Last Saturday, I received an email from Side Splitters comedy club in Tampa announcing a “very special event.” I am on their email list because I have attended a few shows there over the years. Most comedy clubs start their emails with some sort of baloney pumping up the announced act and I didn’t think much of it until I saw the name “Louis” before the email preview cut off. I love Louis Anderson, but he wouldn’t be a “very special event.” No, they were advertising that Louis C.K. would be appearing “next week” for 5 shows. For me, that is like announcing Paul McCartney was going to play “The Poor House” in Charleston, SC. I jumped on the opportunity and decided I would at the last minute drive to see Louis in a small comedy club six hours away. Louis has to do business like this now because if he gives too much advanced notice, people who wish to do him and his career harm would be there to ruin the shows. The show was fantastic, it was a chance of a lifetime and I’m so glad I did it. This blog post is not about Louis C.K.
I am an unapologetic fan of cults. I am also a fan of Leah Remini’s show on Scientology. Maybe those two things are correlated but my lawyer has advised me to let you figure that out for yourself. The most recent episodes of Leah’s show were about Scientology’s involvement in Clearwater, Florida. L. Ron Hubbard wanted a place for Scientology like Utah is for Mormons. He picked Clearwater as that place. Clearwater is about 20 miles outside of Tampa. The show made Clearwater out to be some sort of ghost town where all the main attractions were owned and controlled by the Church of Scientology. I had to see this place for myself and since I was going to be in Tampa anyway, I went.
You can see the “Flag” building a few miles outside of downtown Clearwater. Scientology’s cross-like symbol was very clearly displayed on the top of “Flag.” I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. I just wanted to see things. I wanted to feel what it was like to be around something so odd and maligned by the many documentaries and shows I had watched.
Clearwater is still a public municipality and I did not commit any trespassing crimes or break into some Scientology compound. I parked at a meter on the street right outside of the Fort Harrison building. This was a famous hotel in Clearwater before Scientology bought it and turned it into “Flag.” Scientology’s website calls this building their “Spiritual Headquarters” and their “Cathedral.” Those are quotes. So Clearwater is like the Vatican for Scientology. I’ve visited the Vatican. Not only were there thousands of people there working but there were also thousands of people lining up to get in to see it. Scientology’s Vatican had one person repainting a small square on the wall lining the walkway outside. I saw another person walk from one side of the Flag Vatican and enter another building across the street. That’s it. I wasn’t there for very long, but I expected to see more people outside the spiritual headquarters of a religion that claims to be populated by millions of people around the world. There were cars parked on the street and trucks making deliveries, so it’s not like the Flag building was abandoned. I just thought I’d see more people around a “Spiritual Headquarters.”
I walked about a block away from Flag to check out the rest of the town. If you look on a map, you’ll see that Clearwater is surrounded by Tampa Bay. Not always true, but a town surrounded by water in the heart of Florida should be a bustling tourist center like every other town like this from the Keys to Panama City Beach. Instead, Clearwater’s downtown was almost empty. There was a coffee shop called “Grind House Coffee” and a pizza shop called “Tony’s Pizzeria.” I felt like the names of these restaurants were pretty stereotypical and facade-like. That could have been a coincidence. There was a Starbucks on the corner of one of the Scientology-owned buildings also.
As far as I know, Scientology owns all the buildings in downtown Clearwater. I’m sure this isn’t completely true, but they did brag about being “the largest property-tax payer in Clearwater.” I didn’t think tax-exempt organizations such as churches paid property taxes, but you learn something everyday from Scientology propaganda filling windows of otherwise empty buildings. Empty buildings and storefronts are masked in two different ways in Clearwater: with Scientology propaganda and weird art. Some stores were empty except for three abandoned chairs like from a scene in The Walking Dead. Some stores did have tenants.
As I got to the main square downtown, there was a police officer involved in a photoshoot on the corner. There was a photographer and a light man and this guy dressed in a police uniform. I have no idea if he was really a cop. I kind of stopped and stared at them and they looked over at me and went on with their glamour shoot. The guy was a hero and this was his picture in the newspaper? I don’t know. I do know there were cameras everywhere. Every doorway, light post and rooftop had a camera on top of it. Not an odd appendage in your average American city these days, but it is an odd one in a small Florida town where most of the stores on its main drag are empty.
