Alternate History

For most kids, the transition from Junior High to High School is not that different.  Sure, there’s a little fear of the unknown and a little relocation involved, but going from 9th to 10th Grade shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  It’s just a combination of old and new friends in largely familiar surroundings.

My case was a little different.  Due to my mom’s Sudden Transcontinental Relocation “Plan,” or STRi”P,” I got to experience the transition from the Golden State to the Sunshine State, or, if you will, 2,741 miles of ‘vive le difference.’  No friends, no familiar surroundings (not even any hills or mountains); it was an unwitting and unwanted fresh start for me.

Just before that, it was July of 1982; I was all set to attend Hollywood High School and couldn’t wait.  A few years earlier I’d had the envious pleasure of tagging along with my sister Laura while she attended an accelerated summer program at Hollywood.  I longed to be one of the older kids and it was finally about to happen.

Hollywood High

Hollywood High

I deliberated for days both picking out my class schedule and finding out which of my friends would be going either to Hollywood or Fairfax High.  Since I had definitive interests I figured I knew pretty much how my future would unfold.  I’d take history classes at Hollywood High and get on the waiting list to attend UCLA in 1985 or so, where I thought I would study law (if it wasn’t too much work).  Scheduling for HH was pretty straightforward but for a 10th Grade elective slot.  I couldn’t decide between art classes or ROTC (them being so inherently similar you can see the dilemma).  I opted for ROTC.  I was a few weeks away from a school year that I actually looked forward to and was ready to rock.

((End of Act I.  Cue record scratching sound))

Just a couple of weeks later, by the beginning of August we were piled into a Dodge Omni with borrowed cash for fuel, our emergency possessions and one seriously grumpy Persian cat.  We were headed east, reversing – and then some – the historical route of our fellow Oakies.  As we drove further away I could feel my connections to a known future at Hollywood High stretching thin and then finally snapping.  We ultimately stopped in Miami Beach, Florida.  Of course we always knew where we were headed, it wasn’t some random exodus; though I myself had known for only about ten days.

On the way east on I-10, I dug up the few memories I had of living in the Miami area for a while in the mid-Seventies (an earlier chapter of STRi”P”), during a coconut blight that threatened the palm trees on the island.  That served as an apt metaphor for my memories of the place, it all seemed blighted, cursed by heat and that Seventies ennui, which seemed to have settled especially hard in South Florida.  The picture-memory I can still bring to mind from that period was of a rusted shopping cart, sitting in four feet of brackish Bay water.  “Blecch,” as Alfred E. Neuman might say.  We were poor and riding the food stamp train in those days.  Though it seemed like a long time ago in 1982 I didn’t want history to repeat.

After a few days crashing on the floor at the house of a friend of my mom’s we ended up on Liberty Avenue, wedged in between the Miami Beach Public Library, the Bass Museum and the Collins Canal; at a dive called the Riviera Arms.  We were piled into a one-room efficiency that was even smaller than the hellhole we had to stay in once in Hollywood (see the “A Real Hollywood Premiere” story). To my mom we were strategically located, because right across the canal sat my (and my little sister’s) new school, Miami Beach Senior High.

The Riviera, looking better now than then.

The Riviera, looking better now than then.

My first impressions that second week of August seemed to confirm my grim memories.  Though I failed to find any submerged shopping carts my first time across the Collins Canal, I didn’t hold out much hope that things would be better this time around.  Everywhere we walked there seemed to be the sour metallic smell of running air conditioners.  One of our first days there; walking out behind the building, we found 5 kittens that had been poisoned by drinking water that had leaked out of one.  Blecch.

My mom had a friend from our time living there in the Seventies, named Jackie, who was a kind of a local celebrity.  She (who was formerly a he, that was really exotic and strange to me), was a not-so-crazy cat lady who tried to take care of as many area strays as she could find.  My mom, softie that she was, took in several of them in our little efficiency apartment for part of the couple of months that we lived there.  Our Persian, named The Great Gatsby, managed the best he could, probably just relieved to be out of that Dodge Omni.

We got our stuff together and Mary and I enrolled at Beach High.  The school was a faded yellowish two story structure (with bleached red highlights) that, to me, suffered from that Art Deco same-ness that was everywhere around us.  It, like many other local buildings, just made me feel overheated by its very appearance.  It didn’t help that it always seemed like it was 95 degrees outside, even in the morning.  I missed California’s smoggy temperance.

I found by my second month in attendance that no school of my imaginings could possibly be more different than where I had come from.  I’d attended a culturally diverse yet gang ridden school in Hollywood.  I was so stressed and fearful when I started LeConte Junior High in California that I was actually on anxiety medication; I was like a Seventh Grade Woody Allen.  I ‘found my way’ there eventually (was only mugged once by a fellow student) and grew to love that surly concoction of urban seediness and Celebrity name-dropping.  I expected Hollywood High to be more of the same and was primed and ready for it.

