Somewhere in South Carolina. A rundown seafood joint. The kind of place that serves oysters on the half shell.

I’m sitting at the bar, eating Captain’s Wafers, waiting for my food.

The view is astounding. The salt marshes go on for miles, only interrupted by the sabal palms.

The beer is cheap, and cold enough to crack your fillings. The cocktail sauce is free.

The woman behind the bar looks happy tonight. She is late-middle-aged, and silver haired. She missing more than a few teeth. But it doesn’t affect her beauty. She bounces behind the bar with springy feet.

I finally ask, “Why are you so happy?”

She leans onto the bar. “Guess,” she says.

“You won the powerball?”

She shakes her head. “Guess again.”

“You’re pregnant?”

She laughs. “Honey, that ship sailed a long dadgum time ago.”

Only she doesn’t say “dadgum.”

“I’m happy,” she says, “‘cause I’m gonna graduate.”

“Graduate from what?”

“High school. My daughter and I just took the GED test. And we passed it. Passed it clean.”

The woman looks at me and smiles a her tooth at me. And I’m smiling my less-than-optimal dental

work at her, too.

Because, you see, sitting before her is a guy who was a dropout, just like her.

“I got pregnant when I was in ninth grade,” she goes on. “Parents kicked me out, I had to start working. But I ain’t sorry. I got a good daughter out of the deal, I married a dadgum good man.

“When you’re a kid, it’s easy to drop out. Your little teenage brain only thinks about the here and now. If only I had listened to the adults in my life.”

I nod. Because I’m picking up what she’s laying down.

“But, hey, I don’t regret my life choices,” she adds. “They made me who I am today.”

Another nod from the choir.

She uses a church key to pop…

Savannah, Georgia. I am walking upon 300-year-old cobblestone streets with my coonhound.

It’s perfect October weather. This antiquated downtown is a trip inside page 124 of your grade-school American history textbook.

Yes, this town is touristy. It’s a little gaudy in some places, sure. It’s pretentious, certainly.

Yes. There are hordes of eccentric art-school students walking around, wearing clothing that looks like it was made expressly from repurposed Wonderbread sacks.

But this town is also heartstoppingly gorgeous. And it’s one of my favorite American cities. Hands down.

It’s Savannah.

My dog’s name is Marigold. Marigold is blind. She walks beside me on the cobblestones, taking it all in.

People stop and stare at her because she bumps into things a lot.

We stop at an outdoor cafe for supper. I figure this joint must accept dogs because it’s Savannah.

The hostess is a woman who is wound tightly and probably needs regular fiber supplementation. She asks how many are in my party.

“Two,” I say.

She tells me—not politely—that she needs to ask her manager about my canine date. I tell her Marigold is a

blind dog who needs assistance. I’m Marigold’s “Seeing Eye” human.

The woman just looks at me.

The hostess returns bearing the grim news. “You can’t bring a dog in here.”

I thank the woman, sincerely, and tell her that I’ve been kicked out of much nicer joints than this.

My dog and I keep walking the old streets. But I’m not fazed by rejection. I’m an author. My whole life is fraught with rejection. I get rejected four or five times each day whether I need it or not.

We finally arrive at another outdoor cafe. This hostess is much friendlier. She says Marigold is welcome to sit in the outdoor dining area as long as she doesn’t chew or pee on anything.

I order a turkey and Swiss on sourdough. I order a burger…

Sunup. I am walking the mostly empty streets of Apalachicola. This is where the mighty Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico, then spills its unrestricted beauty in all directions.

Apalachicola. Tourists have a hard time saying the name at first. But after a few beers, they eventually get it right.

The town’s name comes from the Apalachicoli Tribe. They were a branch of the lower Creek tribe. Now they are all gone.

I am told their language was never recorded. So nobody knows what they sounded like. Nobody heard the melodies of their voices made.

Once upon a time, this town was the third busiest port in Florida. A lot of money was made here by some very important old men with walrus mustaches and formal hats.

