Get your mind out of the gutter. This isn’t about the first time I had sex. Heh.
It was the summer of 2001, and I’d just been laid off. It was the first time this had happened to me, and I was crushed. Still, I rallied. Had to. If I didn’t get another job, I’d end up on the street.
Dubya was in the White House, and although he didn’t admit if for a long time, the country had been in a recession for months. Despite going on numerous interviews, I couldn’t get a job. That was another first-time experience for me. Previously, I’d always managed to line up something in short order, but the weeks dragged on, and I got no offers.
I was forty-nine, and not as sleek and pretty as I once was, and I was pretty sure that had something to do with it, as well. Because I was experienced in many areas, I also wanted–deserved–a higher salary than some kid. Under Bush, the tide was already turning, and power that had once belonged to employees was shifting to employers.
It was the perfect storm of unemployment, and I impulsively decided to pack it in and go to Florida. I gave notice to my wonderful landlords, said goodbye to my friends, packed a U-Haul truck with everything I owned, and late one August day, set off on a new adventure. I had about four thousand in the bank, the car on the dolly behind the truck was paid off, and no other debts. I was stoked!
Why Florida? My parents had taken me there on vacation once when I was a kid. I remembered parrots in trees, sunshine, and being able to walk into the ocean for what seemed like miles, with the water getting no higher than my thighs. I thought it might be nice to experience that year ’round, given my increasing hatred of winter in Wisconsin.
My landlords had been afraid for me, driving all that distance by myself, so I lied and told them a friend was going with me. They were old-fashioned. They didn’t think a woman (which is how they perceived me) should travel alone.
I had no such fears. I could do this! I remember how excited and nervous I was the first couple of days, especially as I didn’t know how to back up the rig I was driving, but I always found someplace I could park and pull directly out again. Truck stops were great for that, as were some fast food places. Motel parking was never a problem.
This is a picture taken through the window of the U-Haul at Cave in Rock Ferry, KY, on the Ohio River. It’s free. It goes back and forth all day. Notice how bug-spattered the glass is?
It took me four days to reach Florida. When I crossed the border and saw my first palm tree, I stopped and took pictures. (I did the same damn thing when I returned a second time, over a decade later.)
I was traveling on Highway 19. The excitement I’d felt during the trip thus far soon faded. Nineteen is the main route down the Gulf side of the state, and it is one of the ugliest roads I’ve ever seen. Imagine endless strip malls and run-down stores, and you get a good idea what it looks like. We’re not talking tourist stuff here, either, ’cause that’s lots of fun. No, we’re talking cheap, nose-curling disgusting.
I wondered if I hadn’t made a horrible mistake, moving to a place I’d never been. I was also hungry. For the first time, I couldn’t find a place to stop and eat. Then it started raining. No, not just raining–raining. A freaking downpour! I could barely see, I was starving, and I was tired. My mood sank as low as it could go.
I had made a terrible mistake. I was going to hate Florida and rue the day I’d decided to move there.
I finally spotted a roadside diner, pulled over, and raced inside, getting soaked on the way. I ordered a late lunch and lingered over it. I didn’t realize August was part of Florida’s rainy season, but the downpour soon ceased, and the sun came out. Stomach full, my spirits lifted. I was only a few hours away from my new home.
I’d chosen the Clearwater area because an aunt, uncle, and cousin were living there, and I’d know at least a few people when I arrived.
I’d rented one-half of a double bungalow while still up north, and Cathy, the cousin, checked it out, assuring me it was located in a good neighborhood and not a dump.
It was, in fact, a nicer place that I’d had up north. Located on a dead-end road, it had two bedrooms and a screened lanai out back. There was also a yard, and a small grocery was a few blocks away.
My cousin and her fiance let me stay at their place for a couple days, until the owner was finished with mine. They helped unload the truck (in 94 degree heat!) and showed me around town (I lived in Largo, which was next door to Clearwater, where they resided).
After getting settled, I immediately attempted to line up interviews. I’d been told people from the upper Midwest were in high demand because of their work ethic, and I certainly had skills. My speed during a typing test blew away the people at a temp agency in Tampa, but it didn’t result in a job.
Recession, remember? And the rumbling about it was finally getting louder from Washington.
I was on my way to another interview, radio on in the car, when I heard a plane flew into one of the Twin Towers in NYC. We all know what happened then: the entire country shut down for weeks, even months.
I couldn’t get a job, my savings were steadily vanishing, and I was in a strange state, far away from friends I loved and trusted.
I hit a new low in depression. I’d become one of those people at freeway entrances, begging for a job, food, or money.
This was the end. Or was it?