South Beach, Mannikins and 20% off
I recently went to South Beach, Florida, to escape the gray, wintry skies of Buffalo, New York, my home town (I am reminded of those skies, as I sit here today, listening to a neighbor frantically scraping the ice off his car windows).
South Beach. I had no clue what to expect, other than a few friends who hesitated when I told them I was going there. Apparently, they knew more about the place than I did. I should have listened.
I am an avid Amtrak rider and decided to take the trek south by Amtrak. It takes about seven hours to arrive at Penn Station from Buffalo. From New York City, the train takes over twenty-four hours through Richmond, Savanna, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Ft Lauderdale, and then Miami, among other stops.
For those who have never taken a train to Miami, you have to be prepared to shell out at least forty dollars to get into the city or to South Beach. The train station is also a grim reminder that train travel continues to take a back seat to the road and air-travel industry in America.
I can only assume that the station is still at the location it was originally and that few, if any renovations have been made to upgrade it. It has a classic boxy look with dull, monochrome walls, a glass enclosed booth for the Amtrak ticket agents, and seats that look like they were ripped out of a Greyhound bus terminal.
None of the beverage machines were operational. There were no magazines or newspapers for sale in the lobby. I didn’t bother to use the rest rooms, but I assumed the urinals were working. Other than that, we’re talking basic meat-loaf-and-potatoes service here.
After driving through a maze of streets to finally get to the I95 and taking the exit to South Beach, the taxi driver was able to find my hotel on the famous Collins Blvd in the heart of South Beach.
Mind you, I was traveling on a post-retirement budget. I should have known. When I entered my motel room, after the manager had to go back to the office and re-magnetize the door-card twice, I had an instant sensual epiphany. The air in the room was musty and smelled of stale cigarette smoke which only intensified when I turned on the air conditioner (I imagined for a brief second that the air-conditioner filter probably looked like my brother’s black lungs after fifty years of smoking).
The room was clean. The sheets had obviously been washed and were fresh. The bathroom had a shower but no bathtub. The walk-in closet was more than spacious.
But we’re talking very old, very dank, very colorless, very austere, very creaky. The walk-in closet walls, shelves, and hanging poles all looked bruised and faded, with black smudges and streak-marks—all clearly indicating that the place had not been painted in years.
The kitchenette floor was linoleum in a small-brick design and the color somewhere between a faded orange and your uncle’s old 1950′s wing-tipped tan shoes. The small white refrigerator sat across the sink from its white-cousin microwave as the hum of the whirling ceiling fan filled the kitchen and adjoining bedroom space with wafts of cool, Lucky-Strike air.
If you’re in South Beach, you are going to have to get used to concrete. There’s lots of it. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to have been woken up at three in the morning listening to the stiletto-clack of high heels on the concrete hallway outside my bedroom. That offered a kind of musical interlude to the thumping and swishing sounds of bare feet or bedroom slippers sliding across the rug on the fourth floor above me or the muffled sounds of a couple talking in the room next door. It is the only time in my life when I was grateful there was a television in the room.
And, duuh, no one reminded me that it was still college-break time. The young, testosterone-estrogen screamers were out all night on the streets, their bleatings and moanings echoing off the stucco walls of Collins Avenue motels and restaurants.
Enough of the motel. On to South Beach.
I had called a friend of mine a couple of days into my trip. She asked me what I thought of South Beach. I described the Beach as the land of manufactured romance and 20% off.
If some sign on a red convertible Lamborghini didn’t say, “rent me,” some dark-haired bilumic would be handing out “lunch-special” cards in front of a restaurant on Ocean Drive or the Lincoln Road Mall, or some muscle-toned teenager would be wandering around on a stand-up scooter soliciting potential renters, or a bleary-eyed guy in faded jeans would be pointing to special tours to the Keys or to the Everglades.
On my first night on the Beach, by the way, I was solicited by a hooker in the motel outside dining area. Apparently, everything in South Beach has a price. Money in America is indeed about profit, the hard sell, the momentary and fleeting pleasure that can be had with a handy credit card. And South Beach is just another one of the many capitalist wrinkles on the face of a much larger enterprise in America.
Speaking of which, I was sitting on a sun chair on the glorious white sandy beach. A young worker came up to me and said, “I”m sorry, sir, these chairs belong to the condo.” I simply said, “but it’s a public beach.” “Yes sir, it is, but the condo owns the chairs.” The price is indeed right, as they say.
As I was getting up from the beach chair to take another walk, I noticed that a young worker was raking the sand. It became immediately evident to me that he was part of a much larger South Beach tendency to want everything to be picture-perfect, no blemishes. Bushes had to be pruned, faces had to be lifted, side-walks had to be washed, dog shit had to be picked up.
Image, appearance, how things look on the outside all became variations of how much South Beach loves style and makeovers. It is not for nothing, as they say, that South Beach is one among the many Meccas of the corporate fashion industry—Armani, Gap, Banana Republic, Christian Audigier, Marc Jacobs—an industry that is constantly trying to reinvent itself.
