(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, August 29, 1982)
It was the kind of assignment that journalists dream about if they lead fairly limited lives: The editors at Tropic wanted me to fly down to Miami and become intimately familiar with every aspect of the city--its culture, its history, its people, its joys, its sorrows -- in short, its very soul. They figured I would need three days.
I had never been to Miami, so before I left Philadelphia I did extensive research in the form of talking to several of my friends. None of them had ever been to Miami either. I recalled reading somewhere that one-quarter of the murders in Miami are committed with automatic weapons, which is an indication of a highly technological society, but that was really all I knew.
Now before the Chamber of Commerce gets angry at me for mentioning murder so early in this story, let me stress that in the entire time I was in Miami I never saw anybody murdered in any way. So I want all you potential tourists out there to ignore what you've heard about the murder problem, although you might want to give some thought to the killer toads. But more on them later. First, let's briefly review the history of Miami.
"Miami" is an Indian word meaning "place where Indians no longer live." The Indians were the principal inhabitants until the early 19th Century, when white settlers began to arrive. The Indians reacted to the white influx by making jokes, ("Will the last Indian to leave Miami please bring the totem pole"); this angered the whites, who responded by killing the Indians or, worse, sending them to Oklahoma.
After the whites came other influxers: northerners, southerners, poison frogs, tourists, Cubans and Haitians, but by that time it had become illegal to send people to Oklahoma without just cause, so they all stayed, and today Miami is a marvelous mixture of different races and cultures, living together in peace and harmony in different sections of the city.
The first thing I did after I got my rental car at the Miami airport was get lost, so I pulled off the road to get directions from an elderly man, which gave me an opportunity to brush up on my Spanish. I took several years of Spanish in high school, and the only sentence I remember is Vamos al cine ("Let us go to the movies"), but I figured it would all come back to me in a jiffy, except that my Spanish teacher always paused for four or five seconds after each word, and the elderly man spoke in what sounded like one long word, which I believe was calliamenterrenialitocentramamanosarrrrrrrrria. I didn't know this word, but I tried to look grateful. I would have asked him to the movies, but I didn't want to run the risk of getting murdered with an automatic weapon.
I never did get the hang of Spanish in my three days in Miami. I listened a lot to the Spanish radio stations, but they, too, used mostly long words, although occasionally they said something in English, so I could get a rough idea what was going on:
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Mediocayuagarillacentro Nancy Reagan hermanacitollinatalamolitanarrio Bert Parks agunamenteillorrrrrrrrrrentijinallamente Jolly Goat Motel.
I figured my first task was to familiarize myself with the incredibly complex varieties of plant and animal life that make up Miami's ecosystem, particularly those varieties that can kill you. I started with alligators. Nobody knows for sure how many alligators live in the Miami area, but just for the sake of having a figure that everybody can cite from now on, let's say there are three million. This is not as bad as it sounds, because alligators mainly eat dogs, which is fine with me. On my first night in Miami, I drove out the Tamiami Trail to the Everglades, a famous local swamp. After I had left all signs of civilization behind (except the one that said "FROG CITY 3/4 MI"), I pulled off the road, turned off the motor, got out of the car and crept stealthily down the bank to the water, hoping to spot an alligator, until it occurred to me that I might actually spot an alligator, at which point I strode briskly back to the car loudly humming My Girl by the Temptations, my reasoning being that an alligator would be unlikely to mistake a person humming My Girl for a dog.
Miami also has killer toads. I know this because I read The Herald's file on frogs and toads, which is probably the most extensive such file of any newspaper in the free world. The killer toad (code name "Bufo Marinus") secretes a deadly venom, but is dangerous only if you bite it, and as far as I am concerned anybody who bites a toad deserves to die. Killer toads mainly kill dogs. This is a tough town for dogs.
The file also had a series of stories about a poison-frog robbery back in 1968, when somebody broke into a pet store-- Miami has pet stores the way other towns have hot dog vendors-- and stole 200 deadly South American frogs. This leads to the obvious question, which is: How did the thieves make their getaway? Did they just saunter off down the street, poison frogs bulging from every pocket, completely unnoticed? The story doesn't say. It does say that the venom from a 1-inch frog can kill "scores of people." This led to efforts by local and federal legislators to enact tougher frog control laws (I am not making any of this up), but eventually the public lost interest in this issue, probably because of the general excitement over the construction of the Metrorail system, scheduled for completion around the time the Earth establishes permanent colonies on Neptune. Today, nobody seems to know what happened to the killer frogs, but I don't think it's anything to worry about, now that I am back in Philadelphia.