I felt like I was on a movie set and not in a Spiritual Headquarters. I’ve never been on a movie set so this analogy is crap. But the city felt fake. Every window in every building with anything to do with Scientology was covered with a shade making it impossible to see in. Propaganda lined the windows of one of the biggest buildings; it was masked as a historical timeline of Clearwater. One of the exhibits talked about the big easter egg hunt sponsored by the Church of Scientology “attended by thousands” every year. I thought it odd they would sponsor an event signifying a Christian holiday. The included picture was of lots of people lining a small square. The square was filled with thousands of easter eggs. Not much “hunting” was needed to find them.
The poor attempt at art that occupied some empty store windows looked like it was designed by an adolescent girl playing dress-up with mannequins. The metal head sculpture at the top of this post had nothing like a name plate marking its significance. Tony’s pizza had a few fat guys at a table waiting on food, but had no one inside. There was a theater. The “Capitol Theater” is owned by the City of Clearwater but was proudly refurbished by the Church of Scientology. The acts listed were “normal” acts you’d see appear at any theater in any city. I would go see many of the acts listed like Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan. I don’t know how anyone, comedians especially, could play there and not mention or make fun of Scientology. I drove an extra 20 miles just to see these things and maybe write about it and I’m not a professional.
I didn’t spend much time in Clearwater. All I really wanted to do was see it. I wasn’t interested in challenging Scientology or protesting or anything. I still am not interested in that. All I know about Scientology is what I’ve seen on documentaries, read or heard and I wanted to see their spiritual headquarters for myself. The propaganda made Clearwater out to be a town ravaged by a financial plague that was saved by the Church of Scientology. I’d say that the plague rages on.
Later in the day I went to Ybor City, a Cuban and Italian cultural center in Tampa. I went there to eat at a restaurant called “The Columbia.” This is one of my favorite places to eat anywhere. While walking down the main street of Ybor City, I noticed that it looked like a natural place, unlike Clearwater. There was good and bad on display all at once. Most stores were occupied by saloons and restaurants, weird stores and art galleries. You could tell people come here to have a good time. A tourist asked me “where the statue of Mr. Ybor was.” I told him I had no idea there was a Mr. Ybor. A few vagrants occupied benches and alleyways. One particular homeless woman struck me because she was speaking to herself in a fast pace. She looked cooked, like an overdone chicken wing. She looked like there was no meat left on her, just leathery skin. A sad sight, no doubt, but a normal one.
I’m not saying Clearwater isn’t “normal.” Seriously, I’m not. I was there for an hour. The cost of parking at the meter was twenty-five cents per thirty minutes with a two hour maximum. I’m saying that in my hour in Clearwater, I felt that the city was a weird place. There were very few people, a few shops, mostly vacant storefronts and the Spiritual Headquarters of the Church of Scientology. I went there biased against Clearwater and the Church. I wasn’t interested in learning. I wanted to see these buildings that I had heard about from Leah Remini and others. Scientology didn’t ask me to come there. They didn’t invite me to join their organization. I was the creep in Clearwater. I took these blurry photos. I judged the buildings and the propaganda and the art. I wanted to go into the Flag building to see what it was like in there but I was too afraid of Scientology to even attempt to look through the window in the door. I was the weirdo, not them.
I do not believe there are any redeeming qualities of Scientology. In fact, I believe there are countless books and documentaries and TV shows about them because it is a bad organization that shouldn’t be considered by the United States of America or any other country to be a good-doing tax-exempt religion. But what I did in Clearwater is how we do things now on the internet. We see something for an hour and then write a 2,000 word blog post about it. This is not a productive way to learn about and successfully judge Scientology or anything. If you want to believe in the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, who am I to tell you that is wrong? If you want to believe in it so much that you give all your money to the Church of Scientology so they can buy more buildings in the home of their Spiritual Headquarters and close them down, that’s your business. I simply went to Clearwater Florida to kill time before I saw Louis C.K., I walked around a bit, took a few bad pictures and thought it was a very odd place.
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