Which is why this town is full of old buildings that are constantly being restored, touched up, retrofitted, renovated, re-bolstered, repainted.

The effect is dazzling. It only takes you three minutes in Apalach to realize this isn’t the Florida you see on TV. This is a history book.

There is

nowhere else on the globe like Appalach. Certainly nowhere in the state of Florida.

Florida is a different bird, you see. Out-of-towners don’t understand us. They’ll never understand us.

Florida is the only state wherein the farther north you travel, the further South you go. Florida is the catch-all drawer of the United States.

We have it all here. We are Cubans. We are Georgians. We are Alabamians. We are red and yellow Black and white. We are fun. We are weird. We are slap crazy.

And Apalachicola is one of those Floridian rarities history will never see again. It’s unique unto itself.

It’s shrimp trawlers, faded Queen Anne homes, churches with bells that actually ring, and palm trees older that mud.

I’m walking in silence. Most people aren’t out at this time of morning. Except for a few of us dog-walkers,…

I am sitting at a bar in Port Saint Joe. It’s a dark place. It smells like onion rings and Miller Lite. I might be mistaken, but I believe there are dartboards here. Waylon Jennings is singing.

It’s hard to believe this town used to be the largest city in Florida. Once upon a time, in 1838, this little place had 12,000 people and, amazingly, only one McDonald’s.

This was where the Florida constitution was first penned. That’s how important this town was.

They don’t teach us stuff like that in history class anymore.

There is a guy at the bar beside me. He’s from Chicago. He’s here for leisure. He is a columnist, like me. Except this man is pretty famous for writing political rants online. He is incognito this week.

I have never met another columnist in a bar. Let alone a famous one. What are the odds?

We did the whole “what do you do?” thing, and we figured out that we were both writers.

The difference is that he writes for huge newspapers and

drives a Benz. Whereas my career is still undetermined. I write for small-town papers and I drive 22-year-old Ford.

Even so, I’m not unsatisfied with my life. I have a good dog and most of my original teeth.

The man has never been to this town before. Florida is my home state. I grew up just two counties over. So I welcome him and tell him he’s picked the right time to visit.

October on the Gulf Coast is the season when—any meteorologist will tell you this—all the tourists go home.

I have spent many an October in Gulf County. This place has changed over the years, but it hasn’t changed too much. The fishing is still good. The barbecue is still stellar. The beer still flows like the mighty Apalachicola.

The famous man asks what my favorite part of Port Saint…

Dearly beloved, thank you for coming today, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers. Thank you Lyle, and Holly, for putting on such a marvelous spread. I just wanted to share a few words.

Let us not forget that we are gathered here to remember a good woman. Maybe one of the best. Perhaps THE best. She was old Florida. She was an artist. She was beautiful.

(Speech notes to self: Enunciate your words. Do not mumble. Make sure your fly is up.)

You know, it’s weird. When I was first asked to say something about my friend, Sherry Sandquist, for her celebration-of-life service, I couldn’t come up with words to say.

Which is remarkable inasmuch as you’re looking at a guy who has diarrhea of the mouth. When I was a kid, my mother said I could talk the paint off a fire hydrant.

On my first day of second grade, for example, the teacher had to move me around the classroom six times.

Six.

She later told my parents that “Sean is a very nice boy, but

his mouth never stops moving.”

I was an average kid. A straight-C student. But when it came to incessant talking I was without peer. Each one of my childhood report cards—every single one—explained that “Sean talks too much.”

And yet I am unable to find anything to say about one of my best friends for her final memorial.

Namely, because where would you start? What do you say about your friend while her whole family is staring at you? Where do you find the words?

Here you are. You’re behind a microphone. Your hands are clammy. Your chest starts to pound. And you’re about to crumble beneath the limelight.

Then, suddenly, you recall something the doctor said in third grade. He said you have a condition called “vasovagal syncope.” A prevailing medical condition wherein episodes of extreme nervousness can cause you to black out…

DEAR SEAN:

My doctor gave me some very bad news. I can’t even bring myself to talk about it. I’m so scared right now. I don’t know why God is doing all this to me. I am so angry with God right now. I hate God.

