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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Lost in Miami
By Mitch Traphagen
May 6, 2004, 07:00

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Considering that Miami is really nothing but a long, skinny city, it is fairly easy to get lost. This, however, is not a good place to stop for directions. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
- Being lost in Miami is not as desirable as it might sound. The big problem is every conceivable group of people is there waiting to kill you. Just fill the ethnicity in the blank: "I'm from (Cuba, Russia, Puerto Rico, Iowa, etc.) - mess with me and I will kill you." That message is clearly coming from their eyes as they try to burn holes with their stare, just praying for a hint of a challenge from you.

The good news about being lost in Miami is that even though it is a huge city (or whatever it is), it is really just a long, skinny city. You simply can't get too lost. On one side is an ocean and on the other are alligators. Everything else is in between.

We finally pulled off a freeway, we don't know which one, and made our way down the exit ramp. As the traffic waited to turn, we were able to see a study of capitalism in action. An elderly woman with a sign asking for help to feed her family was competing with a large, toothless woman in a wheelchair for donations. They worked hard to lock eyes with the harried drivers as they made their way in between the stopped cars. As the woman in the wheelchair rolled by our car, Michelle reached for her purse. "Don't do it," I said. "Think of Havana." Michelle dropped her purse and the woman rolled by.

During a short, humanitarian visit to Cuba several years ago, Michelle and I spent time walking the neighborhoods near the marina with plastic bags containing everything from soap and shampoo to small Bibles. All of those things were difficult to come by in Cuba. One day we had the opportunity to visit downtown Havana.

Havana, in some ways at least, is a big city just like any other big city in the world. The destitute people in the outlying areas are far, far different from the destitute people in the inner city. In the outlying area near the marina, we had conversations with people and were invited inside homes. In the inner city, like all inner cities, things are more despondent.

As we made our way down a street in downtown Havana, Michelle noticed someone sleeping on a park bench. We had a backpack filled with little things to give away and Michelle decided that the person on the bench might like a bar of soap. Within seconds, literally seconds, of unzipping her backpack we were swarmed, literally swarmed, by people hoping for any handout of any kind. Incredibly, the people were polite but they were desperate. Our Cuban driver freaked out and quickly got us and our now empty backpack out of there.

As we made our way back to his little car he explained that the police take notice of any type of crowd and just arrest anyone and everyone involved. He knew that we didn't want to see the inside of a Havana jail.

Back in Miami, as the two women competing for handouts bravely walked and rolled through the stopped traffic, I had a vision of people coming out of every nook and cranny at the first sight of a dollar bill emerging from a vehicle. We almost always give money to people who need it, but sometimes it just doesn't feel right. That was one of those times.

Miami is a city like no other and it has contrasts like no other. On the other end of the spectrum from the competing handout enterprises on the off ramp is the completely alien world of South Beach. Former Tampa Tribune columnist turned author Tim Dorsey once wrote in one of his novels, "In Florida the freak show never ends." This is completely true about South Miami Beach.

Traffic is bad heading towards Miami Beach. Even the cruise ships get caught in it. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
But it is an interesting freak show and a sociological study in a weird form of human soup. It literally must be the only place on earth where young toughs stare at passing girls through dark eyes filled with fire and lust while freshly scrubbed rich kids slowly cruise Ocean Drive in dad's new Porsche along side big, thick looking guys in gray turtlenecks and dark suits, concealing who knows what under a blend of silk and tropical wool. Mixed with all this are the rich and not-so-famous and girls - girls everywhere that want to see and be seen. On top of all that are pasty white tourists from the Midwest that simply can't believe that Florida and Michigan share the same country.

Billboards flash into view advertising everything from "Free Sex For Life" (a virility clinic apparently catering to Viagra users) to Mister Bidet (for a healthy, happy tush - no, Iím not making that up) to soon to be built condominiums starting in the low $800s (thousands, that is).

And while in theory Miami is in the United States, it really shares with no one. Miami is a land unto itself complete with a language and culture not found anywhere - particularly not in Michigan.

The four-hour trip from Tampa is well worth it simply for the sights - you don't even have to leave the car. You will want to, however, in order to sample the food and culture from anywhere you can imagine (or, in our case, any neighborhood you get lost in).

In the Cuban restaurant we chose, we had the same difficulty communicating with our Spanish speaking waiter as he would have communicating with the Portuguese speaking waiter at the Brazilian restaurant next door.

It is all there, some of it fantasy, some of it bald-faced lie and some of it even real. Of course the word "real" in Miami is a relative concept. It always has been ever since Flagler brought the first trainloads of northern tourists down for a taste of paradise.

Over the course of the day we managed to get lost a few more times, mostly venturing boldly into strip mall parking lots and retirement communities. We survived it all and eventually pointed our car towards the alligator side of the city.

The drive home offered a unique respite of peace and quiet through the Everglades. Soon, too soon, the subdivisions of Southwest Florida began to appear with names such as Heron This or Pelican That. Unfortunately the only herons you are likely to see in those subdivisions are the ones shown on the billboard. The real herons left when they bulldozed and burned the trees that used to clutter up the land now containing 1,500 homes Priced From The $190s To Over $1 Million.

We managed to not get lost on our way home - fortunately the directions are simple: Stay on I-75 until you get to Ruskin.

And finally we were home. Home in quiet, little Ruskin. Our neighbor doesnít slowly drive a Porsche down our street and the woman at the convenience store had no murderous or lustful intent in her eyes. I have yet to notice any platinum blonde homeless people with breast implants and the rich and not-so-famous tend to blend in with us common folk at the Wal-Mart.

In South Hillsborough County the tomato is king, the Fests are Fun and new honorary mayors are honored seemingly every other week. People in heavily mortgaged German cars speed past run-down little homes with two million dollars worth of circus animals hidden from view in the backyard while pest exterminators drive around in bright yellow cars with cute little bug ears and tails. There are companies dedicated to nothing but designing mailboxes (Iím not making that up) happily finding customers in the new subdivision of the week and in just a week or so, people are going to chase an an imaginary armadillo for a good cause.

At least there is nothing weird going on here.

© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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