Oh, what a blast.
I thought a place like Miami only really existed on TV or on the silver screen. It doesn’t. It’s real. And it’s even more exotic, beautiful, weird and wonderful in real life. Actually, Miami isn’t a real place, I suppose. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an attitude.
Arriving after a very long flight (Manchester – London – Miami), it was with some dismay I observed the queue for immigration was twice as long as anything I’d ever seen. It took about an hour to get through. A Russian woman cut in about 100 places. I laughed when I saw her being sent back by the immigration officer as she’d forgotten a customs card. When she came back, amazingly, despite not having an address in the US, and having no person to contact, the tired looking immigration official let her in, and off she went to disappear into Miami’s growing Russian community, never to return to Russia. Here now, forever, like many of Miami’s colourful immigrants.
Veronica and I got through, collected our bags, and were met by our driver who whisked us across to South Beach and to 535 15th Street – a block from the main Washington Street, 2 blocks from Collins Avenue, 3 blocks from Ocean Drive. Location, location, location. The apartment was nice enough– old, falling apart, but cosy. A typical old South Beach apartment. Most apartment blocks here are no more than 3 floors, as city planners realized building hundreds of new condominiums would be such a strain on infrastructure it wouldn’t be worth it. The bedroom of the apartment was spacious, wooden floor, big bed, a big picture of Jimmy Hendrix above the bed, and pictures of various people and animals with ‘I love Miami’ written on them. A student apartment.
Showered, changed, headed out into our new neighbourhood. It seemed quiet in these streets. A few kids skateboarded past. Cars slowly drove around. It was a pleasant quiet rather than a threatening one. We passed Subway sandwich shop, and the familiar sight proved reassuring, as a McDonalds or a Starbucks often does when in a new place. The worrying comfort of capitalism. The next restaurant was a taco place, then the famous 5 Guys Burger and Fries. We walked up to Washington, one of the main streets here in South Beach, and turned right. It was a lot busier on Washington. To our surprise, the next street down was Espanola Avenue, a beautiful street of bars and restaurants set in old , colourful Spanish Colonial style houses replete with wooden window shutters. People were eating streetside, and it was lively, music everywhere, a great ambience. We enjoyed ceviche and a glass of white wine in one place where the hostess was an intimidating 6-foot Russian clad in skintight black leather, then we found a Cuban place on the corner, Havana 1957, (http://havana1957.com/espanola-way/) a brilliantly authentic-looking trapped-in-time kind of place full of colour and flair. We ordered some Yuca Frita, and I tried the Masitas de Puerco pork cubes, and a Cuban beer, a Hatuey, which was like an ale and went down a treat. Veronica had a Sangria. That was all for tonight, we’d had a long day, and we were looking forward to our 5 weeks in Miami.
Woke around 9 and sorted out the cases. We put our clothes in drawers. Our toothbrushes in a glass in the bathroom. The start of feeling at home. We then set out into a glorious South Beach day. We walked to Ocean Drive, the Miami of the postcards. Unbelievable. SUVs, Hummers, Limos, Mustangs, Chevys, Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, Harley Davidsons, all kinds of sports cars and convertibles, all cruising down Ocean Drive, the place to see and be seen, thumping Latin Reggaeton or American Hip Hop blaring from the stereos. Palm trees line each side of the colourful road, restaurants and bars run down one side of the road, alongside boutique hotels and tourist shops. Beautiful people walk chest out past the hunched shoulders of the less fortunate, hippys completely spaced out loll on park benches in the park that runs along the beach side of Ocean Drive. Joggers, rollerbladers, skateboarders glide past, some wearing nothing but speedos or a bikini. Guys in speedos and socks walk poodles, and people dance on the spot. A collection of the brightest, most beautiful, weirdest people all together in one place, under the Miami sun. Amazing.
