Strolling through Miami, along fate’s cold and salty shore

Posted on 6 March 2015

Our columnist, Darrel Bristow-Bovey, shuffles through an icy Miami, full of disappointment and bad attitude.


Miami South Beach on a cool Autumn day.

Miami South Beach on a cool Autumn day.

I was looking forward to Miami but I arrived on 19 November 2014, the coldest 19 November ever recorded. Two days earlier it had been the hottest 17 November ever recorded, but now the skies were grey and a sharp, cold wind blew down the wide streets and the sea was jade-green and streaked with white. This was not what I was expecting. There were no high-legged Latinas in hot pants and heels, no bronzed muscle men with flip-flops and Cuban-flag bandanas, no vendors selling fish tacos and churros or pony-tailed rollerbladers walking pot-bellied pigs. South Beach was windy and sad, like the Port Elizabeth board- walk on a wintry Sunday when you can’t find a newspaper.

‘Just my luck,’ I complained to Marcus. ‘In Miami for one day, and I’m wearing a jersey.’

Marcus is an old friend who lives in Afghanistan, distributing food to people who need it. He was also in Miami for only a day, on his way to the Florida Keys for a week to recover from living in Afghanistan. He’d hired a Mustang convertible but it was too cold to put down the top; we’d have looked like a couple of pitiful old men shivering down the empty streets.

We met glumly in the bar of the Raleigh Hotel and ordered martinis from a crew-cut barman with arms like railway sleepers who grew up in Yugoslavia and told us stories of the army. The martini was good but this wasn’t exactly the Miami experience we were looking for. We decided to walk down the Deco district, stopping at every hotel bar to sample their martinis. Soon we were trudging along Ocean Drive, collars turned up against the chill, shoulders hunched like a pair of prison guards inspecting the perimeter fence of a Siberian gulag.

Life, we grumbled bitterly, is very disappointing.

One of the hotels was called The Betsy, and a sign declared it to be ‘Miami’s most literary hotel’. There was a saxophonist playing inside. The martinis were no good and Marcus is allergic to saxophones. I sourly asked the barman what made The Betsy such a literary hotel, and he told me they have a writer in residence, a different one each week or every month, who gets to stay for free and work while looking out at the ocean. At the moment it was a 25-year-old poet from Zimbabwe.

Some writers, I declared indignantly, have all the luck. We’d visited just enough hotels and sampled just enough martinis to decide it was a good idea to march up to the resident writer’s room and demand he read us something. We’d make him do some work for his free room, damn it. Also, it would be an escape from the saxophonist. We walked up the wide stairway to the second floor. Through the salty windows on the landing, the palm trees trembled like giraffes transplanted to a snowy tundra.

We knocked but there was no reply. We called through the keyhole. We pressed our ears against the door but there was no sound of a typewriter being clacked or a keyboard being clicked. Life, we agreed, is very unfair.

‘If I was a writer in residence,’ I groused, ‘I would at least do some writing.’ Even I knew this was a terrible lie.

‘Hey,’ said Marcus, looking at the number over the door. ‘Did the barman say his room was 204 or 214?’

We thought about it and couldn’t remember, and we didn’t feel like going and shouting through a different keyhole. I was feeling grumpy and dissatisfied with the world as we trudged downstairs. I was feeling mistreated by fate, and as always when I’m feeling mistreated by fate, I was being spoilt and graceless and stupid. I was about to suggest calling it a day when Marcus received an email on his phone informing him that Taliban fighters had just attacked the compound in Kabul where he lives. There had been a mortar bombardment followed by an assault by gunmen. Two people had been killed and his neighbours and colleagues were huddling in a bunker beneath the building.

We went onto the beach and looked at the green sea. The ocean looked beautiful, the wind was like a breath and all the world trembled with wonderful, delicate life.


Miami moments

A few wholly unimportant facts

  1. The world’s first suntan lotion was invented in 1944 by Benjamin Green, a Miami Beach pharmacist.
  2. As a destination Miami is top class among the diving fraternity with an enviable artificial reef programme. Dubbed the ‘Wreckreational Capital of the World’, divers have over 50 sites to explore from ships to freighters to army tanks.
  3. A number of notorious pirates, including Blackbeard, Gasparilla, William Kidd, Billy Bowlegs and Stede Bonnet, allegedly stashed their stolen booty along the shores of Miami long before it became a city. Since then gold and silver have been recovered in the area.

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

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