Thanks,
SLEEPLESS-IN-NEW-YORK

DEAR SLEEPLESS:

About 300 years ago, my wife and I were newlyweds, riding in the passenger seat of our crappy ‘88 Nissan Altima. My wife was driving.

My wife always drives. I’m pretty sure this was written in our wedding vows somewhere.

We were on our way home from Walmart, after buying groceries. And we were having an intense argument.

As newlyweds, we didn’t have much money. So buying groceries was a tedious ordeal for us. We would wander aisles, meticulously counting pennies, painstakingly deciding which products to forego, and which items were necessary for the success of our marriage.

On this particular shopping trip I was heavily in favor of buying a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon for our marriage.

My wife, however, said it would be

a cold day in Hades before we wasted hard-earned cash on beer. She wanted instead to buy scented candles that were roughly the size of municipal fire hydrants which made our apartment smell like a brothel.

We got into an argument right in the middle of the store. It was the nuclear explosion of arguments. The kind of newlywed argument that lasted throughout the checkout line, the parking lot, and on the ride home.

So there we were, in the car. On the highway. We got so mad at each other that at some point my wife stopped the car and kicked me out onto the desolate two-lane road.

I was certain she was only trying to make her point. She wouldn’t actually leave me here on an empty highway, would she?

Yes, she would.

She slammed the door, stamped on the gas,…

The hotel parking lot. Early afternoon. He was packing his truck. Slamming toolbox lids. Reorganizing luggage in the rear cab. Iowa plates.

I’ve never met anyone from Iowa before. Or if I have, chances are they were so timid I don’t remember them.

Midwesterners, in my experience, are quieter than your average folks. They don’t enter a room like my people. Yelling, laughing, clapping everyone’s backs like a politician or a manure salesman.

They are humble people. Reserved. Kindhearted, but very hesitant to give away a free hug. In other words: they are Lutheran.

This man was late forties. Wearing denim and boots. Quiet disposition. He talked a little like Jimmy Stewart.

His wife was with him. Reddish hair. Pretty. They looked like they just stepped off the alfalfa farm. Good people.

I noticed the gas cans and chainsaws in the back of his truck. The entire bed of his Ford was weighted in heavy equipment.

The truck was towing an enclosed trailer with even more gear loaded inside. Lawn mowers, Weed Eaters, hedge trimmers, chains, axes, you name it.

There were garbage

bags full of secondhand clothes, boxes of diapers, and baby formula.

“I’m on my way to Fort Myers, Florida,” he said.

I asked what a mild mannered Iowan was doing traveling to Florida after a Category 4 hurricane had just struck.

He shrugged. “Way I figure, what Florida people need is help. I got the tools, I got the time, so I thought, why not?”

His wife added, “It’s what we’d want people to do for us.”

I can’t help but feel like heel. I am a Floridian. And yet I have never—not once in my life—traveled to Iowa after a tornado to help tornado victims. I’ve never asked myself what I can do to help blizzard victims.

For shame.

“You must have family in Florida,” I said.

That must be why he was going.

He shook…

The little girl stood before the small civic group on a Thursday morning before breakfast. The morning after Hurricane Ian made landfall.

The child had brunette pigtail braids. A white dress. Patent leather shoes.

It was your average weekday. Local business people gathered for a quick meeting before going to work.

Tired businesspersons sat at small circular tables, wearing sports jackets and neckties. Wearing hosiery and skirt suits. I had been invited here by my friend Howie. I was wearing a tie, if you can imagine.

I was wishing I would have never agreed to come.

When the little girl took the podium, I was wandering through the buffet line, stacking a Styrofoam plate with imitation breakfast fare that tasted more like wet napkins than it did edible organic matter.

The little girl tested the sound system by tapping the microphone loudly. The speakers nearly exploded.

TAP! TAP! TAP!

That got everyone listening.

“Can I have everyone’s attention?” said the master of ceremonies. “We have a special guest here to pray for breakfast today.”

