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Miami Story

Part 2

By Terence Hilton-Clarke

©copyright 1997

Trinidadians also became big travelers. Unlike some thirty years before when travel meant emigration, the modernized Trini took advantage of the new found affluence to expand his international horizons. My countrymen were able to go to anywhere in the world that offered excitement such as New York City, Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Paris and Monte Carlo. Miami was to become the most frequent names which appeared in the lists of travel favourite travel destinations. It was the closest major U.S. city to the Caribbean region: as such it was the most easily accessible. South Florida's tropical climate and good year round weather was another reason why this city has become so popular with the people of the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami was the ideal place for the shopping sprees which afflicted the people, people who had experienced sudden prosperity in a short space of time.My family travelled frequently during this period. As a matter of fact, most of my classmates in primary school had been abroad at one time or the other. In the first decade of my life I had been to the Netherlands, Belgium, Barbados and New York. Travelling was a wonderful experience, the type of experience which can sometimes become addictive. My extensive trips seemed to indicate that it was inevitable that I may be in Miami some day.

This finally occurred when the ten of us were en route to Orlando. It was a simple procedure: after arriving at Miami International Airport, we disembarked the aircraft and headed straight through immigration. Having completed this transaction, we and the other in-transit passenger were herded into a red monorail. We were then transported along the roof of the terminal to another part of the building. There was now a period of about an hour before our connecting flight was due to depart. The decision was made to have lunch in one of the restaurants located on the airport's east side. Here, one can get a view of part of the Miami skyline. I do not recall what we had to eat - it might have been cheese sandwiches - but, I remember looking down at the road below and seeing a lavish fleet of Trans-Ams, Porsches and Corvettes gliding by. Soon afterwards, we were on board the half hour flight to Orlando. A week later, the routine was repeated but with a twist. Drama unfolded as it was learnt that only half of us had been inadvertently booked. Quickly, a compromise was worked out. We were all put onto another airline and were able to make the journey from Miami to Piarco, together.Close to a year had passed since that second trip to the U.S.A.. I was going about my business one weekend afternoon when my sister delivered some joyful tidings: we were going to Miami on a shopping trip! The airline, in its efforts to provide compensation for its folly, had granted free travel vouchers and my mom decided to take full advantage.

Despite previous journeys, one never seems to lose the anxiety of going away. I think I performed a dance of delight. Time was spent on arrangements. Plans were drawn up, visas et al were dealt with. My ten year old mind impatiently braved its way through this bureaucracy. But soon, everything was completed. Thus, it was on Friday April 5, 1985 that the same body of ten - me, my mother, brother and sister: my aunt and uncle and some family friends numbering four in total - embarked for Miami.It was the same as always. I was instructed to get up at 4:30 on the morning of departure. I duly tried to enforce this command into my mind by repeating to myself: "I have to wake up at 4:30.....I have to wake up at 4:30..." True to tradition, my eyes opened at precisely that hour. The lights were on, and my mom was there in the middle of my room packing suitcases. She told me, my brother, Tyrone and my sister, Roxane to get ready and, after a shower, a hot cup of chocolate and the goodbyes to my father, we were off on our way. After leaving Port of Spain, we drove to Valsayn where we were joined by Uncle Carlton and Auntie Jean. We arrived at the airport where we left the vehicles in the parking lot (my cousin, an airport employee, would take care of the business of getting them back home again) and headed for the main terminal.

We were in the midst of checking in at the Pan Am desk when Auntie Angela and her three children - Alicia, Ronald and Kevin - came bounding in. The party was now complete and the rest was just a bureaucratic blur. The payment of departure taxes was followed by a short journey upstairs where we had our hand luggage X-rayed before entering the passenger lounge. After that it was just waiting, waiting until the moment every air traveller anticipates came. I stared down at the blue carpeting, the words "Piarco International Airport" inscribed all over it, and tried to channel my latent excitement into constructive thoughts. This would be my fifth journey away from home. The present situation was all too familiar: the early morning rituals, the checking ins and the inspections. Yet, there was always a newness that came with each experience, a newness which we, ourselves, try to impose in order to add a special touch to the present occasion. Then, the announcement came over the Public Address system : "All passengers booked on Pan Am Flight --- to Miami are now kindly asked to depart at Gate -." We joined the queue of passengers, had our airline tickets and boarding passes examined, went downstairs and headed towards the waiting Boeing 727.The Safety Demonstration, a seemingly hackneyed affair, was presented to us via the crew. The plane then taxied to the end of the runway, where it stood motionless for a few minutes. Then, a slow forward motion rapidly accelerated into a pulsating momentum as the aircraft roared down the strip of asphalt before lifting off. The 727 is a narrow air plane with three seats on either side of a single aisle allowing window access to the majority of the passengers. We were immediately treated to a "show". First came some of the major towns and communities along the East West Corridor: Arima, seemingly so distant by car, was now below us within a minute. Civilization soon gave way to the dark green expanse of the Northern Range. After a while of valleys and hills, we crossed over the coastline. Tobago passed us by ten minutes later as we headed north over the Caribbean Sea.By this time I had finished perusing the safety manual and moved on to a copy of the Pan Am magazine. I browsed through, glancing over articles about exotic destinations, information about the April movie offerings and the latest airport profile. Soon, the stewardesses came around with their trolleys of refreshments - basically coffee or orange juice. I accepted the latter. We were to make the customary stop off in Barbados where some of our fellow passengers were to leave us: and be quickly replaced.

