Monday, February 3, 2014

A White Man's Dream

Aerobics on South Beach
The 1980's were an explosive era for South Florida.  The television series "Miami Vice" ruled the airwaves, blending Versace fashion with automatic-weapon's fire as blue blood detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and his Latino partner, Ricardo Tubbs (Phil Thomas) teamed up to go undercover for Miami's Metro-Dade Vice Squad.

Described as "the first cop show for the MTV generation," enough lines were crossed and snorted each week to blow America away.  Guest appearances by a list of notables that included Frank Zappa, Phil Collins and Sheena Easton added music cool to the episodes, while real-life Watergate defendant, G. Gordo Liddy appeared as Captain Real Estate, an unscrupulous heroin dealer and arms supplier to Latin American "freedom fighters".  

After "Miami Vice," TV cop shows would never be the same.  But what about South Beach, the pseudo realistic back drop for Crocket's and Tubbs' cutting-edge capers?  What about those Yiddish accents and police sirens, the penguin shaped Bubbies in the gaudy floral print bathers, the blue and florescent orange hair-dos and those droopy flesh heavy limbs being gingerly aerobicized beneath the coconut palms of Ocean Drive?  Well within five years and one hundred and eleven episodes of "Miami Vice," the old Bensonhurst babes were out and the topless Cote d'Azur beauties were in.  

Soon, even the seedy end of Collins Avenue would be scrubbed clean of its HIV junkies, emaciated coke whores, crack dens and methadone clinics.  Joe's Stone Crab, for years the only restaurant worth crossing The Causeway for, would soon find itself zipped past by Ferrari rag-tops bee-lining for the renovated clubs of the historic district with their late night venues, sock-less deck shoes and neon edged deco facades.

And yes, back then there was always a quartered slice of lime tipping the long glass neck of your Corona and everyone you drank with was either an artist, an actor or an entrepreneur with no morning schedule to keep. Sunrises and sunsets were magnificent experiments, full of heated pastels and molten gold, airbrushed twice daily on chipped stucco by reggae alchemists.

So there I was, dressed in sandals, shorts and loose fitting singlet, the lingering heat of a burnt orange sun drying what remained of a few thin puddles left by a passing thunder head, my inherited Pentax swinging boldly from the strap around my neck, perhaps even a hint of fine ganjah on my breath.  Wandering, I turned down a cobbled alley where I came upon a skinny young black boy squatting shirtless in the frame of a coffin size door punched through the white concrete of a long windowless wall.  I lifted my camera, the stops pre-set, and in one smooth movement, focussed and shot.  In the click of the shutter, a skeleton hand, nails painted blood red, shot from the darkness within and quick as a frog's tongue, snatched the boy from his lilly pad of light, exchanging his body for hers.  This new sentry was small as well, but she was hard and thin, bony and sharp as a razor headed arrow.  

"What you want with the child?" she asked.

I looked into her eyes, black as the room from which she'd sprung.  Glassy ebony holes, like the twin ends of a shotgun. 

"I was just taking his picture. " I said, lowering my camera by its throat and clipping the lens cover back into place.  

"What you want with his picture?" she snapped.  

"Oh, I don't know," I said.  "I just thought he looked really cool there.  Great light this time of day."  

Then I noticed the boy, little more than a shadow edging from behind the back of this frail, phantom-like woman. I could see his arm was still a prisoner of her tightly clenched fist.

I smiled at him, conscious of the weight of my camera, secure beneath my elbow and pressed against my rib like a timid pet.

"Who knows,"  I added, forcing my grin up and into the taunt hollows of her face. "Maybe someday he'll be famous." 

I stepped off the curb into the narrow street.  I was anxious to move on, the sun was nearly gone.

"Famous?"  She spat out, her tooth pick legs wobbling slightly as she pushed herself and the boy back into the dark room.  

"You leave the boy alone!  Fame is a white man's dream."

South Beach in the 1980's was a mosaic of contradictions.  It was a place in transition, were script writers and actors were no different than carpenters or masons, each framing a new look atop the bones of history. 

Beside, how strange is it for an undercover cop named Sonny to live on a sailboat with a pet alligator called Elvis?  Probably not strange at all.  At least not in Miami.

Miami Vice trailer, "Stone's War":