Three Short Pieces About Miami
“I love my native air, but it does not love me.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson
The best novel about Miami is Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales.
The non-translated title is Casa de Los Naufragos, a literal translation of which would be “House of the Ship-Wrecked” or “Home for Castaways.” Both of these are good mottos for Miami.
Robert Louis Stevenson imagined his island of castaways in the shape of a skull. The map of his island reveals its shape as well as discloses the location of its gold, the sole reason the castaways are on the island in the first place.
The authors of Miami imagined a city in the shape of gold itself, and to make it come true, they had to disguise the fact that, in building it, they were constantly digging up the skulls of the people who lived here before them.
Rosales obliterates the mirage.
His Miami is smaller than an island: it’s a single house, a hell-hole for the collection of abandoned and vulnerable people marooned there. The house exists solely as a money-making scheme for the owner, who collects revenue from the government for each person he houses. The cheaper he can house the people, the more revenue he pockets. Rosales doesn’t name it as such, but another word for this phenomenon is “development.”
The dramatic tension of the book stems from the possibility of the protagonist William’s escape from the house, but, and this is hardly a spoiler, once he does escape, he discovers that Miami’s cruelty doesn’t confine itself to any one residence. The house is not special in any way. It’s not a prison, an island, or a zoo, but a microcosm of the entire world.
Inside or outside of the house, William is marooned in a city in which he has no value. Both systems, Capitalist and Communist, grind up and spit out people like him. All the rhetoric—revolutionary, democratic, populist, establishment, anti-establishment—is nothing but a come-up for those who wield it, a shroud laid over the bodies of the victims.
It’s almost as if, in writing Halfway House, Rosales realized he’d told the whole truth and there was nothing left to say because he never wrote another book.
Shopping (Is a Pleasure)
The poet Lorenzo García Vega (1926–2012) left Cuba in 1961. He was one of the founders of Origenes and a winner, at age 26, of Cuba’s National Prize for Literature. He arrived in the United States with three doctorates: one in law, one in philosophy, and one in literature, but he couldn’t teach here because he’d been forced to leave his diplomas behind. He went to New York first, but always bounced around, and finally ended up living out the last ten years of his life in Miami, where he worked as a bag boy at a Publix supermarket. I don’t know which Publix. It might have even been a Winn-Dixie. I shop at Publix, though, so when I tell the story, he worked at Publix. It’s important to say, right off the bat, that Lorenzo García Vega, poet and Publix employee, hated Miami. However much you think you hate Miami, trust me, García Vega hated it more. He wouldn’t even call it Miami. He renamed it Albino Beach. To him, it was a wasteland of stupid rich people riding around in golf carts, an observation that, as electric cars become more common, only becomes more true. It also should be noted, however, that Lorenzo García Vega hated every place he ever lived. His hatred had an unimpeachable integrity. I like to think that he chose Miami because he knew he’d hate it. He knew he’d hate the social circles, the stratifications, the neatly defined political and literary cliques. He knew he’d hate the ostentatious wealth, the disgusting level of corruption, the skyscrapers built with blood money. I like to think he also knew that this place needed him. That eventually one day it would rediscover his voice. I like to think that he placed himself here like a virus, a mosquito egg in the warm, stagnant water, and waited for us, and while he waited, he bagged groceries for people who wouldn’t look him in the eye. He bagged groceries for other writers who knew exactly who he was, forcing them to awkwardly duck out of his lane or shop at a supermarket that was farther away just to avoid him. He wanted to die in plain sight. He wanted to be the thorn on the vine as it wilted. His 2005 collection, his last, is called No Mueras sin Laberinto, which I’ve seen translated as Don’t Die Unnoticed, but “laberinto” literally means “labyrinth.” And that’s Miami: a labyrinth where one of the great poets of the 20th century can die in plain sight, and no one notices. One of the abiding myths of the Everglades is that somewhere out there amongst the uninhabitable sawgrass is a pyramid, or a group of pyramids, a secret, holy place obscured by birds and muck, but actually, we live inside the pyramid. The ruin is Miami is the ruin. If you doubt me, just go ahead and turn off your air conditioner for a day, a week, a fortnight. Your house won’t get to a month before the swamp reclaims it. Lizards move in. Green shoots through the marble. Rain falls through the Spanish tile. “Everyone approaching death becomes a ghost,” García Vega said. In other words, transparent. Un-seeable. A wall of glass. A thin, barely opaque bag of plastic.
The Everglades were on fire, so I climbed onto the roof. I was sixteen. My sister had left for college, and the windows in her room were the kind that cranked open. When I popped out the screens, they became doors. From a ledge, I crawled onto the roof’s orange pattern, each tile tucked under the one above it like a fanned deck of cards. At the apex, I made a bench out of the horizontal line of barrel tiles and sat down to watch the western horizon, bathed in orange and black light. The air smelled wintery, dried up, dehydrated, and despite the far-off flames, it was cold. I felt like a logger tied to the top of a pine tree. On one end, I saw where civilization began, a thin line of water, and on the other, where it ended, a proscenium of smoke. It was easy, caught in the middle, inside the circumstance of height, to mistake myself as the protagonist. Miami is pockmarked with all kinds of apexes and all kinds of fire. All kinds of frames tell us, This is water. If Miami could only be one architectural feature, it would be a balcony. One thing architects never screw up here is the view, and if it’s the view that sells the property, it’s the gazing that makes a Miamian. How we look when we gaze is a feeling we’re constantly trying to replicate even when we’re not gazing. You can tell which parts of Miami are real because no one is asking you to look at them. If you ever get lost in Miami, meaning you’ve forgotten where you are, check which way the balconies are facing and then walk in the opposite direction.