I’m the problem. It’s me. Florida is fine– they know what they’re doing, lumbering around blinding freeways in their hulking SUVs, eating their fried fish fillets, painting stuff beige, keepin’ it familiar. It’s just that I don’t get it. I try, really I do. I went down there with the best intentions, eager to spend a few days exploring, lifting the hood, finding the heart and soul of the place; I swear I swallowed my preconceptions before I got to airport security. The last time was 25 years ago– surely it had changed. Surely I had changed. But rattling along the freeway from Palm beach to Fort Lauderdale, the blinding sun ricocheting off white concrete, my spirits teetered on the edge of the chasm. Palm trees frolicked in the ocean breeze, suggesting exotic tropical adventure, while below them, the same car yards and chain restaurants I saw years ago sagged in the relentless heat. Time had stood still. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the old internet cafe still doing a brisk trade.
After a dispiriting couple of days trying to find the swing of the place, bouncing from strip mall to strip mall, hope flagging with every identically menu’d restaurant, a sign for the Rustic Inn Crab House leapt into view. C was doing the driving, and, ever alert, pulled a squealing U-turn, and we found ourselves on a wide verandah over a canal, receiving temporary salvation in the form of a mountain of oily garlicky blue crabs. After miles of battered frozen calamari, something delicious hauled from nearby waters and not fucked around with too much was just the ticket. We clobbered the shells with mallets, splattering ourselves and fellow diners with oily crab juice, and finally left the table a chaos of broken shells, sodden napkins and empty beer bottles.
C had business in Fort Lauderdale and I managed to sneak off to Miami for a day, catching the train like a local never would. It’s like traveling to Harlem by rickshaw. On the outskirts of Little Havana I planted myself at a lunch counter and ordered a Cuban sandwich, something I’ve always loved– ham, roast pork, pickles, mustard on a cuban roll, toasted in the sandwich press– simple and satisfying. As I waited, I watched an old woman dunking fresh pork skins in the deep fryer and immediately ordered a batch. They arrived piled teeteringly in a wicker basket, and crackled audibly for a good ten minutes. I scoffed the lot along with a good local beer and rolled out of there pork-filled and happy. The rest of Little Havana was a disappointingly cynical stretch of slightly down-at-heel theme restaurants and cigar stores, squarely aimed at the tourists. I trundled down the avenue, stopping for a cold beer here and there, just to get the feel of the place, you understand. The afternoon was dragging on so I summoned a cab and tried Little Haiti, still doggedly in search of some heart and soul. And I felt it there, traipsing around the narrow back streets, smelling the smoke from backyard grills, chickens flapping and panicking across the road in front of me, families eyeing me curiously… I was close to something real, but short of inviting myself to someone’s barbie, I wasn’t going to get amongst it.
Time was against me, and there was one more stop I had to make. Miami’s South Beach is exactly what you would expect– it’s really hardly changed since the Miami Vice days. High rise hotels, bikini babes, oily, muscle-bound dudes; blasting, shuddering convertibles cruising for attention… And then there’s Mac’s Club Deuce. A dark, crummy, smoky, loud, beery oasis amongst all the nonsense. I planted myself on a turn of the amoeba shaped bar and ordered the cheap American beer everyone else was drinking. Through the murk a green neon sign shone over the pool table, the juke box played Tom Jones and Milli Vanilli, and the air grew increasingly thick with cigarette smoke. Some customers were clearly there for the duration, comfortably attached to their barstools, nursing their beers, on the lookout for new conversation (in any bar, these can be the most interesting or the most boring people you could meet, and as a rule I find it best not to make eye contact.) I was sold on the place as soon as I realised it was a watering hole for restaurant workers: they came in alone or in groups, a hug or a high five with the bartender, a quick shot, then “have a good shift.” I breathed deeply, and then collapsed in a coughing fit– bars like this are few and far between these days, and I’m out of practice. I stayed maybe one beer longer than I should have, then slunk off into the night, my Miami Beach work done.
I spent a long time being baffled by Florida, wondering why there seemed to be no community, no neighbourhoods. Then it dawned on me that I was attempting to inflict my own values and expectations on my surroundings, instead of accepting them for what they are. That’s being a bad traveler. I also began to accept that I may have been searching for something that isn’t there. Of course I’ve only seen a fraction of the joint, and I’m more than happy to accept that there’s plenty of juicy weirdness worth investigating. I bet there are loads of serial killers in hiding down there, and I know for a fact there are giant alligators licking their lips in lagoons at DisneyWorld (more than two hundred have been removed in the past five years) – reasons enough to like the place. Hemingway, Jim Harrison, Dave Barry and a bunch of other writers I admire found something to keep them going back.
But a lot of people seem happy cocooned in the beige, spending all day in the car, eating the same food at every restaurant, hiding from the very sunshine they moved there for… Maybe there’s more and I just haven’t found it. And maybe that’s all there is and I’ll just never get it. Maybe I’ll try again in another 25 years.
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