Comfortable. That's the word I always used when I lived in St. Louis and someone would ask me what the city was like. It was comfortable, I'd say, and surprise myself by not being too embarrassed by the word. I'd mention, naturally, the rock-bottom rents for hardwood-floored, high-ceilinged one bedrooms. The circle of friends and acquaintances I'd gathered via Wash U grad school and my Riverfront Times job. The familiar trot between Blueberry Hill and Cicero's when the two sat only 50 feet apart. The calming effect of the bears at the free zoo, the Central West End's architecture, and that Irish bar in Soulard whose name I now forget where straight-from-Dublin musicians would play the kind of melancholy songs that make you very wistful in a very enjoyable way. The city was comfortable, like a cotton sweater, like mashed potatoes, like bathwater. It felt utterly natural to wander these places by myself, never experiencing a shiver of self-consciousness.
Could there be fainter praise than that? I distinctly remember once using the "comfortable" response to a guy who just moved to St. Louis from California. He looked alarmed. This was, oh, five or six years ago. He still lives in St. Louis.
Being at ease has its charms, but after more than seven years I began to feel muffled and stagnant, and I blamed this on St. Louis, which really isn't fair, but I did it anyway. I wanted to leave, thinking that an escape would help me realize something (undefined) or get something done (also undefined), and I knew when I did go I would feel a sweet tinge of regret, and I looked forward to feeling that. By taking a journalism-school scholarship in North Carolina I thought I'd slightly redirect my career, but the classroom experience ended up a wash. Afterward, my new debts and I looked for work. All this was more traumatic than I'm letting on.
Eventually a phone call came offering a surprisingly good job with a salary considerably more than I'd ever made. (Which isn't saying a whole lot, since journalists are trained not to expect much financially. But still.) The catch, from a
cosmic-practical-joke point of view: the job was in Florida. In Orlando, to be exact. It
had never once occurred to me to live in Florida. If somebody would have asked, and I would have thought about it, I probably would have said that Florida was a state I was actively avoiding.
I've been in Orlando now for two-and-a-half years. I continually find this a strange and fascinating fact.
Orlando is, to me, not comfortable. Well, sure, the weather is the glorious warmth, which turns February into a month when I can go for a run in a tank top and crack open my windows before falling asleep. But the idea of Orlando, its whole set of assumptions, fills me with a sort of amazed dismay. When I look around here, so much seems out of place. As it should. After all, in order to see this land as a livable option, people had to exert a lot of imagination, and then they had
to construct massive, elaborate projects to drain the swamp they were looking at. It's an unlikely place to live, and when you add in its tropical scenery, Florida in general appears as a place to go to become ephemeral, to reinvent. And Orlando is the epicenter of all that fantasy and disjunction.
Some examples: Two years ago, residents discovered a few coffee-table-size Malaysian monitor lizards inexplicably crawling around a little town 30 minutes north of Orlando. I often watch graceful, S-shaped egrets and herons picking their way across parking lots. The area thick with theme parks and hotels which might as well be Mars, as far as I'm concerned, which is in itself a weird attitude to have toward my surroundings includes faux African savannahs, a Dr. Seuss landscape come to life, an itty-bitty Great Wall of China, and futuristic space treks. Disney built an entire town straight out some sentimental Frank Capra movie and named it Celebration, and I've reached the point that referring to a town that's called Celebration seems normal. A few weeks ago Orlando acquired a Christian theme park just the phrase sounds like a set-up for a joke called the Holy Land Experience, featuring a temple marketplace, Jesus's empty tomb, and a restaurant selling Goliath Burgers.
Right after the Holy Land Experience opened, I read several articles about it, in everything from Time to the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It's strange how often I hear people talking about the place where I now live: there are little things, like Space Shuttle launches and spring breaks. There are big things, like the Elian saga, the election debacle, and the Backstreet Boys/'N Sync/O-Town, who all came to life in some frightening local music-studio laboratory aimed at conquering the world's Clearasil girls, and the resulting bigger-than-the-Beatles phenomenon caused Grammy host Jon Stewart to call Orlando the new home of rock & roll, his voice full of resignation.
It dawned on me that I never read about St. Louis when I lived there. Well, "never" might not be true, but people didn't try to interpret it the way they try to decipher Florida. St. Louis is not unstable; it's not fantasy. It's very solidly itself, so what's to figure out? This, I think, is why it's comfortable, or was for me. St. Louis, as a friend regularly and ruefully points out, is not ambitious, which implies wanting something other than what's given.
My first visit to St. Louis was to find an apartment after I was accepted to Wash U. I wandered the campus starting from the back end, and emerged through Brookings Hall into that extended view looking down Forest Park all the way to the Arch. "Hey, nice," I thought, which seems to foreshadow my entire relationship with the city. It didn't startle me; it was pleasing. In contrast, when I was in Orlando for my job interview my soon-to-be-boss took me to Disney's Wilderness Lodge, which has a Northwestern theme mimicking something from Canada, or at least Wyoming. A huge fireplace roars year-round, and a geyser spouts out back. "Hey, bizarre," I thought. "Deeply bizarre."
After I moved to Orlando, I sank into despair. When that got old, I realized that my feeling of being plopped down here like the monitor lizards or Cinderella's Castle was an impetus to take a look at my own ambitions and desires. Then, of course, I made the next obvious realization: that I didn't need to feel so uncomfortable in order to make such discoveries. But that's the way these things go, eh.
Just to be clear, when I left St. Louis, I did feel that sweet tinge of regret, and I still feel it, especially when I survey the landscape and can't see a sturdy, red-brick four-family flat anywhere.