What T-shirts — and a conversation — in a Florida trinket shop highlighted about America

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What T-shirts — and a conversation — in a Florida trinket shop highlighted about America

It’s been a while since college, but my husband and I shared a brief Florida spring break last week. Booked in January, before the world turned wrong from war, we escaped far enough south for sunshine but not out of the country to escape mandated tests and quarantine. Before you could say “Margaritaville,” we’d ditched New York City’s chill, grime and crime for a long weekend of warm breezes and laid back vibe of the Conch Republic — aka Key West. 

After Southernmost Point selfies, pedaling past Mile Marker 0 and stone crab claws, we did feel a shift in attitude at that latitude (to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett’s breezy lyrics). We prowled Duval Street for souvenir proof of our vacation glow.

Turns out our T-shirt diplomacy was a pretty good segue into empathy on national issues.

But the trinket shops were having none of it. 1970s tourist mementos were juicy oranges, Mickey Mouse ears and silly crewnecks proclaiming in bold Courier font, “My parents went to Florida and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Others featured trippy sunset stripe graphics. Slogans were goofy and positive: “In dog beers, I’ve only had one” and “Florida is for lovers.” The classic “I’m with stupid” and a pointer finger is outré now, but still jolly.

2022’s souvenirs have evolved — and not in a good way. Typical shops peddle tee’s sporting foul language in conjunction with political leaders, anatomically explicit cigar lighters and crude slogans vilifying fellow Americans. Politics — left or right — are literally worn on sleeves. Not the centrist toes in the water/island rooster/coconut sunscreen vibe I was hoping for. Spring break is no break from hate.

Today’s T-shirts really are lousy. 

In March, a Pew Research Center study confirmed my retail observation: Centrists like me are dwindling. Today, only “two dozen moderate Democrats and Republicans [are] left on Capitol Hill, versus more than 160 in 1971-72.” On average, Democrats and Republicans are further apart ideologically today than at any time since the 92nd Congress convened 50 years ago. 

With this leadership, can there be any hope for common ground among us regular folks? I keep shopping.

“We don’t do politics here,” said the clerk at a shop with higher-end wares. “You sure?” I asked, waving at pima cotton “Let’s Go Brandon” garb.  

“Who’s Brandon?” asked my husband. I explained that it was a shorthand stand-in for an expletive about the current commander-in-chief that emerged from a car race and now adorned bumper stickers, yard signs and sportswear. “Oh no,” said the clerk, who had overheard what I said. “That’s just a NASCAR shirt.” I shrugged and said, “Fine.” Cradling a “Do Not Comply” aqua V-neck, I asked, “What’s this about — speed limits?” The clerk yelled out, “Vaccines!” My husband offered, “Masks?”

I urge our nation’s leaders to plan a brief journey from their own patch to connect with different people in the U.S.

Soon I’m clutching a 2XL “Truck Yeah” big rig graphic. “And this?” I ask. “Burt Reynolds? Supply chain?” 

“Sort of,” my husband and the clerk offered, taking turns throwing out “Canadian bridge blockade,” “truck convoy,” and “gas prices.”

By now, there was political discourse, the civil kind. And we were actually talking. My husband and I shared the pandemic struggles we’d had as New York reopened. I described my brother, a Kentucky 18-wheeler driver, who thanks to delays and driver shortages, has installed a mattress in his truck cab. The clerk shared her daughter’s battles with low wages and child care.

Turns out our T-shirt diplomacy was a pretty good segue into empathy on national issues. Eventually, we all agreed on a humorous health care prescription: “I’ve had two (tequila) shots and a (beer) booster.”

After the community civics lesson, my husband and I wandered off to the nightly sunset celebration. I was heartened, but still frustrated, complaining to him that bombs are flying abroad, our nation needs to connect in the face of World War III, but instead, we’re wearing hate on our sleeves.

He had no answer. We ordered hand-mixed guacamole, relieved that the only slogan on the cart read “fresh key lime.” 

When the orb dropped, streaking the horizon with amber shades that can’t be captured in selfies, trinkets or pullovers, the crowd cheered as one. All citizens of the Conch Republic — Democrats, Republicans, New Yorkers, Floridians and T-shirt-sporting armchair politicians — marveled together at the glorious close of the day. 

Some things are not polarizing.

On our final night, still seeking memories, we returned to the shop. “Hey, Brooklyn,” yelled the clerk, recognizing us. “I looked it up. That shirt is about the president.” She’s talking about the “Let’s Go Brandon” one. I nodded and told her that I don’t like disrespecting the office — no matter who’s in it. Especially now. 

“Well, it sells,” she sighed. “Capitalism,” I said with a shrug. I’m a fan of that, too. But just because in the United States you’re free to say something, doesn’t mean you should. Maybe we knew that better in the 1970s.

I was touched that she’d done a little research. I’d done some, too. Local papers and chats with tour guides and merchants taught me about workers living on boats (or “on the hook”) surrounded by empty luxury homes, cruise ships hurting the mangrove ecosystem — crucial for protecting the shoreline from storms and hurricanes — and inflated costs for basic goods stressing tourist-industry workers still struggling from lost wages during pandemic restrictions. Suddenly, Florida and New York didn’t seem so far apart. 

This spring, I urge our nation’s leaders to plan a brief journey from their own patch to connect with different people in the U.S. and turn this ideological tide around.

For mementos, I picked two shirts that weren’t so lousy. A “Truck Yeah” one for my brother, declaring it “a celebration of unsung workers.” Alas, no 1970s sunset graphic, but it says Key West. For myself, I chose a pink crew reflecting my own political values: “The Thing About Censorship Is [REDACTION].” 

Back in New York, I’m feeling achy. A home test reveals the lousiest souvenir of all —Covid. I put on my new shirt and lock down. I’m grateful for the memories of civility and key lime pie.

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