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Sheila Blanchette Headshot

The Sunshine State

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Everyone in South Florida has a story. We've all come here from somewhere else to find a better life. Escaping the cold Northeast, snowy Midwest, or somewhere else where life is not a beach.

I have met many of these people in the five short weeks I have been here. There's the man in his 60s who owns a T-shirt shop near the beach. I struck up a conversation with him. Everyone here is friendly and eager to tell you their version of their life story or the new one they invented when they crossed the border into the Sunshine State.

He had a long gray pony tail and was wearing a New Riders of the Purple Sage T-shirt. I asked him where he got it, vaguely remembering working back stage at a concert they performed at my college almost 30 years ago. I clearly remember the lead singer asking me "where are the celestial virgins we ordered?"

"Have you heard of the Lollapalooza festival?" the T-shirt man asked. "Well, I got it at the festival from a vintage dealer. My son and I own this shop, moved here from Bangor, Maine 20 years ago. (Or Bangah as he pronounced it.) We close up the shop, take the inventory we haven't sold and sell it at the festival before spending July and August in Bangah, then head back and restock the store for the next season. Two months is enough for me up there. I like to visit the grandkids and old friends, but I'd never go back for good."

There was the 40-something bartender who moved here from Connecticut, or Crapneticut as she referred to it. She worked at one of those restaurants with the floor to ceiling windows that open out onto the sidewalk. She had a view of the beach. "I moved here 10 years ago, after I got divorced. My 19-year-old daughter died in a car accident, and my marriage didn't survive the grief," she told me.

On St. Patrick's Day, at the parade in Delray, I met a 59-year-old man who worked as a musician well into his 30's. "Back in Chicago, where I'm from, the musician's union ran all the gigs. There was a time you couldn't book a live band for a wedding or a party without hiring a union band. Parades like this, you had to be in the union to march in them. Sounds bad, but actually it guaranteed a fair wage and work for guys who wanted to make a living playing music. You could support a family on your wages. So then I moved on to golf course management. Got a job as a superintendent at a country club outside of Chicago, but the recession came along and hit the golf industry hard. I lost that job, too. So, Florida's the place to be if you work on a golf course, right? I moved down here five years ago and I love it."

As I drive around each day, I see Hispanic men cutting palm trees by the side of the road, sweating in the noon day sun, laughing and drinking water during their break. I'm sure there are those who drive by and think "illegal immigrant." I drive by and see another dreamer, someone who believes in the promise America supposedly holds for those who work hard, play by the rules, and dream big. Just like my grandparents who came here from Ireland and Quebec chasing their own dreams.

We're all here chasing a dream. The American Dream. The pursuit of happiness that was promised to us. We've lost jobs, spouses, children. We are crushed under the ever mounting bills to pay, increasing tuition costs, getting laid off, struggling to afford health insurance.

As children, we were probably the ones hanging precipitously off our horses on the merry-go-round, reaching for the brass ring. Not just passengers on the amusement park ride but believers in magic and prizes to be won. As Lewis A. Lapham once said, we "missed the brass ring of American success" but we're giving it one more shot.

There are of course, those who have achieved the dream: the one percent. And plenty of them. Driving by the mansions along Route A1A, you can no longer see the waterfront in many places. There's still some beach access, but nowhere to park. Someone's living the dream, but are they really? These houses don't look like homes, and they're empty for more than half the year. They almost make Newport, Rhode Island look like a middle class neighborhood. Almost, but not quite. The robber barons of the 21st century are also alive and well in South Florida.

Life is short. Many of us have faced tragedies and hardships but still have just enough energy or foolhardiness left in us to try one more time to make the rest of our days brighter. Nothing is easy but a little brighter is better than gloomy. The weather helps to make it all seem easier. The endless sunshine, the reports from back home of another snow storm on the way. Life goes on and we reach for the brass ring as the merry-go-round spins round and round. Wait, I remember this song. Joni Mitchell, right? So the years spin by... Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true/There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty/before the last revolving year is through. We're all immigrants in the Sunshine State, coming from somewhere else to find a better dream. One that just may come true.