American Sabbatical 79: 3/27/97
Did I speak of just deserts? No sooner did I sneer about those of us who deserve sun and fun
in March, than we got an overdose. Sundazed, heatstroked, skinseared,
and a boiled Owl.
Our plan for Thursday was to meet the Lerners at the Ramada Inn on the beach in Fort Lauderdale for some of those deserts. Steve and Mary Ellin and Ben had trained and planed to the sunland after her gig at the Algonquin. Ben swims like a fish, at five, and this was a chance for him to try on the big pool. For us it was an opportunity for serious study of an academic experience: Spring Break.
Everyone in South Florida is either at the beach or in their cars..
with AC. At least when the temps are in the nineties, with no
clouds for relief. We started to sizzle as soon as we stepped
outdoors in mid AM, and jammed ourselves into the flow. Muddled
by the heat, wed lost our large scale map of Greater Miami, but
how hard could it be to find a Ramada on the beach in Lauderdale?
Very hard. First we got lost behind the airport, in rent-a-car
alley. When your ace pilot gets hot, and lost, he barks at the
navigator. She takes no guff, mutters about soak your head, etc..
and it was in this mood that we encountered a family of monkeys
out for a mid-day stroll in the post-industrial jungle. Two adults
and a tagalong toddler, trotting on all fours with tails curled
high.. across the hot-top and into the banana trees. Some of those
urban refugees you hear about. We laughed. Getting lost suddenly
seemed just fine.
So we kept it up. Turns out there are four Ramadas within 20 miles
along this shore, so our method of following the beach road until
we struck one didnt quite work. Or maybe it did. We pulled into
the first Ramada. Steve had said to meet him by the pool or on
the beach. So we slipped on our suits and went in quest. Took
a dip in the pool to cool off. Strolled the beach, plunging into
the turquoise tepidity to sluice off the sweat, hunting for familiar
faces amid the happy throng. I saw a child up the beach who looked
kind of like Ben from the back. When I got closer there was something
strange about his mother. It wasnt until I was face to face with
her that I realized she was topless. After I stopped staring at
her, and met the murderous look in her eye, I realized she wasnt
whom I was seeking. I was beginning to turn pink.
After Id been brow-beating the desk staff for ten minutes about
whaddaya mean there are no Lerners here, they kindly asked if
it might be in one of the OTHER Ramadas. Like this wasnt even
Ft. Lauderdale. Now I really needed sunblock.
Back into the noonday jam. Now the bridges over the intercoastal
are up and the solars have a bite. When we finally figure out
which Ramada and steam into the lot, theres a valet fee and a
line of hassled guests waiting for the one valet to hustle up
the AC. His buddy broke a leg yesterday. Waiting our turn we realized
how easy it was to simply park in an unvaleted lot and use motel
facilities during Spring Break. Nobody hassles you on the beach.
The staff even apologizes while they bring drinks.
Man from Oswego
Steve and Ben WERE on this beach, and we spent the afternoon lolling
under an umbrella, telling lies, splashing in the salt, and admiring
the show. The loud frat boys with their four-letter vocabulary
and gold chains, getting the perfect brown. The gaggles of young
women turning that painful shade of pink. The wide adhesive salesman
from Oswego who spent the afternoon sucking on a footlong stogie,
waistdeep in the water, while flying a double-decker kite. The
kids (and Steve) building a sand alligator,. The jetski jocks
who raced at the beach full-boogie and slide up to the umbrella
line. The family groups peddling the float-a-trike around the
buoy course. The thieving gulls. The endless row of highrise hotels
pastelling into the haze. The squadroned pelicans. The lines of
container ships and barges along the horizon. The sultry lapping
surges. The boombox music. Beer on a stick. Babes in the briefest.
Beefcake on the bronze. The reek of sunblock. Some kind of heaven.
All very democratic, or at least middle class. There was enough
ultraviolet to go around, to be sure, including on my feet, which
somehow got overlooked in our fatuous precautions. Steve had pointed
out that new sunblocks enable the incautious to get patterned
sunburns where Johnson & Johnson takes a holiday. I just opted
for red feet. See. There is some justice. Now its TOO hot for
Mainers on the run.
As the day wilted down, we said our see-you-up-norths, and sped
our way out to lowrent motelville. Only we got stuck in another
automania, and it took an hour just to get the mile across town.
We had almost made it to the nest when I smelled something. Looked
down and saw that the Owl was pegged out in Red. We coasted into
the lot, and my head went into a spin.
