A long time ago…

1977 Star Wars newspaper adI saw Star Wars for the first time on its original release date: May 25, 1977.

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. My memories tell me that I saw it some time after my high school graduation, which would have put me in the theater in June, not May. After poking around a bit I was reminded that South Florida in 1977 was not even a second-tier movie market, so it was not in the first two waves of release. I can’t find a precise date for the first showing — thanks for having locked archives, Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel! — but me and my friends would have gone to that matinee some time in the latter half of June.

I went, however, on opening day for our area, that’s for sure.

Shortly before its local release, the newspaper ran a full page ad for it: that amazing, thrilling, beautiful poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt (although reproduced in half-tone black and white — newspapers didn’t have color in those days, kids). My small nerdy tribe was familiar with the Hildebrandts through their Middle Earth calendar the year before, so the connection brought with it an unstated expectation of epic scope and fantastic visuals.

Star Wars does inadvertently provide a window into the early history of geeky fandom. Without the ubiquitous information source of the Internet we had to scrounge and scrabble for scraps and rumors about this movie. I’d found the novelization in Waldenbooks several months earlier, its cover proudly proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. That was rare in those days: a big budget science-fiction film with good special effects and a raucous, action-driven story.

Sitting in that theater and seeing it for the first time was as close to an ecstatic experience as I’d had to that point. I saw it for the second time on the same day, having moved down to the first row in the largely empty house. That was followed immediately by the third time, and I’d have stayed to see it again but hunger and sensory overload finally won out. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie more than once in the theater, and — the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz excepted — there was no other way to see a film again in those pre-VHS-and cable days.

Star Wars pre-release novelizationWe talked about it quite a bit, me and my friends, particularly the goofy ending that clearly left open the possibility that there could be further installments. That would have been too much to hope for, though. More Star Wars? Might as well ask for our own TIE fighters, while we were at it. Sequels were rare creatures, generally reserved for major critical (The Godfather) and box office (Jaws) successes.

Of course, Star Wars met the latter criterion with bells on, so it didn’t take long for the newly-minted genre magazines like Starlog to break the news that Lucas had an entire universe of stories planned. What we’d seen was actually the fourth of a planned nine — NINE! — Star Wars films! Our minds could barely comprehend the bounty we’d been granted.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I stood in line for the first showing — a national release this time, thank you very much — arriving hours before the curtain went up. (There was no ticket presale, of course, so if you didn’t camp out in line you might not get in, and that would be unbearable, a shame you’d have to carry for the rest of your life.) TV stations sent crews out to film us standing in parking lots in the sweltering Florida sun. Newspapers sent reporters and photographers to ask lame questions. Mundane citizens going about their lives gawked, shook their heads, and carried on.

It’d been a long three years waiting for that day, years filled with speculation, hype, and… well, okay, real life. But still, release day was a gathering of the tribe. You could talk to anyone around you, because we were united in our purpose. It really was a celebration.

Of course, after the movie the first crack appeared, with some jerks deliberately discussing Luke’s parentage as they walked past the line of people waiting for their chance to worship at the galactic altar. (I have memories of someone being slammed against the stucco wall by an enraged fan, but that may be a bit of wish-fulfilling selective memory.) Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the occasion.

There followed another three year wait — three years of nerdy talk, three years of a growing fandom community, three years of speculation as to the nature of “the other.” Good money was on Boba Fett, but really, pretty much anyone who had an action figure was a candidate. All we knew for sure was that we had absolute faith in Lucas; after all, he’d had this whole thing plotted out for years!

And at the end, another multi-hour giddy wait outside a Miami cinema waiting for the conclusion of the middle trilogy. News crews came back and newspapers sent reporters, but this time they were more likely to be fans themselves. Star Wars had morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and you didn’t have to be a nerd to like it (but it helped). People in line were threatening to beat the shit out of anyone who gave away the secrets of Return of the Jedi. (They weren’t spoilers yet; that word wasn’t coined until after Jedi was released.) There was a community, but it was already growing a little unwieldy.

