Creepy Central Florida

 

Deep into the wilderness of never ending highways and eerily quaint towns, a immense sense of unease begins to fall upon me. It is caused in part by small armies of dogs at each fenced-in home, woods that look ignored enough to dump bodies in, and empty strip malls fitted out with air conditioners, but no occupants. No occupants. Anywhere.

Where is everybody? There are cars moving around, there are parking lots full of them, but a human sighting seems a rarity. When I do happen to see someone crossing one of the giant intersections that connects doublewide roads, I regard them curiously. Are they really walking to where they need to go? Did their car break down? Do they not have a car? Shock and horror.

Central Florida is a creepy place. Somewhere past Boca Raton on the Turnpike you enter the corridor of crazy that separates South Florida with “The South.” You encounter town after town where nothing much exists past a church and Publix. We’re not in Walmart territory yet, but we might as well be. The overt expression of religion is noticed before you even exit the highway by the plethora of anti abortion posters. The ones below really drew a chuckle out of me. IMG_5904

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Perhaps paranoia and journalism go hand in hand, but I couldn’t help thinking that all these little towns had secrets. I learned on my travels that one of the biggest residential facilities for adults and children with developmental disabilities is in Central Florida. Carlton Palms Educational Centre has been in the media recently over the death of a 14 year old girl with severe autism. She was not brought to hospital after vomiting for days because the medical director thought the visit would scare her too much. The owner of the facility, Ken Mazik, has faced years of abuse allegations at Carlton Palms and other similar facilities he owns in Florida and Delaware.

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Carlton Palms Educational Center

The five main counties that make up Central Florida have all seen steep increases in the number of registered sex offenders that have moved there in the last 5 years. Don’t forget about Miracle Park, a former migrant housing facility turned sex offender village. While it technically lies in South Florida, it considers itself part of “Florida’s Heartland” community which involves central counties that pride themselves on their rural nature.

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And then theres the freakish city of Orlando. A noxious combination of consumerism and fantasy, it was built around the church of Mickey Mouse and outlet malls. The pull of the themed parks extends far past the walls of the parks themselves. If you find yourself off of Disney’s beaten path, it’s still a sea of large scale restaurants with flashing neon signs. Orlando is like a docked cruise ship. I don’t see the point of being on it.

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Old aerial photo of Orlando

 

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DUBLIN’S CHRISTMAS CRAZE

Dublin at Christmas is a city of lights. Nearly every shop, restaurant, church, park, building, and home evokes the imagery of the holiday season with lively décor. Capturing the spirit of Christmas for an entire city, however, goes beyond light strings and tinsel. Behind the lush trees and nostalgic music is a marketing machine that has ties to a surprising variety of local companies and institutions.

It may be no secret that Christmas has been having a love affair with capitalism for some time now. At the epicenter of Dublin’s Christmas craze is DublinTown. Founded in 2007 out of the Business Improvement District Scheme (or BID scheme) it aims to promote Dublin’s city center. This includes everything from increasing footfall to improving the quality of life for residents and workers in the city center. Dublin at Christmas is their most important yearly project and preparations for it begin in February of each year.

Fantasy Lights are the second most important company for Dublin’s holiday needs. They source and install almost every lighting display in the city center. Their work can be seen around the country as well. Over 20 years ago, they inherited the monopoly on specialized lighting in Ireland from Breens Electrical and have watched the demand steadily increase.

The other players in the Christmas business in Ireland include Coillte (National Forestry Organization), Brown Thomas, city center stall holders, and the entire bar/restaurant industry. They all contribute to the season, but at what cost? Many of those I spoke to said that Christmas makes people happy. But when the lights get switched off in January, how much of that happiness will last? With a city in the midst of a fast spreading housing crisis, and a growing homeless population, is our time and energy being spent wisely during the ‘season of giving’?

Creating the Christmas feel

Dublin makes no apologies over its love of Christmas. It is so encompassing that you would never think that any non-Christians even lived on the island. While I come from the perspective of the secular “Happy Holidays” that America embraces, I am still surprised at how little effort there is to incorporate any other holiday celebrations. The Christmas Village, pictured below, underwent a re-branding this year with the launch of the “I BELIEVE” campaign. The very wording itself implies the need for a faith that only Santa and mulled wine can evoke.

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Also riding on the wave of the magical are the window displays at Brown Thomas department store. Every year, the unveiling is one of the most highly anticipated events in the city. Creative director of Brown Thomas, John Redmond, travels to the Christmas World Trade Show in Frankfurt every January to prepare for the coming year. “Every year, we hope to really wow people,” said Redmond. The theme for this year is “The Store of Wonders” and the designers tried to go back to the simple pleasure of a great story. They worked with Irish children’s author Ciara Molloy Tan to write a story that is told across each of the Christmas windows.

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Local politicians make lots of appearances during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Some visit local schools for Christmas plays, others join the publicity train that DublinTown drives.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin (Criona Ni Dhalaigh) is pictured below inside of a snow globe on O’Connell Street with the CEO of Dublin Town, Richard Guiney, and Santa.

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The Lights

Below is some data on the work that goes into the lights, and how the five main streets in the city center compare to each other.

