I’ve lived in the Orlando area since 1997. From a small town in GA, when I came here, I spent my first three years closed up in my little house, afraid. I was scared to venture out beyond the confines of my little world. I came from a place where everyone knew each other’s name and I had dozens of friends. Here, there were only strangers. I made a few friends at the resort where I was living and they insisted on taking me out to see the city.
I fell in love with the beautiful city. Each enclave offered its lakes and parks, alfresco cafes, and night spots. At thirty-six, with a good career in nursing, single, and an extroverted personality, I made a world of friends. These were people with all sorts of backgrounds, from millionaires to paupers, every race, creed, culture, and gender imaginable. The diversity was part of the beauty of it. The people were warm, accepting and caring, always treating each other with respect. Beautiful people accepting me without question. So many people from so many places.
There were a couple of neighborhoods I was warned to stay away from because I was told crime was rampant and it wasn’t safe. I didn’t venture there. I went to “safe” places. I went to clubs like Blackfin, Sky Sixty, Cactus Club, Pulse, The Peacock Room, Embers and Tabu. These weren’t “gay” clubs, but due to the fact that Orlando has high population of LGBT people, the clubs were frequented by a variety of people. Yes, you heard that right, Pulse is not a gay club. It is an Orlando Nightclub…like dozens of others, where gay and straight people mingle, share hopes and dreams, talk about life, dance and drink, socialize, and come to know that we aren’t so very different.
We don’t ask people what their sexual orientation or gender identity is before we take the cab they’re driving, before they bag our groceries, pour our drink, take our food order, assign our hotel room, draw our blood, prescribe our medication, or sell us a house. It’s not something we think about as we go about our daily living. It doesn’t matter. We come to realize that we are them and they are us.
We live, play, work, and socialize together, and we are safe, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. We are around beautiful, accepting, loving individuals who support each other. That’s the Orlando I have learned to love.
The traffic is awful, the city is crowded, particularly in winter, crime creeps out of the ghettos from time to time, the bus schedule is terrible, we can wait over an hour for a cab—as a city, it has its share of problems—sexual orientation and gender identity do not factor into Orlando’s list of problems. To the contrary, we’re all working together to resolve any problems we have in this city.
I’m a grandmother now, no longer out in the clubbing scene. My children are in their thirties. My daughter and son-in-law have reached maturity here. Their friends are as diverse as my own. My son-in-law works downtown at various restaurants and has become acquainted with many.
Saturday, June 12th, was my son-in-law’s birthday. I agreed to keep the grandkids so they could go out on the town to celebrate. The three kids were to spend the night with me. Daddy and Mama went to a scheduled concert. They love music and dancing. After the concert they took a cab to SkySixty and danced a while. They went to Pulse, as it was a mere half mile from their home.
They arrived at 1:00 am. They had a couple of drinks, but the dance floor was crowded and the Latin Reggae was loud. I had texted them that my grandson was crying for his mama and daddy. They both got on the phone to console him. They decided not to stay for last call. They left and stopped by Walgreen’s on Michigan on the way home. Their receipt reads 1:55 am.
Sunday morning, I logged onto FaceBook and saw the breaking news. I dropped my coffee cup and grabbed the phone. I had not heard from my daughter since that phone call after 1:00 am. I called her number. It went straight to voice mail. I called my son-in-law’s number and it, too, went to voice mail.
I got into my car and drove the ten blocks to their house and banged on the door. No answer. I called my husband in tears. He told me to come home. I sat for hours waiting to hear something while the kids slept in the next room.
At 11:30 am I saw a FB post from my s-i-l saying they had been at Pulse 15 minutes before the tragedy. I called again and finally reached my daughter. She was home safe and had not heard me knocking. Her sleep had been disrupted by the helicopters flying overhead all night. She was unaware of what had happened at Pulse only minutes after they had left until her husband told her. She rushed to my home to hug her kids…to hug her kids like so many weren’t able to do that morning. My few hours of wondering and waiting are nothing compared to the despair of the hundreds that never made contact, they will never see their loved ones alive again.
My s-i-l and daughter had seen the man in a dark shirt and pants who looked out of place, off by himself, sipping a drink. Not mingling with the crowd, not dressed like the crowd. He stood out to them. He calmly scanned the room as if he were waiting on someone. They remember the faces of people talking, laughing, dancing, and having a good time.
I was saddened, but felt relief at the same time. How dare I?
Gratitude mingled with a darker, deeper pain than I had felt in my entire life.
Today. Another day that many won’t be able to share in.
Today. Through the tears, the eyes of Orlandoans speak to each other now of shared pain, loss, deep sadness, disbelief — and support. We’re sharing our soul with the world.
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…all of us.
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.
“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 and sisters? 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.
So America, just talk to us like we’re humans, not votes. We’re just flesh and blood, as you can see.
The talk from the local leaders 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, and community. It’s talk about how the community came together with nourishment, water, and blood…and most significantly, love.
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. Trump and Hillary can go to hell…already pledging to attack Isis, when there is no evidence that Isis or Syria was involved in the design of this attack. Yes, the killer had influences. He was psychologically deranged. We all have influences. Don’t use them to be like him.
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 49 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.