The Herald's file contained one other interesting frog story (I am not making this up, either):
"DETROIT -- A giant frog with a mouthful of teeth has vanished from its home and may be wandering the streets of western Detroit."
I quote this story for the benefit of those potential tourists who, because of their concern about poison frogs and toads, decide they should vacation in Detroit rather than Miami, although anybody who vacations in Detroit is probably too stupid to be able to read anyway.
The only other major natural killers in Miami are hurricanes and palmetto bugs, although I think the palmetto bug danger may be somewhat overrated. The Tropic staff claimed palmetto bugs grow to the size of toaster-ovens, but when I got there the only one they could produce was about an inch long and was dead and missing a leg. So I doubt that palmetto bugs are really all that dangerous, except maybe to dogs.
Hurricanes are worse. If a major hurricane were to hit Miami, it would delay completion of the Metrorail system. I strongly suggest that all you Miamians rush right down to your local Burger King, which is apparently responsible for hurricane preparations, and pick up your free copy of "The Hurricane Handbook, " written by Channel 4's weatherman, Bob Weaver. Bob offers a number of useful hints as to what to do in a hurricane, such as protect yourself and stay tuned to Channel 4.
That takes care of Miami's natural environment; now for its economy. Miami's economy is mostly small businesses--pet stores, exterminators, pet stores, etc. This is because of the climate. Every time they build a large office building or factory, the sun beats down on it until it reaches a critical temperature, at which point it explodes into 400 small businesses, each of which has a liquor license.
The economy has been slumping lately because tourism is down, which is why Miami recently held the New World Festival of the Arts. The idea was that people would flock to the festival from all over the country, then realize that South Florida is a very cultural place, despite the fact that it has a road named after Arthur Godfrey.
Unfortunately, the festival organizers made two serious mistakes. First, they put on mainly symphonies and operas. This is no way to attract Americans. One of the major reasons Americans fought so hard in World War II was their fear that if the Germans and Italians won, everybody would be required to listen to symphonies and operas.
The other major mistake was that the festival was held in the summer when Miami is very hot, so that even if large numbers of tourists had shown up, most of them would have died anyway. I think Miamians do not realize how hot their city is in the summer, probably because the television weathermen are very defensive about it:
ANCHORMAN: And here's Thad Thorson with the weather forecast.
WEATHERMAN: Well, Jim, we had another classic southern Florida day today, and we look forward to another....
ANCHORMAN: Wait a minute, Thad. It's nearly a hundred degrees out there for the 17th straight day. People are dropping from heat stroke all over the city. Lizards are bursting on the sidewalks like little brown balloons. When will it end, for God's sake? And don't tell me "It beats freezing." If you tell me one more time that it beats freezing, I swear to God I'm going to shoot you right in your plaid sportjacket with a semiautomatic weapon.
WEATHERMAN: Jim, do you realize that the average daytime temperature on the surface of Mercury is over 1,000 degrees?
But Miami is more than just weather, businesses and dangerous reptiles. Miami is also people, and the only way to get to know the people of a city is to get out of the safety of the air-conditioned rental car and rub shoulders with them as they lead their everyday lives. I think my findings on the people of Miami are best summarized by this conversation on the street:
ME: Tell me, what are Miamians really like?
MIAMIAN: Well, I would say they are a juxtaposition of many peoples, really--people of many ages, many races, many cultures. True, this juxtaposition creates great tensions at times yet, paradoxically, it is also what gives the city its great vitality.
ME: Hey, that's terrific. What's your name?
MIAMIAN: I don't have one. You just made me up so you could get a good quote without having to get out of your rental car and talk to a bunch of people who carry open umbrellas when it's not raining and might try to shoot you with an automatic weapon.
I did meet some actual Miamians at the dog races, but they were unable to give me any major cultural insights because they were busy cursing at greyhounds with stupid names. The greyhounds deserve to have stupid names, because night after night they chase an object that could not possibly look less like a rabbit. If you were to show this object to 100 persons chosen at random on the street, they would all say: "I don't know what it is, but it's not a rabbit." A dog that can be tricked into chasing this object night after night could have no more than eight brain cells, which is why greyhounds are bred for stupidity. Every day, the breeders take a batch of hopeful greyhounds out to the track and let them go: The ones that chase the object become racers; the others, thousands of them, flee into the streets of Miami, where they would be a major problem if it weren't for the alligators and toads.
