Few people know as much about Florida as Craig Pittman does, and vanishingly few write about it with such brio and authority.
A Pensacola native whose family has lived in the state for more than a century, Pittman has covered Florida as a journalist for 30-plus years and published five books about it.
Make that six. His new one, The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife, is a sequel of sorts to his fourth, Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. Both books gather a multitude of fascinating stories about the Sunshine State, gleaned from Pittman’s wide-ranging interest — oh, let’s call it obsession — with the place.
Pittman, who lives in St. Petersburg, spent most of his three decades and counting as a journalist at the Tampa Bay Times, where he racked up numerous awards for environmental and investigative reporting. He has written for the Washington Post, Smithsonian and Sarasota magazines, Politico, Crime Reads and other publications, and he writes a weekly column for the Florida Phoenix and co-hosts the Welcome to Florida podcast. The Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend in 2020.
He draws on his rich lode of Florida lore for the new book, which anthologizes 51 of his articles from the early 1990s to the near present, many first published in the Times. ”Don’t call this a ‘best-of’ collection,” he writes in his introduction. “It includes none of the stories that won national and state awards. Those ended up being turned into books of their own.”
Instead, these stories, most of them only a few pages long, focus on people, a cross section of Floridians closely observed and written about with humor and empathy.
There are plenty of fun factoids about Florida, like its being the only place where the list of official state jobs includes “mermaid” and the only place where iguanas have been reported surfacing in toilets. There’s the story of how Elvis Presley is connected to the pet graveyard at the Humane Society in Tampa.
But most of the people Pittman writes about aren’t the ones who get 15 seconds of online fame for tossing gators through drive-thru windows or (to rip one from this week’s headlines) driving a golf cart while nude through a police standoff.
Those folks, as he notes in the 2016 essay “Mug Shot,” might seem laughable. “But sometimes,” he writes, “when we do that, we forget that real humans are involved who are dealing with serious problems, and that hee-hawing about their misfortune makes it worse.”
He writes about some unusual Floridians, to be sure, but he looks for what makes them tick. He goes out into the Everglades in the middle of the night to hunt pythons with two St. Petersburg women who pursue the invasive giant reptiles as a second job. “We want to get our adventure in now,” one tells him. “I can sit on a cruise ship when I’m an old lady.”
In his early years at the Times, Pittman covered crime and courts. Articles from that era include the wrenching story of a woman who spent more than a decade going to parole hearings to prevent the early release of two men who murdered her father, a deaf-mute cemetery worker, for $85.
Others are touched with absurdist humor, like one about twin brothers who keep getting charged with each other’s crimes, and another, “The Morning From Hell,” that documents an astonishing but typical few hours in a Pinellas County misdemeanor courtroom.
Some of them are about unrecognized heroes, like Jim Kern, founding father of the state-spanning (almost) Florida Trail, and the Mote Marine scientists in “Loved to Death,” the story of the sad life and death of Beggar the dolphin, a stark lesson on why no one should ever feed any wild animal, no matter how cute it is.
I especially enjoyed the chapters about Florida writers, from the iconic John D. MacDonald to Donald J. Sobol, who wrote his series of jolly Encyclopedia Brown mysteries for kids at his home in Miami, many of them amid that city’s 1980s cocaine wars.
Pittman writes about how author Elmore Leonard, long associated with Detroit, got over a case of writer’s block when he came to Miami during that same era and was inspired by all the wild characters he met there. “Leonard began writing about South Florida at just the right moment,” Pittman notes, “just as it was changing from a seedy retirement mecca to a neon-spangled criminal haven.”
Starting with Gold Coast in 1980, Leonard’s Florida novels, Pittman says, opened the door for Miami Vice and the Florida books of Carl Hiaasen and Charles Willeford.
Pittman has a wonderful chapter on Willeford, too, that includes the story of a disgruntled reader who mailed a copy of his novel Sideswipe back to the author — after shooting the book. Six times.
That’s not the only violence to surface in these stories. “Dying Every Night at the Rodeo,” about the history of cattle ranching in Arcadia, is chilling. And you can’t write about Florida without disasters, as Pittman does movingly in “Andrew, Plus 10,” about the lives of survivors of that devastating storm a decade later.
However long or short a time you’ve lived in Florida, and even if you don’t, The State You’re In is a smart, entertaining and sometimes surprising look at a place that can make our blood boil one minute and enchant us the next.
The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife
By Craig Pittman
University Press of Florida, 243 pages, $26.95
Meet the author
Craig Pittman will be in conversation with author Tamara Lush (Grounds for Murder) at a book launch at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Admission $5, light refreshments included. tombolobooks.com.
Pittman and author Joshua Ginsberg (Tampa Bay Scavenger) will be in conversation at 3 p.m. Sept. 19 at Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5. oxfordexchange.com.
Times Festival of Reading
Craig Pittman will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 8-14. festivalofreading.com.