Passing Through

The mid 90’s found my friend James and I with very different living situations.  We’d both dropped out of college a few years earlier and took divergent paths that had finally led us again to the same place, the same situation.  He’d served a couple of hitches in the Marine Corps and ended up at a hostel on Miami Beach called The Tropics.  I was back in Miami too, drying out at my Mom’s place in a strangely resurgent South Beach.

One day in the Fall of ’94 I boarded an Amtrak train at New York’s Penn Station for Miami.  I’d left most of my belongings in the basement of a house in Bensonhurst (where they may sit still).  I had only started to suspect that I was about to embrace the life of a sober monk (after years of petty debauchery).

As for James, he knew full well that he was leaving behind the structure and relative piety of the Marines for man-whoredom.

By the time my train had arrived in Miami, James was already ensconced in his new life in a little efficiency at The Tropics down on Collins Ave.  The only thing the hostel had going for it was the fact that it was next to an even skuzzier joint called The Parisian (a place that catered to career drunks and Euro-accented beach bums).   On the other side of The Tropics was a parking lot, so for class I guess that was more of a tie.

The Tropics, where it always seemed like night

So by comparison, the Tropics wasn’t all that bad, at least that was what James maintained.   He resisted the transient nature of the place.  He quickly became one of the only permanent residents.  He had the weird and rarified status of being someone who stayed in a room long enough to realize how shitty it was.  That the ceiling leaked, the walls were paper thin, that he had muchas cucarachas as roommates.

It was hot as hell all the time too, even in November; I realized this when I strode through the lobby for the first time.  James’ room was like being under a magnifying glass.  Hot outside, hotter in the lobby, but hottest in his room.

That November the lobby was filled with Dutch and German tourists talking noisily and watching MTV on the wall mounted lobby set.  They seemed to always be playing “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” or sections of “Nirvana Unplugged in New York.”  James had gotten to know a few of them, the women anyway.

I saw that he had changed his look.  His hair still had that Marine vibe but it was starting to get longer and was heavily pomaded.  What pomade he didn’t use for his hair was used for his new Snidely Whiplash moustache.  He liked to tug on the ends on draw them up just so.  His friend Maurizio and I thought it was all silly but the ladies just in from Europe all bought into it.  I think they saw him as looking more like someone from a Sergio Leone western, and that they were getting the whole American package (if you’ll pardon my pun) with their trip to the States.

By that Christmas he was starting to receive greeting cards from his one-time one-night stands from all over Europe.  I only know this because I saw them myself, he being far too modest to talk about it.

I hung out with him not only because he was my friend but also because I could stay away from my Mom’s place further down Collins on 7th.  It wasn’t anything about my mom; it was more that I was there with my mom in the first place.  I was newly sober and down in Miami to figure a few things out.  I appreciated the chance to get back in touch with her but I was pretty edgy all the time. Being suddenly clear headed and healthier I was presented with many more life options.

It was like being back in Junior High School, except I was almost 30.  I thought about this sometimes on my daily morning treks to the 10th Street beach.  I got to revisit my contempt for “making a living” and decided to be serious about not getting into anything too…serious.

Because I was used to being up late and in bars, I got an overnight desk clerk job at the Franklin Hotel, situated halfway between the Tropics and where I was living down beach.  Owned by Jay Cohen and his brother (ironically they also owned The Parisian), the Franklin was a typical fixed up hotel of the New Miami Beach.  It still only really thrived during “season,” that period between late October and March when touristy places like this made all their money from Quebecois and Europeans.  And the occasional New Yorker.

The Franklin

I’d arrive at about 11pm most nights when the Aussie bartender Emily was starting to tidy up the bar and was about to play her favorite Cranberries tape for the 10th time in a row.  To get by financially when it wasn’t season, the hotel offered discounts to the various modeling agencies that had recently set up camp between Ocean and Collins.  So I always had something to do even in the summer, distributing keys to models when they arrived from their nights out, sometimes with celebrities.

One model was a particular favorite of Sylvester Stallone, who humorously (to me anyways) referred to himself as “Sly” when he called for her.  He’d have a car sent for her around 1am (“see ya Annie, see ya Bill”) and then have that same car drop her off again at the Franklin about 3:30 am (“have a nice night Annie, you too Bill”).

Like punching a time card, I often thought.

Jay was the Manager and I sort of ran the place overnight but the real Master of Ceremonies was a self described “50 year-old crack addict” named Mark Dash.  From what I’d heard, Mark kind of came with the hotel when Jay had bought it back in ’89.  He’d lived there before anyone could remember.  Tall, wraithlike and energetic, he was vocally proud of his predilection for cocaine and hookers and told long stories about being on the wrong ends of raids staged by the MBPD.

He also did peerless imitations of “Bellboy” era Jerry Lewis.

The Cohen’s only tolerated his presence because he was kind of a handyman and could get them to laugh only 12 minutes or so into one of his speed-rapped hooker harangues.  Emily the bartender thought he was kind of creepy.

He fancied himself a kind of go-to guy for people looking for a “night of love” and would even help the more obnoxious residents, the ones that got underneath his easygoing façade (and he was ALL façade).  For instance, there were a couple of guys in from the Bronx who had worn out their welcome by being loud and always drunk, leaving their room a daily horror show for the maids.

One of them asked Mark to fix him up with one of his better-looking prostitute acquaintances.  He did just that.  The next day the New Yorker was raving about what a great time he had, although he couldn’t really “get his money’s worth” because it was his date’s “time of the month.”

What he never knew, but Mark and Emily and I did, was that Mark had fixed him up with a man in drag.  Weirdly loyal to the Cohen Administration, Mark saw it as a just revenge for the Bronxian’s being such a bad guest of the hotel.  I never had the heart to tell the guy myself what had happened.  When he’d pass Mark in the lobby, Mark would kind of snicker and then tell the story all over again when he was out of earshot.

He went back to New York never knowing that he was a little more worldly than he’d planned.  To Mark (and apparently me), if it made a good story it was probably worth doing (and relating).

During this time, while I watched and wondered; the tourist season ended and James started to poach tourists from the Clay Hotel on Espanola.  The Tropics may have been thinning out but the Clay was busy year round.  I followed my daily routine of the beach in the morning and work at night, studying a meditation book that had been recommended to me by Maurizio.

Just getting into this routine was therapeutic for me, the same way, I think, James’ was for him.  We both found the transient nature of South Beach to be grounding (though in decidedly different ways) while providing different services to those who were just passing through.

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