Cold chlorine on the head and a nap in the parking lot brought
our temperatures down. Red was still full of (hot) fluids, but
had blown his electric fan fuse again. Having paid to have this
problem remedied before we left Maine (we boiled the Owl Christmas
morning on our way to NYC), by checking the fan and replacing
the sensor switch, I was still a bit steamed. But I hiked down
the highway to a gas station that actually did some mechanicing,
and bought some spare fuses. Hiked back, WD40d the hell out of
the fan bearings (it was stiff to spin by hand), wires, etc.,
replaced the fuse, and idled the bird until the fan came on. Theres
nothing like a bit of mechanical anxiety to make your travels
ever so much more interesting. Dont you find it fascinating to
hear every greasy detail of this trip? Hand me that rag.
Good Friday didnt seem like an auspicious day to visit all the stations of metro Miami. It was broiling hot again, and I was uncertain about my Owl remedies. On the spur of the moment wed arranged to meet another of Peggys high school classmates in South Miami for lunch, and only some rave revues about the contemp architecture downtown had us tempted. But Red held her needle down, so long as we were pushing air along the highway, and at the last moment Peggy said take this, and we arched over a waterway, sped out along the MacArthur Causeway paralleling the Port of Miami. Great views of the corporate sky-rises from between giant cruise ships with names like Ecstasy. A banana boat was just steaming up the fairway. A banana ship, actually: 1200 containers emblazoned with yellow Chiquita graphics piled high on a gaudy United Fruit vessel. We tried to snap a shot by holding the camera on high as we raced past in traffic. And onto the sandspit of Miami Beach.
Peggy wanted to see the locales from The Bird Cage, set in the
lurid deco precinct of South Miami Beach. We werent disappointed,
The beachfront here is a curvi-angular jangle of syncopated colors
and hot pants on the wiggle. A few spas looked upscale, but the
crowd was distinctly declasse, mixed with gawking tourists in
pink-kneed Bermudas and young Hispanic muscle-hustlers. We did
the bump and grind in the auto accordion, then pulled into a shady
space in a rundown section to play with our paint boxes.
A couple of Spanish guys hung out by me trying to work up a hustle,
but couldnt find a lyric that fit me. And they kept getting distracted
by the beautiful women in stylish outfits that came and went from
the Art-deco concoction I was painting. They were obliged to whistle
or shout some familiarity to each one, and the women seemed used
to looking, then brushing off the pleasantries. Ah that subtle
Peggy's Miami Beach
Note Hunkering Artist
Before the paint was dry we were anxious about getting to our
date. We still didnt have a good map, and Florida seems even
more casual about signage than California. I wonder if the Seminole
waymarks were as obscure as the native Californo petroglyphs.
In any event, we didnt DO the real Miami, and it might have been
a sight to see on this Catholic weekend. We ran for the air conditioning
out the South Dixie Highway.
What he's Drawing
To give you a glimpse of the elephant through other eyes, heres
an excerpt from an e-message we got three weeks ago. Willy Drislane
sent it to us from Miami as a teaser when WE were still shivering
in the North:
Bromeliads, proteas, palms in a score of shapes and varieties, geckos with orange protuberances of announcement, lilies, bottle-brush trees, vechias, pencil cactus trees, staghorn ferns, statues in gardens spitting forth the liquid morning, coleus, queen palm, fish-tail palm, cycad -- neither palm nor fern -- fragrance trees, corn plants, nuns
orchids, mondo grass -- the whole world mondo. Lush and verdant.
Striding on skates along the cement walk of Miami Beach, breasts in full display, drawing the rolling wheels like magnets from one end of the avenue to the next. Full skin displays upon every corner. Silicone in buckets worth, fabric by the thimble-full. Sun drenching all with the crash of the surf and the bottom throb of disco bass from the beach party on the sand at 17th street.
Into the city for the street fest of Cai Ocho, the 8th Street Latin fest with the salsa bands on every corner, old guys, young guys, young babes in painted clothes, cans of Heiniken high in the thick air, mounds of trash, heaps of sliced coconuts, grilled corn cakes with cheesem, fruit smoothies priced higher for the white folks, families in line for the McDonalds give-a-way foam glove of French fries.
We ended up in a mini-mall Thai restaurant with TWO of the ladys
classmates (another Peggy and Holly).. and a much bemused bearded
wonder passed the sauce. I mean theyd been team-mates on the
Pegasus B-ball team and whispered confidences on 89th Street.
