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I think one of our favorite pastimes as Southerners is to talk trash about other southern states. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we all have pre-conceived, hyper-inflated notions about folks. People from Mississippi have mud for brains, Arkansans eat roadkill, folks from Tennessee drink moonshine and lose at football, and Georgians just sit on their porches and talk about the sweet magnolias.
There’s a certain hierarchy among the states, and we all place our own at the top (and Mississippi at the bottom). Florida, however, stands separate in many ways. Because of its unique cultural influences, huge population and sprawling metropolises, it almost falls under the Texas jurisdiction of “kinda its own thing.” A particular symbol of Florida’s unique popular standing is the popular “Florida Man” joke.
For context, “Florida Man” is a reference to the multitudes of online articles that report on the often bizarre, upsetting and outlandish situations to be found in Florida’s arrest reports. A few shining examples are as follows:
Florida man caught illegally feeding wild alligator resists arrest.
Florida man arrested for practicing karate by kicking swans in the heads.
Florida man robs bank, strips naked, then runs down the street throwing stolen money everywhere.
These were extremely easy headlines to find, and my only challenge was sorting through the ones that had situations that simply were not suitable for publishing to the public. As you can see, the infamous “Florida Man” seems to get himself into quite a few scrapes.
Why is this? Surely there are crazier stories from Nevada, New York, or California. Shoot, I’m sure Arkansas has some novel stories to tell for that matter. But Florida’s the one that gets the mythical craziness ascribed to it. And there are plenty of reasons why, too.
First off, there’s a matter of population. As previously mentioned, Florida is pretty dang full – as of 2019, its population was a sizeable 21 million. On top of that, because of its numerous vacationing spots, it attracts about 90 million visitors a year. So that means we have more than 100 million individuals in the state, the majority of whom are likely consuming more alcohol than usual.
Things get more exciting from there though – that’s right, we’re about to talk legislative matters! In 1995 Florida’s state government enacted the Florida Sunshine Law, S.119. The first section of this law pertains to statutory public records – “It is the policy of this state that all state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.”
By itself, this seems like a great idea. However, this also impacts arrest records and details for all of those 100 million people.
Let’s throw a twist in there for consideration, too. You may recall that Florida was the focus of a great deal of journalistic interest through the year 2000 because of the extremely tight election between Al Gore and President Bush. On top of that, following 9/11 we learned that the pilots in that incident trained in Florida while getting into all sorts of narcotic-fueled hijinks. Over these two years, news agencies and online news aggregators learned just how easily they could snag an easy story by displaying the lurid details of inebriated misadventure.
Thus, Florida Man was conceived.
However, this hasn’t exactly been harmless. It’s easy to laugh at a faceless person just as easy as it is to make fun of the general idea of a state. Shoot, if the mugshot is funny enough maybe they don’t even have to be faceless. Sadly, the people behind these click-worthy articles and pictures are real people – people like 34-year-old Ben Padgett.
I’ll spare the details, but at a time when he was homeless and in the throes of addiction, he made some very public mistakes. His mugshot was spread throughout the state, making an already miserable man even more despondent. It appears that no one has had any contact with him since 2017, with one of his last posts reading, “I never intended to damage anyone while I was broken.”
Kimberly Harriss, a former partner of his with whom they have a daughter, has since been demanding that stories about his years old error be taken down. At one point in time, her primary motivation was to protect their daughter from seeing her father in such a state. Unfortunately, this failed, and their daughter is aware of this event.
It’s sad to think about us all gossiping and guffawing over the images and details of the hard times folks are going through. Who knows, maybe my column will be particularly timely and “The Coosa County News” will be front-paging another drug arrest. Unfortunately I know the odds of that are pretty good. I’ve spoken with people about this matter privately, and I won’t air the details of that here.
But speaking generally, I don’t much care for these sorts of stories. There’s enough sadness in the world, and I personally don’t go looking for more unhappiness than my own chemical imbalances generate on their own.
There’s business in misery, I guess.