The plane touched touched down at Grantley Adams International Airport in the brightness of the morning sun. The young mind is forever impatient and the jettison and reloading of passengers, plus the refuelling, took an eternity. There was nothing to do really but just sit and stare through the window at the modernistic terminal building. At this time, we had completed only the first leg of the four hour journey.Unlike the previous year when we also stopped off in Antigua, the flight took a more north-westerly route. The interminable time period was mainly spent looking at vast expanses of ocean shielded by clouds. The narrowness of the aircraft made movie showing impossible and the only excitement was going to the rest rooms at the back and taking the opportunity to examine some of the accessories. We were served a very light breakfast, consisting of buns, scrambled eggs and, I think, a prune Danish. Butter was provided in neat little foil packets and orange juice was in a cup which was perhaps an inch and a half in height. About an hour later, the ladies came around with their carts again. This time soft drinks were on offer and I naturally made Coca Cola my beverage of choice. By this time we were over the Bahamas, an archipelago that is a joy to experience from the air. Lush islets surrounded by emerald green sea float by as the captain doubles as an in-flight tour guide. Andros Island stands out as the largest of the chain of mostly sparsely populated islands. As a boy not as yet recipient to the limitations of geography, I was intrigued that the capital, Nassau, was only located on the smaller, New Providence Island.

Indescribable ecstasy overcame me when we came within sight of the U.S. mainland. The end of our odyssey was at hand. For a while, there was really nothing much except for broken up land. Urban settlement appeared and, for a while, one can look down at the cityscape getting closer and closer. We eventually touched down at MIA and the experience was now for real! As the air plane came to a stop at the terminal building the captain announced: "We have now come to the end of our journey. The local time is now eleven o three a.m." I instinctively glanced down and saw that my watch read 12:03: I had forgotten about the one hour time differential and realized the need for re-adjustment. We left the aircraft via plastic tubing and, were soon walking down a corridor towards the immigration desk. After the examination of our passports and visas we boarded the roof cars and were carried across the top of the terminal building to another location. The next thing I new is that we in the customs section on street level having our luggage examined. Having completed the necessary procedures we made a right turn and headed towards the HERTZ Rent-A-Car desk.What was to follow, was the instigation of a week long battle between company and client. Immediately, there was a discrepancy: the company, while providing a sizeable car for Auntie Angela, had only registered a "compact" car to my mother.I and the other kids were told to sit down and wait. Sitting soon gave way to standing; standing eventually gave way to walking; and this, in turn was succeeded by running. Games were organized amongst me, Tyrone, Roxane and Kevin. We ran races down the corridor, we sat down again and waited, we played catch.

So there it was, the contrasting scenes of contentious adults and animated children: the conflicting antagonisms of excitement and boredom - all taking place while thousands about us conducted their transactions, oblivious of each other.An hour and a half had passed (it seemed like three) when, suddenly, there was a breakthrough in the negotiations. Some solution was finally found and we were finally allowed to file through the sliding glass doors and onto the sidewalk. My aunt promptly pulled me away from the street, exclaiming : "You better watch yourself. The people here don't make joke!" The scene around me was archetypal of modern developed civilization. Cars zoomed past the terminal while taxi drivers were ordered to move in boorish tones. My mom and Auntie Angela came out and we joined a group of persons in a queue. The HERTZ bus appeared and we were transported to a company parking lot which was located about five minutes from MIA. We picked up our cars and set off in an easterly direction, towards Biscayne Bay. A few weeks prior to our departure, I was looking at a newspaper in my father's office and came across an advertisement featuring a hotel in Miami called Bayshore Towers. There was an artistic depiction of what appeared to be a modern, triangular shaped building. Palm trees flanked alongside while a swimming pool gleamed in the foreground. Excited at the prospect of luxurious accommodation, I leapt up and thrust the newspapers at my mom. Enquiries were made, and it turned out that the hotel's manageress was a distant relative of a family friend. Contacts were made and, much to my delight, we were all booked to stay in this deluxe lodging. Or so it seemed.

