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Sense and Nonsensibility: What Miami Teaches, from the Outside Looking in

Sam Beebe

Flying into Miami International Airport at night from a window seat, I was puzzled by the large patches of darkness that loomed in the midst of the illuminated city grid. I wondered if I was looking at bodies of water, but these seemed too geometric, too defined by their lit-street outlines. Occasionally I saw the headlights of a lone land-vehicle cutting a straight path across them. Upon arrival, after making my way up and down several escalators past the impressive and elaborate sea-life-themed art commissions—twenty-odd swordfish reproductions arranged in a radiant circle—I was picked up by my one good friend in Miami, native Nathaniel Sandler. I told Nathaniel about the dark patches I’d seen from the sky. He suggested that I had been looking at the Everglades, or the Bay, but I insisted that what I saw was in the city proper, and that I’d seen headlights cut through it. He seemed exceptionally uninterested in my drive to get to the bottom of this little mystery. This, I think now, stands as my first lesson of many about Miami: don’t expect to make sense of everything you see.

From the perspective of this Northeasterner and Miami novice, the city of Deco and Dolphins cuts a charmingly vexing silhouette. Like for many outsiders, my concept of Miami before I ever came to see it myself was a caricature: excess and tits lit by palm-frond sun shadows and neon hotel signs. And to be sure, those images are here. Caricature is, of course, always based on truths. And that’s one of the things about Miami I came to love—its un-self-conscious willingness to live up to its shit. In one week here, I saw more absurdity each day than I’d see in a month back in New York. On day one in Miami Beach, we drove past a shirtless, fully-tatted skater dude waiting to cross the street at Lincoln and Meridian who looked like he was living in perpetual anticipation of a Billabong photo shoot. His pants were so low you would’ve seen his pubes if he hadn’t already waxed them off. Nathaniel was unclear on the nature of my interest in this guy. By a degree, I sunk deeper into Miami.

As we drove around listening to 99 Jamz, Nathaniel pointed out, like any great guide, not only the good and promising stuff, like the new art and science museums, but also the grim and gruesome, like the eyesore carcass of the Miami Herald building and the spot where that one guy ate that other guy’s face. Nathaniel understands and appreciates that his city is a paradox in motion, a place where the grotesque and the beautiful take turns from block to block. As I helped him restock his one-shelf Bookleggers Library mounted on the exterior wall of Gallery Diet in Wynwood, he praised the thriving arts community on his inhale while questioning the contrived-quality of the neighborhood’s gentrification on his exhale. As I looked around, I saw a Miami I didn’t expect existed—low, gritty buildings wrapped with contentious-but-commissioned graffiti, weird-but-ambitious art galleries in every other storefront.

I think the character of a city seeps into the personality of its population—and vice-versa. New York is tense, excitable, self-involved, cerebral, and romantic, as are so many of its citizens—and even its visitors, for that matter, while they’re there. Miami, to my eyes, is unreserved, fun, vain, friendly, provocative, and unapologetic, and most of the people I met there have at least a twinge of each of those qualities, if not a full-on blazing fire—the natives especially, but the transplants, too. I began to feel the dials on these aspects of myself turn up even after just a few days. Accustomed to always playing it some version of warm or cool in social encounters, I was particularly taken by the way Miamians constantly swing between hot and cold, proclaiming their love for one another after one swig, their disapproval after the next. And how they all seem built to handle it just fine, reminding me that arguments are natural and calling your friends out on their shit is part of being a good friend. And how in the end—after someone has jumped in the pool in his underwear right after the pool’s owner explicitly asked him to go home—whether it’s before the close of the night or the next day over a Publix sub, they always find their way back to love.

If you’ve never been to one of Nathaniel’s Bookleggers event, you should go to the next one. There’s a pretty good chance that drinks will be available, a decent chance there will be a DJ, and a near-certain probability that there will be some truly good books on the table and some friendly, plucky people to get into it with. There’s little to argue with there—though a Miamian might find a way. In my own recent experience, I encountered a full roll of interesting and interested people, all of whom were appreciative of what was happening. I saw a jumble of eager and creative individuals, none of whom seemed conflicted about being in Miami. My sense is that people are coming to—or coming back to, or have stayed in—Miami because it’s a place of openness and freedom, a place where people come to try to do the things they want to do because there is an environment and opportunity here that allows for that. If you want to make art, or chill the fuck out in the sun, or start a business, or work in a bar and have a great time, or hand out books to people for free, all of that is accessible and achievable in a way that it’s not in a city like New York. Even this very essay is influenced by, and inflected with, that openness. Apparently, once you catch the germ, it’s contagious. But chances are I’m only telling you something you already know. Chances are, for better or worse, you’re already among the beautifully infected.

We spent one night at the Cucu’s Nest, a terrifically un-self-conscious bar, where we half-watched football, listened to the bewilderingly excellent selection of tunes coming from the jukebox, and chatted with the cute and talkative Ukrainian bartender who couldn’t have been older than twenty-one. There was only a handful of other people in the place, including one soggy dickhead who kept approaching the bar and trying to persuade the young bartender into going out with him, even though she clearly wasn’t having it. The guy was a mess, but thought he was James Bond. I half-considered stepping in, but saw that a) it would only start a stupid fight, with which I have little experience and no expertise, and b) that she was fending for herself extremely well. This girl came to Miami for the possibility of something—I have no idea what—and she wasn’t going to let this asshole fuck it up, not even for a minute.

Of course I can’t say whether she’s going to find what she’s after—we all know that many don’t, regardless (or because) of where they’re searching—but I can say that based on the evidence I gathered in this city in one week, it looks like she has a chance. Because what I see in Miami and its people is spirit, backbone, and a kind of feisty honesty. A willingness to live in the duality of human experience. The lesson that Miami sends with me as I fly back to my life in New York is that for every well-lit grid of sense there is in this world, there are lots of dark patches of mystery and nonsense lurking, and that’s okay.

SAM BEEBE lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing at New York University, and is currently writing a nonfiction book about the mysterious, unnatural death of his grandmother.

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