Sunday, February 19, 2017

After Richard Blanco's "El Florida Room"

After Richard Blanco’s “El Florida Room”

“Not a study or a den, but El Florida
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up . . .”

Richard Blanco’s poem “El Florida Room” published in Looking for The Gulf Motel by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2012 reminds me that I, too, had a Florida Room growing up, although two decades earlier. In my day, Florida Rooms were that special feature of the cement block “ranch” houses springing up in developments across the state, a marketing advantage for attracting folks from up north. Long and low and walled by windows on three sides (“jalousies,” when I was young), it represented tropical living in an era before central air conditioning, catching those soft moist breezes. 

As Blanco says, the Florida Room was not a study or a den, though it would have been a den in other climes with fewer windows and heavy dark furniture, a crocheted throw over the back of Father’s chair and real paintings on the wall. I would have liked to have had a den like those I read about (much cozier), but what I really wanted was the kind of family who had a house with a study, sophisticated tall bookshelves lining the walls, a late afternoon sun shining through an equally tall window with many small panes. 
“Not a sunroom, but where the sun/ both rose and set,” Blanco says. Since our Florida Room was on the west side, it was particularly oppressive in the afternoon. We had a terrazzo floor, though, cool and smooth, and a matching rattan furniture set – couch, side chair, end tables, and coffee table although no one in my house drank coffee after breakfast. It was more likely to be Jim Beam on the rocks or Coca Cola in a pop-top can sweating on the surfaces.

Although the Florida room was “not a TV room” or a “family room,” it was still where the family gathered and watched together the black and white picture in the corner. I have an old photograph in my mind of my father during an “on the wagon” night at home lying on his side on the couch, my little brother in his cowboy outfit perched on my father’s hip, and me sitting at the end at his feet in a seersucker sunsuit. We were all looking in the same direction toward what was probably a Western on TV, just as in Blanco’s family.

In his El Florida, Blanco’s mother taught herself to dance and it was where her son learned to salsa. For a brief period, I used ours to give ballet/tap/jazz classes for a quarter to the little girls on the street whose parents couldn’t afford dance classes three times a week like mine could. And there on Albatross Drive in Satellite Beach, we also had a view from the Florida Room of lipstick-red hibiscus just as Blanco did in Miami. So you can see, Richard Blanco and I have a lot in common even though I am a white, post-middle-age heterosexual woman and he is none of those.

But really, we do share a lot. We both lived sticky, sweaty childhoods under that incomparable, constantly changing Florida sky, accompanied by the swish-swashing of palms. We each sat alone for hours in our Florida Rooms doing many of the same kinds of playtime activities. I didn’t do much coloring, and I never thought to ask for glitter, but imagination played contently with solitude. It seems that the salty humidity provided something of a blanket for certain kinds of children who sat twenty years apart, not in a living room, but “in the light/ of El Florida, as quiet and necessary/ as any star shining above it.”

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