The haters among you will be pleased to learn that I arrived in Miami just in time to see the last of the bright, warm sunshine disappearing over the horizon chased by a stiff breeze and some complicated clouds that have been making themselves unwelcome around here ever since.
I've only been to Miami once before, sometime in the mid-90s, and then only for day or two. I was hanging out with Avail, who were touring Florida at the time and who played in one of the lower-rent sections of town, at least if the musculature of the bars covering every window in sight was any indicator. But I also took a day to look around South Beach, the only part of Greater Miami I've seen that appeared both welcoming and walkable. I'm sure there must be others, it's unlikely I'll see them on this trip, as I'm carless, and Miami is the kind of town that makes Los Angeles look pedestrian-friendly.
We're staying in a slightly less distinguished part of Miami Beach, about four or five miles north of the glamor and glitz, although it's still at least slightly upmarket, I'd guess, as the barred windows are usually only seen on the first floor. When this trip was being planned, I looked up the address on the map and thought, "Oh, that looks like I could walk down to South Beach in a hour or so," but when I expressed this sentiment to locals they looked at me as though it's the kind of thing you'd expect from a Northerner who'd gone, as the Australians put it, troppo.
"Well, if you don't think walking is a good idea," I said, "I can always take a bus, can't I? I mean, they do have buses here, right?"
"Um, yeah, I guess they do... I think I heard someone talk about taking a bus downtown once, but that was years ago..." With this less than ringing endorsement of the Miami-Dade County Transit system ringing in my ears, I decided to investigate the matter myself, and discovered that there was indeed a bus that went right past the hotel and could in a mere 45 minutes (to go four or five miles?) deposit me in South Beach. But it only went every half hour (or every hour, later at night), and stopped completely after 11:30. All became clear: I realized the half-dozing and despondent-looking folks camped out on the sidewalk were not in fact homeless people, but were waiting at what had once been rumored to be a bus stop.
Meanwhile a pretty much constant stream of cars blasted down the canyon of boxy high-rises, the roar of their approaching and receding rivaling that of the ocean on the other side. Robert Moses, the man who had a similar vision for New York City but only partially realized it, was said to have believed that city and landscape alike should be subservient to the needs of the motorcar, and that their principal value, once the most efficient set of highways had been bulldozed through them, was to provide a pleasing scenic backdrop for the motorists passing by (hence his enthusiasm for building freeways through parks and picturesque neighborhoods like Greenwich Village).
The part about making the city secondary to the needs of the automobile has certainly been achieved here, but if this stretch of Miami Beach ever was scenic, it's long since ceased to be. Oh, there are occasional throwbacks to more stately colonial days (or 1930s simulacra thereof), but then you can't expect much architectural history to survive in a region regularly raked by hurricanes. But for the most part, buildings hereabouts are strictly functional, with the function being to cram as many people as possible into reasonably close proximity to the beach and (hopefully) charge them astronomical rents.
Miami and Miami Beach have been hit especially hard by the housing bubble and subsequent mortgage crisis, and although property developers and managers do their best to disguise the fact, it's clear that there are quite a few more vacancies than are healthy for the neighborhood, if "neighborhood" is even an appropriate word to describe an area whose utter lack of thereness makes Gertrude Stein's Oakland look like Bloomsbury by way of Manhattan.
Nonethless, against the better judgment of those more knowledgeable than myself, I did a little exploring last night, and spotted a couple blocks of interesting bars and restaurants amid the miles of stucco, concrete and steel. Some of them even had people in them, though where they came from I do not know, the sidewalks being rudimentary, occasionally ceasing to exist altogether, and totally deserted apart from two hookers having a leisurely chat on one Hopperesque back street corner. It was not a bad stroll, but there was something slightly unnerving about it at the same time, and I was pleased to get back to the hotel even if the air conditioning was turned up to penguin-pleasing levels, which seems to be the de facto setting everywhere around here.
Nearly everyone in the hotel (apart from yours truly; I was wishing I'd packed a sweater) lounged about in shorts and sandals as though this would somehow render things more tropical; I couldn't help thinking that were they experiencing similar temperatures in New York (where half the guests seemed to be from), they'd have been wearing long trousers and light jackets, but such is the power of the human psyche when turned to collective self-delusion. Even now, well past one in the morning, I can look out my window at a dozen hardy souls manfully conducting a pool party in the teeth of a howling gale. Apparently it's fine as long as you keep all but your head underwater, or so I've been told.
Look, I don't want to sound as though I'm only complaining; I'm actually quite happy to be here, and the only reason I'm remarking on the weather as much as I have is that all week long before I got here, it was hot and sunny, and it was predicted to stay that way for the entire time of my stay. That plus the fact that I'd been looking forward to this trip all winter as the ideal way to make the transition into spring. So I'm slightly disappointed, but it's still quite a few degrees warmer than Brooklyn (can you imagine what I'd have to say if New York had had one of its not uncommon March warm spells while I was down here getting rained on?).
And life inside is good, too; I've heard a couple excellent lectures, and tonight sat at dinner with a slightly older fellow who made me realize what it must be like for young people who've grown used to me having a story or three for every occasion. After taking the appetizer course and most of the entrée to describe the size, location and contents of each of this three houses (by which time I was searching through glazed eyes for escape routes), he moved on to juicier tidbits, some of which included the Bushes ("I told Laura I don't care who's she's married to - I've known him longer than she has anyway - she's not allowed to smoke in my house"), the question of whether Old Blue Eyes was a misnomer ("I met Frank at the Burtons' place in Puerto Vallarta, and when he was standing next to Elizabeth, you could see that they both had a virtually identical violet hue to their eyes", and government service ("The week after Kennedy was shot, LBJ called me into his office...").
And those were just a smattering of the more printable/publishable tales that he regaled us with before veering off into more scandalous and salacious realms. Fascinating as it was, it could be a bit much at times; the few times that I tried to to offer up an anecdote of my own, I was reminded of the (I think) Fran Lebowitz observation that New Yorkers don't listen, they wait for a chance to interrupt. Because that's the only way I was ever going to get a word in edgewise, and eventually I thought why bother? I do enough talking the rest of the time; for once I can sit back and let the words wash over me. With any luck, by the time I get home I'll have neatly incorporated them into my own set of stories to unleash on unsuspecting coffee comrades back in Brooklyn.