December 2013 - January 2014

Essays

Lally Katz

Back to Miami

Ocean Drive, Miami. © Virginia Duran

A dip into childhood

I was born in New Jersey, and when I was three we moved to Miami, Florida. My family lived there until I was almost nine, when we moved to Canberra. I’ve been back to the United States many times, but I’d never, in the 26 years since I left, visited Miami. Because I hadn’t been there since childhood, I only remembered it as childhood. The smell of coconut suntan oil on the beach, climbing trees with vines hanging from them and, most of all, my childhood home, a small house with white tiles and turquoise carpets in a cul-de-sac in a suburb called Kendall.

I had decided that I wouldn’t go back to Miami, not until I was very old, because I wanted to remember it as a capsule of pure childhood. But everywhere I went, I would try to re-create it. I would use coconut moisturiser, enjoy humid weather, seek out palm trees. I’d think to myself, Hey, this reminds me of somewhere … I know, it reminds me of Miami. And when I was in the US, I’d look at the flight information boards and see Miami up there and think to myself, I could do it, I could fly to Miami. I could fly back to my childhood. But I knew that I wouldn’t.

Then, two years ago, I met a woman who was driving a taxi in Mississippi. I asked her if she was religious, and she told me, “I have a belief. Have you ever heard of Atlantis?”

“Yes,” I said. “That city under water?”

She nodded. “Well, that’s what I believe in. And soon, we will be called back there. So I am saving up to move my family to Miami, because the water will come there first. And we will be the first back to Atlantis.”

I thought at the time how interesting it was that she was saving up to kill her whole family. But also how interesting that she’d chosen Miami. Then I read in Rolling Stone magazine that Miami might be the next Atlantis. If climate change, hurricanes and geography had anything to do with it, the article said, Miami would be underwater by 2030. OK, I thought to myself. I guess I’d better go to Miami now.

Earlier this year, my Australian friend Brenna and I were going to New York to do a show. I decided to spend four nights in Miami beforehand and convinced Brenna to join me there on my second night.

As I flew into the city, I was struck by how blazing white it was. Stepping out of the airport, I expected that breathing the Miami air would make me cry. That childhood would rush into my lungs. But I actually felt dizzy. It was very hot. And very humid.

The shuttle bus took me through a neighbourhood that was ankle-deep in water. Wow, it’s really happening, I thought to myself. The water is rising. Lucky I came.

I got to my hotel, on South Beach. There was a queue for check-in. Everyone spoke Spanish. I’d read that Spanish is now the first language in Miami, but when I got to the front, the receptionist, a young man wearing glasses and a badge that said “Chris”, switched from Spanish to say in an American accent, “Welcome.”

I wandered down to South Beach, buying a hat and sunscreen along the way. Had it always been this hot? And this was autumn. The restaurants that lined the beach were more like day clubs, pounding with music. Hostesses in Lycra served drinks the size of skulls. On the beaches back in Australia, I’d thought, This ocean connects, it leads back to Miami. And now I was here. I looked at the people in the water. No one was swimming or frolicking, just floating or standing. I wondered why they were all so still. I went into the water and it was warm like a bath. For 20 minutes I just stood in it, too. And I thought, Miami reminds me of somewhere. And then I realised, Miami reminds me of Miami.

The next morning, I went down to the front desk. Chris was there again. I asked him how much a taxi to Kendall might cost.

“Kendall? You’re looking at 80 bucks one way. What do you want to go to Kendall for?”

“I used to live there,” I told him. “Twenty-six years ago.”

“Where in Kendall did you live?” asked Chris. “I live in Kendall.”

“You live in Kendall? There was a lake nearby where we used to go swimming. I just want to see my old house.”

“You can’t catch a taxi there,” said Chris. “I’ll tell you what, if you can wait, I finish my shift at three o’clock, and then I’ll be driving back to Kendall. I’ll take you to your old house. I insist. It’s no trouble for me. Just don’t tell the manager. What’s your number?”

I went back to my room. I was nervous about going to Kendall in a car with a man I didn’t know. When I’d told my parents I was coming to Miami, my dad said, “What for? You won’t be able to get around anywhere without a car. And you could get stuck in a hurricane. I think it’s a bad idea. There are some very dangerous areas near the beaches. And the drivers in Miami are crazy.”

When my mobile rang at 3 pm, I said to Chris, “You know, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t go to Kendall. There’s meant to be a thunderstorm, and it could be dangerous getting stuck out in Kendall.”

