Through the tears, the eyes of Orlandoans speak to each other now of shared pain, loss, deep sadness, disbelief — and support.
The eyes meet, and there is an instant and undeniable bonding. Family, friends, acquaintances, total strangers on the street, people sitting in a McDonalds, seeking guidance in a house of worship, in line at a blood bank, dropping flowers at a vigil, delivering pizzas to volunteers around hospitals, mayors, cops, people just out wandering because they don’t know what else to do, journalists. We look at each other, and we know. We’re in this together: our flesh, our blood, our very lives; even now, the fear that someone we know, or the possibility that we already know of someone we know, was ruthlessly, meaninglessly, terrifyingly, tragically attacked when a man entered a nightclub with guns and shot and shot and shot.
It’s personal here.
This is so unexpected.
Not the attack. I think every American wonders today if they’ll be in that school or theater or office or post office or church or nightclub when that guy, heavily armed and bent on horror, enters. We all knew it could happen here. We might in our wildest nightmares never have thought it could be so awful. But the sad truth is, it was no surprise.
What is so unexpected is the widespread phenomena we’re witnessing of ordinary Orlandoans speaking to each other through those eyes, past the tears, with that look that says, we’re in this together.
Orlando is a city built with moving vans. Last year my good friend and former Orlando Sentinel colleague Kevin Spear, one of the best writers I know, set out in search of the Soul of Orlando for a big series of stories. I didn’t think he’d ever find it. But he thought he did, in the remarkable diversity and endless refreshment of newcomers. Kevin figured the city motto ought to be, “So, where are you from?”
We’re from here now, baby, Orlando, the City Beautiful. The City Sad.
And that soul, yeah, it’s here. How else could a simple nod make strangers feel like brothers? We’re in this together.
From Kissimmee to Sanford, Bithlo to Clermont and especially in the neighborhoods of the city proper, the Soul of Orlando is baring itself. It’s tough yet open, forced to be dynamic and flexible because of all the new people arriving, because of the need to make close friends quickly with people from anywhere, and of any background. It’s willing to embrace people it did not know, and new places and new things.
Yes, Orlando is a city of theme parks and hotels and restaurants and all kinds of touristy things. They’re not for Orlandoans. They’re where Orlandoans work. That maid in the hotel: she might be from Puerto Rico. She might have lost her son Sunday morning. And if so, when she’s done making beds, she’ll go home to her little house in Azalea Park and cry, just as she did all day Sunday. That waiter in the restaurant: he might be from a small town in Arkansas. He might have lost his partner or spouse Sunday morning. And if so, after he’s done serving $30 steaks to conventioneers on expense accounts, he’ll go home to his bungalow in Thornton Park and cry. That Cinderella: she might be an actress from Chicago. She might have lost her best friend Sunday morning. And if so, when she’s done smiling for pictures with a hundred more children who need only for her to smile, she’ll go home to her apartment in Dr. Phillips and cry.
With luck, their neighbors, the bank tellers and office managers and appliance salesmen whom the out-of-towners will never meet, will come over with casseroles or bottles, hugs and tissues. They all are bound by the Soul of Orlando. They are Orlando.
Yes, Orlando is a city of future dreams of tech industry, of lasers and simulation, medical research and video games. Orlandoans know how to write code, and they know how to splice genes. And now those programmers and researchers, Orlandoans all, are looking for hugs and tissues too. Other Orlandoans know that.
Yes, Orlando is a city of power, as the center of the politically famous I-4 corridor. Politicians who want to win Florida must win the I-4 corridor. Orlandoans are used to Big Deal politicians coming here so often you’d think they had season tickets to Disney World. Orlando police and deputies provide the security at the motorcades. Orlando firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses stand by. Other Orlandoans simply grouse about the traffic backups they cause. Orlandoans are hard to impress.
So America, just talk to us like were humans, not votes. We’re just flesh and blood, as you can see.
The talk from the local leaders, Mayor Buddy Dyer, Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Police Chief John Mina, Sheriff Jerry Demings, Orlando LGBT Center Tim Vargas, the Rev. Nancy Wilson, Imam Muhammad Musri, Commissioners Patty Sheehan, Tony Ortiz and all the others, when they’re not saying the obligatory things about the facts of the case, when they’re talking about what they really want to talk about, it’s about Orlando togetherness, love, community.
It’s not just words. It’s balm, from one Orlandoan to another.
Some other people, mostly from out of town, already are making the Pulse nightclub massacre about issues such as radical Islamic terrorism, the need for gun control, open carry, immigration, hateful things about gays, red meat for the partisan base, and, ultimately, elections.
To them, we Orlandoans say, with no due respect whatsoever, STFU. More politely, that means, stop. Please. And the lieutenant governor of Texas can go to hell.
Orlandoans are not ready for any of that yet. The rest of America might be, but the rest of America is not Orlando, where we’re in shock, where we’re hurting in a way we could have never imagined. America, we just need you to give us a moment.
Let us grieve for a while before you make it about whatever it is you want to make it about.
This is a community mourning 50 dead, 53 wounded, and more than a million hearts with holes in them. It’s a lot of partners and spouses, family and friends, co-workers and neighbors of the dead and wounded, who need nothing more than support. And it’s the rest of us grappling with what we can do, whom we can help, how we can be there for all the rest, and how, in the meantime, we can address these holes in our own hearts. Because we’re all Orlandoans now. A nod’s a good start. A hug. A tissue. A shared cry.
And we know it won’t end there. Maybe for the first time, for the worst possible reason, we know. We are Orlando.
We’re in this together.