Happy New Year! There seems to be so little to say as the cold night closes in and we settle in to the routine of waiting for midnight. Deadly nights like this settle into a routine of their own as time passes slowly. Being from Miami, a city that celebrates New Year’s as a lure for frigid northerners, the holiday has a special meaning to me. There is always a spotlight on the quaint tradition of a parade followed by a football game, the Orange Bowl, that showcases the typically 70F or better daze that could pass like any other.
But they don’t. There is the north to compare to, a dream of a better easier life that once called people to Miami. That was before the city grew up and became the capital of Latin America. That was before I grew up to strike out on my own and attempt to find Reality, a state of being that I knew didn’t seem to exist in the corner of the Bermuda Triangle that I once called home.
And every New Year a bit of Miami comes back into my heart.
We came to the Perrine / Cutler area at the end of the Jim Crow era. US1, better known as Dixie Highway, neatly divided the area into black and white. You can guess which side of the highway had the Florida East Coast railroad tracks that brought tomatoes and beans out of Homestead, to the south. Sometime around the arrival of so many Yankees, like my family, a lawsuit ended in desegregation in the schools and an end to the sleepy Southern ways.
I learned about what had been the only way a son of the South should – from an elder. His name was MacMullen, and by the time he settled into a lawn chair in front of the Perrine Ace Hardware store nearly every day he was a very old man. It was the early 1970s, and old MacMullen had seen a lot of changes take place. He eagerly told to a young white boy who was willing to listen to what he had to say.
The day was hot and sticky, as summers always were at the bottom end of Florida. The sun had boiled up over the bay and settled into its routine. Time doesn’t pass as much as happen under this kind of sun. A routine errand to the hardware store on my bike brought me to the pointed nose and strong chin that stuck out from under the grey hair perched with purpose in the shade of the store’s awning. A thin cigar moved towards the wrinkles and spots and a long drag was exhaled with the smell of old and tired.
“You live around here, boy?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Your kin from here?”
“No sir, we’re from up North.”
Another long drag on the cigar curled into the loneliness of the New South, a place apart from everything the old guy knew. There had been a moment when he thought I might be one of his people, but that passed. Yet somehow I had caught him.
“At least your folks taught you to be respectful.”
“Well, yes sir.”
“You ever want to know about where you live?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“You see that coral rock building over there?” A long finger crooked over the small cigar just beyond me. “That was the Perrine City Hall and jail. Down here where US1 divided, the town made its money as a speed trap for folks on their way to the Keys. Everyone came to hate Perrine and the Chief of Police for that. When a young man got drunk one night he was locked up in the only cell they had along with a black woman who was picked up for something or the other, I think it was a family dispute.”
“Well, they picked on the wrong boy. He came from a rich family up in Miami, and when he was let out they sued for what they called ‘Forced Integration’. Apparently there was a state law against black and white people sharing a jail cell. A big fuss was made over it, likely ‘cuz no one like Perrine in the first place. The Governor himself stepped in and revoked the town charter, and there hasn’t been a Perrine ever since.”
I listened to his story intently for one simple reason – no one had ever told me this stuff before. There was something before the big Metro-Dade sprawl of continuous suburb and new houses full of Yankee ex-pats sprouting like Florida Holly. The old guy knew things that made sense of the world around me, things that none of my people seemed to know.
I wound up allowing many of my days to happen alongside this simple lawn chair full of stories. I leaned about Black Caesar, an escaped slave turned pirate who became the Founding Father of this corner of the world. I heard about Henry Perrine and David Fairchild, the pioneers in raising tropical crops on the thin soil on the top of the Cutler Ridge, a solid coral reef made land. It was land that produced more than sunny escape for Yankees.
Old MacMullen also told me what it was like when black folks lived on one side of US1 and white folks on the other, never meeting except in the two blocks between that made up the heart of Perrine where the highway divided. He spoke fondly of all the good people he knew who worked hard, black or white, and then went home to their respective sides of Dixie Highway when the sun settled down. I didn’t understand most of what he was saying, so I asked.
“Why was it like that, sir?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why was it separated? Why didn’t people just live where they wanted?”
Another long drag and a curl of smoke had to pass before there was an answer. This old guy with so many memories in his head owed one simple truth to the Yankee boy who had taken an interest in what he had to say. Eventually, it came out.
“I don’t rightly know. It’s just the way it was. I can’t say it was right or wrong, it’s just the way it was.”
Old MacMullen is long gone now. The store he sat in front of was swept away in Hurricane Andrew. The rest of Perrine has become a way station on the way to the Keys with miles of suburbs full of people from everywhere in the world just beyond the 7-11s and big box stores. I can’t call the time that old MacMullen described as “antebellum”, or “before the war”, but it was clearly ante-something.
Here I am today, parte-childhood, long parted from the heat of those daze long passed. On a frigid New Year at this stage of my life it’s all just Auld Lang Syne (old long since). There’s no night cold enough to take it away, though, even when the old windup clock chimes midnight and it’s another year to start afresh. No one ever really starts over, not completely. We each remain the people we once were.
And that heat lays still in my heart.