Reflections on 30 Years In Tallahassee

Thirty years is a long time, unless you’re looking backwards wondering where the time went.  It doesn’t seem possible to me that it’s been exactly thirty years since I first moved to Tallahassee.  The memories of that time are some of the best I’ve collected in my time on this planet.  I was 23 years old and eager to explore the world.  I’d spent the prior six years of my life working and going to school in Pensacola, Florida, a town I never wanted to live in and that I feared being stuck in forever.

I remember that I came to town, driving my 1984 Nissan Sentra, with very little money, no place to stay, an old guitar, and Princess, my Labrador retriever puppy. I carried a small tent with me and had this idea that I would tent camp for a few nights if I couldn’t find a place to stay.  Fortunately, I had friends who agreed to let Princess and me sleep on their living room floor while I started my life in Tallahassee.  Using the print classified ads in the Florida Flambeau, I was able to locate a room in a house with two other students whose names I’ve long since forgotten, but whose antics, such as getting drunk and covering our single telephone with pink frosting, I remember all too well.

Florida State University Campus

I could only afford the tuition for two classes that semester, but I quickly fell in love with Florida State.  Each day it seemed that my world became larger and more interesting.  It wasn’t just the classes, it was the campus itself.  Every day I was meeting new people who took my mind and imagination to new places with their conversation and the stories they shared.  I worked nights as a computer operator at the Tallahassee Democrat, and this job provided me with time to consume books and fall in love with the ideas I found in their pages.

During that time, I read several books per week.  One day I wandered into Rubyfruit books and met a lovely woman who I learned could be relied upon to always recommend an excellent read.  I was oblivious to the fact that Rubyfruit was somewhat radical and identified as a gay and lesbian book store.  I just knew they carried more interesting books than the B. Dalton’s at the mall and they always greeting me warmly.

I love the natural beauty found in the Tallahassee area.

It was such an exciting time of growth, exploration, and everything that is wonderful about being young and free. I remember the afternoons spent fishing from a rowboat on lake Talquin where I would always see a huge old alligator laying in the same spot in the shoreline grass.  I remember exploring the dirt roads and trails of Apalachicola National Forest and a glorious afternoon my brother and I spent swimming in a sinkhole with our young dogs.  More than places, I remember meeting new friends, a few who continue to be in my life to this day.

To be sure, there was plenty of struggle.  Money was always short and would be for years to come.  The guitar I’d brought with me landed in a pawn shop when I hocked it to pay my rent.  My progress through school was slow and my grades were less than impressive as I spent too many hours working to support myself and pay tuition and socializing with an intensity that I had never done before or since.

If I’d never come to Tallahassee, I would have never met my friend, Howard.

Mostly though, I remember people who I met along way.  Intimate friends and passing strangers who enriched my world with their wisdom, kindness, and stories.  Jack, the hot dog guy from New York, who used to stand in front of Strozier library selling all beef hot dogs from a little stand and who always had an encouraging word for me.  I remember Virgil Goedkin, a chemistry professor, who helped me figure out a way to stay in school when money was tight and who was the first person I ever knew who died of AIDS and who was one of eight members from a family of hemophiliacs who died from the disease.  I remember Dan Borato, my clinical psychology professor, who I thought was crazy, but who I’ve since learned was so wise that I still quote him to this day.  I remember wandering into a musical theatre play while walking around campus one night, thinking it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen, and there began a love of live theatre and performance that endures. And there is so much I could write about FSU Hillel, where I found community and deep friendships that continue to this day.

The old and new of Tallahassee, looking North from the new pedestrian over-pass on S. Monroe Street.

Many old Tallahassee landmarks have disappeared in the past 30 years.  The old dairy on Monroe street is gone, which was across the street from the Albertsons, which is also gone; the Brown Derby Restaurant was still open and located in the parking lot next to Tallahassee Mall when I came to town. Morrison’s cafeteria was in both malls and my friends and I would often go there for cheap meals.  The Barbershop in Northwood Mall cut my hair for years.  I remember great times with friends at Buffalo Wings and Rings, sitting on the second story balcony overlooking Pensacola street before it was rerouted around the stadium.  I remember the FSU Stadium as a simple steel structure and being able to simply walk in and stand on the field during a semester break.  In 1988 you should still drive down Woodward street, right through the middle of campus, and I don’t remember any parking garages at FSU back then.  When I registered for class I had to use this awful dial in phone system that was always busy, and it took hours to get through only to find the class you wanted was already full.  It’s a testament to our determination and grit that we got registered for any classes at all.   I remember when the old airport terminal was still in use and when TCC was a small unimpressive community college that my friends sometimes called “Tee Hee Hee”, even when they were taking classes there.

So Many Memories of Times Spent with Friends

It was inevitable that my life would progress and that my youth would give way to adulthood, and then to middle age.  Over the years I’ve lost a lot of hair, put on a few pounds, adopted some great dogs, and gained a wonderful wife.  I’ve had careers in law, technology and nursing as I’ve wandered the planet in search of purpose and direction.  My life has given me opportunities to do things that I never anticipated, such as flying airplanes, sailing boats, and travelling to places like Israel, Hawaii, Alaska, France and the Galapagos. So many things have happened that I never imagined back in those days.

Looking back I can see that time has taken its toll. Not all my friends survived our wild days and we didn’t all make it to middle-age, but I carry their memories in my mind and in my heart.  New friends have come into my life to fill those spaces, but never truly replacing the ones who are gone.  Jack, the hot dog guy is gone, his stand replaced by a commercial vendor in a little building. Rubyfruit Books gave way to Borders, which gave way to Amazon.   Indeed, print books now seem to be losing to digital media. The last time I was in Strozier library, the entire bottom floor was computer terminals and the upper floors, where the books are kept, was completely empty.  But for every loss, there has been something positive. Locally, I love the new Cascades Park and the St. Mark’s bike trail. T.C.C. has grown into an amazing school.  No more terrible phone registration, students now register online and even take classes online. Tallahassee now has a rather handsome, although nearly empty, airport terminal.

A reunion of friends from our days at FSU Hillel.

These days, I watch my young nieces and nephews, and the children of my friends, launching into the world, and I remember that time 30 years ago when I stepped out  into the world.  I hope that their experiences will be as amazing as mine were and that they’ll find the love and beauty in the world that welcomed me so many years ago.  I hope that they’ll find friends who share the journey of their lives with them.  For me, living in a society that often feels youth obsessed, it’s tempting to think that my time is done, but that’s not true.  There are still adventures waiting if I have the courage take the journey.  There are still friends to made, books to read, stories to shared, and life to be lived.  Someday it will be over, but right now as I live in the body of a middle-aged man, that young man who wanted to explore world is still living inside me, and he allows me to see wonder in the world and possibilities that I didn’t see the day before.