Welcome to Christmas, Florida
It was hot enough to burn the dead lovebugs on my car’s hood. Farmland and pine trees were on the horizon, streets named after eight reindeer and brown wreaths hung on mailboxes. It’s not a holiday for the people of Christmas, Florida.
Christmas sits between Orlando and Cape Canaveral. The yuletide name of the community comes from the Second Seminole War. On December 25th, 1837, more than 2,000 US soldiers built a supply fort for the war. They never saw a day of battle. The place today seems like an outpost vibrating with its pioneer past.
Highway 50 runs straight into Country Craft ‘n Christmas. This year-round holiday store looks like a winter cottage airdropped into Florida-cracker land.
“First thing that I do in the morning, change out the numbers,” Becky Hamilton said.
Hamilton opened her doors in 2001, as owner and operator, always wanting to own a X-mas gift store.
Hamilton is more than just a business owner in Christmas, she is part of the historical association. She handed me some pamphlets for the Fort Christmas Museum.
“Why do I keep seeing the same last names popping up everywhere?” I asked.
“The town started with 21 pioneer families,” she said. “There are still descendants living in the community today.”
She then made a comment under her breath about cousins marrying through the years. As I left, she gave me a baseball-shaped gingerbread cookie and an “I Love My Cat/Christmas, Florida” nail file for my wife.
Up a couple blocks from Hamilton’s store is the Christmas Post Office. People come from all over to this post office to get their Christmas, Florida, postmark for their holiday mail.
The post office employee seemed caught off guard when I walked through her door.
“Do you get a lot of people during the holidays?” I asked.
She told me that there are lines out the door, so long that they run all the way around the side of the building.
I asked her about this mailbox which read: “LETTERS TO SANTA.”
Daytona Beach, 1999
In 1999, award-winning Magnum photographer Eli Reed set off to document spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida. Having watched the white kids getting hysterically drunk and “trying to crawl up inside the backside of uncaring contestants” in wet t-shirt competitions, he moved on to the black spring breakers who were doing much better things, like driving around with albino pythons and stuff. Here are some previously unseen moments from his series.
KILLERS OF SERPENTS – THE PYTHON CHALLENGE IS THE ONLY THING KEEPING THE EVERGLADES FROM BECOMING A TWO-MILLION-ACRE SNAKE PIT
On July 1, 2009, a pet Burmese python in Oxford, Florida, escaped from its terrarium, slithered into the crib of a two-year-old girl, and strangled her to death. The snake, named Gypsy, was eight and a half feet long, weighed 13 pounds, and had not been fed in a month. The child’s mother and her boyfriend—who had six prior felonies—were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.
The incident was Florida’s first known case of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child, and it set off a media frenzy. In stepped a tattooed Florida wildlife rescue expert named Justin Matthews. About a month after the girl’s death, Justin made national news when he captured a 14-foot Burmese python in a culvert outside a Sweetbay Supermarket near his Manatee County home. He identified the snake as an escaped pet and scolded its owner for not having a radio-transmission device implanted in the animal, as required by law. He named the snake Sweetie, after the Sweetbay chain. Local news outlets declared him a hero.
But later that summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered that Justin had actually purchased the animal at a reptile supply store and staged the capture. He made a public apology, insisting that he had simply been trying to demonstrate the dangers of keeping pythons as pets. “I did it for wildlife education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But Justin was quickly written off as a loose-cannon redneck seeking personal glory and publicity for his rescue business and faded from public view.
Now, more than three years later, Justin, a rangy 50-year-old with a beard and a Pall Mall-induced rasp, is walking through Big Cypress National Preserve—a 720,000-acre patch of cypress marsh in the northern part of the Florida Everglades. His mission is to kill Burmese pythons, which can grow as long as 20 feet. He is one of 1,400 people who have signed up to hunt, shoot, and decapitate as many of the snakes as they can in a month as part of Florida’s first-ever Python Challenge.
Many media outlets have described the 2013 Python Challenge as a “bounty hunt.” But the contest’s chief organizer, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida, prefers to call it an “incentive-based market solution.” Participants compete in two separate divisions: one for general competitors, another for year-round permit holders. The winners receive cash prizes for kills—$1,000 for the longest, $1,500 for the most.
The guy who’s been injecting himself with snake venom for 20 years (and stars in our recent doc Venom Superman) is doing a reddit AMA. Go ask him a question.
Getting High Injecting Snake Venom
The hemotoxins in a tree viper’s venom attack human blood cells and can result in an agonizing death in less than 30 minutes. The neurotoxins in a cobra bite can kill a person in half that time. So why has Steve Ludwin has been sticking all this lovely snake juice in a syringe and mainlining it for the last 20 years? Because he’s on a quest for immortality. Milking an array of deadly snakes including rattlesnakes and monocled cobras, with a few vipers thrown in the mix, Steve has been injecting what would for any normal human be fatal amounts venom into his body since the late 80s.
The basic principle—laid out by pioneer herpetologist Bill Haast, who died last year at the age of 100—is that regular exposure to the venom develops an immunity. Steve claims to never get ill, and that cobra venom is the ultimate pick-me-up, with effects lasting days after injecting, making Steve stronger, faster, and more resilient. And now, it looks like mainstream scientific research might be catching up.
Watch the video
Terttu Uibopuu has a name we can’t pronounce (though we’re willing to learn!) and takes beautiful pictures of interesting people in various stages of dress. She was born in Estonia and got an MFA from Yale, so that’s fancy. Her work will be featured in a new group show that opens tonight at Strange Loop Gallery on Orchard Street, entitled “XX- as in female chromosomes”. It was nice of them to add that second part, just in case you thought it was about that band and not about girl power.
Roger Ballen has been shooting with black and white film for over 50 years and we can’t thank him enough for continuing to create and break new ground in that medium. Unlike some photographers who are obsessed with trying to capture what they see with their own two eyes, Ballen strives to create abstract interpretations of the world we live in through his powerful photos. This goal gives his images resonance and it also helps personalize his work, which he aptly describes as a “psychological and existential journey.”
A selection of Ballen’s photos will be exhibited in the Smithsonian Africa Museum, Washington DC in 2013. In addition to his stellar still photography, he also makes films such as Die Antwoord’s music video for “I Fink U Freeky.”