Laughing at Florida Man
We never tire of gawking at the exploits of America’s most shameless and boneheaded hooligans, said journalist Logan Hill in The Washington Post Magazine. But real tragedy lies beneath many of their stories.
Sporting a buzz cut, prison blues, and a chin-strap beard, the slim 24-year-old Floridian Brandon Hatfield leans sideways in a rolling office chair inside the St. Johns County Jail. With a warm Southern drawl and a crooked smirk, he says, “I remember half of what happened…and half of what didn’t.”
Hatfield finds it hard to separate the fact from the fiction of what took place on the night of Nov. 5, 2018, for a few reasons. That night, at a Best Western not far from the Fountain of Youth theme park in St. Augustine, Fla., America’s oldest city, he was drinking Jack Daniel’s. He’s sure the whiskey led to smoking weed, but he’s not as clear on how that led to fentanyl, ecstasy, and whatever else ended up in his toxicology report.
He remembers the rest of the night in “blackout splatches,” which have since mixed with the stories he’s heard about himself: how he jumped into a crocodile pool at a local zoological park after hours, got bit by an American crocodile, and barely escaped with his life—but not his Crocs shoes, which were found floating in the water the next day. Next thing he knew, he was waking up “at the hospital shackled to a bed with my foot gnawed off.”
Another reason Hatfield finds it hard to separate the “half of what happened” from the “half of what didn’t”: When he woke up, he wasn’t himself anymore. Much as an arachnid bite changed Peter Parker into Spider-Man, that crocodile chomp transformed Brandon Hatfield into Florida Man. His tale was being retweeted around the world: “Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm.”
Since Florida Man was first defined on Twitter in 2013 as the “world’s worst superhero,” many men (and it’s almost always men) have assumed the mantle. He is a man of a thousand tattooed faces, a slapstick outlaw, an internet-traffic gold mine, a cruel punch line, a beloved prankster, a human tragedy, and like some other love-hate American mascots, the subject of burgeoning controversy.
Most memes—from planking to Tide Pods—fizzle fast. Florida Man has only grown stronger. There are so many stories about men like Hatfield that a “Florida Man Challenge” went viral this March, in which millions of people Googled their birth dates and “Florida Man,” finding a near-endless list of real news headlines for all 365 days of the year:
“Florida Man Steals $300 Worth of Sex Toys While Dressed as Ninja.” “Florida Man Tries to Pick Up Prostitute While Driving Special Needs School Bus.” “Florida Man Drinks Goat Blood in Ritual Sacrifice, Runs for Senate.”
At its most comical, the Florida Man phenomenon encapsulates the wildness of both America and the internet. At its most salacious, it’s a social media update on the true-crime TV of America’s Dumbest Criminals. At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted, or mentally ill.
I’ve laughed at headlines like “Florida Man Arrested for Calling 911 After His Cat Was Denied Entry Into Strip Club.” I’ve gawped at stories like “Florida Man Removes Facial Tattoos With Welding Grinder.” But over the years I’ve also started to get a queasy feeling of complicity when I click on headlines that play up the quirks of horrific crimes for web traffic. This past April, I set out to meet a few Florida Men behind the clickbait and answer some questions, such as “Is Florida Man a hero, a villain, or a victim?”
The biggest question I get is “What were you thinking?” Hatfield continues, from his seat inside the St. Johns County Jail. “Every time, my answer is I wasn’t.” Hatfield is telling his entire Florida Man story for the first time, and in much more detail than the thousands of versions told without his input. The details matter: Take the two Croc-like shoes found floating in a crocodile enclosure, which prompted jokes and led the zookeeper to suspect a prank.
Hatfield is, on this April afternoon, wearing the same style on his scarred left foot, the one the crocodile attacked. Five months and six surgeries later, doctors have barely managed to save it. The pair of shoes found floating in the park had also been issued to him in jail, after his first drug conviction at age 23.
On Instagram, Hatfield has claimed to be a descendant of “Devil” Anse Hatfield, the wildcat outlaw who sparked the Hatfield-McCoy feud: Rebelliousness, he bragged, is in his blood. When Hatfield was 10, he says, he captured a rattlesnake and hid it in an aquarium in his bedroom closet, until it killed his pet boa constrictor and terrified his mother, a nurse. After that, his amused stepdad stuffed the rattler—“so we’d always remember,” Hatfield says. From then on, Hatfield bounced between his divorced parents’ homes.
On Nov. 2, 2018, Hatfield was convicted of grand theft auto and possession of a schedule II substance. He tells a convoluted story about how the car was his own and the methamphetamine was his ex-girlfriend’s; the judge sentenced him to two years of parole. When Hatfield showed up for his first parole appointment, he panicked, certain that if he went inside, he’d be sent to state prison, since he’d already violated parole by leaving the county. Wearing his jail Crocs, Hatfield sneaked out to the parking lot and called some friends, figuring, “If I’m going to prison, I’m going to do it big for the weekend—and then turn myself in.”
A few days later, well into his bender at the Best Western Bayfront hotel, Hatfield boasted to friends about how he grew up wrangling alligators from one pond to another on his papa’s land, to “balance the ecosystem.” Nobody believed him. “I said, ‘I’ll catch an alligator right now!’ My friend said, ‘I know a perfect place….’” The friends drove 2 miles to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the world’s only home to all 24 crocodilian species, with a main pen holding 210 alligators.
