Thursday, October 1, 2020

A Letter From Paradise, Let Tomorrow Be

Photo by me, September 2020

 

This photo is taken at home away from home in Fort Lauderdale, where I am most happy and no place suits me better. It was the best place to recoup after the publication of Dweller On The Boundary. I sat out on the patio for days and watched boats on the canal, lizards play, stray cats hunt, evenings fade into night and the storm clouds boil over the Everglades. I was tired after decades of living with that book. I aged a few years writing it and I am glad it is over, like a fever broke and I can rejoin the world. I am ensconced in Atlanta again and this fall and early winter I plan to wrap up writing the 1980s short story collection and have it out in January of next year. I have a book of poetry I would like to publish too, but who reads poetry?

I cannot go to Florida and not think about the Christopher Cross song, Sailing. It reminds me of being a boy in the back of the Cadillac sliding around on the cold leather backseat in the early morning hours on the way down to Florida. “It's not far down to paradise, at least it's not for me,” Cross sang. Paradise for me is ten hours away by car from Atlanta. Fort Lauderdale was deserted, it is one of those places that is alive with people year-round and it was not this time for the first time in the eleven years I have been going down. The water taxis were not even running. The coronavirus has kept away the Europeans and Canadians and most of the domestic travelers too. It was nice to have the place to ourselves, but the local economy has suffered with their absence.

The South Florida weather was in the 90s with soupy humidity and rounds of storms. The weather never panned out for a trip down to Key West, but I've seen it before and it will be there some other time. If you never have made the drive out from Miami down through the Keys, it is one incredible trip down the chain of islands that become smaller and smaller as you go. At some points it is like driving across the ocean. That road is a good reminder of how small we are as humans in the face of nature.

I met up in Florida with someone that I have known for years and they asked me questions about the book and I found it difficult to talk about face to face. Maybe I can't do that after running emotionally naked for three hundred pages. It was easier to let it all hang out on the beach at Haulover in Bal Harbour in front of hundreds of strangers than to say what I wrote. Don't cringe, it was in my younger years that I was lounging on nude beaches. I am terrible at describing the book and simply say, “it is a brutal story.” That seems like a fair and succinct assessment.

I had planned to read while I was away, but I wrote instead. What was on my mind was the late 80s Joan Didion book, Miami. It is about the Cuban exiles in Miami and the American political machinations involving them. People have this idea of Miami as being this liberal bastion at the end of Florida, but it really is not. The Cuban exiles, which have ascended the local political and business ladders in Miami are reliably Republican voters. Miami is cosmopolitan, chic, dirty like Los Angeles and not the place it appears to be at first glance. Tourists come down and run wild in Miami Beach and South Beach like children at recess with frozen drinks in both hands guzzling them from colorful and grotesquely over-sized plastic cups, but that is not Miami. It is a chaotic mangrove of bad traffic, graffiti, loud music, extreme disparities in wealth and trash filled gutters if you step away from the groomed sandy beaches. There is a messy city beyond Collins Avenue, the glamorous money laundering towers with water views and the walled gardens of Coconut Grove. I hate Miami, it repulses me and I still stare like passing a woman in threadbare and stringy cut offs wearing nothing underneath. Miami is a place for people who think they know Florida, but are willfully ignorant about the rest of the state. I could not get Didion's book out of my head since we are in an election year and Florida is as important as ever to both parties. Both campaigns are advertising heavily on radio and billboards down there, I cannot speak for television since I never watch it, but I assume it is just as saturated. I have an idea who is going to win in November and I'll say no more. We are too divided in this country with nonstop politics even in retail stores like The Gap with window displays of overly serious looking young models telling people to vote like the world is going to end. I am convinced so many people have lost their sense of humor and grasp of reality. We could use some Molly Ivins right about now to lighten things up or Gore Vidal to slice through the horseshit with his wicked tongue. I do not care for whom you vote, that is your decision as it should be. Vote for The Pink Panther or whatever computer is singing the latest pop song on the radio if you wish.

The 1985 Kurt Russell movie, The Mean Season was on my mind too. The Miami captured in that film is authentic and messy with boarding houses and mobile home parks contrasted against the wealthier neighborhoods. Russell plays a burned out newspaper reporter assigned to the crime beat that becomes intertwined with a serial killer and the police. The movie is based on the novel In The Heat Of The Summer. Crime dramas are not typically my kind of movie as they get too hung up on telling the story from the perspective of the police and fall prey to cliches, The Mean Season is told from the perspective of the newspaper reporter and that makes it more interesting. 1980s Miami is shown from Bill Baggs Park on Key Biscayne to the raw and steamy nature that is the Everglades. You feel the humidity making you slimy as you watch it. You see South Beach seven years before Gianni Versace fell in love with it and turned The Amsterdam Palace Apartments into his personal palace. Like you maybe, I have stood on those steps in the spot where Versace bled to death after Andrew Cunanan shot him in the back of the head like an execution. It is gruesome to think of how that spot is a top tourist destination in South Beach. Mariel Hemingway plays the love interest in the film and there is never enough of her, she was a far better actress than her late sister Marguax. Richard Jordan perfectly plays the role of the creepy serial killer. The movie is not Oscar material, but it captures the feeling of Miami well.

I prefer Fort Lauderdale, it is part of the South Florida cacophony, but has a different timbre than Miami. It is big, sometimes wild, but more discreet in its plumage than its big brother next door. You can disappear behind the paurotis palms, find a lonely plot of beach at the right time of day to throw down a towel under the rays and watch the yachts idle down the canals. It has its multi-millionaire mansions in spades, a Rolls-Royce showroom on Sunrise Boulevard, marinas stocked with yachts like soft drinks, people begging for change at the I-95 off ramps, check cashing places and broken down places people call home too. The sun beats down hard in Broward as it does in Dade, but enough of the relaxed Florida spirit still exists in Fort Lauderdale that is gone from Miami. Where else can you find the banana man handing out free bananas every day just after noon on Ocean Boulevard, watch fresh fallen coconuts drift by in a canal as you sit on a barge and eat lobster or have a yacht sail by your window at ten at night blaring You Shook Me All Night Long? No place else other than Fort Lauderdale. I do not recommend eating Thai in Amarillo in a place next to a car repair shop, but there are a number of good Thai restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and that satisfies me.

Somewhere between the downpours and the roadside stands selling oranges, pecans and looks at baby alligators around Ormond Beach on a detour to Jacksonville for food, a song entered my head. The acoustic guitar backed by the strings and horns at the intro came at me like the spinning wheels of an eighteen wheeler and a familiar feeling swept over me. I would hear this song in the late 1980s and 90s when I was hanging out and snorkeling in the Panhandle between Mexico Beach and St. George Island. I know Florida just as well as I know Georgia and a few other states, but that's neither here nor there at the moment. There was an oldies station out of Panama City that I listened called Sunny 98.5 and this song was a staple in their playlist. This song reminds me of rain splattered sand on the side of my Z Car from the sand dunes and the smell of wet driftwood. The sunburn of my memories aches every time I have to leave the ocean over the horizon. The song came out before I was born and it is from a different era in American culture, but I connected with it nonetheless. Great music is timeless and crosses the divides of humanity, maybe one day that kind of music will be popular again.

Anyway, I am back and ready to sit at my big wooden desk, enjoy my favorite season, go to the mountains for hikes in the falling leaves and buy some Georgia apples.

Let tomorrow be,

Chris