American Sabbatical 79: 3/27/97


3/27.. Lauderdale.

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.

Ft. Lauderdale


Ft. Lauderdale

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, we’d 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t whom I was seeking. I was beginning to turn pink.

After I’d 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 wasn’t 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, there’s 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.

Bottle Holders

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 it’s 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. There’s nothing like a bit of mechanical anxiety to make your travels ever so much more interesting. Don’t you find it fascinating to hear every greasy detail of this trip? Hand me that rag.

3/28.. Miami.

Good Friday didn’t 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 we’d arranged to meet another of Peggy’s 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 weren’t 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 couldn’t 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 macho thing.

Peggy's Miami Beach

Note Hunkering Artist
Before the paint was dry we were anxious about getting to our date. We still didn’t 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 didn’t 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, here’s 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 lady’s classmates (another Peggy and Holly).. and a much bemused bearded wonder passed the sauce. I mean they’d 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 just right.

Fake Palms

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 we’d 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 didn’t 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.

Modest Hideaway

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 who’s 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 aren’t 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 Welch’s Grape Juice. Where’s 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 there’s 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 I’d 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.

Peggy's Mangroves

Still can’t 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 stuff.

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