Miami Party Boom
Date: July 2005
Venue: Villa Vizcaya
Liquor sponsor: Flor de Caña rum
The Villa Vizcaya is one of those Gatsbyesque single-family mansions that have been converted to event spaces. The new owners installed an industrial kitchen to accommodate catering companies and an HVAC system to dissipate the warmth generated by large groups of people. They removed the permanent furniture so gilt chairs could be trucked in for weddings. Guests still had the run of the extensive gardens, but there was no longer anything particularly Gatsbyesque about the place, just a rental tab of $10,000 for a weekend evening.
The Vizcaya was still a very nice event space. From the parking lot, a jungle of banyans and broad-leafed foliage obscured the house. At night, when picking one’s way down a path lit with honeycomb floodlights around the ground, there was a feeling of tropical intrigue, followed by awe when the coral mansion finally emerged from the fronds and the vines, a floodlit beacon in the night. This used to be a Xanadu, a neo-Italianate castle built before Miami was even a city, before Miami Beach was even solid land. Where one person saw a mangrove swamp, the mind behind the Vizcaya saw greatness. Thus the first real estate boom began.
Now another real estate boom was happening, here in Miami, where I had just settled (in the gravitational rather than pioneering sense of the word: for several years I had been sinking in a southerly direction, like the pulp in a glass of orange juice). This was my first party. I don’t remember much—not even what the party was intended to celebrate—and I took bad notes. The mosquitoes were formidable. I was plastered in sweat. The night was thick and hot and the concrete steps in back descended into still, inky water. The moon hung over all of it: the bay, the stone barge, the topiaries. Corporations were the sponsors. They hung banner ads promoting Clamato; girls in miniskirt uniforms served free mojitos with Flor de Caña rum. I picked up a free copy of a magazine called Yachts International. A real-life yacht was moored to the dock out back, and its passengers were drunk and tan.
I stood with my friend Krishna, watching fireworks explode over Biscayne Bay, over the girls serving rum, over the maze hedge and the moss-covered cherubs and the coral gazebos. We sipped our drinks and scratched our mosquito bites. He gazed at the explosions and said, “The fireworks were so much better at the condo opening I went to last weekend.”
Date: July 2005
Venue: Hotel Victor
Gift bag: Ylang-Ylang-scented bath cube, thong underwear
I moved to Miami from Arkansas to work at an alt-weekly newspaper. My first order of business, after finding an apartment, was to make friends. I appealed to a girl from work to rescue me from loneliness, and she sent me an email about a spa opening at a new boutique hotel on Ocean Drive, steps away from the mansion where Gianni Versace had met his violent end.
I walked up from my new apartment past the deco and neon, past Lummus Park and the homeless people and mounds of malt liquor bottles beneath the stands of palm trees. It wasn’t yet dark—this was an early weeknight party. My coworker checked us in with the tan girl at the door with the clipboard. From then on there would always be tan girls with clipboards. We were led to an elevator past tanks filled with pulsing jellyfish lit a glowing indigo. The elevator went down to the basement area where the spa was, and when the door slid open an impossibly tall drag queen greeted us, dressed only in white towels except for the diamonds that twinkled from her earlobes.
Petrova, a woman with a thick Russian accent, stepped in front of the towel-bedecked drag queen and handed us champagne glasses. She said they contained cucumber martinis, but I think it might have been cucumber and 7Up. “Welcome,” murmured Petrova. She took us on a tour that was like a ride at Disney World. Curtains were pulled aside: behind one was a naked man on a slab of heated marble. Behind the next was a woman having her breasts gently massaged. “Ew,” said my coworker. We stayed twenty minutes, then collected our gift bags, which contained thong underwear and an effervescent bath cube. I didn’t have a bathtub.
Date: August 2005
Venue: My apartment building, south beach
Liquor Sponsor: My next-door neighbor Brett
Pharmaceutical Sponsor: Ibid
Food: Frozen pizza
Maybe nobody remembers now that Hurricane Katrina hit Miami before New Orleans, but it did, as a baby hurricane. Then it crawled over to the Gulf of Mexico and turned into a monster.
On the afternoon of Katrina I waited too long to wrap my computer in a trash bag and leave work, and the outer bands of the storm were laying into the city by the time I drove across the causeway from downtown to Miami Beach, my car shuddering in the wind. I understood I was to buy nonperishable food items.
The grocery store was chaos, and I was completely soaked from the trip across the parking lot. While I considered the selection of almonds, the power went out. A dramatic hush fell upon us. One minute the store was all beeping scanners and fluorescent lights, the next darkness and total silence but for the wind and rain. I ate some almonds. In the darkness someone broke a wine bottle.
We were told to move to the front of the store. Minutes passed. Rain pounded, wind howled. Suddenly a generator turned on, creating just enough electricity to bathe the store in low-key mood lighting, enough for us to grab bottled water and get out but not enough to forget that the hurricane was something to be taken seriously.
