Concrete U

All through 1984 and early ’85, I targeted a date on my calendar; it was my graduation from Miami Beach High.  Diligence and aptitude in High School had prepared me for, what?  I wasn’t sure.  There wasn’t anything that really inspired me, so I let the opinions of some that I respected propel me along on my lazy tide.  I just needed more time to think it over, I wished there was a place where I could do this and yet still be counted as a college student.

My art teacher wanted me to study architecture.  My history teacher wanted me to be a history teacher or professor.  Our financial advisor said my grades were good enough to probably get a scholarship somewhere.  I had it good, things were going well academically and I didn’t want to make the wrong choice and fuck it all up.  Or worse, get stuck trapped doing something I couldn’t stand.  That was my thought process, the essence of simplicity, really.  I was anxious.

No decision became my decision, which was the only thing that could put me back in my comfort zone.  Luckily for me there was a place where I could put off these important decisions, and of course it was a place I knew about from school.  It even had four local selections to choose from!   Some may have called it the Thirteenth Grade, but its formal name was Miami-Dade Community College (as it was then called – they’ve since dropped the ‘community’).

Happily, I’d earned impressive SAT and ACT scores.  I knew this because for several months at Beach High, everybody’s favorite sport was the “score query.”  A kid would sidle up to you and ask, sotto voce, “So, what’d you get on your SAT/ACTs?”  The reply would be met by either a nod or a shake of the head, followed by a sidling retreat.  My nods easily outnumbered the shakes, so I thought I did pretty well.

Because of my SATs, Miami-Dade actually paid me to go to their school.  If I’d had my current vocabulary back in 1985, I would have said the only way they’d make any money at all is off the drooling fucktards who’d received shakes of the head instead of nods during the “score query” game.  But instead, I just said “COOL!!!

I, like most all of us, was a little less cynical back then.

Miami-Dade paid for all of my classes, all of my school books; and even left a little cashola on the side.  It was crazy.  I quickly got used to being treated like a freshman pasha, having no way of knowing that in about 30 months I’d be borrowing thousands of dollars, scrambling to attend a school in New York.

I decided to go to Miami-Dade’s North Campus (the other 3 branches were Dade-South, Downtown and the Medical Center).  It was a long bus ride from South Beach to the sprawling campus that was, it turned out, made up of about 80% parking lot.  For a week I tinkered with the commute, and finally settled on a bus to downtown Miami, the MetroRail (or MetroFail, as everybody called it – due to meager ridership) to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stop, and another bus to the hinterlands of Hialeah and the school.

The school itself looked incredibly imposing.  No taller than three stories, it sat hunkered down like a fortress, much of it constructed of thick unpainted concrete.  I thought I was behind the Iron Curtain.  I suppose the most fitting description is that it looked like an above ground bomb shelter.IMG_0575.JPG

It was divided into separate numbered buildings, each one with its corresponding number painted large on the side.  One walked back and forth via ground-level walkways that were covered with more thick concrete (to block meteors?) all the way to and fro.  You could get anywhere you wanted all day long without ever feeling the sun on your head.  I figured the architects were really concerned about hurricanes.

One of the covered walkways

One of the covered walkways

But….there was something kind of cozy about it.  Maybe it was just me, but I liked being separated from everyone in these building satellites. The only real points of student congregation were at registration, the lunch room, and this odd little covered area in the middle, filled with vending machines and posers.   Also, the place was typical 60’s architecture, which meant it wasn’t Art Deco, something I’d gotten really sick of seeing after 5 immersive years.

I never saw any of the Professors walking around, just people from the Audio-Visual Dept. rolling TV monitor stands back from building to building.  There was a stadium but I never saw anybody playing there.  There were event posters taped up all over the covered walkways, hinting at some excitement that must have existed just beneath the surface.  In the middle of the campus was a man-made rectangular lake, a lake that nobody entered because of its lone resident, an alligator.  When it got too big and poached too many geese, it was evicted.  I never saw it; to me it was more like an urban legend.IMG_0574.JPG

Overall it was a cold feeling place with just a touch of humid subtropics.

But right from the start…..I just liked it.  A combination of factors made it cozy for me, one of which was that it was, to me anyway, far away from Miami Beach.  It was like I’d gone away to school.  I was really just practicing for when I’d go to a “real school” probably somewhere far away, I hoped.

I considered myself a pioneer of the air quote; I used to tell people Miami-Dade wasn’t a “real school” while clawing at the air.  I’d put it down because I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be.

My academic schedule was tailored for an undecided like me; it was truly like the 13th Grade starting off there.  The only kid from my high school attending was William Pacheco, and we would have most of our art classes together.  By convenience, we became what my mom called “running buddies.”  He lived a few blocks away on 4th and Washington and on some days he’d drive me to school in his red 1975 Opel Manta (probably purchased from Gus Machado Buick), a car William was really proud of.  It rode just barely off the ground (by design).  Once the engine caught on fire when we were getting off I-95 at the 103rd Street exit.  Other days, when our schedules didn’t match up, I got up early and did my disjointed commute.

