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Flatbush Flashback

Pinellas Prison Blues (and Oranges)

Review of "The Orange Woman" by Gene Gregorits.

Gene Gergorits is not Nelson Mandela, and even his staunchest supporters say that it's "pretty much impossible to spin in any positive way" the charge against him--unlawful sexual activity with a minor--under which he's currently being held in Florida's Pinellas County jail, awaiting trial.

Florida, the land of Stand Your Ground, a law most rational people recognize as legalizing murder, is a state that boasts the fourth-highest number of executions in the United States. It’s also a state run by a climate-change-denying governor, Rick Scott, who, in his previous gig as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a healthcare mega-giant, oversaw the largest Medicare fraud in history. The company (though not Scott himself), admitted to 14 felonies and was fined $1.7 billion, the largest such fine ever levied in the U.S.

So, let’s call Florida what it is: a vengeful, bloodthirsty state run by a chief executive who’s lucky that he’s not doing hard time in a Federal penitentiary, and a state where such notions as the “rule of law,” “justice,” and even “science” mean what those in power want them to mean.

In short, when you’re talking about the Sunshine State, it would be unwise to make any assumptions about the guilt or innocence of those who occupy a prison cell and those who occupy the executive mansion. Or, if you must make an assumption, stick to a safe one: The occupant of the executive mansion has more money than the occupant of the prison cell—because it’s been well-established that Florida is at the forefront of the American ideal of justice for the rich. Therefore, I would not dismiss the theory currently circulating among those paying attention to The State of Florida vs. Gene Gregorits that prosecutors railroaded Gene as an “undesirable,” somebody not welcome in their God-fearing fiefdom, parts of which will soon be underwater. (Visit Miami Beach while you still can.)

Gene chose Florida as a place to live in bohemian semi-poverty because he likes the beach, he detests cold weather, and the cost of living is significantly cheaper than, say, in L.A. But lack of money is only one contributing cause of Gene’s current nightmare. Anybody who followed his pre-incarceration Facebook feed, a litany of impotent rage, threats of self-mutilation, and reports about his ailing cat, Sam, would have seen the obvious: These were the desperate words of a man headed for an insane asylum, prison, and/or early death.

Desperation, of course, is endemic to writing. Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson blew their brains out—and they’d achieved a level of commercial and critical success that’s probably no longer attainable. That’s what the book business can do to people, especially to writers like Gene who are not “brand names,” who dare to cultivate a distinctive voice, and who refuse to write plot-driven genre fiction or nonfiction that defies easy pigeonholing in a commercial category.

Gene, having aggressively rejected all the conventions of mainstream publishing, instead took a uniquely American path: He formed his own imprint, Monastrell, exclusively for his own books. And though Monastrell has put out 18 books and Gene has met with some success, including an interview on that briefly sent Dog Days: Volume One rocketing up the Amazon charts, this venture has simply not generated enough cash for Gene to buy himself some Florida Justice.

So, he sits in his Pinellas County prison cell, doing what he can to hang on to what remains of his sanity—he writes books, and Monastrell, currently being run by his supporters, publishes them. Since he’s been in jail, he’s written Stretch Marks, a full-length memoir. This, in itself, is an extraordinary achievement. The Orange Woman: Volume I ($6.99) is a 27-page excerpt from Stretch Marks.

In The Orange Woman, Gene flashes back and forth between the early 1980s and the recent past. But he primarily focuses on the “vicious” winter of 1983, when he was a “sexually perverse child of seven” living in financial and cultural poverty, in rural Pennsylvania, with his emotionally unstable mother, Kathleen, who works a low-paying job at an IBM plant, and his sketchily described younger brother, Matt.

The orange woman is Naomi Fairbanks, so-called because of an artificial tanning product that has turned her skin “the somber orange of baked carrots.” She’s an inbred local “creature,” living in a trailer park, whom Kathleen hires to provide childcare—it’s all she can afford.

Naomi’s dialogue is rendered phonetically—Yer warnt serm cawfee?—and this is among the multitude of vividly conjured sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and sensations of a distant time and place that gives the reader a clear sense of the fucked-up situation Gene escaped from, and explains to some degree why he now finds himself in a Pinellas County prison cell.

The Orange Woman is an hors d’oeuvre that leaves the reader hungry for the full meal, and I can only hope that no matter what happens, Gene continues writing and publishing. For his is a voice that is, indeed, worth preserving. Read More 

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What's the Matter with Florida?

My mother lives in a retirement community outside Lake Worth, Florida, one of the more civilized areas of the state. Even though I'm white, middle aged, and not especially threatening looking, when I go there to visit her, I'm always well aware of the Stand Your Ground laws. These laws allow you to legally shoot somebody to death in "self defense" if you feel threatened by them. And in Florida, you're allowed to take a handgun almost anywhere.

I never leave my mother’s house without carrying identification, especially if I’m going to walk a few blocks on the main road outside the village. Because Florida is one of those places where everybody drives everywhere, and to be seen walking on the main road is in itself considered “suspicious.” I always half-expect to be stopped and questioned by the police, which is probably just a carryover from my younger hippie days when I couldn’t drive around the block without the police pulling me over to check my license and registration. The Florida police, to their credit, have never harassed me.

But the shooting last month in Sanford, Florida, of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was not arrested after he told police that he felt threatened by Martin and shot him in self defense, reminded me of something that happened in Florida 36 years ago, and which might have had a very different ending had the Stand Your Ground laws existed then.

I was in Gainesville, a college town in the north central part of the state, doing research for an article on magic mushrooms. Gainesville is one of the few places in the continental United States where this psychedelic fungus grows naturally. It’s also home to a lot of people who’d fit the standard definition of “redneck.”

One night I was hanging out in a local bar when one of those rednecks—young, longhaired, and with a heavy-duty southern accent—struck up a conversation. Though he was obviously drunk, at first blush he seemed like a typical drunk, the kind you might meet in any bar. He asked what I was doing in town, and where I was from. I told him.

A beer or two later, he followed me out of the bar and started screaming at me, something to the effect of, “Who do you think you are coming to this town to write about us?” Then, as a bunch of people from the bar gathered around us, he hit me with his motorcycle helmet, a glancing blow off the side of my head. I was more astonished than anything. I hadn’t been in a fight since junior high school.

He kept swinging at me with the helmet and his fist, but he was too drunk to connect solidly, and I was mostly able to duck and block his wild attempts to beat me to a pulp for no rational reason. It went on for a good minute, until a couple of people from the crowd restrained him, and I got the hell out of there.

But when I think about this incident in light of the Martin shooting, it occurs to me that if something like this were to happen today, the guy might very well have shot me in “self defense.” Because he obviously felt “threatened.” And he might very well have gotten away with it. Cause it happens every day in Florida. Which is pretty much all I have to say about it. Read More 
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