Friday, November 5, 1993

Twenty-four Hours in Miami

Written in 1993 for Forbes FYI magazine

If you can make it in from the airport to South Beach without getting killed, Miami might be the most fun city in North America. Let the media carp about drive-by shootings, drug smugglers, phony land ventures, and a few armed revolutionaries. To a casual visitor with survival skills, it’s always Saturday in Miami and the Human Condition is nowhere else as visually pleasing year-round. Like an outlandish stew of St. Tropez, Soho, and Havana, Miami may not make sense, but then common sense is not what’s being appealed to here.

There are many Miamis, spread across sixteen islands. Some you don’t want to know about, much less explore; some no longer seem compelling, like, say, Jackie Gleason’s Miami. The one everybody gets in a lather about today lies at the southern end of it all, a national historic register area known as South Beach, or even SoBe. The square mile from 6th to 23rd Street is the largest art deco district in the world, with about eight hundred "important" buildings dating from 1923 to 1943. Ten years ago they wrote it off as the most faded of God’s waiting rooms; now it’s a pulsating streamlined heaven, if your vision of the afterlife means salsa, margaritas, sixteen modelling agencies, the glare of sunlit sand, and little sleep.

The most direct approach to South Beach is simply to cab it to the News Cafe, drink yourself legless on iced cappucinos, watch the beauties go by with the beach glittering behind, and read Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season, a carefree, bloody romp about a Florida crocodile with a voracious love for out-of-staters. To get maximum enjoyment out of Miami, however, it helps to have a Cuban companion with plenty of time on his hands. Like my old friend Jorge.

I warned him that for this visit I had only a day. "So what’s the mystery?" said Jorge (a professional violinist), collecting me at the airport. "Take off your jacket and leave the rest to me."

We sped across the Macarthur Causeway (as the local joke goes, the shortest route from Havana to Tel Aviv). A first sight of South Beach’s Ocean Drive astonishes: gone is geriatric Miami, instead you’re cruising a film set with real palm trees, water, and gorgeous young people. You head a block inland and, if you’re lucky, park.

The 11th Street Diner is a chrome-and-formica 1946 relic made more authentic through a loving restoration: two old dining cars mashed into one structure, a collision that was an improvement, as one’s a bar now. (Their milkshakes and malts are known as the best on the beach.) The menu boasts standard Miami fare: macaroni, tofu, omelettes, marinated dolphin, cheesecake, smoked salmon and bagels. Though the diner’s consistently voted the best place for late-night eats, Jorge insisted we gather our energies there with breakfast.

"You want me, or you want good service?" said our waitress.

In Miami double entendres often seem the preferred gambit.

"Don’t ask me these philosophical questions," said Jorge.

A few doors down we looked into a good general food & bar joint called Lulu’s. "My temple of art," Jorge insisted, referring not to the downstairs devoted to American kitsch (service station signs, old Coca-Cola ads) but the upstairs devoted to the King—Elvis carpets, film stills, guitar clocks, license plates, street signs, lamps, statues, busts, plates, and a reproduction of the first dollar he ever earned (April, 1951). If Elvis were currently making movies, this would be a primo setting: Viva South Beach!

There is, of course, the beach itself, a long broad stretch of hard sand, surprisingly clean, surprisingly topless, with free wooden lounge chairs. Freighters and the occasional sailboat awaken the horizon, but you’re not really watching them anyway. A bronzed man in peak condition is meditating upside-down in a yogic posture; without warning he upends and dashes into the gleaming water, past two naked Scandinavian masterpieces discussing Ibsen. The sea is warm and very clean—unbelievable, to be able to swim so easily right in a U.S. city, like a weird new definition of civilization.

Through the palms, the pastel rectangular art deco skyline of whites, blues, and yellows seems too low for this century. Volleyball is played seriously on the sand: the beauty of the conception, as Jorge put it, is you wear as little as you want and who notices?

"No one but you," I suggested.

"Now listen, amigo," said Jorge. "You’re new in town, so I’m going to offer you a choice. For lunch we can either stop by my apartment, hustle up a little tunafish sandwich, some mustard, some mayo, catch a game show. Or else we stick to fabulous Miami Beach, we check out one of the important structural achievements in what they call the art deco idiom where I happen to know a bartender almost personally and you can eat four-star food, a little wine, and experience the supreme beautiful female genius of the world strutting back and forth like targets, man, in a holy shooting gallery, you know what I’m saying? So I’m giving you the choice."

"I’ll take the shooting gallery," I said.

And along Ocean Drive they do walk past, as if paid by the hour: models on rollerblades, in sandals, in bikinis, arm-in-arm in conspiracy against a gawping male world, occasionally passed by a hero windsurfing along the esplanade on a skateboard-cum-sail.