And while Jedi gave us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the trilogy, it was also a disappointment. Maybe the intervening years had just taken their toll on our innocence, but so much of it was obviously created to sell toys, and not tell to tell an exciting story. We all knew that the big battle was supposed to be on Chewie’s home planet, because — thanks to the explosive growth of fan press — that had been leaked from early scripts. What was this teddy bear bullshit?! And “the other” turned out to mean absolutely bupkis.

It didn’t stop us from going to see it a few times, but instead of fun, it started to turn a little ugly, like picking at a scab. Sure Star Wars was still great, and we liked to jabber about it, but my interest it was fading fast.

There was some talk about the “prequel” trilogy for a while. It was supposed to be all about the Clone Wars, and take place maybe a hundred years before the first movie. (It still feels wrong to call it A New Hope.) That fell apart, though, and took the rest of my interest with it.

Still, I was honestly surprised when the first prequel was finally announced. Not that they were finally making them — I was surprised that I didn’t care. Many of my friends were getting worked up about the possibilities, but I just felt… nothing. When the first one was released and eviscerated by the fans, I felt simultaneously justified and sad. I’d been hoping that maybe they would rekindle the fond memories I had, that perhaps they’d be a new beginning. Who knows? Maybe if — as with most of my peers — I had a family, some kids with whom to share the experience, I’d have been excited. But no. To date, I’ve still never seen even one of the prequels.

Now it’s time for the post-quels. Social media has taken over the world, and my feeds are full of people I love talking excitedly about tomorrow’s release. I have a smidgen more curiosity this time, I confess, primarily to see the old familiar faces returning to the screen. It feels closer to my heart. Still, I didn’t buy an advance ticket, and didn’t make plans to see it. Strangely enough, though, and cementing the place Star Wars has in general culture, my employer decided that as a holiday gift they’re taking us all out to see an afternoon show next week.

However.

Star Wars Original Soundtrack LP coverA few minutes ago I played a bit of the opening theme, the piece of music which assured John Williams’ place in musical history. The triumphant brass, the soaring strings, the pounding tympani — I didn’t even make it through the fanfare before I broke out into a smile, my heart started swell, and my eyes got misty. In spite of my general indifference toward the current Star Wars zeitgeist, the chill in my heart was blasted away by the force of memory. Once again I was seventeen years old, sitting in the Florida Theatre in Hollywood, being swept away by a tale of spaceships, lightsabers, naive heroes, ominous villains, goofy robots, and a nearly endless supply of corny cliches.

The past is always far, far away. Fortunately, memories are not.

Location

Coral Castle Entrance
Coral Castle Entrance

I never feel that much connection to where I live. I never have, really, but that’s a tale for another day. Still, from time to time I am reminded of just how bizarre and beautiful South Florida can be, and how desperately broken.

South Beach Lifeguard Station
South Beach Lifeguard Station

The Bunker where I spend my days plays host to various people at various times. (Being unemployed means never having to say “I’m busy.”) My most recent guest provided an excellent opportunity to revisit Miami and see it like an alien; she’s a writer from London, and had only visited the US once before, a trip to Chicago. It was clear before her arrival that there would be some culture shock involved. It never occurred to me that I would be shocked, as well.

On the pier at Shuckers
On the pier at Shuckers

After picking her up from the airport we headed to Lincoln Road for a mojito and some people-watching. Having just barely escaped England alive, having timed her departure to coincide with the worst snowstorm in years, seeing the locals bundled up for re-enactments of Shackleton’s trip to the pole was amusing. I take Floridians’ ridiculous sensitivity to cool weather in stride these days. I also take in stride the South Beach fascination for tiny, tiny dogs, packs of which were swarming the street.

White Dove Sacrifice on Grave
White Dove Sacrifice on Grave

We went back to South Beach during the day, but just for a while. The pleasantly cool weather kept the costuming somewhat modest, to my dismay. I’d hoped to show her some of the matchbox costuming for which we are infamous, but I guess that crowd was indoors doing lines in preparation for Art Basel. Still, walking around the beach at all is fascinating to someone who doesn’t have one.