We arrived at the bay and turned on to Biscayne Boulevard and, after a few seconds, the vehicles came to a halt. "Well, here we are!" my mother announced. I looked across the street in utter horror and enquired loudly: "This is Bayshore?". Across the street stood a worn concrete structure which looked nothing like what I had seen in the advertisement. The building, composed of three stories, was embellished in a pale yellow colour and was actually rectangular in shape with the triangle effect being achieved only when one viewed the hotel from an angle. Overall, it was an aged building and one got the impression that its present status was second-hand. Out in front, there was a small, circular swimming pool: the waters of which were perpetually chilled by the cold April winds. We eventually pulled up outside of the "lobby" area and alighted from the cars. A glass door led to the main office which, as we soon realized, also doubled as a shop. It was here that we found the manageress, sitting behind the main counter. After the usual pleasantries and transactions, the room keys were obtained and we made our way upstairs.The elevator doors opened and we stepped out onto the second floor gallery. The party immediately split up into two factions with the members of my family being assigned to one room, and the Eiffels getting another. My sense of disappointment gave way to relief as soon as I opened the door to our room. We were greeted by what turned out to be a reasonably sized hotel apartment. Typically, the living room was in the foreground. A television set was located in one corner; and on either side, facing each other, were two sofas which folded out into beds. The kitchen and dining areas were on the right: the former adorned with the customary stove, refrigerator etc. In the back, the bedroom (to my joy )was air-conditioned and furnished with two beds, a cupboard and a dressing table. We immediately set about the task of settling in: Roxane and Auntie Jean tested the sofas; my mom launched an inspection of the kitchen; me and my brother started to colonize the bedroom while my uncle switched on the television.

But we were not allowed to get too comfortable. A decision had been made to go out for lunch and the ten of us were soon out on the road again. We eventually settled for the nearest Burger King restaurant where we ate in more or less comfortable surroundings : the chocolate milkshake I had that afternoon was definitely the best I ever drank - the cold concoction tasted like caramel as it poured down my throat. Later on, I found myself, along with the others, at a nearby supermarket where the shopping began in earnest. Among the necessities purchased: boxes of cereal, eggs, milk, pancake mix, sugar, salt, strawberries, whipped cream, frozen pizzas, meat, orange juice and soft drinks. It was evening time when we returned to our hotel. After a quick shower, I had dinner with the others and looked at some television before finally retiring to bed. It was here, in the cool darkness, that I laid back and reflected on the first day of our adventure.

Our hotel was located just south of an air route so that, at any time of the day, one could always see aircraft - of diverse shapes and sizes - making their way to and from MIA. Just across Biscayne Boulevard there was a park and, beyond that, Biscayne Bay: a body of water on which there two small islands and, over which bridges - called causeways - formed a nexus with the land in the distance. If one looked southwards along the Boulevard, he or she would have beheld the sight of a majestic hotel: an enormous building which blocked out a moiety of the heavens. Adjacent to this imposing (and up to now, anonymous) structure, was the Mariott hotel - with its red name in large letters on the side. But perhaps the most attractive place in our immediate area was the Omni International Mall and Crowne Plaza Hotel. The latter rose in glassy splendour above the former: like the mast and sails of a clipper ship. I was to go into the mall and revel in the vast assortment of shops, food and fun. Yet, I was already overcome by dilemma. Nowhere in sight where the fabulous mega resorts which had been hurled at me via the media. Most of the buildings in our area were basically obsolete and unimportant: even the financial towers and corporate high rises of downtown Miami - just to the south - I never witnessed. The park was nice though, with a distinguishable carpet of grass topped by immaculate palm trees. Once, there was the interesting spectacle of fellows - perhaps from the Caribbean - playing cricket in this park, naturally attracting a mystified crowd of onlookers.