Though I always gave him a little gas money it didn’t take long for Willy to get a little tired of chauffeuring me around.  I’d stand on the corner of 10th and Washington, Teutonically punctual, and William would roll up there at his convenience.  As the weeks went on his greetings became a little more clipped, his words fewer and his arrivals a little later.  I needed to buy a car.

At the same time my mom’s boss, Sam Silverman, was looking to unload his old Cutlass Salon.  Ma brokered a deal, and $500 later I had a “new” car.  It was a faded brown ’76 and had a dashboard cracked in half from the heat of 10 Florida summers.  Of course, since it was my first car, I was delighted.  It ate a lot of gas but it got me to Miami-Dade every day for the remaining year and a half I was there.

William’s mood immediately brightened.  Often I would see him on 95 heading north to school, through his window, smoking and stifling a laugh at my ride.  A couple of times, if one of us was missing something, we’d pass art supplies window to window at about 70 mph.

I liked every class I took at MDCC.  The Professors were good, but my art ones were fantastic.  Building 5, the Pawley Center, was where art classes were located.  The art students there were all art majors; I hardly saw any of them at other times around campus.  That fact, coupled with the more modern look of the building (though still all concrete) gave us Arties a feeling of being sectioned off, privileged.  The building was also the only one that didn’t have AV Dept. students rolling TV sets back and forth.

Building 5 at MDCC

Building 5 at MDCC

One rarely cold January morning I saw a lot more AV Dept. movement than ever before.  It looked like they’d broken out all the school TVs to move to specific classrooms.  They set one up at registration and another in the Cafeteria.  As I watched I was actually more amused by my fellow Floridians’ desperate attempts to cobble together clothing for cold weather.  This day it was about 35° so it was the real deal.  Another student told me a High School teacher was going into orbit on the Space Shuttle.

A few months before, I’d watched a night launch from the roof of my apartment on South Beach, amazed not only that I could see it from there, but also that I had never taken the time to drive up to Cape Kennedy and just look around.  But I thought I could do that any time.  They seemed to do a shuttle launch every couple of weeks in those days.

Half an hour passed, then suddenly there were knots of people around the monitors; they stared as the station kept replaying that wishbone shaped puff of smoke over and over.  Hours later, driving home, I saw everybody had their headlights on.  I turned mine on too.

That night I had a dream; I was back at my old building in Hollywood, Fortress Lido, I was swimming in the pool.  Deeper I went; way more than nine feet down.  The water got darker.  Through the murk, I saw seven astronauts strapped into their seats, drowned, dead, helmets still on.  I gasped awake in terror.Challenger

Floridians kept their headlights on for 2 weeks, but then by mid-February they winked out one by one.

By then I’d finally declared my major, painting, and in Building 5 I took my first live model drawing classes, plus ceramics and a ton of painting.  The staff, the students, and the subjects finally focused my interest and in turn gave me a feeling I belonged there.  I felt really fortunate as I prowled Pearl Paint’s aisles for Bristol Board and charcoal.

By my second year I realized I had mojo, I was starting to think of myself as an artist.

That was the first time in life I’d seen the progression of ease to safety to interest to strong interest and then to actually planning for the future.  I was 18 and having seen it in high school students but not myself I felt it was better late than never.  I’d likened Miami-Dade metaphorically to an airspace parking lot, where jets circle, waiting for their turn to land.  Maybe I’d land somewhere.  Excitedly I started to search for transfer schools.

Drawing benches and art room, looking the same 25 years later

Drawing benches and art room, looking the same 25 years later

Miami-Dade gave me that space I needed – to just think.  I made several acquaintances there but no real friends, at least not new ones that I hadn’t known before.  Even now, in the age of social media, I have Facebook friends going back to the 3rd Grade and across several states – but not a soul from MDCC.

Well, I did meet one person I’m still in touch with.  After an art class one day I was introduced to a girl who, after 21 years of alternating courtship and stubborn silence, would finally be my wife.

I felt good and focused in this solitary environment, my experiences were all my own.  Alone in my car, with my Walkman on and the volume up to 10, as I raced along Route 9 to and from the 163rd Street Mall for lunch (trying to make it to my next class) I was usually smiling because I treasured my solitary-ness.

I guess I was kind of like that alligator, passing through unseen, the way I liked it.  And I was always aware that it would end soon but that was all right, because unlike the alligator I had an idea of where I was going next.

1 reply
  1. Alannah Murphy
    Alannah Murphy says:

    Cool to know we went to the same high school and college too! My path was totally different, I was a high school drop out (’82) who left at 16 and never even went back to get her stuff out of her locker. I studied Music at MDCC’s Downtown campus, and became a rebel playing bass in many rock bands. Great to read about your memories, it brought back the Miami I knew and grew up with, and wonderful to hear about the girl who became your wife. You’re a gifted writer.


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