Vero and I went down past Lummus Park, to the bright white sands of South Beach where we bought some sun cream, then it was time to stroll down Ocean Drive. The walk took us past the Art Deco District, all 1920s – 1940s style pastel coloured architecture complete with collectible old cars parked outside them. We came to a lovely park that took us around to the Marina, where we stopped at the brilliant Monty’s Sunset (http://montyssobe.com/), where we had a delicious salad and some carrots, broccoli, and celery with blue cheese dip while looking at the swimming pool and onto the Marina. We continued around Alton Road, where we hired bikes from one of the many Citibike bike stands. You have to put your credit card in, select how long you want the bike (20, 30 or 40 mins), put in a bike number, take the bike, and return it to any Citibike station before the time is up. We rode around South Beach Elementary school, where the future of Miami played as crackhead homeless women sat on the benches outside demonstrating the importance of education. We rode all the way to the pier at the end of South Beach, then the beach walk road back to the Starbucks on 14th street. It took us a while to find a working Citibike stand to drop the bikes off. We had to ride quite a way past 14th to find a place, which was bloody annoying as it meant we were over time and my credit card was charged. When we finally got rid of the bikes, we walked to Lincoln Road Mall (http://lincolnroadmall.com/ ), a huge outdoor pedestrianized mall with plenty of alfresco dining options. Beautiful. I bought some running trainers for me and Vero. Time for a lifestyle change, and Miami, with its hordes of superfit beautiful people, was going to be the catalyst.
We walked all the way down to Washington again, bought SIM cards from a guy working out of Paradise Tour, and went back to the apartment.
Showered, changed, went out again. This time, we had dinner in Ocean Drive –at a place serving the largest Margaritas I’d ever seen, with a live guitarist playing lovely Spanish guitar. We ordered a few starters to share. It was a lot colder tonight, and the heaters were turned on. The locals of Miami were dressed in big coats like it was an Alaskan winter. This is a warm, balmy summers night where I’m from. Went to Finnegans’s Way Irish bar (http://finnegansway.com/ ) for a game of pool and a Frangelico, then it was time to get home. A great first day in Miami.
We tried out our new trainers. We had a banana and a glass of orange juice in the apartment, then we headed out. A jog up and down Ocean Drive (I love the sound of that!), followed by a latte in our ‘local’ starbucks and a Greek yoghurt and granola. A new healthy regime. We’ll see how long it lasts. We sorted out Veronica’s SIM, then booked a hop on hop off tour for $45 per person from the little travel agents on Washington and 15. We hopped on and headed off on a whistle stop tour of downtown and Miami Beach. On the way down Washington we passed some interesting sights – Versace’s old house, Dash – the Kardashian’s store etc. Crossing the bridge to downtown, a very windy experience, we passed Star Island, home to, well, stars, and saw a millionaires smorgasbord of luxury yachts parked outside each. The views left ad right were breathtaking.
The first stop on the blue line was downtown. Vero and I stayed on as we wanted to explore further afield. We passed through the government district, passed a huge cartoonishly painted ‘children’s court’ (obviously juvenile crime is a big problem here), on into Coco Walk, where we alighted. Coco Walk is a lovely suburb, tree lined streets with art galleries and fancy hairdressers, and a lovely shopping mall. We went to a sports bar decorated with hundreds of American Football helmets. Ordered a delicious lunch, then hopped back on the bus the lovely upmarket suburb of Coral Gables, and on past the famous wedding shop street, where people come from all over the world to buy a tux and a dress. We also passed the famous ‘Miracle Mile’, where it is said if a woman can walk past the mile of shops without buying anything, it is indeed a miracle! The area then started to look more dilapidated, colourful murals painted lavishly on buildings depicting flowers, flags of USA and Cuba, and important figures in the history between the two countries.
Little Havana is a poor neighbourhood, with a definite edge to it. One wouldn’t want to wander too far off the main drag here. It is the area the Cuban immigrants came to settle in the 1950s. It ‘s litter-strewn, graffiti is scrawled everywhere, and, though it has a special kind of energy, with Cuban music blasting from the quaint restaurants and art galleries and the whiff of Cuban coffee on every breeze, it’s a neglected area, with a number of shady types staggering around, even more so than on Washington Avenue in South Beach. Vero and I walked up and down the street, past ‘domino park’ where old Cubans gathered playing dominoes surrounded by camera toting tourists, and on past a few more restaurants and a few oversized cocks (the animal variety) which have become a symbol of Little Havana. We had a strong Cuban coffee at a nice little place where the owner, who looked like Hannibal from the A-Team, sat outside with a fat cigar chatting to the locals and waving the beggars away, then dancing with a local woman who recognized a Cuban song and needed to shake it up. Nothing wrong with that here in Miami, where people frequently sing in 7-11s, restaurant staff dance in the streets, and life is played out in gloriously unreserved technicolour. It’s expressive, it’s creative, and it’s free, and showing off, be it the singing bus driver, the hot-bodied skimpily-clad rollerbladers, or the guys and gals slowly cruising in powerful sports cars blasting music down ocean drive, is a way of life. Miami is not just a place, as I’ve said before. It’s an attitude.