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 Money, and Donations, and “Charity”

The exact spend figures by the city for the season are, unsurprisingly, kept close to the chest of those in charge. The research estimates for previous years have put the lights budget at over 600,000 Euro.

Where this money comes from is an interesting trail. Due to their being classified as a BID company, DublinTown receives funding from local businesses in the form of an extra tax on their yearly income. According to a previous study done by the Irish Times, “payment comes as a percentage of commercial rates: 5.27 per cent in the case of Dublin city, which is collected by the rates office and distributed to the Bid company. Three have been established in Ireland so far (including Dún Laoghaire and Dundalk).” DublinTown recorded income just over 3 million Euro last year, with 450,000 coming from sponsorship/funding, and the rest from their levies. Guiney, the CEO, was on a salary of 110,000 Euro.

I interviewed Clyde Carroll, the head of marketing for DublinTown. He believes that the work of the company is vital to improving the morale of the city all year long. It is interesting to note his claim that if the retail industry weren’t properly supported at Christmas, it might contribute to homelessness.

When I asked Carroll how the electricity that powers the lights was funded, he told me that the individual businesses, connected to the lights, share the burden. However, when I met with Gabriel Bryne from Fantasy Lights, he told me that DublinTown write ESB the cheque for the electricity usage (calculated by meters installed on each street). I can assume that funding for this payment comes from the levy imposed on the businesses, which removes the discretional aspect.

Below is a tour of the Christmas showroom at Fantasy Lights in Walkinstown, Dublin 12.

The final big player in this years festivities was Coillte, the Forestry company. Coillte have not been in the “Christmas tree business” for some time now, but they will source trees for special occasions or charities. The I BELIEVE Christmas Village qualifies as a charity organization because they give 10% of their Santa photo proceeds to charity, and organize a charity auction.

Coillte donated a 50 foot tree to the Christmas village in the IFSC. The marketing man behind Coillte, Tom Byrne, denied there was any involvement beyond the tree giving. Reviving the Coillte brand, however, is especially important in a city that can easily forget about its purpose.

On The Front Lines

For many of the city’s employees, Christmas means working in an environment that can resemble a war zone. In both the retail and hospitality industry, Christmas means long hours, increased stress, and physically demanding work loads. They will see an increase in income, but it may not always be worth the sacrifice.

To the stall holders on Moore Street, Christmas means 4 weeks of standing outside enticing shoppers to stop by. Many of them having been doing it for generations, but some believe the city has let them down by not doing enough to keep their small businesses alive.

Restaurant workers also bear the brunt of drunken office parties, and have to master the delicate art of dealing with stressed out organizers. Below is an interview with Jane Kupen, general manager for acclaimed city center restaurant, Luna.

The continuation of DublinTown will be put to a vote again in 2017. It needs to have its BID status renewed for a further 5 years. Perhaps people will vote it down, however that is a highly unlikely scenario.

Despite the disgruntled levy payers and suspicious finances, having an organization devoted to making things “nicer” is a great opportunity. Most people would count themselves lucky to live in such a city.

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder what truly came first behind the modern Christmas experience. Was it through naturally bringing people together that a industry was created around selling that idea? Or was it that we bought into something presented to us as festive and familial? The essence of Christmas could arguably be captured in the combined forces of lights, songs, smells, and tastes. A bright and buzzing city does bode a lot nicer in the face of a terrifying world.

The picture below was taken at Dublin Airport on Dec 16, 2015.

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Lobsters and Cigarettes

The shells rattled and clattered as they fell onto the deck of the rusted fishing boat. It sounded eerily similar to a child emptying their toy box in an angry frenzy. “Nothing,” said the fisherman. “Absolutely nothing today.”

One by one he lifted each of the whelk traps out of the water, opened the latch on the bottom, and shook the contents into a large crate. His first mate was standing by with a fist full of cod guts ready to re-bait the trap. Then with the sweep of one hand he picked out the contents worth keeping, and discarded the rest back into the belly of Dublin Bay.

 

Mack and Eddie have been fishing in Ireland for over twenty years, and they say this has been one of the worst years to date. The summer never came, and the lobster they relied on as their bread and butter, have been over-fished by men with little regard for others or the ecosystem.

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Eddie

 

The diet of the working day is Nescafe and cigarettes, L&M for Mack and rollies for Eddie. Both of them attested that they enjoyed a hearty bowl of Wheetabix at 5:30am, and that was all they needed. Lunch would slow them down, and the sea demanded their entire attention.

 

Emptying and refilling the whelk traps, almost 200 in total, took about 4 hours. When they moved onto the lobster pots, Mack spotted a large boat in the direction of Bray head. “Ivan has been here already,” he said. “Greed personified.”

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1 full box of whelks will fetch approximately 70 Euro

 

 

It is illegal in Ireland to take the contents of someone else’s traps, however, taking any action against them requires photographic proof. For a small independent fisherman like Mack, with one boat and a varying schedule, that is impossible to obtain.

 

His fear was realised as he began to lift the first few traps out of the water. They were completely empty, without even a scrap of bait left. Mack said this was a sign that they were recently cleaned out.

