When’s the last time you looked at our city? Not trundled through it, eyes barely glancing up from the oppressive gleam of a smartphone, not hurriedly careening down its various potholed throughways to your ultimate destination, not glazed over particular corners and clubs hazed by a deep patina of nostalgia…not hustled it or hated it or even loved it for the excesses it provides. When’s the last time you really looked at it?
I can remember clearly the first time I really saw Miami. It happened, unfortunately, about 6 months after I’d first arrived. Eking out a particularly small existence between my sedate Flagami home and our Downtown, when lunch time came I decided to do something different. Instead of eating among the majestic and sharing scraps with the feral chickens and pigeons that roost so boldly in the most surprising of places, I decided to venture out. Bestriding the South Miami Ave. bridge with broad strokes, biking, as always, with a healthy fear for my life that only a true Miami cyclist can appreciate, I saw, for the first time to my recollection, our financial district. Awed by the cleanliness, the industry of its inhabitants, the eclectic smattering of eateries and the excited chatter of entrepreneurs as they stumbled from office to lunch and back again, I pulled behind the 1221 Building and sat by the water to enjoy my meal. It was there, balanced equitably between the gleaming towers of nearby Brickell Key and the lapping susurration of Biscayne Bay that I saw the city I’d spent a half-year living in for the very first time. There I was, confronted with the oasis of calm and commerce that had stilled the hearts of explorers, colonists and residents for over a century. That’s the first time I realized Miami was home.
As desensitization would have it, I’ve only noticed the true magic of The Magic City a smattering of times since then: once while enjoying the musical stylings of an impromptu Latin folk-electronic duo on the outskirts of Art Basel; once while meandering down a street fair after enjoying a film at the Tower Theatre; a handful of times in Little Haiti; and once deeply upon the corner of the Little Havana neighborhood I now reside in. In our world, it’s too easy to fall, head over heels, into the wrathful self-pitying and ambitious appetite we tend to call existence to truly see this city as anything more than something to be used. In each of these instances, I stood, not as an observer, but as a part. I saw that I wasn’t looking at Miami, admiring, as tourists do, odd, exotic sights. I was Miami, looking at Miami, and I saw that I was good, I was whole, I was complete and content, all in one balmy breath.
Not to say that all positive experiences in our city were marked by contentment. Far from it. As only the modern entrepreneur and the mountain-top yogi knows, the only true growth comes from the birth pains of hardship, and in this, for myself, Miami was an excellent teacher. Coming as I did from the cozy confines of a laid-back liberal college town parked within the agreeable climate of our Southeast, I realized upon living in this city that I so rarely had to think for myself. There, crosswalk and cyclist laws are ruthlessly policed, estimable places to loiter away the day are dotted liberally the whole town across. Back home, intense publicly funded street cleaning meant that I lived the vast majority of my life without seeing a ritually slain rooster wrapped in a Navarro bag cluttering up the gutter. I love the town of my rearing, and, if I’m being honest, I believe it will always seem like home to me. But it was a childhood home, where your room is always just the way you left it before you set off for university and Nana makes your favorite foods just because. In this city, one learns, yes, and must learn quickly. Traffic laws, who to approach or not approach on the street, locking your doors and knowing when and where to flash cash — these are all lessons learned through the furnace of experience and only truly realized when I became savvy of the inherent nature of Miami.
A pre-eminent example of this nature came in September of last year, when news of Hurricane Irma first coalesced. I was visiting my native North Carolina at the time, and became swept up in the hysteria of the moment. Hurrying home, eyes grimly cast to forecast at every available moment, I returned to Miami ultimately to see a city transformed. I will not lie to you: Any pretensions towards a “305 Till I Die” attitude was absent in my approach. My girlfriend and I packed up a pair of 50-pound dogs, two terrible cats and what belongings we thought essential into her eco mobile and fled. But in the days before, when the question was heavily debated and various sources of sage wisdom were consulted, I saw a city I almost didn’t recognize. Yes, there was a tinge of hysteria; anyone shopping, elbows out, for bottled water and a full tank right up to the very last minute can confirm that readily.
But underneath the panic that naturally accompanies anything biological on the eve of a major natural disaster, I saw Miami from a new perspective. Neighbors helping neighbors to apply plywood to windows. Huge informal phone trees sprang up seemingly overnight to inform where gas could be purchased, when bottled water would be arriving, where the shelters were and who was sheltering where. Families, perhaps scattered due to hurt and malfeasance, again coalesced and huddled, intimately together, against the coming tide. After it struck, mercifully light, from the reports of those I kept close contact with, I saw Miami again, this time from 3 states away. The day after it struck, Miami didn’t reel or bewail it’s station. The next day, the city got to work.
I’m packing, now, to return to the state from which I came. It’s a good, if bittersweet, transition, done for the right reasons and from a good place, but with a heavy heart none the same. I’ll live on in my byline, and be back and forth, but regardless, I fear what graying this move will have. How will I soften? How will I lose my natural taste for the eclectic and the amalgamated that this city foists upon its inhabitants? Whatever happens, my friends, one thing inevitably rings true; I may be gone, but you, Miami, will never be forgotten.