Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Miami Twice

I’ve only been to Miami once before in 1986 and I had a horrible time there though that wasn’t the city of Miami’s fault. Still, I hadn’t been all that anxious to come back. It was just that our older daughter got a job here and instead of her coming home, we decided to get together in a place where you can walk the beach three days before Christmas and have people greet you by saying “Feliz Navidad” between applications of sun screen. The metropolitan are of Miami is up to 5.4 million people and it seems as if three quarter of those people are not primary English speakers.

The shopping district near our daughter’s North Beach neighborhood appears to include a restaurant dedicated to each western hemisphere country south of Florida. I talked the family into trying Columbian food our second afternoon here. Last night I slipped out to get smoothies and salads from an Argentinian café that claimed to have the best hot dogs in Miami. While much of the food is Latin, a good percentage of the newcomers appear to be Eastern European. Miami has a large concentration of Russian Jews. A friend of mine here who came from Belarus via New Jersey talked about a giant Menorah lighting ceremony on one of the beaches a few days ago. In her words, “All these people lighting a Menorah and no police.”

In between, she managed to tell me how America is doomed because of political correctness that keeps the most competent individuals from rising to the top. Who knows?

Two generations ago, Los Angeles was the city of the future in American culture. At that time, it was the city built around the three institutions that shaped the second half of twentieth century America- the automobile, television, and the movies. Perhaps the most symbolic move came in the early sixties when Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to Hollywood. After all, the guests were then all in Los Angeles. Instead of Broadway stars, writers, and Washington politicians, the mix changed to movie stars, musicians, and most recently individuals best described as “party people” and other progeny of Paris Hilton.

Of the many American cities I’ve visited in the last decade, Miami is the one that looks and feels genuinely different. Based on the number of exotic cars roaming the always crowded streets and the endless number of personal palaces fronting the ocean, there’s clearly a huge amount of money coming into the city. In addition, the wide spectrum of languages and looks (Africa, Europe, the Caribbean) feels like a modern take on New York just before the twentieth century when something like a hundred thousand people a day were coming into what was then the city of America’s future.

Perhaps most symbolic of all, this is the city that determined the fate of the 2000 election. Although Dade County actually went to Gore, this is the place where the recount war happened. In 1900, New York City was the gateway to a country that had reached the tipping point between urban vs. rural, manufacturing and service vs. agricultural, and inward looking vs. world power. The artifacts of that time include the Statue of Liberty (1896), the beginnings of the Manhattan skyline, and the subway system (1904). Los Angeles celebrated the rise of America as a cultural power and the artifacts of that are Disneyland (1955), the freeway system both the city’s crowded system of interchanges and the completion of the Interstate to the west coast, and Dodger Stadium then known as the Chavez Ravine which symbolized both the nationalization of sports culture with the major leagues now on both coasts and the quiet elimination of an established Mexican neighborhood (the rise of an American monoculture of shopping malls, television, tract homes, and pop music).

If Miami is now the city of America’s future, I’m not sure what its artifacts will be. It appears that we have hit a critical juncture in our history. The era of American financial power ushered in by the New York City of 1900 appears to be waning. The post-war American culture of 1950’s Los Angeles is also being challenged by the mix represented in Miami. Instead of simply becoming “American”, whatever that is, the new generation of immigrants seems to demand that their new country meet them at least part way. There are certainly stores and restaurants here where no one attempts to speak English and the flat screen televisions thanks to satellite dishes play shows from the owners’ native countries. Rather than doing whatever is necessary to seem as “American” as possible (do you remember when Jewish immigrants routinely changed their names?), Miami appears to be a place where the wealthier immigrants at least pick and choose. Cars, fancy hotels, and elaborate shopping malls appear to be a “yes”. The Barnes and Nobles in one of the malls had whole counters of books in Spanish. It’s just harder to tell about the rest. We were in a kosher frozen yogurt shop near Bal Harbor shopping center and there were cards along the wall for a Jewish private school. In the meantime, Miami is a city with five million people and two four year colleges, the University of Miami and Florida International.

I really have no idea what the artifacts of Miami, the city, will be from the early twenty first century. We did spend two evenings wandering, shopping, and dining on the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in South Beach. It was crowded, filled with outdoor restaurants, exotic scents. Where else do you find deep fried yucca (more or less low carb French Fries), chicken churrasco, and plantains served next door to a place that offers avocado won ton, and sushi made from yellowtail tuna and mangoes? One of the signs of Miami’s emergence as a city of importance in America (it’s fourth by population) is that it’s rapidly becoming a food city.

