Monday, April 20, 2009
Miami Beach, Part One
Place: Miami Beach, Florida
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” Sly and the Family Stone
“Hot Pants” James Brown
Going to Miami Beach for two weeks in the summer was a family tradition that always started with Dad packing the luggage into the trunk of the car. We would hand Dad the biggest suitcases and he would line them across the floor of the car’s trunk. Usually, he placed all the big suitcases sideways with the handles pointing left, but sometimes he would flip a suitcase so the handle pointed right if it added an extra inch of open space.
“Now the medium suitcases,” Dad said, “No, that’s a small suitcase. They go in last.”
Dad always started biggest to smallest suitcases and then he would experiment with size and direction variations. He worked quickly, sliding and flipping suitcases, stuffing loose items into corners until he solved the luggage puzzle. His goal was to find a way to get the entire family’s stuff in the car and still have room for the family.
My family went to Miami Beach every summer for eight years straight. My siblings and I used to look forward to our yearly two weeks in Miami Beach with a giddy excitement similar to how my Christian friends felt about Christmas day.
The drive time from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Miami Beach, Florida is about twelve hours. Dad always drove straight through, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. With four kids and two adults crammed into one car, the road trips should have been hell, but Dad kept us entertained with jokes and funny stories from his college days.
“Tell us about the time you and your best friend dropped spit cups of water from the top of a building,” we would demand.
“Oh that was when I was in dental school,” Dad would reply, “You’ve heard that one before.”
“Tell it anyway,” we’d yell back.
And Dad would tell the story again and it would be just as funny as the first time he told it.
“Now tell us a joke,” we would say.
“A young boy stays at his aunt and uncle’s house for the weekend,” Dad said, “The boy is too scared to sleep by himself, so he asks if he can sleep with his aunt and uncle and they let him. The next day, the uncle goes out to play golf and aunt has some of her friends over to the house to visit. The little boy runs into the room where the aunt and her guests are talking and shouts, “Auntie, I need to tinkle. I need to tinkle.” The aunt takes the little boy aside and says, “Don’t shout like that. Next time you have to tinkle, say you have to whisper.” That night, the boy is in bed with his aunt and uncle. The little boy wakes up his uncle and says, “I need to whisper.” The uncle says, “That’s okay. Whisper in my ear.”
We all laughed, except for my sister Freda. Ten miles later, she started laughing.
“When he said whisper, he meant tinkle,” Freda said, “Now I get it.”
We always stopped at the Florida Welcome Center for paper cups of orange juice. The center had a make-your-own-souvenir machine. On one trip, I dropped coins into the slot and watched through a glass window as a metal contraption pumped hot liquid wax into a mold. After a lot of steam and whirring of gears, a wax figure of an alligator slid into a metal basket. Freda got a swordfish from the machine next to mine. When we picked up our souvenir, the wax was still fresh and warm.
When we got to Miami Beach, we would laugh at Pupi Campo’s name. The Latin bandleader was usually performing somewhere in town and his name would be on billboards around town. To us, Pupi sounded like a slang word for penis. He might as well have been named Pee Pee Campo. All anyone had to do was say “Pupi Campo” and we’d all laugh until we had to tinkle.
We always had at least two meals at either the Rascal House or Wolfie’s, identical delicatessens with bowls of pickles and cole slaw on the table. They served corned beef sandwiches that were as thick than a man’s fist. As we waited for a table in the line marked “five or more,” Dad would tell us how Wolfie Cohen started Wolfie’s, sold the business along with his name, and later decided to get back in the restaurant game with the Rascal House.
We always stayed at the Newport Resort Motel, which had two distinguishing landmarks: a lighthouse in the front and a half-mile pier on the side. When I was ten, I bought a cheap plastic reel with thick green fishing line, some hooks, and a bag of worms from the tackle shop at the foot of the pier. It was a poor man’s fishing outfit, perfect for the beginner who couldn’t even afford a fishing pole. I devoted most of my summer vacations on the pier, lowering my line into the ocean and pulling small fish from the schools that hovered near the pylons. The pier was a good place for me to go to since I was too fair-skinned to get a tan and too self-conscious about being overweight to hang out on the beach or by the pool.
