If that part of your attention span reserved for news wasn't completely monopolized by the Michael Jackson verdict, the Terri Schiavo autopsy report and Tom Cruise proposing to Katie Holmes, maybe you caught three other items in local papers during the last week or so. Taken individually, these stories might've seemed like the standard annual harbingers of the return of summer to our own bizarre little corner of America:
1. Red tide.
2. A rash of articles questioning theme-park ride safety following the tragic death of a 4-year-old Pennsylvania boy on Epcot's Mission: Space attraction.
3. A group of Christians holding a pray-in to keep a "bikini bar" (read: alcohol yes, dry humping yes, visible naughty bits oh-no-no-no) from opening in Valrico.
Taken together, however, they serve - at least to me, and admittedly in a very A Beautiful Mind-esque way - as irrefutable proof of the presence of a sentient Higher Order. What's more, they offer compelling evidence regarding the Almighty's attitudes.
And God hates tourists.
Think about it. Why do people come to Florida in general, and Tampa Bay in particular? They come for the beaches, they come for Busch Gardens and Mickey Mouse and Universal's Islands of Adventure and Wet 'N' Fast 'N' Urine-Tinged. And they come to friction-dance with girls who seem inordinately interested in listening to them talk about themselves. (For the sake of inclusiveness, I'm lumping in some businessmen whose expense account travels always seem to bring them here.)
Some visitors come for the beauty we insist on destroying in the name of getting more of them to come, but most of them don't. Most of them come because Florida's where people are supposed to want to come, and we've built a bunch of stuff to get them to come to this little piece of it. (Ironically, if God does indeed exist, then it was God's will that led us to do so, which doesn't exactly jibe with the whole God-hates-tourists thing. Then again, what part of dealing with God isn't fraught with convolution and contradiction?)
St. Augustine is jammed with history, and Key West has Fantasy Fest. But this is Tampa Bay. It's a great place to live, full of culture and hidden wonders; for out-of-towners, though, there's barely time to have brunch at the Vinoy or snap a photo at Fort DeSoto in between playing in the surf, fishing and riding Montu.
Tell me it isn't supernaturally suspicious that three of the Bay area's major draws are coming under fire at the same time.
Sure, the massive algae blooms known as red tide seem to come every year these days, and they always do their unsightly fish-killing and disruptive throat-irritating during summer - our secondary tourist season. On the other hand, this year's model was screwing with the beaches south of us in what was technically still spring.
(Plus, when I was walking the sand on Casey Key last weekend, I noticed a particular clump of weeds, sea grasses and dead puffer fish that vaguely resembled the countenance of Jesus, or at least Bob Marley; had I been more forward-thinking, and able to salvage it intact, it would be on eBay right now.)
As far as the churchgoers-vs.-adult-nightspots moral crisis goes, it's nothing new to those of us who've lived here for a while. So maybe we don't notice that the contention might be a little more, um, contentious than it is in other cities, and that, between school proximity and the various booze/no booze legal intricacies and the Six Foot Rule and such, Tampa clubs often get the most and loudest press nationally.
Prayer vigils in protest of new exotic nightspots may be the latest salvo in an ongoing battle, but given the current high profile of conservative religious beliefs, they might just garner the kind of media attention that sends heads of tourist bureaus to the bathroom cabinet for the Valium.
Now, there's nothing funny or revelatory about somebody getting on a thrill ride in search of some excitement, and instead getting hurt or dying. It's a terrible, seemingly pointless thing that, unfortunately and for any number of reasons from the medical to the mechanical, happens from time to time. And when it does - as it did last week, in Orlando, to young Daudi Bamuwamye - it's almost always followed by media coverage that probes and recounts and ponders the safety of our nation's theme parks, and ultimately tells us that, unfortunately and for any number of reasons, it happens from time to time.
So we're familiar with all three of these stories. But when was the last time so many elements integral to Tampa Bay's reputation as a tourist destination took hits in such quick succession?
I think God holds Florida residents in special esteem, not only because we try so hard to see to it that others have a good time while they're here, but also because our eccentricities must be an endless source of amusement. Watching Florida from On High has got to be like watching an improvisational comedy troupe composed of special-needs kids taking sketch suggestions from an audience on LSD.
I think God sees the people pouring in, sees us overextending ourselves and our environment in the name of being good hosts, and wants to help ease the burden.
God tried hurricanes last year, and it was way too much. It sucked. A lot of nice people got hurt in a lot of different ways. So this year, God's working a subtler angle, just trying to lighten our tourist load a bit, because God knows 24-hour gridlock isn't good for anybody.
With this troika of calamities, God is definitely trying to send a message to the families up in Jersey thinking about heading down to Clearwater Beach for a week or so this year. Which means God might also be giving Bay area residents a little heads-up as well. Something about depending so heavily on an industry that may well end up ruining whatever original, natural treasures still remain, perhaps.
Maybe all of us - tourists and residents - should take the hint. Because in the various historical accounts ascribed to by various religions, God often rewards those who can take the hint. Potential tourists who head somewhere other than Tampa Bay may be rewarded with a whole new experience to enjoy, and we may be rewarded with something equally cool.
Like, I don't know, autumn.
(Oh, and those of you who took the St. Pete Environmental Development Commission's deep-sixing of the proposed Gandy-area Wal-Mart as a sign that God is a Green Party member are only half-right; God is as susceptible to the lure of unbelievable bargains as anybody else, but thinks that traffic on Gandy is already enough of a bitch.)