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Musing #44: Growing Up Beside Scientology (#Clearwater)

Let’s be clear.

I’ve naught of any import to add to the ever-escalating public Scientology discussion.

I’m not here to chasten the Church. That’s been done, repeatedly and brilliantly.

(#TampaBayTimes #LawrenceWright #TonyOrtega)

But participating passionately, as I do, in this particular public palaver (from my perch in New York City), I’ve discovered something that is — to this Tampa Bay expat, anyway — peculiar:

It turns out that New Yorkers don’t understand Scientology to be the daily reality — dare I say it, normality? — of all those who live, work and play in Clearwater, Florida.

Somehow, this fact eluded me until the morning after Alex Gibney’s GOING CLEAR documentary aired on HBO, when it was being discussed at work — despite my having been a Scientolo-fascinated New Yorker-via-TB since 1997.

(Not that I’d given the matter any previous thought. And not that Joe Schmo America typically has any reason to contemplate Clearwater.)

I must’ve subconsciously assumed it was something people just knew

Apparently, it is not.

I’m now disabused of the notion. And, given my new-found “state of clear” on the point, I’d like to tell y’all a bit about life beside Scientology — tongue firmly in cheek, but “with malice toward none.”

Being from Florida in the 21st century is like being an assman’s kid ever.


Y’gotta have a sense of humor about that shit.

(Procto-pun intended.)

And now…a lesson in Floridian socio-geography, Stacy-style.

This is the largely-ridiculous State of Florida:


You might’ve heard of her daily since the (still-mortifying) Bush/Gore Electoral Debacle of 2000.

This is the so-called Tampa Bay area:


As in, reportorial domain of the Tampa Bay Times (one of this country’s finest newspapers).

Arguably, one might equate Tampa-St. Pete — yes, always “Pete” — with Minneapolis-St. Paul or Dallas-Ft. Worth. It’s a giant megalopolis comprised of two urban-ish county seats engulfed in unequivocal suburbia.

Tampa is Hillsborough County; St. Pete is Pinellas.

This is Pinellas County:


The daily lives of all Pinellans are inextricably entwined, regardless of municipal jurisdictions (of which there are many).

Analogy as to how that plays out, for New Yorkers:


Pretend — for but one, painful moment — that NYC is Pinellas County, Florida.

If Manhattan is St. Pete, Brooklyn/Queens is Clearwater/Largo (in terms of relative urbanity, not longitude — with all due apology to always-hated-on Queens/Largo). That places the Seminole home of my parents squarely on Roosevelt Island. And, as all Roosevelt Islanders know, that means daily life necessitates a crisscrossing of borders on both sides.

Translation as it applies hereto: “We” Pinellans are all Clearwater.

But we’re decidedly not all Scientologists.

As of this writing, the Church of Scientology owns most of downtown Clearwater.

This is downtown Clearwater:


In Scientolo-speak, Clearwater is “Flag Land Base, the Mecca of the Scientology Religion,” “a spiritual retreat” and the Church’s “spiritual headquarters.”

This is the Fort Harrison Hotel (in 1927, ’cause I dig old things):


Perdy, ain’t she?!

A relevant excerpt from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Lawrence Wright’s GOING CLEAR monograph (the source material for Gibney’s film), page 131:

“…[L. Ron] Hubbard sent a couple of delegations to locate a land base for Scientology — specifically, a town that the church could take over. One team arrived in the Florida retirement community of Clearwater — a resonant name for Scientologists — to look over a dowdy downtown hotel called the Fort Harrison, which had earned a place in popular history when Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics for ‘Satisfaction’ beside the swimming pool in 1965. Hubbard purchased the Fort Harrison and a bank building across the street using a false front called the United Churches of Florida, which he calculated would not disturb the staid moral climate of the conservative community. … Several months passed before the flabbergasted citizens discovered that Clearwater had become the Flag Land Base for the Church of Scientology. (Scientologists would simply call it Flag.)”

That’s how it began — as flummoxed flabbergast.

Today, it’s just life as Clearwater knows it.

Hubbard bought the building in 1975. I was born nowhere near it in 1979. Dad moved us to Pinellas County in the summer of 1984, and the Fort Harrison Hotel was my intro to Scientology.

First opened in 1926, the hotel is situated on one of downtown Clearwater’s major north/south thoroughfares (namely, Fort Harrison Avenue). You can’t miss her, driving by — beautiful, mysterious old building that she is. And you do find yourself driving by, if you live there.

She’s inevitable.

The Fort Harrison Hotel is pretty much the resident TB haunted house. For, as every smart Pinellan “wog” knows (that’s a non-believer, in Scientolo-speak), she hosted three bizarre deaths between 1980 and 1995.