One only has to walk the walk of the Lincoln Road Mall to get a sense of how important style is to the South Beach crowd—scarves thrown over shoulders, clean-shaven heads, the layered look, owl-eyed sunglasses, deep tans, black suits—a coliseum of poses, but never-to-be-touched-always-desired, manikin-like poses.
This pursuit of “the look” in South Beach may very well have started with the first, among many, art deco buildings in the city. Art deco is, after all, all about the pose. It came out of the Jazz Age with its sleek vertical lines, its pay-attention-to-me look in its understated rounded towers caressing square fronts, its slim contours, its white-sheet stucco dappled with lines of orange, blue, purple, salmon-colored edges, its domino-like windows always appearing to be flirting, to be seducing, its highly polished tile floors and its lights covered with soft pale rose-petal shaped glass—everything saying “look but don’t touch”; “see but don’t possess”; “enjoy, but move on.”
Art deco, like jazz, was never meant to be out of control. And like jazz, it is all about surface. Its mystery is not about the transcendent, like the Gothic tradition, nor does it contain the devouring passion of a Michelangelo’s David.
Art deco is all about the desire that comes from mannikin-posing indifference. Like Jazz, it is cool, laid back. Its essence rests listlessly on the surface of reality. It does not ask you to wonder as much as to play, to lust lightly without the pangs of jealousy or possessiveness.
In the end, art deco, jazz, the posing South Beach glamor crowd and the fashion industry that sells to these consumers are all about the illusion of insouciance, the I-could-give-a-shit-about-you-because-it’s-all-about-me lemmings who follow all the winds of the de rigeur, the “in” crowd who always want to be “with it,” to be part of the next illusion, the next face lift.
Unlike the Japanese “floating-world” tradition, the posing world of style and glamor so evident in South Beach, has none of the poignancy of mortality. The “floating world” school of art could show you the sensuality of its concubines, while, at the same time, make you very aware of how transient that sensuality was. On the other hand, the mannikin-driven fashion world of South Beach, like the modeling industry in general, has no sense of its own mortality. Mannikins, after all, never die.
It may have seemed odd that I began with a bleak description of the cheap motel and the less-than-austere Amtrak station in Miami. I purposely did that to jump-start the contradiction between the world-of-high-fashion-and-corporate-glamor in the Lincoln Road Mall and the less glimmering sites and events that are never part of the city’s PR/tourist ads (no tour ad for South Beach, for example, would ever tell the average tourists to prepare themselves for being harassed by restaurant and street hucksters trying to “sell” you a better cut of meat, a more exotic entrée, or a cheaper tour to Key West).
In many ways, the tourism industry in South Beach also accentuates the same old/same old class/income disparity in the US. On the one hand, the glittering high-end motels like the St. Moritz stand in stark contrast to many of the faux art-deco/Mediterranean Revival motels limning Collins Street—all the motels catering to the middle-income families with baby carriages and jumpy teenagers, the college beer-drinking crowd, or the South-Bronx couple on a honeymoon (the same kind of economic paradox between a public beach and an array of condo-owned sun chairs).
South Beach is indeed a divided city. And its divisions exist on several tiers—economic, linguistic, ethnic, and class. On the one hand, you can pass by the beautifully manicured art-deco homes between Espanola Way and Lincoln Road. On the other, in the same neighborhood, you can see concrete art-deco look-alike row houses with cheap scooters and bikes parked in front of the apartments.
You can hear all the unaccented responses of a Caucasian waiter at Starbucks and the quick rattle of Spanish behind you in line or next to you in a restaurant. You can sit next to a CEO in his black Armani suit at a dance concert rigidly going through the times tables with his son (“ya gotta be fast, kid,” he kept repeating to his son) or you can watch an intense chess game at Starbucks between a deferentially quiet African American teenager and a young, tanned Yul Brinner look-alike in his two-buttons-from-the-top open white shirt and gray Gucci suit.
Or you can watch a bevy of old men in their floral shirts and white mustaches as they chew on their Cuban cigars, standing on the corner of Washington and Espanola Way, surveying the neighborhood, assigning blame, looking for the guilty, bitching about taxes, complaining of their arthritis.
Nothing, however, can quite compare to the luxury I had in observing, at such an intense level, the power of the working class in South Beach—taxi drivers, hotel and store clerks, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, utility workers, motel/hotel cleaning staffs, Amtrak workers, flight attendants—the oil to all the corporate machines in South Beach. And it is on the backs of the working class that the big money of the fashion and hotel industries in South Beach continue to earn their high-end profits.
South Beach, the city of manufactured romance and 20% off is, ultimately, just another allegory of American values and disparities. The wealthy will remain wealthy on this island of many virtues and vices. And the poor will always be poor. The workers will continue to work at minimum wage/no benefits jobs and the wealthy will continue to occupy their condos in gated communities as they wait for their monthly dividends, pensions, and retirement bonuses.
South Beach. Enough said.