Outside, Biscayne Bay, normally tranquil, was a mountainous expanse of gray and white in extreme motion. Plastic bags flew through the air. The high-rises looked exposed and frail, the dozens of cranes in Miami’s skyline like toothpick structures that would come crashing down with the first gust of storm. Once safely home, I put on my pajamas and uncorked a bottle of wine. I opened my door to a blast of wind, rain, and sand that filled my apartment with leaves. I ran across to my neighbor Brett’s place, on the other side of the stoop. He opened his door and his apartment filled with leaves.
A friend in Miami once referred to Florida as “America’s funnel,” and that’s what I’d thought of when I met Brett. He was in his mid-30s and had dyed black hair, stained teeth, and a permanent sunburn, and was almost always smoking on our building’s stoop and drinking from a bottle of Tequila Sauza. His apartment was draped in fabric of different psychedelic patterns. He had been looking forward to Burning Man. He had played in an early-’90s grunge rock band of some repute—they had toured with the Smashing Pumpkins—but things hadn’t worked out very well. In a moment of idle gossip one afternoon, my landlord Dave told me that Brett had woken up one morning after a night of substance abuse in New York and found his girlfriend dead next to him. So he took their cat and moved to Miami, and now the cat was in its waning days and Brett was selling boats on the internet, supposedly.
Once I left him my rent check to give to Dave, since I was at the office most days. The next morning Dave, a tan surfer type from Boca Raton who never seemed upset about anything, knocked on my door. “Um,” he said, embarrassed. “Don’t give your rent check to Brett.”
But Brett was the social nexus of our building, which was a low-rent holdout in a neighborhood at the bottom tip of South Beach that had gotten much, much fancier since Brett moved in. Our building was funny—the walls of most of the apartments had variously themed murals: underwater scenes, jungle scenes, and, my favorite, in the studio behind mine, hot-air balloons and clouds. My guess is that the landlords originally painted the murals as a sort of spell against the crack-addicted undead that were said to have ruled the neighborhood in the early ’90s. The building even used to have some kind of tiki setup on the roof, but the door to the roof was padlocked when the rule of law finally arrived, sometime around the turn of the century. My apartment was painted the colors of a beach ball and included sloping wood floors, bamboo shades, and a mosaic tile counter. It was a one-room studio and a total dump, but it had beach style.
Our two-story baby-blue building was surrounded by towering new condominiums of gleaming white stucco, one of which had a helicopter landing pad. I saw a helicopter land exactly once in the two years I lived there. Rent was month-to-month, which meant I was the only person in the building with a salary.
Upstairs lived a call girl with whom Brett was good friends. She would come down sometimes in her evening finery and ask Brett if he would “do her,” meaning would he please fasten her black lace bustier to maximize the lift of her fake breasts. Brett would flash his tobacco-stained teeth, hook her into her corset, pat her bum, and reassure her that he would do her anytime. They were fond of each other.
She didn’t like me, with good reason. She lived above me, in a jungle-themed studio. Once, when I was sitting on my couch on a Saturday morning, a thin stream of amber-colored liquid began to patter steadily on my windowsill from somewhere upstairs. Fuck this, I thought. I went upstairs and banged on her door, asking why somebody was peeing out the window. It was that kind of building. She said that she had spilled a cup of tea. “Peeing out the window!” she yelled. “What kind of trash do you think I am?” I apologized, but the damage was done. Later she moved back home to Michigan, leaving in a sweatshirt, with no makeup on. But that was much later, when everyone was leaving.
Brett’s friends were always hanging around, none of them model citizens, but I would regularly cross our foyer to chat with them, because being alone at the end of the day sometimes felt unbearable. Two months in, my friend-making campaign was going only so-so.
The night Hurricane Katrina hit Miami, Brett had a pizza defrosting in the oven—the power wasn’t yet knocked out—and he dispensed Tombstone, Percocet, and beer. This combo hit me quickly, and I soon staggered home. It was raining so hard that a puddle had seeped under my door. As the streetlights flickered and the eye of the storm passed over the city, I slept.
I woke up the next morning and drove to work. I assumed that the rest of the city still had electricity, but it turned out that almost nobody did—some wouldn’t get it back for two weeks. Downtown Miami was deserted. The stoplights were out. The only movement was that of a tribe of vagrants deeply concerned with the transportation of fallen palm fronds scattered across sidewalks and intersections. I arrived at the New Times building. Its parking lot was empty except for palm fronds. I sat there for a full minute, engine idling, before turning around and driving back down the Biscayne Corridor. Even the windows of the Latin American Café were darkened, the spy shop shuttered, the sidewalks damp and empty but for the Sisyphean struggle of man versus palm frond. You wouldn’t think electricity makes that much of a difference during the day, but it makes a world of difference.