That creepy old hotel would be the stuff of urban legend, if urban legends were born of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.


The most notorious of the Fort Harrison Scientolo-deaths was that of Lisa McPherson in December 1995, by which time I was reading the newspaper daily. But even had I not been following the coverage (obsessively), I’d have known about it. Because everyone knew about it. It was one hell of a local story for quite some time. Still is, in many ways.

It was the McPherson tragedy that first made me ponder the yellowing copy of DIANETICS that’s been lying around my parents’ house for as long as I can remember. Neither parent has any recollection as to how it came to be there, but I suspect someone handed it to my hoarder father in the mid-’70s. To this day, neither parent has ever read it.

Thus, at age 16, I resolved to one day conquer the book, in the name of tragic Lisa.

Twenty years later, I’ve not yet conquered DIANETICS (despite my enduring, unslakable thirst for all things Scientolo-news).

Content aside, that’s some god-awful writing.

(Religio-pun, but no harm intended.)

As to celebrities, seeing the famous in Tampa Bay isn’t all that big a deal. There are a shit-ton of retired ball players and pro wrestlers milling about out the place. (I’ve run into Hulk Hogan multiple times over the years.) There’s also a lot of beachy location shooting done in the area.

And then, there’s Scientology.

A few celebrity Scientologists keep homes in or around Tampa Bay. Far more visit periodically, for upper-echelon “auditing” (or Scientolo-therapy).

I found myself on a New York-to-Tampa flight with Kirstie Alley in 1996. She actually caught my glance, smiled at me and said hello as I passed her first-class seat on my humble way to coach. I smiled back, understanding exactly what she was doing on that non-stop flight to Retirement Town.

It was all very cool.

It was all very normal.

I’ve only ever had one “abnormal” encounter with a Scientologist, and that was entirely my well-meaning (but clueless) father’s fault.

When I was 14, Dad appeared as George Grossmith in a community production of the “backstage musical” SULLIVAN AND GILBERT at Clearwater’s historic Royalty Theatre (d/b/a the Capitol Theatre) — a lonely bastion of wog-dom, in a sea of “Sea Org” (clergy) buildings. It’s a place where peripatetic pods of naval-uniformed, billion-year-contracted men and women wander the surrounding streets at odd hours of the night (bothering no one, in case you were wondering).

By this time, Dad had long been curious as to where these people are perpetually headed on foot after dark in Too-Hot-to-Walk-Land (my term).

This is the old Royalty Theatre:


For some long-forgotten reason, Dad took me to see him in this show by my lonesome, sans rest of gargantuan family. I met him backstage afterward, and we left by the stage door — which leads to a dark alley/parking lot from the back of the theater.

As we headed for the car — just before midnight, on a Friday — a silent procession of uniformed Sea Org-ers passed by the alley.

We paused to observe them, and Dad mumbled emphatically (to himself): “Where are they going at this hour?!”

Next thing I know, Dad is running down an Org-er.

I did not follow — preferring to watch from afar, my jaw agape in mortified disbelief.

The target of Dad’s hot-footed pursuit was a straggler who’d fallen behind the silently marching crowd. And that straggler just happened to be a tiny lady.

Now, put yourself in the poor woman’s shoes (as did I, in the moment).

It’s nearly midnight. You’ve fallen behind your cohorts, and the streets are otherwise empty. Suddenly, a crazed middle-aged man bursts forth from the shadows in pursuit of you, shouting: “Can I ask you something?!

You’re an isolated monk, of sorts, and you’re tiny.

You are scared shitless.

Eyes dead ahead, and dead silent, the besieged Scientologist quickened her gait.

Dad followed apace, imploring: “I just want to know where you’re going! I’m very interested!!!”

The poor woman plowed pointedly onward, as fast as her short legs could carry her — eyes dead ahead, and dead silent.

That’s when Dad gave up and returned — intellectually defeated — to 14-year-old me, in the dark downtown alley.

Once in the car, I furiously berated the man for his appalling lack of street etiquette.

He said it never occurred to him that he might be frightening. In a spur-of-the-moment heat of passion, he’d seen only a Scientologist who could answer his question. The heat apparently blinded him to the fact that he was chasing a woman down an empty street at night, having burst forth from a darkened alley!

THUS…the moral of the diatribe: Scientologists are normal people, and tiny women are tiny women.

Be vigilantly mindful, people; and just let people live.

Until next time, “Damn the heat of passion, don’t chase chicks down streets!”

(Mostly) Proud Procto-Daughter


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