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Gulfport George

When I left Florida headed for California in 1969, I thought that except for visits to see family, I would never return. Happiness back then was seeing Florida in my rear-view mirror as I sped west.

Why would you want to go to California, my Floridian family and friends kept asking me. People are crazy out there, they’d warn.

And that was precisely why I wanted to go. Because I was crazy too – completely nuts in fact. In California I would fit right in. In California, I could be whoever I wanted to be. People in California were laid back, they were right-wingers, left-wingers, middle-of-the roaders, teetotalers and drug dealers.

There was, of course, the rule of law, but so many people stepped over the line so much of the time, that it was almost expected.

Now, I find myself headed back east to the state where I grew up, for many of the same reasons that I left.

Florida is now the state where you can be whoever you want to be. It’s a state that – for the time being at least – values personal freedom and the individual’s right to choose his own path. It’s a state that works – much as California used to work when I arrived in 1969.

It’s not just the changes in this once amazing state that has me looking eastward. Over the past 50-odd years, I’ve also re-discovered the importance of family. Many decades ago, when my mother and father separated and then a few years later, when my father died, my family consisted of four people, my mother, my two brothers, and me. The rest of the clan – the uncles and aunts and cousins that were from my father’s side – became a part of the past, as had my father himself.

A few years ago, I received a Facebook message from my cousin Susan Hencin, asking if I was the George Cunningham who used to live in Florida. I hesitated to answer. Did I really want to add to the complexity in my life of an extended family that had disappeared back when I was in my teens?

Carmela convinced me that I did. Carmela is of Italian descent. Her father was born in Sicily and her mother’s parents across the narrow Strait of Messina in Calabria. To Carmela’s father, she and her siblings were half-breeds, only half Sicilian. But the one cultural touchstone for people on both sides of the strait, was that family was valued above all else.

When Susan contacted us, my brother Bill was not too interested in re-establishing the relationship. Although he was too young at the time to remember the split, he remained bitter about the hard times my mother and we boys faced trying to eke out a living on our own. I was older at the time of my parents’ separation and maybe because I had more time and memories with those cousins, I was more willing to re-establish family ties.

On Carmela’s advice, I answered the inquiry and opened the door to an entire family of people whom I remembered only as small children, the girls in puffy skirts and the boys in short pants. They are now all senior citizens, as are we.

As it turned out, my brother Bill died in the years since my cousins and I reunited. My mother has been gone for more than 20 years, and my brother Chuck tragically died in his 20s. Carmela and I remain close with Bill’s wife, Susan Tucker and with her new husband Jeff, and I’m very interconnected with Carmela’s large and rambling family. But, those missing cousins of mine are the only blood relatives I have.

Nightlife for Old Guys

Although I love and enjoy all of my cousins, Carmela and I have established a special relationship with two of them – Susan’s youngest sister, Nancy Hoffman and her husband Roger. They live in Gulfport – a town of fishermen, carpenters, and other craftsmen back when I was a kid – but now a charming and kinky village by the sea. It has a large gay population with a laid-back vibe that embraces all kind of folks from grumpy retirees to flamboyant artists and a downtown shopping area that includes independent restaurants, bars, art galleries, souvenir shops, farmers’ markets, and sidewalk vendors.

Carmela loves it. She loves that she can walk everywhere. She loves doing yoga on the sand as the sun comes up over the Gulf. She loves that almost every restaurant looks the other way as she wheels in Henry, riding in his ill-disguised baby carriage.

Hardly anybody is wearing a mask in Florida these days, and those who do – mostly visitors from the north – start peeling them off after a  few hours of feeling out of place in a world of smiles and chatter.

Is it a perfect place? No way.

Property prices have shot up in Florida in recent years as folks flee from places like California, Illinois, New York, and other locked-down and up-tight locales. And Florida, unlike California, is hot and sticky in the summer, smack in the danger zone during the annual hurricane season, and full of creepy-crawly bugs and reptiles.

But does our future lie in the place that I once fled.


– George Lee Cunningham

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