The MTV Video Music Awards
Date: August 2005
Venues: pawn shop lounge, the redroom at shore club, backseat of a police car, la carreta 24-hour takeout window, Hibiscus Island, someone’s yacht
Liquor Sponsors: Various
Food: Empanadas, roast suckling pig, cigarettes
Attire: Cowboy boots
Celebrities: Kanye West, Carmen Electra, Jessica Simpson, Black Eyed Peas
Gift Bag: One Slim Jim, one Slim Jim t-shirt
Brett was closing on a big internet boat deal “with some Mexicans” the weekend of the MTV Video Music Awards, and the one party I’d been invited to was canceled because of storm damage. The publicity build-up for the awards had been extensive. I kept seeing press releases on the fax machine at work that said things like HOTEL VICTOR LANDS A SPACE IN THIS YEAR’S MOST COVETED GIFT BAG. P. Diddy had flown in to a local marina wearing a rocket pack and a white linen suit to announce the nominees. I couldn’t go outside without returning with souvenirs like a free Trick Daddy Frisbee handed to me from the trunk of a Louis Vuitton–upholstered muscle car. But my lack of party invitations made me feel sorry for myself. When an event happens in Miami and you have no parties to attend you start to doubt your own self-worth, even if you’re a pale myopic person with the salary of a rookie civil servant who has no business at any Miami party, let alone the fancy ones.
Then a friend called from Los Angeles to see if I would go out with his friend, who was in town for the awards. This friend was a Jewish rapper in a hip-hop group called Blood of Abraham, who also co-owned something called a “lifestyle store” in Miami’s Design District. The Design District, much like the Wynwood Arts District, was more of a semiotic hypothesis than a reality. Most people still knew it as Little Haiti, and in spite of skyrocketing housing prices it was one of the poorest urban zip codes in America. Average T-shirt price at the store, which closed down within the year: $70.
This friend of a friend, whose emcee name was Mazik, picked me up with a cousin or two in a shiny white Land Rover. He was wearing a pink polka-dotted shirt and a green sweater vest. He announced that Kanye West was performing downtown and that we were going to see him. I was wearing cowboy boots and a dress I’d bought at a Savers in Little Rock, but somehow Mazik and the cousins and I managed to talk our way into a pawn shop–cum–nightclub through leggy models in stilettos. Kanye West showed up for five minutes and then Carmen Electra performed a choreographed dance with four anemic-looking girls in spangled costumes. The free drinks tasted like lemon drops and when we left we were presented with a gift bag containing a Slim Jim and a Slim Jim T-shirt.
We continued on to the beach, to a hotel called Shore Club. Mazik again was on the list. Outside, under a cluster of Moroccan lanterns, I saw Jessica Simpson sitting on a bench looking lonely. She was very small—midget-size, almost, tan and tiny. In the VIP room I saw a member of the Black Eyed Peas get into a fight. My new friends got peripherally involved, in a drunken inept way, but at least they didn’t take off their shirts. Somebody else did, at which point Jessica Simpson was whisked away by what looked like a bodyguard detail dressed up as county sheriffs. We left. The following night, Suge Knight would be shot in the kneecap in that very spot.
Miami is connected to the island of Miami Beach by a series of causeways. The General Douglas E. MacArthur Causeway, I-395, is the main artery into South Beach, the palm tree–lined promenade that Crockett and Tubbs were always driving down on Miami Vice. I drove back and forth across the causeway almost every day of my time in Miami, and it never lost its air of serenity. Because of Florida’s flatness, the sky is bigger there; the clouds pile into endless stacks of white Persian cats and mohair bunnies. The MacArthur is bordered on one side by the port of Miami, where massive cruise ships and freighters come and go. When I was heading toward the beach, the view was of glittering white condominiums and yachts. When I was heading toward the city, it was of downtown: luminous skyscrapers growing up from a rickety forest of cranes, half-finished high-rises, and canvas-draped rebar skeletons.
At night sometimes the moon would rise large and yellow over the water and packs of scarablike motorcyclists on Yamahas would whir around my car, occasionally doing wheelies. Even when traffic was bad, the environment was glossy: the shiny surfaces of moonlight on the water, of streetlights on freshly waxed cars; the palm fronds rustling and the revving of German motors and the glow of LCD screens through tinted windows showing pornography.
At the end of the night, inside the marshmallow-white Land Rover, I clutched my Slim Jim gift bag. A row of blue lights flashed behind us. We pulled over and a group of police cars somehow screeched into formation around us, cutting us off in front, reducing traffic on the causeway to a single lane and leaving our car with two-thirds of the highway and a very wide berth on all sides. I’d lost count of how many lemon-drop cocktails I’d had, but I was drunk. We were all drunk. I can say fairly confidently that the driver was drunk, and that all the other drivers on the causeway were drunk too. It was 4:30 on a Saturday morning, and now we were going to be arrested.
