There’s a moment when you cross the border from Georgia into Florida when the land flattens out on either side of the road and the sky suddenly becomes big and wide and blue. For me, it’s a moment of homecoming. The cypress trees lining the swampy marshlands, hawks swooping elegantly overhead and the salty tang of sea air all seem to signal the ultimate welcome: Come on in, you belong here.
It is this arms-wide-open philosophy that epitomizes Florida, a place where people come to escape, to reinvent themselves, to live life with abandon. At the center of it all: hospitality.
Florida was nicknamed the “hospitality state” back in the 1980s when I was working my first full-time fine dining job after graduating from Cocoa Beach High School, just 40 miles from Orlando; for those of us who worked in the industry, in restaurants, nightclubs and bars, it was a chosen way of life — not just a stopover between gigs for an aspiring actor in Manhattan or the only option for a single mom living in some trailer in Tornado Alley. We worked hard, learning about wine pairings and serving up locally grown produce long before it was fashionable, and we played hard, using our industry-issued “hospitality cards” for discounted food and drinks at bars and restaurants across the state on our precious nights off.
In cities and states dependent on the tourist industry, hospitality is a serious vocation. It’s practical, of course — better service means bigger tips — but also a point of pride, and perhaps that’s why the tragic killings at Pulse feel so personal, not only to me, but to anyone who has ever quickly wrapped up dinner to go for a family with a cranky toddler, whipped up a low-salt, nut-free, vegan entrée on the fly, or poured a beer for a lonely stranger sitting at the end of the bar. When you’re focused on hospitality, you never think that one of those patrons might suddenly turn your world upside down.
KJ. Deonka. Alanis. Luis. Brenda. These were just a few of the people who could have been both my co-workers and patrons. I’ve worked in central Florida nightclubs at 2 a.m., serving up drinks, laughs and hospitality. I’ve witnessed bar fights and broken hearts, helped drag queens zip up sequined gowns and posed for pictures with homesick Air Force recruits about to be deployed overseas. These are the things that hospitality industry employees do, day after day, night after night, building places where people feel welcomed, accepted and even loved.
Bars and restaurants can become sacred spaces — whether it’s a neighborhood diner or the local gay bar, they both create, and celebrate, community. When someone tries to destroy that safety, it shakes the foundation of hospitality, but, time and time again, the community rebuilds and renews. The culinary community of Orlando began providing comfort to their own almost immediately, donating meals to blood donors and grieving family members, raising money for the funerals of victims and offering jobs for displaced employees. Just as love wins, hospitality will triumph.
On June 12th, I happened to be arriving in central Florida to visit family, just a few hours after the Pulse massacre. A week later, I was in New Orleans, another community steeped in hospitality, to celebrate the same-sex wedding of a friend’s daughter, during Pride weekend. Bars across the French Quarter had covered their signs with the Pulse nightclub’s logo in solidarity, and even though backpacks and purses were sometimes banned — and despite temperatures in the 90s — the windows and doors of every club were thrown wide open in welcome: Come on in, you belong here.