However, I soon learnt that the bay was definitely not for bathing. On closer inspection we saw that the "beach" was about three feet of sand in width and, starting at the water line and spreading towards the depths, it was apparent that the entire bottom of the bay was covered with garbage . It took a few days, looking at maps and all that kind of stuff that I was able to make the distinction between Miami and Miami Beach.The nature of our mission, if it must be repeated one more time, was shopping. And it was shopping that the triumvirate of my mom, Auntie Jean and Auntie Angela indulged excessively. For me, the sensation was mixed. For a youngster who had experienced the pleasures of Walt Disney World and Epcot Centre, the idea of constantly trammelling through Sears and JC Penny's was hardly appealing. But some of this was moderated by some notable experiences. Shopping at Kmart was one: the size of the supermarket alone representing our own Hi-Lo or Kirpalani's magnified at least three times. There was the excursion to Westland Mall with its abundant attractions of video arcades, video shops and food courts. And, finally there was the trip to Toys R Us. For a bunch of 7-12 year olds, what could be more appealing than find oneself in the cathedral of toys? There was an aisle dedicated to GI JOE - a real American hero; Transformers and Go-Bots occupied their own shelves and jet planes, A Team vans and Star Wars action figures were all strategically placed. In the end, me and my brother were able to add a tank, war boat and other action figures to our GI JOE collection while my sister also got a Cabbage Patch doll.

Generally there was variety with a ride in a space shuttle at the Omni contrasting with a walk through an outdoor flea market with its various assortment of booths. Any which way, there was always some method of deriving fun from an otherwise routine exercise.While we did not go to any of the top rated local restaurants, eating out in Miami still brought its rewards. After the sojourn to Burger King, it was inevitable that we would sample the attractions of McDonald's : the "Golden Arches" with its offerings of Big Macs, Quarter-Pounders and Chicken McNuggets. But it was not all fast food. While there was the attractive steakhouse near Westland Mall, we also revelled in the delightful seafood cuisine of Red Lobster. With fried shrimp up to four inches in length, fresh salmon in thick sauce, enormous portions of lobster and grilled fish, it was definitely a memorable experience. For the most part, however, our dining was done in our apartments. An early morning shower would be succeeded by a breakfast sampling of Kellogg's Corn Flakes (with strawberries added of course) and soft boiled eggs or alternatively, waffles followed by fried eggs and bacon. Lunch, when taken, would include beef steaks and french fries accompanied by soft drinks. Dinner was not that much different, save for the time when we had some frozen pizza - which tasted much better than the frozen pizzas available at home.

With its multi-lane freeways, sweeping turns and numerous flyovers, Miami is a challenge for the uninitiated motorist. And our week was filled with some interesting adventures. Once, my mother, along with Auntie Jean and Auntie Angela were on their way back from Westland Mall after some heavy shopping. This involved driving along the first lane of the highway. However, ins pite of warnings from Auntie Angela my mom, ignoring her and talking non-stop, ended up drifting into lane eight. Their predicament was clear - if they continued further they would probably end up in another county! Mom had to act with haste. Amidst uncertainty, the three women came to a red light. Then, as the light changed, my mother suddenly accelerated and - while blowing the horn and apologizing to perplexed motorists - guided the car diagonally across the freeway and into lane one.But this incident was small fry compared with what happened one night on the way back to the hotel. We were proceeding down Biscayne Boulevard, about two miles away from our destination when Auntie Angela, for no apparent reason, made a left turn and proceeded onto the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Perplexed, we followed her across Biscayne Bay. We caught up with her about ten minutes later. I looked around and saw that we were in a relatively posh neighbourhood with fine houses and tree-lined streets. We then saw a sign with bright white letters against a green background: WELCOME TO THE CITY OF MIAMI BEACH. We were now truly on the other side !

Speaking of driving, my mother's fall out with the HERTZ Corp. was to be expressed in manifest fashion. The problems which began at the airport, were exacerbated on the second night when my mom's car shut down for a few minutes in one of the city's seedier districts. The following morning she took the vehicle in and got a replacement. This only lasted about twenty-four hours as my mom found another problem and got another car. But it was soon discovered that the horn was out of order and another vehicle was obtained on the very same day. Five different cars in one week - a game of musical chairs had been instigated at the higher level and carried out by the unwilling players below.