He presented the girl. Everyone applauded.

The

girl’s name was Sadie. She was 9 years old. Sadie’s grandmother lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and nobody has heard from the grandmother yet.

Sadie is taking it pretty hard. Her mother is a wreck. Her father has driven down to Fort Meyers to locate the elderly woman.

Ever since Ian hit, hundreds are presumed dead in Lee County. Florida is a disaster zone.

Everyone bows their heads.

“Dear Lord,” Sadie began. “Please help the people in Florida.”

And this is all she says. She is a kid. Not a public speaker.

Her words were followed by a long silence. Sadie didn’t really know what to say. Her mother told me that her daughter had not spoken before a crowd this large before.

Sadie added nervously, “Help everyone to be okay, God.”

This was followed by another long gap.…

In God We Trust. That’s the motto of my home state. In 1868, the Florida legislature adopted this motto. Namely, because they thought it sounded better than “Florida—most of us are Realtors®.”

Our state motto was so good that Eisenhower signed a bill to make it the national motto in 1956. Congress voted. It was unanimous.

This is just one more clear example of how everyone wants to be Florida.

I am a Floridian. My family lives in Florida. My people are Floridians. My former Sunday school teachers. My in-laws. My exes. I grew up with hurricanes.

During the feckless summers of my youth, hurricane season ran from June until the following June. And that was life. You didn’t like it. But you tolerated it because you didn’t know anything else.

When the newspaper announced a hurricane in the Gulf, you would watch TV incessantly. You’d stay up until the wee hours, waiting for updates, watching endless commercials wherein grumpy old men in supermarkets warned you not to squeeze the Charmin.

There were no smartphones

or fancy weather websites back then. You just had a radio and a TV.

In the Western Panhandle, our television news came from either Mobile, Pensacola, or Panama City. And our newscasters wore so much hairspray they could deflect small caliber ammunition.

These newspersons were from the old school of broadcasting, which meant that they were pretty sedate and matter-of-fact. There was no anxiety among news anchors like there is today. All the meteorologists were calm men who wore coats and ties and looked like your father’s dentist.

The whole town came together during hurricane preparations. You’d go into Ace Hardware to buy plywood, and all the old men were sipping coffee from foam cups, talking about it. Most of us felt a slight thrill coursing through our arteries.

You’d help your neighbors put up storm shutters. You’d bring in Miss Betty’s potted plants. You’d…

The day begins for Jenny Hicks. It’s a day like any other. She wakes up. Loads the coffeemaker. Gets dressed. Brushes her teeth. Starts the car.

Then she saves the world.

She leaves the house. It’s morning time. The sun is rising over rural Georgia like an orange billiard ball.

She pulls her SUV to the curb of a nondescript house. She leaps out of the vehicle. Her friend’s wheelchair is parked by the curb.

Meet Ben. He is a grown man with a developmental disability. He is waiting here for her.

“HI MISS JENNY!” Ben says.

Jenny gives him a hug. “Are you ready for our trip today, Ben?”

“FIELD TRIP!” he shouts. “FIELD TRIP!”

Whereupon Jenny Hicks rolls up her sleeves and lifts Ben into the backseat of the SUV. She strains to get him situated. She twists. She uses every muscle she has. She struggles. Then she buckles him in.

And now that she has worked up a sweat, her day is just beginning. Because it’s time to go pick up her next passenger.

“This

is my life,” she says. “And I love it.”

Jenny started PEAK a few years ago. PEAK is a donor-funded program run by volunteers. It is a program for people with developmental disabilities. People who have graduated from high school and suddenly found themselves lost in the crevices of a society that has forgotten them.

Jenny cut her teeth working in high school special education. She’s seen the best and the worst. Early in her career, she noticed something was wrong with the system.

“Too many of my students were graduating and going straight to the sofa,” said Jenny. “And that just wasn’t good enough for me. I had a former student pass away, and she hadn’t seen her friends for years before her death.”

Everyone deserves the opportunity to keep having a life. Everyone should have the right to continue learning,…