poking fun at the traditions of mainstream adolescent culture, as well as satirizing the teachers and administrators of Plantation High. At Emory University, he ghostwrote a doctor’s memoirs, and within the next two years, had married his high school sweetheart, Connie, become a father, and moved to Gainesville to major in journalism at the University of Florida.
When he graduated in 1974, having just turned twenty-one, Hiaasen was hired by Cocoa Today as a general assignment reporter, and soon after became a feature writer for their Sunday magazine, Sunrise. Two years later, in 1976, he was invited to join the Herald’s Broward Bureau, where he remained for about six months before being moved to the newspaper’s city desk in Miami as a general assignment reporter. He quickly became a feature writer for the Herald’s Sunday magazine, Tropic, and in 1979 joined two-time Pulitzer prize winner Gene Miller, associate editor for reporting, in investigating and writing “Dangerous Doctors,” an eight-part series remembered today for its excellence and impact.
During the early 1980s, while still a member of the investigations team, Hiaasen began to write fiction, spending evenings and weekends co-authoring, with the late William Montalbano, three novelsthe recently reprinted Powder Burn, Trap Line, and A Death in China. In 1985as he was about halfway through his first solo novel, Tourist Season, one of seven (Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Native Tongue, Strip Tease, Stormy Weather, and Lucky You) that established his national reputation as one of America’s best satiriststhe Herald asked Hiaasen if he wanted to write a column.
Those at the Herald who knew him during these early years say that even in his twenties Hiaasen was clearly one of a kind, his gifts being distinctly extraordinary. Doug Clifton remembers Hiaasen as “a young man with talents that far surpassed those that you would expect from someone of that age and experience.” Immediately evident, Clifton says, were Hiaasen’s wit, probing mind, remarkable energy and the “incredible ability to handle himself in tough situations, to write with clarity, and to peer into things and catch their essence.”
Since working as an investigative reporter with Jim Savage and Gene Miller, Hiaasen has written some 1,300 columns. A very few recount personal anecdotesabout bonefishing, or blowing up frogs as a child, or trying to find his young son’s lost snake, Lefty. Others tackle national issues and political candidates or officeholders. Most columns, however, focus on the overdevelopment of crowded South Florida, its immigration inequities, gun-and drug-related violence, its image and scandals and tourists, and its misuse of taxpayers’ money by venal or inept public servants.
The most passionate of Hiaasen’s columns often concern politics, corruption, and the environmentin Florida, three closely related topics. Many of his colleagues believe, in fact, that Hiaasen’s deep-rooted attachment to South Florida enables him to write with genuine lyricism about the Everglades, and with uniquely venomous, wickedly funny satire about those “greedheads,” as Hiaasen calls them, whose make-a-buck morality has led to widespread environmental destruction.
Sometimes Hiaasen is brutally direct, calling one well-known Miami politician “a pernicious little ferret,” another, a “worthless blowhard,” and a third, “an affable, back-slapping, ribbon-snipping blob.” Sometimes he chooses images to emphasize venalitycertain legislators are, for example, the “favorite slobbering lapdogs” of canegrowers, and Hialeah’s government is an “oozing sludge bucket of corruption,” where “the air of graft and deception comes from deep in the soil, like radon gas.” He skewers local-and state-level candidates as well, during one election referring to them as “a veritable slag heap of mediocrity” and wondering, “What is it about South Florida that compels people barely fit to function in society to go out and run for office?” However, because Hiaasen doesn’t play favorites, he also attacks the “rich tradition of voter apathy, rotten judgment and shallow values” allowing corrupt or unqualified candidates to gain office in the first place, so close to taxpayers’ money and so indifferent to their interests.
Although Hiaasen never hesitates to use what Clifton refers to as “a cauterizing light,” his satire can also be clearly fun-loving and equally effective in its various other formsspoofs, invented conversations, lists of rules, questionnaires and surveys, predictions for the new year, diary entries, multiple-choice tests, and song lyrics, like these from February 1990, commemorating Governor Martinez’s condemnation of the rap group 2 Live Crew. (The group was busted four months later by Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro, who sent a dozen county cars to “capture” the rappers, inspiring Hiaasen to comment, “Liberal wimps have chastised Navarro for using so many deputies on the 2 Live Crew raid. [But] it’s not as if crime is a problem in Broward. Last year the county reported a measly 115 murders, 830 sexual assaults, 5,212 robberies, 6,202 aggravated assaults, 25,478 burglaries, 11,190 auto thefts and 59,541 larcenies
No wonder Navarro could spare a fleet of squad cars to pursue an unarmed musician!”)
“Let’s Do It Till November,” by DJ Jazzy Bob
Yo, I’m Governor Bad
And I’m happy to say