But our daily peregrinations did serve to expose me to the negative side of life in Miami. At least twice when we stopped near a particular flyover we were greeted by young African American males offering to give our car a wash. It was a scene which brought me face to face with the poverty which exists in cities throughout the United States. Nightly television reports highlighted even darker depths. That week there was an epidemic in Miami: human body parts were turning up in Biscayne Bay on an almost daily basis. The body of a young black girl was found on the beach a few miles to the south of us. There was also the case involving the rape of a female police officer. She had gone to the assistance of an "old woman" - who was really a man in disguise - and was forced into a car before being sexually assaulted. A black and white still photograph revealed the young woman walking in a daze near the Omni, about a block away from us. It was a level of crime which was still unparalleled in Trinidad and Tobago at the time.But television also served as a medium of entertainment. The latest issue of TV Guide was devoted to the week's NBC mini-series, "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story". The documentary-drama focussed on the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who was involved in the rescue of thousands of Jews from Adolf Eichmann's World War II death camps. For days there were biographies of the title character as well as the mini-series' star, Richard Chamberlain. The two-part movie, in the end, turned out to be a well crafted recreation of the events of a dark period - all crammed into the space of four hours combined.

Apart from the aforementioned newscasts, my memories extend only to some Saturday morning cartoons and a music video programme featuring Madonna performing "Material Girl". On this note, it must be mentioned that the major event in Miami during the period of our sojourn was the concert given by Prince and the Revolution at the Orange Bowl as part of the former's "Purple Rain" tour. A neophyte, I wanted to go to the show to witness my latest idol. I even asked my uncle if he could take me: the answer was in the negative. Nevertheless, it was a popular event. I remember seeing an enthusiastic young black man on the news, exclaiming to the news crew: "His name may be Prince, but he was sure like the King!". The following day's Miami Herald devoted an entire page to the concert in its Entertainment section.In Miami it is impossible to escape the Cuban presence. There are Cubans everywhere - in the streets, in the malls, in government offices, in schools. One saw young Cubans zooming down the highways in fashionable cars and poor Cubans trying to eke out a living on the sidewalks. It is interesting, this contrast; the powerful Miami Cubans in their high rise offices and their more destitute comrades on the streets below. While the former set remains high profile, especially in its devotion to the overthrow of Fidel Castro, it is the latter group which represent the average Cubans and their quest for survival. I still have memories of the time we went to a Cuban-owned supermarket. Cashiers screamed to each other in Spanish as they tended to the dozens of customers filing past. Bored, we organized a game of catch as the adults haggled away. We eventually got carried away in our enthusiasm and before I knew it, the store manageress was telling me in an accented voice : "If you all don't stop, I am going to have to call say-curity!". Needless to say, the game was brought to a premature end.

Overall, I was surprised at the magnitude of the Latin presence in the city. Nicaraguan refugees from the Daniel Ortega period were also establishing their own community - "Little Managua" - while the Colombians, Salvadoreans and Bolivians were also making their own presence felt. Some years later, local statutes were altered so as to allow business transactions to be conducted in Spanish: it was the official proclamation of Miami's changing course. Unfortunately, Dade County's eminence as an ethnic melting pot has not enchanted all, and there was an exodus of dissatisfied whites towards northern climes. In one reported case, a departing vehicle carried a bumper sticker requesting: "Will the last American to leave please take the flag?" A sad case of xenophobia yes but, ironically, this event has served positive rolls: it has further increased the proportion of Latinos to whites and, it has removed potential racists away from an area learning to adjust to racial diversity.

Fortunately for me, not all of our time in Miami was spent shopping there were some fun diversions as well. Our visit to Parrot Jungle in South Miami brought recollections of our trip to Orlando the previous year. We were exposed to a host of different types of birds, from blue or yellow fronted parrots to macaws splendid in bright red or blue. We also visited a relative of Auntie Angela who lived in a attractive upper middle class area. The home located along a tree-lined street, represented the other houses in the neighbourhood in that it too had a pool area covered by a steel and net structure - designed for the purpose of preventing leaves from falling into the swimming pool. We had a memorable afternoon, frolicking in the pool and marvelling at the adjacent Jacuzzi, despite the fact that the heating system was not working on that day.Our departure was conducted in a pretty straightforward manner. The packing of baggage, the trip to the airport, the checking in were all followed by the flight back to Piarco. Though there hadn't been as much to do as the year before, I still enjoyed my trip to Miami. The chance to experience different surroundings, and to have fun while doing it, was one which we grasped firsthand. This final point is important, for the conspiracy of economic factors at home would make such opportunities rare in the future.


Miami Story Part 1

Miami Story part 2