More ominously, before we got her one of the networks ran a segment on how the foreclosure fest known as contemporary American finance has hit Miami especially hard. The city has more than its share of half-constructed towers and eerily empty hotels right now. One possibility is that Miami is going to be the template for America as colony rather than colonist. The wealthy of Miami are often those who don’t speak or care to speak English. The “Americans” in Miami may soon be the ones serving the whims of tourists rather than the other way around.

I am however thankful that the Miami of Crockett and Tubbs that I saw in the eighties is mostly gone. Whatever the underlying reality, my first thought here isn’t that I’m wandering the center of the North American cocaine trade. Instead, there’s a tremendous energy here still a sense of growth and change that has slipped away from say San Francisco or Washington D.C. (the two American cities I know best). At times modern Miami seems to be one of these places that's all future and no past. Even Elian Gonzales and Gore v. Bush seem like a long time ago. There’s something possible here, the hint of a second melting pot that may push America forward yet again economically and culturally. Only this time, this melting pot’s will probably have a few more spices in it.


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Monday, December 15, 2008

The Fourth World (fiction)

In a thousand miles of pedaling, the roads in the Navajo nation were the best we'd ridden- smooth, wide, black, and almost completely free of traffic. Once every ten minutes, a pickup truck flew by with stereo turned up and the occupants drinking from something wrapped in a brown paper bag. On the eastern side of the continental divide, the best roller coaster in America, we'd hit fifty six miles an hour just coasting. We spent the night at an Indian boarding school for girls in Crown Point: the students were home for the summer. Joe and Mary, our hosts, worked for the BIA. They made fry bread for us, told us about the long walk, and explained that the real name for the tribe was the “Dineh”. It was the Dineh who had made it through the four worlds until they found this permanent home between four sacred mountains.
After the guitar, the visit from the man in traditional dress who told us the story of the Dineh that led from the Bering Strait, through Kit Carson’s attempt at genocide, up to the Code Talkers, and an eggs and pancakes breakfast, we tell Mary, “You’re being too nice.”
“You're our guests. You’re riding your bicycles for a good cause. What was it again?”
We explaineintermediate technology for a second time and how our group of mostly college students was spending the summer riding bicycles from Los Angeles to New York to raise awareness of items like pedal-powered well pumps and refrigerators that run on solar panels. “They keep milk cold, but they can’t make ice. They don’t have roads or a power grid in the third world,” we explained.
Mary smiles. She’s short, squat, and has a smooth round face that evokes some more ancient time, “Well that explains it, this is the fourth world here.”
In the meantime, Joe wants to know how much our bikes cost and what we do about flat tires.
“Go ahead ride one of the bikes, give it a try, we tell him.”
Joe shakes his head, “I’ve never ridden one of these.”
“We’re not worried. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Mary stands back by the dormitory doorstep and says softly so Joe won’t hear, “He means he’s never ridden a bicycle. He never learned. He can’t swim either.”
“Well, we can teach him.”
“Next time you visit. You can come back and teach him.”
We follow Joe’s pickup truck to the opening of the Crownpoint Airport. He talked us out of our plans to go to Chaco Canyon that morning, the home of the Anasazi, the people who were either visionaries or cannibals who preceded the Dineh here. None of us have used “Navajo” since late last night even after we found out that Anasazi is a Navajo word for “Ancestor Enemy.”

“Go to the canyons tomorrow, stay another day. We want you to be our guests of honor. It’s supposed to be a big ceremony. You don’t want to say you missed your chance to see a Navajo ceremony. The Anasazi will still be there for you.”

The landing strip is the same gorgeous black asphalt as their highway. Our group of twenty doubles the size of the crowd present for the ceremony. The men wear Laker’s jerseys, Nikes, and Dodger caps. The women are in jeans and t-shirts. Most of those there seem to have something better to do. A woman sells sand paintings at the foot of the airstrip. An old man sells silver jewelry. The PA announces that Peter McDonald’s jet will land in fifteen minutes. A holy man, blesses the airstrip. The sky is black and grey.