Coral Castle Overview
Coral Castle Overview

Interestingly enough, I’m told Miami’s traffic isn’t as bad as London’s. Of course, that may be a matter of perspective, as my guest risks her life each day riding her bike to work between double-decker buses. After that nightmare scenario I’d imagine seeing our gridlock from inside the relative safety of my Buick is tranquil. Also, I generally avoided the neighborhoods where turns are indicated by aiming your pistol in the appropriate direction.

Sunset from the Causeway
Sunset from the Causeway

Food was another area of distinction. She got on her plane largely a vegetarian, supplemented by occasional bits of fish and cheese. By the time I’d taken her on a tour of some of my favorite local haunts she had completely fallen from grace, becoming an aficionado of Cuban coffee and diner burgers both, among other things. The main point of fascination and horror, though, was the uniformly enormous portions served. Nothing offered was less than what would be considered a double serving in London.

Mural in Wynwood
Mural in Wynwood

We decided on the spur of the moment to go to Wynwood and Midtown for some of the Art Basel festivities. It was my first visit to this elite intellectual event, but in general the attendees seemed somewhat less interested in Art and far more interested in Party. We still had a good time, though, and saw a bit of interesting work, in spite of the ridiculously loud music blasting from official parties. As a bonus, we encountered a man out of Central Casting for Pretentious Art Snob. This painfully thin man was wearing a dark jacket, white t-shirt, black slacks, and had an honest-to-Warhol black beret perched precariously on his close-cropped skull. I am still not convinced that he wasn’t a roving work of performance art.

Obnoxiously Loud Party at Art Basel
Obnoxiously Loud Party at Art Basel

A pilgrimage was also made to that temple of American consumerism, Walmart. In stock it wasn’t terribly different than similar English stores, even if it differed in the particulars. I think my guest was more intrigued by the customers, really. Walmart in December is an interesting place to be, where the full flower of Americana is on display.

Everglades Vulture
Everglades Vulture

We also spent some time venturing into Florida’s history, aside from my inescapable travelogues whenever we were in the car. We visited the Miami City Cemetery, where I gave her a quick overview of the city’s development, and where we saw the remains of a Santeria ritual, allowing a side-bar on our local religious color. Representing Miami’s time as a destination for those seeking kitschy roadside attractions we toured the Coral Castle, a monument to misplaced obsession and misspent energy. And then we went to the Everglades.

Glades Vista at Anhinga Trail
Glades Vista at Anhinga Trail

It’s been several years since I’ve visited the ‘Glades, yet it remains one of my favorite places here. December and January are the best times to visit it, too: no mosquitoes and little humidity. If it were closer I would go there to write on a regular basis.

Alligator at Anhinga
Alligator at Anhinga

We drove to the Anhinga Trail and walked the boardwalk over the water, and saw all the requisite flora and fauna. It was beautiful, and educational, and strangely peaceful. Looking into the eyes of the patient alligator monitoring the waterbird nearing the reach of its jaws, you’d hardly believe that Florida’s wealthy are arguing that this unique area would be better suited for development. Look away at the rest of Miami, though, and it isn’t hard to believe at all.

Nesting Bird at Anhinga
Nesting Bird at Anhinga

Right at sundown we made it to the Pah-Hay-Okee “tower,” which is really just an elevated platform ten feet over the swamp. The temperature was dropping fast, but we still had time to enjoy the spectacular view before beginning the long journey back to what passes for civilization here.

Vista from Pah-Hay-Okee Lookout Tower
Vista from Pah-Hay-Okee Lookout Tower

Before she left I subjected her to one of my annual rituals in review form. I dragged the poor woman up before dawn and brought her to the beach to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic. It was cold. The high 30s temperature wouldn’t have been that bad, but once you add in a brisk and damp ocean breeze… even I was uncomfortable. Those final few minutes of waiting while the sun worked its way above the horizon were rough, too, even with us walking around and stamping a bit to keep warm. But once the disc came into view it was magnificent.

