Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Making the Grade in Naples, Florida

They nabbed me because of my weight. I'd been doing the best I could, thought I'd ease my way into it slowly, but in the end I wasn't gaining fast enough. So they got me. I'm just hoping I'll get out in a month or two, three at the most. It's my own damn fault really.

Cindy and I moved to Naples last year, the summer of 2019. We'd visited before and liked the peaceful, gated communities, the subtropical climate, the immaculate shopping malls and white sand beaches. It's no surprise Collier County, where Naples is located, has remained one of the fastest growing counties in America. We were convinced on our first visit. Naples is the gem of Florida's Gulf Coast, a little American Cote d'Azur with none of the unpleasantness of the real Cote d'Azur.

While still in New York we knew we had some work ahead of us as far as getting used to our new Florida home: a bit of adjusting before we'd really fit in. We'd read the Naples Community Guide to Right Living, of course, but hadn't realized before the actual move how seriously the Neapolitans took their lifestyle rules. It was only after settling in, after we saw how strict the place was, that we realized what we were in for.

In all the most important things Cindy proved quicker on the uptake than me. It was Cindy who insisted on getting the two SUVs--one red, white and blue, the other just white. And Cindy put on the pounds faster. Even our huge neighbors were impressed with how quickly she gained. She picked up all the right mannerisms too: the little gestures and movements that prove one belongs; the various saccharine expressions of delight that accompany the different Neapolitan greetings; that earnest way of pushing a full shopping cart to the car and popping the trunk to load the bags. In fact the security people hardly ever bothered us when I was out with Cindy. Still, I knew I couldn't hide under her wing forever. I had to make better progress.

I'd already been in Naples eight months when they arrested me. I'm ashamed to say that by that time I'd only put on forty pounds. It wasn't up to par, and I knew it. I knew it from the guidebook, of course, but I could see it also in the looks I got from neighbors. I guess I thought I could still claim to be a newcomer. It was naïve of me.

I should have seen the trouble I was in when Alec, the cheery man who guards the entrance to our gated community, finally questioned me outright.

"Say, Mr. Westerman," he said one day as I was pulling in.


"How heavy are you now--if I might ask?"

"About 240," I said. "Or at least I was about 240 last time I checked. Why?"

"And you're over six foot tall, aren't you, Mr. Westerman?"

"Yes, I'm six foot two," I said.

Alec pursed his lips; he shook his head slightly.

"Pardon me for saying so," he said, "but a man your height should be at least 260 pounds. 260 at the very least."

"I'm working on it," I said. "I'll get there yet."

I flashed him a smile and was ready to drive off, but he continued.

"I'm just reminding you, Mr. Westerman. Just to let you know. I mean, you realize how people in this community will talk."

That exchange took place just a week before the arrest. To tell the truth, Alec's words didn't fall on deaf ears. That same night I made a new resolution: to use more butter on my scones in the morning and eat a slab of Tiramisu every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, not just on Thursdays as I'd been doing previously. Cindy warned that this wouldn't be enough.

"You should be eating some rich dessert every night," she said. "You know what the guidebook says. Why do you always go against the guidebook?"

Cindy was right. My new resolution wasn't enough: it was too little too late. They picked me up a few days later as I got out of my car at the Waterside Shops.

"Derek Westerman?" the officer said. There was a community ethics officer with him, his huge potbelly nearly popping the buttons off the green uniform.


"I've a warrant here for your arrest."

"I understand," I said. "It's the weight, isn't it?"

"Just come along peacefully, Mr. Westerman."

* * *

The Naples Re-Education Center is pretty much like I'd heard it was. It's off Airport Road heading north, about two miles out of town, just after you pass the third tan strip mall with the Eckerd Pharmacy. The third Eckerd Pharmacy, I mean, the one to go with the third strip mall. The Re-Education Center is on the right, next to the golf course.

They've got me in a sumptuous room with curtains the color of Key Lime Pie and a placid scene of flamingos painted on the wall. The flamingos are in pastel tones, stepping through soft blue water, and in the background there's a scene of a golf course. The room has two queen-sized beds, one for me and one for my roommate Vern (in such a comfortable room it wouldn't be quite right to call him a "cellmate," though it's true we aren't free to leave). We've got a huge refrigerator regularly restocked with beer, pizza, cheesecake and various other high-calorie things. There are also three large TV screens on the walls, two of which can't be turned off, not even while we sleep. The screen closer to Vern's bed plays 24-hour ESPN, and the other one plays 24-hour financial news. The room has air conditioning of course, and this air conditioning works a bit too well, just as expected. The message they're trying to convey by this is subtle but irrefutable: If you're chilly at night, they seem to be saying, maybe it's because you haven't enough flesh on your bones to keep warm.

