The story, headlined “Drunk, shirtless Florida man arrested after shoveling spaghetti in his mouth at Olive Garden,” hit the website of southwest Florida’s NBC-Channel 2 at 11:13am on April 8 this year.
The mugshot revealed a scraped and bruised 32-year-old man named Ben Padgett. His long brown hair, beard, and penetrating eyes caused some readers to compare him to Jesus Christ. He was, in reality, just another name, another face, another Florida Man in what has become one of journalism’s darkest and most lucrative cottage industries.
Florida Man was formalized as a news genre by a Twitter account founded in 2013 that now has nearly half a million followers. That account describes he, and sometimes she, as the “world’s worst superhero.” The stories tend to stand as exemplars of the mythical hyper-weirdness of the Sunshine State, but more often simply document the travails of the drug-addicted, mentally ill, and homeless.
“Florida man gets drunk, tells cops he’s Jason Bourne”; “Shirtless Florida Man fights tree.” “Florida Man plays basketball naked at park” “Florida Man threatens to destroy everyone with army of turtles”; “Drunk shirtless Florida man harrasses people at the park”; “Florida Man on meth attacks mattress.”
They’re the preserve of teams of editors and producers who trawl for the next viral version of the archetype. When one can’t be found in their coverage area, they simply cannibalize Florida Man stories from other news sites. The stories spread like folk tales in an infinite village, with neither the inconvenience nor the expense of traditional reporting.
The spaghetti-shoveling story was picked up by news sites across the country (many of which have quietly begun focusing on stories that attract the most clicks) particularly those attached to local TV stations, which seem to have a great affinity for Florida Man. So did the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Post, Inside Edition, Thrillist, Fox News, Metro (of London), and NBC’s Early Today Show.
Like almost all Florida Man stories, the story was drawn entirely from his arrest report, which reveals that Padgett, apparently drunk and hungry, stood outside the Olive Garden to ask for money. When an employee asked him to leave, he refused and began to curse at the employee. It was then police were called.
One person evidently offered Padgett their leftovers, but no fork, because when the police arrived, he was sitting on a bench outside “shoveling spaghetti into his mouth using his hands.” After police arrested him for disorderly intoxication and cajoled him into the patrol car, a violently disturbed Padgett banged his head on the metal cage partition between the front and back seats until he was covered in blood. He required medical treatment at a hospital before he was taken to jail.
“To be fair, we’d be pretty upset too if we were forced to leave Olive Garden without getting the chance to house some unlimited breadsticks,” a Thrillist reporter wrote.
“I don’t understand how anybody can be upset at Olive Garden with that bottomless salad they have,” a bubbly Early Today host asked after hearing of his injuries. “Exactly,” replied an effervescent colleague at the weather desk.
Then both simultaneously burst out, “Breadsticks!”
In Massachusetts, Kimberly Harris, 33, did not share their sunny disposition. She had met Padgett, during one of his many stints in rehab, at a church in northwest Florida when they were both about 19 years old.
She became pregnant, but the relationship didn’t work out. His addiction issues resurfaced while their daughter was still an infant. They broke up. He had another failed relationship with another woman that resulted in another daughter. In 2014, he was arrested at a meth lab and was later sentenced to 18 months in prison.
When he was released, in 2016, Padgett got a job, a place in Florida and, according to his Facebook posts, fell in love with a woman. Harris remained in distant but supportive contact with him.
“I want to see you do good Ben, I truly do and I always have!!!” she wrote him on Facebook in 2017. “I have no doubt if you put your all in you can be straight and succeed but only you can make it happen.” She wanted her daughter to be able to communicate with him, she said. “I’m trying, I really am,” Padgett responded. “You know I’ve been struggling with addiction since I was 15 and still am obviously but that don’t mean I’m a bad guy and you know that.”
But he lost his job, his girlfriend, and his place. He began to post memes about loneliness and regret. “I never intended to damage anyone while I was broken,” he said. “I’M SORRY.” The last time she heard from him, a few days before the arrest, he was living in a tent, under a bridge. “He would catch fish to eat,” Harris says.
She first learned that Padgett had become Florida Man from the mother of his other daughter. And then it was everywhere, even at NBC-10 in Boston. Harris began a painful, impossible task. “Please can you please remove the post about Ben Padgett,” she wrote to one blogger. “My daughter is online a lot and I don’t want her to see this … my daughter shouldn’t have to see this all over Facebook. I’m literally begging.”
That blogger took the post down. But Padgett’s daughter saw one of the many other versions of the story on social media anyway. “These kids have to live with this forever,” Harris says. And if Padgett ever recovers enough to try to regain a more orthodox life it will haunt him too.
On Facebook, he was dubbed the “Olive Garden Jesus.”
Florida, continental America’s southernmost state and last frontier, has 21 million residents and 90 million yearly visitors. It’s the home of strange animals—notably native alligators and invasive pythons, which sometimes stage epic battles with one another—and the destination of a sizable number of the nation’s most notorious monsters and misfits (Carlo Ponzi, Meyer Lansky, Ted Bundy, Andrew Cunanan, and O.J. Simpson are some of the more distinguished).