Sunrise at Haulover Beach
Sunrise at Haulover Beach

After she had returned to England — where the New Forest is a thousand years old, and pubs aren’t considered well-established unless they’ve been serving pints for four hundred years — I looked through my notes and photos for a common thread, a theme to define the experience of living here. After a lot of deliberation I understood, although it should have been obvious from the start.

There are two South Floridas. There is the shimmering mirage of South Beach, of Art and Artifice, full of color and lively music; the facade of gel-lit Art Deco hotels and Botox-taut skin; of fashions that flash past in the blink of a marketer’s eye leaving behind only retina burn and the nagging sense there was nothing really there. This is how the world sees us, still haunted by the ghosts of Crockett and Tubbs, of German tourists gunned down at traffic lights, of crooked developers building and running before the next Andrew blows it all away, of Tony Montana defining the Cuban experience. Worse still, this is how we see ourselves; we buy into the lie because it’s all we see wherever we look, and if we believe that we, too, can be Beautiful Shining Stars, then we’ll ignore the endemic corruption and filth in a blind and foolish hope that the wealthy and powerful won’t screw us over too badly, not this time.

But there is also the South Florida of natural beauty: of the Everglades and beautiful beaches; of warm winters and blue waters. This world moves at a slower pace under the tropical sun, in stark contrast to the incessant hurtling about of the city. And although it has been greatly diminished through contact with our greed and destructive nature, it is still here, further away from our daily lives, but still there.

You can’t see all of South Florida in a week; I doubt you can see all of it in a lifetime, and there are parts you probably wouldn’t want to see, anyway. But there isn’t another place like it, anywhere.

Sunrise from the boardwalk
Sunrise from the boardwalk

[All photos by the author. You can read the visitor’s perspective on the trip here.]

That ain't no way to have fun, son!

Saturday night I had the opportunity to meet some prominent South Florida bloggers face to face. While vows of secrecy and blood oaths prevent me from divulging the names of the cabal present, I feel I can safely mention that — contrary to social stereotyping — the members of this community are without exception youthful, attractive, talented, educated, witty, committed, and urbane. (I am certain the regular patrons of Tobacco Road were wondering if this was a casting call for America’s Next Top Model, and if they are models, why are they using such big words?). For those who were there, it was a pleasure to meet you, and my only regret is that I didn’t have as much time there as I had hoped.

You see, I was quite late to the event, due to some unfortunate circumstances. While getting ready for the event I stumbled in the shower, slicing my scalp open with a razor and turning the bathroom into an outtake from Psycho. There’s nothing to get your evening off to a good start quite like a head wound. I waited almost an hour for the bleeding to stop, twice having to change shirts because ill-considered movements renewed the flow. After this sort of bloody omen I considered staying home. So for those who attended, no, I don’t normally wear bandages on my head as a fashion statement.

This incident, together with an annoying technical issue regarding my credit union and the ATM network, lead me to be almost two hours late. While I confess that punctuality is not included in my slim volume of virtues, I was particularly annoyed by this delay, and was in a somewhat foul humor by the time I arrived.

Fortunately, the event itself was a delightful (if sweaty) affair, and any apprehension and irritation was quickly dissolved by the warmth and enthusiasm of the attendees. (The two swift applications of Myers Dark on the rocks with a twist helped, too.) Perhaps the blood loss and alcohol replacement combined to render my unanticipated self-introduction to the group a bit incomprehensible, but at least no one called me on it to my face. Perhaps, though, they were being indulgent, in the way you tend to make allowances for your grandfather’s rambling tales of the old days.

I hope it is something we do often, so if you want to be in on the next meeting of the minds, drop me a note. Beyond that there’s little I can say, mainly because the rest of my comments will be part of an upcoming installment in the Internet Years series.