Florida is directly south of Georgia, and we may want it to stay that way. I got out in 1978 and thought I was safe, but Lynn Waddell’s “Fringe Florida” has come up to get me. A first-rate freelance journalist — Waddell helped cover the George Zimmerman trial for The Wall Street Journal — she knows a good story when she sees it.
In this freewheeling account of the state’s cultural and carnal manias, she sees a lot — some of it bizarre, much of it filthy, all of it on the Fringe. Tread carefully as you enter the world of coleslaw wrestling, “thong pulls” and Bite-the-Weenie Contests. Where bogging trucks with stripper poles thunder across artificial lakes of mud and humans dressed in pony costumes perform ritualistic equine maneuvers. Observe a theme park called the Holy Land Experience, where Jesus is crucified on a daily basis, as if once weren’t enough.
“My use of the term ‘fringe’ is not pejorative,” explains Waddell. “These outside-the-norm lifestyles are the decoration of Florida. On a map, the state even looks like a fat piece of fringe dangling from the United States.”
Extreme groups like the Furries, who wear elaborate animal suits and “have an extreme passion for anthropomorphic characters,” might be described as cults. Others are true believers, like the “Ufologists” who position their tin foil hats to thwart “alien mind control.” Some are just enthusiastic hell-raisers like the all-female Leather & Lace Motorcycle Club.
Obviously, the realm of fringe can be a raunchy universe. Waddell insists she’s no prude, merely, “ a voyeur of the unusual.” She can play it straight or bug her eyes out to comic effect. Sometimes she participates in the action to an unsettling reach. At Tampa’s Fetish Con, she tries on a pony head only to find herself with a steel bit suddenly placed into her mouth.
The author has a knack for landing strong quotes. “When you get on a cold gas tank,” a naked cyclist reveals, “that will wake you up.” One Furry confides, “Primarily, I’m a Bottlenose Dolphin.”
Here and there, she offers some historical background. The first mud trucks were built in the Everglades in 1918. The psychic community of Cassadaga was a railroad stop that conveniently became a “Spiritual vortex” in the 1800s. The old circus hamlet of Gibsonton once had a post office that “installed a short counter for ‘the little people.’ ”
“Down in the rabbit hole with [the fringe dwellers], it all seems natural,” says Waddell. That may be, but it isn’t always possible for her to suspend judgment. She notes that Florida’s craze for exotic pets led to a Burmese python squeezing a toddler to death. The maker of a “crush film” was killed when he had “someone drive over him in a Honda Pathfinder.”
While Florida authorities usually tolerate the mayhem, two of the book’s best chapters are personality profiles that highlight battles with the law. Joe Redner, “The Mayor of Trampa” and owner of the Mons Venus strip club, fought courtroom skirmishes in 1992 that raked in $600,000 in favorable judgments. Ward Hall, one of the last circus master showmen, displayed “human oddities” in his sideshows for decades. Faced with stiff penalties related to Florida’s so-called anti-freak law, his legal team argued that Miami’s Miss Universe pageant was equally a presentation of the “malformed,” and eventually the ordinance was overturned in the state’s top court.
In often ludicrous situations, Waddell conducts herself professionally, if not anthropologically, offering citations to confirm Florida’s domination in the fringe category: The most mud parks (10),; the most “human ponies” per capita of any state; the largest concentration of “nude residents”; and so forth. California, with a population twice as large, is the closest fringe competitor, but Florida stays well in the lead. Why? It may be the weather, or, she speculates, the “diverse population, tourism propaganda, and the predisposition of its residents.
“In a land of individualists prone to the fantastical, ordinary often isn’t an option,” she concludes.
Despite the real estate collapse, political chaos and staggering corruption, Florida’s fringe rolls merrily along, often digging in at the interstices of the state’s middle class culture — or what’s left of it. The Caliente Tampa Resort is an expensive gated community that’s a “virtual nude city.” One of the state’s leading Pony Players is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Just remember, no matter how peculiar something may seem, “undoubtedly something stranger and more obscure is around the corner,” Waddell predicts. Ultimately, her attitude is that life is short. People want to have fun. If wearing a panda outfit seems unproductive, so what? But be forewarned: As an upright citizen, you may be shocked by sections of “Fringe Florida,” so rush out and buy it right away.
“Fringe Florida: Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles”
By Lynn Waddell
University Press of Florida, 288 pages, $24.95.