Shortly after the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election, and the revelation that many of the September 11 hijackers trained in Florida (and apparently left a Koran in a strip club), Fark.com, the well-trafficked news aggregator website, made “Florida” its own category, the only state to receive such a distinction.
The reward for getting a story posted on that site was thousands of web hits. Now that social media has monetized mobs, and optimized both its platforms and our minds to share stories uncritically, the total number of hits can reach hundreds of thousands or millions. Lucrative businesses are built on less.
“I call Florida the most interesting state,” said Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman, who wrote a book, Oh, Florida!, about the state’s weirdness. “You put that many people together from so many backgrounds, of course they’re going to start chasing each other with machetes.”
Some of the reporting of the Florida Man genre is undeniably worthwhile journalism. A guy throwing a live alligator into a Wendy’s drive-thru is always interesting. A naked man stealing a swan statue is newsworthy when the statue is reportedly worth $25,000 and remains missing. And when someone in a full Easter Bunny costume is caught on video in a street brawl during the holiday, you simply can’t not show it.
But Florida has no monopoly on strange events, drug addiction, or mental illness, the lifeblood of the form. What it does have is strong public records laws that make obtaining mugshots and arrest reports easier than in many other states (including California and New York, which aren’t known for their lack of eccentricity, either).
“The news outlets are the gatekeepers,” says Marie Rhodes, who worked as a local television reporter for 25 years. “And they aren’t doing a very good job.”
Rhodes is on a mission to kill, or least permanently retire, Florida Man. To counteract the damage she thinks it does the state, she started a Facebook group which has 8,000 followers so far. She says she spends several hours each week “scrolling and trolling” for exploitative Florida stories, sometimes including the hashtag #deathtofloridaman.
She knows she’s fighting against the tide, especially when it comes to news outlets that have learned to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted as a kind of reflex. Digital editors, she said are “the devil.”
Pittman, who aggregates Florida Man stories on his Twitter account, revels in the meme but said he, too, realized the damage the stories can do after he posted a story about the arrest of a man for prowling in 2016. The story wasn’t newsworthy but had a selling point in the mugshot: the man’s face was smeared with black grease paint, and it went viral.
Later the Miami Herald said that it had been wrong to publish a version of the same story. The newspaper learned that the arrested man had served three combat tours in Iraq, where his unit suffered numerous casualties. His mother had died while he was overseas. He was suffering from PTSD and having trouble readjusting to civilian life.
“He’s been in a fragile mindset and now his face is all over the Web,” a friend of the man told the Herald. “After all he’s done for the country, now if you Google his name, he just comes across as a crazy person. With no explanation.”
Pittman followed the Herald piece with his own mea culpa.
“It’s human nature to gawk and giggle at absurdities,” Pittman wrote. “But sometimes when we do that, we forget that real humans are involved who are dealing with serious problems.” He said he has developed standards for the genre.
“I look to see if a Baker Act is involved,” Pittman says, referring to the Florida law that allows authorities to admit people for psychological evaluation against their will. “Is the person homeless? If that is the case, I won’t post the story.”
Bob Gabordi, who retired March 1 as executive editor of Florida Today, says he noticed a turn toward journalism as pure entertainment well before his exit. Part of the problem was the fact that many of the news outlets in Florida, including his own, were publishing every jail mugshot online daily, regardless of the nature of the charge.
Gabordi ended the practice in June of last year. He explained to readers in a column that the newspaper “ought not be in the business of adding unnecessarily to people’s hurt,” especially when the charges aren’t newsworthy.
“We know this will cost us traffic—or clicks—on our digital sites,” Gabordi wrote. “Honestly, that has been a factor in it taking me so long to make this decision: Higher traffic equals additional revenue in today’s media world. But at what cost?”
On May 9 Padgett was arrested again, accused of shoplifting two cans of beer from a liquor store. He couldn’t pay the $2,000 bail to get out on the petit theft charge and has been in Collier County Jail ever since.
He could not be reached for an interview. Harris says he has isolated himself from everyone. But until late 2017 he continued to post on his Facebook page—perhaps his most reliable link with the world.
A photo of a mangled dead butterfly. “Only way I like to see them dead like me inside my heart.” A meme that read “You’re always one decision away from a totally different life.” A poem for a woman named Mary with these lines: “Maybe it’s the way she makes me want to make each moment last/Like our souls have a past recollection/All I want is to give her affection/She is my life vest/To protect me from myself.”
When the spaghetti story went viral, a couple of people searched out the Facebook page and remarked on it. One said he came there to “flame” Padgett for what had happened at the Olive Garden. But after seeing the page, and photos of him other than the mugshot, he changed his mind.
“He actually looks like a nice guy,” the man wrote. “I hope he figures this shit out.”