Florida Faith

Back in 2001 I did a month-long internship in Florida. I was 20 and vegan and full of convictions. I had just finished up my first year of community college. I had done a 3 month internship at Farm Sanctuary’s NY shelter the previous year, and that’s how I heard about the campaign to ban gestation crates on pig farms in Florida. I signed up to volunteer and my best friend John and his band, Fall River (previously Manhunt), dropped me off at my internship in Ft Lauderdale while they were on tour in the area. As an adult, it boggles my mind we were able to make the timing sync up like that. But I’m glad we did. After a couple days of van repairs and missed or cancelled shows, we arrived in Florida, ate at Burger King, and then immediately blinded the beaches with our pasty white Pennsylvanian skin. It was glorious.

My job at the internship was to collect signatures of FL residents to pass a ballot initiative. 15 year old spoiler alert: we got enough signatures. And the initiative even passed. I had very little to do with that, however. See, I was terrible at collecting signatures. I’ve always been pretty quiet and shy around strangers. And as a youngin I was even more self-conscious and hesitant. So spending my days approaching person after person and asking them to sign those petitions was not the easiest thing for me. And I’m definitely not a pushy person. I think the signatures I did manage to collect, were achieved with earnestness alone. And maybe a little pity.

But I did have one useful feature for our cause: a driver’s license.

The group of interns I was working with didn’t drive, so I became the chauffeur. Someone had donated a car to our cause. It was a tan Toyota 4 runner that had been used in some other sort of rescue effort and had the permanent smell of cat pee embedded in its cushions. It had no CD player and a broken antennae. So we didn’t get very many radio stations. There was one classic rock station that came in sometimes. And a light pop rock station that basically just played Train’s Drops of Jupiter on a loop, every once in awhile throwing Vanessa Carlton’s Thousand Miles into the mix for variety.

Our saving grace? Somewhere in the intern headquarters we found exactly one cassette to play in the SUV’s tape player: George Michael’s Faith.

We listened to that tape daily. Multiple times a day. For at least the 4 weeks I was in Florida. I had the CD at home in PA and had listened to it quite a bit over the years. But during my drives on those beautiful, smooth, not at all cracked and shitty like PA, Florida highways, I became intimately familiar with the album. We all did. Think about it for a minute – with smart phones and iPods and satellite radio, when was the last time you listened to an album? Like really really listened to it? On a loop. For at least 30 days in a row. I know that in my life, that simply does not happen anymore.

It didn’t take us long to learn all the words to all the songs. One of my fellow interns-turned-friends, misheard the lyrics to “Father Figure” as “Bottle Feeder” and we never let her forget it. And you’ve never really lived until you’ve sung (okay, screeched) GM’s “Monkey” in 3-part harmony. Already by 2001, his 80s lyrics were simultaneously amazing and also totally foreign, and sometimes even rapey (see exhibit: I Want Your Sex Part 3. And don’t ever accept a gin and tonic from George Michael).

It was a long, crazy, weird, difficult month for me. I was so out of my element trying to collect those signatures. I think it was harder for me than 3 months shoveling literal shit during the dead of winter had been the year prior. But George Michael got me through it. So did my fellow interns, Chris and Kath and a bunch of others. And now, even 15 years later, it’s a sense-memory thing for me. I hear “Father Figure,” and I’m back to those sunny highways, windows down, hair blowing in the somewhat urine-scented wind. I’m back to a time when it felt like big, world-wide changes were possible, if only enough people were willing to sleep on saggy air mattresses in tiny offices and go just a little bit insane listening to one cassette tape ad nauseam.

Last Christmas, when I heard that George Michael had died, I immediately thought of Florida. And I was sad that there wouldn’t be new GM albums for future generations of young people to listen to on a loop while they spent insane amounts of time and energy doing the things they’re passionate about. But there will always be Faith. And Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. And, of course, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, among others. The dude has left quite a legacy and I’m sure he’s already moved on to greater things. Still, I’m feeling nostalgic.

Recently, during my attempts to minimize my belongings, I found my old journals from college. And tucked away in one of them was the photocopy of a poem/essay/rambling I wrote for my fellow intern a couple days before I left Florida. I don’t know if it makes much sense to anyone else, but this awkward prose perfectly sums up that brief period in my life. And I can’t hear GM without thinking about it.