The police had their weapons drawn, and emerged from their cars shielded by bulletproof car doors. They yelled into a loudspeaker and we followed their instructions. I stepped out of the car and held my hands in the air. I walked backward, a breeze rippling the palm fronds and my dress, my eyes on the asphalt where normally cars speeded and now all was quiet. I knelt, gazing up at the soft, purple sky. Then I was cuffed and put into the back of a police car next to an empty pizza box, where a lady cop began demanding information about our firearms.
I was suddenly a lot more impressed with the people I’d been hanging out with. They had weapons? I quickly confessed that there had, in fact, been a fistfight. But then it emerged that no, the police had simply confused our car with another white Land Rover. Someone in that Land Rover had fired shots at a police officer. We were sheepishly released, our drunkenness apparently not enough to merit attention from the law. We drove to Little Havana and ate empanadas.
There was one more party that weekend, on Hibiscus Island. We were transported by boat, and the theme was sort of luau–meets–Vegas: tiki torches, roasted suckling pig, and girls in uniform carrying around piles of loose cigarettes on silver platters. I think American Spirit sponsored the party, but maybe it was Lucky Strike. We removed our shoes and climbed onto a yacht moored against the mansion’s back dock. Out in the Gulf, Katrina was growing and New Orleanians were preparing to flee, but the Atlantic was quiet now. It was pretty, with the lights and the palm trees and the views of South Beach, and a little rain that would fall for a minute and stop.
Driving Brett and Andy to the Airport
Date: September 2005
Venue: Toyota Corolla
Pharmaceutical Sponsor: Brett
Gift Bag: A very small ziploc
Brett and a friend of his, an Australian male model named Andy, were going to Burning Man. I agreed to drive them to the airport. Their flight left early, and when I knocked on his door Brett emerged baggy-eyed and smelling like a mildewed sponge soaked in tequila. We picked up Andy at his girlfriend’s. She was also a model, tawny with dark brown eyes and a minimalist figure. As they said goodbye they were orbited by what seemed like a dozen teacup Chihuahuas but might only have been two very light-footed teacup Chihuahuas.
We merged onto the highway. Brett, in the backseat, began emptying his pockets, pulling out bags of pills and empty mini Ziplocs coated in a residue of white dust.
“Should I put those pills in a container?” asked Andy.
“I guess. I don’t know. You think?”
Brett passed a baggie of prescription pills to the front seat and Andy put it into an orange case with a prescription on it.
“But what about the cocaine?”
“The cocaine?” I shouted.
“Somebody gave me all this coke last night. I can’t bring it?”
“Don’t bring it on the airplane.”
They decided there was only one thing to do with the cocaine. As I nervously pulled up to the airport, Brett put what remained in the well next to the gearshift. He looked at his nostrils in the rearview mirror and took a Percocet. I quickly put the baggie in the glove compartment. Off to Burning Man! We waved to each other. I drove to work feeling lonely.
Date: October 2005
Venue: Ted’s hideaway, south beach
Wilma hit Miami in the middle of the night, and by the time I woke in the morning the city was silent, void of electricity. The air felt a way that it would never feel again in Miami: crisp, dry, and cool like a New England fall day. I walked to the beach. Men with surfboards ran past me to catch the only surfable waves there would ever be on South Beach. The wind was still blowing and pelicans loitered miserably, too worn out to flap their wings even when the surfers barreled toward them. Somebody spoke up for the pelicans, and ordered everyone to leave them alone while they were tame like this, docile with exhaustion.
People wandered the streets with cameras, taking photos of smashed cars under fallen trees. One parking lot between two buildings had formed a wind tunnel. The cars had piled up like leaves. This was a popular spot with the photographers. My trunk, which had been stuck shut since a British woman in a gleaming chrome SUV rear-ended me, was suddenly open and filled with the branches of a nearby ginkgo tree.
A curfew was called for nightfall and the city forbade driving after dark. My neighborhood bar was crowded and candlelit, but outside the strange autumnal chill remained. My neighbors picked their way through the darkness, stepping over fallen trees. They held flashlights and lanterns and the landscape seemed odd, like they were going to a Halloween party in Sleepy Hollow. The stars were bright over the darkened city.
Some parts of the city were without electricity for weeks, but my place regained power after three days. Miami Beach with its tourists is always a priority. For the remainder of the time I lived in Florida, skyscrapers had plywood over the places where windows had broken. In poorer neighborhoods blue tarps covered damaged roofs for years. But the significance of Wilma didn’t register at the time. Now people say that was the moment when the manna curdled in Miami, when the fragility of its physical location started to affect property values, when the logic of building taller and taller high-rises in a natural-disaster-prone peninsula started to seem suspect. Wilma wasn’t even a real storm, it wasn’t an Andrew or a Katrina-in-New Orleans, but it was enough.
