In November 2022, I traveled to Florida, to do research for a new book. I stayed in a hotel for almost a week, in a modest, touristy town, a few miles from the beach.
We were able to be in Florida at that time because for the second year, we had not been invited to Thanksgiving celebrations with our relatives.
Two years in, I had stopped hoping that we would be, and my pain had scarred over into angry dismissiveness; and anger at myself that I still wanted so badly to rejoin my people, my nearest ones.
I tried not to think about this at all. It never did not hurt.
For anyone who may have forgotten, Florida and New York were, at that time, essentially different countries. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was giving press conferences showcasing the fact that he had not closed down local businesses, and that his economy was thriving. Public health in Florida, as he pointed out, was about the same as in lockdown states. But New York governor Kathy Hochul, on the other hand, was persevering with policies that shocked even some diehard lockdown militants. She sought to create quarantine camps, and when a judge objected and struck down her bid, she appealed. And she insisted on keeping schools and businesses compliant with disabling mRNA injection mandates and with forced COVID measures.
Every day, when I was in the hotel in the friendly, little, whimsically tacky beach town, from the moment I opened my eyes till the moment I settled into my cool hotel sheets, my heart exulted with indescribable happiness.
You know those dreams in which a loved one who is dead appears to you, in full youth and health and vigor? You say to that person, in the dream, with tears of joy streaming down your cheeks, Oh my God—you are not dead! But then you wake up, and that person is still dead.
It was that dream.
But for a nation.
In Florida I was in a delirium of happiness mixed with nostalgia mixed with grief—because it felt like America.
That is, it felt the way I remember America to have felt, pre-2020.
The malls, the cookie-cutter townhouse developments, the chain stores and auto body shops, churches and sports bars, were the same as they were anywhere in the country.
But the people were entirely different. The culture was entirely different.
Everywhere I went I saw people who were—proud, and confident, and relaxed.
It did not matter who they were, or from where they had come. This was a universal birthright, it seemed, in that part of America.
The very young bartender/busboy, who had recently immigrated from Thailand, was proud, confident, and relaxed. The multigenerational family reunion groups, families who had lived for generations in the region, were proud, confident, and relaxed. The suburban moms walking to their vans in the mall parking lot, were proud, confident, and relaxed. My Uber driver, a former special operator whose wife had opened a Filipino food truck in the downtown area, was proud, confident, and relaxed. The pretty forty-something bartender with one side of her head shaved and with a flowering vine tattooed down one arm, who showed me pictures of her two adult sons—one, she explained, who had autism—the young men standing on either side of their mom, hugging her tight, and all of them grinning; she, too, was proud, confident, and relaxed.
And so on. African American, Caucasian, Latino, whatever, male, female, aged, and young; this was a quality that united everyone.
There was a big, colorful sign—a piece of public art—in the little green park flanking the mall. People stood in front of it to take photos for Instagram.
It read, “You Are Deeply Loved.”
Once, when I was walking back to my hotel, I passed a small group of people—three or four of them—with their arms around each other, heads bowed, in a huddle. Colleagues? Friends? A family?
I realized that they were unselfconsciously, publicly, praying.
The pride in themselves, and the calm sense of security of people everywhere around me, simply being who they were, and gladly, openly, showing others who they were, really struck me.
I remembered this quality from the Before Era, as being generally true of Americans.
It was this once-American quality that had formerly so fascinated the rest of the world—the broken, fearful, inhibited rest of the world.
Whether it was the admiration in ravaged 1950s Europe of the proud, relaxed gunslinger John Wayne, or the French marveling in the 1960s at the unabashedly goofy Jerry Lewis, or the appreciation worldwide in the 1970s of beat poet Allen Ginsberg sharing his wild free verse with rapt college audiences while seated on a meditation pillow, Americans were once magnetically attractive because we were once so proud—of ourselves, our speech, our liberties—in a nation in which our individuality was protected by an intact Constitution.
We were relaxed, compared to other peoples, because our rights were inviolable.
The lure of America was not that “the streets were paved with gold” or that one could make a fortune in a generation, though that was attractive, no doubt, to many; the true magnetism of Americans was that we acted like free people.
It was that charismatic quality that everyone still had in Florida, and that had been lost—dramatically in some cases and imperceptibly in others—in the lockdown and mandate states. I did not realize how bad it felt in New York State day by day, till I left it.
Because people in Florida felt relaxed, proud, and confident, and because they had never been held indoors against their will, told where to stand, stripped of their holidays, or forced into submitting to poisonous unchosen injections, there was a rhythm to social life there still. People from all walks of life chatted away with one another; the lady who wrapped up the sandals I bought chatted away with me, she chatted with all who came in; the chiropractor I visited chatted away with his customers; the salad shop workers chatted with the people who dropped off the bagels; the lady moving her grocery cart around me made a jolly, friendly remark. All this complexity took place in a peaceful, almost measurable rhythm.
When social scientists have done stop-motion videos of people moving around a city intersection, they prove that humans move in a perceptible rhythm; by the same token, newborns sync their breathing and nervous systems with their moms’ and vice versa, and happy couples’ respiration and even heartbeats align when they sit near one another.
Whole communities unconsciously align with one another in creating complex rhythms.
I had been feeling, strongly, that something was discordant, jarring, in how we in the lockdown states were relating to each other as 2022 was drawing to a close. The contrast with Florida showed me what it is: we had had our community rhythms broken off, our human music silenced.
Then, as we started up our lives again, our interactions became tentative, awkward, erratic. Do we chat with the checkout girl? Do we not, as she is just trying to breathe behind her mask? Did she get out of the habit of chatting, if unmasked now? Do we drop in on a friend? Or do we Zoom now forever? Do we hug, shake hands; not hug, not shake hands?
Or do we never again just embrace, just kiss, just stop by?
It was all smashed to smithereens.
But in Florida, I saw from the richness of those little social moments that these were a people who had not lost two years of church, of knitting clubs, of Rotary, of synagogue, of playdates, of ballroom dancing, of after-work happy hours, of bowling, of fishing, of brunch, of poker games, of christenings, of bar mitzvahs.
So the myriad, invisible bonds that are created with every human interaction and woven tight by kindness and mutual enjoyment and shared mission—had never been severed. That continuity allowed for the restful, elegant human rhythm I saw all around me.
How lovely it was; how heavenly.