Vero and I headed back to South Beach and toured up to Miami Beach, past the famous Fontainebleau hotel, home of Victoria’s Secret Fashion shows, famous pop star gigs, and rap parties. We went past the powerboats and yachts on ‘millionaires row’. A cold front had hit Miami, so it was getting very chilly up on the open-top deck as the sun set, so we were glad to get back to stop 15 Washington. We headed to Espanola tonight, and found a nice little French place for some quiche and gratin with some delicious red wine, sat in a little garden with fairy lights. Quite a lovely spot, set away from the rest of the drag – an oasis of calm in this mad place of excess.
Woke at 7:30, at 8 I was out running on Ocean Drive. The fitness freaks of Miami were already out in force. The beach volleyball courts had been drawn and the games were in full swing. The workout stations were in use, full of tanned muscle-bound guys and gals doing push-ups and press-ups. Surreal.
After a hazelnut croissant, Vero and I caught the Paradise tours bus to the Everglades. For the next 45 minutes we were in the company of Mad Miami Manny. The misogynistic (Kim Kardashian’s ass….my God I see that thing everywhere), racist (Jesus, I bet that driver’s a Mexican – what are you smoking?!), Elvis Presley imitating, manic, laughing and randomly singing maniac was to be more endured than loved by everyone. His factual commentary was interesting but interspersed with his mad, off the wall comments and terrible impressions. The failed actor, comedian and singer was a sorry, lonely figure, probably not loved by many, an attention-seeking child of a man performing to his captive audience every day on the Paradise bus tour.
The Everglades were amazing. A huge expanse of wetlands, over 1 million acres. full of wildlife like alligators, endangered birds, all kinds of snakes, and the Florida Panther. We got an airboat with the group, which sped over the glades. driven expertly by Brad, a real rugged outdoors man, and an excellent host. He pointed out lots of wildlife, and presented some interesting facts. We saw egrets and buzzards, and a lot of alligators with their young. In fact, there are loads of alligators out here – their numbers have recovered significantly after a period of over-hunting, and now number over 200,000, so it was a pretty dead cert we’d see some. In fact, there were some hanging around outside the few houses in this area, waiting to pick off the dogs or chickens. After the airboat ride, which had involved some serious skimming, twisting and turning over the glades, we had a bit of time to chill out, then we saw some full-on alligator wrestling. The host was a big black guy, and the other stars of the show were a scorpion and a baby alligator who were shown around the audience, and Fred the adult alligator, who looked really, really pissed off to be dragged into the middle of the sandy square (again) by his tail. Dwayne the host jumped on Fred and grabbed his snout and put it under his chin in a display meant to mirror the Native American way of alligator wrestling. I can think of easier, safer ways to make a living. Then it was time for the bus, and to endure another 45 minutes with Miami Manny, who made us listen to his song he was going to sing for the X-Factor audition in Miami in March. He had a good voice, truth be told. He was clearly in need of attention, though, and praise. Then he started banging on about tips. I couldn’t take anymore, and got off at Ocean Drive, giving him a $10 tip for his exhausting and annoying show. Maybe I’m just a miserable, cynical Brit.
Had lunch on Ocean Drive, and enjoyed the procession of surreal, and the ‘carwalk’ show. Incredible.
Headed to Liquor Up – the best booze store in Miami. Music blared out, the range of booze was frightening, and the tattooed store owner was the kind of good-looking cool guy South Beach attracts in droves. I loaded up on beer, wine, and miniature bottles of different rums.
