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