Art Basel Miami Beach
Date: December 2005
Venue: Miami Beach Convention Center, my apartment
Celebrities: Jeffrey Deitch, David Lachapelle (rumored), Madonna (rumored), Sofia Coppola (rumored)
Art Basel Miami Beach is perhaps the only time each year when New York aesthetes bother with Miami. The art fair is an offshoot of Art Basel in Switzerland, and it attracts a lot of very wealthy people. These were a different sort of wealthy people from the banana-yellow-Hummer-driving, highly leveraged “rich people” who were always cutting each other off on I-95. Suddenly my neighborhood hamlet of fake tans, silicone breasts, and hair gel was invaded by pale androgynous people with Italian glasses. The first rule of fashion in Miami was that you wear nothing that might make you look androgynous or poor. These people all looked like shit, but wonderfully so, expensively so.
I spoke with my friends on staff at various hotels, who told me that Sofia Coppola had been spotted at the Delano, and that Madonna was at the Visionaire party last night, and that David LaChapelle’s poolside installation at the Setai had a live transsexual made of silicone lounging naked in a glass house in the middle of a swimming pool.
New Year’s Eve
Date: January 2006
Venue: The Delano Hotel
Food: Surf and Turf
Liquor Sponsor: Dom Perignon
Celebrities: Billy Joel, Snoop Dogg, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris
I ended up at Jamie Foxx’s album release party on New Year’s Eve because I accepted an invitation from a man twenty years older than me who was the local correspondent for a prominent celebrity tabloid. “You’re the only person I know who is superficial enough to actually enjoy this,” he said, kindly.
I decided I would enjoy myself. The problem was that as soon as I stepped into the lobby of the Delano, with its gossamer curtains and high ceilings, and as soon as I was served champagne by models dressed in silver angel outfits, and primal hunter-gatherer food (fire-blackened meat, stone crab claws, oysters, caviar, lobster tails) by a waiter dressed in tennis whites, I was overwhelmed by a profound sadness.
But 2006 was going to be a good year, or so promised Jamie Foxx when his press handler escorted him over to us. He was covered in distracting surfaces—mirrored sunglasses, diamond earrings, polka-dotted shirt—and graciously shook our hands.
“An excellent year,” he promised, and I believed him.
Then he performed the song “Gold Digger” against a backdrop of more gossamer curtains and dancing angels and pewter candelabras, while we watched from the lawn around the pool, where the grass was cut short like a tennis lawn and tiny white edelweisslike flowers sprouted. I held my glass of Dom and my high heels sank into the soil. Snoop performed, looking shy and grinning goofily, then Ludacris, and then fireworks exploded over the Atlantic Ocean and a new year began.
I ended the night without my escort, at a bar called Club Deuce. In Florida, unlike in Brooklyn, the dives are really dives: neon lights shaped like naked ladies, wrinkly alcoholics, obese bartenders, all in New Year’s crowns, blowing horns and throwing confetti. I was in a cab heading home alone by 4 am, my gold shoes somehow full of sand.
My 25th Birthday
Date: April 2006
Venue: Stand of palm trees, Key Biscayne Beach
Liquor Sponsor: byob
I celebrated this birthday with my friend Krishna, who made close to six figures a year as a waiter at the most expensive hotel in South Beach. Krishna had grown up in a yoga ashram in Central Florida and then gone to Brown. The son of his ashram’s guru was now a big-time real estate broker in Miami Beach with a boat and a BMW and an apartment in the Mondrian. Krishna was gay and surrounded himself with down-to-earth, interesting people. He was a real friend, not a fake friend. Things were changing for me. For example, I started taking tennis lessons. I started hanging out with people I actually liked. I stopped shooting the shit with Brett. I would nod on my way out the door, when he was sitting there having a cigarette, but I didn’t go swimming with all his friends in the evenings, and their parties got so depressing. One night, I agreed to drive one of them to “pick something up.” I was just trying to be neighborly. On the way, the guy failed to warn me about a helpless animal crossing the road. I know that as the driver it was technically my fault, but he saw this animal, this doomed raccoon, and he just let out a slow “Whoa.” Then I ran over the raccoon. In the rearview mirror I watched the raccoon drag itself toward the curb. I hadn’t even properly killed it. I was furious. I was furious at this poor creature for trying to live on Miami Beach, at myself for having maimed it, and especially at this guy for being too much of a stoner to stop me. It wasn’t quite fair, but that’s how I felt. From then on, when Brett’s drug-dealer friends offered cocaine when I stepped out of my apartment in the morning I would be outright rude. At some point Brett had lost his job selling boats.
My relationship with Miami changed. I went to fewer parties at hotels. The gift-bag influx slowed. I stopped being around so many people who sold real estate, who picked me up in luxury vehicles, who drank lychee martinis and said things like, “Well, I was talking about this with John Stamos at Mansion the other night.” I still pursued unlikely friendships out of curiosity—I went on a date with a paparazzo who had netted his fortune from a single portrait of Paris Hilton with her tiny dog. The funny thing was that this paparazzo had a tiny dog of his own that would nuzzle and burrow under your arm when you held it, like a little cat.