At the Colony (its triple-sided neon sign one of night’s icons in South Beach) a newcomer is downright grateful for the fierce air conditioning that enables him to better appreciate pastel walls, half-globe lights, enormous potted palms, marble tables, and a great ’30s painting of a jungle scene. Best of all is the food in such a lavish setting (the restaurant fronting a hotel, by the way): lobster gazpacho, pan-fried crab cakes, a mango-creme brulĂ©e in a "hurricane" of fruit sauces. While you’re debating coffee, a madman named Jorge starts screaming that it’s time for a Madrid newspaper.

A minute’s walk up Ocean Drive you reach the News Cafe, the epicenter of the social earthquake that shook Miami a decade ago. A man of reason, unencumbered by Jorge, has little to do except plonk himself alfresco and wait as only people in tropical climates can, for all the beauty and foreign press of the world to arrive. . . .

"Buddy boy, we’re wasting time here," said Jorge, and yanked me off toward Coral Gables—where the wealthy traditionally built their mansions. The grandest, right beside Madonna’s recent $4 million acquisition, is Vizcaya, an Italian renaissance villa with gardens built in WWI for John Deering, who owned International Harvester. The gardens took five years; the entire 180-acre enterprise employed a tenth of Miami’s population, and involved cutting back tropical jungle and putting in a railroad, a dairy, a poultry farm, a mule stable; fruit, vegetable, flower gardens; tennis courts and canoe waterways. . . . Following Deering’s death in 1925 (he had four years of enjoyment after it was finished), his heirs sold it to Dade County. A museum now, it’s become what Deering evidently intended: his living monument, a latter-day equivalent of Cheops’ Pyramid.

And a reminder of how much great art of twenty-five centuries it was possible for a wealthy man early this century to accumulate. What Deering bought no one could afford today: from a gala standpoint of tapestries, statues, carpets, tiles, this is the ultimate villa.

After all this highbrow culture my nerves were a bit frayed, so we roared back to South Beach and the Sterling Club, a swank poolroom with a period bar, whose twelve superb tables were just getting underway. Jorge took dinner money off me and suggested we eat early. "You want to lose again, we can come back at 4 a.m."

For dinner Amano is still the place, if you can afford it, ultra-modern decor in the only non-deco building on Ocean Drive. The menu is a schizophrenic local melange, nouvelle Miami: say, macademia-crusted softshell crab with soba noodles and Thai curry butter sauce, followed by almond / black pepper salmon and citrus cous cous or Chinese B.B.Q. chicken with plantain mash cornflan, and a passionfruit cheesecake with raspberry sauce.

Jorge had raved about the Talkhouse all day—an ideal-size music club, with a courtyard bar in back. He said they consistently offer world-class salsa (if they don’t, try Lario’s On the Beach).

"And tonight, my friend, is no exception," said Jorge. "We are talking about a monumental event in Miami salsa. A hot local band named Abasi with two unbelievable guests. Both legends in Havana. Cachao on bass—an inventor of the mambo who revolutionized salsa back in 1959 with one historic jam session. And on congas, Patato. I don’t know when they came over, but this night you won’t forget."

He wasn’t exaggerating. Cachao, an enormous man with a brooding forehead (like a mulatto bull elephant in suspenders) attacked the bass as if it were a percussion instrument, pulling the rest of the band (piano, drums, chiquita singer) into his riffs. Patato was his opposite—a small, dapper, mahogany man, mustached, in borsalino hat, tie and jacket, approaching seventy. Not much taller than his four congas, he treated them like disobedient children, admonishing, instructing, and commanding; instead of a blitzkrieg of speed he could control your attention with a few whacks that brought people to their feet. One voluptuous young woman in a slinky black dress, propelled by the music, did a sexual shimmy through the club that had the musicians sweating and the crowd roaring. (She turned out to be a feature journalist for the Miami Herald.) It was incandescent, joyous music, and when there was an intermission Patato went from table to table getting his picture taken with females of all ages.

After so much upheaval we were both hungry, so at midnight Jorge and I ended up at one of the best Cuban restaurants in town, the Puerto Sagua, which looks like a New York coffee shop except for the 3D mural of Havana’s Plaza de Catedral in the back. A fried bisteco palomilla got me moving, along with coffee like jet fuel.

Now that we were awake, at one in the morning we needed a drink, and out of too many chic bars Jorge chose a fancy, low-key bar-restaurant, the Strand—grand in scale, spacious, high-ceilinged, with latticed lights, marbled arches, great red sofas, mosaiced columns, and great hanging urn lights in domes, with a good menu as well. According to the pretty bartender, the crowd was always "lots and lots of models and a few lecherous men—you guys stand a very good chance." As which one, she didn’t specify.

Tempting as it was to overnight somewhere sleek and modernist, I needed a break from South Beach, so I got Jorge to drop me at a hotel over in Coconut Grove. I was surprised, by this point, that they let me stagger in.

"Don’t worry so much, amigo," was his final message, as he delivered me to the airport the next morning. "Never forget: in Miami the sun always shines for the cool." Here endeth the sermon.