Another place where Miamians gather at night is the jai-alai fronton ("fronton" is a word from another language). Jai-alai is a fast-paced game in which players try to avoid being injured by a small, violent ball while people bet on them. The betting system is very complicated, but I got a rough idea of how it works from this actual conversation with a man clutching several betting slips:
ME: Could you explain how this game works?
MAN: Well, see, I got six and three (waves slips at me), so I can't lose. I can't lose.
ME: I see. And how do....
MAN (peering at slips): Wait. Wait. I got EIGHT and three, dammit. I don't WANT six in there. Get six out of there, dammit.
ME: I see. And how....
FRIEND OF MAN WITH SLIPS: You ain't got no eight. You got six (holds up slip).
MAN (peering at slip): Oh. Come on six, dammit.
ME: I see. Thank you.
With this explanation in mind, I bet on team six in the next game, but I don't think it won. There was no clear-cut way to tell.
On my second day in Miami, I went on a tour conducted by Gene and Leon, who work for Tropic magazine, which comes out only once a week, which is why Gene and Leon have a lot of time to drive around Miami. Our first stop was the Tamiami Gun Shop, whose motto is, "We Aim To Please." This is a store that can meet all your gun needs, from small guns that you might use to shoot a palmetto bug, to medium guns that you might use to repel an intruder, to large, semiautomatic guns that you might use to repel the North Korean army or vaporize a deer. (In fact, that very day the state had decided to permit hunters to kill half the deer in the Everglades. This was to prevent these deer from needlessly starving to death.)
Leon demonstrated how the various guns worked (in most cases, a bullet comes out of a predesignated end of the gun at a high rate of speed). Leon is familiar with guns, because he goes camping a lot and needs a gun in case an alligator tries to attack him, although so far none has done so, probably because Leon is the size of a Quonset hut. If he ever is attacked, it will have to be by a major alligator, the kind of alligator that could write its own ticket if it ever decided to get into terror movies.
The Tamiami Gun Shop also sells back issues of Soldier of Fortune magazine, which is must reading for anyone who needs clarification on the question of why people in a major city need semiautomatic weapons. The guiding philosophy behind Soldier of Fortune is that you must be prepared at all times to defend your freedom and your freeze-dried food, so it's really OK to own a lot of crossbows and machine guns with silencers and wear Army-style clothing in your basement even if you live in a subdivision house with lawn ornaments. Soldier of Fortune advertises many fine products you would need to fight for your freedom, such as walking canes that turn into swords and T- shirts bearing pictures of Erwin ("The Desert Fox") Rommel. It also has articles by men who were fortunate enough to get into actual wars, with prose such as this, from the August issue:
"We quickly raised our heads enough to see something plop heavily down in front of us midway between us and the woodline. It was a leg."
I urge all of you who are seriously interested in preparedness to pick up an issue of Soldier of Fortune after you get your Hurricane Handbook at Burger King.
After we left the Tamiami Gun Shop, we went to Miami Beach and saw the historic Art Deco Historic District. Art Deco is a kind of art that was very popular in the '30s, then was considered very ugly for a number of years. But now it is considered attractive again, and the Art Deco buildings in Miami Beach are being restored to their original condition, which means it's only a matter of time before they are considered ugly again.
As far as the Miami Beach hotels go, they are all superb, and I highly recommend them in hopes that if I ever come back they will give me a room for free.
On my last day in Miami, I went back out into the Everglades to watch an actual Miccosukee Indian wrestle an actual alligator, to the extent that you can wrestle a reptile whose sole goal in life is to escape back to the safety of the muck. It was very much like watching a man trying to bathe a large, reluctant, green dog. But it did give me an opportunity to reflect on the contrast between the Miccosukee Indians, who were the first residents of Miami, and the people who live there now. I realized that although there are many differences between these two groups, in the end, when all is said and done, they both have profound problems with mosquitos.
All in all, I really liked Miami. I realize some of you Miamians are sensitive to criticism, and may feel I've been harsh, but bear in mind that I didn't even mention the drug problem.
© 2010, Dave Barry
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