Papa Johns takeaway pizza for dinner. I walked up there, limos passed, kids skateboarding…..just normal Miami beach scenes. I walked around the corner of Alton, and saw a nice locals place called Lime, a 7-11 store, and a coin laundry. South Beach trying to be normal. I popped into 7-11, where the black store attendant was singing in the sweetest voice that sounded like Alicia Keys. Such talent. Spent a night in watching TV. Great day.
A day of little to report started getting more interesting after a bottle of Polar beer at home and a delicious Jim Bean Maple Syrup miniature bottle. Vero and I then went to Wynward by taxi. Wynward is a neighbourhood on the up. It’s a 20 min ride (around $25) from South Beach, and has been turned from a run-down no-go zone to an edgy, unique artsy neighbourhood. Every second Saturday, Wynward Walls opens up its art galleries to the public. (http://thewynwoodwalls.com/). When we got there, it was getting busy. People milling around everywhere. The art galleries were fun, colourful, lively, interesting…..there were free drinks in some, and DJs spinning too. Art appreciation Miami style. We loved it. I got talking to one of the local artists, and bought a copy of one of her works, which was a multi-coloured swirl that could be interpreted in a million ways, but it made me feel peaceful. Further down, there was a large tent with a DJ playing hip-hop, and outside that a stage with a band playing AC/DC covers, lots of pop-up bars, and food trucks. Food trucks selling everything from Venezuelan arepas to American hot dogs. There was a real mix of people here – artsy types, high school kids skateboarding around, hip-hop kids all sulky faces oozing fake bad attitudes, and young adults dressed to the nines as though they were going clubbing in South Beach.
We went to a cool little club and had a drink while taking in the scene of hipsters and the huge manga cartoon playing on the screen at the side of the venue. It was a great stopover.
Unknowingly, we got the Miami Disco Taxi back to Washington. The taxi driver, a black disco loving guy ‘stuck in the 70s’ as he says, was a brilliant chauffeur. He has disco balls in his car reflecting lights all over the place, windows down, disco music blaring out. Hands down the most interesting taxi ride I’ve ever had.
We hopped out on Washington and went back through Espanola to the apartment on 15th. A great night.
Sunday. Went jogging in the morning down the boardwalk on Ocean Drive – a lovely run which took me past nice hotel grounds on one side, and dunes on the other full of vegetation, the beach and sea behind that. It was windy, so people were kitesurfing, and I could see windsurfers in the distance. It was a tiring jog, and I realized just how out of shape and unfit I was.
In the afternoon, Vero and I met up with Irvin, Veronica’s old friend from Caracas who had come to our wedding in Margarita. He picked us up in his modest Corrola, and drove us all the way over past downtown to a little Venezuelan restaurant called Doggis. Veronica was in heaven. I ordered a delicious Pepito, and a malta, Vero and Irvin empanadas. After this, Irvin dropped us off just before Ocean Drive, and laughed when I suggested the reason he didn’t pull onto Ocean Drive is because Toyota Corrola’s are not allowed on Ocean Drive.
Vero and I got a drink and sat on a balcony watching the mad world go by. After this, we walked to Nikki Beach Club, a lovely area, great music, and a cool vibe. We were there too early – the party hadn’t started. The party was from 6pm-5am, but Vero and I had to leave around 9pm – I had an early start the next day.
After work, I went to my first ‘dive’ bar – the Abbey Brewing Company (http://abbeybrewinginc.com/ ). Dark, a full bar, they brew over 20 of their own beers, and have a rotating menu featuring all kinds of seasonal beers. They also have rare beers from Belgium and other places. I met a few people at the bar, including Scott, who sells beers to different bars in the area. He was a nice guy. I had a Brooklyn Lager, then a Goliath ale, delicious, coffee, burnt toffee….they are served in a quartz, like a wine glass. One was enough. Loved the place, the unpretentious vibe, the feel of a home away from home.
Went to Playwrights afterwards for a Guinness and fish and chips, which were delicious. Walked down Washington and then Collins, seeing new places, getting more of a feel for the city. A laundry, a pole dancing school, a gym….signs of a normal life amidst the chaos. We had a drink at a nice cocktail bar on Collins. Lovely evening.
