What I learned after spending 24 hours in Miami.
I landed in Miami with no real plan, just a desire to see the place and see the people. But, with no plan or prior arrangements, meeting the people was not looking good. Still, the desire to meet people of a certain place and find what made them tick was important to me. Why Miami? It was cheap and I had a few days.
I went to the Airbnb, read the nice welcoming text. I only like to stay in full apartments or homes, and this was no exception. However, what the photos failed to show was that the home owners must have carved out about 300 sq ft of available space and turn it into a “full apartment.” This could have easily been a garage at one point. I had a few hours before it was a logical time to go to bed (if I were to spend the entire following day exploring), so I found a local place to eat in Little Cuba. Every single person that knew of my trip demanded that I eat food, whatever local food I could get my mouth on, and eat lots of it. I chose Versailles.
I had what was close to a Cuban sandwich, and kept to myself. The waitstaff all had on somewhat formal outfits with their first names embroidered on their left breast. They each took a moment to size me up to see if they should speak Spanish or English; it only took a moment for them to land on English. I had this weird expectation that someone there would know that I wanted to chat, to truly get to know them, that I wasn’t just there for a Cuban. I thought the expectation could be read on my face, though it may have just looked more like a desire to place an order or constipation. I paid the bill and left.
Seeing the edge of Miami that opens up to Miami Beach is the kind of thing I wanted to experience. Terms of locations like “Miami” and “Miami Beach” don’t really mean much to me unless I’ve been there, and I suspect is the same for others. Why are there separate places? Why is the beach so important that it gets its own designation? Once I placed myself in front of the bridges that led to Miami Beach, I understood. It’s its own thing.
I only had 24 hours, really. One full day in Miami, then back on a plane early the next morning. So, I got in the car and took off for the beach part of Miami Beach.
I had roughly planned the vacation based on where I would eat — the ultimate goal was to find a local and get him to pour out his life experiences for me within 30 minutes. So, where would I find these people? Bars, restaurants, public places I supposed. I chose Tap Tap as a lunch spot and hoped I would find someone.
Sometimes at night, I see people come out to the streets that I never see during the day, people who look like they never work, yet always have money to spend. On the beach, I saw their counterparts: not exactly complete opposites, but another group of people who does seem to work, and have endless amounts of time to commit to one activity. Surely, they don’t just spend entire days exercising in the sand, right? It seemed so.
I found a museum, the Wolfsonian, as I wandered around. I wasn’t that interested in sand or the beach or the people on the beach itself, so I went to the museum. I recall that it stuck out significantly, a very prominent building.
There were nice exhibits on Socialism and minimalism (I think one is capitalized and the other is not). Then I found I had spent enough time looking at the things and that I should go back outside and find my interview.
Probably the most freeing and exciting thing about Miami was leaving it. Taking SW 8th St and heading directly west across the state of Florida, I went into nature. Everything was flat, flat, flat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as far in my life as I did that early evening.
Being constantly connected to people through technology, having always an awareness that I can connect to anything or know anything, I certainly noticed when that connection was gone. Within a few minutes into the swamp, I lost cell service. I had to decide whether or not I’d keep going; did I know what was out there, did I have a destination in mind, did I care if I couldn’t call anyone or access the Internet. It was a straight shot across the state without any places to turn, so as long as I didn’t run out of gas I was okay. I kept going, knowing I wouldn’t make it across the state this time.
The billboards along the road kept urging passengers to keep going a few more miles, just to let them know there was life and tourist options just ahead. An unfamiliar native tribe, the Miccosukee, had it’s influence along the roadside, heavily decorated in red, yellow and black. For someone unfamiliar with the tribe, it looked like an odd amalgam of Indians and Germans, given the color scheme. Instead, the Miccosukees, who were probably displaced, now had their own casino and boat tours available. How odd it must be to have everything taken away from you, just to be put in a position of power within capitalism a few generations later.
When I had come as far as I felt I could go without putting myself too far for a gas refill, I turned back. I never made it to the Miccosukee Airboat tours, and they probably would have been closed anyway, as was the case where I turned around. Many boats, but all of them docked for the night.
Near the entrance to the Everglades, I found an area to pull off, a place where some could fish and youths could waste time. There were 3–4 pickup trucks lined up with about ten kids sitting on and around the truck beds. I was far enough away that they didn’t care about me, but I was close enough to see young courtship in action. All the guys to one side, all the girls to the other, with only a few interacting. The thought crossed my mind to talk to them, to see if one of them would be open to an interview. But, I couldn’t think of a good opening line, something that would immediately break the ice and put me in their good graces.
Plus, I really wanted to embrace nature.
I still had more time in Miami, I still had more time to get my interview.
On the other side of SW 8th, I found myself at Ball & Chain, a Miami spot known for its live music. I was determined to eat where the locals frequent, but each time it felt like I had found myself at a place only one or two places removed from the tourists. Not where the families go, but not quite as connected to the people as I wanted.
I sat there at the bar, quietly enjoying my drink when I saw him. An old, crusty dude with a camera stood outside taking what looked like long exposures of the passing cars. I took a drink. He stood there and took another photo, completely unaware of me. I took another drink. He took another photo. This is it, this is my guy. I left my camera at the bar and went outside.
Old Crusty had spectacular dreads, and skin that looked like he spent every day outside for fifty years. He acknowledged me, and I him.
“I taking pictures.” His English was very basic, but certainly better than my Spanish.
“I see that. What of?” I mean, I could see. But I was happy we were just talking.
“The car. The car going by.” Each word came out extremely pronounced, almost sounding like he needed to shout so I understood him.
“Wow, cool,” No idea why I said that. “Can I see?” I gestured to the back of his camera. “These are great. You know, I take photos, too. My camera is in there.” I nodded to my bar seat that could be seen through the window. His eyes lit up, as if he thought I was crazy to leave my equipment unattended.
Raphael, I would learn to be his name, was a street photographer, more or less. Much of his work that he showed me on a shattered cell phone was of people watching. I was thrilled that I got to talk to someone who watches people, as I was just watching him. Felt kinda like a hunter nabbing another hunter. Not sure what prize that gets me, but I was happy to be in his company.
Photo after photo I saw how he got really close to people, and how he was able to get some great expressions.
“How do you get so close without them seeing you are taking their photo?” I asked. This was something I like knowing about all photographers, specifically street photographers.
“Oh they know. They always know, even when it seems like they don’t. They see me, they see my camera, they know what I’m doing,” he said. Seemed simple enough. “If you try to hide, it is no good. They know, they always know, so you just have to do it.” Makes sense, why try to hide what they know is already happening? I tried not to look at the audio recorder that I had left on this whole time, the one that had been on since before I found him and brought him to the bar, the one that I was using to record the ambiance but was now recording every word he said. Would I use the recording later, without telling him, going against his camera advice?
Raphael continued to show me photo after photo, now displaying a series of photographers as they work.
“Nobody take the photo of the photographer. But I do. Because he is a part of what is happening, he is a part of the scene,” he said. I can relate to not wanting to be in the photo, like most photographers do. It’s somewhat a control thing, the ability to show what you want and nothing else. And with photography, for me it’s sometimes showing a thing that could exist anytime, anywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t be in that scene, I couldn’t be timeless if I existed in the photo.
But Raphael loved it, loved showing the photographer as he worked. “Now people will remember him.” And I’ll remember you, Raphael, that’s for sure.
I went back to the Airbnb, the one that I’m sure was a garage at one point, and closed the chapter on my short trip to Miami.