My roommate Vern is a portly man, so it's obvious he wasn't picked up for the same reason as me.

"It's because of a stupid remark I made," he admitted when I asked him what he was in for.

"What remark was that?"

"I was at the cigar lounge with some of the fellas," he said. "They started talking about golf and I said I thought golf was a stupid sport. They arrested me the next morning at work."

"Because you thought golf was stupid?"

"Well, not only that," he said. "But that was bad enough, to say something like that I mean. A man can get arrested for less than that."

"But what else did you say?"

"Well," he began, then seemed to change his mind. "It's not important really. Let's just say I made an ass of myself."

"C'mon," I prodded. "We're in this together, Vern. Just tell me. I'm new to Florida too, you know. Maybe you can save me from shooting off my mouth later on."

"Oh, alright," he said. "It was the same day at the cigar lounge. I must have had a few too many. Beers, I mean, because I remember we were drinking beer that day. Anyhow, one of the guys invited me to a patio party at his house on the Fourth of July. He said he was having a barbecue."


"And I told him I don't like barbecues."

"You didn't."

"I did."

"You actually said you wouldn't go to a Fourth of July barbecue?"


"And you said it in front of how many people?"

"Five or six."

"Christ, Vern!" I laughed. "You're lucky you're in here and not the real detention center up in Tallahassee."

"I know it," he said. "It was damn stupid of me."

* * *

Cindy visited me this morning and I had to eat the cookies. It was tough because of the pancake and sausage breakfast we'd just been forced to eat. But it's a rule here that if a visitor comes they have to bring two dozen fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and the inmate has to eat them before the visit it over. They think it's good for morale.

Cindy told me about some things she bought at the Waterside Shops and about an origami class she's taking with some "gals" she met at the hair salon. Cindy really is fitting in well: she even refers to everyone as gals already. I'm thinking they might let me out early just for her sake.

* * *

Most of the inmates are in here for weight problems, but there are others, like Vern, who ran afoul of the authorities on other grounds. The young guy Chris across the hall (his room all in peach tones: wicker furniture, ceiling fan, decorative bowl of dried starfish and other sea creatures on the table) came to Naples to teach high school. But he wasn't prepared for the move. He told me that before he came down he hadn't read even a chapter of the guidebook. So when he took the I.Q Test he tried to do his best on it. I mean the Naples Residency Permit I.Q. Test, of course, the NRPIQ, which we all had to take to reside legally in Naples. Chris took the test and was rated with an I.Q. of 139. They hauled him in the very day scores were announced. They were furious. It seems they even roughed him up a little that first night, accused him of being a "subversive," an "intellectual" and other such things. They were going to send him straight to Tallahassee, but finally just kept him here. While at the Center, they say, he must try to purify his thoughts of all the "nonsense and critical thinking" such a "shamefully high I.Q." has "forced his brain to pick up over the years": "like a piece of tape dragged across a dirty floor picks up hair and dust and dead skin flakes." This is how Chris quotes their words. In fact I don't envy him a bit. He'll be in here a lot longer than Vern or I. And he may end up in Tallahassee after all.

* * *

Spent the morning at a Golf Appreciation Seminar with Vern. Then more interrogation after lunch. Today was the worst of it yet. My interrogator, Dr. Adler, hails from Minnesota and has been working at the Center for three years. He's a tough one, this Adler. If he doesn't like my answers he comes out with another big bowl of mixed nuts and I have to eat it down before we can continue.

It seems they didn't just arrest me because of the weight problem after all. It seems a neighbors had been spying on me while I was reading. I sometimes read on the back porch, and one of my neighbors must have seen me. Already at our first interrogation Dr. Adler had brought up the question of my reading European novels, but of course I denied it vehemently.

"I've never read a European novel in my life," I said. "I don't even like American novels, so why should I be reading European ones?"

"Novels are bad for the community," he said. "Studies have proven it. They lead to unpatriotic, cynical thinking."

"You needn't worry about my reading habits, doctor. Really. Besides gardening magazines and food magazines--that and the Naples Community Guide of course--besides these things I read almost nothing."