I stopped writing emails to my friends in New York about my mirth at outrageous Floridian real estate nonsense. The billboard advertising a condominium project on I-95 that was simply a photo of a man’s hands unhooking a woman’s bra was no longer delightfully symbolic of everything that was wrong with the real estate boom, just depressingly so.
To live in a place like Florida is to destroy the earth. I watched snowy egrets and great blue herons picking their way through drainage ditches outside of Costco. I covered county commission meetings where the merits of building suburbs in the Everglades were proclaimed and posters of digitally rendered high-rises were offered in exchange for slackening of the zoning laws. I went to the Everglades and saw anhingas flitting under the boardwalk, their tails expanding like fans in water stained brown like tea. I thought about how in Florida, a bird like the anhinga was only useful insofar as it provided local color in the names of housing developments. The names of new housing developments grew more and more offensive. I started keeping a list. The idea was to make some sort of game out of it, like that internet game that generated Wu-Tang names. I thought I could make a Florida subdivision name generator.
Here is an excerpt of my list: Villa Encantada. Gables Estates. Old Cutler Bay. Journey’s End. Hancock Oaks. Cutler Oaks. Pine Bay. Deering Bay Estates. Old Cutler Glen. Cocoplum. Saga Bay, Serena Lakes, Lakes by the Bay, Three Lakes, Cutler Estates. Swan Lake. Arabesque. Arboretum Estates. The Sanctuary at Pinecrest. Gables by the Sea. Tahiti Beach Island. Snapper Creek Lakes. Banyans by the Gables. Coco Ibiza Villas. Kumquat Village. The Imperial. The Moorings. Trocadero in the Grove. Gladewinds. Killian Oaks Estates. The Palms at Kendall. Poinciana at Sunset. Villas of Briar Bay. Las Brisas at Doral. The Courts at Doral Isles. Porto Vita. The Terraces at Turnberry. Lychee Nut Grove. Flamingo Garden Estates. L’Hermitage. The Palace.
Nightly Barbecue, Guantánamo Bay
Date: May 2006
Venue: Leeward dormitories, Guantánamo Bay Naval Base
Liquor Sponsor: Navy PX
A senior reporter at the paper quit, and they sent me in her stead to report on the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. Cuba fell under our purview as a Miami newspaper, even if Gitmo was 400 miles away. Before I left, I watched A Few Good Men, the basic-cable mainstay about a military cover-up at Guantánamo. When Demi Moore and Tom Cruise visit the island to look for evidence, Demi, in curve-hugging Navy whites, accuses a flippant Tom of goofing around. “Are you going to do any investigating,” she demands, “or did you just come here for the tour?” I came for the tour.
I flew Air Sunshine. A lawyer, a frequent flyer on Air Sunshine propeller planes, had told me that taking the airline’s shuttles from Fort Lauderdale to Guantánamo Bay was like traveling in a “minivan with wings.” The nine-seater’s decor was peeling blue pleather accentuated with protruding bits of orange foam. A front-row seat afforded a detailed view of the cockpit, since one sat practically inside of it. The windows were pockmarked and scratched. The engine thrummed a steady bass vibrato. The air smelled acrid with fumes. As the plane tilted to land, a container of shoe polish rolled across the floor.
I spent ten days at Guantánamo, most of it by myself on the deserted leeward side, where I rented a bicycle from a Jamaican contract worker and went swimming on a rocky beach overseen by Marine guard towers. The detention facilities were on the windward side, where we could go only with military escorts. I toured the camps twice, going through the motions of journalism. The tour was a farce. We saw the prisoners only from a distance. The cells they showed us were stocked with “comfort items” like soap, the “interrogation room” furnished with a plush armchair and an espresso machine. The troops we spoke with told us about their scuba-diving lessons. They lived in a suburb devoid of a city, like an amputated limb with a life of its own, with Pizza Hut and Ben & Jerry’s and outdoor screenings of The Hills Have Eyes 2. When inside the camp, the military personnel removed the Velcro name tags attached to their uniforms and emphasized that detainees have been known to make threats. On one of the tours our guide was Naval Commander Catie Hanft, deputy commander of the Joint Detention Group. Commander Hanft’s previous job was commanding the Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where José Padilla was jailed in an environment of almost total sensory deprivation, never allowed to see the face of his captors, until his transfer to a federal prison in Miami. Hanft had short hair and a tan. When one of our escorts accidentally called her by name she smiled and interrupted: “Colonel, don’t say my name in the camp, please.” The mood curdled slightly.
Most nights we would pick up some meat and alcohol at the Navy PX before they escorted us back to the deserted side of the bay. Then we would drink alcohol and grill meat, “we” being an assortment of human rights lawyers, Pashto translators, and journalists. Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, one of the lawyers, told of walking in on his Bahraini client, Juma Al Dosari, as he attempted suicide during a bathroom break the previous year. Dosari, who had made twelve serious attempts, had cut one wrist and tried to hang himself. On this visit, although Colangelo-Bryan noted a couple of new scars, Dosari seemed in better spirits.