Neat to be a party to all this reminisc, and to admire these intellectual
women all grown into their selves, and now sharing the wealth
of ideas. I found myself surprisingly tongue-tied, and that was
Holly is a psychologist just moving into psychic healing, and
our conversation was full of nodding synchronicities. White lights
and heart chakras. When the shrinks all become shamans again will
we be ready for poet-kings? I was tickled once more by the spreading
synapses of cyberdom. We all exchanged e-mail addresses, as wed
done with Mo Hanan in the theater on Wednesday night. The webs
we weave. Just lay you hand on this laptop, son. May the digits
be with you.
After a delicious squid in ginger sauce, Holly took us for a whirlwind
tour of her suburban home, just a couple of blocks from the mall.
Luscious plantings and that ultimate tropical delight.. a long
pool with ramada. Fascinating how the ladies want to show you
their houses. How I see the art while Peggy notices the closets.
I didnt check out the gas grill. The womenfolk made the ritual
examination, declared their mutual recognition. Made promises.
Miami Beach Deco
Hot. My god, the steering wheel was too hot to handle, and the poor Owl was shimmering with insolation, back in the mall lot. We crossed our fingers and made some breeze down the South Dixie. Our friend Anci had e-remarked that she found Florida uniquely awful, and it has been hard to contradict her, south of DeLeon Springs. Every roadway is either stark interstate, a service corridor through ag-industrial blight, or endless miracle mile. The auto has swallowed Florida, geezers, gators and all.
Half of Florida was heading for the Keys this Easter weekend,
pulling boats, camping gear stuffed in the Bronco, bleached hair
fluttering in the topdown, stomp and zag macho between the parts
outlets. Peggy has a former student whos a pastry chef at a gated
community on Key Largo, the first big island in the chain, and
that was our first port of call. Sniffing for that ocean breeze,
that ultimate Key lime pie.
Trouble was, Abbie is too far down the pole to have guests in the compound, and is working round the clock putting icing on the big weekend. We start looking for affordable digs as soon as we hit the Key, and they just arent to be had, cheap or otherwise. Eventually we find a down-at-heel campground on the Gulf side that has one last tent site. Actually they have double sold some sites, while others stand unclaimed, and we make our first pitch since leaving home on a pile of sand dumped into a square of old RR ties.
Cayusa Campground - Key Largo
Last one into the tepid pool is a rotten egg, and we splash around
between the cannonballing kids hurrahing in Spanish, until the
fever leaves us. The vegetation is so extroverted, so strange,
so romantic, that the piles of junk, trashed campers, smelly dumpsters,
and general disrepute hardly counts. Bougainvillea, hibiscus,
grape trees(?), coconut palms, honeysuckle, Australian pines,
and all kinds of flowering wonders beyond our naming. Trees covered
in yellow roses? Purple trumpet flowers. And a pervasive smell
of Welchs Grape Juice. Wheres the peanut butter and jelly? This
is it. Another last outpost of the American dream. Blue collar
guys with the wife and kids, a johnboat and some tackle, and couple
dozen cold ones. Bliss. So what half the toilets are clogged and
theres no pressure in the bath house. Piss in the woods. Manana.
Even driven New Englanders leave the laptop packed up, and let their hair down. This is the land of the big easy. We ease into it. Go to the Winn-Dixie mart to stock up on comestibles. $12 for two days of eating. You forget how good, and cheap, it is to cook for yourself. How much better you feel after camp food. Big mixed salads with feta and fresh fruits. Vegetable country.
Take a sunset tour of the State Park. Do some sketching in the
mangrove swamps on the Atlantic side. Watch small gar doing the
fish thing in the prop-root wilderness that holds these fantasy
isles together. Black, red, and white mangrove, mahogany, lignum
vitae, banyan, full of weird birdsong, and a thirsty no-see-um
that drives me back out of the bushes. Still, very few bugs, compared
to what Id expect. Maybe that spray truck out on Rt.1 nonchalantly
dousing the roadside with pesticides has something to do with
it. Fortunately we were upwind.
Still cant get hold of Abbie. So we take a long gander at Hale-Bopp,
out over Florida Bay, our first clear view of this storied comet,
then we snuggle down into our sandy bed within roar of the highway,
and listen to the Afro-Cuban music, the wild laughter, and the
clinking bottles of our neighbors. Very down to earth, this camping