News channels and sites told Hatfield’s story through video clips stitched together from four hours of night-vision security-cam footage, in which he is the zoo’s acrobatic attraction: Florida Man, in his native, ersatz habitat. He climbs onto a corrugated metal rooftop about 12 feet above a shallow pool occupied by large American crocodiles. He leaps in and thrashes as he’s bit. But what most news videos missed is that Hatfield escaped, unscathed, after his first jump. Then he jumped back in, turning himself into literal clickbait. “The whole thing was, I dropped my phone inside the pit,” he says. “A brand-new iPhone. That’s whenever he death-rolled me. It de-sleeved the bottom of my foot, until it looked like a chicken breast; I’d wiggle my toes and you could see my tendons move.”
On crutches at his first court appearance, he heard the bailiffs and others “cracking jokes and calling him Crocodile Dundee,” says his defense attorney, Jill Barger. She took his case pro bono because she pitied him, and also—“I’m not gonna lie,” she admits—because Florida Men get valuable media attention.
His new convictions of criminal mischief and trespassing compounded his early charges. Judge Howard Maltz, who saw Hatfield on TMZ the night before meeting him in court, sentenced him to 364 days in county jail, plus two years of community control. At Hatfield’s sentencing, Maltz told him, “You should not be alive. God has a plan for you. We may not know what it is, but God has a plan for you.”
“I hear it all the time,” Hatfield says with a shrug. “Daniel in the lions’ den.” In the Bible, Daniel was thrown into a den of carnivorous beasts but found “blameless” by his god and saved for a higher purpose. Hatfield likes this idea. He says he’ll warn Floridians not to follow in his bloody footsteps and become a Florida Man like him, because he wishes he’d done the same for his stepbrother, who died of a heroin overdose while Brandon was in jail. He’s lost three relatives in the past year to drug-related deaths, he says. “My little brother, Bo, passed away on heroin at 17. He was probably looking up to me. I went to jail and left him out there by himself.”
There’s nothing funny about this part of Hatfield’s viral story. It’s the “half of what happened” in most Florida Man stories that doesn’t fit in a tweet—the bummer half that has to do with how people end up doing reckless things, and what follows viral infamy. “We laugh at these stupid things,” Maltz tells me in his chambers. “But there are tragedies behind many of them.”
I came to the jail to see how Hatfield ended up in that crocodile pit, but also to ask how the media attention had affected him. I assumed that he would be mortified to go viral on the worst day of his life. But that’s not how he saw it. “At first I was embarrassed,” he says. “But I’m prone to do stuff like this anyway, so it was just a matter of time before something blew up.”
Hatfield talks about his newfound internet notoriety like he’s Brer Rabbit, thrown into the digital briar patch where he was born and bred. “I was always on the internet: I go live on Facebook. I live on Instagram.” Drugs have been Hatfield’s escape from the real world, but social media is where he feels most honest: “It’s the real me.”
Is it ok to laugh at Florida Man? In the comedy business, the answer to such a question is always an unsatisfying “It depends.” The once-absurdist Florida Man meme has undoubtedly curdled into callous jokes at the expense of the vulnerable. But plenty of people laugh with Florida Man, knowing how easy it is to become one. Ultimately, many of these stories aren’t as extraordinary as the headlines; they just have that one odd detail—or one memorable mug shot—that, if spun correctly, might turn one person’s DUI into another’s LOL.
When Double-A baseball team the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp planned its Florida Man Night, it looked for a family-friendly mascot who represented the best of Florida Man without dragging along the worst of his baggage: a Floridian who hadn’t hurt anyone, who wasn’t being exploited, and who was happy to have people laugh along with him. They found Lane Pittman, a multiple-time Florida Man who rallies the crowd at Jacksonville Jaguars NFL games, waving flags and firing T-shirt cannons as part of the Jax Pack hype team.
At the Jumbo Shrimp’s Florida Man Night, Pittman will play the national anthem on electric guitar, because the first time he went viral, he was “Florida Man Arrested After Playing National Anthem on July 4.” In the video seen everywhere from BuzzFeed.com to Fox News, Pittman, wearing jorts and an American flag tank top, shreds like Hendrix on a Neptune Beach sidewalk until hundreds of people gather around and he is arrested for obstructing traffic.
“I was like, This is American as crap! Freedom, baby!” Pittman reminisces. “I had everybody dabbing me up, high-fiving me. I had one old lady kiss me on the face. Then two cops came over.”
The second time he went viral, he uploaded a nine-second video of himself—no shirt, no shoes, just board shorts—headbanging and holding an American flag against the torrential wind and rain of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, to the blare of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” The video was viewed nearly 4 million times.
When I meet Pittman at a hard-rock music festival in downtown Jacksonville, the lean 26-year-old surfer dude with long red hair is again wearing jorts and an American flag tank top—what he calls “my Hurricane Lane persona.” Amid the roar of speed metal, Pittman hypes up fans at a pop-up advertising space, where autograph seekers wait on members of Korn and Evanescence.
Pittman’s hurricane videos have become a hurricane-season YouTube ritual—a rain dance in defiance of the weather. In some ways, the original video is, like frozen Florida orange juice, the most concentrated and syrupy example of what it means to be a Florida Man: a wild man who stands firm against propriety, the forces that threaten to destroy this strange paradise, and common sense itself.
“People throw shade at Florida. Like, a lot,” says Pittman. A brief cloud passes over his upbeat mood, then the Florida Man smiles. “But you can’t put shade on us. We’re the Sunshine State!”
Excerpted from a story that originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine. Used with permission. ■