On the night before I left, there was a bigger group than usual at the barbecue. Around midnight, when everyone was slightly drunk, a plane came in to land on the base’s runway, which was also on the deserted side of the bay. Sleek and floodlit against the night sky, the plane gleamed white and bore the green insignia of the Saudi royal family on its tail. The Saudis had come for some of the prisoners. In the morning the plane was gone.
Date: June 2006
Venue: Street in Coconut Grove
The Miami Heat had had a good season, and as the team advanced to the playoffs people actually started going to Miami Heat games. Everybody in the stands wore white to these games. Later I was informed that the entire sports blogosphere made fun of Miami for doing that. The Heat beat the Mavericks in the finals. I went to an outdoor screening of the last game and watched Dirk Nowitzki run backward chewing his mouth guard with an increasingly frantic air of frustration. Lots of Miami players seemed to be wearing special injury-preventing compression kneesocks and sleeves. After the team won, a friend who was visiting observed the cheering hordes in white on the street. “The most hard-core Miami Heat fan is like one of those girls who wears a pink Red Sox shirt,” he said.
Fidel Puts Raul in Charge
Date: August 2006
Venue: Calle Ocho
Everybody wanted to be in Miami when Castro fell. The Miami Herald supposedly had a plan, or rather the plan, for the moment of Castro’s death. Then nothing turned out as planned. Castro showed up on television in an Adidas tracksuit, looking ill. Then he made his brother president. The streets outside Café Versailles were full of people honking horns and waving flags, but Fidel wasn’t really dead. Fidel Castro was no longer president of Cuba, he was attached to a colostomy bag and being fed through a tube, but the Berlin Wall moment everyone in Miami expected didn’t happen. For the first time, it seemed possible that it might not ever happen. Then again, he’s not dead yet.
Dinner with a Psychic
Date: September 2006
Venue: The home of Univision’s Morning Show’s visiting psychic
I was writing about the first homosexual love triangle in an American-made Spanish-language telenovela. One of the actors, who was straight (it was unclear whether the show’s tolerance extended into telenovela casting practices), invited me to dinner at the house of a Spanish-language television psychic named Frances. I had a friend of a friend in town so I invited him, too, thinking he would enjoy the cultural experience. He did not enjoy it. The evening ended with Frances waving a wand around a warbling vibratory instrument called a meditation bowl and ordering the friend of a friend to hug a palm tree. “I’m an atheist,” he kept repeating, his face pressed against the palm tree. The next week I got an email inviting me to a gathering at Frances’s with some Tibetan monks. I have many regrets, but few loom so large as my decision not to attend.
Weeknight Shindig at Brett’s
Date: September 2006
Venue: Our apartment building
This year Brett came back from Burning Man with an announcement: he had fallen in love. Kellie, an 18-year-old from Truckee, California, arrived shortly thereafter. She immediately found work as a cocktail waitress and started supporting him. I gave her my old driver’s license so she could get into bars. We had other news as well: our building was going condo.
Art Basel Miami Beach
Date: December 2006
Venue: Shore Club
This year I went out a little more at Art Basel. I went to a Vanity Fair party. We got rubber bracelets, like Lance Armstrong testicular cancer bracelets, but hot pink and stamped vanity fair. My aunt, who lives in southwest Florida and paints pictures of children on beaches flying kites, came to see the art, but what excited her most was watching someone write a $400,000 check in a particleboard boothlet.
A Celebration of the Jade Collection of Thi-Nga, Vietnamese Princess-in-Exile
Date: February 2007
Venue: The Setai, Collins Avenue
The paper assigned me an investigative piece: discover the true identity of Princess Thi-Nga, a Miami Beach philanthropist and supposed member of the exiled imperial family of Vietnam. She was on the board of the Bass Museum of Art, where the parties were always sponsored by Absolut Vodka. Her collection of ancient jade sculpture was on display at the Bass at the time, which some people saw as a conflict of interest. My editor thought she might be a fraud. I failed to uncover much evidence of this. I failed to uncover much evidence at all, actually. It appeared nobody was paying close attention to the lineage of the former royal family of Vietnam. I too didn’t really care.
I met Thi-Nga at the Setai, the hotel where my friend Krishna worked. A room at the Setai cost upward of $1,000 a night. Its bar was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and its couches upholstered with manta ray skins, or something like that. According to Krishna, when a guest of the Setai arrived at Miami International Airport, he or she had the choice of being chauffeured in a Bentley or a Hummer (a question of personal style). In the car was a wide selection of bottled-water brands and an iPod.
Thi-Nga was launching her jade sculpture exhibition with an elaborate party at the hotel. I met her there for breakfast the day before the party. I ate a $12 bowl of muesli. It was the most delicious bowl of muesli I have ever eaten.
