Jennifer Richardson : Cultural Debts : Essays/Memoirs : July 2019


My Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in southwest Florida where crocodiles living in the golf course lake routinely consumed small dogs whole.

Cultural Debts

I hadn’t thought of Jimmy Buffett for twenty years when, in the span of a week, he showed up three times: first in a news item announcing the opening of a Margaritaville retirement community in Daytona Beach, then in a magazine review of a biography by Ryan White, Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way, and finally, in a dream. From deep in slumber my psyche saw fit to produce a vignette in which Mr. Buffett made me a mango daiquiri whose secret ingredient was a can of Schlitz.  

Growing up in south Florida in the 1980s, Buffett’s music provided a thin veneer of culture to the state’s idealized identity as a sun-drenched paradise. Our suburban outpost on the Gulf-coast side of the state was otherwise sorely lacking in culture, or at least it seemed that way to my teenage sister and me as we burned with a passion hotter than the vinyl seats of our family’s station wagon in July to get the hell out of state. We longed for a place where the malls sold the clothes we saw in magazines and the local radio station dared to venture into the current decade. Aimée, who is four years older than me, got the chance first when she headed to the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1985.

Colonial Williamsburg may not have been a hotbed of urban culture, but a confluence of young adults at a university was enough to overcome geography. The influence of Aimée’s new life started trickling its way down to me during her visits home over college breaks, mostly in the form of mixtapes I would promptly steal. This introduction to the B-52s and REM and Modern English was both liberating and a convenient way to assert my cultural superiority at a high school stuck in a rut that rendered us incapable of listening to anything other than the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, and AC/DC. 

A brief aside: I would be remiss in accusing my high school of not being culturally contemporary if I failed to recognize the influence of Miami Vice, whose television run began the year before I entered high school. Two popular upperclassmen, best friends Jeff and Billy, were so taken with the show they started emulating Crockett and Tubbs, trading in their Members Only jackets for tight pastel t-shirts and linen suits with rolled-up sleeves. Billy even went so far as to take up residence on a sailboat in his senior year. The entire school was smitten, and if I close my eyes I can still smell the Drakkar Noir.

Besides music, my sister, an English Lit major, also started influencing what I read and my nascent interest in writing. Along with stolen sorority sweatshirts and those mixtapes, my haul from her visits home included discarded issues of the New Yorker. One year on her way back from Virginia to Florida, Aimée had stopped at South of the Border, a South Carolina rest stop cum theme park that’s guilty of a more nefarious type of cultural appropriation than the one I’m writing about here. She had subsequently written an essay about the experience that deeply impressed me, a New Yorker-esque profile expertly written in the style of being utterly damning just by stating facts and pithy observations. 

Somewhere around this same time my sister also bequeathed me Joan Didion, who had just written Miami, exposing us to a different side of the city than Crockett and Tubbs. I would subsequently become enchanted by Didion’s California-themed books, the state where both Aimée and I were born before moving to Florida as little kids. My mother—born and raised in California and, like Didion, educated at Berkeley—had subtly yet effectively indoctrinated us about the superiority of our native state, thus perhaps our fascination with Didion as a portal to the birthright we had been denied when my father moved us to Florida. Years later I would come to recognize a fascination with Didion as a stereotype of our white, female, bookish demographic, but at the time my sister’s fandom of Jimmy Buffet—the embodiment of Florida clichés—was much more worrying. I perceived it as a betrayal of our mutual pact against our home state. 

Aimée had loved Buffett’s music even in high school, and her enthusiasm only seemed to grow in college when she first went to see him live. When his book, a collection of short stories called Tales from Margaritaville, came out in 1989, the year she and I graduated from college and high school respectively, she became a fan of his writing. Actually, she had always been a fan of his writing, or at least that’s what she claimed when she made a surprisingly convincing case to me for Buffett as a master storyteller, whether through songs or books. It turns out she was ahead of her time in recognizing his talent. Twenty years later Bob Dylan would cite Buffett as a favorite songwriter. 

But I didn’t need Dylan’s stamp of approval to be taken by my sister’s take on Buffett. I came to think of her embrace of Parrot Headedness as the ultimate subversion of the myriad indignities of growing up in the Sunshine State—from constant sweating to living in a retirement community as a teenager to a cultural calendar that started with the rodeo and ended, in a good year, with a Pointer Sisters concert at the county arena. 

I was so enthralled with her inversion of my perceived norms of good taste that I appropriated it at an interview to spend a semester studying in Venice—by this time I, too, had escaped to another state for college. The interviewer, a literature professor who would be accompanying us abroad, asked me what my three favorite books were, to which I promptly regurgitated two of my sister’s favorites and one I had just finished reading for a class. I started with Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, added in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for peak credibility, then went in for the kill with Buffett’s Tales from Margaritaville. I felt very clever, despite having no indication from the professor that he felt the same. 

Somehow I was admitted to the program in Italy where, for the first time, I discovered a writer with whom I deeply resonated without the help of my sister (but with the help of that long-suffering professor—hat tip to Dr. Phillips). The writer was Natalia Ginzburg. I had found my Italian Didion, and Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues remains a favorite essay collection. 

Over the years, I like to think I have continued to develop some taste of my own. If asked now for my three favorite books I could summon a list that didn’t come via my sister, although Slouching would still make the cut. Regardless, Aimée remains a cultural arbiter for me. These days her tips arrive via different mediums than me pilfering her luggage—a volume of Deborah Garrison’s poems discovered on her guest-bedroom bookshelf, a tip-off from her wife that she wants the new Mary Oliver for Christmas—but they’re special all the same. 

Time and distance—I’ve somehow made my way back to Berkeley, land of my mother and Didion—have also given me the space to acquire an appreciation of Florida. Return visits to see my parents hold the appeal of sugar-sand beaches and lukewarm sea, a balm to my middle-aged bones. Between these and the enduring influence of my sister, I’m warming to the idea of living out my old age in a Margaritaville retirement community somewhere deep in the heart of the state. Look for me in the chickee hut by the communal pool: Schlitz daiquiri in one hand, tattered paperback of Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade in the other, opining to anyone who will listen about how Florida always had some culture after all.