Chris laughed. “The storm will last five minutes. It’ll be over before we get there. I’m parked around the side. And no complaining about how dirty my car is.” I quickly emailed Brenna: “A very nice man who works at the hotel is taking me to see my old house. I’ll be back by the time you get here.” I figured this message wouldn’t alarm her unnecessarily, but should I be murdered at least I’d have left a lead.

In the side street where Chris was parked, he motioned for me to get in, then looked around to see whether anyone was watching. “OK, let’s go.”

Speeding over a bridge, weaving in and out of traffic, Chris began to tell me about himself. He was born in the Dominican Republic but had lived in Miami most of his life. He had been in six serious car accidents and totalled six cars. “You know, they did a poll,” he told me, “and Miami drivers are the worst in America.” There were also three serious bicycle accidents. “Yeah, a lotta the time, they deliberately try to hit us here. You know, it’s the cars against the bikes, but I go both ways.” His cousin had recently been shot dead by police. They’d shot him 13 times. “He didn’t do anything. They just wanted to kill him. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“So they just walked up to him and shot him?” I asked, thinking my father might have been right about Miami.

“No, well, he was driving a stolen car, and there’d been a high-speed chase, and, you know, he’d had a lot of convictions, armed robbery, you know, but when they surrounded him, he wasn’t armed. They say he was armed, but he wasn’t. And they killed him.”

Chris said he himself had recently been beaten up by the police. “I got this big dog, a pit bull, and I’m walking it, and police are blocking the path where I gotta walk it, so I have to lift up this heavy, heavy dog, up over their roadblock, and they’re all just looking. So I say, ‘You want to help me lift my dog? You’re not doing nothing and it’s because of you I have to lift it.’ They mouth off at me and I mouth off back, and next thing you know, they’re beating up on me.”

His father and his grandfather had both spent most of their adult lives in jail. “You know, Miami in the ’80s. You ever watched a movie called Cocaine Cowboys? It’s a great movie. Documentary. It’s just the way it was, so easy to make money, for everybody, you know, and the whole system was corrupt, so no one really cared.” He spun the wheel. “This traffic is crazy. I’m just gonna take a short cut through the slums. Don’t worry, no one will shoot us without a reason.”

I liked Chris. Or I liked the way a 21-year-old driving me through my childhood made me feel sort of like a kid. He kept talking, about his family, his injured knee, his ex-girlfriend who gained weight when he lost weight but now that she’s lost weight he’s gained the weight she’s lost.

Entering Kendall, things did look familiar. The shrubbery, the grass. “Is this your street?” Chris asked.

“No, this isn’t it.” I was surprised that I knew. We drove into the next street. And I recognised it. Neighbours I had completely forgotten rushed back into my mind as I saw their houses. It was like walking into a dream. “I can’t believe it,” I told Chris. “This is it. This is my street! That’s where my friend Jessica lived – that’s the house where I watched The NeverEnding Story for the first time. That’s the house where the drug dealer with the gold convertible lived. And that’s my house.”

Two Cuban guys were unloading a pick-up truck. We got out of the car. Chris began speaking in Spanish to the older guy, who was maybe in his mid 50s. The older guy was looking at me, nodding, smiling. He said to me in heavily accented English, “You live here?”

“Twenty-six years ago.”

“How old you now?”

“Thirty-four. Tell me, do the Howards still live next door?”

He smiled and shook his head. He said something to Chris in Spanish. Chris turned to me. “Everyone in this neighbourhood has been here for about 15 years. No one from your neighbourhood is left.”

The man went inside. Chris told me he was checking with his wife to see whether I could come in. He came back and led us into the backyard. It was just as I remembered it, except there were more fruit trees. I took pictures of the wall where my brother had split his forehead open and needed stitches. Of the sliding doors that opened into my parents’ old bedroom.

We went back out the front. I wanted to stay and walk around the cul-de-sac, but Chris said we had to go. “That man was so nice!” I told Chris. “That was so nice of him to let us into the backyard.”

Chris smiled. “He wasn’t that nice. He was pretty suspicious of us coming to his house and wanting to take photos. I don’t know if he believed you that you used to live there.”

Chris drove me all the way back to the hotel. I protested, but I could tell he thought that if he didn’t drive me, I probably wouldn’t make it back.

We had some Colombian coffee outside a convenience store near the hotel. I told him, “You have to let me give you some gas money.” I tried to give him $200, but he laughed and accepted $40. I said, “It’s not enough.”

“Come on,” he said, “I thought we were friends.”

Lally Katz
Lally Katz is a playwright. Her works include The Eisteddfod and Neighbourhood Watch. @LallyKatz

December 2013 - January 2014

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