For her party, Thi-Nga had rented an elephant named Judy. Adorned with gemstones, Judy led a parade down Collins Avenue on Miami Beach that also included dancers: Thai ones with pointy golden hats and splayed fingers and a Chinese lion that batted its paper eyelashes to the rhythm of cymbals. The princess rode in a silver Jaguar convertible behind them, seated next to the mayor of Miami Beach, waving to confused pedestrians who tentatively waved back. Then all her guests went to the Setai and ate salmon.
Brett Moves Out
Date: April 2007
This party is in fact only theoretical. My neighborly relationship with Brett had deteriorated to the point of mere formality, so I’m not sure if he had a goodbye party or not. I hope he had a big party, where the lava lamps oozed and the cigarette butts accumulated and the dollar bills were dusted in cocaine. Our building was depopulated now. The call girl was gone; the dumb stoner who had been my accomplice in the murder of the raccoon was gone. The apartments upstairs had sold for phenomenal amounts of money. My apartment had been purchased by a tennis pro, who informed me that I could consider him a landlord upgrade. I took him at his word and purchased the air-conditioning unit with the highest Consumer Reports rating, paid the alcoholic handyman who hung around the neighborhood to install it, and deducted the whole production from my rent check. Going condo was amazing.
Unless you were Brett. Things weren’t going well for Brett, who was still unemployed and being supported by his teenage girlfriend. He and Kellie had recently been arrested for driving someone else’s car that happened to have a felony-size quantity of crystal meth in the glove compartment. I encountered them on our stoop after they had been released on bail. Apparently everything would be all right; they had agreed to rat on some drug dealer. But still, this on top of moving. They were heading up to 8th Street, a part of South Beach that remarkably had retained its seedy character, and whose apartments, though as expensive as everything else in Miami, were terrible to live in. I’d had a friend who lived on Brett’s new block; her floor was often inexplicably littered with millipede exoskeletons. She would gamely sweep up the hard brown shells and claim that they were harmless, but I vowed that I would draw the line of shitty-apartment-living at mysterious worm infestations.
Then one day Brett was gone, and the landlords were happily ripping out the interior of his apartment. One of them, Dave, told me it had been a relief.
“You should have seen the bathroom. Drug addicts. It’s disgusting.”
Very stupidly, I had never thought of Brett as an addict, just as a guy who did drugs. A certain kind of Miami guy who liked to party. But now Brett was gone. All traces of him were replaced, in a matter of weeks, with granite countertops and track lighting.
I saw him one more time that summer, on 5th Street, when I knew I would be leaving Miami. I was walking home from the gym when I was waylaid by a torrential downpour, the kind where I could see the violent wall of water approaching from across the street. I waited under an overhang, staring at nothing, until it retreated. In the dripping aftermath, the sidewalks gray and clean, the palm trees still quivering, I encountered Brett on a street corner. Brett wasn’t a pessimist. Everything was going great, he said, the new apartment was fantastic. Later, when the recession came, I took comfort in knowing that, like me, Brett was probably all right, because Brett owned nothing.
That was the thing about boom times that later became clear: We now know that boom times don’t feel like boom times. They feel like normal times, and then they end. Particularly if one is not a direct beneficiary of the excess wealth and one’s salary is measly to nonexistent, boom times are just the spectacle of other people’s reckless spending. Their gluttony was my gluttony of course—only a bore would have abstained from the festivities—but their downfall was little more than an abstraction from the vantage point of one with no assets.
Our downfalls would not involve grand narratives of repossession or foreclosure, just a steadily diminishing ability to keep some fundamental part of the city at bay. In heady days, we conquered Miami, carving out the mangroves, digging up the ocean bottom and slathering it on a sandbar, molding concrete into skyscrapers, pumping refrigerated air through miles of metal windpipes and over glass coffee tables and white couches. But here, now, as those with no assets fled to low-rent holdouts, inland from the beach to paved-over swamps, recession only meant a slow infiltration: worms burrowing through the floor and dying, spores drifting through vents, and terracotta roof tiles uplifted by the autumn winds.
My Last Day
Date: August 2007
The Corolla was packed up, and as I was about to leave, one of those terrific summer rainstorms hit. I lay next to my boyfriend on his bed (for by then I had a boyfriend), watching the rain pound against the windows, the palms lean into the wind, and the cat purr between us. Of the whole tableau, the only thing I anticipated missing was the cat. The relationship was ending, my job was ending, and the real estate boom had already ended. I had gotten ornery in the last months in Miami. If another interviewee told me, as we drove in his golf cart through a maze of pink stucco on top of a leveled mangrove grotto, that he “lived in paradise,” I thought I might wrestle the wheel from him and plunge us both into the algae blooms of a fertilizer-polluted drainage canal. So I left the place where baby sea turtles mistake the floodlights of condos for the rising sun, where the dogs are small, the breasts are big, and the parties are ornamented with drag queens in bubble baths.
When the rain stopped I drove past suburbs until I hit the Everglades, then emerged into suburbs again on the other side.