I’ve been on vacation for the last 3 days in Miami. Since this is where I grew up, it’s a strange place to take a “vacation” – but rather than get away from it all I’ve always been one to get in the middle of it. I was tagging along with my partner Cristy who went to a conference, meaning the hotel part was taken care of. It gave me a chance to research my novel a bit and see just what has changed.
Little has changed. It’s about what I remember.
There are many fascinating things about Miami. I tried to understand the local dialect, to the extent there is one, and found that my first guess is correct – rhythm is more important than anything else. I hoped to find a standard greeting, something like the “How are you?” that any Midwesterner will say with a handshake, as if there’s a button in their palm. But in Miami, there is no standard greeting. There’s not a standard anything. Life is always negotiable.
I found it refreshing to see it in action largely because the tension I remembered was missing. Is it possible that something really did change? Not in Miami. Yet ten years away made me more relaxed and accepting, I’m sure. Yes, I’m confessing that a lot of cultural mixing puts me into overload just like anyone else, even though I say I enjoy it more than most people. If you or I have no idea where we stand with the world around you it gets challenging. That life is made for the bold and I don’t know anyone who is always perfectly bold and adventurous.
There were a few fascinating things that happened. Enormous condo buildings that look like they were extras from the set of “Star Wars I: Jar-Jar Annoys” dominate Brickell Avenue with a sense of dark purpose. Nothing good will come of this, I’m sure. There are also flocks of feral Quaker Parrots taking up an urban ecological niche normally reserved for pigeons and seagulls; they are much cuter but far louder than what you might expect.
These differences were minor. Mostly, I wandered around listening to how people talk. They talk like I do, which is to say exaggerating to make either a point or a joke or both. In fact, people appear to be “serious as a heart attack”, to use a Southern expression that still works, when they dip into an elaborate dark humor. There’s a way to demur in any culture, and here it’s done with humor. That’s why I laugh so much, everyone – because I’m serious. You got that?
I also took a lot of pictures of places that feature in my novel. In some cases they are utterly random buildings that I said, “This is the one” and I’m going with it. The pictures will help me set the scene carefully and completely, using a quick poetry that propels minimalism into something else. At least, that’s the plan. Here’s his office, here’s the house, this is where the characters meet. The one interesting thing that happened is a key meeting place just closed a few weeks ago, but that only means I’ll use the closing in the story to show the passage of time. It’s a fun detail.
While going out North River Drive to scout a particular location I passed by the yards where the freighters bound for Brasil and Asia with our scrap metal wait. Piles and piles of irregular angles jutting out orange line the street on both sides. To think that we strip our land of metal to be used in factories in Brasil, all the while people here think we are somehow so much better than Brasil, is mind-blowing. A lot of things seem a bit backwards when you look at them properly.
In the end, the sense of something just shy of reality still dominates how I see Miami. A lot of locals I talked with thought that was a good way to look at it, too. To some extent, that feeling comes because the spaces inbetween people are harder to define and seem impossibly large; reality is something outside of our imagination and outside of ourselves. But I think that the real story is that for all their blunt ways of speaking, directly from the heart, people in Miami somehow have to believe a bit harder that anything is possible. Like any good immigrant story, that belief coupled with education and hard work makes imagination real – and reality often a bit imaginary.
Damnitall, these are my people. I guess like any dysfunctional family, I can only take Miami in smallish doses. But it doesn’t have to be once every ten years, does it?