We talk to a man in the crowd who works for tribal social services. He tells us about the delayed construction of an alcohol treatment center that he wants to discuss with Chairman McDonald. How the BIA school needs better teachers. “You know Peter McDonald was one of the code talkers.”
We sigh.
“He never made it into combat, but he spent fifteen thousand last year trying to be designated as one of the four hundred.”
A man at a podium set up near the jet introduces us to the crowd, but Peter McDonald is still on the plane. A group of women dancers makes us join them. The man in the suit at the podium passes a Hefty Garbage bag for people to contribute money to our cause. We try to tell them that their hospitality has been enough. By now we’ve heard about the toxic waste dump, getting kicked off land so the government can dig a coal mine, about the Mormon Navajo leader convicted of child abuse.
As the bag circulates, an elderly man in a dark blue suit gets off the plane, holds a hand up in greeting, then ducks into a black BMW 735i that drives away from the airstrip onto the smoothest highway in America.
“That was Peter McDonald.”
Before we get on our bikes for Chaco Canyon, we decide that we take the money out of the Hefty Bag and count out a hundred and sixty seven dollars with a single crisp hundred dollar bill making up the bulk of the contributions. It’s double what we got from the Flagstaff Rotary and four times what the Needles YWCA gave us.
Mary sees us looking at the hundred dollar bill and nods, her eyes dark and bottomless.
“Joe was told that he needed to make sure there was a crowd for the Chairman’s arrival. Peter McDonald was indicted last week. His aide slipped the bill in so the chief wouldn’t have to make a speech.”
In the corner of the runway by the highway, Joe sits perches on one of our two thousand dollar Colnagos. He spreads his arms like some great thunderbird as we run alongside, keeping the Dineh warrior from hitting pavement.


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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Home from the Office

Our daughter came home from college for the first time over Thanksgiving. When we got her at the airport, she looked older, but we still recognized her. More important, she still recognized us. In the meantime, she’s already announced that she’s going to Miami for Spring Break to hang out with her older sister. After we dropped our daughter off at the airport on Sunday morning we went to a wedding. We were the oldest people at our table.

Want another sign that we’re getting on? We decided to meet my wife’s sister and brother in law for Thanksgiving at a restaurant. The El Dorado Hotel in Sonoma is a terrific restaurant with incredible deserts, but turkey, stuffing, and potatoes done up as California Cuisine is a bit strange. For one, Thanksgiving is supposed to be big plates of food, not bits of free-range turkey served with candied cranberries mixed with freshly-shaved cinnamon and cloves. The more serious problem is that we could see almost as much plate as food. My wife’s agnolloti turned out to be the best choice and yes, we’d go back but maybe we’re too traditional in our view that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the food tasting good, it’s all about purposeful overeating.

We spent Friday at a mall in Fairfield where my mother took her only grandchild shopping, so we did carry out one Thanksgiving tradition. If there’s a recession on, they didn’t tell anyone in Fairfield. The parking lot there was full. They also never seem to tell my mother about these recession things, at least when it comes to our daughter. We then went out for Japanese food and I got to complain about trendy sushi that comes deep-fried and often doesn’t even contain raw fish. What’s with mayonnaise and cream cheese in sushi anyway? In any case, this place was so traditional Japanese that their sushi was mostly raw fish, imagine that. I went to one place in Sacramento where they had filet mignon sushi (the beef was cooked). Talk about seriously unclear on the concept. Naturally that place was insanely busy and the little mom and pop (should it be mama san and papa san?) in Fairfield was mostly empty.

On Saturday night, we had packed the station wagon and were getting ready to have dinner at our daughter’s favored pizza place, Mary’s when the rear passenger tire started hissing. Instead of eating, we drove home, tire still more or less intact, and packed everything into the Honda Civic then drove back to another Mary’s then on to one of those airport motels in Millbrae. Most of the place was under construction and we’re convinced that they forgot to put sound insulation on the floor above us. We were in a handicapped room (by accident) and the people above must have been in the Elephant march room. Every five minutes at three in the morning, one of them would do some sort of jig. We never slept.

In fact the one bit of the Thanksgiving that felt like our daughter really was back at home was Friday night when we decided to just hang out and watch multiple episodes of the Office through Netflix’s download service. For the last few years, the pattern’s been that she starts watching something and we start watching with her, hence American Idol, the Bachelor, Law and Order SVU, and I guess now the Office. One of the odd things about Netflix is that I get to see what she’s been downloading :}. The Office is 21 minutes long and I think we watched 8 installments of Jim and Pam, Mike, etc.

We’re well aware that the number of times our daughter will still think of coming home as “home” rather than leaving “home” to visit her parents can probably be counted on two hands. Our older daughter tells us that she’s the only one of her friends who comes “home” for as long as she does. Her friends spend a couple days seeing their parents and brothers and sisters then go have their vacation rather than say staying for a week or more. In a way, it’s a good sign. Our kids don’t need us anymore to the extent that they’ve started to think of wherever they live as home, yet they still like coming home for more than the obligatory amount. I just wish Thanksgiving had been a lot longer. In the meantime, we missed our daughter again last night so we watched two more episodes of the Office (the American version).


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