Nice jog down the boardwalk. Went to Starbucks for breakfast, and for lunch. They serve brilliant Greek yoghurts with honey and blueberry, and ‘protein’ packs with cheese, an egg, grapes and an apple. Went down Lincoln after work and hit Flanegan Road – an American Irish bar playing hip hop with people playing pool and people sat with dark sunglasses on while others danced without a care in the world. Very Miami. Hit a stir-fry on Washington then back to the apartment – another great day.
Once a year in South Beach there is the Art Deco Weekend (http://www.artdecoweekend.com/). Between 5th and 13th streets, Ocean Drive is completely closed to traffic, and the road is full of little tents selling incredible art, and little food stalls selling corn, Latin food, Greek food and American food. It was a sun-drenched Sunday when we went down, and here I witnessed more examples of America’s love affair with the car. I was amazed at all the old Fords, Mustangs, Chevrolets….even the Back to the Future DeLorean car was there, along with some impressive antique motorbikes. Some incredible street performers were there too, as well as drag queens, stilt walkers, and a grumpy-looking bulldog on a skateboard. It was brilliant, all in the fantastic Art Deco district of Miami, where most of the buildings date back to the 1920s and are unchanged in colour and style (by law). It was a colourful, fun, vibrant festival, and, with the Naked Cowboy and Cowgirl roving around posing for photos with tourists, and the rollerblading boys all wearing nothing but cock socks, it was a very Miami experience….in other words, indefinably mad.
Life in Miami continued to be interesting, exciting, and full of colour. My days generally consisted of lovely walks in the quiet sun-drenched side-streets, up and down Lincoln Mall, and up and down the ever-fascinating Ocean Drive, seeing the good, the bad, the mad, and the ugly in this ridiculous clash of fantasy, farce, broken dreams and poverty. We took in a Miami Heat vs Oklahoma basketball game, at the American Airlines Arena. Unfortunately, we decided to get a bus there. On the bench of Washington and 15 (which we had by now affectionately termed ‘Crackhead Corner’ due to its abundance of African American and Hispanic men completely off their faces on crystal meth and crack cocaine openly doing the drugs and dealing them in front of the liqueur store there) was a black guy in his 40s, who was quite possibly the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met. He sat on the bench asking passers by for money, cigarettes, and alcohol, while insulting them and threatening them at the same time. He was completely mad, and he got on the same bus to Downtown as we did, so we had to endure his random comments for 30 more minutes. As he was sat just a couple of rows behind and well within ear-shot, I took the chance to type everything he said, word for word, into my iphone. I reckon I’ll be able to put a deep, dark hip-hop beat to it, release it on itunes, and call it ‘crackhead blues.’ Here’s what he said, his mad mix of quotes from his dark world, word for word:
“I got 6 sisters, 27 nieces…I got me 2 limousines full of white girls…My brother’s a photographer better than your punk-assed camera…I can fight, I in the Navy, you think that I can’t? Pay attention…I can punch your nose right through your brain…GSC 7 commando pay attention….I’ll cut your tongue out….why you here, cause you escaping your own country…they will kill you there….I got a pitbull and a blanket so he don’t scratch it…your money ain’t no good here…I’m gonna cut your hair off….the point is, get the hell off my continent…my ex-wife’s Italian Irish, I run with the Swedes, the Australians….why would you come to America? I don’t know about you people…what’s your last known address? I like AIDS…we’re young, in young, grown up too much, say it again cracker! I’ll beat you and ya gf up…LA! I can do ugly things….I got a garden, a Rolex, Cartiers, Fossils, pearls, ceramics,silver….I got a home, and a family…was (Martin Luther) the King’s Birthday yesterday, before that you din’t have no respect. Murder the Spanish, the Filipinos, cause you dumb people. They are professionals, pay them, move around? Let me out this door!”
Everyone on the bus breathed a huge sigh of relief when it pulled up to the station near Bayside. The crackhead got off and sat down, his perma-scowl making him look slightly comical. I wonder when the last time he smiled was. What happens in life to get someone to that stage?
We headed for the AA Arena. A bombastic, full-on assault on the senses and a tribute to Americana in all its in-your-face, unabashed, patriotic glory. The Arena was 5 floors of food and merchandise stalls, and the hotdog and pizza stands were doing a roaring trade, as was the sushi place we went to, where we got a California roll and a snazzy-looking bottle of Bud Light to wash it down with.