But as I’ve always been fond of saying, both then and now: at Miami Beach Senior High, the tough kids played golf.  It was really true; the school was even located right next to a golf course.  The place seemed filled with polo-wearing preternaturally mature kids who gave the appearance of striving, of being on their way up.  Everyone seemed headed for an Honors or AP class.  I never knew if that was normal, I didn’t have anything to compare it to; Beach High was too different from anything in my experience.

'85 Yearbook

’85 Yearbook

The neighborhood was weird too, the school sat next to a synagogue and a fire station.  I never saw anybody come in or out of either.  In fact, there was hardly any pedestrian traffic around there.  It seemed like everybody stayed indoors out of the heat and next to their dripping ACs.  When I sojourned up nearby Washington Avenue, I began to realize we had moved to an economically depressed area.  My friends in California may have slammed “Hollyweird” but at least it was livelier than this!

At LeConte, different ethnicities stuck together, but unless it was also a gang it was not mutually exclusive, there was mixing.   At Beach High, there were fewer ethnicities and less “clique mixing,” however there were also no gangs.  I found it kind of boring, especially at the beginning; but that may have just been my newfound lack of fear and anxiety kicking in.

I picked my classes, trying to stay true to what I’d chosen for Hollywood High, but there was no ROTC.  I chose art instead and the course I thought I’d laid out for myself began to take a different path.  Hollywood High and life in Los Angeles was what could have been, life at Beach High was what was.  But what was that exactly?  I pondered this often on my little walks up and down 21st Street, to and from school.

I fretted over it in fact.  As a fan of science fiction, I feared I’d entered some other timeline, some period of alternate history and now all of a sudden my life wasn’t going to “turn out like it should.”  I thought about it a lot, considered it a tragic fate and it sometimes made me an angry teen.

Time, as it always seems to, gave me the answer.  After about a year, I relaxed; I felt that, though I probably wasn’t having as much fun as I would in Hollywood (my old friends in LA were ditching high school and taking the bus out to Santa Monica to surf), I was becoming more studious.  All these overachievers (the fact I considered them ‘overachievers’ still says a lot) at Beach High were inspiring me.  I took AP History and Honors English, my physical and mental growth spurts kicked in, and I was becoming a tall gangly artist-type.

Art classes with Mr. Austin were where I truly took off.  Mr. Austin believed I was a talented artist and inspired a belief in myself.  I changed my “plans” to study law and resolved to go to art school “somewhere” after Beach High.  It took awhile but it was good to find a new plan, however vague, to replace the old one that had to be suddenly discarded.  It seemed many around me had their futures all settled, and I felt like I kind of joined them.  But that’s the thing about High School, nothing is ever settled: and then hindsight shows you it was also never what it seemed.  But those kids at Beach High were so serious, I still wondered…..

Would I have become some military surfer dude type if I’d stayed in California?  I went from fretting about it to idly wondering, and then not caring when I realized I would have found my way eventually to what I liked to do, tending towards something more creative.  Early on I liked to think so anyway, for it took some of the sting out of leaving Cali in the first place.Screen shot 2013-10-08 at 5.56.02 PM

Beach High had great teachers and was probably better for me in the long run.  And taking a page from Hollywood High, it even produced a few celebrities of its own.  Director Brett Ratner was a year behind me in Mary’s class and Mark Eiglarsh (a guy you’ve definitely seen on cable news channels) is a prominent Miami attorney and master of the humorous sound bite.  Georges Jeanty, who I had all my art classes with, went from being a Prince-obsessed yearbook designer to the artist behind the “Buffy the Vampire” Season 8 comic book series.

Would these people, including the friends I met, have come out any differently if they’d moved around as much as I did?  Does anyone have an alternate history?  Who knows, and more to the point I should say, who really cares?  Because there is no way TO know (but I doubt it very much, you’re who you are, you just take it all with you, right?).  I do know this; my real “takeaway” (as everyone loves to say now) was that having to move around so much constantly really sucked.  Very much. Blecch.

The New MBSH

The New MBSH

Beach High changed course, so did Miami Beach itself, just like we all do.  Even that shitty apartment building we lived in on Liberty Avenue has the word “suite” in its title now.  It has a pool too, I definitely don’t remember that.  They tore down Miami Beach Senior High and then rebuilt it as a piece of modern art.  Even the wave pictured in the school’s football team logo, the Hi-Tides, looks like a Hokusai now.  They even rebuilt the local library on the same spot.  The whole area is different, more modern, more fun.  Screen shot 2013-10-08 at 4.42.06 PM

Though there are some reminders, there is a statue outside the Bass Museum of Art; near where we lived when we were babysitting all those cats.  It depicts a female figure with cats, playfully suspended in the air.  I can’t help but see that and know it’s a tribute to Jackie, the tireless servant of felines and colorful part of the sometimes-drab old Miami Beach.

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