Boss of Bosses

The lights are out at Arnold Tritt’shome tonight. I can see his window from my balcony in the apartment building where we both live. He is closer to 90 than he is to 80. He is closer to Heaven than he is to Earth, and he gets a little bit closer every day, but he’s holding on with style and ferocity. I had a mind to knock on his door to get a couple quotes for this, an obituary for his best friend, former Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold, fallen at the age of 86. But I’m glad that his lights are out, because I already know how he feels, and if I had to see the look on his face, I don’t know what I’d do. So, instead, I just sit on the cold concrete, crying in the darkness.

Goldbold’s story runs parallel to your own. He is the reason you moved here, the reason you came back, the reason you never left at all. It was his voice more than any other that most aggressively articulated the aspirational nature of our city in the post-Consolidation era. He was one part Ronald Reagan, two parts Huey Long, stirred with a length of steel rebar and poured hot over freshly ground gravel. It was a recipe for success, a craft cocktail of enterprise that we struggle to recreate.

By this point, everyone has weighed in on the man and what he meant. Nate Monroe, Stephen Dare and A.G. Gancarski wrote the pieces I liked the best, but Goldbold’s story was told in full last year, in a biography by Mike Tolbert. I met Jake a few times, but he lived in my mind mostly in the memories of people like Ed Austin, who marveled at his charisma over mugs of decaf at Starbucks, or my friend Arnold Tritt, who met him in the ‘40s and knew him better than probably any living human. We’ll pal around at Publix, talking about Jake; we’ll meander by the mailbox, talking about Jake. His memory is faltering, but he still remembers more about the business than most of us will ever know. I always prod him for a new Jake story, and every time I say his name, Mr. Tritt gets a look on his face like he just found money in a jacket that he forgot he had—which does happen on occasion. The next time I see him, it will certainly be different, but not much.

Godbold died last week. As they say in football, he left it all on the field, rising up in his last days to wage open verbal warfare against Mayor Lenny Curry. And even the pugnacious Curry bent a knee.

The shifting winds of local politics blow hot and cold, as does the loyalty of the people, but Godbold wielded a kind of power that no longer exists. Verbal contracts, smoke-filled rooms, envelopes of cash passed under the table, perhaps even bodies in the river. Everyone is afraid now: afraid of the polls, afraid of the critics, afraid of the law, afraid of death. That is no way to lead. These old dudes walked a path that we can never comprehend, and their stories will always seem apocryphal. But it’s all true, even if they deny it under oath. The undisputed boss of Duval County is dead, allegedly. RIP.