"Is that so?" Adler said.

"It is," I insisted. "I've two perfectly good TVs in my home and I've a member card to rent movies at Blockbuster, so why in God's name would I be wasting my time reading novels?"

That was at our first interrogation. I thought I'd done pretty well because Adler never talked about novels again. I thought the warning about European novels was just pro forma and I was in the clear. But today he took off the kid gloves. After pressing a bit on my interest in books and after more of stubborn denials on my part, he finally pulled a big manila folder from his desk and took out three large black-and-white glossy photos. Sure enough. Two were of me sitting on my back porch reading Thoman Mann. And in the third picture I was reading Marguerite Duras, a French writer, something that could get me in much deeper hot water than the Naples Community Re-Education Center had to offer.

"You know, Mr. Westerman," he began as I looked at the photos aghast, "you know that reading European novels is illegal all over these fifty states, and you know besides that reading French novels is technically a felony ever since the dissolution of NATO during Jeb Bush's first term."

"I have never shown any of these books to anyone else, I swear it, Dr. Adler. I've only kept them to myself." My voice was already beginning to crack.

"Whether you show the novels to others or keep them to yourself is not the point," he said gravely. "Just reading the novels is already a crime, Mr. Westerman, something I'm sure you're well aware of."

"I know it's a crime, doctor. But this kind of reading, it's just an old habit of mine, something I did before the break with Europe. I just haven't been able to kick the habit."

"Not even in an upright community like Naples?"

"No," I said, hanging my head. "I guess not even in Naples. I've been so busy trying to improve my life in other ways . . . well, I guess I didn't think much about cutting down on my reading."

Adler took the photos from me and put them back in his desk.

"It is not my purpose to push this issue further," he said. "The neighbor who took these photos and brought them to me was doing it for your own good, Mr. Westerman."

"My own good?"

"Yes. This neighbor of yours wanted you to realize how reckless you were being keeping such books in a solidly patriotic community like ours. This neighbor did it to help you reform."

"And I will reform," I said, beginning to feel somewhat at ease. "I will destroy those books as soon as I get out of here. I promise you, doctor."

"Your wife has already taken care of that, Mr. Westerman. You needn't worry about it."

"My wife?"

"Yes. She destroyed all the novels during your first week here. She agreed with me that it wasn't wise keeping them in the house. Of course I contacted her about these photos."

"I am grateful for your kindness, Dr. Adler. And I'm glad those novels are finally gone. Sometimes the only way to quit a bad habit is to go cold turkey."

"I think you are right on that, Mr. Westerman. At least if the bad habit is also a felony."

But inside I wasn't glad the novels were gone. It was my mistake to read them on the porch. Probably I'll never be able to find anything by Duras again.

* * *

I'm to be released tomorrow. Vern apparently hasn't done as well as I. Although we were arrested about the same time, he's in for at least another month. From what I've heard, his interrogator can still see how much he hates golf. He hasn't made enough of an effort.

I'm now a solid 297 pounds. My cholesterol level is dangerously high and I can hardly make it up a flight of stairs. But that isn't all. After almost two months of watching ESPN, I know about all kinds of sports teams, so I can now talk confidently about the kind of subjects proper to men of my age. I'll no longer be at a loss for words when I sidle up to the bar.

It really wasn't all that bad being in the Naples Community Re-Education Center. Of course it would have been better if I'd have managed to become a real Neapolitan on my own, without the push the Center gave me. But in fact there are many prominent Neapolitans who started with a stint in the Center, and from what I've heard it's not something to be overly ashamed of.

I'll stop typing now because the dinner bell has just rung, and to tell the truth I'm quite hungry. Some of the fellas will be having a little graduation party for me in the dining hall. I'm guessing there will be a chocolate cheesecake with red-white-and-blue candles. At least that's the proper protocol when someone graduates.

Tomorrow Cindy picks me up in the SUV. She herself has reached a whopping 238 pounds. From this day forward Cindy and Derek Westerman will be a couple to be reckoned with.

God bless America and God bless the people of this great state of Florida. May He continue to give us the great bounty that He in His wisdom has seen fit to give us so far. And may we always use this great bounty wisely in order to bring greater glory to Him. For He is indeed a huge God and He watches over us always, bringing us our three squares a day and more. Amen, and I'm off to dinner.


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