The serious fishermen set up their gear at the end of the pier. I never saw them catch anything huge like a swordfish or a tuna, but I did see them pull in baby versions of large fish. It wasn’t unusual to see a young barracuda or stingray hanging out to dry in the hot sun. I was there the day a fifteen-foot hammerhead shark swam below us at the end of the pier as he competed with the fishermen for the best fish.
I think deep down my family knew the 1973 trip was going to be our last Miami vacation. We were already splintering apart. My older brother didn’t come with us. In his place, Freda brought her best friend, Trudy. She was fun to be with, but she wasn’t family. I was growing further away from my family and more into my own head. One part of me was frustrated that I had to go and act the part of the quiet middle child, and the other part wanted of me didn’t want to be left behind in case something fun happened. At ten years old, my little brother Herby was probably the only family member young enough to believe that we were on a typical happy family vacation.
Once we arrived at the Newport, we all went our separate ways. Freda and Trudy scoped out a couple of cute Cuban bellboys and flirted with them whenever they didn’t have something better to do. Herby went to the beach with my parents. I didn’t bother changing out of my patched bellbottom jeans and black t-shirt before I scoured the motel for a safe place to smoke dope. After a long search, I found that nobody except the maintenance staff used the stairways at the back of the motel.
I was riding a good buzz, loping past the swimming pool filled with families in bathing suits when a girl my age, also over-dressed for a hot August day, stopped me and asked the universal question that bonded all dope smoking teenagers together.
“Hey, man,” she said, “You got any rolling papers?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and I got something to put in them too.”
“Alright! Come with me.”
Soon, I was hanging out and getting high with a group of teenagers who were also roped into doing time with their parents at the Newport. Dinner was the one time of day when my family regrouped before shooting apart again.
After a couple of days, I succumbed to the hot, humid Florida weather and switched from my patched jeans and tennis shoes to shorts and sandals. Besides, all the other kids I was hanging out with were wearing shorts and sandals.
We formed our own rituals. First, and most important, we’d find a secluded spot on the beach to get high. Then, we would go to the Newport’s air-conditioned lobby and fling our bodies on to an island of overstuffed couches and armchairs. We hung out for hours and talked, mostly about sex.
We were surprisingly frank. It didn’t matter that we were boys and girls talking together. I think we felt less inhibited because we knew that there was little chance any of us would ever see each other again.
I entertained the group with a story about my ex-girlfriend, Lady Faith and her best friend, Tina. Tina was petite and blond and acted like she chewed nails for breakfast. While we were dating, Lady Faith confessed to me that sometimes she fantasized about making out with Tina, just to see what it would feel like. She went as far as kissing Tina on the mouth. They were both really drunk at the time. When I told the story to the kids at the Newport, Lady Faith and Tina’s drunken kiss became an entire evening of hot naked lesbian sex.
The story was well received, especially by one of the girls in the group. By her reasoning, I had dated a bisexual and that made me worldly and exotic. Her name was Gina. She had breasts the size of red rubber kickballs and wide lush hips. After I got to know her better, I introduced her to Freda and Trudy. They nicknamed her “the battleship.”
Gina was an Italian girl from Chicago. She was eighteen and starting college in the fall. She claimed her uncle was a member of the Mafia and that’s why she and her family were able to stay at the Newport for practically nothing. I flashed back to an article I read in Time Magazine that claimed the Mafia owned a number of hotels in Miami Beach, including the Newport. To me, that made Gina worldly and exotic.
Overnight, Gina and I became a couple. Our time together was a crash course in intimacy. We didn’t have time to be coy. Once we were alone, we frantically ran our hands over each other’s body, probing and finding it’s secrets.
I confessed to Gina that I was a virgin and was having trouble losing my virginity.
“It’s like trying to get your first job,” I said, “You know, nobody wants to hire you unless you have experience and you can’t get experience until you get a job. None of the girls I’ve been with want to have sex with a virgin and I can’t lose my virginity until I get laid.”
Gina had only lost her virginity the year before. She toyed with the idea of popping my cherry, but didn’t make any promises. I was on the last week of my summer vacation and I really didn’t want to take my virginity back to Chattanooga.
End of Part One