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An accidental catch. Thrown back, of course.

 

His luck began to turn around when he made it to the second string of lobster pots. “There’s a monster,” said Mack as he pulled a 5-kilo lobster out of one trap. He estimated the lobster to be over seventy years old.

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The monster

 

Due to the poor year, many Dublin restaurants have had to import lobsters from the west coast or Canada. Although many other fisherman, like Ivan, are having more success than Mack they are exporting their catches for a higher price. All the whelks that Mack caught today will be sent to China, but the lobsters will go to city center restaurants.

 

Each trap that he brought up now had at least 2 sellable lobsters inside. Mack measured the body of the smaller lobsters with a metal gauge. He threw many of them back into the water with a kiss and said, “Come back to me in a few years, and do me good.”

 

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In order to ensure that the ecosystem is respected, it is expected that fishermen only take adult lobsters. If they take adolescents or reproducing females (identified by the eggs on their underside) then the balance of life cannot be maintained.

 

On the drive back to the harbour, Eddie hosed down the catch. They had 4 full boxes of whelks and close to 2 dozen lobsters. Mack estimated the lot to be worth 700Euro. It was good, but they would return in a few days.

 

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In the silence, the clattering noise had returned. This time, however, it was not from the rattle of hollow shells. It was the sound of live lobster claws banging off each other as they fought for space. It signaled that the long days work had paid off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuka honey and fairies

Believing in the power of holistic medicine requires a strong conviction, however, once you commit yourself to this faith, you can harness a power that moderately compares to real medicine. It is comparable with believing in fairies…best case scenario you imagine yourself to be part of a otherworldly family; worst case you try to fly and fall (hopefully not very far).

I fell victim to a flu, as comes with the changing of seasons and two-day benders. Although I am armed with a cornucopia of drugs to battle regular ‘ole influenza, I always have the urge to cope the natural  way. I tell myself that my body is a magical well of healing power that can be utilized with some mild nurturing . Aside from the usual comrades, Vitamin C, Echinacea, and Zinc being top of the list, the desire to seek out the latest hidden gem of the holistic world becomes fierce. Surely health stores aren’t offering these powdered twigs for no reason! Once ingested, they will get to work ridding my body of its virus and cleaning out my liver and kidneys at the same time!

*A note on this understanding of body cleaning-I really don’t believe that if you have a relatively healthy system and lifestyle, you have more or less toxins than anyone else of the same caliber. Health nuts want you to believe in this constant fight against the evil toxins that are trying to kill you, but trust your excretory system to do what it does best, excrete!

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Manuka honey was first brought to my attention by a yoga teacher who claimed that when blended with warm (not hot!) water and drank like a tea it killed all the bad bugs that caused my sore throat. Honey has been used medicinally for centuries because it does contain some antiseptic qualities when applied topically . There has not been one scientific study to date that eating or drinking it is related to battling any illness, or promoting general internal health. Manuka honey, however, has not lost out on the amazing PR work it cashed in on. I would say that its profit has probably increased exponentially as more people are joining the church of au naturale. 

Manuka honey has two amazing profit-making advantages on other health products: 1) To be considered real manuka honey it needs to be from New Zealand, thus adding to the exclusivity of something you thought you could get at your corner shop. And 2) Its potency is rated on a two different, yet equally confusing, grading scales that have something to do with active ingredients, industry standards, and antibacterial strength.  This is not just any old honey…

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In a hasty purchase while trying to catch a bus, I bought a tub of moderately potent Manuka Honey. This was not my first tub, but I was shocked once again at the price tag. The costs ranged from €22 to €78, and based on what I read online, the cheaper ones are completely ineffective and useless, except maybe poured over yogurt. I opted for one in the €30 price range and walked out feeling like I had just slapped myself in the face with a scam. I spend the bus ride going over the ways that this tub would heal me, how delicious it would taste, and committed myself to believing that it would deliver me from evil forever more amen. At least, until next flu season.

I definitely outdid the prescribed dosage. I milled this stuff into me. I just kept the kettle on a rolling boil and swigged cup after cup, and when I couldn’t drink anymore, I sucked slowly on spoons dipped into the sticky substance. Pardon my alliteration there. Long and boring story short, I felt better after about two days. Not cured, not 100% myself, but better. The typical recovery time for a flu is 5-7 days, so I fancied myself a super among humans. While I do not credit Manuka Honey with my quick recovery, I do believe in the power of the mind toward attaining almost anything-bodily, mental, and metaphysical. Believing in anything beyond a shadow of a doubt is a terrifying and dangerous thing, but if subscribing entirely to the Manuka Honey bible can bring some solace in times of dismay, then why the f*** not. Unlike most religions, the only consequence here is in my smaller bank balance. Keep in mind, my undying faith to the tub of sticky stuff caused me to rest more, eat healthy and stay meters away from bars and smoking areas. So, yes, all of those things definitely contributed to the recovery, but they all stemmed from a faith in this overpriced honey. Going back to Tinker-bell…If we all held our breaths a little when wandering through forests and looking inside moss-covered crevices, then the world might be a slightly better place.