Our seats were miles away from the action, but they did provide a nice birds eye view of what was going on. American flags everywhere. A war veteran who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan was paraded in front of the adoring crowd, and we were then asked to rise for the National Anthem, sung by a local celebrity. Then it was game time. Basketball is 4 quarters of 15 minutes each. Except, this is America, and sport is a lucrative business, and sponsors pay big money to get noticed and so each team, twice a quarter, calls 2 time-outs, during which sponsors blast out promotional messages, ads fire up on the big screens, Papa John’s pizza gives free slices to people courtesy of the cheerleaders, and Jerry from Orlando wins the Chevrolet raffle and walks away with the brand new Chevy. Music is constant throughout the game and changes whenever the teams get possession, so for Miami it was all inspiring, motivational music, and for Oklahoma it was the kind of music associated with ‘bad guy’ scenes from Hollywood movies. It’s a show, it’s entertaining, it’s fun, stupid, and I loved it. Oklahoma won, but nobody seemed to mind too much. We spilled out into the night and got on the bus back to South Beach. Fortunately, the inspiration for ‘Crackhead Blues’ wasn’t on it. ‘
As time wore on I got to meet and kind of know more and more people. At the Abbey Brewing Company I met David, a local artist who manipulates wire to create controversial ‘graffiti’ that appears all over Miami. He has done some fascinating work, and held exhibitions all over the world. We had an intense conversation about art, love and how women influence our art, all the more strange as we were only 1 drink into the evening. Still, his honesty was refreshing, and we got along really well. His website is worth a look: http://www.davidzz.com/davidzalben/Welcome.html
Now when I went to Starbucks on Alton Road the barista would always greet me with the same ‘how are ya?’ as she did the gentleman who ordered a venti-sized latte there and played chess all day each and every day. She said she wanted to go to London. She liked the rainy, cold weather. She wasn’t a fan of Miami. I realized that everyone wants something they don’t have, nobody seems content where they are, and that’s perfectly natural. Right now, I loved Miami. I was also seeing the same mad crackheads everyday. There was the guy in the wheelchair whose territory was mainly between Washington and 15 and Washington and 16. He looked just like Don King, the boxing promoter. There was the sarong-wearing, wafer-thin ladyboy, who didn’t look like he/she wore anything underneath. There was the fat white guy on Lincoln who wore make-up a bra, and wore a pink tu-tu. There was the Cuban guy on Washington and 15 who had a habit of jumping out into the road and dancing in front of motorists at the traffic lights. There was the raging queen who wore tiny speedos and walked an immaculately-dressed white poodle. There was the black guy, the most toned muscle guy I’ve ever seen who strolled up Ocean Drive, down Collins, and up Ocean Drive again on an endless loop in his basketball shoes and black briefs. There was the black guy who sat outside burger king threatening to put a gun to your face and pull the trigger. Ahh, such characters will surely be missed!
And then it got tiring. I was a month in. I got bored of South Beach. I got bored of being on edge and watching out for trouble. Bored of having no circle of friends. Bored of the same bars and restaurants. I got tired of Ocean Drive and of all its excesses. I realized there is as little / as much to do here as anywhere else. I realized that, under the glamorous surface, Miami is just another city, with all the ups and downs of living in any city. I had had a great time, but I had had my fill. I needed a change. Miami had opened my eyes to many things….and I hope to return one day, hopefully to cruise up and down Ocean Drive in my brand new Chevy Camaro. It was my last day. I walked down Espanola Way, onto my favourite Starbucks on Ocean Drive. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I strolled down to the Marina, to Monty’s. My steps retraced those of 5 weeks earlier. It was still as inspiring, still as stunning. Friends raced around on jet-skis. People relaxed on the grass with a good book and a glass of wine.
Down at South Pointe Pier, I watched surfers waiting for waves, a backdrop of the white sands of South Beach behind. Planes flew overhead advertising a new brand of tequila, or a club night. There was a buzz in the air. I walked the beach one more time, then back to Espanola to grab a taxi to the airport. What a trip. Miami. What a place!